The joy – and agony – of tripod grills

More than you ever wanted to know about buying and using tripod grills.

(From a column published in the Ashland Times-Gazette, Loudonville Times-Shopper and other GateHouse Media publications.)

Few camping accessories have rocked my world as much as the tripod grill.

They’re portable enough to pack on canoe trips, durable, easy to set up and break down, and they allow you to regulate your cooking temperature. In fact, you can control the cooking temperature with such precision that my friends and I have roasted whole turkeys on tripod grills.

How durable? I’ve been doing canoe camping for nearly four decades and I’m on only my third tripod grill.

Which isn’t to say that you can use them and abuse them and expect them to last.

If you want to get some mileage on your grill, the first thing you’ll want to consider is the design. To the best of my knowledge, there are two basic designs on the market. One has nine leg sections, the other six.

One is what I call the Coghlan model. It’s marketed under different names, including Coleman. It has nine leg sections, a hub that accommodates a chain to raise and lower the grill and a slide at to the end of the chain that rides up and down one of the legs. The slide can be stopped (by friction) at any point, allowing you to keep the grill in place. The grill is about 18 inches in diameter.

The other design is made exclusively by Rome Industries. Rome’s Model 117EZ has only six leg sections, which attach at the top to three-way crossbars. The crossbars are attached to a round steel disk with a hole in the center. The chain that supports the grill is mounted through the hole and held in place with a large cotter pin. Rome grill features a folding 21-inch grill.

I’ve had the Coghlan model and two Rome tripod grills. However, my Rome grills were of the old design — model 117. This was before Rome changed the design so the whole thing breaks down smaller. Not an improvement in my book. The old model had a 21-inch grill with a raised outer ring. It paid for itself in the sausages and brats it prevented from rolling into the fire.

That said, both designs have eliminated (or reduced) the problem of legs coming apart with the least provocation and dumping your supper onto the ground or into the fire. The Coughlan design uses shock cording (like the stuff inside your tent poles) to hold the leg sections together. Rome uses spring clips.

To my experience, the Rome tripod is more durable. I wouldn’t hesitate to buy either, but Rome would be my first choice.

Here are the good and bad of both:

Coghlan’s mechanism to raise and lower the grill is far superior to the Rome design. With the Rome Grill, you have to reach out over the fire, remove the cotter pin, raise or lower the chain, then reinsert the cotter pin.

There are two problems with that. The chain and cotter pin are hot and you need heavy gloves to handle them. That means it’s easy to drop the cotter pin into the fire and it’s not always convenient to fish it out. I bring a spare. Otherwise, a tent stake or green stick will do. (On one occasion I used the stainless steel knife from my mess kit.) The other problem is you have to raise the chain slightly to take the weight off the cotter pin before pulling it out. Otherwise, you will raise the tripod off the ground and the legs can fall apart. (At least on the old model.)

It helps to pound the legs into the ground when you set up the grill. That’s true for either model. In situations where that’s not possible, such as gravel bars along streams, you can shore up the legs by placing rocks around them.

When it comes to leg design, the edge goes to the Rome model. It’s much easier to deal with six leg sections than nine. The legs are made of hefty tube steel. The Coghlan model stands taller, but that makes it less stable. It’s also less durable. The Coghlan leg sections are larger in diameter and made of galvanized steel. They seem to be more susceptible to heat fatigue and bend more easily when stepped on or otherwise abused.

With either model, the ends of the leg sections occasionally start to split. That’s easily remedied by trimming the split part with a tubing cutter or hacksaw. Trim the other legs so they’re of equal length.

To get more years of use out of your tripod grill, tamp all the dirt out of the legs when you break it down and hose out the insides of the legs after each trip. Dirt and sand hold moisture, which will cause rust. It also helps to clean all parts, including the chains.

To help keep the leg sections from being bent during storage or transport, bind them all together with Velcro straps.

I like to replace the stock chains and hooks with heavier duty ones. If you’re going to attempt to cook a whole turkey, you’ll definitely want to do this. 

The best way to get more mileage out of your tripod grill is to keep your fire low and preferably not burning against the legs at the base. Heat fatigue will shorten the life of the legs and any grill. When you’re ready to transition from a cooking fire to a campfire, set the grill off to the side. Excessive heat will also pop the welds on the grill. Resist the temptation to burn the food off your grill. Instead, scrub it off with a wadded piece of aluminum foil.

The manufacturers recommend a secondary used for tripod grills when you’re not cooking on them — lantern hangers. They’re also a good place to set your beer.


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