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.


Campers – Is There a Bread Truck in Your Future?

Remember sleeping on the ground on camping trips? Me neither.

The truth is it’s impossible to get a good night’s sleep lying on the ground. Unless you’re like my camping buddies who got so drunk they wouldn’t notice the rocks, ruts, and tree roots. Actually, getting drunk doesn’t mask the pain; it just postpones it. At least the aching bones and joints took their minds off their hangovers.

Remember sleeping on the ground on camping trips? Me neither.

Before I discovered the joys of self-inflating ground pads, I did my share of trying to sleep on the ground. I have “fond” memories of squirming around and contorting my body around the lumps and depressions in the ground. Even a tiny stick can feel like a log when you’re trying to settle in and sleep.

I bought my first Therm-a-Rest more than 30 years ago. Best 60 bucks I ever spent. That little mattress rocked (or de-rocked) my world. For the uninitiated, self-inflating ground pads are constructed to provide maximum padding with minimum thickness. Properly inflated, you won’t feel the rocks and roots, and you should be able to lie in your side without your hip bottoming out. They roll up tight and, if they get wet, dry very quickly.

There are other brands on the market. Some might be as good as or better than my Therm-A-Rest. I can’t say one way or another, because I’m still using the one I bought more than three decades ago.

I’ve patched it once and replaced the valve. All of that can be done pretty easily — even out in the field. (Although I wouldn’t attempt a valve replacement in sub-zero temperatures.) Patch kits are available and should be packed with your mat.

By the way, mats should be stored flat or on their sides with the valves open. Keep them in a dry environment and out of direct sunlight. It helps to scrub them occasionally with mild soap (such as Dr. Bronner’s) and rinse thoroughly.

I now own four Therm-A-Rests. I bought a second standard model (like my original) from a Goodwill store for $3. I found another — the larger Camp Rest model — discarded, apparently because it had a small leak. Seven years ago, I bought a lightweight model for canoe excursions to Algonquin Provincial Park, where we do a lot of portaging. 

The only downside to my Therm-A-Rest NeoAir Trekker is that it isn’t self-inflating. However, it is easily inflated by mouth, it’s much lighter than the standard model and better insulates against the cold. It also packs smaller.

The company boasted that it can be rolled up to the size of a loaf of bread. Actually, a lot of modern camping gear manufacturers are making the same claims about sleeping bags, tents and folding chairs. So I’ve decided that, in lieu of buying a camper, I’m going to see if I can’t find an old bread truck for sale.

More cooking advice from the Breakfast Bitch


Pouring eggs from the chili can. Note the pan of chili set close to the coals to keep it warm. (Photo courtesy of Kevin & Theresa Clark.)

Previously published in a series of outdoors columns in the Ashland Times-Gazette and Loudonville Times-Shopper.

We eat better on canoe trips than we do at home. Being a morning person, breakfast has always been my specialty — chili omelets in particular.

Making elaborate omelets over a campfire can be a challenge, but it’s worth the effort.

Here’s how I do it.

For the chili, I start from scratch — Scratch together a few bucks and buy a can of Amy’s organic black bean chili. Not to be confused with Amy’s organic spicy chili, which has the consistency of sawdust and play sand. In a pinch, I buy Tony Packo’s world famous chili with beans! (The exclamation point is Tony Packo’s idea. Personally, I never get that excited about beans.)

As I was saying, I generally start with Amy’s, then I make it my own. I add onions, peppers, sausage, and — if I’m really feeling ambitious — sliced portabella mushrooms.

It’s easier to pre-cook the sausage at home. I brown patties, cut them up into small chunks, then cook thoroughly. Wrap them in foil and, while you’re cutting up your peppers, onions and mushrooms, warm the sausage by putting it well above the fire on your tripod grill.

Lightly sauté the onions, peppers and mushrooms in olive oil. If you’re one of those people who prefers overcooked, flaccid onions and peppers, stop reading this immediately. You are not worthy of my culinary masterpieces. Vegetables should be sautéed to the point that they retain some crispness. By the same token, never overcook portabellas. Sauté them just enough so they’re slightly darkened and moist inside. If you’re one of those people who likes leathery mushrooms — reread the second sentence of this paragraph.

Once the prep work is done, open the can of chili, scoop it into a small pot and mix in the sausage, onions, peppers and mushrooms. Warm the pan over medium heat by adjusting your tripod grill.

Clean out the chili can; you’ll use that to scramble your eggs.

Next, wait for your campmates to wake up. I discourage them from sleeping in by threatening to urinate on their tents.

Once your campmates are stirring, crack a couple of eggs into the can, You could use a wisp to stir the eggs, but that would be just one more thing to wash. Or forget to pack. I just break off a green twig, preferably with a forked end, and use that to stir the eggs.

Remove the chili from the tripod grill and set it close to the coals to keep it warm. Rotate occasionally to distribute the heat evenly.

Lower the grill because you want a hot fire to cook your eggs. Once the skillet is hot enough, coat it lightly with butter. Pour in the eggs and cook till firm. Take the skillet off the grill, flip the egg and spoon chili on half of it.

Now you’re ready to cheese it. Cheddar, of course.

It’s easier to grate the cheese at home or buy pre-grated cheese.

Sprinkle the cheese over the chili, then fold the other half of the egg over it. Cover the skillet with a paper plate, raise the grill and warm it up just enough to melt the cheese.

There you have it. Next time, I’ll divulge my secrets for serving up tomato and basil omelets on canoe trips with fresh basil! (The exclamation point is mine, because fresh basil on camping trips is worth getting excited over.)

Pierogies Saved My Life


Dark clouds await us.

If you’re going to be miserable, you might as well be someplace you can enjoy it.

That’s been my motto ever since I took up canoe camping 38 years ago. On my very first canoe trip I was sick as a dog and it rained the entire weekend. I had the time of my life.

To truly enjoy the outdoors, you need to develop certain skill sets. More importantly, you need to develop the proper mindset. Case in point — a recent camping trip with my son, Irvin Oslin III, and my longtime canoeing buddy, Joe Hughes.

It didn’t rain the entire weekend. The rain stopped occasionally to catch its breath, long enough for us to sit around the fire and wait for the next shower. We caught a break Saturday when the sun came out almost long enough to get in a five-hour paddle.

Joe and I took a canoe trip while my son stayed behind at basecamp. We paddled from Grand River Canoe Livery to Tote Road Park in Ashtabula County. The autumn leaves aren’t very colorful this year, but they really stood out against the backdrop of slate gray sky on the horizon.

Less than half a mile from our takeout, Joe and I caught up to the dark clouds. We struggled to keep the canoe moving against the strong wind, driving rain and hail.

Meanwhile, back at camp, my son had gathered a small mountain of firewood. That’s where your skill sets come in; seasoned campers know that a big fire can withstand a pretty heavy downpour.

While Joe and I warmed up by the fire, my son whipped up a feast of comfort food — pirogies followed by kielbasa and sauerkraut. Joe and I were teetering on the brink of hyperthermia when my son served us a skillet full of steaming hot pirogies.

I’m thoroughly convinced that, if it hadn’t been for the pirogies, we would have died.

The wind and rain continued through the night with a bit of sleet and snow thrown in to make it more enjoyable. I got up at the crack of dawn, put the coffeepot on and prepared my version of comfort food — good old-fashioned breakfast glop.

Throughout the entire weekend I didn’t hear one complaint about the weather (or my cooking). If you’re going to maintain a proper mindset under adverse conditions, you should seek out kindred spirits — people who enjoy being miserable as much as you do.


My son, Irvin Oslin III, lugs Joe’s tent to higher ground — and shelter under the dining fly. $15 tents aren’t very reliable in heavy rain.

Tangential Travel

Experiencing Algonquin through modified base camping


Steve and Ken encounter a red squirrel on a hike around our Big Porcupine Lake island. Reminiscent of the killer rabbit scene from “The Holy Grail.”

While we were camped on Big Porcupine Lake late last month, Steve McKee explained how he arrived at the concept of modified base camping on Algonquin canoe trips.

Typically, with wilderness tripping, you go from lake to lake, camping one night then moving on. The same with river trips. There’s a lot of work involved in setting up and breaking camp, but the scenery is constantly changing. Plus, I’ve always enjoyed the sense of movement — the sense of progression — that you get from doing it that way.

Many years ago, a group of stubborn Boy Scouts inspired Steve to opt for the modified base camping approach. He told us the boys crapped out on their leaders in the middle of a trip, refusing to move on from their camp and enduring several more days of portaging and setting up and breaking camp.

Steve wasn’t happy about it and pressed on, leaving the Boy Scouts and other leaders to their squatters’ camp. However, he later turned the experience into a positive — adapting it to his own preferences. The result was a modified base camp approach, which allowed him to move at a slower pace, spend more time at each lake and take day trips to other lakes or hikes into the back country. This involves spending a few nights on each lake and taking the empty canoe out for excursions during the day, sometimes portaging to other lakes.

Steve’s an accomplished naturalist and this left him plenty of opportunities for botanizing. In fact, on every trip, he’s found at least one plant species he had not seen in the wild before.

I have to admit, I was skeptical about this approach at first. But, after six years of Algonquin trips with Steve and our friend Ken Arthur, I’ve come to see the value in it. There is much to be said for taking day trips from base camps and canoeing to some of the more isolated lakes.

This year was no exception. The highlights included Steve finding a few “life plants” on Ragged Lake and coming across a yellow birch three feet in diameter on an island where we camped on Big Porcupine Lake.

Now that I’m retired, I occasionally use the modified base camp approach on river trips. Especially when the weather is bad. There’s something to be said for hunkering down,  listening to the raindrops on the tent or tarp and watching the birds and other critters going about their business.


Cotton grass, a “life plant” for me, but not for Steve. We came across it on one of our day excursions along Big Porcupine Lake.



Ken keeps an eye out for killer squirrels while Steve and I check out the cotton grass and other flora.


Ken and Steve check out a huge yellow birch. Estimated to be 250 years old, it somehow was spared when Algonquin was heavily logged.


Botanizing on Ragged Lake. This is where Steve found a few “life plants.”  The species we spotted included glove clubmoss, lance-leaved violet and lady tresses orchid. And we snacked on a few cranberries.


Finding the ‘can’ in ‘Canada’

Algonquin 2018 – Part 3


Pre-ringtab era cans — older than most of you.

On Big Porcupine Lake we found tin cans — for better or worse.

Cans are prohibited at Algonquin Provincial Park. As are bottles. Campers have a habit of not packing them out.

That includes a cluster of very old cans we found at one of the first campsites we scouted. We elected not to stay there because of its proximity to a portage trail head. That turned out better for us and a large group of Canadian Cadets (a sort-of ROTC). The site was better suited for a large camping party. There were only three in our group and two canoes.

We hooked up with them the next day while we were exploring and they were making the portage to Bonnechere Lake.

Among the cans was a peanut butter jar with a picture of an elephant wearing a silly cap molded into the glass. Ken collects bottles, so he scavenged it.

Ken would later make use of two tin cans we found at our campsite, which was on an island across from the first site we scouted.

A canoe trip isn’t a canoe trip unless you forget something. I forgot to bring a reliable vehicle; Ken forgot the “feet” for his camp chair. The feet were something I came up with to keep the legs of the chair from sinking into the mud or sand.

He improvised by putting the cans on the front legs of his chair.

Necessity proved to be the mother of invention. The afternoon of our second day on Porcupine Lake it started to rain and didn’t stop till the next morning.

To be continued.


Steve’s chair on the right with the feet I designed. Ken’s cans on the left.


Ken putting charred cans he found in the fire ring to good use.



Algonquin 2018 — Part 2

Isthmus Be the Place


Morning view from the east side of the isthmus.

On the second day of our trip, I awakened to see a foggy sunrise through a curtain of silhouetted pine trees. All was well with the world — and I hadn’t even had my morning coffee.


It turned out that sunsets and moon rises would be equally as wonderful. The campsite was on an isthmus with small sand beaches facing the east and west. The latter also had a resident eagle that spent much of the day perched in a dead tree across from the beach.

Not bad for a campsite we found in the dark. As reported in the previous post, the ol’ Canoebaru broke down en route to Canada and we had arrived at Algonquin Provincial Park four hours behind schedule. We considered ourselves lucky to have made it there at all, much less on the same day we left from north central Ohio.

Especially considering the confusion caused by my hearing impairment when we passed through customs. The border patrol agent asked where we were from. I thought he asked where we were going and told him “Algonquin.” From the look of confusion on his face, I might as well have said I was from Mars.

From then on, Ken and Steve acted as my interpreters in all confrontations with figures of authority.

As had been the case five years ago, we planned to camp on Ragged and Big Porcupine lakes. This time, we’d spend two nights on Ragged Lake, two nights on Big Porcupine and the final two on Ragged again.

And, as I mentioned five years ago, the portage from Ragged to Big Porcupine is challenging. To put it charitably. In the post from 2013, I described the portage as “a vertical climb of 400 feet covering a distance of 1.4 gonzometers (roughly one-third of a light year).”

I wasn’t far off. Actually, it’s only a 150-foot climb over a distance of 590 meters (about a third of a mile).

To be continued.



A bald eagle keeps watch over our isthmus campsite.



There was a great collection of driftwood on our west beach.



Ken Arthur with his journal and Steve McKee enjoying the sunset.



Another sunrise from our isthmus campsite.