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Easy earth ovens

Boost your backwoods cooking repertoire (and impress your friends) with this ancient cooking technique.

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You’ll need

  • Aluminium foil
  • Access to water
  • Firewood
  • Kindling (for example, small sticks)
  • Spade
  • Matches
  • Fire bucket
  • Non-porous stones
  • Tongs
  • Cooking utensils
  • Plates or bowls
  • Cutlery
  • Hand soap
  • Food for cooking

Before you begin

  • If you want this activity to count towards the Scouts Outdoor Challenge Award, you’ll need to do it during a night away.
  • If you decide to try this activity during a regular meeting, you may need to extend the meeting so you have enough time. Make sure everyone’s aware, including parents and carers, and give them enough notice.
  • You’ll need permission to dig and light fires from whoever owns the land.
  • If you have permission to light fires but not to dig holes, you could try another backwoods cooking activity, for example Billy can breakfast beans, Sausage smash, or Damper snakes.
  • You need non-porous stones. If you’re not sure whether you’ll be able to find the right ones, you may want to collect or purchase some in advance.
  • Not every campsite will have plenty of wood to burn. It’s worth checking in advance whether there’s a woodpile or whether you’ll need to bring your own firewood.
  • Earth ovens are also known as ground ovens and cooking pits. They’re one of the world’s oldest underground cooking structures and have been in use for thousands of years.
  • The earth ovens in this activity are stone-lined pits. A fire’s lit at the bottom, and it’s left to burn. The stones at the bottom and sides of the pit absorb the heat. Once the fire’s burned away and only the stones are left, they’ll gradually radiate the heat back to the centre of the pit. Sealing the put with earth or sticks traps the heat inside for longer, so the pit can be used to cook slow food for hours at a time.
  • Around the world, plenty of people still use large earth ovens as part of celebrations and ceremonies. The ovens (and the special dishes they cook) vary from area to area, and they often have different cultural significant to different groups.
  • In Fiji, food is prepared then cooked in a lovo full of hot coals – typically, people make fish, chicken, pork, and ‘palusami’, a dish made with taro leaves filled with thick coconut cream, onions, salt, and corned beef.
  • In Mexico, barbacoa is traditionally used to talk about meat (usually sheep, goat, or beef) that’s steam cooked in an underground oven until it’s tender.
  • In New England in North America, clambake is a traditional method of cooking seafood with hot stones – it’s steamed over layers of seaweed.
  • Other examples of underground ovens include Hawaiian imu and Māori hāngis.


Gather materials

  1. Everyone should split into groups of up to five people.
  2. Each group should collect non-porous stones – stones without any tiny holes in.

Air and water get trapped inside the tiny holes in porous stones. When porous stones are heated, the air and water inside them expands and the stones can explode. Avoid sandstone, limestone, pumice, gravel, and river rocks as they’re likely to be porous.

  1. Each group should gather plenty of firewood and kindling of various sizes. They’ll need enough to keep their fire burning for about an hour.

Make the oven

  1. Each group should find a spot where they’re allowed to dig and make a fire. Their spot should be at leave four metres away from any trees, overhanging branches, fences, bushes, or flammable structures.

Make sure the earth oven won’t interfere with wildlife in the area too. Look out for underground tree roots or animal habitats.

  1. Each group should clear the area around their pit.
  2. Each group should dig their pit. The size will depend on how much they’re going to cook – it shouldn’t be more than three times the size of their food. Around 60cm long, 60cm wide, and 45m deep should be about right.

The groups should keep the loose earth nearby so it’s easy to refill the put once they’ve finished.

  1. Each group should line the bottom and sides of their pit with non-porous stones.
  2. Each group should light a fire inside their pit.
  3. Each group should let their fire burn for about an hour – the longer they leave it, the hotter their stones will be.

Start ‘time to cook’ about 45 minutes after you light your fire – the first 15 minutes will be used to prepare the food.

  1. During the hour, the teams should add a few extra stones on top of their fire to heat up. They’ll put these on top of the food later.

Make sure to keep a safe distance from the fire when adding stones by using a tool like a spade to gently place stones on top of the fire.

Time to cook

  1. Everyone should wash their hands.
  2. Each group should prepare their ingredients by cutting them to size and seasoning them.
  3. Everyone should wrap their food in tin foil (or edible green leaves such as cabbage leaves) so it cooks evenly and doesn’t char.
  4. Each group should use tongs or a spade to remove the extra stones they put on top of their fire. They should be careful so they don’t accidentally nudge or dislodge any of the stones that are lining the pit.
  5. Everyone should put their wrapped food into the pit and cover it with the hot stones that were removed.
  6. Everyone should seal their oven to trap as much heat as possible. If they’re confident that their food’s securely sealed in the leaves or foil, they could put the loose earth directly on top. If they’re not totally sure, they should put sticks on top before they add the earth back.

It doesn’t matter too much what type of sticks you use, as long as they’re not rotten.

  1. Everyone should follow their recipe and leave the food to cook. The time will depend on the recipe – generally, meat needs at least an hour and a half. Vegetables normally take longer.
  2. Everyone should carefully dig up the food, being careful so they don’t damage the parcels. They should check the food is thoroughly cooked all the way through before they serve it.
  3. Once they’ve enjoyed their meal, everyone should pack away any equipment they used to prepare the food.
  4. Once the stones have cooled, everyone should take them out of the pit. They should refill the pit with earth.


This activity was all about developing skills. What skills did people build on in this activity? People may think about things like patience – it didn’t matter how hungry they were, the food wasn’t in a hurry to be ready. When might they use these skills again? People might think about how they could entertain big groups of people with simple recipes they can cook in bigger quantities. They may have had to think on their feet to adapt a recipe, or played their part to keep everything run smoothly – these skills are as important in a kitchen as they are in the outdoors.

People also worked together to build and use their earth ovens. When was teamwork especially important? People might think about when two things needed to happen at once – would it have been challenging for one person to keep the fire going, heat the extra stones, and prepare all of the food? Did different people take on different roles in each group?


All activities must be safely managed. You must complete a thorough risk assessment and take appropriate steps to reduce risk. Use the safety checklist to help you plan and risk assess your activity. Always get approval for the activity, and have suitable supervision and an InTouch process.

Outdoor activities

You must have permission to use the location. Always check the weather forecast, and inform parents and carers of any change in venue.

Fires and stoves

Make sure anyone using fires and stoves is doing so safely. Check that the equipment and area are suitable and have plenty of ventilation. Follow the gas safety guidance. Have a safe way to extinguish the fire in an emergency.


Remember to check for allergies, eating problems, fasting or dietary requirements and adjust the recipe as needed. Make sure you’ve suitable areas for storing and preparing food and avoid cross contamination of different foods. Take a look at our guidance on food safety and hygiene.

Sharp objects

Teach young people how to use sharp objects safely. Supervise them appropriately throughout. Store all sharp objects securely, out of the reach of young people.

It’s up to you what you cook – stick to simpler dishes if people aren’t used to backwoods cooking. If people are confident and experienced, you could attempt something more ambitious.

Make sure the ingredients are suitable for everyone’s dietary needs. It may be best for people with similar requirements to work together – if the whole group avoids the ingredient, it’ll reduce the risk of cross contamination.

All Scout activities should be inclusive and accessible.

This activity got everyone thinking about the science of convection (heat transferral). If anyone’s interested in exploring this further, it could count towards their Scouts Scientist Activity Badge.

People could also find out more about some of the people and communities that use underground ovens. They could research games or creative activities to get stuck into while they wait for their food together. This could even count towards their Scouts or Explorers International Activity Badge. Why not try a traditional recipe from another culture too?

Let young people steer this activity – they should work together to practise this important outdoor skill. It’s up to them to make a tasty meal.