Whether you’re going on a long hike or camping out under the stars, odds are you’ve packed some food to eat during the adventure.
After all, there’s nothing better than a hard-earned meal in the great outdoors.
The problem is that keeping your food safe while camping isn’t as easy as it seems. And if the food isn’t handled correctly, the consequences can be dangerous. The biggest threat to unsafe food handling while camping is getting a foodborne illness, also known as “food poisoning.”
Getting any sort of foodborne illness while camping is a quick ticket to a miserable experience.
It can cut your trip short… lead you to exhaustion… and, in the worst case scenario, can be frightening. Imagine being stuck in the woods, without phone service, potentially isolated from any help – all while being sick to the stomach.
So here’s what we’re going to do…
We’re going to bring our expert food safety knowledge from the kitchen, to outdoors by breaking down 5 critical camping food safety tips. They’re easy to follow and will massively reduce the risk of obtaining a foodborne illness while you’re camping. More importantly, the following food safety tips will make preparing for your trip a whole lot easier.
Here’s an overview of what we’ll be discussing:
What Causes Foodborne Illnesses In The First Place?
The simple answer to this question is bacteria. Bacteria can be found just about everywhere in the outdoor environment. From the ground you’re hiking on, the air around you, the food you’ve packed, the water you’re drinking or swimming in, and on the bodies of the people you’re with.
Food’s nutrients and moistures can embody a perfect stomping ground for bacteria to grow. Furthermore, foodborne bacteria grows the fastest in warmer environments. This makes food safety while camping even more important for those enjoying the outdoors in the summer. The warmer temperatures (anywhere between 90 to 110 Fahrenheit) and high humidity are ideal for bacterial growth.
Camping Food Safety Tip #1: Hand Washing
Human skin, believe it or not, is swarming with bacteria. Most of the bacteria can cause harm under only special circumstances, but from time to time, you’ll be carrying potentially dangerous germs. These can cause common bacterial infections like tuberculosis and strep… but also intestinal bacterial infections that cause food poisoning and diarrhea.
One of the best ways to keep bacteria away is to simply wash your hands! It’s a simple, highly preached solution… but somehow constantly overlooked. According to a 2006 Harvard Medical School study, just 30 seconds of simple hand washing with soap and water reduces the bacterial count of hands by 58%.
We know you are camping, but washing your hands with water will only remove the dirt. If you bring soap, the results are drastically better. Alcohol-based handrubs reduce bacterial counts by 83%!
According to the USDA, here’s how it’s done by the pro’s: Wash your hands for at least 30 seconds with warm, soapy water before and after handling food and after using the bathroom, changing diapers, and handling pets.
Camping Food Safety Tip #2: Water Safety
Not only do we use water to quench our thirst while on the trail, but you may also use water to cook something at the campsite. Regardless, we’re going to want to make sure the water we’re using is safe to consume.
The biggest no-no when it comes to water safety while camping is consuming water straight out of a freshwater source like a stream or lake. Even if the water looks crystal clear, it’s still not OK to consume as it can carry all sorts of bacteria. Additionally, you never know what has died or fallen into the water upstream. Yuck.
The easiest solution for all hikers and campers here is to bring your own bottled or tap water.
If you do decide to pull from a fresh lake or stream – you have to make sure you either (1) boil the water or (2) purify the water via purification tablets.
- If you don’t have your own bottled or tap water, boiling fresh water is the next safest option.
- Boiling water essentially kills off ALL the bacteria that’s in the water you gathered.
- Keep water boiling for at least one minute.
Purification Tablets & Water Filters
- If you don’t have a burner or a fireplace to heat up a pot of water with you at the campsite, purification tablets are your next best bet.
- These can be bought at your typical outdoor/ camping store and they’re fairly cheap.
- The purification tablet – which contains halazon, chlorine, or iodine – kills most waterborne bacteria, viruses, and some (but not all) parasites. This means you’ll want to use a super fine filtering device after you’re done with the purification process.
Camping Food Safety Tip #3: Maintain Proper Food Temperatures
The saying “keep hot foods hot and cold food cold” nails it on the head. While camping, anything you cook, heat up, or re-heat must reach a safe temperature before consumption. Additionally, any foods that require refrigeration must be properly cooled throughout the trip. Storing foods at an unsafe (warm) temperature can cause bacteria to grow to dangerous levels. And if it’s hot outside, sometimes ice won’t even do the trick as warmer temperatures can often turn your ice into lukewarm water.
Now, you likely won’t have a microwave or a refrigerator nearby, so you’ll have to do a little planning.
But before we get into the specifics let’s just make one thing clear: The ultimate camping food safety tip is to simply pack non-perishables.
These are foods such as whole veggies, whole fruits, peanut butter, jelly, coffee beans, canned meats, rice, nuts, and dried meats. These do NOT require refrigeration. Plus it saves you the hassle of packing ice, maintaining temperatures, and finding a cooler that can store it all.
For those that don’t want to bring non-perishables (i.e. meat, poultry, fish, milk, eggs) while camping, and perhaps want to eat like kings while on the trail or at a campsite, here are some helpful food safety tips and tricks:
Keeping Hot Foods Hot:
- Bring a food thermometer to make sure foods reach a safe temperature before consumption.
- 160 degrees is the minimum internal temperature for burgers, ground beef, lamb, veal, pork, hot dogs, and poultry.
- For safety and quality, allow your meats to rest for at least 2-3 minutes after cooking and before consumption.
Keeping Cold Foods Cold:
- Perishable foods such as raw meat, eggs, dairy, poultry, lunch meats, potato salads, etc. should be packed in a cooler with at least a couple inches of ice. If you don’t have ice, we suggest you utilize ice packs, frozen water containers, or even milk jugs full of frozen water (when these eventually melt, it turns into drinking water!)
- Perishable foods should not be left uncooled for more than 2 hours.
- If temperatures are over 90 degrees fahrenheit, the max you can go uncooled is 1 hour.
- Eat your cold foods and perishables on the first day of the camping trip if possible.
- Replenish ice immediately once you notice the first batch is melting.
- While driving to the campsite, keep the coolers in the coolest section of your car or next to a cold A/C vent.
- While stationed at the campsite, keep your coolers out of the sun and in the shade.
When it comes to proper food storage, just remember: When in doubt, throw it out!
Camping Food Safety Tip #4: Prevent Cross-contamination
Cross-contamination is the transfer of harmful bacteria from one food item, person, object, or place to another. Here, you mainly have to avoid handling cooked foods and clean surfaces immediately after handling raw or uncooked meats.
Improper handling of cooking supplies and surfaces can cause bacterial microorganisms to transfer over. Additionally, cross-contamination is how people with specific food allergies can get very sick.
All in all, this makes cross-contamination prevention a critically important factor not only in kitchens and restaurants across the globe, but in campsites as well.
Here are 5 things to keep in mind while camping in order to prevent cross-contamination:
- Personal hygiene
Wash your hands or swap out gloves every time you shift from handling one food item to another. Also, avoid touching your face and other campsite materials while dealing with food in general.
- Use separate equipment
Never place cooked food on the same plate that previously held raw food unless the plate has first been washed in hot, soapy water. The same goes for knives and other cooking supplies. If you just cut meat using a fork and knife, be sure to wash the utensils before using it to prepare or eat another food item. While camping, oftentimes people will reuse supplies as there is a limited amount of cooking materials to begin with. This means you have to be extra precautions as you utilize the same plates and utensils over and over again.
- Clean and sanitize all work surfaces
Make sure all plates, cutting surfaces, pots and pans, and fire pit grills are all cleaned and sanitized before cooking. We suggest doing this at the house before the camping or hiking trip even begins.
- Pack appropriately
When packing the cooler for an outing, double wrap raw meats, poultry and fish securely and separately to keep their raw juices away from other food.
- Ask about allergies
Are you cooking for people with allergies? Perhaps your nut-allergic camping partner can’t have a classic PB&J, but they can eat the burgers that you’re preparing for dinner. Make sure you keep this in mind as you switch from one plate or knife to another.
Camping Food Safety Tip #5: Proper Cleaning
Once you’re done eating, one might assume that all of these food safety procedures are officially behind them… but that’s far from the case.
After eating, campers should thoroughly clean all food and cooking materials with biodegradable soap, especially if you plan on using them again in the near future. Just be sure to do all the cleaning at the campsite, with clean bacteria-free water, without contaminating or polluting the surrounding environment. That’s right, stay away from doing any dishes with soap at the edge of any lake or stream.
Leftover foods should be either packed tightly and separately depending on if they’re perishable or not… stored again in cold temperatures if needed… or burned at the campfire if you wish to dispose of it.
At the end of the day, keeping your food safe while camping is fairly straightforward. All it takes is a little preparation and due diligence while cooking. Ultimately, purchasing the right food safety materials like coolers, ice, soaps and gloves before the camping trip will go a long way.
Prepare and pack for your trip like a pro… buy yourself more non-perishables… make sure all foods pass the sniff-test… and whenever you’re in doubt, just throw it out!
Stay safe and happy eating!
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