Outdoor activities like hiking, camping, and boating are great activities that revive the spirit and the mind – but also create hunger after a long exciting day and involve preparing at least one meal. If the food is not handled properly, foodborne illness can be an unwelcome passenger.
General Rules for Outdoor Food Safety
Plan ahead: decide what you are going to eat and how you are going to cook it; then plan what equipment you will need.
- Pack safely: use a cooler if car-camping or boating, or pack foods in the frozen state with a cold source if hiking or backpacking.
- Keep raw foods separate from other foods.
- Never bring meat or poultry products without a cold source to keep them safe.
- Bring disposable wipes or biodegradable soap for hand- and dishwashing.
- Plan on carrying bottled water for drinking. Otherwise, boil water or use water purification tablets.
- Do not leave trash in the wild or throw it off your boat.
- If using a cooler, leftover food is safe only if the cooler still has ice in it. Otherwise, discard leftover food.
- Whether in the wild or on the high seas, protect yourself and your family by washing your hands before and after handling food.
- Learn about cross contamination, cold and hot food safety, best practices for personal hygiene, and foodborne illnesses.
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Food Safety While Hiking & Camping
Sometimes you just have to get out and walk around and may want to hike for just a few hours, or you may want to camp for a few days. One meal and some snacks are all that’s needed for a short hike. Planning meals for a longer hike or camping trip requires more thought. You have to choose foods that are light enough to carry in a backpack and that can be transported safely.
- Hot or Cold?
The first principle is to keep foods either hot or cold. Since it is difficult to keep foods hot without a heat source (although the new insulated casserole dishes will keep things hot for an hour or so), it is best to transport chilled foods. Refrigerate or freeze the food overnight. For a cold source, bring frozen gel-packs or freeze some box drinks. The drinks will thaw as you hike and keep your meal cold at the same time. What foods to bring? For a day hike, just about anything will do as long as you can fit it in your backpack and keep it cold — sandwiches, fried chicken, bread and cheese, and even salads — or choose non-perishable foods.
Most bacteria do not grow rapidly at temperatures below 40 °F or above 140 °F. The temperature range in between is known as the “Danger Zone.” Bacteria multiply rapidly at these temperatures and can reach dangerous levels after 2 hours (1 hour if 90 °F or above).
- “Keep Everything Clean”
The second principle is to keep everything clean. Bacteria present on raw meat and poultry products can be easily spread to other foods by juices dripping from packages, hands, or utensils. This is called cross-contamination. When transporting raw meat or poultry, double wrap or place the packages in plastic bags to prevent juices from the raw product from dripping on other foods. Always wash your hands before and after handling food, and don’t use the same platter and utensils for raw and cooked meat and poultry. Soap and water are essential to cleanliness, so if you are going somewhere that will not have running water, bring it with you. Even disposable wipes will do.
- Safe Drinking Water
It is not a good idea to depend on fresh water from a lake or stream for drinking, no matter how clean it appears. Some pathogens thrive in remote mountain lakes or streams and there is no way to know what might have died and fallen into the water upstream. Bring bottled or tap water for drinking. Always start out with a full water bottle, and replenish your supply from tested public systems when possible. On long trips you can find water in streams, lakes, and springs, but be sure to purify any water from the wild, no matter how clean it appears.
- What Foods to Bring?
If you are backpacking for more than a day, the food situation gets a little more complicated. You can still bring cold foods for the first day, but you’ll have to pack shelf-stable items for the next day. Canned goods are safe, but heavy, so plan your menu carefully. Advances in food technology have produced relatively lightweight staples that don’t need refrigeration or careful packaging.
- Cooking at the Campsite
After you have decided on a menu, you need to plan how you will prepare the food. You’ll want to take as few pots as possible (they’re heavy!). Camping supply stores sell lightweight cooking gear that nest together, but you can also use aluminum foil wrap and pans for cooking.You’ll need to decide in advance how you will cook. Will you bring along a portable stove, or will you build a campfire? Many camping areas prohibit campfires, so check first or assume you will have to take a stove. Make sure to bring any equipment you will need. If you are bringing a camp stove, practice putting it together and lighting it before you pack. If you build a campfire, carefully extinguish the fire and dispose of the ashes before breaking camp. Likewise, leftover food should be burned, not dumped. Lastly, be sure to pack garbage bags to dispose of any other trash, and carry it out with you.
- Keeping Cold
If you are “car camping” (driving to your site), you don’t have quite as many restrictions. First, you will have the luxury of bringing a cooler. What kind of cooler? Foam chests are lightweight, low cost, and have good “cold retention” power. But they are fragile and may not last through numerous outings. Plastic, fiberglass, or steel coolers are more durable and can take a lot of outdoor wear. They also have excellent “cold retention” power, but, once filled, larger models may weigh 30 or 40 pounds.
Food Safety While Boating
Keeping food safe for a day on the boat may not be quite as challenging as for a hike, but when you are out on the water, the direct sunlight can be an even bigger food safety problem.
Remember the “Danger Zone. Bacteria can multiply rapidly at warm temperatures, and food can become unsafe if held in the “Danger Zone” for over 2 hours. Above 90 °F, food can become dangerous after only 1 hour. In direct sunlight, temperatures can climb even higher than that. So bring along plenty of ice, and keep the cooler shaded or covered with a blanket.
- Keep Your Cooler Cool
A cooler for perishable food is essential. It is important to keep it closed, out of the sun, and covered, if possible, for further insulation. Better yet, bring two coolers: one for drinks and snacks, and another for more perishable food. The drink cooler will be opened and closed a lot, which lets hot air in and causes the ice to melt faster. Pack your coolers with several inches of ice, blocks of ice, or frozen gel-packs. Store food in watertight containers to prevent contact with melting ice water.
- Keep Cold Foods Cold
Perishable foods, like luncheon meats, cooked chicken (Yes, that includes fried chicken!), and potato or pasta salads, should be kept in the cooler. Remember the rule: keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold? And the 2-hour rule: no food should remain in the “Danger Zone” for more than 2 hours? Unless you plan to eat that bucket of fried chicken within 2 hours of purchase, it needs to be kept in the cooler. For optimum safety, consider buying it the night before, refrigerating it in a shallow container (not the bucket), and then packing it cold in the cooler.
If you are planning to fish, check with your fish and game agency or state health department to see where you can fish safely, then follow these guidelines:
- Scale, gut, and clean fish as soon as they’re caught.
- Live fish can be kept on stringers or in live wells, as long as they have enough water and enough room to move and breathe.
- Wrap fish, both whole and cleaned, in water-tight plastic and store on ice.
- Keep 3 to 4 inches of ice on the bottom of the cooler. Alternate layers of fish and ice.
- Store the cooler out of the sun and cover with a blanket.
- Once home, eat fresh fish within 1 to 2 days or freeze them. For top quality, use frozen fish within 3 to 6 months.
- Crabs, lobsters, and other shellfish must be kept alive until cooked.
- Store in live wells or out of water in a bushel or laundry basket under wet burlap or seaweed.
- Crabs and lobsters are best eaten the day they’re caught.
- Live oysters should be cooked within 7 to 10 days.
- Live mussels and clams should be cooked within 4 to 5 days.
- Eating raw shellfish is extremely dangerous. People with liver disorders or weakened immune systems are especially at risk.
Cleanup on the boat is similar to cleanup in the wild. Bring disposable wipes for handwashing, and bag up all your trash to dispose of when you return to shore.