Food Safety While Hiking, Camping & Boating
Outdoor activities like hiking, camping, and boating are great ways to boost your mood, take in some fresh air and get a little exercise along the way. In many cases, these activities last all day and involve preparing at least one meal. If the food is not handled correctly, foodborne illness can be an unwelcome souvenir.
General Rules for Outdoor Food Safety
Plan ahead: decide what you are going to eat and how you will prepare it; then plan what equipment you will need.
- Pack safely: use a cooler, or pack foods in the frozen state with a cold source.
- Whether in the wild or on the high seas, protect yourself and your family by washing your hands with soap and water or bring hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol before and after handling food.
- Raw meats may contain bacteria, so keep raw foods separate from other foods.
- Don’t bring perishable meat or poultry products without a cold source to keep them safe.
- Bring disposable wipes, hand sanitizer or biodegradable soap for hand- and dishwashing.
- If using a cooler, leftover food is safe only if the cooler still has ice in it. Otherwise, discard leftover food.
Food Safety While Hiking & Camping
As you venture out to enjoy the sights and sounds of nature, it’s important to plan your snacks and meals based on whether you’ll be out for a few hours or several days. One meal and some snacks are all you’ll likely need for a short hike but planning meals for a longer hike or camping trip requires more thought. Backpack weight is often top-of-mind for hikers and campers, who will be choosing foods and supplies that are light enough to carry over long distances. But even expert outdoors enthusiasts may forget about food safety as they plan their adventure.
Hot or Cold?
The first principle is to keep foods either hot or cold. Because it is difficult to keep foods hot without a heat source (although some 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 before you depart. For a cold source, bring frozen gel-packs or freeze some boxed drinks. The drinks will thaw as you hike and keep your meal cold at the same time. Trying to decide what to bring? For a day hike, just about anything will do if 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 grow rapidly between 40 °F and 140 °F. This temperature range is known as the "Danger Zone." Bacteria can reach dangerous levels after 2 hours (1 hour if 90 °F or above). Your goal is to keep food out of that danger zone.
If you are "car camping" (driving to your site), you have a few more options. First, you will have the luxury of bringing a cooler. There are many options available. Foam chests are lightweight, low cost, and have good "cold retention" power. However, 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.
To keep foods cold, you'll need a cold source. A block of ice keeps food colder for longer than ice cubes. Before leaving home, freeze clean, empty milk cartons filled with water to make blocks of ice, or use frozen gel-packs. Fill the cooler with cold or frozen foods. Pack foods in reverse order. First foods packed should be the last foods used. Ideally, pack your raw meat or poultry in a separate cooler. If you only have one cooler, then be sure to pack your raw meat or poultry below ready-to-eat foods. Take foods in the smallest quantity needed (e.g., a small jar of mayonnaise). At the campsite, insulate the cooler with a blanket, tarp, poncho or keep it in a shaded area. When the camping trip is over, discard all perishable foods if there is no longer ice in the cooler or if the gel-pack is no longer frozen.
"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 or bring hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. You can also use disposable, alcohol-based wipes to sanitize your hands.
Safe Potable Water
It is not a good idea to depend on fresh water from a lake or stream for drinking, meal preparation or cleaning, no matter how clean it appears. Bring bottled or tap water for consumption and to help in cleaning. Always start out with a full water bottle and replenish your supply from tested public systems when possible. See the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s Water Treatment Options When Hiking, Camping or Traveling.
What Foods to Bring?
If you are backpacking for more than a day, the food safety 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. For example:
pre-packaged, shelf-stable meals
peanut butter in plastic jars;
concentrated juice boxes;
canned tuna, ham, chicken, and beef;
dried noodles and soups;
beef jerky and other shelf-stable meats;
whole or dried fruits;
powdered milk and fruit drinks.
Powdered mixes for biscuits or pancakes are easy to carry and prepare, as is dried pasta. There are plenty of powdered sauce mixes that can be used over pasta but check the required ingredient list. Carry items like dried pasta, rice, and baking mixes in plastic bags and take only the amount you'll need.
Cooking at the Campsite
After you have decided on a menu, consider 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 to ensure the food you bring can be properly prepared and will be safe to eat.
Use a Food Thermometer
Another important piece of camping equipment is a food thermometer. If you are cooking meat or poultry on a portable stove or over a fire, you'll need a way to determine when it is done and safe to eat. Color is not a reliable indicator of doneness, and it can be especially tricky to tell the color of a food if you are cooking in a wooded area in the evening.
When cooking, use a food thermometer to measure the temperature. Digital thermometers register the temperature in the very tip of the probe, so the safety of thin foods — such as hamburger patties and boneless chicken breasts — as well as thicker foods can be determined. A dial thermometer determines the temperature of a food by averaging the temperature along the stem and, therefore, should be inserted 2 to 2 ½ inches into the food. If the food is thin, the probe must be inserted sideways into the food.
It is critical to use a food thermometer when cooking hamburgers. Ground beef may be contaminated with E. coli (E. coli O157:H7 and other Shiga toxin producing E. coli), particularly dangerous strains of bacteria. Illnesses have occurred even when ground beef patties were cooked until there was no visible pink. The only way to ensure that ground beef patties are safely cooked is to use a food thermometer, and cook the patty until it reaches 160 °F.
Cook all meat and poultry to safe minimum internal temperatures:
Cook all raw beef, pork, lamb and veal steaks, chops, and roasts to a minimum internal temperature of 145 °F as measured with a food thermometer before removing meat from the heat source. For safety and quality, allow meat to rest for at least three minutes before slicing or consuming.
Cook all raw ground beef, pork, lamb, and veal to an internal temperature of 160 °F as measured with a food thermometer.
Cook all raw poultry (raw or ground) to a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 °F as measured with a food thermometer.
Heat hot dogs to steaming hot and reheat any leftover food to 165 °F as measured with a food thermometer. Be sure to clean the thermometer between uses.
Separate and Cleanup
Bring plenty of clean platters and utensils. Don't use the same platter and utensils that held raw product to serve cooked product. Any bacteria present in the raw meat or juices can contaminate the safely cooked product. If using a cooler, leftover food is safe only if the cooler still has ice in it. Return cold foods to the cooler, and chill leftovers promptly. Otherwise, discard leftover food. Find out if your campsite has clean water. If not, you can bring clean water for food preparation, handwashing, and cleaning utensils. You can also use sanitizers that have at least 60% alcohol content.
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" between 40 °F and 140 °F? Bacteria 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. If you can’t bring enough ice to keep foods cold, take along only non-perishable, shelf-stable foods.
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, 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 those luncheon meats within 2 hours or 1 hour if at elevated, warm temperatures of near 90 F., it needs to be kept in the cooler. For optimum safety, consider buying it the night before, refrigerating it in a shallow container and then packing it cold in the cooler.
Of course, some foods don't need to be stored in the cooler: whole fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, trail mix, canned meat spreads, jerky, and peanut butter and jelly. (However, once canned foods are opened, put them in the cooler.)
If you don't have an insulated cooler, try freezing sandwiches for your outing. Use coarse-textured breads that don't get soggy when thawed. Take the mayonnaise, lettuce, and tomato with you to add at mealtime. In a pinch, plastic bags packed with frozen gel packs or ice will keep things cold until lunchtime. Freeze water in milk containers or plastic bottles for your cold source.
Cleanup on the boat is similar to cleanup on land. If using a cooler, leftover food is safe only if the cooler still has ice in it. Return cold foods to the cooler, and chill leftovers promptly. Otherwise, discard leftover food. Bag up all your trash to dispose of when you return to shore and clean up. Soap and potable water are ideal, disposable wipes and hand sanitizer can be used for sanitizing hands, utensils and surfaces.