Outdoor activities are popular with Americans nationwide. 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 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
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 subsequent days. 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:
- Peanut butter in plastic jars
- Concentrated juice boxes
- Canned tuna, ham, chicken or beef
- Dried noodles or soups
- Beef jerky or other dried meats
- Dehydrated foods
- Dried fruits or nuts
- Powdered milk or fruit drinks
Keep Hot Foods Hot and Cold Foods Cold
Whether you are in your kitchen or enjoying the great outdoors, there are some food safety principles that remain constant. The first is "Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold." Meat and poultry products may contain bacteria that cause foodborne illness. They must be cooked to destroy these bacteria and held at temperatures that are either too hot or too cold for these bacteria to grow.
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 only two hours.
To keep foods cold, you’ll need a cold-source. A block of ice keeps 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.
When filling the cooler with cold or frozen foods, pack foods in reverse order. The first foods packed should be the last foods used. (There is one exception: pack raw meat or poultry below ready-to-eat foods to prevent raw meat or poultry juices from dripping on the other 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 or poncho. When the camping trip is over, discard all perishable foods if there is no longer ice in the cooler or if the gel-packs are no longer frozen.
Keep Everything Clean
The second food safety principle is that 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 or 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 fallen into the water upstream.
Always bring bottled or tap water for drinking. 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.
The surest way to make water safe is to boil it. Boiling will kill microorganisms. First, bring water to a rolling boil, then continue boiling for one minute. Before heating, muddy water should be allowed to stand for a while to allow the silt to settle to the bottom. Dip the clear water off the top and boil. At higher elevations, where the boiling point of water is lower, boil for several minutes.
Cooking at Camp
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.
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 hamburger patties on a grill or portable stove, use a digital 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, a particularly dangerous strain of bacteria. Illnesses have occurred even when ground beef patties were cooked until there was no visible pink.
Cook all meat and poultry to the safe minimum internal temperatures indicated below, and always be sure to clean the thermometer between uses.
Safe minimum internal temperatures for meat and poultry.
- Beef, veal and lamb steaks, roasts and chops: 145°Feanut
- All cuts of pork: 160°F
- Ground beef, veal and lamb: 160°F
- Poultry: 165°F
- Hot dogs and any leftover food: 165°F