Camping and food safety

Important tips to help keep your summer camping trips free from foodborne illness.

It is the height of summer, and many are out hiking, camping, and enjoying the outdoors but have you ever considered food safety issues while you’re out on these adventures? Whether you’re day-hiking the North Country Trail or on a week-long camping trip in the backwoods, food safety matters. Most of the same rules apply as they would in your home but camping and hiking can create some difficulties. Michigan State University Extension recommends the following tip to help you stay food safe in the outdoors this summer:

  1. Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. Taking hot food camping is not very common and most hot food eaten in the outdoors is cooked on a camp stove or open fire but that doesn’t mean you’re not in danger. Food cooked at camp needs to be consumed or stored in a cooler within two hours of being cooked. Cold foods also need special attention and need to be kept at 41 degrees Fahrenheit or lower at all times. Food should never be left out at room/outdoor  temperatures for more than 2 hours, less than an hour if the temperature is above 90 degrees F.
  2. Use thermometers. This goes for cooking and storing food. Use a food/meat thermometer to measure the temperature of cooked food before serving. Cooking on a camp stove or open fire can lead to uneven heating or charring that may make you think something is fully cooked when it might be raw inside. The only sure way to tell is to take the temperature in more than one spot in the food. Also use a refrigerator thermometer in your cooler. Keep it near the top/lid because that will be the warmest place. Your cooler should be 41 degrees F or lower at all times. Change ice often and drain excess water to help maintain this temperature.
  3. Keep everything clean. While one of the fun parts about camping, for some, is the idea of being one with nature and getting your hands dirty, that dirt could potentially make you sick. No matter what, always wash your hands before preparing or eating food. If there’s no running water available, plan to make your own portable hand washing station. It doesn’t have to be elaborate it just needs clean water, soap, paper towels, a bucket to catch the dirty water and a small trash bag.  Everything else you’re using for cooking and eating also needs to be clean, including the cooler. Never wash dishes in pure lake/river water. Natural water can be used but needs to be boiled or otherwise rid of pathogens (iodine tablets, filtered, bleach treated, etc.) before using on food contact surfaces. Also, avoid cross-contamination by keeping raw meat or fish and ready to eat foods separate.
  4. Choose foods that need little or no preparation. Having steak or stuffed chicken breast sounds gourmet, but can cause more problems than its worth. Canned or pre-packaged products can make life easier and safer around camp. Instead of bringing raw chicken, try canned chicken. Bring your own soup mixes with dry noodles and dehydrated vegetables that just require hot water. There are many alternatives to raw foods that need simple preparation and that will reduce your chances of improper handling.
  5. Never drink from streams, lakes or rivers. No matter how clean the water looks, it could be teeming with bacteria or parasites that can make you sick. These organisms can’t be seen, smelled or tasted. Even swimming with your mouth open could subject you to harmful organisms. Always filter, boil or otherwise treat drinking water if you’re sourcing it from nature and always wash your hands after swimming and before eating.

Avoiding foodborne illness while enjoying your summer vacation is easy with just a little planning. For more information on outdoor food safety check out this resource from the USDA or visit MSU Extension.

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