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NEWS | Aug. 23, 2011

Enjoy your camping trip while staying healthy

By 628th Air Base Wing Safety office

Cookouts and picnics are frequent and honored traditions of summer, a time for family and friends to gather, socialize and have fun. But, summer outings can be ruined if safe food handling and preparation techniques aren't observed. Hot summer temperatures can help food-borne bacteria multiply at a rapid pace, spoiling food and causing illness.
The Food Safety and Inspection Service recommends the following when handling food outdoors:

Keep hot foods hot & cold foods cold

Whether 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 food-borne 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 degrees Fahrenheit 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 two hours.

If traveling with cold foods, bring a cooler with a cold source. If cooking, use a hot campfire or portable stove. It is difficult to keep foods hot without a heat source when traveling, so cook foods before leaving home, cool them and transport them cold.

Keep everything clean

The second 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 raw products 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.

Food safety while hiking & camping

One meal and some snacks are all that is needed for a short hike. Planning meals for a longer hike requires more thought. Choose foods that are light enough to carry in a backpack and can be transported safely.

Hot or cold?

The first principle is to keep foods either hot or cold. Refrigerate or freeze 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. For a day hike, just about any food will do as long as it can fit in your backpack and keep cold -- sandwiches, fried chicken, bread and cheese and even salads -- or choose non-perishable foods.

The second principle is to keep everything clean. Bring disposable wipes if you are taking a day trip.

Safe drinking water

Don't 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. Bring bottled or tap water for drinking. Always start 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. Bring water to a rolling boil and 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.

As an alternative to boiling water, you can also use water purification tablets and water filters. The purification tablets -- which contain iodine, halazone, or chlorine -- kill most waterborne bacteria, viruses and some (but not all) parasites. Because some parasites -- such as Cryptosporidium parvum, Giardia lamblia and larger bacteria -- are not killed by purification tablets, you must also use a water filter. These water filtering devices must be one micron absolute or smaller. Over time, purification tablets lose their potency, so keep your supply fresh. Water sanitizing tablets for washing dishes can also be purchased but don't confuse the two. Water purification tablets, filters and sanitizing tablets can be purchased at camping supply stores.

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.

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 will need.

Cooking at camp

After you have decided on a menu, plan how you will prepare the food. Camping supply stores sell lightweight cooking gear that nest together, but you can also use aluminum foil wrap and pans for cooking.

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 and bring any equipment you will need. Leftover food should be burned, not dumped. 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. Use a digital thermometer to measure the temperature when cooking on a grill or portable stove.

It is critical to use a food thermometer when cooking hamburgers. Ground beef may be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7, a particularly dangerous strain 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:
  •  Beef, veal, and lamb steaks, roasts and chops may be cooked to 145 F
  •  All cuts of pork to 160 F
  •  Ground beef, veal and lamb to 160 F
  •  All poultry should reach 165 F
  •  Heat hot dogs and any leftover food to 165 F.
  •  Be sure to clean the thermometer between uses
  •  Keeping Cold
If you are car camping, you will have the luxury of bringing a 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, may weigh 30 or 40 pounds.

A block of ice will keep food cold 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 with 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. 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-pack is no longer frozen.


Camping supply stores sell biodegradable camping soap in liquid and solid forms. Use it sparingly and keep it out of rivers, lakes, streams and springs, as it will pollute. If you use soap to clean your pots, wash the pots at the campsite, not at the water's edge. Dump dirty water on dry ground, well away from fresh water. Some wilderness campers use baking soda to wash their utensils. Pack disposable wipes for hands and quick cleanups.