Summer provides wonderful opportunities to get out and enjoy the great outdoors.  Whether you’re heading out on a day hike or a multi-day backpack or kayak trip, proper planning and good trail practices will go a long way toward helping you stay healthy while you’re out there.   This article deals with food safety away from ice and refrigeration.  Part II of this series will address car camping and boating where ice and coolers are in use.


Bacteria get into food a couple of ways: they enter during harvest or packaging, or they are present in the food when raw or uncooked.  You have three friends in planning food for a trip away from refrigeration: dryness, salt, and sugar.  All three make it hard for bacteria to grow, and therefore ideal for your purposes. (Sugar and salt hold tightly to moisture, and won’t share with microbes that need it to multiply.)

Dry: Dehydrated foods are popular not only because they’re light and compact, but also because the lack of moisture makes them practically immune from bacterial growth.  Low-moisture foods like dried meats, nuts, fruits, and cereals are great choices.  “Dry” cheeses like Romano or dry Monterey Jack are safe for several days without refrigeration.  Crackers are a better option than bread.

Salt:  Our pioneer ancestors knew a thing or two about the preservative qualities of salt.  Salted meats and fish are a good source of protein out in the wild, provided you have plenty of (safe) water to drink (more on that later).  Processed snacks like potato or corn chips are also safe from bacterial growth, and they can help replace salt you may sweat out on the trail.

Sugar: Dried fruits (again), candies, and honey are great energy sources that will remain safe after exposure to heat.

Raw and pre-cooked meats & seafood:  Carrying raw meat or poultry, or high-moisture cooked meats like deli meat is a recipe for illness.  The possible presence of E. coli, Salmonella, Campylobacter, and Listeria is hard enough to deal with in a kitchen with refrigeration, a sink, running water, and plentiful cleaning products.  The same cross-contamination issues that we face at home are multiplied in the backcountry.  If you’re car camping with a cooler filled with ice, take all the same precautions that you would in a home kitchen, plus some.  Otherwise, leave the raw meats behind.  If you bring a meat sandwich for your first days’ lunch, carry it next to a water bottle filled with ice.  Then go with peanut butter and honey or crackers with dry salami or cheese.    

If you are lucky enough to be where you can legally harvest local seafood, there are still some safety precautions to take.  One, check to see if there are any seafood warnings in the area.  The local health department and/or department of fish and wildlife are important sources of information.  Two, cook it.  You don’t want Norovirus, hepatitis A, Salmonella or other bugs that may lurk in fish or shellfish, and thorough cooking will kill them.  (Cooking will not remove contaminants like mercury, which is showing up in fish around the country.  See number one, above.)  Three, make sure you clean your hands and all surfaces that the raw fish or shellfish touched.

Clean up: Wash utensils, bowls, and cookware in water that has come to a boil, and remains almost too hot to touch.  You can use sand to scrub, but a small piece of scrubbie will do the job better with less damage to your plastics.   Rinse in boiled water, and dry with a clean towel.

Leftovers in the backcountry are not a good idea. It is not generally possible to store them at the proper temperature to stop the growth of bacteria, and something that was fine for dinner could be illness-producing at breakfast.  

Clean hands: Experts tell us that 25-40 percent of foodborne illness is given an inroad by your hands.  Handwashing is important at home, and even more so in the wild.  Before you prepare a meal, heat a little water with your camp stove and wash your hands with biodegradable soap.  Dry your hands with a towel or bandana that is only used on clean hands.  (Dispose of your handwashing water, and anything with soap, at least 200 feet from fresh water.  The soap may be biodegradable, but it isn’t instantly so.)

Carry hand sanitizer and/or wipes, and thoroughly clean your hands before trail meals.   


Almost all the world’s water contains pathogens that can make you ill.  Even the clearest, most remote streams should be disinfected.  Here are a few methods:

Boiling: Not fast, but fairly cheap if you have the fuel, and no aftertaste.  Make sure that any water you use for cooking or clean up has come to a boil.  

Treating:  Chlorine and Iodine (classified as halogens) are both effective, and there are products sold in liquid and tablet form to disinfect water.  Effectiveness can be impacted by several factors, including using the proper amount, giving the product time to work, and accurately estimating the turbidity of the water you are disinfecting.  Read the product labels carefully, and start with fresh product each season.  (Note that although halogens are extremely effective against pathogens, protozoa like Giardia and cryptosporidium are much more resistant to them.  In the backcountry you may want to use more than one disinfecting process.)

Filtering: There is a very wide range of filtration products available on the market.  The finer the filtration, the more it will filter out.  Protozoa are the largest particles, followed by bacteria like strep, E. coli, and Staph.  Filters cannot physically remove viruses like hepatitis A, but many higher-end filters have iodine resins, which kill viruses as the water moves through.  Read product information carefully to see exactly what the filter you are considering will and will not do.  Even the highest-end product needs regular cleaning and filter changes.

UV Light: Ah, modern technology.  A small UV light that runs on batteries can rid a liter of water of viruses, protozoa, and bacteria in a couple of minutes.  It works by zapping microbe DNA, with no danger to humans.  It’s fairly compact and lightweight.  The downsides are that it’s pricey, and as with most technology, things can go wrong.  Whether it’s an equipment failure or human error (forgetting to replace batteries, for instance) it’s a good idea to carry a backup method.

And finally, clean your water bottles and hydration bladders regularly–they can harbor bacteria as well.  You can purchase cleaning kits for your wearable hydration packs, and/or use these home tips.


Proper outdoor/backcountry sanitation is vital to keeping wilderness areas pristine and free of human bacteria and trash.  It is also critical to backcountry food safety.  Every time you relieve yourself, clean your hands.   Store your trowel in a plastic bag, and every time you use it, clean your hands.  If you share food, portion it to your travel companions rather than having them dip their (potentially) grubby mitts into your trail mix.  


While they’re eating your trail mix, your pals may insist that they don’t follow such careful practices, and have never gotten sick.&nbs
p; (They may not be taking incubation times into account, but why quibble.)  My answer is that I wear a seat belt every time I get into a car not because I expect to be in an accident, but because the possibility exists.  Being careful about food safety and cleanliness can be the difference between a great trip and a wretched one.  

Make yours great.


Don’t Get Sick: The Hidden Dangers of Camping and Hiking, by Buck Tilton and Rick Bennett.   A wealth of valuable information for $6.95, put out by the Mountaineers

Environmental Protection Agency Information on Seafood Contaminants

USDA Fact Sheet:  Food Safety While Hiking, Camping, and Boating

Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics