Food Safety for Hikers and Campers

Getting out into nature to hike or camp is one of summer’s great pleasures. You’ll get the most out of your expeditions, though, if you know how to prepare and cook your food correctly. Here, the experts from, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, show you the best ways to avoid the unwelcome souvenir of foodborne illness.

Hot or Cold?

The first principle is to keep foods either hot or cold. Since it is difficult to keep foods hot without a heat source (although the new 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. 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. What foods should you bring? For a day hike, just about anything will do as long as 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 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 2 hours (1 hour if 90 °F or above).

Keep It Clean

The second principle is to make sure everything is 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. Even disposable wipes will do.

Stick to 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 died and fallen into the water upstream. Bring bottled or tap water for drinking. Always start out with a full water bottle, and replenish your supply from tested public systems. 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, and then continue boiling for 1 minute. 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 duodenalis, and larger bacteria — are not killed by purification tablets, you must also use a water filter. These water filtering devices must be 1 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 (remember that purification tablets and filters are for drinking). Water purification tablets, filters, and sanitizing tablets can be purchased at camping supply stores.

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. Some possibilities: peanut butter in plastic jars; concentrated juice boxes; dried noodles and soups; beef jerky and other dried meats; dehydrated foods; dried fruits and nuts; and powdered milk and fruit drinks. 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, 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 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 insure that ground beef patties are safely cooked is to use a food thermometer, and cook the patty until it reaches 160 °F.

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 carving or consuming. For reasons of personal preference, consumers may choose to cook meat to higher temperatures.

Cook all raw ground beef, pork, lamb, and veal to an internal temperature of 160 °F as measured with a food thermometer.

Cook all poultry 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.

Be Cool

If you are “car camping” (driving to your site), you don’t have quite as many restrictions. First, you will have the luxury of bringing a cooler. What kind of 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, larger models may weigh 30 or 40 pounds.

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. Fill the cooler with cold or frozen foods. Pack foods in reverse order. 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-pack is no longer frozen.


Whether taking a hike or camping at an established site, if you will be washing dishes or cookware, there are some rules to follow. Camping supply stores sell biodegradable camping soap in liquid and solid forms. But 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. Pack disposable wipes for hands and quick cleanups.

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