An Expert Guide to Food Safety While Camping
This article by Camping & Hiking Expert Elizabeth H. explains how to best prepare and store your food when camping to keep everyone eating healthy and safe.
Food poisoning is never fun, but it is even worse if you are in the backcountry. Growing up with parents who run outdoor programs, I’ve always been cautious when it comes to kitchen safety while camping. After going to culinary school and being trained on safe food-handling practices, I’ve become even more careful when it comes to food safety. This article will break down some easy tips and tricks for how to prepare, pack for, and enjoy a food-safe camping trip.
Cook Your Meat Before You Go
Meat and fish are foods that are easily contaminated and require careful cleanup. Campgrounds often have limited water resources, so dishes have the potential of not being thoroughly washed.
I pre-cook any meat that I will be bringing on my trip, place them into plastic bags, label them, and then freeze them. This means that I can prepare ahead of time, and it will also help keep my cooler at a colder temperature for a longer time. It’s so nice to get to camp and only have to reheat my meals. Another easy option is to buy meat that is already cooked. Pre-cooked sausages are some of my favorite breakfast items, and they are also great as an easy dinner with some instant rice!
Prepare Ingredients or Whole Meals
Chopping veggies, shredding cheese, or mixing sauces ahead of time are awesome ways to reduce the number of dishes you have to wash and to speed up your cooler-to-table time while at camp. Soups are great camping meals that are easy to premake and freeze. One of my favorite camping recipes is a vegetarian chili; if you don’t eat it all, leftovers can be used for burrito filling or a nice dip for tortilla chips. I’ve included the recipe below. I’ve included the recipe below. For more food ideas, check out this article on some great recipes!
Red, Gold, Black, and Green Chili Recipe
- ½ cup bulgur or quinoa
- ½ cup hot water
- 28oz canned, diced, or chopped tomatoes (drain and save 1 cup of the juice)
- 3 tbsp olive or vegetable oil
- 1 large yellow onion, chopped
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 tsp ground cumin
- 1 tsp chili powder
- ¼ tsp cayenne
- 2 green bell peppers, chopped
- 2 cups of fresh, canned, or frozen corn
- 14 oz can of black beans
- 14 oz can of red kidney beans
- Optional: Grated cheese and cilantro for serving
- Place your bulgur/quinoa, hot water, and tomato juice into a small saucepan, bring to a boil, then lower heat and gently simmer until almost fully cooked.
- Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large saucepan. Sauté the onion, garlic, cumin, chili powder, and cayenne until the onions are soft.
- Add in the bell peppers and sauté for two or three more minutes, then add in the tomatoes, corn, and beans.
- Next, add the cooked bulgur/quinoa and the cooking liquid into the larger saucepan. Cover and simmer for five to 10 minutes. Add salt to taste.
- Allow the chili to cool, then place it into heavy-duty plastic bags or plastic containers and freeze.
- When you are packing your cooler, add in your frozen soup. It will help keep your food cold and will slowly thaw.
- Reheat and serve with grated cheese and cilantro and enjoy!
Have The Right Gear
Investing in a high-quality cooler is another important step for food safety while camping, especially if you plan to head out on longer trips. I have a 50-quart cooler that is the perfect size for week-long trips. Thick, insulated walls keep ice longer, and locking lids are a good way to make sure that overfilled coolers will stay closed.
Electric coolers are one of the newest innovations in the camping world. Popularized by the rise in vanlife and off-road adventurers, these are a great option for long-term refrigeration needs. Dometic is the most popular brand of powered coolers. You set the temperature and it will keep it there as long as you have power. There are even two-compartment options that have the ability to get down to freezer temperatures, which means you can have ice cream wherever you go!
If you are backpacking, freeze a water bottle and put it into a lunch box for a mini-cooler, or wrap the frozen water bottle and your cold items in your warm layer. This is a great option for one or two-day trips.
How do I pack a cooler? Start by adding in your ice block, as it will last much longer than ice cubes. If you can’t find block ice where you live, buy gallons of water and freeze them. Be sure to remove about a cup of water before freezing to make sure they don’t burst in the process. These gallons can be reused over and over; I keep two in my chest freezer and pull them out when needed.
Make sure that everything you put in your cooler starts out cold. This is another way to extend your ice. Also, try to pack items that will spoil quickly directly next to the ice. I always put my meats and cheeses closer to the ice. Things that won’t spoil at room temperature, like drinks and vegetables, can be placed further away from the ice.
The Best Camping Stove Options
Some people like to use a campfire for cooking. It is a fun experience, but the results are wildly inconsistent and drought conditions have led to fire bans in many places. Dutch oven meals are a great option if you have the time to tend to the fire. Nothing beats warm chocolate cake in the backcountry! Most of the time, I stick with s’mores for my open-fire cooking.
For a consistent and always allowed cooking option, I highly recommend the Classic two-burner Coleman camp stove for car campers. These stoves are super sturdy, built to last, and are fueled by small, green propane canisters that can be found almost anywhere, from big-city Targets to the smallest general store in a tiny town.
Another great option for car campers, especially those cooking for large groups, is the Camp Chef Explorer two-burner. This is the stove my dad uses for his outdoor programs. It is easy to set up and won’t take up any precious table space. There is also a three-burner option if you need the extra room!
For backpackers, I would suggest the MSR PocketRocket. These stoves are super lightweight and compact, compatible with any brand of isobutane fuel, and will last forever (my parents have owned the same PocketRocket since the early 80s). For more on backpacking stoves, check out How to Choose a Backpacking Stove.
The Kitchen Kit
I use two large plastic tubs with locking lids as my camping kitchen. One bin has all of my kitchen supplies and utensils, and the other bin is where I store all of my dry goods and snacks. They stack on top of each other for easy packing, and the locking lids keep everything clean and safe from bugs and rodents. Outside of those two bins, I bring three basins for washing dishes and a drying rack.
What’s in the bin?
- Large stock pot for cooking pasta or heating up water for dishes
- Strainer (mine nests inside of the large pot)
- Two-quart saucepan
- 10-inch frying pan
- Knife kit. I have the GSI Santoku kit and it rocks!
- Thin cutting boards. I bought a set of four and I rarely use more than one, but they are lightweight and easy to clean!
- Bamboo flat-headed spoon—the perfect utensil for most cooking.
- Silicone scoop and spread—another great multi-purpose tool.
- Slotted spoon
- Two hot pads
- Two dish towels
- Aluminum foil
- Plate, bowl, mug, and silverware
- Garlic press, pasta spoon, and a cheese grater. These definitely aren’t necessary but are a great luxury addition to your camp kitchen!
What dry goods should I bring? I like to bring a few extra items as a “just in case” plan in addition to what I need for my meals. I always pack a ridiculous amount of food since I would rather bring home leftovers than go hungry. My “just in case” items include canned tuna, refried beans, spaghetti, granola bars, peanut butter, chips or crackers, and, of course, s’mores fixings (graham crackers, marshmallows, and chocolate).
So, now that you have prepared everything and are equipped with the best gear, let’s hit the road and head to the campsite.
At the Campsite
Once you arrive, take your cooler out of the car and place it in a shady area. The goal is to keep it cool for as long as possible. Another tip is to cover your cooler in a wet towel, as the evaporative cooling will help your ice stay frozen longer. If you are in bear country, be sure to keep a clean camp and place any food or cooking items into a locked vehicle or bear box if you will be leaving camp. Remember that a fed bear is a dead bear.
After enjoying your delicious meal, you have to clean up. A three-bin dish system is the easiest way to clean your dishes properly while camping. All you will need are three plastic bins, a sponge or scrub brush, biodegradable soap, bleach, and a drying rack or towels.
Begin by heating up some water. You will want it to be hot, but not to the point where it will hurt to wash your dishes. The first bin will have warm water and soap to scrub your dishes, the middle bin will be a mix of hot and cold water to rinse them, and the last bin is cold water and a few drops of bleach to sanitize. If you have a picnic table, it is easiest to set up the bins on that; otherwise, just put them on the ground and get a bit of a workout in while cleaning up!
Start with the cleaner dishes and end with the items that are extra greasy or have lots of food stuck to them. Scrub, rinse, sanitize, and repeat until all of your dishes are clean, then set them in a dish rack to dry or towel-dry them. Empty out your scrub bin first—some campgrounds have sinks designed for disposing of greywater. If this isn’t available, just flush it down the toilet. Then pour your rinse water into the scrub bucket and repeat the same disposal process. Do this same process with the sanitizer water (into the rinse then into the scrub bucket) and then you’re done. For more on doing dishes and other camp chores, read How to Stay Clean While Camping.
I hope that this article helped you prepare to have a fun and healthy camping trip. If you have any questions or want to get the perfect camp kitchen setup, chat with me or another Camping & Hiking Expert here on Curated! Happy trails!