Nothing can ruin a camping trip quicker than losing all the tasty food you brought to spoilage, contamination, or downright theft from furry camp robbers. To ensure that you have a great camping experience with safe and delicious meals, and no messes to clean up, follow these simple steps for proper food storage and handling.
Food Storage Overview
There are a few basic guidelines to direct how you manage your camping food. With a little bit of preparation and adherence to good systems, it’s a cinch to make sure the culinary side of your trip goes smoothly.
Keep Cold Food Cold
If you plan to eat food that requires refrigeration, create the best conditions for your cooler:
- Keep it in the shade
- Chill the cooler before adding ice
- Use a 2:1 ice to contents ratio
- Limit access – keep it closed as often as possible
- Don’t drain melted water – it keeps contents chilled
After you create the proper cooler conditions, make sure your meals and the amount of ice in the cooler coincide. Even the best coolers usually only keep food cold for about 48 hours on a hot day. That means don’t bring four days’ worth of refrigerated food if you won’t have access to new ice – your second two days of food won’t be cold.
Food Handling Procedures for Camping
While cooking outdoors, you should observe the same germ-safety techniques you use in your home kitchen.
- Wash hands frequently
- Clean knives and cutting boards between preparing raw meat and other ingredients
- Cook foods all the way through – although cooking over a fire can take a long time, it’s important to get meats to a temp of at least 140°F
- Use only potable water – boil water if you’re not sure if it’s drinkable or if your only source is a stream or river
It’s a good idea to create a system so that you can locate and store all your food easily. Consider putting things in separate bags or boxes according to meals (breakfast box) or food groups (the vegetable bag) or however else you decide to keep things organized.
Keeping organized is important because when things are hard to find or put away, 1) you’ll spend your precious camping time being frustrated looking for stuff, and 2) you’ll be tempted to leave things out, which leads to our next potential food storage issue: animals.
Food Storage from Animals
Storing your food properly is important for your enjoyment and safety as well as for the well being of wild animals. When animals become dependent on or overly familiar with humans, it can often lead to the animals’ malnutrition – they stop searching for the food that’s good for them in nature because they can get junk food from humans – or even worse, death, as in the case of many grizzlies in Yellowstone.
Never store food inside your tent, as this could lure animals, deadly or not, directly to you as you sleep. For specific animal protection, take the following steps to ensure that you protect your vittles from all the little crittles…I mean critters.
A good rule of thumb to ensure that you don’t wake up to a volcano of ants on your open packet of crackers or weevils in your cereal is to simply put all grains and anything sweet into sealed plastic baggies. If bugs can’t reach your food, they won’t eat it.
Bring a citronella candle to keep away flies and mosquitoes while you eat. Also, be warned that yellow jackets and wasps are fond of meat and will be quite persistent if you don’t cover and seal it quickly.
Rodents have cost me a lot of strife in my camping adventures. In Patagonia, I thought I was being clever by hanging my food in a plastic shopping bag from a tree branch. Silly me though – mice can climb anything and shimmied up the tree and over the branch into several days’ worth of oatmeal. And there was the squirrel in the Grand Canyon that, when I had my back turned for five seconds, chewed right through two compartments of my backpack to get into a sealed plastic bag of trash I had inside. What I could have done to avoid these situations is:
- Put food into an odor-free plastic bag
- Put this bag into a rodent-resistant bag made of metal mesh
- You can get these at outdoor goods vendors, specifically for this purpose
- Store the bag away from my sleeping area, preferably hanging
And now for the big one: bears. I have always followed bear safety while camping, though grudgingly, because I’ve never even seen a bear in my decades of camping – what are the chances one is going to attack me for my food? But then I saw The Revenant, and now I willingly complete my bear safety steps with the greatest attention to detail. Turns out, bears are scary.
Follow these steps to be safe from bears and create the famous “bear bag” by hanging your food from a tree where a bear can’t reach it.
- Cook, eat, and clean up meals at least 200 feet from your tent, preferably in a location downwind of your camp
- Before bed, collect ALL scented items
- ALL food
- Tooth pastes, lotions, candies from your pockets, etc.
- Put items into a sturdy bag
- Many people use the bag their tent is stored in or an official “bear bag”
- Walk 200 feet from your tent and cooking area
- Find a tree with a branch that sticks out perpendicular to the trunk at least 15 feet off the ground
- Tie the end of a rope at least 40 feet long to your bag
- Tie the other end of the rope to a rock about as large as your fist
- Throw the rock (with the rope attached) over the branch, at least 3 feet from the tree
- Go to the rock and pull the connected rope until the bag on the other side of the branch lifts 10 feet off the ground.
- Untie the rock and re-tie the rope to the tree trunk or some other sturdy anchor
It can be a pain to go through all these steps each night (especially when you forget the chocolate bar you had in your pocket right when you’re about to go to sleep and have to go do it all again, as a I inevitably always do), but if you’re in doubt about the importance of this, go watch The Revenant.
Now that you know how to safely prepare and store food while camping, you’re all set to have a relaxing and culinarily satisfying trip. Bon appétit and happy camping!