Suggestions for keeping food safe while camping

Ask Peggy

Peggy Woodward, RD

Dear Peggy: I'm planning a camping trip, and we'll be without electricity for up to 4 days. Do you have some suggestions for keeping food safe? —L.S., Dallas, Texas

Keeping perishable food safe for that length of time may be too difficult, especially if the weather is warm.

It's a common misconception that a good, hot fire will kill anything that might cause food poisoning. The truth is that some food-borne pathogens produce toxins that aren't killed even when heated in a fire. While the pathogens' growth might slow under intense cooking heat, the toxins they've already produced will remain. So it is important to keep cold foods cold until you're ready to use them.

Here are a few tips to keep in mind while you are camping:

  • Pack your cooler with frozen or already-cooled foods, and use blocks of ice. Freeze water in clean empty milk jugs—they last longer than ice cubes.
  • Use a separate cooler for perishable foods, and open it only when necessary. Put food you'll use first near the top. The exception is raw meat, which should be double wrapped and stored near the bottom to prevent meat juices from dripping onto other foods.
  • Store the cooler under a shade tree and insulate it with a blanket or tarp.
  • Use an instant-read food thermometer to ensure meat and poultry are cooked to the correct temperature.
  • Plan to use perishable foods in the first 2 days. Pack non-perishable foods—things like peanut butter, canned tuna or meat, beef jerky, nuts or packaged convenience meals—for the last part of your camping trip.
  • When ice has melted, throw away all perishables—it's an indication that your cooler is no longer cool enough to safely store food.

 
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