Sometimes you just have to get out and walk around in the solitude and beauty of the country. You may want to hike for just a few hours, or you may want to hike for a few days. One meal and some snacks are all that’s needed for a short hike. Planning meals for a longer hike requires more thought. You have to choose foods that are light enough to carry in a backpack and that can be transported safely.
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 to 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.
The second principle is to keep everything clean, so remember to bring disposable wipes if you are taking a day trip. (Water is too heavy to bring enough for cleaning dishes!)
Safe Drinking Water
It is not a good idea to 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 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 when possible. 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. Before heating, muddy water should be allowed to stand for a while to allow the silt to settle to the bottom. Dip the clear water off the top and boil. 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 lamblia, 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 (just don’t confuse the two). Water purification tablets, filters, and sanitizing tablets can be purchased at camping supply stores.
What Foods to Bring?
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. Advances in food technology have produced relatively lightweight staples that don’t need refrigeration or careful packaging. For example:
- peanut butter in plastic jars;
- concentrated juice boxes;
- canned tuna, ham, chicken, and beef;.
- dried noodles and soups;
- beef jerky and other dried meats;
- dehydrated foods;
- dried fruits and nuts; and
- powdered milk and fruit drinks.
Powdered mixes for biscuits or pancakes are easy to carry and prepare, as is dried pasta. There are plenty of powdered sauce mixes that can be used over pasta, but check the required ingredient list. Carry items like dried pasta, rice, and baking mixes in plastic bags and take only the amount you’ll need.
Cooking at Camp
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. For chicken, cook breasts or cutlets to 170 °F; legs and thighs to 180 °F. Pork should be cooked to 160 °F. Heat hot dogs and any leftover food to 165 °F. Be sure to clean the thermometer between uses.
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. Some wilderness campers use baking soda to wash their utensils. Pack disposable wipes for hands and quick cleanups.
- Baked Potatoes in Foil
- Campfire Banana Boat
- Campfire S'mores
- Corn on the Cob with Husks
- Hobo Burgers
- Campfire Trout
This module uses text from the public domain U.S. Department of Agriculture article Food Safety While Hiking, Camping & Boating.