Keep Food Safe While Enjoying Outdoor Activities

Posted: June 30, 2012

Many of us participate in outdoor activities during the summer months. Hiking, boating and fishing are just some of the activities we can enjoy...

Often food is part of our summer outdoor outings which means we need to keep food safety in mind to prevent foodborne illness. Below are some tips to keep food safe while enjoying the outdoors.

The biggest challenge in packing foods for an outdoor activity is to keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. Hot foods must be kept above 140 degrees F. and cold foods below 40 degrees F. This temperature range is known as the “danger zone.”  These are temperatures in which bacteria will multiply rapidly so food should not be kept in this zone for longer than 2 hours.

Since it is difficult to keep foods hot without a heat source, 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. Some examples of non-perishable foods include: peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, fresh fruits and vegetables, dried fruit and nuts, beef jerky and other dried meats, unopened canned meat spreads, and prepackaged cheese and crackers.  (Note that once canned meats are opened they must be kept cold.)

If you’re planning on taking a cooler, keep in mind that 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, a small bowl of potato salad). In the car, put the ice chest in the air-conditioned passenger section, not in the trunk.

At the picnic site, insulate the cooler with a blanket, tarp, or poncho. Put perishables back on ice as soon as you finish eating. Don't let food sit out while you hike or fish. When the 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.

Remember, when in doubt, throw it out! Another food safety principle is to keep everything clean, so always wash your hands before and after handling food. Washing hands with soap and warm water are ideal, but these are usually not readily available when partaking in outdoor activities. An alternative is to use disposable wipes or sanitizing lotion.
Karen Thomas is a family and consumer sciences educator for Penn State Extension of Lackawanna County.