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Food Handling Safety Tips for Outdoor Encampments

by Gael Stirler

woman holding a raw chicken

Martha preparing dinner for Jesus by
Pieter Aertsen, Bridgeman Art Library


Hand-washing is the most important thing that you can do to keep you and your camp guests safe. Keep a jug of water, a bar of soap and clean towels handy to the kitchen and feast tent. Remind everyone to wash their hands before they sit down to eat. Don't eat in a camp that doesn't have an obvious hand-washing station. While cooking, wash your hands before and after handling food, especially meat. Remind your fellow workers to wash up before they assist you, don't take it for granted.

Reduce the need for ice chests as much as possible

I prefer to pack as little in the ice chests as I can get away with. That means choosing foods that are unlikely to spoil or are packaged for shelf storage. Now days you can buy cow or almond milk in sterile boxes. You can make or buy dehydrated fruit. Many items you keep at home in the fridge don't need refrigeration. For instance jelly, jams, preserved fruit, saurkraut, and pickles can go without refrigeration, as can high vinegar condiments like ketchup and mustard. Mayonaise will spoil if you don't keep it on ice but, you can buy it in little foil packets instead for camping. Potatoes, onions, garlic, squash, peppers, oranges, apples, and other firm fruits and vegetables can go without refrigeration. Leafy vegetables and herbs only need a cool environment.  Breads, pies and other baked goods, of course, should not be put in the cooler. You can keep cured meats like hard salami at room temperature until cut open. You can also plan your meals around canned or vacuum sealed meats like tuna, salmon, ham, chicken, and shredded beef. You can cut down on your need for cooler space by cooking some vegetarian dishes, too.

When you plan, choose recipes and ingredients that are better suited for camping and reduce your need for refrigeration. For instance you can choose to make biscuits from a mix or from flour, oil, and baking powder instead of using refrigerator biscuits or recipes that require buttermilk, cream or butter. Choose hard cheese, only grated as you need it, instead of mild shredded cheese; hummus or bean dip rather a sour cream dip; oil and vinegar instead of thousand island dressing. Wise choices can cut your ice needs in half.

Meat Storage

If you bring raw or frozen meat for cooking, do not store it in the same chest with lunch meat and vegetables. Uncooked meat should only be stored with other things that will be cooked to a high temperature before eating to avoid cross-contamination. The recipes in period cookbooks instruct you to parboil large roasts and game before cutting the meat into chunks. This was done to kill bacteria on the surface. Of course they didn't know about bacteria but, they knew parboiling kept them from getting sick. If you are concerned about bacteria on raw chicken or other meat, parboil it for 5 minutes before cutting it up. Bacteria on the surface rarely get inside a roast or chicken unless the meat is ground or chopped. That is why you don't hear of people getting sick from eating nicely grilled steaks but rare hamburgers can be very dangerous. Either way, when in doubt, a good rule of thumb is to cook meat to an minimum internal temperature of 165° F.

Pre-cooked meals

You might be considering making your meals ahead of time but you'll actually reduce your chances of foodborne illness if you make your meals from scratch, on-site, instead of cooking at home and storing them in bags in the ice chest. It only takes a little more time to cook on-site, and you'll make up for it in prep time at home, save space in the coolers, and best of all, the food will taste better. If you do make meals ahead of time, make sure that you reheat them above 165° F and hold them there for over 15 minutes.

Dairy, lunchmeat, and vegetables

While dairy, eggs, cheese and lunchmeats need less ice than raw meat, raw vegetables need even less. Celery, lettuce, tomatoes, spinach, kale, parsley, and other soft or leafy vegetables prefer a cool environment and will spoil faster if they come into contact with ice. For these vegetables  I use one or more ice chests cooled with a little blue ice or a bottle of frozen water. If I have to replace the ice, I put fresh ice cubes in a sealed bag so that they don't melt all over the vegetables.

 Woman with food
Christ in the House of Mary and Martha by
Vincenzo Campi (1536-1591),
Galleria Estense, Modena Italy


Uncooked eggs in the shell will keep safely for 2 weeks at room temperature or in a cool chest but, throw them out if they have any cracks. Hard cooked eggs in the shell will need refrigeration and will only last a week, unless they are shelled and then they will only last a couple days. So when it comes to eggs, it is best not to cook them until shortly before serving.

Cooler management

It is important to designate the chests with tape or by color as "cool", "cold", or "frozen" so you don't have to open them unless you need to and you won't put things back in the wrong chest. Drain off the ice melt daily and keep the ice in bags to reduce chances of cross-contamination.

Consolidate your food chests as you use things up. You can re-purpose an empty ice chest to store leftovers after consolidating. I keep the leftover chest extra cold and package the leftovers in single-serving size zipper bags so that they are easy to grab and reheat in boiling water. To be safe all leftovers should be reheated to 165°F rather than eating them cold.

To leave food out or not

Put food away as soon as you can when cooking, so you don't forget and leave it out too long. But how long is too long? Experts say food can be left out at room temperature (in the70s) for 2 hours but when you are camping it can get much hotter and bacteria can grow faster, so, that safe period will be shorter. On the other hand, bacteria grow slower at temperatures below 70° F and growth nearly stops below 50. This means food can be left out of an ice chest overnight if the temperature is below 45° F. Just beware of attracting varmints. Keep an eye on the thermometer and make your judgment accordingly.

Cleaning up

Have two cutting boards, one for raw meat and other foods that will be cooked to a temperature higher than 165° F, and one for anything that will be served raw or cooked to a lower temperature. Clean your cutting boards with a solution of bleach and water or in a pinch you can use vinegar. The acid will kill the harmful bacteria. Wash knives, bowls, and platters that have touched raw meat before using them for something else, as well.

Dirty dishes and tables are a breeding ground for bacteria. Make sure that there is plenty of hot water for washing and plenty of light in the scullery or no one will volunteer to clean dishes. It is best to have two or three people working together so the job is done quickly.  To be totally clean, have three tubs to wash everthing; one for hot (120°) soapy water for scrubbing the dishes, one for hot (120°) clean water for rinsing, and one for a quick dip in very hot, (170°) chlorinated water. But let's face it, that much hot water is difficult to manage when camping, so do your best.

Wash the knives first, one at a time to avoid getting cut. Then wash the drinking vessels, bowls and plates, followed by the rest of the seving bowls, cooking utensils and pots. Kitchen towels are a big source of cross-contamination so, air-drying is safer and easier. You can get utensil cups with drainage holes for flatware and racks for plates at restautant supply stores. I hang the pots on a rod I use as a pot rack. When the dishes are dry, put them away so they don't get dusty and wash all the food prep areas and cutting boards with chlorinated water.

Follow these simple food-handling steps and you will never have to worry about foodborne illness when camping.

 For more on Camping Safely see SCA and Faire Campsite Fire Safety

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