Food poisoning is no fun at the best of times, but it can be a major problem if you are camping or bushwalking and away from the convenience of toilets, hand basins and medical help. It is more prevalent in warm weather but can happen at any time of the year. Prevention is always better than cure and you can minimise the risk of getting food poisoning by being especially cautious about choosing the food you bring along, storing it at the correct temperature and being particular about how you handle it.
Choosing food to bring with you
The foods you choose for your camping or bush walking trip will depend on the type of food storage you have available, how much you can carry and whether safe water is available to add to foods.
- Dry, UHT and canned products. Bush walkers usually rely on dried or freeze-dried foods which are safe and have the advantage of low weight and bulk. If you are bush walking, pack your dried foods so they won’t get wet if it rains.
- Canned food is safe to keep at room temperature but it tends to be too heavy to carry in any quantity when bush walking.
- Hard cheeses can be taken without refrigeration, or in an insulated cooler, but avoid taking fresh, unmatured soft cheeses unless you have access to refrigeration.
- Fresh fruit and vegetables can be taken, but in warm weather some will deteriorate quickly so you may need some extra dried or canned varieties for later use.
Most foods in cans or jars cannot be stored out of refrigeration once opened. Make sure that you buy containers small enough so that all the food is used up in one meal.
Foods you can safely take with you
- Dried foods
- Canned and packaged food
- Canned vegetables & fruit
- Canned or packet soups
- Powdered milk
- Canned or packet meals
- Fresh fruit
- Dried fruit and vegetables
- Baked and other canned beans
- Fresh vegetables
- Breakfast cereals
- Pasta and other sauces (in jars)
- Butter and margarine
- Pickles and relishes
- Hard cheese
- Freeze dried foods
- Canned meats and spreads
- Instant noodles
- Canned fish
- Honey and jam
- Fruit bars
- Long life milk, cream and custard
- Tea, coffee and other powdered drinks
- Long life stocks and soups
- Custard powder
- Long life fruit juices
- Packet meals
- Processed cheese
- Stock cubes, herbs and spices
- Tubes of condensed milk
- Jerky and other dried meats
Perishable foods such as raw and cooked meats, poultry, chilled ready to eat foods, dairy foods and cooked eggs are generally unsuitable for camping holidays unless you have access to a refrigerator. If you have a cooler that depends on ice or ice bricks for cooling, you should not keep such foods, for more than one day unless the cooler is able to hold the temperature of the food at or below 5 degrees Celsius.
If you are relying on dried food, make sure that you have access to enough safe water to rehydrate any food that will not be thoroughly cooked before consumption. Remember, water, even in remote and pristine wilderness is not necessarily safe and can be contaminated by animal faeces and naturally occurring parasites like Giardia. Unless you are sure that the water is safe, you should boil all water for at least one minute (a little longer if you are at high altitudes), or disinfect it in some way before drinking it or using it in powdered drinks or other uncooked foods.
Avoid creating leftovers: discard them unless you can store them at or below 5 °C until they are eaten.
If you are going bush walking overnight, you can take a frozen pre-prepared meal (eg stew or casserole) or frozen raw meat for cooking, provided that you eat it on the first night. Package the raw meat well so that the juices do not contaminate the rest of your food and bury the package deep in your backpack for extra insulation. Cook or reheat well.
Always defrost any frozen food in a cooler or refrigerator when camping.
Using coolers and eskies
- Insulation properties and ease of cleaning are the two most important factors in choosing a cooler.
- Don’t pack food if it has just been cooked or is still warm. Coolers cannot cool food enough to prevent bacteria growing.
- Meat and chicken juices can easily leak onto other food in a cooler – make sure you package any raw meat, fish and chicken in leak proof containers and place them on the bottom of the cooler and away from ready to eat food.
- To keep foods cool use freezer bricks, frozen gel packs or containers with frozen water (a brine solution of 5 parts water to one part of salt freezes at a lower temperature than water). Many campgrounds have fridges in camp kitchens where you can refreeze bricks and gel packs. Do not use loose ice unless foods are stored in water proof containers. This will prevent ice contaminating foods in the cooler as well as wetting the food. Periodically you should pour out the water formed and replace it with fresh ice.
- Pack as much as you can in the frozen state – e.g. milk, juices etc. These will help keep the other foods cool but remember, unless you have refrigeration they will need to be eaten as soon as they thaw out.
- Organise your food in the cooler to limit the times the cooler is opened. Consider using separate coolers for food and drinks if the cooler will constantly be opened for drinks.
- If possible, fill any excess space in your cooler with frozen drinking water. The fuller the cooler, the longer it will hold its temperature.
- When you have chosen your camping site, get your cooler out of the car into the shade as soon as possible. Keep it out of the sun. Take a hint from our ancestors and cover the cooler with a wet-bag to promote evaporative cooling.
Car fridges and electric coolers
Portable fridges and electric coolers are also now available and may be useful if you are travelling by car. A ‘Choice’ magazine study of portable fridges found that, in some models, setting the temperature and maintaining it was difficult when the environment temperature changed. Food could, therefore, freeze or become too warm.
Electric coolers are not refrigerators and have a limited cooling capability (usually about 30 degrees C below the environment temperature). Therefore, they can only be used for short periods of storage in hot weather.
It’s a good idea to have a fridge thermometer in your cooler or portable fridge to check on the temperature.
Make sure the power supply is constant. When camping, you might need to find an alternate power supply so your car battery isn’t drained.
Cooking and reheating
- Take a meat thermometer and use it to check that you always cook poultry, stuffed meats, sausages, offal, leftovers and minced meat such as hamburger to 75°C in the centre.
- Steaks, chops and whole pieces of meat should be cooked to 63 °C (medium rare) and left to stand for 3 minutes. Use a clean plate and clean utensils for cooked meat.
- Never re-use the same plates and utensils that you used for the raw meat without washing and drying them thoroughly.
- And another reminder, always beware of any current fire restrictions if you cook on an open fire.
Drinking water and water for rehydrating food to be eaten without further cooking
- Not all camp sites have safe drinking water so either bring your own bulk clean water for drinking, washing raw food or for rehydrating food to be eaten without further cooking.
- You can also bring water to the boil which will make it safe. Boiling water is the most effective method of disinfection. Chemical methods, such as sterilising tablets, may not kill some parasitic organisms (giardia amoeba, and cryptosporidium) so ensure you follow instructions carefully.
- Always wash hands with soap and dry them thoroughly after going to the toilet (or use disposable wipes or hand sanitiser) and wash again before handling food.
- Set up a dedicated hand washing station near your camp site when facilities are limited or a long way from camp.
- Keep utensils used for preparing raw foods well away from ready-to-eat foods. Wash them thoroughly in between use and remember to wash your hands prior to handling food.
- Always wash hands and dry them thoroughly after going to the toilet as it is just as important when you are camping as it is when you are at home. Use disposable wipes if necessary. Don’t forget to take this rubbish back out with you when you leave.
- Cover food and store food off the ground to protect it from insects, animals and dust.
- Keep your campsite clean. Birds and animals can be a source of food poisoning bacteria so don’t leave food, dirty utensils, food scraps and rubbish lying about to attract them. Food scraps and rubbish should be kept in a bin or bag that can be sealed. Keep utensils, cutlery and cooking equipment clean to help prevent birds and animal from being interested in your campsite.
You need to dispose of rubbish and waste water carefully because they can attract pests and contaminate food and water. All rubbish should be but in bags and kept away from food. Tip wash-up and other waste water in any designated site or at least well away from water sources such as lakes and rivers.