Camping Food Safety and Eating Well in the Woods

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A number of years ago my wife, her brother and I went for a long, leisurely paddle. We were two weeks into our paddle when one night I woke up sweating and trembling. I stumbled out of the tent, and crawled on my hands and knees through the night. About thirty feet from the tent I wretched my guts out and collapsed into the detritus. For the next 24 hours I was weak and dizzy, running hot and cold and unable to travel. At first my brother in law thought I was being a wuss – I could tell – until it hit him. After another day of being camp bound we decided we had to travel. We were still a week away from the our rendezvous. I soloed my boat, while my wife paddled her brother in his boat. He spent a good deal of time lying on his back on the packs feeling miserable. I remember how awful I felt under the hot sun, feeling weak and that my paddling efforts were getting me nowhere. The rocking of the boat just aggravated my dizziness, and I constantly felt like I was going to pitch overboard.

We were going down the Petawawa River, which has a number of campsites along the way with “thunder boxes” at them. For the uninitiated a thunder box is like an outhouse with no walls – a box with a hole in the top that you can sit on. Between the two of us, that final leg of our trip was a paddle from one thunder box to the next, as we went down the river.

Why am I telling you this? Because we need to talk about pathogens, toxins and other things that can make you ill while you are in the wilds.

I will probably never know, but I suspect that my brother-in-law and I had a bout of Giardiasis, commonly called Beaver Fever, which is caused by the Giardia lamblia parasite. Up until that time I had trusted the water from streams and lakes that were remote and untainted by human settlements and industry. Only once was I worried about the water I drank in the back country. A few years previous to the Petawawa incident we were traveling through Algonquin Park, and we crossed Grassy Bay. Grassy Bay is a massive bog that seems to go on forever. It was a hot, sunny day, and when we got to the end of the bog there was a beautiful, inviting stream with water tumbling over shining boulders, gushing down a hill. I was thirsty, so I took a long draft of water, and into about the third big swig I realized that something was wrong. The water was very warm, and it had an odd taste to it.

The portage followed the stream up a hill, and when we got to the top of it there was the stinkiest, stagnant, beaver slew, full of reeking, gelatinous water, covered in scum, feeding the stream. Yum!

Fortunately I didn’t experience any ill affects that time, which only reinforced my cavalier attitude toward water and its safety. If that didn’t make me sick then I must be impervious. It wasn’t until after the Petawawa trip I got really serious about staying healthy, and reducing risks in the bush. Tainted water is just one risk that we can avoid with a little knowledge and taking the right precautions.

Recently I was talking to a friend about camping food. He mentioned that he and his buddies took steaks on a canoe trip, and ate them on the fifth day. On this summer trip the weather was warm and, as on most canoe trips, there was no cooler. The steaks were marinated in zip lock plastic bags. They started out frozen, but soon thawed.

They took a huge risk. Food poisoning is serious. Food poisoning can kill you. That is not the worst of it. Food poisoning can leave you permanently debilitated. Food poisoning can ruin your joints and cripple you with arthritis, which is mild considering the fact that it can also paralyze or blind you. Food poisoning can also cause kidney failure, which leads to failure of other organs. It can also cause stroke and heart failure. While these consequences are very rare, do you really want to take extreme risks? Aren’t you just begging for trouble if you do? We need to understand the risks and how to avoid them.

PATHOGENS

Pathogens are the tiny micro-organisms that can cause disease. Pathogens generally make you ill by invading your body and reproducing in it. Others make you ill from the toxins they produce. The toxins are either in tainted food or they are produced by the bacteria inside your body. The pathogens that you have to be worry about are bacteria, viruses and parasites. Cross contamination and the danger of allergic reactions are other things we need to be concerned with.

Bacteria.

You might think that you can tell if a food has turned bad by the smell. However, pathogenic bacteria are odourless and tasteless. Bacteria grows when the conditions are right. It is astonishing how fast it can reproduce. It divides every twenty minutes, so one becomes two, and two become four, and four become eight, and so on. If you start with a penny, invest it and double that penny every day, could you retire at the end of the month? At the end of of thirty days you will have $5,368,709.12. Go ahead work it out. Bacteria is like that too. It adds up really fast.

Bacteria needs a few things to grow. First, it needs to be in a certain temperature range. The danger zone is between 4°C and 60°C ( 40°F and 140°F ). Inside this temperature range bacteria will flourish. Second, it needs moisture. Third, the pH of the environment has to be neutral, and finally, bacteria needs time to reproduce. That was the problem with the steaks. They are a great source of protein, their pH is neutral, they are moist, and 5 days in a backpack gives them plenty of time for pathogens to flourish. That is by far enough time to breed food borne illness. In fact, two hours at room temperature or above is enough time to make you ill. Remember, the pathogens we are talking about here are both odorless and tasteless.

One of the dangers of bacteria is, some can exist in a spore state. If it finds itself in an environment that is not conducive to reproduction, it can enter into the spore state. Spores are very hardy, and can survive extreme conditions. Viable 40 million year old spores have been found, meaning, in the right conditions they could become active living and reproducing bacteria again! If you ingest bacteria spores they are very dangerous.

Bacteria below 4°C does not die, but stops reproducing. It will also stop reproducing in environments between 60°C and 74°C. Temperatures above 74°C will kill most pathogenic bacteria. That is how you protect yourself from pathogenic bacteria in foods that potentially harbor them. Make sure your food is brought up to at least 75°C, and eat it soon after cooking.

The byproduct of bacteria reproduction can produce toxins, and not all toxins are destroyed by cooking. So cooking your food thoroughly is not fool proof. You can not take food that has turned and purify it with heat. One toxin producing bacteria that campers have to be concerned with is Bacillus cereus. It loves to reproduce in cooked rice. While rice is a staple on long haul canoe trips, and safe to pack in its dry state, always eat it soon after cooking.

Cross Contamination

One of the things you need to be concerned about in the wilderness is cross contamination. That fish that you caught and cleaned is not safe to eat until it is cooked properly. The knife that you used to clean the fish has pathogens from the raw fish on it. Make sure you clean that knife well before you let it come into contact with other food. That is usually how people are infected by cross contamination, when they transfer pathogens from one food to another with dirty utensils, or by placing food into a contaminated pot or dish.

Viruses

Viruses are passed on the same way bacteria is. One major difference between viruses and bacteria is, viruses can survive on inorganic surfaces for a long time. You only need one in your system to become ill. They invade a cell and turn that cell into an virus producing machine. The best way to protect from viruses is to keep things clean – your hands and your dishes.

Parasite

Most parasites, such as Giardia lamblia, get in to you mainly through an unsafe water supply. Ever since my episode on the Petawawa, I have used a good water filter. I tried iodine pills, but they shut down my digestive system and that made me ill. Fortunately I twigged on to what was happening right away. Bringing your water to a full rolling boil is the best way to purify it of parasites. Boiling it more is not helpful. Why loose water to evaporation and waste fuel?

It used to be thought that Giardia lamblia was not found in remote areas, but now it is known that it can be found everywhere, and it seems to be becoming more and more common.

To be very safe, make sure that you use clean water to wash dishes in and for brushing your teeth. Parasites can dwell on your hands for an extended amount of time, so make sure you wash your hands, particularly if you are going to be handling food.

Poison

Iodine is a poison. Some people can tolerate it more than others. I can’t. If you think you are going to use it, because filters are expensive and boiling water is a logistical hassle, try it before you leave home. If you feel nauseated after a couple of days of use or your tongue gets discolored, stop using it. Even if you decide to use it, make sure you use the right dose along the way.

Make sure your fuel bottles and medications are well labeled, so nobody ingests something poisonous by mistake.

When I was young and thought myself to be impervious to all things, I poisoned myself on a camping trip by eating a sandwich just after I had slathered myself with an insect repellent full of DEET. I didn’t wash my hands before eating. That stuff is wicked.

Allergies

I have heard sad, sad stories of kids dying of allergic reactions on camping trips, because someone brought something that the group was not supposed to have. Many people think that if you have an allergic reaction you break out in a rash and itch a lot. I had a friend whose son was allergic to peanuts. If someone at his son’s school sat at a desk and ate a granola bar with peanuts in it, and then his son merely sat at that desk two days later, he would probably die within fifteen minutes. The school had extremely strict rules about peanuts, as there were a few children that would react that way.

Whenever I go out with a group I survey everyone for allergies and inform the group of any concerns. Parents, don’t be shy. I took a big groups of kids down the French River once, and while I was doing my survey I kept on getting parents that would say, “Ya, well there is this little thing, but it is OK. We don’t want to talk about it.” It drove me crazy. Talk about it! We need to know. We are going to be in a place were there is no medical help. If there is the potential that you might have an allergic reaction or any kind of reaction to something on a trip make sure the others know how to help you.

Play It Safe

When you are on a long trip the safest food to bring are freeze dried and dehydrated foods. If you have a dehydrator you probably already know about the wonders of dehydrated food. I was amazed when I discovered that I could dehydrate soup! Pour a puddle of soup on to a Teflon sheet and run the dehydrator until all the liquid is gone. You are left with a crust on the sheet. Gently scrape that crust into a zipper lock bag or into a vacuum seal-able bag and seal it. You have soup that will last for months, as long as it is kept dry. Remember, if you remove one of the things that pathogens need, to thrive, such as moisture, you are safe. If you can dehydrate soup you can dehydrate just about anything. OK, you definitely can not dehydrate, butter, water or beer, so there are some limits.

If you do take up dehydrating your own foods, study the subject and do it right. Again, temperatures need to be reached and maintained to kill off any pathogens just as you would if you were cooking, so make sure you know what you are doing.

There also a great many freeze dried and dehydrated foods available on the market both in your supermarket and online. Dehydrated soups and pasta sauces are good examples of main stream dehydrated products. There are also specialty meals for the back country that are produced by various companies.

Certain things like pouches of mustard, relish and ketchup, the kind you get at fast food restaurants, have a good long shelf life too. That is because they have been homogenized to kill off pathogens and hermetically sealed while they are still well in the safe temperature zone. So if you plan a trip start eating lots of fast food and grab extra ketchup and mustard pouches. Did I just recommend eating fast food!!? Actually there are places online and otherwise where you can get these items.

So whether it is for just a couple of days or a month you plan to be in the wilderness, make sure you look after yourself. While serious and debilitating food poisoning and food related reactions are rare, back country travel can push the limits of what is safe. You are also in an environment where it is difficult to get help if you need it, so why tempt fate? Just do it right. It is so simple when it comes down to it. Wash your hands. Avoid cross contamination, and pack the right foods in the first place.

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