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Backcountry Food Handling and Hygiene

ArticleJune 14, 2011

riverside cookingReader Erich Volkstorf wrote in response to Ray Brooks’ excellent article, “What’s in the Water.” While he appreciated the good information on waterborne disease organisms, he suggested the need for education on other major sources of outdoor illness. Here’s some of what he had to say:

“While tainted drinking water is certainly a prominent source of illness from a backcountry experience, improper food handling represents a further major source of illness. Research has shown that ineffective personal hygiene results in outbreaks that are often blamed on contaminated drinking water. To fully inform backcountry users of this fact, I think it would be helpful to include this information with your article. The result will be a better educated public, and fewer back country related illnesses. Regards, Erich”

Very well said and an excellent point. Thank you, Erich, for your response. Here is some information on these important considerations for outdoor health:

Food Handling

  • Proper storage and transportation of food is vital in preventing food-borne illness. Foods that need to be refrigerated should be kept below 40°F. This means packing plenty of ice for the length of your trip and keeping good cooler discipline.
  • Open your coolers as infrequently as possible. On longer trips in warm weather, strapping a sleeping pad over a cooler adds a lot of extra insulation. You can also wrap the cooler in an absorbent material, keep it wet, and let the evaporative cooling action help save your ice. Freezing food before putting it in your cooler helps prolong safe cooler temperatures.
  • Freezing water in plastic jugs and containers is a clean way to carry ice. There’s no melting water to contend with and you can drink the water once it thaws. If you do have melt water in your cooler, it’s important to keep food from being contaminated by it. Store foods, especially raw meats, in leak-proof containers. Thoroughly wash ready-to-eat foods, like fruits and vegetables, which come in contact with the water. Adding a cooler shelf to your cooler will keep food up above the melt water.
  • Always wash your hands before and after handling food. Alcohol-gel hand sanitizers or disposable wipes work well if your hands are relatively clean. If they are dirty, wash them first with soap and water, using a hand wash system.
  • It’s best to use biodegradable soaps that are phosphate-free. However, biodegradable just means that they will eventually break down in the environment. Don’t put soap or detergents directly into a water source; dispose of soapy water at least 200 feet from the water. There’s an exception, some desert rivers recommend disposing of soapy water in the river, instead of on fragile land; check local regulations.
  • Raw meat, especially poultry and ground meats, present special concerns. Clean cutting boards and utensils that touch them with a bleach/water solution, and wash hands thoroughly after handling them. Never put cooked meats back on an unclean surface the raw product has touched.
  • Minimize the time you leave refrigerated foods outside the cooler. Never leave them out over an hour on a warm day.
  • Pack dry foods, like crackers, pasta, cookies, etc, in leak-proof containers and store them in dry boxes or ammo cans. If they do become contaminated with untreated water, either cook or dispose of them.
  • Never have people who are sick or have any sort of skin infection working in the kitchen. When sharing foods, such as trail mix or bagged chips, it’s best to pour food out into hands or other containers, rather than having everyone reach inside the bag. (Editor’s Note: I vividly remember one gross little study I read that revealed office candy dishes nearly always contain traces of ureic acid.)


  • washing dishesProper washing of dishes, utensils and cooking pots is very important. The National Park Service in the Grand Canyon recommends using a four-bucket system. NRS Big Basins work great for this, and they store compactly.
  • Wash your dishes in the order of cleanest first, dirtiest last. With this method you can use untreated river water. The first bucket contains cold, soapy water for a pre-wash. The second has hot, 120–140°F, soapy wash water. The third is a hot, again 120–140°F, rinse bucket. The fourth is a cold rinse, containing unscented household bleach at a 50-100 ppm chlorine concentration (1–2 tablespoons of bleach in 5 gallons of water should give that concentration; adjust the amount for smaller water volumes.).
  • Leave the dishes in the bleach rinse for at least a minute. Lay the dishes out on a table or tarp that has been sanitized with the bleach solution and allow to air dry. Strain the dishwater and dispose it properly. Use the bleach solution to rinse the other three buckets. (Editor’s Note: I’ve used this system for years. It’s easy and simple. The bleach odor dissipates in the drying process.)
  • If you’re camping out of kayaks, inflatable kayaks or are backpacking, the four bucket method may not be practical. In that case, use treated water to wash your dishes. Do a good job of cleaning out food particles; you can pre-scrub with sand. Wash first with warm soapy water, then rinse in a bleach/water solution and air dry.

Personal Hygiene

  • If we haven’t emphasized it enough already, we’ll say it again: wash and sanitize your hands often, especially after using toilet systems.
  • When brushing teeth, swish some drinking water in your mouth before spitting, to avoid the white “seagull droppings” look. Also, toothpaste should be disposed of like you would soapy water.
  • Feet cooped up in wet booties or wetsocks can end up with fungal infections (commonly called “the munge” or “toelio”). Wash them at night and let them dry out. It can help to apply anti-fungal ointments and to cover feet with clean socks before going to bed. Again, wash/sanitize hands afterwards.

It’s Not Hard

Taking these precautions is easy; it soon becomes second nature. Include instructions in following these principles in your pre-trip safety talk, and remind your fellow boaters when you see them getting lax. It’s no fun being sick at any time, but doubly bad when you’re in the backcountry.

Boat often, stay healthy and have a safe trip!

Editor’s Note: Katrina asked for more detail on the four-bucket dishwashing system. Here’s my reply to Katrina, giving some extra info on the process.


I started using this method on my first Grand Canyon trip, with info supplied by the Park Service. At that time, their info packet gave an actual volume of bleach to add to the final rinse. Now they’re giving the concentration in ppm of chlorine in the bleach rinse solution – you’d have to get a kit of some sort to measure that, perhaps from a swimming pool maintenance company, or online or wherever.

Personally, I’ve just put a couple of capfuls (~2 tablespoons) from the bleach bottle in the final rinse. When treating drinking water with bleach, it’s recommended that you add 8-10 drops per gallon of clear water. So, the “couple of capfuls” are way in excess of that concentration (there are approximately 60 drops in a teaspoon and 3 teaspoons in a tablespoon). I’d err on the side of more if the water you’re using has a lot of particulate matter or if you know it’s downstream of municipal or livestock contamination.

The process I like to use is to gather the clearest river water available for the four buckets, add some soap to the first bucket and dump the dishes in to soak. Fill buckets two and three part-way and put water on the stove to heat. Add bleach to bucket four, mix it well. This gives the chlorine time to work while the water is heating. Then, before starting to wash the dishes, clear off a Roll-A-Table and thoroughly clean the top with paper towels soaked in the fourth bucket bleach solution. One important note: use fresh bleach; it will lose strength over time.

Pre-scrub the dishes in the cold first bucket, wash thoroughly in the second hot soapy bucket, rinse in the third hot rinse bucket, then put in the fourth bleach solution bucket. Leave the dishes in the bleach bucket for a minimum of a minute. Then arrange them on the Roll-A-Table so that air can circulate around them, allowing them to air dry. The chlorine will dissipate in the drying process. In the morning gather the dishes up and start your day!

Ray Brooks, author of the What’s in the Water article, has another dishwashing system that he recommends. Here’s what he has to say:

I totally agree with Erich Volkstorf that improper food handling and poor hygiene cause a lot of illness on river trips. Unfortunately, I am not a fan of the four tub wash process described, for several reasons. Cysts of the protozoan, Cryptosporidium, are not quickly killed by chlorine bleach. With cold and dirty water, even high concentrations of chlorine may not kill Cryptosporidium cysts.

The best example I can offer of this is all the Cryptosporidium outbreaks that have happened in swimming pools in Idaho & Utah (as well as the rest of the world) in recent years. Here’s a link to a CDC site that has some testing results.

For our dish-washing pleasure we use a different system:

  1. With left-over napkins or paper towels we first clean all large food particles and grease off each plate and utensil. (Note: That napkin was headed for the trash anyway, and a thorough swab down can help eliminate having to strain the particulate back out of the wash water.)
  2. Just one warm soapy wash tub, using filtered or boiled water. This tub won't get very dirty or greasy, because almost all food and grease has been removed with pre-cleaning.
  3. The final tub contains water that has been boiled for one minute. Testing shows that boiling water for at least one minute kills all harmful organisms. At elevations above 6,000 feet, increase boiling time to three minutes. Your dishes won't come out as greasy as they might from a large group’s four tub system and there won't be any Cryptosporidium cysts clinging to them.

In sensitivity to the river environment, dumping gallons of dirty or greasy soapy water and chlorine contaminated water near the river corridor does not seem like a great idea. Our process reduces the load dumped enormously. (We still strain our waste water, but there’s rarely anything in the strainer).

My other comments on the final rinse being cold water with chlorine are:

  1. Unless you do the rinsing with rubber gloves on, you may find the chlorine dries out your skin to the point where it will crack and bleed.
  2. Chlorine is a nasty chemical to have around. One errant splash in someone’s eye can ruin a trip.

So there you have it. Just as with most things in life, there are multiple ways to get the job done. As my dear ol’ Southern Mom used to say, “There’s more than one way to choke a cat to death… besides on butter!”


Editor’s Note: Reader Chris Manley wrote in with some feedback on the dishwashing subject. In addition to being an avid rafter and kayaker, Chris is a Registered Environmental Health Specialist. Here’s what he had to say:

“I enjoyed reading your article on food safety in the last e-news letter. I am an avid rafter/kayaker, NRS customer and work as a food inspector in Colorado. The information you provided was accurate and is an excellent source for your customers. Many commercial outfitters that offer meals as part of half- or full-day trips could take some pointers from you as well! After reading about the four bucket system, I thought I would write you an email regarding a simplification to the process that would remain equally effective.

“One bucket can easily be eliminated. Moreover, equipment and utensils washed in three buckets as I explain below is a method most restaurants utilize in their 3-compartment sinks. In sum, simply eliminate the cold pre-wash in soapy water. You mentioned this method for those with less space (kayaks or backpacking), however, it is important to retain the clean water rinse between soapy water and the sanitizer (chlorine). Soap and particles transferred to the sanitizer will render it ineffective very quickly.

“It is also important to keep the level of sanitizer at the 50-100 ppm level you recommended. The reader comment following your article follows the "more can't hurt" is a good one, regarding using water of questionable quality and ensuring adequate sanitizer levels, but more can also be very dangerous, and leave residues that air drying does not remove.”

Editor’s Note: More good input. Chris makes an excellent point about minimizing the soap and food particle transfer to the final sanitizer rinse. If you do choose to use the four (or three) bucket system, I think Ray Brooks’ suggestion about removing as much of the food debris and grease as possible before starting the wash process is excellent advice.