by Diane Spicer
Dayhike food safety involves smart food preparation and technology to keep your hiking food at temperatures that prevent bacterial growth and spoilage.
No need to get into the microbiologic nitty gritty.
But there's a definite need to be smart about how to prepare, transport and consume your trail food on a long, hot day hike.
Everyone needs to know how to pack a lunch for a warm day hike that won't end up creating digestive problems.
But there are three ways to approach the problem of food safety as a day hiker.
Let's see which one resonates with you.
One line of thinking says go for convenience and a low risk of dayhike food safety issues:
If your non-refrigerated trail food is pre-packaged and prepared in commercial kitchens with high levels of safety and quality control, you can consume your lunch with a high degree of confidence that it won't make you sick on hot day hikes.
Other food that will make good unchilled lunch fixings on a hot day hike:
You can find handy little lunch kits and make a delicious sandwich right before you consume it.
Then there's no need to wonder if the temperature was stable and appropriate during your trail time.
Make your own ideas:
You might be thinking about how enjoyable a deliciously thick sandwich piled high with tuna fish, avocado, and cheese tastes after a long morning on the trail.
But you don't want to pack all the ingredients & make it on the trail, you just want to bite into it when you're famished.
I'm right there with you!
But let's be smart about how to prepare and store that perishable food on your long, hot day hike.
I'm going to throw a little science at you here.
It won't hurt, I promise. (You can always "duck" down to the tips using this link.)
Two important words for dayhike food safety:
At home, that's easy to do because you have easy access to soap, water and refrigeration.
On the trail? Not so much.
So it's doubly important to make sure your food is uncontaminated with microbes at home, and that you either freeze it before your hike, or store it in the refrigerator until you leave for your hike.
The U.S. government shares food safety tips for outdoor activities including dayhiking in these resources:
If your hiking plans require your hiking lunch to sit unrefrigerated two
hours or less before you eat it, you probably don't need to take extreme
precautions to keep it chilled once it's out of the freezer or frig.
Two caveats to that statement:
There are two dayhike food safety issues with freezing sandwiches and other trail food.
Let's tackle the more sinister one first.
Bacteria, mold and other microbes will go into suspended animation when they're frozen in your meats, cheeses and sandwich fillings.
As your food thaws in your lunch bag, they start multiplying. And they multiply fast, creating a new generation of trouble makers every 20 - 60 minutes.
Now for the palatability (taste, texture) of frozen food that thaws as you hike.
Sliced meats and cheeses between bread slices will still look and taste pretty good if they've been frozen.
All bets are off for your sandwich enhancements such as mayonnaise, creamy dressing, eggs, avocado, lettuce and tomatoes. Can you say soggy mess three times fast?
Here's the approach I use to keep my fresh foods chilled during hot weather day hiking.
I use a neoprene thermal insulated food bag, like this one, for these reasons:
Read my Hydro Flask insulated food tote review for an example of a worthy 8 liter day hike lunch carrier.
The night before my hike, I make my sandwiches and other fresh treats, and pack up this food bag. Then I store the bag in the refrigerator, so it's nicely chilled when I grab it in the morning.
But I'm not done yet with my dayhike food safety approach!
Before I put the lunch bag into my pack, I insert two very thin freezer gel packs, one at the bottom of the sack and one on the side that will face toward the outside of the pack (most likely to have sun hitting it).
These Coleman chill packs work great, because:
If you handle them gently, you'll be in business for a long time for a low cost.
If you pre-chill your entire lunch as recommended above, and add these little chill packs at the last possible minute before leaving for the trail head, they should keep your food chilled up to 4 hours.
Don't just throw these into the freezer, because they will assume whatever shape they happen to land in.
Trail tip: Use these cold packs to cool down hot spots on your feet, legs and joints during, and after, your hike. Or just enjoy their cool sensation on your hot forehead as you hike along.
I hear you! I also have some ideas for you:
For more dayhike food ideas, read this.
Lightweight plastic wrap works great for most day hike food.
But if it's extra juicy, use a snap lid plastic container, and put it into a sealable plastic bag as a precaution.
I take one final thermal precaution with my dayhike food safety approach:
A bit of added thermal insulation never hurts, right?
Lunch time trail tip:
Use a moist hand wipe or a squirt of hand sanitizer before you handle your food.
It would suck if you went to all of the trouble to keep the food safe but swallowed microbes from your own dirty hands on the trail, wouldn't it?
Unbelievable as it may be, it's possible to show signs of food borne bacterial sickness within half an hour of consuming contaminated food.
Or it might be 1 to 3 days after you eat the food.
Regardless of the time span, these bacteria are not shy about letting you know they're in your gastrointestinal tract:
But you can avoid this whole scenario by utilizing these dayhike food safety tips!
If you've read this far, you know a lot of dayhike food safety precautions you can take for your next hot weather day hike.
And you know a bit of the science behind keeping trail food safe in hot conditions.
For some tips on clean drinking water on the trail, read my Lifestraw Go water bottle/filter review here.
But if you have any questions, please feel free to use the Ask A Question link and I'll happily answer them.
Here's a quick recap:
While it's important to keep your fresh food safe on a hot day hike, it's also a good idea to prepare your body and your hiking gear for high temperatures.
As they say at the USDA, chill out!
Dayhike Food Safety
About the author
Diane is the founder of Hiking For Her.
She's been on a hiking trail somewhere in the world for 5+ decades & loves to share her best hiking tips right here.
All rights reserved.
Photo credits: All photos on this website were taken by David Midkiff or Diane Spicer except where noted.
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