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How to Store Food While Camping: 15 Best Tips

Last Updated: September 1, 2022
Close-up on intermediate climber tying her shoelace

Planning a camping trip, whether you are backpacking for a week or checking out a new trail for a night, will be the key to your success in winning the fight against wild animals to keep both you and your food safe in the backcountry.

Part of this planning is learning about food storage while camping, and how to do it well. Improper food storage is what often results in unwanted encounters in bear country. 

These food storage, food handling, and food preparing tips will up your safety level out in the great outdoors. It can be a bit overwhelming, but you’ll have a great food routine down in no time that keeps scents and big and small animals away from your camp.

Take the time to nail down every last bit of your camping checklist and go to sleep with peace of mind. 

Key Takeaways
  • Food can quickly spoil while camping if not taken care of, so using a cooler and being careful with food handling are important.
  • When packing your cooler for a camping trip, make sure to pack plenty of ice packs to keep your food fresh.
  • Fecal-oral germ transmission is a common issue when camping and can easily be avoided by washing hands thoroughly.
  • Handling raw meat while camping can be difficult, so it's best to try and prepare meals before going.
  • Never cut vegetables on a surface that has raw meat residue as this can transmit disease.
  • Keep food from spoiling by storing it in a cooler and keeping it at around 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

Refrigerated Food Products

Depending on your destination, you may be able to make a meal list that your friends will talk about for ages. Often, these more intricate, and even simple, meals require foods that can easily go bad if you aren’t practicing proper food storage. This is where a car camping cooler comes in handy. If you’re car camping, make some extra space and throw one cooler in the trunk with plenty of ice blocks, then pack around that. If you need more ice for a longer trip, make sure to save space.

One good tip for bringing refrigerated foods camping is to cook before you go. Cooking any perishables before heading out to the woods will increase the food’s shelf life and help you to avoid any harmful bacteria that can easily grow on cheese, fresh vegetables, bananas, other fruits, and especially meat. Pre-cooking pasta and rice can make things faster once you’re at the campsite, but it will need to be in the cooler before you go.

Non-Refrigerated Food Products

If you’re planning and having room for a camping cooler, don’t waste that precious space with your non-perishables. Any non-perishable food items (ie, pasta, rice, peanut butter, trail mix, tuna packets, etc.) can easily be stored in a bear canister or bear-proof bag kept away from camp. If you aren’t in bear country, store these food items in a plastic or cloth bag, and then hang them up away from camp. This way you keep the precious cooler space wide open for all of your perishable meals. 

Good camping food isn't just food that will stay forever. Camping food is dependent on you and how much effort you want to put into taking care of your package of hot dogs or other foods that can spoil quickly. If you put a lot of work into food storage, you can eat well while car camping or on any camping trip.

15 Best Tips and Safety Advices to Store Food While Camping

As we dive straight into our list of how to store food while camping, keep in mind that rules and regulations for how to store food vary as you cross state and country lines. Pay attention to your local area and what the rangers or parks recommend as they typically have a greater understanding of the area. That being said, most of our tips here will help you out no matter where you are camping and are the best practice for just about any site! 

Don’t Overpack

The best prevention starts before your trip even begin. Proper packing will save you a load of worry and stress once you’re out on your trip. Camping is meant to be a relaxing time rather than a weekend filled with worry over not being able to find the meal in your food supply that you packed for Saturday. Also, the more food you bring, the more things you have that will attract animals. It’s best to minimize this risk with a clean, neat campsite, and a well-organized food bag or bear canister.

A lot of people go camping and think, “it can’t hurt to bring this...and this...and this…” This mindset tends to be more destructive than it is helpful. You quickly find yourself overridden with items that you’ll never have a use for, unless you’re planning a quick yard sale at the campground. You don't need to carry food just as extra weight.

Create a quick camping checklist before you head out and look it over thoroughly. Ask yourself how likely it is that you will be able to eat six rib eyes in the two nights that you are camping, and make some eliminations. 

Check The Campground Rules

Many campgrounds that you find in a heavy bear territory often provide food lockers to store your food inside of. Backcountry sites often have lines strung up for a quick and easy bear hang. A lot of different national parks and forests have their own regulations for food storage inside their boundaries. Some require a bear canister while some allow a bear bag. Even a bear hang will do the trick in a lot of areas.

Be sure to check what each campground or region requires of you before heading out. If you get to camp without the necessary storage containers, you could easily find yourself with a big fine that you don’t want. These measures are in place strictly for safety reasons and should be followed to the T. 

Don’t Create Highly Scented Garbage

When you’re cooking in a campground, it needs to be rather different than your typical at-home cooking. At home, you can toss anything you want into the trash and not worry about critters finding their way into your bedroom. At camp, you need to be conscious of the trash that you are producing while cooking and even more conscious of how you store that trash. 

For example, any amount of trash that’s created from the meat will start to go rancid quickly. These smells are overpowering and will make their way into any hungry creature’s nose before anything else. A good way to avoid creating this kind of garbage is to cook any meat before leaving home. Keep it in the cooler, and simply reheat it before eating. There won’t be any chicken or fish bones sitting in your trash forming a cloud of stench that animals seek out. 

Any food waste is likely to become a smelly feast for bears and other animals to seek out. Your camping trip can be filled with good food shared around the picnic table, but avoiding overcooking can save you hassle with smelly trash later on.

Don’t Forget Hidden Scents

There are plenty of scented items that can easily be overlooked. While it isn’t technically food, things like your toothbrush and toothpaste can just as easily attract an animal to your camp. When you crawl into your tent at night and find a tube of scented chapstick in your pocket, it’s worth the work to get that put away into a safe place where you have your other food stored. These little things are often what lead to incidents that you hear about in the news. 

Use Bear Bags and Bear Canisters

Bear bags and bear canisters have been designed to be “bearproof”. In the same way, a rain jacket is waterproof, any bear-proof container should be viewed more as “bear-resistant”. The testing for these storage containers is thorough, but bears and other animals get smarter and smarter as humans develop their own technology. There are recordings of bears easily opening bear canisters, bear bags, and even car doors. 

While we try to outsmart the bear and other animals, it’s not a foolproof plan. Because of this, we need to take multiple precautions to help keep our food, and ourselves, safe. Use a bear bag or a bear canister, but also put these into a bear hang. If you don’t have a tree, bury the canister or bag under a large stack of rocks far away from camp. Do anything you can to keep the bears away. 

Avoid Foods With Strong Smells

Have you ever cooked fish or maybe a curry and smelled it in your kitchen the next day? There are certain foods that love to latch on to the space around them and linger for days on end. These are exactly the foods that you want to avoid cooking, or at least take extra precautions with while camping.

This isn’t a hard and fast rule to never eat things like fish while out camping. People obviously do this all the time. Fishing and cooking your catch over the fire is one of the best ways to spend a weekend out. This is just a tip to be conscious of the smells that you are creating while cooking, and maybe choose some less strongly scented foods while making your shopping list. 

Keep Your Distance

One of the biggest mistakes that people can easily make is one of the easiest to fix. If you want to avoid animals coming into your camp, or that of your fellow campers, cook away from where you sleep. No matter where you are camping, there should always be a hard and fast rule that says no to cooking in camp. Pick up your stove, walk 200 feet away from camp, and set up a nice little “kitchen” area that you can spend your evening in. 

If your food does attract animals, they will be led to a spot away from where you are sleeping. There’s nothing worse than being woken up to the sound of a big animal creeping around your tent, or even little mice running across your sleeping bag. These are the most simple fixes to make out there, just pick it up and move.

Hang Your Food in a Tree 

The bear hang is one of the more effective methods of storing food in bear country, when it’s done right that is. This gets the food bag up off the ground and out of reach of any creatures small or large. Even a bear canister should be hung up to keep it out of reach. Proper food storage can be a lot of work.

First, pick a spot that’s separate from where you are camping and where you cooked. This should form a triangle of sorts, never putting your sleeping spot in a direct line between the kitchen and your bear hang. Find a tree that will allow you to hang your food at least ten feet off of the ground and six to eight feet away from the trunk of the tree. 

Black bears, and some brown bears, are excellent climbers. Black bears use this as an escape method when they are threatened, and often find food up high in trees. Because of this, you need to be extra careful with how you hang your food. A black bear can easily climb up a tree and reach out a few feet to grab your cache. When hung properly, they won’t be able to reach it from any angle.

There is a variety of bear hang methods and food storage that you need to research before heading out. If you’ve never done a bear hang before, it’s highly recommended that you grab some P-cord and practice a bit before the real deal. This is a skill that takes some time to get down, but some methods are simple enough to get right on your first try. 

Wash Any Highly Scented Packaging Before Throwing It Away

Along with creating less highly-scented trash, washing the packaging of food before putting it in a plastic bag for the garbage can be beneficial. If you are camping near a stream, a quick dunk of a wrapper will take most of the scent downstream rather than back to camp. Just be sure that you aren’t letting the whole wrapper go downstream with it. 

This doesn’t need to be done for every piece of plastic packaging that you have with you, just for the smellier bits of trash. For example, beef jerky, cheese, and any perishable items often leave a lot of scent on their wrappers. Even if you are car camping, washing things off before putting them in your choice of food storage will help keep everything's smell down.

Strain Your Dishwater and Dispose of It Away from Campsites, Trails, and Water Sources

Cleaning up can create just as many smells as cooking, eating your food, and your food storage. Dishwater is another easily forgotten piece of the puzzle of how to store food while camping.

When you wash up, little bits of food are certain to get into your gray water. Creating a small “sump” system will help to strain out all of these food particles so you don't leave food all-around a national park. A small mesh net will work well for this purpose so you don’t turn the campground into a big dump. Respect other campers by properly getting rid of your food scraps.

Moving the dishwater away from camp, and your fresh water source, is another important part of this. If everyone is dumping their dishwater near camp, sooner or later bears and other critters will be drawn towards the scent. If everyone does their part, we can keep a cleaner and safer campground environment. Even a backcountry campsite can quickly attract critters that will associate humans with a free meal.

Don’t Bury Garbage

Just like moving dishwater away from camp, garbage can easily attract animals if left behind. Many people follow the “out of sight, out of mind” mentality and just bury their garbage. Food is compostable, right? While this isn’t completely wrong, it creates a dangerous environment to sleep in. Trash won’t biodegrade overnight and it will stick around for others to deal with later. 

Your uneaten food cannot simply be buried underground. Properly disposing of your trash means taking it out with you in a food bag or finding the campground’s provided disposals. Burying it is not a solution to your problem. Plus, a bear can smell anything you bury and won’t let a few inches of dirt stop it from ruining your food. 

Don’t Forget About Pet Food

It can be easy to remember all the human food but forget about your dog’s food when you pack up camp at night. Pet food doesn’t strike us as smelling good, or being tempting to eat. However, we aren’t wild animals and they would love the kibble just as much as they love human food. 

Find a separate bag or you can store pet food in and put it in your bear canister or your bear hang before heading off to sleep at night. Treat their food just like you do your own. 

Don’t Forget About Drinks Either

Bears, raccoons, mice, and any other critters simply don’t need morning coffee in the way that you might. Just because they don’t need it, doesn’t mean they don’t want it. If you forget to put any drinks away, maybe a thermos filled with hot chocolate or even any adult beverages, you may find a caffeinated, sugar rushed, or intoxicated animal in camp the next morning. 

Never Bring Food or Garbage into Your Tent

Never. This is one of those times that the saying “never say never” simply does not apply. Bringing any food or garbage into your tent is inviting disaster in along with it. Even bringing food into your tent and not leaving it in there will easily leave scents behind that make you appear quite appetizing. 

Leave food within your kitchen area rather than creating an open door and invitation for animals to come to visit you at night.

Keep Food From Becoming Rotten and Dangerous to Eat

Most of our tips on food storage on a camping trip relate to avoiding any animals that may be after your food. So, it can be easy to forget that we still need to take care of our food so much, much, smaller critters don’t harm us. 

Any kind of perishable food can quickly be overtaken by mold or bacteria that can make you sick quickly. Getting sick while out camping can be more dangerous than any predators so you must be sure to prevent food from rotting. This can be easily avoided by using a camping cooler, or simply eating these foods first on a longer trip. 

The same rules that apply in your home’s kitchen apply out here. Covered in mold? Don’t eat it. Smell like a foot? Get rid of it. 

Food Handling Basics

Even at the nicest campgrounds, spending all of your time in the bathroom won’t leave you with any stories worth sharing later on. Getting sick can be easily avoided if you follow general food handling basics that are just about the same as you follow at home. 

Avoid fecal-oral germ transmission

Fecal-oral germ transmission sounds just as disgusting as it is. Sickness can come on quickly when you go to the bathroom and come back to eat without properly washing your hands. One of the biggest issues here is the use of hand sanitizer rather than soap. There are particles left behind that hand sanitizer simply doesn’t take care of. Scrub thoroughly, with warm water (if you can), every time after you use the bathroom. 

After you use the bathroom and you are camping is when it gets a little different from being at home. Touching things around camp can still accidentally get dangerous fecal matter onto objects. Since you are out further from help, making sure to never touch anything until you have washed your hands is the key. Even getting someone else to put soap onto your hands is an important step in prevention. 

Fecal-oral is a much more common disease in younger children that just don’t know how to wash their hands properly. If you are camping with kids, be sure to help them understand why it’s important to wash well every time you leave the bathroom. 

Handling raw meat

Worrying about storing food can make you forget about handling food correctly while preparing meals. At home, it’s easy to handle raw meat and throw the dirty dishes straight in the sink and wash your hands. While camping, your kitchen sink is a little less accessible so you need to be more careful. 

If you want to cut meat, try doing this at home before going camping. Ziploc bags filled with cubed chicken, for example, will be much easier to avoid touching than full chicken breasts.

If you choose to bring it with you to camp, always keep a clean cutting board. Be sure to never cut any veggies on any surfaces that have meat residue on them. Get something new, or cut them up beforehand. 

Keep food from spoiling

Bringing a camping cooler will help loads when trying to keep your food fresh. Use ice packs in the cooler to try and keep food around 40 degrees Fahrenheit to avoid spoiling. Anything perishable should find some room in the cooler. This includes raw or cooked meat, cheese, eggs, other dairy, and fresh fruits and vegetables. 

Camping Food Storage FAQs

Here are our answers to your most commonly asked questions about food storage while camping.

How do you avoid fecal-oral germ transmission?

The answer here is simple enough. Wash your hands always. Teach young ones to wash thoroughly and never touch anything after using the bathroom.

How do you keep cooler food from spoiling?

Just keep it cool and eat it fast. Don’t wait until day five of your trip to break out the chicken breast you bought before heading out. 

How should you handle raw meat in camp?

The general rule is, anything that touches raw meat should never touch anything else until thoroughly washed. This includes any plastic bags or plastic wrap that you stored it in.

How do you handle fruits and vegetables?

Fruits and veggies just need to be taken care of in the same way you take care of any other perishable foods. Keep them cool and don’t eat them if they’ve gone bad. 

Ian Standard is an outdoor educator and wilderness guide based in Anchorage, Alaska. Most recently, he worked part-time at Alaska Crossings, a wilderness program for at-risk youth, and is currently studying for a Master of Science in Outdoor & Environmental Education at Alaska Pacific University.
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