How to Avoid Getting Sick While Camping

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Daniel Nainggolan / Unsplash

Getting sick sucks no matter where it happens. But when you ride out a cold, a stomach bug, or some other malady in the comfort of your own home, at least you have a warm bed, a hot shower, and a variety of foods and beverages at your disposal. Getting sick while you’re away from home elevates the suck-factor significantly, and when said away from home location is a campsite, the situation is upgraded to downright miserable. This is all the more true when said campsite is a multi-day hike from the nearest vestiges of civilization; under those circumstances, being ill isn’t just unpleasant, it can be seriously dangerous.

And you can trust me on this; I’ve seen it happen firsthand. Five days into a ten day trek into a South American mountain range, one of the members of my expedition was struck with a stomach virus so violent she could hardly walk. The nearest town was a good sixty miles away via winding mountain and muddy jungle paths and that town didn’t exactly boast the finest medical care on the planet, either. Fortunately, we had a number of donkeys along for the journey, so she caught a ride for the next two days until her sickness subsided. If things had gotten much worse, the only option would have been to hope the team leader’s semi-reliable satellite phone could have summoned a helicopter at fabulous expense and with complex logistics.

A better plan? Avoid getting sick while in the wild.

And you can increase your chances of doing that by following a few pieces of advice gleaned from Rick Andrews and Lisa Yakas, the resident water filtration and food safety experts, respectively, from NSF. First, a quick word or two on NSF, which was founded as the National Sanitation Foundation back in the 1940s but now merely goes by the letters. Their mission is “to protect and improve global human health,” and the foundation primarily works with manufacturers and regulating bodies, but they offer a good deal of consumer-level educational content as well. Thus, me turning to their expertise today. Now…

How to Keep from Getting Sick While Camping

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Safe Backwoods Drinking Water

The single best way to avoid getting sick while out there in the field is to be absolutely certain you only ingest clean water. That pristine-looking mountain stream or mirror-like high alpine pond may well be swimming with billions of parasites, the most common being Giardia in many places. The only water you can safely collect and drink in the wild is water that you purify, and that goes for water from a lake, snow melt, or even a bubbling spring.

And here are the four best ways to purify water:

  • Boiling – Boiling water for at least three minutes should kill off all the bacteria within, but double the boil time if you are above 6,000 feet of elevation. (And triple it if you’re way the hell up there above 14k or more, you awesome mountaineer, you.)
  • Filtering – Using a mechanical filter, like a Lifestraw or a Katadyn, can remove almost all off the bacteria and parasites found in the water, thanks to the amazingly fine media used therein.
  • Tablets – You can use iodine tablets to purify water, just make sure you follow the directions and give the tabs plenty of time to work. Also make sure you sterilize the mouth of the bottle from which you’ll be sipping — dipping a water bottle into a stream and then purifying its contents may still see you get sick if there are parasites clinging to the rim of the bottle.
  • Bleach – Yeah, it sounds gross, but it’s not that bad, and done right it’s safe. According to Rick Andrews, you should use 16 drops of concentrated household bleach per gallon of water. Let the treated water stand for a half hour and note that it should have a vague bleach odor.

My chosen method? Boil then filter.

Safe Campsite Food Handling

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Food safety out in the wild is basically the same as food safety in civilization; cook meats properly, keep things that can spoil like eggs and milk chilled, and clean foods before you eat them. But because you don’t have all of the conveniences of your kitchen when out in the field, the way you store, handle, and prep foods can be a different than at home.

Safe Campsite Meat Thawing

Contrary to popular belief, thawing meats at room temperature is not an ideal method, as bacteria growth can start just as soon as the meat has reached a mild temperature. Thus there are two recommended ways to thaw and cook meat you brought to your site frozen in that fine camping cooler of yours.

  • Cold Water Thawing – Thaw meats wrapped in plastic in a bucket filled with chilled water, keeping the temperature of the water as near to 40 degrees F (standard refrigerator temperature) as possible.
  • Cook from Frozen – If you can’t thaw safely, just get the meat on the heat. You can use your grill, camp stove, or a fire to cook meats from a frozen state, just add in cooking time and start with lower temps to avoid scorching the exterior of that burger, dog, or chop while leaving the interior under cooked.

Cook Meats to Well Done

Even the best cooler doesn’t maintain temperatures as well as a thermostatically controlled refrigerator, so you can’t count on bacteria-free meats. Thus you need to thoroughly cook all meats even if you prefer rarer temps back in civilization. Sorry, steaks.

Clean Your Knives, Utensils, and Cutting Surfaces

At home, you probably have a couple of knives for veggies, one for steak and chops, one for filleting, and so forth. At the campsite, you may have only one or two knives you use for everything. So make sure you properly sterilize the knifes as well as any utensils and other prep tools and surfaces that come into contact with any foods that could carry unwanted pathogens. Use alcohol, ammonia, or another trusted solution, and if you don’t have those, you’ll have to boil the tools for several minutes.

Wash Your Hands

Wash your damn hands! Or at least use sanitizer, dammit.

Avoiding Germs in the Wild

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Making sure your drinking, cooking, and washing water are as clean as possible is the best way to avoid germs while you’re camping, but there are other ways, too. And mostly, they involve avoiding things.

  • Pick the Right Site – Don’t pitch your tent too close to standing, stagnant water, or mud patches, as these are breeding and gathering grounds for insects, especially for mosquitoes.
  • Keep Bugs at Bay – Forget about citronella, folks. When you’re in the deep woods in the depths of summer, use an insect repellent that packs in the permethrin, a compound that’s as effective as DEET in repelling insects and that can even kill mosquitoes, ticks, and other insects. I recommend using a repellent on your skin but also get a spray treatment and dose your tent, your sleeping bag, your clothing, your hammocks and chairs, and so on. Sawyer Products makes a permethrin spray for apparel and gear that’s powerful but odorless and lasts for more than a month.
  • Don’t Touch Gross Stuff – I know you wouldn’t do it on purpose, but avoid touching animal waste by being vigilant about where you sit, where your hands grab during a climb, and so forth. And never touch an animal carcass you find out there in the field. If you must confront one or the other, get yourself a good long poking stick to do the dirty work.
  • Attend to Personal Hygiene – You yourself might be harboring some germs there, mister. We already talked about hand washing, but make sure you keep other areas as clean as you can, too. No need to get into details, but do attend to hand washing every time you attend to other areas.
  • Watch Out for Germ-Infested Areas – If you’re camping at a prepared site, your worst foe for health isn’t the wild, but other humans. Those sandboxes and picnic tables thoughtfully set up by the park rangers can be about the dirties spots in the whole campground.

And there you have it. Follow these rules, wash your hands, and end that hike on a healthy high-note.