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6 Ways to Get Diarrhea on a Camping Trip (And How to Avoid Them)

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Diarrhea is perhaps the most common illness among campers. It is also one of the most unpleasant. Luckily, strokes are easy to avoid once you learn what causes them.

Problem: Contaminated Water

Solution: boiled water, chlorine dioxide tablets, filter

Waterborne pathogens include bacteria, viruses and parasites. They will give you diarrhea if they enter your stomach, sometimes just hours after ingesting them. And the effects can last up to six weeks, in particularly severe cases.

There is no way to guarantee that a natural water source will be free of contaminants. Recently, researchers have found faecal coliform bacteria even in meltwater coming directly from glaciers.

Luckily, it’s easy to avoid Giardia, E. coli, Cyrptosporideum, and any other germs you may find in water sources. According to the Centers for Disease Control, simply boiling water for at least 60 seconds (and 180 seconds at 6,500 feet or higher) will kill any pathogen.

Don’t have time to boil your water? Chlorine dioxide tablets are also capable of eliminating any pathogens you find in water, but take a little more time and care to use them correctly. After dropping the appropriate amount of tablets into your water bottle (check the packaging for the appropriate dosage), you will need to wait 30 minutes for the tablets to take effect. You should also be careful to avoid any contamination created by untreated water remaining outside or the threads of your water bottle.

Short on time ? Enter the water filters. As Slate problematically noted, filters cost a little money and add some weight and space to your load, but good ones can filter water quickly and provide assured safety. If your camping trip is in North America, you probably don’t have to worry about viruses contaminating rivers, lakes or streams. Since viruses are the smallest contaminants possible, building filters capable of removing them is difficult and expensive. Save money and opt for a filter that focuses only on bacteria and parasites.

Or if you’re car camping, just bring water from home. It’s easier and more convenient than ever thanks to the new running water system from the Swedish brand Dometic.

Problem: Undercooked food

Solution: A meat thermometer

Failing to fully cook meat to the temperature recommended by the Food and Drug Administration is a sure way to expose yourself to bacteria such as salmonella and E. coli. Since camping often involves cooking on unfamiliar equipment, in an unfamiliar environment, it’s easy to undercook meat.

According to the FDA, every 5,000 feet you gain in elevation extends the time it takes to cook meat to a certain temperature by 25%. Add the fluctuating temperature of a campfire, and it could be a recipe for racing.

The easiest way to get temperature certainty is to use a meat thermometer. Simple analog thermometers cost less than $10 and weigh only a few grams. I always pack one as a backpack, in case I plan to sub-empty an elk fillet in a hot spring, for example.

Last night I used a Bluetooth-equipped Meater Thermometer ($100) for the first time. I cooked filet mignon and chicken breasts over a campfire at 7,200 feet, and the device gave me extremely detailed insight into the progress of various cuts of meat, with graphs showing the progress over time. It helped me give my fellow campers a realistic estimate of time left, although the fire and elevation gave me important variables. Plus, it allowed me to get away from the campfire and enjoy a few beers; my phone rang when the meat was ready.

Problem: Dirty hands

Solution: Wash your hands, use hand sanitizer

Think about everything you touch with your hands outdoors: dirty dogs, runny noses, greasy vehicles and unfiltered water, all probably go unnoticed. The worst contamination happens when you poop. Research suggests that not washing your hands properly between pooping and putting your hands in your mouth is probably the most common cause of giardiasis in campers. And that’s just disgusting.

We all know the solution is to wash your hands thoroughly, when soap and water are available, and to use hand sanitizer when they are not. So just take this as a reminder that you really should wash your hands and use hand sanitizer more often.

Problem: dirty dishes

Solution: Eat out of backpacks

Heat kills bacteria that cause diarrhea. So if you throw a cast iron skillet on the fire with some leftovers from the night before dinner, you’ll kill off most of the harmful germs. The problem is that between dinner last night and breakfast this morning, these bacteria produced diarrhea-causing toxins. Simply heating this pan will not necessarily remove these contaminants. You should always do your dishes, even if you plan to heat them before cooking them again.

This lesson is especially relevant for backpackers. Many of us pour our dehydrated foods into our water pot so we don’t have to eat from a mylar bag. A common scenario: you scrape the pot, rinse it in a stream, and assume the next night’s boiling water will make everything safe. This is not the case. Another thing I’m guilty of is just licking my spork and saying it’s good enough.

What we should all do is eat straight from the bags, even if it’s not practical. And we should also probably use hand sanitizer or soap to clean our sporks.

Problem: Ingestion of dish soap

Solution: Rinse well

When it comes to dishes, improper rinsing can also cause diarrhea. Common dish soap contains toxins that, when ingested, inflame your intestines, causing loose, watery stools. IIt is important to thoroughly hose down the dishes with clean water after washing them.

Back in the Boy Scouts, I was taught how to clean up effectively after group meals using three buckets. The first was soapy water, which we scrubbed the dishes in, the second was an initial rinse, and the third was supposed to be clean water. But, by the time we had walked through a stack of plates, that last bucketit’s water [cut] was anything but clean. These days I try to use fresh running water for every dish.

Problem: Spoiled Food

Solution: Freeze your meat

Bacteria begin to grow rapidly on the meat when its temperature reaches a few degrees that of a cool fall morning. At just 40 degrees Fahrenheit, the United States Department of Agriculture says the number of Solomonella, E. coli, or Staphylococcus bacteria can double every 20 minutes.

Do you use a cooler to take fresh food camping? If this is the case, it is essential that you ensure that the meat stays below this 40 degree threshold. The easiest way to do this is to simply keep it frozen. Thoroughly freeze any meat you plan to take camping and store it sealed in a well-wrapped cooler, on ice or ice packs. Take it out no more than two hours before you plan to cook it and thaw it in a container of water. If that meat doesn’t look completely frozen when it comes out of the cooler, don’t use it. And don’t let it thaw for more than two hours.

The same goes for leftovers. If you plan to reuse food from a meal, the USDA says you must refrigerate it to below 40 degrees within two hours or it could be unsafe to eat.

About Ethel Partin

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