There are acceptable levels of grime I’m willing to put up with when cooking outdoors. For example, my buddies and I refer to our dishes and utensils as “river clean,” “hut clean,” or “camp clean,” depending on the trip. Basically, we let them remain pretty dirty. But that has also led to me contracting nasty infections like giardia, norovirus, and any number of (admittedly undiagnosed) South American bugs that I was never tested for but had powerful—ahem—gastrointestinal effects.
To glean some pointers on keeping a camp kitchen spick-and-span, I spoke with Marco Johnson, who’s been teaching wilderness skills and first aid as the field staffing director at the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) in Lander, Wyoming, since 1985.
Wash Your Hands
The most important step for staying healthy while cooking outdoors is something you should be using every day: hand soap. “The two best vectors for disease in the backcountry are your left hand and your right hand,” Johnson says. In NOLS courses, instructors issue soap and an alcohol-based hand sanitizer like Purell. They teach students to get in the habit of regularly washing their hands after going to the bathroom and before preparing food. “There has been a lot of talk in the past 30 years about waterborne illnesses,” Johnson says. “Yes, those things exist, but what a lot of people thought were waterborne illnesses were really unrelated issues associated with poor personal hygiene.”
Save the Soap for Your Hands, Not Your Dishes
“We don’t advocate cleaning dishes and utensils with soap,” Johnson says. “If you don’t rinse things well and clean off all the soap, you might end up ingesting it and upsetting your stomach anyway.”
As a best practice, cook only what you plan on eating, and finish everything. Leftovers can breed unseen bacteria that can stick around in the bowl or plate you kept them in.
Bring It to a Boil
“Bringing water to a rolling boil kills everything,” Johnson says. Boiling water in a pot will disinfect the pot itself; then, drop the utensils, cups, and other items that made contact with your food or mouth into the boiling water. “Scrubbing a greasy frying pan with warm water and a piece of pine branch you pick up off the ground is actually not a bad way to go before boiling the water” Johnson adds.
Keep Sick People out of the Kitchen
One of the reasons you’re washing dishes in the first place is to avoid sharing illnesses with each other. Keeping people who are coughing on their hands out of the food-prep space helps isolate those bugs. If the person is really excited to cook, be firm: There are plenty of other jobs around camp they can help with that won’t make the whole team sick.
“We don’t advise sharing things like water bottles, utensils, or bowls,” Johnson says. No matter how thorough you are about cleaning after a meal, sharing your water bottle with a fellow team member is a direct path for bacteria and viruses.
Use Few Dishes
Washing dishes after a meal is a chore. But you’re more likely to clean if there’s a lighter load at the end—and fewer dishes means less weight in your pack. “For a three- or four-person group, we may just bring a four-quart pot and a frying pan, and we learn to be efficient,” Johnson says. He suggests planning meals around minimizing the number of dishes you use—like first making hot drinks or dehydrated meals that require only boiling water, and then simmering beans.
Make Dishwater Soup
Johnson suggests using water to scrub out the pot, and then bring that water to a boil and throw in a soup packet—like one from Knorr. “I am staying hydrated, made my hot water for my soup, and cleaned my pot all at the same time,” Johnson says. Just be sure to transfer the water to a bowl before adding the soup, since you don’t want to dirty the pot all over again.
Don’t Be Lazy
“Don’t get to the end of the meal and say, ‘Ah, this is mostly clean; I’ve scraped most everything out of here,’” Johnson says. While the extra four minutes to clean might seem unbearable at the end of a long day in the backcountry, just think about the alternative. “If you don’t have good hygiene, you’re going to get sick. And getting sick shuts a trip down.”