Highway 37 Sonoma County, CA. (Photo: Jeff/Creative Commons)
Indefinitely Wild

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

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Jeff/Creative Commons

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Diarrhea may be the most common illness experienced by campers. It’s also one of the most unpleasant. Fortunately, avoiding the runs is easy, once you learn what causes it. 

Problem: Contaminated Water

Solution: Boiled water, chlorine dioxide tablets, a filter

Water-borne pathogens include bacteria, viruses, and parasites. They’ll give you diarrhea if they get in your stomach, sometimes just a couple hours after you ingest them. And the effects can last up to six weeks, in particularly bad cases. 

There’s no way to guarantee that a natural water source will be contaminant-free. Recently, researchers have found fecal coliform bacteria even in melt water running directly out of glaciers. 

Fortunately, avoiding giardia, E. coli, cryptosporidium and all the other germs you may find in water sources is easy. According to the Centers for Disease Control, simply bringing water to a roiling boil for at least 60 seconds (and 180 seconds at 6,500 feet of elevation of higher) will kill any pathogen out there. 

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

Short on time? Enter water filters. As Slate problematically noted, filters cost a little bit of money, and add a little weight and space to your load, but the right ones can filter water quickly, and deliver assured safety. If your camping trip is in North America, you probably don’t need to worry about viruses contaminating rivers, lakes, or streams. Since viruses are the smallest possible contaminants, building filters capable of removing them is hard and expensive. Save some money, and go with 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 a new running water system from Swedish brand Dometic. 

Problem: Undercooked Food

Solution: A meat thermometer

Failing to fully cook meat through to the Food and Drug Administration recommended temperature 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, undercooking meat is easy to do. 

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

The simplest way to achieve certainty in temperature is with a meat thermometer. Simple, analog thermometers cost less than $10 and weigh only a few grams. I always take one backpacking, in case I plan to sous vide an elk backstop in a hot spring, for instance. 

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 pieces of meat, complete with charts showing progress over time. That helped me give my fellow campers a realistic estimate on time remaining, even as both the fire and the elevation threw significant variables my way. Plus, it freed me to walk away from the campfire, and enjoy a few beers; my phone buzzed when the meat was ready. 

Problem: Dirty Hands

Solution: Wash your hands, use hand sanitizer

Think of all the stuff you touch with your hands outdoors: dirty dogs, runny noses, greasy vehicles, and unfiltered water all probably slip by unnoticed. The worst contamination happens when you poop. Research suggests that failure to adequately wash your hands between pooping and putting your hands in your mouth is likely the most common cause of giardiasis among campers. And that’s just gross. 

We all know the solution is to wash your hands thoroughly, when soap and water are available, and to use hand sanitizer when they aren’t. So just consider this a reminder that you really should be washing your hands and using hand sanitizer more often. 

Problem: Dirty Dishes

Solution: Eat from backpacking bags

Heat kills bacteria that cause diarrhea. So if you throw a cast iron pan on the fire with a few scraps from last night’s dinner left on it, you’ll eliminate most harmful germs. The problem is, in the time between last night’s dinner and this morning’s breakfast, those bacteria have been producing diarrhea-causing toxins. Simply heating up that pan will not necessarily eliminate these contaminants. You’ve still gotta do your dishes, even if you plan to get them hot before cooking on them again. 

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

What all of us should really do is eat directly out of the bags backpacking meals come in, even if it’s inconvenient. And we should also probably use hand sanitizer or soap to clean our sporks. 

Problem: Ingesting Dish Soap

Solution: Rinse well

On the subject of doing dishes, improper rinsing can also cause diarrhea. Common dish soap contains toxins that, when ingested, inflame your intestines, causing loose, watery stools. It’s important to thoroughly douse dishes with clean water after washing them. 

Back in Boy Scouts, I was taught to efficiently clean up after group meals by using three buckets. The first was soapy water, in which we scrubbed the dishes, the second was an initial rinse, and the third was supposed to be clean water. But, by the time we’d moved through a pile of plates, that last bucket was anything but clean. These days, I try and use fresh, running water for each dish. 

Problem: Spoiled Food

Solution: Freeze your meat

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

Are you using a cooler to take fresh food camping? If so, it’s vital that you ensure meat stays below that 40-degree threshold. The easiest way to do that is simply to keep it frozen. Thoroughly freeze any meat you plan to take camping, and keep it sealed inside a tightly packed cooler, on ice or ice packs. Pull it out no more than two hours before you plan to cook, and defrost it in a container of water. If that meat doesn’t feel thoroughly frozen when it comes out of the cooler, don’t use it. And, don’t leave it out to defrost longer than two hours. 

The same goes for leftovers. If you plan to reuse food from a meal, the USDA says you need to get it refrigerated to below 40 degrees in under two hours, or it could be unsafe to eat.