National parks are germier than you might think. Here’s how to stay healthy whether you’re hitting the high points on a day trip or camping in the backcountry.

Woman hiking outdoors in Olympic National Park
Jordan Siemens/Getty Images

One of the appeals of camping and exploring the outdoors is the chance to let go of a lot of ingrained routines. There’s no commuting, no email, and you can let the daily grooming regimen slide a little. 

Time spent away from the curling iron and the shaving kit is good for the soul, especially when it allows you to spend more time in nature. But a recent outbreak of illness at Yosemite National Park serves to remind us that some routines, especially hygiene-related ones, are important to maintain.

Earlier in January, about 170 people who had visited the park reported gastro-intestinal symptoms. It’s not known for sure what caused the outbreak. Signs point to norovirus, an especially contagious illness that can be spread by something as simple as touching a surface recently touched by someone suffering from the virus. It’s not fatal, but it’s a miserable three days or so of abdominal distress to be avoided at all costs.

Healthy Park Habits

Bring Your Own Utensils
Thomas J. Story

Thomas J. Story

Norovirus is better known for wreaking havoc on cruise ships and other contained environments. It might seem strange for an outbreak to flare up in the great outdoors, but believe it or not, cruise ships and Yosemite do have something in common: As much space as there is in the park, most visitors funnel through the relatively small area of Yosemite Valley. When you walk into the visitor center, how many people have been through the door before you? The handle might as well be a Lido Deck slot-machine lever. The bottom line: In national parks, the air is fresh and clean; the doorknobs: not so much. Bring hand sanitizer.

Besides sanitizing and washing often, there are other things you can do to stay healthy in Yosemite and other parks:

  • Bring your own straws, utensils, and containers. It’s good for the environment, and saves you from being the victim of someone else’s careless washing.
  • Avoid eating raw or under-cooked foods. If your burger is cool in the middle, send it back. Oysters on the menu? Unlikely, but if they are…consider something that keeps better. 

Avoiding Illness While Camping

Courtesy of Amazon

Courtesy of Amazon

If you’re headed for the backcountry, you’ll be leaving germy crowds behind, but not all chance of getting sick. One major potential pitfall is contaminated water. Never drink directly from a stream or lake no matter how clear or fast-running it seems. There’s just no way to know what’s going on at a microbial level. If you do need to drink from a natural water source, boil it, sanitize it, and/or filter it with a product such as LifeStraw.

Water Purifier, $19.95 from LifeStraw

The other major pitfall of camping is food poisoning. Lack of refrigeration can easily cause food to spoil, and unpredictable fires and feeble camp stoves can lead to undercooking mistakes. Be sure to take proper steps toward food safety, including: 

  • Invest in a good cooler. Styrofoam won’t cut it for more than a few hours. Think of the money spent as a kind of insurance plan—spend a few extra dollars to ensure that you don’t have to take sick days from work. 
  • Ditto a good camp stove. Pick one with enough BTUs to get your food good and hot. 
  • Prep at home, where the environment is clean and controlled.
  • Err on the side of overcooking.
  • Clean everything as thoroughly as you can so you don’t cook your next meal on the rancid remains of the last.
  • Consider a bold, counterintuitive move: Don’t cook your food at all, but marinate it instead. Acid breaks down food in a way chemically similar to cooking with heat.