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Coffee-flavored Fritos: Tips to prevent food smell contamination

One way I prevent food odor contamination is by keeping food stuffs in odor-proof 12 x 20 LOKSAK Opsak bags. They are also see-through, which makes it easier to find what I need if it's not at the top.

One way I prevent food odor contamination is by keeping food stuffs in odor-proof 12 x 20 LOKSAK Opsak bags. They are also see-through, which makes it easier to find what I need if it’s not at the top.

“Would you like some?” Steve asked, holding out a loaf of yummy homemade cookie dough. My belly was already full from dinner, but I broke off a piece anyway, knowing that ahead was a long November night in the sleeping bag.

After taking a few chews, I remarked, “It would be better without the taco seasoning aftertaste.”

Steve had noticed this, too, but thought he was imagining it. How could his beans and rice dinner, packaged in a plastic sandwich bag, contaminate his cookie dough, also stored in its own bag? I suspect the taco seasoning was also stinking up his sleeping bag, puffy jacket, and other gear in his pack.

Maybe a plastic engineer will comment with an explanation of why this occurs. It probably relates to the breathability of low density polyethylene (LDPE) and polypropylene, the plastics used to make conventional storage and freezer bags, respectively.

Whatever the reason, food odor contamination occurs, and in this post I’d like to explain how to minimize or avoid it.

Offenders

To avoid food smell contamination, it’s necessary to identify and then isolate the most strongly odored food items. In my typical food bag, the list of offenders includes:

  • Ground coffee
  • Tea
  • Spices like garlic, cumin, and curry
  • Dried vegetables like green onions, basil, and sun-dried tomatoes
  • Protein powder

Depending on the contents of your food bag, your list may be longer, shorter, or different.

Coffee is especially pervading. To control its smell, I keep it inside of small odor-proof Opsak. To avoid having to clean the bag after each trip, I keep the coffee in a sandwich bag.

Coffee is especially pervading. To control its smell, I keep it inside of small odor-proof Opsak. To avoid having to clean the bag after each trip, I keep the coffee in a sandwich bag.

Victims

The food items most likely to absorb odors are those kept in storage bags, freezer bags (though not as badly), and otherwise breathable packaging, like the wax-covered M&M paper packaging.

Mylar packaging, which is used for most energy bars and some candy bars, seems more resistant to external smells. For example, I’ve never had a Clif or Kit-Kat bar that smelled like Gilroy, the garlic capital of California.

In addition to food, gear can absorb odors as well. Clothing, sleeping bags, nylon shelters, stuff sacks, and other fabric-based equipment holds smells more than metals and firm plastics like stoves and water bottles.

Duration

If not controlled, odor contamination escalates over time. On an overnight or long weekend, it may be acceptable without mitigation. But after several one-week trips, I’ve felt as if my food bag was a melting pot of odors, with everything smelling and tasting like everything else.

Solutions

The solution to odor contamination is, thankfully, very easy: isolate the smells, mostly by using smell-proof packaging.

Nalgene polyethylene containers (1-ounce, 2-ounce, and 4-ounce sizes).

For the sake of field convenience, I sometimes pre-spice my dinners (and hot breakfasts, if I am taking any) and deal with the repercussions later. But when I wish to avoid odor contamination, I store the spices in these inexpensive and lightweight polyethylene containers, then season to taste in the field.

On group trips, decoupling food from spices has the added advantage that individual spice preferences can be factored.

To store spices I use 1-, 2- and 4-oz polyethylene containers from Nalgene. The contents are not always obvious through the opaque plastic, so I label them.

To store spices I use 1-, 2- and 4-oz polyethylene containers from Nalgene. The contents are not always obvious through the opaque plastic, so I label them.

Small LOKSAK Opsak bags, e.g. 6 x 9

These odor-proof bags are perfect for ground coffee and tea. To avoid having to clean them out afterwards, I double-bag: first inside of a sandwich or snack bag, then inside of the Opsak. Unless you are okay with Earl Grey-flavored coffee, use separate Opsak bags for each item.

Large LOKSAK Opsak bags, e.g. 12 x 20

All of my food is stored inside one of these bags, which can hold about five days of my typical rations. This prevents food odors from contaminating my gear. I also like that they are rectangular-shaped and see-through, which makes for tight packing and convenient access.

I am currently using Opsak bags that I have owned for years. The closure seals busted long ago and are therefore not completely odor-proof. However, satisfactory results can be achieved by simply folding the top opening of the bag.

Packing

When I cannot insulate a smelly food with odor-proof packaging, I at least pack it next to like-smelling foods or protected foods. For example, I will nest a sandwich bag of cereal with protein powder next to candied pecans (which are similarly sweet, unlike wasabi almonds) or among protein bars in Mylar wrappers.


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10 Responses to Coffee-flavored Fritos: Tips to prevent food smell contamination

  1. Battman November 11, 2016 at 12:14 pm #

    The real ground coffee question I always feel is a red herring, especially with the availability of modern instant coffees. Having grown up on boiled cowboy-coffee from an aluminum percolator, I don’t know if that kind of awful swill can even be found today on trail, but I believe in my peers. Delicious coffee can be had from Starbux VIA and others, and you don’t have to deal with wet grounds. But then again, a hiking companion simply put a Folgers’s instant coffee bag in his cheek at the begining of the hiking day like coca leaves.
    I suppose it comes down to when exactly will you say the words, “Are we not civilized?” before slurping down your morning brew.

    • Andrew Skurka November 11, 2016 at 1:23 pm #

      Disagree with that assessment of ground coffee. No doubt, instant coffee like Via is just as good, and much more convenient.

      But is that convenience worth to me $1 per cup more at two cups per day? Maybe for a solo trip over a long weekend. But probably not when I am looking at a handful of week-long trips each year plus a few group trips. The cost savings add up.

      • Battman November 11, 2016 at 2:10 pm #

        I suppose that it speaks to the difference and frequency of our trips; you’re hitting the trail much more often than I, and with more companions.

        I couldn’t get over what to do with the wet grounds though, especially for the reason you mentioned above. I used the same MSR filter in the picture above a few times and it was such a mess after breakfast, wet grounds clinging to everything. And I really didn’t want to give the critters a field day with random spilled grounds. What do you do with them after brewing? I would think the added weight of wet grounds plus the time-convenience of instant would push you away from traditional coffee methods. I only say that after studying your content and style for a while, which seems dialed to ultralight and fast.

        Also; $1 more per cup? Is that the full-price MSRP margin? Buying on sale or in bulk, I can often get below 80cents a packet, sometimes as low as 60cents. Vacuum sealed, so ground’s oxidation is minimized prior to brewing and they don’t seem to go bad even after 18 months of hanging out in the cabinet.

        Thanks for all the great content!

        • Andrew Skurka November 11, 2016 at 2:40 pm #

          Re cost, I figure it averages out to about $1 per packet. Sometimes I grab them at Costco or Amazon; other times I need to get them last-minute at the grocery store or a Starbucks.

          Re wet grounds, I simply disperse them, like I do in my raised beds in the summer. From what I can tell, they become soil in a few days.

          Definitely need some extra water to wash everything. And a rag or mesh pot sack helps with the rest.

          Coffee style probably falls in the larger theme of “have the right tool for the job.” On intense solo trips, I’m more apt to skip coffee all together and simply go with caffeine pills. On quick overnights with rushed planning, Via works pretty well. And on casual and group trips, ground coffee is my pick.

          • Bill November 11, 2016 at 7:41 pm #

            In my opinion, the coffee packets are not as good as fresh brewed coffee and are very expensive. For the most part, they are a blend of microfine coffee grounds and instant coffee. I can tolerate them and I do use them when I only want one cup. I think that the best economy is fresh brewed coffee, but several cups brewed at one time. If you intend to drink three cups, why not brew three cups once instead of three cups one at a time? I see no difference between cowboy coffee that is filtered and french press coffee. And coffee grounds do make excellent compost. Of course all of this gets away from the original topic of how to avoid cross contamination of odors and flavors, but coffee is too important to neglect.

  2. Bill Gibson November 11, 2016 at 10:30 pm #

    I tend to switch to something completely different and light such as green tea when out of cell phone bars. Go for a full reset.

  3. Chip November 18, 2016 at 4:44 pm #

    More on coffee… I’ve switched from Starbucks Via to Mt Hagen organic instant coffee packs. If you buy them as an add on item thru amazon you can get them as cheap as .27 each. That’s a significant savings over via, and in my opinion they taste better as well (oh and they’re lighter too). As far as cost and convenience go its a win win!

    • Erich January 23, 2017 at 7:44 am #

      Chip, the Mt Hagen is a huge win. Thanks for passing that along.

    • Anthony Ogata July 23, 2017 at 9:16 am #

      Where can these be purchased?

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