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