Cheese is one of my all time favorite trail foods. It’s rich, creamy, salty.. everything my body seems to crave. Hiking with cheese is an absolute must for my partner and I. We have no problem devouring a generous block between the two of us over the course of a day. To fuel this devious addiction we have developed a number of tricks (some learned through tough lessons) to keep our cheese from spoiling on long journeys.
Why You Are Scared to Eat Cheese in the Backcountry
If you are reading this then chances are that you have a desire to eat cheese in the backcountry but are afraid to do so. Perhaps you have been scolded by other fear laden hikers? Maybe your mother’s voice is popping into your head reminding you not to leave the cheese on the counter. Whatever your reasons may be, we can all agree that there is significant and widespread fear surrounding consumption of non-refrigerated perishables. The FDA itself has an infamous Two Hour Rule, any perishable foods left out for more than two hours should be discarded, if the temperature in the environment is greater than 90F or 32C this gets reduced to one hour .
This guideline falls squarely in opposition to a number of things. First up, cheese experts agree that most cheeses should not be consumed for a minimum of 1.5hours after taking them out of the fridge. This is because that the majority of the flavor of the cheese can be enjoyed when the cheese is closer to room temperature. Additionally, we need to remember that cheese was inherently designed to preserve milk at a time when refrigeration methods were unavailable!
What the Science has to Say
Studies in the US, Canada, and Europe have found no outbreaks related to the consumption of hard varieties of cheese such as Parmesan, Romano, and Provolone . Additionally, very few outbreaks were found to be linked to Cheddar and Swiss varieties . It’s important to remember that each of these has already spent many weeks unrefrigerated during its aging/curing process, as such a few more nights will not impact its safety. The scientific community agrees that temperature control is not needed for cheese safety, but rather for maintaining the quality of the cheese in the long term . Even Listeria, a bug we want to avoid, has been shown to survive and even grow at refrigeration temperatures.
Know your cheese!
Some cheese is simply better equipped for a life of adventure! Cheese can be segmented into three categories based on the moisture content within it. Soft (> 50%), semi-soft (39-50%) and hard (<39%). A study of non-soft cheeses found that even when the cheese was intentionally contaminated with Listeria, the Listeria was not only found not to grow, but it actually died in all temperature ranges when placed on Cotija, cream, blue, Cheddar, Monterey Jack, Swiss, Colby, string, Provolone, Muenster, Feta and Kasseri . This demonstrated that cheese which came from starter cultures and had a pH of below 5.6 would not support the growth of Listeria in temperatures up to 30C. Interesting the death rate of listeria at 30C was actually greater than death rate at 4C .
Protect your cheese!
So I’m assuming that the science has convinced you that cheese itself is perfectly safe; so what other factors might affect its safety? How you handle it. More emphasis needs to be placed on how we handle our cheese then the fact we are taking it out of the fridge and into the wild. Cheese needs to be both protected from the elements but also maintained at ideal humidity and allowed to breathe. As such typical storage in a ziplock bag or cling wrap is not ideal. While these options keep contaminants out, they also allow moisture/sweat to accumulate and provide an ideal environment for mould to develop. You should aim to store your cheese in cheese paper, cloth or even a clean bandana. Formaticum Cheese Paper is a two-ply material designed to maintain optimal humidity, while not allowing water to accumulate–thus preventing the growth of surface moulds. You can purchase it at your local cheese shop, kitchen specialty store or online on Amazon.
Once adequately covered, store your cheese in as cool of location as possible, for me, this is generally beside my water bladder in my backpack. When choosing a location for your bear hang try to find places in the shade so that your cheese is out of direct sunlight.
Watch for Problems Areas
Generally, mould and bacteria need to be introduced from an external source to contaminate your cheese. It will almost always be contaminant free when you purchase it, but how you handle it can introduce a number of bugs. Avoid touching the cheese with your hands and try to use a clean knife to cut it, not your manky multi-tool! If you notice your cheese sweat be sure to cut away the surface before re-wrapping it. Additionally, if you spot a little mould on its surface, simply trim those spots before restoring it.
Still Worried? Consider Stable Cheese
In the end, it might not be for everyone. Freeze dried cheese is readily available and can be added to meals, without worry, for long term storage. Everything’s better with cheese, right?
So far I have purchased the Cheddar and Monterey Jack cheese from THRIVE. For those of you not familiar with Thrive, it’s my go-to source for freeze dried ingredients. I use the cheese for backcountry pizza, pasta, an meat and potatoes, in soups.. anything I would normally eat cheese on! Thrive also has Mozzarella, Colby Jack, and Parmesan cheese, I am dying to try these out.
Another great product that you have likely seen lining the checkout aisles at MEC or REI is Moon Cheese, these crunchy treats are delightful to eat as it but can also be used in your recipes.
 “Serving Up Safe Buffets”, Fda.gov, 2017. [Online]. Available: https://www.fda.gov/Food/ResourcesForYou/Consumers/ucm328131.htm. [Accessed: 09- Mar- 2017].
 E. Johnson, J. Nelson and M. Johnson, “Microbiological Safety of Cheese Made from Heat-Treated Milk, Part II. Microbiology”, Journal of Food Protection, vol. 53, no. 6, pp. 519-540, 1990.
 “Analysis of Microbial Hazards Related to Time/Temperature Control of Foods for Safety”, Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety, vol. 2, no. 2, pp. 33-41, 2003.
 C. Genigeorgis, M. Carniciu, D. Dutulescu and T. Farver, “Growth and Survival of Listeria monocytogenes in Market Cheeses Stored at 4 to 30°C”, Journal of Food Protection, vol. 54, no. 9, pp. 662-668, 1991.