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Dealing with Participants with Special Dietary Needs on Outdoor Trips

Rick Curtis
Article Date:  May 13, 2013

Jewish Students and Shabbat

Keeping the Jewish Sabbath on Wilderness Trips

The Sabbath (Shabbat or “shah-baht” in Hebrew) is one of the central celebrations of the Jewish religion. The celebration of Shabbat is an opportunity to learn about and share in someone else’s religion and culture. The basic principle is a day of rest. If a student indicates that s/he observes Sabbath, you should inquire as to their form of observance. Traditional observance varies greatly. Some of the issues of observing the Sabbath are covered below. (See Kosher Menu Planning below). Some students will observe all of these, some a few.

Requirements of Shabbat

Shabbat lasts from one hour before sundown on Friday to the time on Saturday night when three stars are visible. In order to maintain the spirit of the festivity, Jews do no work on Shabbat. Also a Jew is prohibited from asking others to do work for him or her. Work, along with what people usually think of, includes carrying things in an open space, tying knots, lighting a fire, or turning on a flashlight. It is possible for others to volunteer to do things for someone observing Shabbat, but they must not be asked to do the work. If relevant on your trip, you will need to have the trip scheduled so that you get into camp at least two hours before sunset on Friday and stay at that location until Sunday morning. You may want to have some type of local activity on Saturday for people who don’t celebrate Shabbat such as a day hike, trail maintenance project, or rock climbing trip. Short hikes on Saturday are fine for some people who want to keep Shabbat as long as they don’t have to carry anything. In this case, leaders would have to think in advance that they would need to carry water and food for the observant person and volunteer to do that first thing in the morning.

Preparing for Shabbat

Because Jews cannot carry things in a public domain, it is necessary that the group stay in an enclosed are such as a tent, lean-to or cabin. You should set up camp early on Friday so you won’t be rushed. Make sure that all tarps, bear bag lines, etc., are up. For the bathroom, designate a spot for Shabbat and leave some toilet paper in a Ziplock bag. For light, you can light a three-hour candle and let it burn out. Also, you can leave a flashlight on all night, but note that there are some strictly observant Jews that considered using flashlights work-related and therefore prefer not to handle them during Shabbat. Bringing a 12-hour Cyalume™ light stick and breaking it open before sunset may be an acceptable alternative.

Special Dietary Considerations

It is important to take into consideration the different eating habits of all the group members when planing the menu. There may be people with food allergies, those who are vegetarians, and/or those who keep kosher. It is also important to plan a variety of food, especially on longer trips. Asking trip members and checking forms for dietary needs before the group shops will help make everyone on the trip feel included, just as neglecting to do so these things can make a participant feel marginalized and forgotten. Finally, a tip for cooking with dietary needs in mind: cook (when necessary) milk, meat or whatever part of a meal which cannot be eaten by everyone separately. Put it aside in a separate dish for people to add to their own individual plates.


Not all vegetarians exclude the same foods. It is important to discuss with someone who says they are vegetarian what foods they can and cannot eat before planning your menu. The most common forms of Vegetarians are:

  • Ovo-lacto Vegetarians: will eat eggs and milk products but no red meat, poultry, fish or animal by-products (lard, etc.).
  • Vegans: eat only foods of plant origin. These individuals must plan a careful diet to make sure that they are getting adequate nutrients.
  • Other people (technically not vegetarians): avoid eating red meat, but will eat fish and/or poultry.

See the Nutritional N in Chapter 3 for guidelines on food combinations that offer the essential amino acids. One alternative for vegans is bringing vacuum packed containers of tofu (soybean curd). When you shop for vegetarians, you need to look closely at the label. Animal products are often “hidden” in different foods. Gelatin, for instance, is almost always made with animal products unless it is specifically labeled to the contrary. Refried beans are often made with lard, an animal fat. For Vegans, milk as well, hides in foods as “whey,” in many baked goods and some cereals. It is also important to remember that the daily demands of wilderness travel require high caloric intake which may be difficult for some vegetarians since fats are often obtained in meat and dairy products. Nuts and peanuts contain oils which are good sources of both fats and calories.

Food Allergies

Find out if people on your trip have food allergies or dietary restrictions. This is a critical safety consideration that you need to know about before you go out on the trail. Someone who is extremely allergic to a food can have an anaphylactic reaction (see Chapter 9 – First Aid & Emergency Care: Anaphylaxis). In many cases, you can find substitute foods for the offending item. I once had someone on a winter camping trip who was allergic to wheat. At first I was stymied about what to do, no pasta, no bread, crackers, etc. We ended up buying rice cakes and corn-based past from a health food store. You may need to do some real detective work for people who have serious allergies. For example, even regular M&M™ candies (not peanut) have small amounts of peanuts in them and should not be eaten by someone with a severe peanut allergy (unused regular and peanut M&M’s are reprocessed together into new candy).

Kosher Meal Planning

If you have someone on your trip who indicates that they keep kosher, you should talk with the person and learn about how they choose to observe this practice. In some cases keeping kosher involves avoiding some foods, for some it will mean using only Kosher versions of foods, and in other cases it may mean having cookware (pots, utensils, etc.) that have been kept kosher.

  • Kosher and Non-kosher Products: Foods items that are Kosher are manufactured under strict standards supervised by a Rabbi. These items typically are labeled with a U symbol or a K symbol or the word Parve.
  • Unkosher Combinations: Mixing a meat (poultry and red meats) with a dairy product (any dairy products including milk, cream, cheeses, and butter is not considered kosher. However, fish is not considered a meat so fish and dairy can be mixed. There are some fish that not are considered kosher, and all shellfish are unkosher.
  • Solutions: The easiest way to keep food kosher on your trip is to avoid bringing any meat products (poultry and red meats). You can bring some fish products (like tuna fish). If you do bring meat, make sure you don’t mix meat and dairy.
  • Utensils: For those who need to have kosher utensils, make sure that all of your utensils (pots, pans, lids, spoons, spatulas, cups, etc.) are both kosher and that you know which are dairy (that is, they have only been used to cook kosher, dairy products) and which are meat (that is, they have only been used to cook kosher, meat products). These items must be kept separate. Please be careful not to mix non-kosher utensils with kosher utensil. This could make the kosher utensils unkosher.

Eating Disorders

Be aware that there are individuals with eating disorders, either Anorexia or Bulimia. If someone has such a problem, they most likely will bring it with them on the trip. Look for people who either avoid eating (even though they are getting lots of exercise), who seem to binge eat at some points and avoid eating at others, or who seem overly preoccupied with food, calories, or their weight. There can be safety risks if someone is not eating properly on a trip. The Accident Potential can increase significantly (see Chapter 8 – Safety & Emergency Procedures: Dynamics of Accidents page 00). It can also be a problem since people with eating disorders may see a backpacking trip as an opportunity to “lose weight” through both exercise and abstention. If you suspect someone has an eating disorder, you should talk to them confidentially about it and let them know of the serious safety considerations not only for them but for the rest of the group. If you feel the person is not taking proper care of themselves and is placing either themselves or the group at risk, consider evacuating them.

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