If you’re a cheese lover, you know just how important it is to bring along with you on your trips. But not all types of cheese are made equal. The best cheese for backpacking—and for camping in general—needs to hit a few key qualities and characteristics that make it as shelf stable as possible.
Does cheese really need to be refrigerated?
The short answer is not necessarily—but it depends.
Cheese can can be categorized as soft, semi-soft, semi-hard, and hard according to its moisture content. The more moisture it has, the shorter its shelf life will be.
For example, a soft cheese like Brie has about 60 to 75% moisture content and can only be stored for a few hours at best unrefrigerated. A hard cheese like Parmesan has roughly 35 to 40% moisture content and can last months unrefrigerated.
Here are some examples of different types of cheese and their moisture content category:
Soft cheeses: Brie, Camembert, feta, queso blanco, queso fresco, cream cheese
Semi-soft cheeses: Blue cheese, Gorgonzola, Havarti, Monterey Jack, muenster
Semi-hard cheeses: Cheddar, Colby, Swiss
Hard cheeses: Parmesan, Asiago, Pecorino
The softer the cheese, the higher the moisture content and the shorter amount of time it can be stored unrefrigerated. This means that the best cheese for backpacking or any kind of camping trip is going to be a semi-hard or hard cheese with lower moisture content so that it lasts longer unrefrigerated.
How to find out what the moisture content is
For store-bought cheese, this information is often available on the nutrition label. If you’re buying cheese from a farmer’s market or cheesemonger, they should be able to tell you what the moisture content of the cheese is—and whether it’s considered soft, semi-soft, semi-hard, or hard.
Your best bet is to go for types of cheese that have a moisture content of 35% or less. To make it easier on yourself, you can simply avoid all soft and semi-soft cheese, instead opting for semi-hard and hard cheeses.
Aged cheese is best
In addition to moisture content, another important factor to consider when choosing the best cheese for backpacking is age.
Cheese that has been aged longer tends to be drier and more concentrated in flavour—both of which are qualities you want in a cheese that will be stored unrefrigerated for an extended period of time.
Aged cheese also tends to have a lower moisture content than younger cheese, which further adds to its shelf stability.
Generally speaking, the best cheese for backpacking and other camping trips are ones that have been aged for at least three months or more.
How to find out how old cheese is
The age of cheese isn’t always specified on the packaging. Some cheese, however, do specify—like two-year-old cheddar.
You can, however, get an idea by looking at the colour and texture of the cheese. Aged cheese is typically darker in colour and harder in texture than younger cheese.
7 of the best cheeses to bring backpacking or camping
Here are our favourite cheeses to take with us on our trips.
Best age: 3 to 12+ months
Taste: Sharp, nutty
Cheddar is one of the most popular and versatile cheeses out there. It’s perfect for everything from sandwiches to snacks. And, best of all, it’s easy to find pre-packaged cheddar that’s already been aged. We always splurge on two-year-old cheddar!
Best age: 18 to 36 months
Taste: Sharp, nutty, salty
Parmesan is great when you get it in grated form. You can add it to pasta dishes, sprinkle it on top of salads, or use it as a topping for pizza. It has a strong flavour that can really add some depth to a dish.
Best age: 6 to 24 months
Taste: Sharp, nutty
Asiago is another cheese that’s similar to parmesan, and great for grating. We tend to get it when we want to mix things up a bit, or when parmesan isn’t available for some reason.
Best age: 3+ months
Taste: Creamy, nutty, sweet
Gouda is a great all-purpose cheese that’s perfect for snacks or sandwiches (especially grilled cheese). We like to get it in the smoked variety, which adds a great flavour to dishes.
Best age: 3 to 12 months
Taste: Creamy, nutty
Swiss cheese is another good all-purpose cheese. It’s especially good in grilled cheese sandwiches, wraps, or on top of burgers.
Best age: 3 to 12 months
Taste: Creamy, nutty
Provolone is similar to Swiss cheese, but with a stronger flavour. It’s another good one for grilled cheese sandwiches, wraps, and burgers.
Best age: 6 to 9 months
Taste: Creamy, mild
Monterey Jack is a good all-purpose cheese that’s perfect for snacks or sandwiches. It has a milder flavour than some of the other cheeses on this list, making it a good choice for those who don’t like strong cheeses.
What about Babybel cheese?
We listed Babybel cheese a one of our favourite camping snacks, which we’ve seen labeled as both semi-soft and semi-hard. Some sources say not to leave them unrefrigerated for more than a few hours, while certain backpackers have claimed to be able to eat them safely up to a week after not being refrigerated.
In our experience, we’ve had success with eating them a few days after taking them out of the refrigerator (as long as they don’t get too warm). However, we always err on the side of caution and would recommend not eating them if they’ve been unrefrigerated for more than a few days.
How long does cheese last unrefrigerated?
It’s tough to say exactly how long cheese will last on your trip because several different factors are at play. This includes temperature, humidity, storage, and even the size of the cheese.
For instance, if you’re backpacking or camping in 100-degree weather, your best bet is to either avoid bringing cheese altogether, or take a hard cheese like parmesan and eat it within a day or two.
If you’re camping in the shoulder seasons, however, when temperatures are much cooler, your cheese may last days or even weeks. Depending on how cool the outdoor temperatures are, you may even be able to bring softer cheeses without the risk of them spoiling.
Tip: Since you’re already here reading about cheese, you might also be want to know how to safely take meat camping.
How to properly store cheese while backpacking or camping
The best way to ensure your cheese lasts as long as possible is to store it properly. This means keeping it in a cool, dry place and wrapping it tightly so that it doesn’t dry out.
The best wrapping materials for cheese are parchment paper, wax paper, or plastic wrap. You can also find specialized Cheese Paper that’s made specifically for storing cheese (we’ve never used it ourselves, but it’s an option).
You may be tempted to cut or slice your cheese at home, but we recommend refraining from doing this. The bigger your block of cheese is, the longer it will last. Once you cut or slice it, the surface area is much greater, which means more if it will be exposed to the air and humidity.
After you’ve wrapped your cheese, store it in a cooler or food storage container with a lid. If you don’t have either of those, you can make do with a Ziploc bag or another type of storage bag.
When it comes to storing cheese while backpacking or camping, the key is to keep it as cool and dry as possible. By doing this, you’ll be able to enjoy your cheese for days or even weeks.
Can you dehydrate cheese?
Cheese isn’t a good food to dehydrate because it has a high fat content. Any foods that are high in fat—like avocados, nut butters, and of course cheese—are at a high risk of going rancid when left unrefrigerated.
We have, however, tried dehydrating fat free cottage cheese to use for lasagna, which was interesting. The key here is “fat free,” which was why we were able to rehydrate it and eat it seven days into a canoe camping trip without getting sick.
Unfortunately, it didn’t rehydrate very well at all. Its texture was still very crumbly and dry, even soaking it for over an hour and then boiling it it for 20 minutes.
How do you know if cheese has gone bad?
The best way to tell if cheese has gone bad is by its smell. If it smells sour, pungent, or otherwise unpleasant, it’s best to throw it out.
Another way to tell if cheese has gone bad is by its texture. If it’s hard and crumbly, it’s probably okay to eat. But if it’s soft or mushy, it’s best to throw it out.
Finally, if the cheese has mould on it, you better throw it out. Mould can potentially cause food poisoning—even if you cut off the mouldy part.
You might find that harder cheese start to sweat and get oily when they’re not refrigerated—especially in humid conditions. This is normal and not an indication that the cheese has gone bad.
The best cheese for backpacking and camping is hard, aged, and stored properly
To sum it all up, you need to know your cheeses if you want it to last on a backpacking or camping trip. And sure, you might need to pay a little extra for a harder, older cheese—but if it means it’s less likely to spoil, then it’s worth it.
You don’t have to sacrifice cheese just because you’re not carrying a cooler around with you all the time. With a little bit of extra knowledge and care, you can enjoy cheese wherever the trail, road, lake, or river takes you!
Elise is an experienced backcountry canoe tripper and winter camper from Ontario, Canada. She loves cooking up a storm over the campfire, taking in all the backcountry views, and enjoying a piña colada or two while relaxing at camp. She’s also certified in Whitewater Rescue (WWR) I & II and Wilderness First Aid (WFA).