Can You Store Food Outside in the Winter?


red apple in the snow with snowy, leafless trees in the background

When you’re considering the best ways to store your food in the winter, it’s normal to wonder about making Mother Nature work for you, especially if you’ve got plenty of snow. Can you store food outside in the winter?

Storing food outside on the ground (or in the snow) is specifically mentioned by the FDA to be unsafe. However, some foods can be stored outside during the winter, depending on the food, the storage conditions, and the location in question. Here are safe ways to store food in the winter.

Even so, there are some times when it’s okay to do so – temporarily. And there are some ways to make the cold winters work for you and your food storage. Ready to learn more? Let’s do this.

You Can You Store Food Outside in the Winter – but should you?

Based on a whole lot of research and experience, there are two questions to ask about storing food outside: can you – and should you.

Because you can definitely store foods outside – even in the snow. Even though the FDA specifically says it’s a bad idea, you could still do it. After all, there are plenty of cultures that have done so successfully throughout history. And they didn’t all have the FDA to point out that it could be unsafe. However, the next question is this: should you do it?

And that’s less clear because it has a ton of factors and variables. So for that, let’s take a step back and look at the safety of storing food.

In order to store foods safely, there are three main factors to consider. They are the following factors.

  1. Pathogenic bacterial growth – these are the bacteria that will give you food poisoning.
  2. Bacteria related to spoilage or fermentation – these bacteria can make food taste abnormal. In some instances, however, the fermented food is the desired taste (example: pickles). So this isn’t an automatic negative. It’s just a factor to be considered.
  3. Factors that affect bacterial growth.

And the factors that impact bacterial growth include:

  • humidity levels
  • the environmental temperature around the food in question
  • the internal temperature of the food
  • bacterial growth is best from 40-140 degrees Fahrenheit and slows outside of this range
  • sunlight
  • storage conditions of the food
  • if animals are able to get to the food
  • general cleanliness
  • time
  • the salt content of the food
  • other contamination issues (usually related to environment, animals, or storage).

Storing foods in a fridge and/or freezer helps control bacterial growth by providing a safe, controlled environment that bacteria don’t thrive in.

Storing foods in a fridge (or freezer) helps minimize the growth of illness-causing (pathogenic) bacteria and the growth of spoilage-related bacteria.

So should you store foods outside? Well, that’s going to depend.

  • What foods are you wanting to store outside?
  • Can you control these above factors to keep your food safe?

Storing food outside without a set plan makes controlling those factors above a lot harder – if not impossible. However, with a plan, you can still store some foods outside in the winter safely.

But first, a word and a warning from the FDA.

What the FDA Says About Storing Food Outside

Based on various studies and scientific data, here is what the FDA specifically says about storing food outside during the winter.

When it is freezing outside and there is snow on the ground, the outdoors seems like a good place to keep food until the power comes on; however, frozen food can thaw if it is exposed to the sun’s rays even when the temperature is very cold. Refrigerated food may become too warm and foodborne bacteria could grow. The outside temperature could vary hour by hour and the temperature outside will not protect refrigerated and frozen food. Additionally, perishable items could be exposed to unsanitary conditions or to animals. Animals may harbor bacteria or disease; never consume food that has come in contact with an animal.

Food and Drug Administration

So the Food and Drug Administration is pretty clear: storing food outside isn’t generally a great idea. For most people, it isn’t even a good idea.

So if you need to go collect food from outside during the winter, go grab it. Then, test it to make sure it’s safe. Here’s how to do that, per the FDA’s guidelines.

If food is partly frozen, still has ice crystals, or is as cold as if it were in a refrigerator (40 °F), it is safe to refreeze or use. It’s not necessary to cook raw foods before refreezing. Discard foods that have been warmer than 40 °F for more than 2 hours. Discard any foods that have been contaminated by raw meat juices. Dispose of soft or melted ice cream for quality’s sake.

FDA website, emphasis theirs.

Now, while the FDA’s goal is to help Americans have access to safe-to-eat foods, it can be reassuring to remember that they do work with the lowest common denominator – in order to keep as many people possible safe.

So if you are willing to take a few risks – or try to manage them on your own, it may be possible to store foods outside during the winter. Just know that it isn’t recommended by the FDA – and that you do proceed at your own risk.

How You Can Store Some Food Outside in the Winter – with Caution

With food you want to eat, it’s always best to play it safe. Otherwise, you can get ill. Depending on the bacteria or toxin causing the illness, some food-borne illnesses can get quite nasty.

Based on my research, it’s best to use storing food outside-outside as a temporary solution rather than a permanent one. For permanent outside solutions, a cellar or a storage room will be better – but those are inside-outside solutions.

Even so, I compiled all of my research to make a fun table so you can see some of the various ways to store food in the winter. Many of these are outside, but I did add a few inside methods for comparison.

Storage MethodConcernsNotes
Store food outside in the snowTemperature fluctuations, animals, contamination, humidityIt can be done as a temporary thing if you use an outer container to protect the food. This method is specifically discouraged by the FDA.
Store food in a private, outdoor space (like a balcony or porch)Temperature fluctuations, animals, contamination, and humidityA good temporary storage solution, especially if it’s enclosed and the food is in a safe container.
Storing food in a garageTemperature fluctuations, animals, contamination, humidityIf the food is in a container, this could be a safe option for a short amount of time.
Cold Storage or Root CellarTemperature fluctuations, humidity, rodentsA cold storage room or root cellar can be a great, long-term storage option for additional shelf-stable foods. Perishable foods may generally be safely stored here temporarily.
California cooler and/or a freezing pantryTemperature fluctuations, humidity, rodentsIt requires building or adding a north-facing pantry that has a screened-in tube to let in cool/freezing air.
A dedicated fridge and/or freezerSafest method per the FDAIf the power goes out in winter, make homemade ice outside and add it to the interior of the unit to keep your fridge and freezer cool – and keep your food safe.

In my research, I was surprised to see what was known as a California cooler – I’m not sure if they’re still prevalent in the USA today, but they were pretty common before refrigerators became widely available. A variation of them (but not called a California cooler) is still used in Russia today during the wintertime for freezing food.

It’s a great way to harness the outside to store foods. It’s just a lot harder to control and regulate (which is a must for safely storing foods), which is probably why it’s not on the FDA’s list of recommended ways to store foods.

In any case, using the outdoors to store food is still something worth considering. I’ll tell you how we do it later on in this article.

How Cold Does it Have to Be Outside to Keep Food Frozen?

In Fahrenheit, water freezing happens at 32 degrees (or at 0 degrees Celsius). So in order for foods to freeze – and to stay frozen – they need to be at or below 32 degrees Fahrenheit.

However, if there’s sunlight then that needs to be accounted for, too. Because if there is sunlight, snow can still melt to some degree – even if it’s below 32 degrees outside.

Throwing food into a snowbank isn’t a guarantee that it’ll freeze or stay frozen – or safe from hungry animals for that matter.

So if you want frozen food to stay frozen outside, it’s going to need to be less than 32 degrees outside. And you’ll want to keep the food out of the sun – preferably in some sort of a container that keeps your food safe from contamination, animals, temperature changes, humidity issues, and whatever else.

Even then, know that keeping food outside is still a gamble.

Safety Rules for Storing Food Outside During the Winter

If you’re considering storing food outside at all, you need to know these general rules and guidelines for food safety. These are true no matter the time of year – but they’re worth noting for the winter, too.

  1. Keep foods safe from contamination by storing it in a waterproof, animal-proof, humidity-controlling container. Keep food away from animals in particular.
  2. Your senses of smell and taste are not reliable indicators for food safety. Invest in a food thermometer and use it.
  3. Monitor the temperature inside of your storage compartment and of the stored foods.
  4. Keep all food preparation and storage areas clean. Use soap and water to regularly wash everything that touches food.
  5. Keep your food free of contamination. Wash fresh produce prior to consumption. Wash or throw out visibly contaminated foods, determined by the type of contamination and food storage method (cans that got muddy for hours could probably be washed, while a raw steak that was in mud for hours should be thrown out).
  6. Beware the “Danger Zone” of temperatures – 40-140 degrees Fahrenheit. Keep foods out of this temperature range as much as possible.
  7. Foods left on the counter for 2 or more hours may no longer be safe to eat, due to having been in the danger zone.
  8. When in doubt, please throw it out. It’s better to be safe than violently ill with food poisoning.
  9. If keeping food outside sounds like too much work, stick to your fridge and freezer.
  10. If you’re ill from consuming bad food, call your doctor. If lots of people got sick from the food, you may also need to call the health department.

These rules are based on FDA guidelines and a few other rules I found on other health-based websites (like WebMD). If I’ve missed any vital rules, please let me know so I can add them.

How We Store Food Outside in the Winter

Because I’m both a nurse and a backyard homesteader, I only do a limited amount of storing food outside during the winter. I do prefer to err on the side of safety because this is food we’re eating! I don’t want us getting sick – I’ve seen plenty of horror stories, thank you very much.

Even so, we do use the outside to store food during wintertime in two main ways:

  • The temporary storage of food, especially to cool it down before transferring it to the fridge or freezer for actual storage. We may do this as long as overnight if it is cold enough and the food is protected in an animal-proof container.
  • Use of a cold storage pantry in our basement. We use this for long-term storage of cans, shelf-stable foods, and general pantry items. We also use it for short-term storage of fresh goods, like bread. Technically, it’s in our basement and part of our house. It does, however, draw on the cold from outside.

There have been too many times where, after making a delicious soup and storing it outside to cool down, I’ve forgotten it for a day or two. Depending on the temperature of both outside and the soup, we consider keeping it. If the outside temp or the temperature of the food is above 40 outside, though, we go full-careful mode – and we throw it out.

Oh – and my absolute favorite food to temporarily store outside during the winter? Hot brownies right out of the oven. They cool down so much faster – so we can eat them that much sooner. And no, there’s usually no leftovers to speak of – not with six people who love brownies at our house!

So while we don’t do a lot of food storage outside during the winter, that’s okay. We’ve got a plan, we use our plan, and we’re still able to store foods both safely and long-term.

And if we did have power issues during the winter? We’ve got a plan for that, too. We could use some combination of snow, dry ice, or homemade ice from the backyard to keep our fridge and freezer going – so that we don’t have to risk food safety to the fluctuating temperatures so common to wintertime Utah.

Related Questions

Is it OK to leave groceries in the car in winter? It may generally be safe to leave groceries in the car in winter for up to two hours or longer, depending on the car’s temperature, the temperature outside, humidity levels, the sun, and thawing patterns of the food. Be sure to check individual foods’ temperature and package integrity as you take it inside and store it appropriately.

How long can frozen food be left in the car? Frozen food may be left in the car safely as long as it retains ice crystals. The FDA recommends that once thawed, foods should be cooked before refreezing.

How long can you leave food outside? Foods can be left outside for varying amounts of time, depending on the temperature, humidity, and sun. Leaving food out at room temperature should be for no more than two hours.

Sources

  1. Albert, Sarah. “10 Rules for Keeping Food Safe Outdoors.” WebMD, WebMD, 25 June 2004, www.webmd.com/food-recipes/food-poisoning/features/10-rules-for-keeping-food-safe-outdoors#1.
  2. “FSIS.” Refrigeration and Food Safety, www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/safe-food-handling/refrigeration-and-food-safety/ct_index.
  3. “FSIS.” Keeping Food Safe During an Emergency, www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/emergency-preparedness/keeping-food-safe-during-an-emergency/CT_Index.
  4. “FSIS.” Freezing and Food Safety, www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/safe-food-handling/freezing-and-food-safety/CT_Index.
  5. “FSIS.” How Temperatures Affect Food. May 2011, www.fsis.usda.gov/shared/PDF/How_Temperatures_Affect_Food.pdf.

Kimberly Starr

I'm a ginger who loves being outside, homesteading, and spending time with my family. I believe humor is the best medicine, followed very closely by chocolate and tacos.

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