By Sharon Brodin
A multi-day canoe trip is a unique wilderness experience that, like backpacking, means you pack your food wherever you go. Let’s look at your options for canoe trip food so you can make the best choices for your group and situation.
When it comes to canoe camping meals there’s no right or wrong. Some people want light and easy meals. Others want gourmet. Some love camp cooking, others just want to have a full belly. What you decide will depend on quite a few factors including whether you're planning long trips or shorter trips.
There are three basic options when it comes to meals for your wilderness canoe trip: “real” food (non-dehydrated), pre-packaged dehydrated meals marketed to backpackers, and DIY dehydrated meals.
There are pros and cons to each of these:
Bring “Real” Food
PROS: Tastes great • healthy • budget-friendly
CONS: Heavy • Takes up more room in the pack • somewhat labor intensive to plan and prepare both before and during the trip
BEST FOR: Trips with little to no portaging • short trips • strong portagers • fresh food lovers
Back in the 80s when I was a camp counselor in northern Minnesota, we brought teens on 5-10 day canoe trips in the Boundary Waters. In those days—at least at low-budget small ministries like ours—expensive pre-packaged backpacking food wasn’t an option (I’m not sure it was even on the market at the time).
We brought “real” food along on these trips. We had a food pack it all fit in, including the cook kit. It was our heaviest pack at the start of each trip and of course would lighten up after every meal.
When our family (my husband and I, plus our three teens) joined another family (with a husband, wife and their teen) for a 5-day trip a few years ago, we also brought mostly “real” food. We weren’t too worried about the weight because we had four healthy teenagers to help with the portaging!
We even packed in our griddle so we could have pancakes one morning:
The way our boys could eat, it would’ve cost us a fortune to buy pre-packaged backpacking meals. Each one of them could’ve eaten an entire 4-serving meal alone!
More examples of real food that works well in the right packaging are instant oatmeal, pita bread, ground beef (cooked ahead of time and frozen) and rice cakes.
Buy Pre-Packaged Dehydrated Food
PROS: Lightweight • easiest way to prepare on the trail with little time needed for food preparation
CONS: Expensive • sometimes sketchy flavor
BEST FOR: Extended trips • lots of portages and/or long portages • solo or small groups
Your easiest meal planning option for both packing and preparing is to buy pre-packaged dehydrated meals. There are many brands out there that make and sell these, including small family businesses. Many carry gluten-free and vegan options.
If you’re short on prep time and have the budget to spend more on each meal, this is your best option. It’s very lightweight, it’s easy to plan, and easy to prepare on the trail.
Taste varies, even among different meal options with the same brand. Although when you’re in the wilderness and have been paddling and portaging all day, most of us aren’t too picky about our food anymore. Everything tastes good!
One thing I noticed that some of you will want to be aware of: these meals meant for backpacking tend to be loaded with saturated fat, carbs and calories. I suppose they're designed for through-hikers and others burning a lot of calories every day. That may be true for you on an extending paddling trip…but personally, the last thing I want to do on a canoe trip is gain weight!
Make Your Own Dehydrated Food
PROS: Budget-friendly • lightweight • custom meals • easy to prepare on the trail
CONS: Time and labor-intensive to prepare before the trip
BEST FOR: Foodies • those with time beforehand • extended trips and/or lots of portages
Finally, if you have the time and desire, you can make your own dehydrated meals before your trip.
My brother-in-law, Thaddeus, loves dehydrating his own canoe trip food. He’s done it for a few canoe trips now, so I asked him for his best tips:
“The site that got me going on making my own is TheYummyLife.com, although Fiesta Rice was one we had to choke down—whew, a little over-spiced! Then I ordered the book The Backpacking Chef and riffed off the two of them from there.
“Chef has good ideas for sauces and soups that can provide a base for other things. You can make sauces, like spaghetti sauce and soup base, and dehydrate it into “leather” for light, easy packing. When you’re in camp, just add it back into the pot of whatever you’re making. It opens up a whole world of flavor with camp food!"
Thaddeus and his nephew have done trips as long as nine days and have been able to fit most of their meals into a 10-liter dry bag.
You can get away with ordering freeze-dried mixed veggies, and then find the other ingredients at your local grocery store. But you won’t save much money that way. To really get into it (especially for sauce leather, scrambled eggs, etc.) you’ll want your own dehydrator.
A side note: If you’re going to make it, make it in batches. The shelf life of dehydrated food is incredible, so make a whole season’s worth at a time…or even a couple year’s worth at a time. Stored properly, it’ll last.
What About Beverages?
One of the handy things about canoe tripping is you'll never run out of water sources. Instant coffee, tea, hot chocolate and Tang are all good options for beverages on-trail. Anything instant is easiest since all you need is hot or cold water.
Back in my flavored cream days, I tried this interesting little item (on the left):
It was pretty nasty—both the gooey texture and the taste. I don’t recommend it!
When you’re used to fresh-ground coffee, the instant isn’t fantastic—even Starbucks. But it’ll do if it’s easy you’re after. Some of it comes premixed with powdered milk if you like cream in your coffee like I do. If you’re determined to have fresh coffee that's certainly possible as long as you don’t mind packing a little more.
Incidentally, you can drink Tang cold or hot. Back in camp days, we brought a mixture we called Russian tea, with instant tea and Tang, plus cinnamon and cloves. (The recipes I looked up all call for sugar, too, but Tang is sweet enough for me.)
Easy-to-Pack Snacks and Lunches
Individually-wrapped protein and granola bars, dried fruit, nuts, trail mix, peanut butter on tortillas or Rye Crisp, summer sausage, beef jerky. All are easy, economical and packable. Don’t forget a utensil to spread and cut.
Foods like fresh fruit, cream cheese and fresh vegetables are options, but best used early in the trip. That way your pack weight goes down quickly and nothing has a chance to spoil.
On one recent trip, the person providing lunch on Day 1 brought frozen homemade brownies. They were unthawed by the time we stopped for lunch without getting crushed along the way. They also helped keep the lunchmeat cold in the meantime…and they were responsible for huge smiles on our faces!
More Thoughts & Tips on Canoe Trip Food
TIP #1: Plan a combo of real food and pre-packaged. Grocery store brands like Bear Creek offer dry soup and rice mixes with everything but the meat. Pack along real protein and you have a hearty meal for half the price of the backpacking meals.
Or bring some backpacking meals and some DIY, along with some real food. It doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing.
TIP #2: Organize by day and meal: Put all the menu items for each meal in separate ziplock bags and label them—Breakfast Day #1, Lunch Day #2, etc. Load the food pack starting with the last day’s bags at the bottom.
This is an especially great system if you bring perishables like frozen pre-cooked hamburger that you want to eat early in your trip. Use the empty Zip-locks to store all your trash.
TIP #3: One of the tricky parts of planning is to decide the amount of food to bring. You don’t want too much because there’s no way to deal with leftovers. You don’t want too little because you’re working hard out there, will build up hearty appetites and need the calories.
You need to know each person in your group and guess how much food they’ll eat. Teen boys will eat a lot more food than older women like me. The foods listed above under the snack section don’t take up much room and can supplement hungry people who didn’t get enough for dinner.
TIP #4: If time is gold for you and money is no object, work with an outfitter near your entry point to provide the trip food for you. They’ll plan, prepare and pack it in a food pack or canister(s) along with a cook kit. All you have to do is pick it up. Super easy and convenient. Many outfitters offer this kind of a la carte option even if you have all your own gear.
TIP #5: Be sure you know any regulations about the area you’re traveling in. For example, you’re not allowed to bring metal or glass containers into the Boundary Waters, which means no canned food.
TIP #6: Don’t forget extras like spices, olive oil, maple syrup and other you may want. How will you package them so liquids won't escape?
TIP #7: If you’re in bear country you’ll need a tree big enough to handle the weight of your food pack when you string it up for the night. Think about this when you choose your campsite. And don’t forget rope! A pulley system works really well for heavy packs, especially.
Of course, you can also use bear canisters instead of a traditional canoe pack. I’ve heard varying opinions on whether they’re actually bear-proof (it might depend on the bear!).
TIP #8: Do you plan to harvest some of your trip food—like ripe berries and fish? That’s awesome. Of course, berries depend on the season and you may want to have a back-up plan if the fishing isn’t great.
TIP #9: Will you cook over a campfire or camp stove? That’s a whole other topic, but to be succinct: For a large group, you can cook more food over a campfire at one time, assuming you'll be able to collect (dry) firewood. For a small group and for faster cooking, a camp stove is easier.
I hope this helps you plan your food for your next—maybe even first—canoe camping trip!
Do you have more questions about canoe paddles? Get in touch with our friendly Customer Service team today: 715-755-3405 • [email protected]
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