While the information I present in this article is useful to those doing multi-day trips using canoes, I wrote this article more for those planning on doing multi-day paddling trips using a kayak. The shear carrying capacity of a canoe makes most of this information unnecessary unless your trip will require portaging.
While you can pack cans of food and a 30-gallon cooler into a canoe, you are much more limited with what your kayak can and will carry. Space and weight consciousness is necessary when packing a kayak for a multi-day trip. Large tripping canoes can carry anywhere from 800 to 1,100 pounds of people and gear, including food; most expedition kayaks are limited to 325 to 400 pounds of people and gear.
Does the weight limitation mean you’re stuck eating freeze-dried foods? Not at all, but more thought must go into planning what foods you will bring along.
First, you must consider what you’re going to use to cook your meals. This limitation will help you decide what meals you can prepare. When I go on expedition trips with my canoe, I can bring along my Coleman two-burner propane stove and several bottles of propane. Hatch diameter and onboard space in my kayak dictates I substitute a single-burner stove, like a Coleman Peak or MSR Whisperlite, for that two-burner stove. I also cannot pack a one-gallon can of white gas in my kayak, so I need to carry small fuel bottles with me—how many depends on how long the trip is, what the air temperature is, and how long it takes the food to cook. Using my Peak one-burner stove, I can usually get, on average, two days of fuel from one of the larger MSR fuel bottles.
Unless you want to pack more than one single-burner stove and the necessary fuel for multiple stoves, your meals should be confined to one pot. You could use multiple pots, but by the time you’re done cooking food in that second pot, the food you prepared previously in the first pot will have gone cold. Having said all this, I will now say you can break this rule. How? If your part of a group of paddlers, others in the group can bring along a stove and the required fuel, or you can have one paddler pack all the stoves while the others pack the rest of the kitchen gear. The food gets divvied up amongst everyone.
So now you’ve determined your cooking options. What’s next? As I pointed out earlier, you’re not limited to packing freeze-dried foods. Here’s a little teaser, when I go on multi-day trips, I bring along shrimp and eggs, and as anyone knows, shrimp can go bad quickly if not kept cold.
Eggs will keep for a couple of days without refrigeration as long as you don’t wash them and keep them cool, which means you can have eggs for breakfast for the first couple of days. Washing eggs can actually allow food-borne diseases like Salmonella to penetrate the egg shell.
If you bring fresh meats, eggs, cheeses, and other dairy products along, you need to keep them cool/cold. The only way you can do this is with a cooler. But how do you get a cooler to fit into your kayak, let alone get it to squeeze through the hatch opening. Here’s why I like kayaks with oval hatches instead of round hatches. You can find soft-sided cooler bags at most sporting goods stores that are flexible and easy to squeeze through hatch openings. My Coleman soft-side bag will keep contents cold for 24 hours, even longer depending on where I keep it in my kayak and the outside ambient air temperature. The model I have holds 12 soda cans. If your kayak only has round hatches, you’ll be limited to a cooler much smaller, which will limit the amount of refrigerated food you can bring, unless you bring more than one cooler. Purchase soft-sided ice packages to keep your food cold, or freeze foods you plan on using for day two or three and use them as ice packs—a frozen hamburger log will slowly thaw over two days if kept in a cooler bag—which means spaghetti and meat sauce on day two. I would still use ice packs as well.
So, I’ve talked about cooking and storage needs. Now let’s talk about what you can bring on a trip to satisfy your hunger after a long day of paddling.
To illustrate meal planning gone wrong, allow me to tell a story about a multi-day paddling trip I attended. The trip leader called us together two days before the actual trip to ask us what were our food preferences. Some of us wanted meat, others wanted vegetarian.
On the day of the trip, the leader mentioned he had just gotten around to buying food the day before. The first night we ate bean tacos, followed the next morning with eggs and potatoes. Our first lunch included chicken wraps, which were quite tasty, and fresh vegetables. The second night’s dinner consisted of pasta with a vegetarian sauce. Breakfast the following morning was oatmeal with blueberries, followed by salami or hummus sandwiches for lunch with little to go on the sandwiches. Our last night’s dinner consisted of lentil burgers and salad. Breakfast the last day of the trip was oatmeal again, and lunch was once again salami and hummus sandwiches. The vegetables we had from the previous days had started to go bad, so we had nothing more to eat but the sandwiches and some chips.
So, what was wrong with that picture? Several things, actually. The menus and food were hurriedly put together. The trip featured oatmeal and the same sandwiches two days in a row, and the only real meat we had on the trip was the chicken wraps for lunch during our first full day on the trip—salami is not a real, nutritious meat. While we were asked what foods we wanted to eat, in the end the trip leader only considered the dietary wishes of the vegetarians.
I have led multi-day trips before and read several books from authors who earn a living leading trips—Cliff Jacobson and Kevin Callan—for instance. One thing we have in common when it comes to food on paddling trips is that we don’t eat the same foods every day. Meals can make or break a paddling trip. No one wants to eat the same thing for breakfast every morning or salami two days in a row.
Going on multi-day trips doesn’t mean you’re relegated to only eating plant-based foods. Now I love salads, pastas, and rice, and want to include those in my menus, but I also like fish, beef, and chicken. You can have it all. For instance, the image below shows some of the food I’ll be bringing with me on the trip I’m leading to Hope Island.
How do we avoid a situation similar to what I experienced? By thoughtful planning AND preparing foods everyone wants to eat. Word of advice: Menus should not be thrown together at the very last minute. I prepare my menus weeks, sometimes months, before a trip I am leading. For practical reasons, you may not be able to purchase food items until the day before; I buy and clean the shrimp I will use in my meals on my paddling trips the day before.
Some stores in my area—Fred Meyers for one—sell bacon that is pre-cooked and requires no refrigeration until the sealed package is opened. You can also find smoked salmon, chicken breast meat, and tuna in sealed pouches, not to mention rice and pasta meals as well. All of these pack nicely in a kayak and take up very little space.
There are several items that come in boxes that work great for paddling trips, but boxes take up room, so pull the ingredients out of the boxes, place them in zip-lock bags, and write the directions for preparing the food on the bags. Zip-lock bags take up far less room than those boxes. Be sure to get all the air out of the bags. Those Hamburger Helper® meals work great. You can open the sauce packet and pour it in with the noodles, as I have done in the image on the left.
So here are some menu ideas. Now mind you, I’m no culinary expert, so I won’t list recipes in this article. What I have listed here are items I bring with me to make breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. These are all easy, quick to make, and tasty. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like spending hours preparing meals; I want to get the cooking and cleanup over and done with so I am able to enjoy nature and watch the sunset. None of these meals require more than one pot, and many of these meals will feed more than one ravenous appetite. I also like to use the mayonnaise, mustard, and ketchup packages you get from fast food places.
Fresh scrambled eggs, bacon or sausage, and potatoes wrapped in tortilla shells. If you’ve frozen the sausage, it will keep for two days
Oatmeal with fresh fruit
Cereal with fresh milk the first morning, powdered milk subsequent mornings
Yogurt on the first day
Bacon, lettuce, and tomato (Use the bacon the day you open it.)
Tuna in pita bread
Peanut butter and jelly
Ham and cheese with lettuce and tomato wrapped in tortillas (day one)
Spaghetti with meat sauce (I like to use the Hamburger Helper® spaghetti dinner because the sauce is in dehydrated form, and make no later than the second night.)
Chicken with alfredo or parmesan noodles
Shrimp with teriyaki noodles (Make the first night.)
Jambalaya with sausage (Make the first night.)
Chicken with black beans or dirty rice
Smoked salmon and wild rice
Lettuce and other fresh vegetables will keep for several days as long as they’re kept cool, so you could have a salad several nights or have fresh vegetables, like yellow squash, with your dinners. Mix the vegetable in with the main meal. A favorite of mine is to add yellow squash to chicken and parmesan noodles or sugar peas with shrimp and teriyaki noodles. The previous list is only meant as a suggestion and to show that you can eat decent, hearty (and not the same) meals for several days while on a kayaking trip.
One word of advice: keep those foods that need to remain the coldest closest to the bottom of your kayak. The cold bottom of your boat will help to keep foods that you choose not to store in a cooler bag, like fruits and vegetables, chilled.