Having spent over 150 days guiding teens and adults in the Boundary Waters in the summer months, I’ve learned a lot about packing and preparing food. But I’ve also come to realize that one of the most important trail skills is doing things as easily and as resourcefully as possible. If you want to be quick across the portages…and cover miles on the water…and feel good at the end of each trail day…you will want to take a minimalist approach while exploring the BWCAW. Economy is key. To that point, as a trip leader, inefficiently handling food is frustrating and time consuming. So, follow these tips to improve your crew’s “meal efficiency” on your next canoe trip!
Simply put, prep matters! Of course, that’s easier said than done! Use our portions menu for a framework on how much food to pack per person per meal, but keep in mind that everyone in your crew will have varying appetites and preferences so you’ll want to discuss your food menu with them beforehand. Also remember to never trust the serving size suggestions on food labels, especially for freeze dried foods! They tend to underestimate your hunger.
We like to measure and pack each meal separately, to reduce the risk of over- or under-eating a meal. We custom order Portage North cook kit bags in black, blue, green, and red. For example, breakfast goes in blue bags, lunch in green, dinner in black, and miscellaneous goes in red. In our blue breakfast bag, we would have four carefully measured baggies (we use bread bags) of oatmeal for our four oatmeal breakfasts— versus one big bag full of oatmeal.
Cooking on the trail takes time and energy: You have to gather wood, make a fire, feed the fire, wait for the hot coals to be just right, cook the food…and then you have to clean pots and pans, and douse the fire. Still, lunch is important, as a quick rest and food break on a shady island can restore group morale and energy during a busy day of paddling. Opt for meals that can be rolled out quickly and with minimal extraneous mess and chores. Think PB & J, prepackaged sausage or beef jerky and cheese, mixed nuts, dried fruit, granola bars, and so forth. Keep in mind that taking too long for lunch will likely rob your group of all its verve and momentum—and increase your chances of not finding a campsite later that night if you still have miles to cover.
It’s difficult to carry bottles of ketchup, mustard, or other toppings on a weeklong trip and keep them from spilling or making a mess of things. Even if they don’t burst open or get smashed along the way, lids tend to get messy and sticky. Individual sauce packets are cleaner and easier to portion. If you don’t tear them all the way, you lessen your chance of leaving tiny corners of sauce packets scattered throughout the pristine wilderness— part of the Leave No Trace principles we all must abide by!
We usually begin looking for open campsites around 3 pm. That might sound fairly early, but it gives us a cushion of time in case several sites are taken. Upon finding a campsite, we unpack and set up camp immediately upon arrival—primarily because you never know when the weather will change, and you never know when everyone will suddenly feel exhausted and ready for sleep. Then we begin gathering firewood. If we have to boil water, we like to start that process around 5:30. Cooking over a campfire is an art and it is more time consuming than people think.
Eating supper together is a highlight of camping trips. Sometimes it’s best to eat dinner earlier rather than later, as you don’t want the highlight meal to be ruined by sunset-loving mosquitos.
Protein powder is more nutritious and filling. The extra protein also helps your body recover faster from the physical nature of wilderness tripping.
The first night out offers the perfect opportunity to cook your perishable items like fresh veggies and meat, not only because it will help start your journey on a delicious positive note, but because that type of food won’t last long. Sure, you could bring ice to extend the life of your perishables, but the extra weight of ice will slow you down over time—and it’s risky to count on ice to keep things cold for several days in the searing summer heat. Carrying 50 pounds of ice in a cumbersome cooler over a portage is not fun!
While warm breakfasts (think pancakes, scrambled eggs, fried potatoes) help to start the day off right, a “cold” breakfast (think cereal, a granola bar, or a handful of mixed nuts) on your last day will ensure your crew gets paddling early. You don’t want to spend your last day paddling into the wind and rain, forcing you to be late to your take-out, which can be a big deal if you have someone else picking you up or other timely plans on your itinerary.
One common BWCA myth is that you will fill your belly with fish every day. While the Boundary Waters has some of the best fishing in the U.S., not every day is great and there are many variables like weather, water conditions, and luck that factor into angling success. Under-packing food and relying on catching fish is a risk you should not be willing to take. Think of fish as a bonus food, not a staple on the trail.
Leaving your cup, bowl, and spoon on a log or around the campfire all day and night is an invitation for chipmunks and mice to defecate in and on them. It is also one of the top 10 mistakes people make at their campsites. Hanging those items up in a mesh bag keeps them off the ground and away from rodents—and will allow the dishes to dry, which is important for trail hygiene.
Bonus Tip: Bring Mio, small packets of Kool Aid powder, or other flavoring for your water to help avoid dehydration!
Much of the days spent canoeing revolve around food. A few simple food hacks will allow you to travel easier and faster on your next Boundary Waters adventure. Do you have any food hacks to add to this list? Let us know!