If you want to make me really happy, you'll take me shopping at a well-stocked outdoors store. I instantly regress to being like a kid in a candy store! There seems to be no limit to the innovations being created for the outdoor kitchen! You may not need all the fancy stuff that's on the shelves, but let's be honest: many innovations really make a paddling expedition much more interesting and fun!
Paddlers from the last century One thing is certain: we've come a long way from the day my Dad first took me on a long weekend canoe-camping trip in the good old Boy Scout's fashion. At the time, there was not much in terms of camp-cooking material! For instance, he would carry 2 large margarine containers with lids for our meals. To this day, I still follow his advice and carry only large serving bowls on each paddling trip since most camp meals are one pot dishes and I bring large plates for prep and service. Dad would also pack along a heavy Swiss knife and a small ax. Nowadays, I prefer my comfort and usually carry a complete set of fork, knife, and spoon for each person, plus one spatula, one ladle, a wooden spoon, a serrated knife and a small pairing knife with two foldable cutting boards for cooking. To this I add at least two pot holders (if my pots don't have fixed or foldable ones) and, very importantly, 2 silicone oven mitts.
But in those days, things were much more rudimental. For instance, dad would carry regular matches in plastic containers. Not ideal since they get humid quite easily! I rather bring a few disposable lighters to make sure I will never have to go without fire. His most important piece of equipment was probably a can opener because almost all of what we ate came in a can. But still, it was never a very good can opener, and I always had trouble using it. Today, I always carry a regular high quality kitchen can opener because there's no way that my beloved corn or San Marzano Italian tomatoes won't get to the skillet...
Dry bags, always…
So there I was, a 10 year old with brand new rubber boots, loaded with a green smelly canvas back sack, the contents of which was wrapped in a double lining of garbage bags. It was no wonder that after one day in the canoe the canvas was soaking wet and reeked! Nowadays I would never even consider using anything other than dry bags (which come in various sizes and colors) and sealable plastic containers on my kayak-camping expeditions. The color code of the dry bags is a simple way to remember which piece of equipment fits into which bag. For clothes, I like transparent bags; for my portable kitchen I choose red bags for the foods and blue bags for the utensils, plates, mugs and the like, everything nicely wrapped in dish towels. I will also place lighters, individual mini stoves, dish soap, my precious can opener, knives (also wrapped in cloths), wet hand towels and the like. In the red dry bags I place all my culinary treasures: tetra-packed tofu, cubes of broth, spices and small cans, such as tuna or sardines. I also get rid of any bulky cardboard and I repack coffee, tea, flour, cereals, granola bars or pastas in double lined plastic bags (Ziploc type) carefully sealed. Some paddlers claim that it's more practical to leave as many items as possible loose in the kayaks; I disagree; well packed equipment rattles around less, is easier to retrieve, takes much less time to unload once at destination and improves your kayak's stability. It might require a bit more planning, which is a good thing because it is crucial to go over all your stuff a few times to make sure you don't forget anything essential.
Bring the Veggies!
For more perishable items such as root vegetables, cheese or dry meat I keep the large plastic containers I buy olives in (they come with a big, screw-top mouth) or other small buckets equipped with a good lid. They are a perfect fit for the rather small openings of a kayak's bulkheads. The next time you visit to your favorite Mediterranean restaurant, ask them graciously to put aside a few of those containers for you. This storage method helps prevent bruises or condensation in fresh items. It is also easier to pack this type of container as close as possible to the cockpit (for improved stability) in the bottom of the kayaks so that its precious content can remain in constant contact with the cooler water temperature. For fruits and veggies that are even more fragile I prefer to use smaller stackable plastic containers equipped with a tight fitting lid because they take up less space. I place them in the bottom of the boats as well, where the air is cooler. But don't forget one essential fact: if you leave on a fully autonomous multi-day kayak trip on the ocean, you have to keep as much room as possible for water containers (collapsible are the best). One gallon of drinking water per person per day is a minimum, provided you cook and wash dishes with salted water. Water takes up a lot of bulk!
In my early paddling expeditions, it was a matter of honor for my Dad and I to assemble our own rudimentary stove out of sticks and aluminum foil. Now I've opted for more modern amenities, and I recommend bringing at least 2 one burner stoves (with their stand, if needed) instead of one double: it gives you more flexibility and they are easy to slip into very tight spaces for packing. If your party is of more than 4 people, bring along at least three one-burner stoves along with sufficient fuel. And don't forget at least 2 brand new disposable lighters in case one breaks or empties.
As a scout-to-be and apprentice cook, I was also in charge of carrying our portable kitchen while Dad carried the tent, the tools and the rest of the equipment, including a bottle of wine... So my green packsack was loaded with cheap aluminum pots and pants, canned food plus cookies in a metal jar and peanut butter-jelly sandwiches for the first picnic. That's it! Dad was very frugal in his choices, but in my eyes he remains to this day the best paddler I've ever known and the funniest guy around. I always loved those paddling trips, even when we had to portage! If only we could have had better cooking equipment…
Creature of Comfort
Thanks to those early days of roughing it, I promised myself to always carry fresh produce and a few extra items that would make the difference between bare survival essentials and camping comfort. That's why I bring along the followings: a nice vinyl tablecloth, one wind breaker for each stove, some candles for ambiance, good quality eating and cooking utensils (not the cheap disposable plastic type, but some from home or a reputable outdoor store), 2 small cutting boards, a vegetable peeler, a dish scrubber with an attached container for the soap that works wonders when I wash the dishes. I love my foldable bucket to carry water and to wash the dishes and I also bring good quality large pots and pans along because I hate to see the dinner burnt or unevenly cooked due to thin camping pans. Best choice for me and my party of four to six people would be one extra-large non-stick skillet (with foldable handle) and two large pots with double handles attached (Dutch oven type). Of course, being the coffee lover that I am I never leave home without my espresso coffee press and some large unbreakable mugs. This will make your life so much more enjoyable! If you are in a sector where you are allowed camp fires, make sure to bring an expandable grill with you. To me, a large kitchen tarp suspended between trees (if available) or supported by a few paddles is also an essential piece; I can't imagine cooking at night without some protection from the rain or the wind. And don't forget some headlamps too. They are much more practical than flashlights. A foldable strainer is also very handy and safer if you like to cook pastas, grains, or rice.
Although Dad was always convinced that the water from the lakes we paddled was pristine and could be drunk directly, I would never do that nowadays. Who knows if a dead raccoon or deer has not contaminated the water at a source upstream, which could result in a bad case of beaver fever? So better safe than sorry: invest in a good water treatment system if you paddle on fresh water lakes and rivers. For those among us who rather paddle the deep blue sea for several days in total autonomy, well, there's no other option than to bring your own fresh supply of water onboard. I'm a big fan of square 1 or 2 pint collapsible water jugs that can be aligned behind my seat. I always freeze as many as possible too and I place them in a few collapsible coolers. This will allow you to eat fresh meat for the first two days of your paddling trip. Just make sure to freeze your first two suppers of the week: beef ragout, shepherd's pie, chicken cacciatore: the first two nights are the only time when you can eat fresh meat safely. Make sure to surround those frozen meals with frozen water jugs over and under for food safety.
Many Food Options Available
Back to the good old days when I was paddling with Dad, since he was frugal and not much of a cook he would choose to bring pre-packaged goods on board: buckwheat flour for pancakes in the morning, Kraft Dinner, instant rice, baked beans, canned meatballs and ravioli. No fresh ingredients or fruits and vegetables in sight, despite mom's recommendations to bring at least apples, oranges, celery sticks and carrots. Only exceptions were some dried cranberries and dates. Dad wanted to keep things to a minimum and to carry only "bare essentials", which always included a good bottle of red wine for him! As long as you store them neatly, there is no reason not to include plenty of fresh items in your daily regimen: go for tomatoes, kale, cucumber or mushrooms for the first two days, pick bell peppers, zucchini or celery for the next couple of days; then switch to carrots, cabbage, parsnip, beets, onions, sweet potatoes and turnip in the remaining days of your trip. Bring a small grater to make a lovely carrot and currant crunchy salad or a coleslaw with dried cranberries and nuts; caramelize a large onion and make a delicious onion soup with some cheese and croutons or cut all sorts of veggies to fix a comforting sauté with some tofu and soy sauce over rice noodles. Your performances on the water will be much better if you eat fresh produce daily. And don't forget that apples, oranges, grapefruit or watermelon keep for a long time. One of my favorite packing tricks is to cut back on the amount of clothes I carry on board in order to have more room to bring along essential ingredients …Frankly, I don't mind wearing the same tee-shirt two days running in the bush!
Quality Equipment as an Investment
A couple of years into my memorable paddling trips into the wilderness, Dad offered me a brand new set of the top quality pots and pans as a Christmas present to enjoy cooking in the great outdoors. The expense proved to be worth every penny, making kitchen chores less of a hassle and more a pleasure. So Dad and I kept exploring the working wonders of the liquid world one lake at the time for many years thanks to that good quality equipment. Too bad he never learned to sea kayak because we would have also been able to explore the deep blue seas together… Thanks for sharing your passion Dad!
List of cooking gear essentials for one week (or more) paddling trips (4 to 6 people)
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