Fresh Food for the Long Haul

I would be a hypocrite not to admit that one of my recurring fantasies when leaving for a long kayak trip (say more than three days) is to carry my own mini-fridge safely strapped on my aft deck. But it remains a fantasy. One must admit that although planning a one-week (or longer) paddling trip in total autonomy is a lot of fun, it is also a bit of a chore, especially when it comes to organizing the kayak kitchen and the menus. But as I mentioned in a previous food column about how to plan a long-term kayak trip (read it here), longer trips are often the most rewarding, especially in the fall, after most day-paddlers and tourists have gone. So, it is worth the extra effort.

How to keep food fresh longer There are no secrets when it comes to food conservation: for a paddling trip that is to last more than three days, it is not how you store the food that matters as much as which food you choose and how you prepare it. Of course, dried food is a no brainer. But not everyone is very fond of freeze dried; even if it is light and keeps forever (almost); it is also expensive, not always palatable and those we prepare home require lots of time and some specialized equipment such as a dehydrator. Let's say we decide that not to go that route for the planning of our next multi-day expedition: this leaves us with fewer options and a bigger challenge, which I love!

Let's pretend that these kayaks travel To be up to the challenge, I recently I decided that I would experiment with different produce and protein sources to check how long they would keep at their best. Since I could not leave home for another long-term trip (after all, I have to earn my living from time to time!), I decided to duplicate the conditions in which people travel by kayak.

With the help of a friend who is fortunate enough to live right by the ocean and who also happens to have a dock that remains submerged at all times no matter what the tide is, it was easy enough for me to recreate the conditions of a two week paddling trip. The challenge was to try to bring as many fresh food sources as possible on board in order to evaluate how well they would keep and for how long. And the results were quite interesting.

What I did basically, was simple enough: I loaded two of my four sea kayaks just as I would for an expedition, with all sorts of food and the regular equipment for such an outing, including a tent, cooking tools, sleeping bags and the like and using the bottom of our two boats as giant coolers. By day, my husband and me would sometimes paddle around in our fully loaded kayaks and would stop on some nice island to cook a meal or have a snack taken from our well-stocked 2-week reserve, pretending we were in complete autonomy. The days we would not paddle - because I had to work for instance - we would leave the kayaks attached to the dock to duplicate a day of paddling, with the food packed the same way.

But every night, we would remove our boats from the water and park them on my friend's beach and we would unload them as we would if we'd be in a regular paddling trip. We did not want to cheat because the goal of the exercise was to evaluate how long our cargo would keep. We figured that this would be very useful for our future outings, one of them being an 8-day paddling trip in Haida Gwaii, in gorgeous British Columbia. But instead of cooking the meals on the beach, at night, we'd bring the food planned for that supper back to our cottage and would cook it at home, which didn't really detract from our little experiment. No, we were not camping in our friend's backyard and yes, we enjoyed our morning java on our porch rather than sitting on a flat rock overlooking the Atlantic. But other than that, we carried our food and cooked it exactly as if we would be doing during a 2-week paddling trip.

Here are my findings…

Fresh produce are sturdy travelers 

Because on any long paddling trip that I have taken the fruits and vegetables were what everyone craved the most after one week on the water, I've put the emphasis on produce in order to see how long they would remain at their peak. I planned real 2-person meals for 2 weeks, trying to include at least 4 portions of fresh veggies each day and, more often than not, 5 to 6. The good news is that there was enough room to safely transport them in the boat with all the traveling gear and that the choice is also quite diversified, even for more than a 2-week expedition. For instance, carrots, parsnips, green cabbage, onions, garlic, potatoes, sweet potatoes and turnips kept very well for more than two weeks, which allowed us a generous ration of fresh produce during all this time. We enjoyed them grated in a salad or quickly sautéed, we sliced them and cooked them in a minestrone soup or we used them in a stir-fry with tofu, noodles and a bit of soy sauce.

For a one-week trip 

For a trip of one week or so, red and green bell peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini, cucumbers and asparagus remained nice and crisp for that period. It worked well as long as we bought them at their peak from local farmers when possible and carefully kept them in the bottom of the boats, in constant contact with coastal Maine's 60 degree waters and well insulated from the warm air above. On the other hand, it came as no surprise that any greens, such as leaf lettuce, spinach or green onions didn't do well past a 3-day period. Nice surprise: fresh herbs such as cilantro, parsley, chives and basil were good for 5 days wrapped in damp paper towels and placed in perforated veggie baggies, while fresh thyme, rosemary and oregano were sturdy enough to last during the entire 2-week trial period.

Fresh fruits 

I'm not much of a sweet tooth but I really crave fresh fruits every day. Bananas, berries and kiwis won't last for more than 2 days. But when packaged properly and not bought fully ripen, nectarines and peaches (kept in flat plastic boxes to prevent them from bruising) lasted four to five days, while plums and grapes kept for as long as seven days. I picked organic grapes because the conventional ones need too much fresh water to fully remove the pesticides. I also packed apples, grapefruits and oranges that stayed nice and fresh for two weeks. Small seedless watermelon was perfect for one week while cantaloupe did not do too well: the outside started to mold after four days. Anyway, this casualty did not bother me too much because they are too heavy to realistically be carried in significant number during a multi-day kayak trip. But the watermelon was such a treat after one week! It was worth every ounce and bulk! I must add that although I love them, fruits were brought in limited quantities (3 per day per person) and also kept in the bottom of the boats, but in the aft compartments. I completed the fruit rations with dates, dried cranberries and some apricots. Canned pineapples are also very satisfying and much easier to bring with you than fresh ones.

Fat and proteins 

Butter kept well in a semi-soft state for 2 weeks when stored in a non-collapsible plastic box, as do eggs and dried salami (packed in its original package until the last minute and eaten in one sitting). Dry cheese (parmesan, asiago, old cheddar and edam packed in wax, sheep milk feta cheese covered with brine and rinsed just before using) were also kept in a perfect state during the entire "trip". But I do not wrap them in plastic. Instead, I use parchment paper before putting them in a plastic container. This limits the condensation and humidity that tends to develop molds on my precious cargo.

So this gave us a good choice of proteins, completed with the usual canned tuna, shrimps, salmon and chicken, pre-cooked bacon, peanut and almond butter, vacuum-packed tofu, nuts and legumes. But again, I insist that those fresh items were always kept in the bottom of the boats, all aligned in one single layer in sturdy waxed canvas bags, with no contact with the warmer air above. To ensure that, we covered our produce with light kayak towels and placed our rations of bread, noodles, rice and the like on top.

Meat, no more than 48 hours! 

Although I have seen some kayak tour operators carrying big pieces of frozen meat such as whole chickens or roasts for more than two days placed in insulated Styrofoam boxes for some so-called "gourmet trips", I do not recommend packing fresh meat for more than 24 hours and frozen for more than 48 hours (using lots of precautions like frozen water jugs placed all around frozen meat in a collapsible cooler) on any paddling trip. It isn't worth the risk and there are plenty of safer and equally delicious options available to allow for a good ration of proteins. Remember that you don't need more than 15-20 grams of proteins per meal, which translates roughly in a 2-ounce piece of hard cheese, 2 eggs, 3 tablespoons of peanut butter on bread (ideally with a glass of milk or soy beverage), 4-ounces of extra-firm tofu, one cup of legumes mixed with whole grains or nuts, 2-ounces of meat or fish. So, no worries: you are not likely to lack proteins during your next kayak trip even if you don't carry fresh steak or cutlets in the bottom of your kayak.

How long can you enjoy a sandwich? 

Bread is always a problem due to high humidity, which tends to develop mold. Nevertheless, we were able to keep corn tortillas on board for 8 days, as well as flour tortillas. Whole grain bagels lasted 5 days and whole wheat English muffins 9 days. We vacuum-packed everything in 2 portion sturdy plastic bags and used our various breads as additional insulation for our fresh items such as salami, cheese, eggs and produce. Past this period we decided to carry some whole wheat crackers (placed in plastic bags), brown rice cakes or to make quick crepes with a mix of flour, powder milk, water and eggs. We also used other whole grains to get our daily 5-6 portions (1/2 cup per portion) of cereals: quick oatmeal, cheerios mixed with peanuts and pretzels as a snack, cream of wheat, whole grain pastas and the like. White basmati rice also came in handy because it cooks quickly, as well as whole wheat couscous and polenta made with quick-cooking cornmeal.

At the end of our 2 week "experiment" I was quite pleased that almost nothing was wasted and also that I brought the right amount of produce to satisfy our cravings for fresh items. I must say that my husband was glad to be back to a more regular regimen and in no time fired up the barbecue to grill his favorite steak.

Here is a list of produce and perishable ingredients, with their "shelf life" when properly stored in the bottom of the kayaks. With this list you should be able to plan a longer kayak expedition easily. Enjoy!

24 Hours • Fresh meat or fish kept in a cooler with ice packs • Fresh corn in the husk

48 Hours • Fresh bananas • Fresh berries • Frozen meat kept in a cooler surrounded by frozen water jugs • Milk kept in a cooler surrounded by frozen water jugs • Yogurt kept in a cooler surrounded by frozen water jugs • Smoked fish and meat kept in a cooler surrounded by frozen water jugs • Regular bread

Two to Three Days • Avocados • Cantaloupe or Honeydew melon • Cherries • Tomatoes (in a non-collapsible plastic container) • Green onions • Kiwis • Leaf lettuce (such as Bibb) • Spinach or arugula

Two weeks or more • Apples (especially Gala, Honey Crisp and Granny Smith) • Bacon (precooked, in vacuum packed containers) • Butter • Fresh beets (chose yellow ones over reds because they stain everything) • Carrots • Cabbage (choose green cabbage instead over other varieties) • Celeriac • Cheese (hard varieties packed in parchment paper and plastic boxes) • Crackers (vacuum-packed) • Eggs • Garlic • Grapefruits • Onions • Oranges • Parsnips • Rutabaga • Salami (dried, whole, in original vacuum-pack plastic) • Tortillas (corn and flour) • Winter squash (try Acorn or Spaghetti squash) • Turnips • Potatoes • Sweet Potatoes

Up to Seven Days
• Asparagus
• Bagels
• Bell peppers or hot peppers
• Broccoli
• Cauliflower
• Celery
• Cucumbers
• English Muffins (up to 10 days if properly packed)
• Fresh herbs (basil, chives, cilantro, parsley)
• Grapes
• Nectarines (4 to 5 days)
• Peaches (4 to 5 days)
• Pita Bread (6 to 6 days)
• Watermelon
• Zucchinis (green ones; small size keep longer)

Related Articles

Who says that today's paddler should be satisfied with the "eat to live" assumption and limit oneself to…

Eastern and midwestern waterways are generally clear and inviting. Not so in the far west and parts of…

After a fast-paced breakfast and determined lunch, supper is hyacinths for the soul. At last there's…

As paddlers, we are always looking for the perfect food, something that is tasty, nutritious, easily…