When it's finally time to go on a weekend paddling trip or to experience the pure freedom of a multi-day expedition, you may not believe this, but half the fun is in planning the meals. So let’s get creative!
First: the equipment
No matter whether you leave for two days or two weeks, basic cooking equipment remains more or less the same. For a party of two to four people you will need:
- a set of two to three nesting pots and pans with a pot-gripper, one pot being big enough to cook pastas and wash dishes;
- a foldable grill if campfires are allowed
- unbreakable plates, mugs and bowls
- ideally, two one burner stoves with fuel (wind screens are handy too)
- utensils rolled up in a dish cloth and dish towels: a plastic spatula and stirring spoon, a good cutting knife, forks, spoons, knives, one can opener
- aluminum foil
- two disposable lighters (more reliable in a marine environment) with fire starter if campfire is allowed
- A Swiss army knife is always a good idea, although not paramount
- coffee maker (either small espresso or plastic drip)
- water bottles
- water purifier if you don’t carry your own fresh water (each adult needs one gallon of water daily for drinking and cooking)
- environment friendly dishwashing soap with a scrubber
- small cutting board
- plastic table cloth is also handy
- a few Ziploc bags and some sturdy garbage bags
Next: planning meals according to your trip’s length
For weekenders (no more than 2 full days), almost every food can be taken on board. For longer periods, some basic food safety rules apply.
1) Use your kayak bottom to keep foods safer
The bottom of a kayak is a natural cooler because foods stored there will be chilled at the surrounding water’s temperature, as long as you insulate them from the warm air above with other stores or dry bags filled with clothes. Although this is not enough to travel with your favorite T-bone for days, at least it will help keep produce fresher longer.
2) Fresh meat for no more than 48 hours
You can enjoy two days of fresh meat, fish and milk or yogourt on any kayak trip. Here’s how: freeze the proteins you plan to eat on the second day, along with juices, milk and some of your fresh water supplies. Then, carefully surround the meat you want to cook the first evening with frozen items and store everything in dry bags or in plastic containers in the bottom of your kayak, covered with an insulating layer. That way, you won’t need icepacks and you’ll still enjoy perishable items. Bread doesn’t travel well for more than a day. Instead, pack bagels, pita bread, English muffins, crackers and cereal bars made with no trans fats. Granola, quick oatmeal, cracked wheat (Bulgur), whole grain couscous and polenta are also nutritious, quick cooking choices.
3) From day 3 on: more vegetarian meals
From day 3, plan more vegetarian meals, which are less susceptible to bacterial contamination. Use red lentils, vacuum packed tofu, dry soy protein, canned garbanzo, kidney or black beans as protein sources. At this stage, any animal protein should come from sealed or dry sources, except for hard cheese like feta, blue cheese, dry goat, parmesan or aged cheddar. Don’t make any exception to this rule of thumb if you don’t want to get sick! This still leaves you with many choices: canned fish or seafood, ham, sausage or chicken, duck confit, beef jerky or pepperoni, vacuum packed bacon or pâté, etc.
4) Fruits and vegetable planning
Plan your trip with fruit and vegetable life expectancy in mind. Buy them at their freshest, not bruised, just before you leave. Tomatoes, broccoli, asparagus, cucumbers, green onions, bell peppers, summer squash will keep for two to three days. Store them uncut and unwashed in the bottom of your kayak.
Cabbage, celery, green beans, carrots, Romaine lettuce, potatoes will easily remain in top shape for a week. Parsnip, sweet potatoes, beets or winter squash, yellow onions will keep even longer. Buying organic root vegetables spares you the peeling chore.
As for fruit, keep things simple: go for berry picking, or bring on board sturdy apples, small watermelon or honeydew, oranges, grapefruit. Other fresh fruit will travel for no more than a weekend. Also use dry fruits or fruit compotes.
Then: how to plan meals for a trip
These guidelines are useful for weekenders as well as expeditions. But the longer the trip the more important it is to come up with an accurate and efficient system that will prevent you from forgetting crucial things. Of course, every member of your group should be involved in meal planning. If you're leaving for a week or so with a group of 4 or more, organize a nice spaghetti dinner before as a get together and split the following tasks among your group. This has to be fun... The goal is to make your kayak trip even more enjoyable by adding a gourmet dimension to it...
a) First, make a wish list of all the meals you and your fellow companions would like to have: breakfasts, dinners, lunches and at least two snacks a day. At this point you don't need to restrict your fantasies. Just go with what you feel like eating and what you're good at preparing. Write down as many suggestions as you want. Just make sure that every fantasy meal has proteins, carbohydrates in the form of fruits, vegetables and grains and a bit of fat to sustain your intense physical activity throughout the day.
b) Make a written schedule: for each day of the trip, create a column for 3 meals, 2 or 3 snacks and the water supply required daily (and where this supply might come from). At the bottom of each daily column, mark the distance you plan to cover, the places where you will land and the environment expected (wild camping, chalet; with or without campfire, fresh water sources or not, bear country, weather expected, tide, etc.). This is what I call my "survival map". This gives you a clear picture of the kind of foods that could be convenient to bring along.
c) Matching fantasy with reality: Now it's time to look at your meals wish list and to try to match it with the requirements of your trip by writing them down in the appropriate daily columns of the schedule. This is what I call "reality check": that's where you will realize that pancakes on day 3, when you must catch the outgoing tide at 6 am are not the best option and should be replaced by granola bars. Or that your delicious wild rice pilaf will probably be left at home because it takes an hour to cook. At this point, make sure that your travel companions don't suffer from any food allergies (or disgust), and if so, remove the threatening ingredients from your list.
d) Use the 4 rules described previously about food safety, vegetarian meals and best use of fresh fruit and vegetables as your guides in your daily planning. It is much easier than it seems.
e) Make sure to plan extra meals and snacks as an emergency food supply. They should be quick to prepare, easy to eat and filling. The number of extra meals depends on the kind of trip you plan. But 30 % more provisions is the usual guideline for a trip in the wilderness. This is important for different reasons: you can spoil some of your provisions or lose them; you may have to stay longer because of bad weather or get separated from your party; or you can get much hungrier than expected, especially if you encounter rough paddling conditions.
f) Then make a detailed grocery list based on the scheduled menus that the whole group has agreed on. Don't forget the extra fancy items such as dry tomatoes, chocolate covered almonds, herbs and spices, good olive oil and sweet treats, maybe a bottle of wine or two. As for portion sizes, you can easily double what you use to eat at home because of the outdoors and of intense exercise. g) Then go shopping and have fun!
Finally, how to pack for a trip
After removing all cardboard boxes, you have two options for packing your meals:
a) by day
b) by type of meal
By day is hassle free. You pick the dry bag or the plastic jar you need for that day and that's it. You cook the meal that's scheduled (provided you brought your written schedule with you)... It is very convenient for a large party. What I don't like about this option is its lack of flexibility. What if you don't feel like eating smoked mussels and cream cheese that Monday night but rather tomato pasta with Reggiano cheese?
That's why I'm a big proponent of packing by type of meal: breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack. Each bag or plastic jar has to be identified with "B, L, D, S". That's all. Then you decide what you want to have that specific night according to weather, appetite and fatigue.
Finally, it is also a good idea to pack food and cooking gear equally among kayakers to ensure everybody will be able to eat in case he becomes separate from the group for a period of time. Those things happen when you're at sea...
And remember: leave nothing behind that isn't completely biodegradable... Carry out with you everything that you carry in.