There is nothing quite like a backcountry portage camping trip to experience the beauty of Canada and its vast expanse of lakes and tiny islands. If you have never been portaging before, you may have some questions about what and how to eat. Unlike a car camping or cottage trip (where you could “wing it” if you had to), it is worth your while in a backcountry scenario to put some careful thought into your meal planning in order to maximize enjoyment and safety. I’m drawing on two decades of camping experience to summarize some of the important things I learned along the way!
Start by brainstorming with your camping group without restriction. Throw out ideas for breakfasts, lunches, dinners, desserts and snacks based on what you like eating and know how to prepare (under normal circumstances), while making sure to cover your proteins, carbs and fats. You will need substantial, nutritious meals to keep up with a higher level of physical activity than you would on a regular day at your office job.
Next, slot the best brainstormed meal ideas into a draft table/schedule. Make a column for each day of your trip and allocate room for three meals, one dessert and two official snacks on each day, along with an indication of daily water supply required (and where it will come from). Make space for other beverage allocations (juice, coffee, tea and alcohol if you fancy) too.
Make a note under each daily column of the location you plan to be, the distance you plan to cover, and the environment you will be in (ie. Will you have access to a campfire? Is your fresh water source guaranteed? What are the expected weather conditions?). This will give you a clear picture of the kind of foods that might work best for each day.
Once you have a general idea of what you want to eat, it’s time to make sure that your food brainstorm list aligns with reality. All of your meals should take into consideration:
- Perishability and Food Safety: Each group should bring at least one small cooler, but it’s still important to focus on food that can be stored at room temperature because your ice always melts faster than the trip lasts. If you enjoy dairy and meat, consider adding drier or wax-covered cheeses (think Parmigiano Reggiano or Babybel) and cured meats to your mix. If you want to bring fresher dairy, meat or seafood, plan to eat those items on day 1 and 2. Tip: freeze the fresh proteins you plan to eat on the second day, along with any beverages you intend on bringing and use them as temporary ice packs as well.
- Weight: Even though a canoe is a great way to move heavier things around, don’t forget that you will also have to carry all of your food and gear in and out of the canoe at every juncture, not to mention, the canoe itself! It’s best to keep things as light and compact as possible. Consider whether there are some food items that could be dehydrated or freeze-dried. Consider whether some items can be pre-cut or prepared in advance (ie. shucking your corn, dicing carrots). And finally, consider whether there is anything you can repackage better yourself (eliminate awkward boxes and put items in Ziploc bags instead).
- Cooking Time and Effort: How much patience do you have to cook your food and how much fuel and equipment do you actually want to carry? Do not overestimate your abilities, or underestimate your fatigue after a long day out on the water and in the woods. More importantly, the weather is always unpredictable, so don’t ever assume you will be able to make a roaring campfire every night. Keep things easy, and keep things flexible.
After analyzing your brainstormed list against the considerations above, make all necessary adjustments and swaps. Do a final scan and make sure everyone’s allergies and dietary restrictions have been accounted for.
Divide and Conquer
Once the menu is set, it’s time to make your detailed grocery list. If more than one person will be shopping, make a master list, and then sub lists for each person who will be tasked with purchasing and preparing items. This is extremely important to make sure common items (oil, seasonings, herbs etc.) are accounted for, while also ensuring they are not unnecessarily duplicated.
You will also need to shop with the final packing in mind. For a group of 4 campers, I would suggest one dry bag per canoe, with the more experienced canoe also taking on the responsibility of the cooler. If the two pairs will be meeting up at the departure point, do a quick inventory then and make your packing adjustments before embarking on the trip. Don’t forget to bring at least one strong, long rope per dry bag so that you can pack your food away and hang it in a tree to keep the bears at bay.
In terms of quantity, you should strategically aim to have at least 30% more food than what you would normally eat at home. Not only will you be burning more calories, but you’ll want a little buffer in case something in your food supply goes bad, or something unexpected happens that causes you to get lost or separated from the rest of your party. This is another reason why you should always split the food between two or more canoes.
Non-Food Food Packing List
- One plate, mug and bowl per person
- A reusable water bottle (wide-mouth Nalgene bottles are excellent for hot and cold, measuring, and can also work as a hot water bottle to place in your sleeping bag if it gets really cold)
- Personal camping utensils (roll up in a dish cloth ideally to prevent puncturing anything)
- A cutting knife, a can opener (if necessary), a deep spatula that could also double as a ladle (also wrap up these items up carefully in a dish cloth)
- A small cutting board
- A set of nesting pots (two is ideal) with a pot gripper and at least one lid
- A small camp burner stove with enough propane to last the trip
- A foldable grill (but check if your site will already have built-in grills on firepits)
- Aluminum foil (can be used for all sorts of cooking methods, including making a makeshift pan, wrapping leftovers, and throwing anything whole (like a potato) directly into a fire without a grill)
- Two disposable lighters and/or flint with fire starter (if allowed at your site)
- Coffee maker with coffee (have you tried the Aeropress?) or instant coffee and/or tea
- A personal Swiss army knife is always a good idea
- Water purifier (extremely important)
- Environmentally-friendly dishwashing soap (Campsuds are what I use; note that it is extremely concentrated!) with a scrubber
- a few Ziploc bags and sturdy garbage bags
Sample Menu for a 4-Day Trip
- Breakfast: at home or on the road
- Lunch: at the Meeting Point or Outfitters (but pack some hearty snacks in case food is not available)
- Snack: Protein snack bar (Rx Bars are my current favourites)
- Dinner: pre-marinated chicken skewers with Greek seasoning, zucchini, red pepper and red onion (make sure skewers do not puncture your bag by wrapping in foil and then in a bag, sand down the skewer points), Tzatziki sauce and pre-made rice pilaf.
- Dessert: Banana Boats (slice open bananas lengthwise, add toppings like chocolate chips, marshmallows, etc, wrap in foil and throw into campfire).
- Breakfast: French Toast Sticks (bread, milk, egg and cinnamon mixture (can make beforehand)) with strawberries, blueberries and maple syrup
- Snack: Mandarin oranges
- Lunch: Croque Monsieur sandwiches (Paris ham and Gruyère cheese and Dijon mustard, grilled if you like, or cold if you’re heading out), Romaine lettuce salad
- Snack: Homemade trial mix
- Dinner: Polish Sausage or Bratwurst Hot Dogs with grilled red bell peppers, onions, mustard, mayo and/or ketchup (cook on campfire or camp stove), pickles, potato chips
- Dessert: Classic S’mores
- Breakfast: Crispbread with Laughing Cow Cream Cheese or Babybel, tomato and cucumber, salt and pepper
- Snack: Apples
- Lunch: Veggie chickpea curry wraps
- Snack: Homemade beef jerky
- Dinner: Burritos with dehydrated (and rehydrated) beef or veggie ground, beans, peppers, onions, rice, seasoning, guacamole (fresh avocados and cilantro, pre-made guacamole mix) and crackers
- Dessert: Campfire Apple Crisp (but made in the small pot and finished in foil in the fire)
- Breakfast: Instant oatmeal packets with additional dried fruits and nuts (cranberries and almonds are my favourites)
- Snack: Carrots and hummus
- Lunch: Peanut butter, jelly and banana sandwiches on the go
There you have it! Special thanks to all my friends and family who I’ve camped with who I have taken inspiration from (especially frequent portage buddies Mike and Dennis) for some of these food ideas. Happy camp meal planning!
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