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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

The Portable Pantry

Food for the Long Haul

By Tamia Nelson

May 20, 2003

There's no doubt about it. Provisioning for a Big Trip can be a daunting chore. You've little or no margin for error, for one thing. Miss a meal on a weekend outing? No problem. Miss every meal for a week, though, and you'll begin to feel the pinch. Cost is often a concern, too, and weight and bulk almost always have to be kept to a minimum. Personal tastes and special dietary requirements also need to be considered. The list goes on and on and on.

That's why otherwise level-headed camp cooks can find themselves gripped by panic as the departure date approaches. But this doesn't have to happen to you. The key to staying cool is organization. And organization usually means having one person in charge. Unless someone has ultimate responsibility for provisioning, it's very likely that something will go wrong.

Look beyond the swinging doors of a well-run commercial kitchen and you'll find a chain of command that any general would envy. And the commander-in-chief is the Executive Chef. Subordinate chefs and cooks each take their orders from him (or her). It works for four-star restaurants, and it can work for you, too. Of course planning for a Big Trip should be fun. But that doesn't mean you can get by without having clear lines of responsibility. You can't.

Let's suppose the care and feeding of your group is in your hands. You're the Executive Chef, in other words. (Call yourself Cookie, if you think Executive Chef sounds too fancy.) Where do you start? By asking questions:

  • How long will the trip last?
  • How many mouths will you have to feed?
  • How much can you spend?
  • Does anyone have special dietary needs?
  • What kind(s) of boats will you be using?
  • How difficult is the route?
  • What's the weather going to be like?
  • How much time do you want to spend preparing meals?
  • Is your menu balanced?

Let's consider each of these in turn.

How Long? Take it from me — you stop having fun when the food runs out. So always bring more food than you think you'll need. How much more? An extra day's food for each week you'll be on the water is about right. If you think your trip will last two weeks, carry enough food for two extra days. Four weeks? Add four days' extra rations. And so on. Then, if you fall behind schedule or if a food bag opens in a capsize, you won't miss too many meals. It's always better to be safe than sorry.

How Many? This isn't rocket science. Notwithstanding the parable of the loaves and the fishes, each extra mouth means extra meals. Solo paddlers have it easy here. Everyone can count to one, after all! Larger groups pose bigger problems. Some paddlers may prefer to split their group into several smaller, more or less independent parties, linking up only at lunchtime and camp. (Really big groups may have no choice but to camp separately.) Unless you're sure you'll be able to eat together at every meal, however — and unless you're also certain you'll want to — it's best to plan for each party to be self-sustaining. Work the details out well in advance of D-Day.

How Much? Many folks are lucky. They don't have to pinch each penny till it squeaks. But if the sky isn't the limit, don't despair. Just set a budget and stick to it. It's possible to eat very well without spending a fortune, though you'll have to plan more carefully than the Platinum Card brigade. Take a few hours to see what's on the shelves of your local HyperMart. Check out neighborhood food co-ops and ethnic markets. Buy in bulk. Wait for sales. Dry your own. You'll be surprised at how cheaply you can eat.

Yuk or Yummy? Don't assume that everyone in your party likes green tea. Ask. People's food preferences vary widely. Vegetarians won't warm to meals based around beef jerky. Meat and potatoes types may think that texturized vegetable protein (TVP) is only good for plugging holes. Religious practices and medical conditions limit many folks' food choices, too. Just because you're the boss cook, you can't order people to eat only what you like. Consult your partners. Learn their needs and preferences, their likes and dislikes. Some folks become grumpy if they don't get sweets, while others couldn't care less. Some crave breadstuffs with each meal, while others think no day is complete without a piece of cheese or a mug of soup. Make sure each person gets what he or she likes to eat.

Appetite plays a role, too. Teen-agers and hard-chargers will want extra-large meals. Make allowances. A weekend shakedown trip can be an invaluable planning tool here. Identify the big eaters in your party early and adjust accordingly.

Boat Type? Large expedition canoes can accommodate dutch ovens and sacks of potatoes with ease, but some sea kayaks don't have space for anything much bigger than a thermos. Do a dry run before you leave for your put-in. Be sure there's room in your boats for all your food bags, as well as your other gear — and don't forget to make certain there's a place for you too! Unless you like the idea of paddling a weather-vane, resist the temptation to pile gear high. And don't overload. A boat with too much weight in it is already half-sunk. No boat can do everything. On any trip, be sure the boats are up to the job you're asking them to do.

How Hard? Open-water crossings, heavy whitewater, and frequent portages can take a lot out of paddlers, whatever their level of fitness. Hard trips mean hearty appetites, but hard routes put a premium on weight and bulk. It's a difficult balance to strike, but you have to get it right. Experiment with concentrated, high-energy — this means high-fat — foods. The back of beyond is no place for nouvelle cuisine. There's a reason why the voyageurs lived on pemmican. A mixture of fat and pounded meat isn't my idea of a gourmet treat, but it certainly keeps the engine running.

How's the Weather? Kayaking down an arid, sun-baked sea coast is dry work, and you'll soon learn the importance of fresh water. Along many arctic rivers, on the other hand, firewood is almost impossible to find, so don't plan on cooking and baking over glowing coals. Cold-weather trips also mean big meals and hot drinks. Better carry plenty of fuel for your stove.

Where's Cookie? Is toiling over a campfire for three hours every day your idea of a good time? No? Then you'll need to rely on meals which come together quickly. Quick-cooking boxed main dishes from the HyperMart, freeze-dried foods, and retort-packaged entrées make the job easier. This is a good thing. A miserable cook makes for a miserable trip.

Some paddlers attempt to forestall mutiny in the kitchen by taking turns as duty cook, and this can work well. It's important to try it out first on a short trip, though. Not everyone can cook, and eating other people's mistakes is a drag.

In Balance? Nutrition fascinates many folks, but I'm afraid I'm not one of them. Still, you can't ignore your body's needs over the long haul and hope to stay happy, let alone healthy. It's wise to remember a few rules of tum. Eat as varied a diet as possible. Pack plenty of dried fruits and include vegetables in every supper dish. On really long trips, it certainly won't hurt for everyone to take a daily multi-vitamin tablet. And don't skimp on meals. If you're an adult, even if you live on salads and rye toast at home, you'll need around 3500 calories a day to keep going on a long trip. This is roughly two pounds of food. (That's two pounds dry weight, and it includes a rule of tum allowance for no-calorie "foods" like tea and coffee. Water is essential for life, and life without tea is unthinkable, but neither has significant food value.) Seem like a lot? It's not. Strenuous trips may require twice as much, particularly in cold weather.

Want to know more? Check out the "Kitchen" chapter of Colin Fletcher's Complete Walker. His food lists are showing their age, but there's no better short course in the nuts and berries of backcountry nutrition than his section on the "Scientific Nutritional Method." Just be sure your calculator batteries are fresh! (Are you bothered that it's a book for backpackers? Don't be. Fletcher's had a lifelong love affair with the Colorado River, and his latest book is about a source-to-mouth solo raft trip. And, anyway, whether you're backpacking or paddling, you still need to eat — a lot.)

That's it: a short course in meal-planning for the long haul. Overwhelmed? Relax! Approach the job of provisioning for a Big Trip in the same way a master mason crafts a cathedral — one building-block at a time. Lay the first blocks level and true, then just keep working steadily away. The rest will follow. It helps to have a good building plan, of course, and this is where your Master Menu comes in. But that's a subject for another time.

Hungry? Whether you live to eat or only eat to live, you'll want to check out our "Alimentary, My Dear" archive.

Copyright 2003 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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