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Alimentary, My Dear

Good to Go — Keeping Food Fresh Under Way

By Tamia Nelson
tamia@paddling.net

October 17, 2006

It's a fact. Whether we sit or kneel, all paddlers travel on their stomachs. Our engines won't run without fuel, and that means food. Of course, food is much more than fuel. Just about everyone enjoys eating. Food satisfies us when we're hungry, boosts our spirits when we're feeling low, and bucks us up when we're exhausted. So it's important to choose paddling fare with care. Some trips last only a few hours. Others stretch out from one season to the next. Either way, keeping the food in your traveling pantry fresh-tasting and wholesome is essential.

Careful shopping is where it all begins. Planning menus, drawing up food lists, and scanning outfitters' catalogs are all necessary chores, and you'll probably want to see what your local HyperMart has to offer, too. But all this effort can still come to nothing if your food isn't packed well. Paddling trips can be hard on stowed food. Packs bake in the hot sun all day, then chill out under clear nighttime skies. They're jabbed, dropped, and jostled on rough portages. Days of rain — not to mention occasional capsizes — test the integrity of watertight seals, while the sharp teeth of resident wildlife probe for any weakness in your pack's defensive perimeter. Even the fresh air is now your enemy. It, too, threatens the keeping qualities of many perishable foodstuffs.

 

Whew! It's starting to sound like Mission Impossible, isn't it? Well, take heart. A little homework will go a mighty long way toward protecting your assets once you leave the put-in behind you. And it doesn't have to be hard. Begin by…

Keeping Your Cool

When drawing up your menu, keep three considerations in mind: safety, bulk, and weight. Of these, safety is paramount. Fresh meat and dressed salads are always welcome treats on your first night out, but they pose special hazards. The remedy? Start out with hard-frozen meat, and then pack it in a soft cooler, along with any perishable salad dressings. Add a freezer block or two, and you can probably stretch the safe storage time long enough to see you through a weekend getaway. A hint: Pick a cooler that's just big enough to carry the load, and no bigger. Test its holding qualities at home first. And don't rely on your hand to check the temperature. Use a thermometer.

You won't be bringing fresh meat on longer trips, of course, but heat hurts the keeping qualities of many of the other items in your pantry. When possible, therefore, store food near the bottom of your pack, where it's chilled by the cool water under your keel. And be sure to consider color when you buy packs and dry bags — if you want to keep your cool, light is right. The effect can be quite dramatic. Much to his surprise, Farwell found that putting a white card in the map pocket of his (black) bicycle 'bar bag dropped the inside temperature by all of ten degrees Fahrenheit on sunny days. Now his M&M's® don't stick together. I've noticed similar differences in temperature between lemon yellow and forest-green food packs, too.

 

Why is temperature important? Bacterial pathogens thrive when it's warm. They falter only when it gets too hot (above 165 degrees Fahrenheit, say) or too cold (below 40 degrees Fahrenheit). Moreover, high temperatures shorten storage life and adversely affect taste. But heat is only one threat. Water and air are also your enemies. Each impairs the keeping qualities of food. That's why it isn't enough to keep your cool. You need a…

Defense in Depth

Think of your food bags as medieval castles. No self-respecting baron would be happy with only one wall between him and his rivals. He'd want two or three at least. That's the idea behind defense in depth, and it's worth adopting when you pack for a trip. Plastic bags, rigid boxes, stuff sacks, and dry bags — these are the walls of your castle. Now let's take a closer look, beginning with the innermost or third line of defense, the layer nearest the food itself. Here you want something that's airtight and resealable. Sometimes the original packaging will do fine. (Once you've stripped off any hang tags and cardboard envelopes, at any rate.) More often, however, you'll need to repack. Use your common sense. Soup powder and similar dry stores (e.g., powdered milk, sugar, and salt, along with packaged pasta sauce mixes and instant cocoa) don't need rigid plastic containers. Ziploc® plastic bags — or any of their numberless imitators — work fine. So do plain freezer bags. But don't try pouring cooking oil or other liquids directly into a mere bag. Such slippery customers require a robust plastic bottle with a tight-fitting cap. Rigid containers are also ideal for delicate fresh fruits and vegetables. You can even find plastic egg boxes and semi-rigid tubes for jams and nut butters. But make sure the clasps on your tubes will hold under pressure. Many don't. And check that your eggs fit in the box you buy — one size doesn't fit all. Oh, yes. Do these checks before you leave for the put-in.

Returning for a moment to Ziploc® bags and their kin: Don't be tempted by the "new, improved" bags that close with a zipper-like slide (or tab). Stick to bags having the old-fashioned press-to-seal tongue-and-groove. I've found the slide closures to be far less reliable, a conclusion supported by the technicians at America's Test Kitchen. I still double-bag almost everything, though, just in case. By the way, I never use twist ties with any bag. Their wire cores seem to have been designed to puncture food bags. Moreover, discarded ties now make up a disconcertingly high portion of the litter in popular campsites, often yielding pride of place only to cigarette filters. (What do I use instead of twist ties to close plain plastic freezer bags? That's easy. Knots.) There are other choices, too. Are you into portion control? Do you like preplanned, heat-and-serve meals? Then you'll like the FoodSaver® line of heat-sealed bags. Just be sure you make the portion size adequate — and no more. You can't reseal a FoodSaver® bag once you've opened it. (Glad's Press'n Seal® wrap may offer an alternative to Ziploc® and FoodSaver® bags, having some of the advantages of each. But I haven't had a chance to try it out. Yet.)

Get the picture? This final line of defense is so important that canny paddlers often weigh container and contents equally when deciding what to buy. A case in point: My everyday brand of grated Parmesan cheese comes in a cylindrical plastic bottle with a wide mouth. The screw-on top has two covered openings. Lift the flaps and you'll see that one is perforated, while the other is not. (It's just large enough to admit a measuring spoon.) When washed and dried, these all but unbreakable bottles are wonderfully versatile. The lids are not watertight, but when protected by a Ziploc bag, the bottles are great for working quantities of dry staples like salt and sugar, as well as fragile items like pretzel sticks and thin pasta. In fact, you can get up to one and one-half pounds of capellini inside each "eight ounce" bottle if you snap the strands in half. The bottles also make good containers for eat-on-the-run snacks like peanuts, raisins, and miniature pretzels. Farwell often tucks a couple in the back pockets on his cycling jersey for scouting trips down fire roads. Works fine in the canoe, too.

Can you go too far in repackaging food? You bet! Once again, your common sense is your best guide. Don't repackage the contents of retort packs, canned foods, or any other items which depend on the original seal to keep them fresh and safe. 'Nuff said?

 

Is everything packed (or repacked)? Now it's time to organize…

The Second Line of Defense

And "organize" is the operative word here, though "waterproof" is good, too. Some folks like to segregate the ingredients for breakfasts, lunches, and dinners in three separate stuff sacks or other large, and more or less waterproof, bags. (A hint: Even ordinary stuff sacks are close to waterproof when they're filled to capacity. Tie off the neck with a length of cord as they empty.) Others prefer to assemble each day's food in a separate bag. Both approaches work. My preference? On short trips, all of my food goes into one stuff sack. It then slips into a small dry bag, and the dry bag goes into my getaway pack. Bear country — that's anyplace where bears have a reputation for dropping in for meals — is the exception to this rule. When I expect uninvited guests for dinner, my food gets a pack all to itself, and sometimes this pack is a hard plastic "bearproof" drum.

On longer expeditions, where the food always gets its own pack (or packs), I usually opt for a modified meal-plan organization, with every food pack containing four bags: one each for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, while the last marshals my "meeze" — the staple foods that I use at almost every meal.

 

If organization is the key to the second line of defense, with water resistance a secondary consideration, waterproofing comes into its own in your pantry's…

Outermost Walls

The upshot? Your choices are limited to dry bags or plastic drums with tight-fitting lids. Period. Of course, you can add any embellishment you want in order to make life easier in camp and on the trail. For instance, unless you're comfortable hauling heavy loads with a tumpline, you'll want a portage harness for each drum. And a Duluth sack makes a good transport container for a large dry bag. But that's about it.

Meticulous planning and careful shopping are important, but if your food goes bad under way, you'll wish you'd stayed at home. The rigors of a paddling trip can be hard on the pantry, so treat your traveling rations right. A minimum amount of preparation yields big dividends. Just remember the Three Rs. Refrigerate, using a soft cooler whenever necessary. Reduce unneeded store wrappings. Repack when possible. Then make sure your three lines of defense are all in order. Now relax. Your portable pantry is good to go.

Copyright 2006 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.









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