Going on a canoe trip in the Boundary Waters is an amazing adventure – but the remote and isolated location means that food preparation and packing is a little bit trickier. While making a Boundary Waters meal plan does take more, well, planning, and specific preparation, the effort is definitely worth the adventure you’ll get to experience!
Before we get into the different tips and tricks we have for menu planning and meal prep, consider reading our other articles about our Boundary Waters Itinerary, What to Pack For the Boundary Waters, and Safety and Planning Information To Know Before You Go. They all have lots of relevant information for a successful Boundary Waters trip.
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Main Points for Menu Planning in the Boundary Waters
There are three main points to remember when choosing what food to bring and meals to plan on a Boundary Waters canoe trip:
- Most food cannot be fresh. It simply isn’t practical to try and keep large quantities of foods like meat and dairy cold, and softer foods like bread and fruit get bruised or squished too easily. Expect to have almost all dehydrated or lightly packaged food.
- Only bring products with the smallest amount of packaging (and thus, waste) with you. For example, canned foods are not a good choice because you have to pack a bulky can out with you. Glass cannot be brought into the Boundary Waters.
- Try to be very precise on how much you will actually need to eat – DO NOT bring a lot of extra food (especially food that will be cooked).
While most food in your Boundary Waters meal plan needs to be non-perishable, with careful packing, you can bring a limited amount of frozen items. For us, these items included cheese and salami for lunches, a small quantity of cooked ground turkey and sausage, a small amount of tomato paste (for the pasta meal), and then steaks for the first night.
To keep these foods cold, bring a small, soft sided cooler with some frozen water bottles in it. Vacuum-pack all items separately (this helps a lot! If you don’t have access to a vacuum packer, squeeze the air out of the bags really well) and freeze everything ahead of time. Be very careful to keep the cooler out of the sun at all times. If you do all of these things, the food can last for 2-3 days in the cooler.
Because of how much space it takes for a relatively small amount of food, this really won’t work well with a large cooler, so choose intentionally what fresh/frozen foods you want to bring.
Minimizing Packaging Waste
When prepping for your canoe trip meals, repackage food to eliminate waste as possible. Any trash (besides paper that you can burn) will need to be packed out, so you do not want to bring extra packaging with. For example:
–We brought oreos for a dessert for a few meals. Instead of bringing the whole package, we put them into sandwich bags, which takes up much less space as garbage than that plastic oreo packaging.
–One night we made dehydrated lasagna (really delicious actually!) and instead of bringing up the whole #10 can, we opened and repackaged it into a gallon ziploc bag.
You need to be really deliberate when you are planning menus because there can be no leftovers of cooked, perishable food. Leftover dried fruit or granola bars from lunch can just be kept until the next meal, but leftover chili or steak or potatoes can’t be stored properly to prevent spoilage, and also are “smellables” that can attract animals.
All cooked food MUST get eaten at that meal. If you have lots of leftovers, you are going to just have to keep eating until it’s gone. That’s not a particularly fun scenario, so really look at portion sizes and consider people’s actual appetites to be as exact as possible with how much you will actually eat.
Other General Information For Your Boundary Waters Meal Plan
If you feel confident about your fishing abilities, you can plan fish into your Boundary Waters meal plan. We are not the most proficient fishers (we did a lot of fishing, but just a tiny bit of actual catching of fish, haha), so we did not include fish in our meal plans any day.
Cooking Gear to Bring:
For our Boundary Waters meal plan, we brought:
- 1 bear barrel – all food gets packed in the bear barrel and everything is locked and latched in the bear barrel at night and placed away from camp. This particular bear barrel is great because it can hold a lot of food, latches up very securely, and INCREDIBLY importantly, has shoulder and waist straps so you can portage it easily.
- 1 large metal spoon
- 1 metal spatula
- 2 iron skillets – for frying as well as to use together as a dutch oven (we did cornbread and crumb cake in the makeshift dutch oven)
- 1 large pot
- One bowl and utensils for each person
- Matches and fire starters
- Backpack saws to prepare firewood
- These backpack saws are worth getting because they pack down really small. We had a couple so multiple people could be working on firewood at the same time.
- Paper towels for wiping the iron skillet with oil after use, and for any other cleanup needed
- If there is a fire restriction when you leave (it happens), you will need to bring a small butane stove to cook food on. Double check fire restrictions right before you head up, just in case!
Tip 1: There is a metal grate over the campfire at each campsite
Tip 2: We needed a decent bottle of oil to re-oil the iron skillets, and to use in recipes. We brought a 16 oz container of oil, and if we would have had to cook fish on the trip, we would have run out of oil.
Tip 3: If you are running low on space, nestle food inside the large pots and carry them in the bear barrel.
We had two main methods of water purification. Each person had their own personal water bottles with filters that we could fill up using lake water. These are awesome because they filter out 99.9999% of bacteria and other organisms so you can easily get a drink anywhere, and you can drink from them immediately (instead of having to wait several minutes for the water to filter). Everyone needs their own filtered water bottles.
For campsite water use, we used an inline water filter with two 2-gallon containers. One 2-gallon container was filled with lake water and it filtered through the inline filter to the other 2-gallon container. This was used for water needs at the campsite. We also had iodine tablets and neutralizer as a backup system.
All garbage has to be packed out. We used a lot of gallon sized ziploc bags to contain different items for meals – when the food was gone from a gallon bag, that bag became the garbage bag for the day. We then kept all the garbage contained together. These bags are kept at the top of the bear barrel and unloaded/reloaded at every meal.
To do dishes, you need to have biodegradable, fragrance-free dish soap – this soap fits the bill for both requirements and worked really well. Before you wash the dishes though, you need to eat all the food in your bowl, and lick the bowl clean so there is as little food left as possible. Then, do dishes away from the campsite and scatter cleaning water into woods away from the campsite.
How to Pack Your Food in the Bear Barrel
A big part of making your Boundary Waters meal plan work really efficiently is connected to how you pack your food. When packing food in the bear barrel, it is important to have your food layered AND divided AND labeled
You want to pack your food so that the first meal you will eat is on the top of the bear barrel and the last meal you will eat is on the very bottom. This means that you will need to have specific things planned out for each meal – trust me, you do not want to just throw everything in and dig around and unload each time you need to eat.
Between meal sections in the bear barrel, we used brown paper grocery bags and cut out circles that were exactly the diameter of the bear barrel (or maybe slightly bigger). Each circle was labeled with the meal (Tuesday lunch, Tuesday dinner, Wednesday breakfast, etc).
Since the last meal we ate on our trip was Saturday lunch, that was the first food in and placed on the bottom of the barrel. Then the circle that said “Saturday lunch” went on top of that, followed by the food for Saturday breakfast, with the “Saturday breakfast” circle on top. Then the food for Friday dinner, followed by the “Friday dinner” circle, etc, all the way up to the top with our first meal on the lake – Tuesday lunch.
The cooking gear then went on the very top. We didn’t have quite enough room for the cast iron skillets to fit inside the first couple of days, so those got bungeed to the outside of the bear barrel.
While you can’t have any leftovers of cooked food, and you don’t want to have tonsof leftovers of non-perishables, having a little bit extra dried fruit, jerky, granola bars, etc is okay – those can just stay on top and get moved down as options for snacks or extras for other meals.
Note: Toothpaste, soap, shampoo, lotion, and everything else with a smell goes into the bear barrel at night. The bear barrel gets latched and put away from camp at night before dark.
What Types of Meals Are Best for the Boundary Waters?
Breakfast: Best if it’s minimal prep and easy to clean up, and starts you off with good energy for paddling and portaging.
Lunch: Grab and go food – a meal made from snacking type foods.
Dinner: Best time for making a fire and cooking
- Protein and carbs because you will use a lot of energy
- Things that you can prepare easily
Tip: For your Boundary Waters meal plan choose foods that are not soft and won’t be smushed or bruised as they are loaded into the bear barrel (e.g. bananas, sandwich bread).
Our Boundary Waters Menu
Okay – now to the actual Boundary Waters menu and specific canoe trip meals we brought. There are lots of options for food to bring, but this menu has worked really well for us.
Breakfast (at outfitters): Breakfast burritos with fresh scrambled eggs (brought butane burner and cooked at picnic table), bacon (pre-cooked), and cheese, OJ. We brought our own food but Williams and Hall (our outfitter) does offer a cooked breakfast you can buy from them. It is a little pricey so we’ve always just done our own, but getting breakfast from them is definitely an option too.
Lunch: Hard salami, cheese, and crackers, cookies (oreos or packaged chocolate chip cookies)
Dinner: Fresh steaks (frozen beforehand), potatoes, raw carrots
Breakfast: Pancakes (no syrup, too messy and smelly), dried fruit
Lunch: Cheese (vacuum-packed, in cooler), jerky, dried fruit, granola bars
Dinner: Dehydrated chili (Bear Creek brand – you can find this in the grocery store) with sausage and ground beef (precooked, frozen, vacuum packed, in cooler), fresh cornbread (mix that just added water and oil, cooked in skillet)
Breakfast: Breakfast bars, dried fruit
Lunch: Flat bread wraps with chicken (chicken pouches) and cheese (vacuum packed and in cooler), oreos
Dinner: Pasta and red sauce with sausage (precooked sausage patties, vacuum packed and frozen. We mixed water, frozen tomato paste, and seasonings to make the pasta sauce), fresh biscuits (mix that adds water, cooked in skillet)
Breakfast: Bagels, cream cheese packets, fruits, beef jerky
Lunch: Bagels with beef sticks, granola bar, cookies
Dinner: Lasagna (dehydrated, Mountain House Adventure Meals brand, was actually very delicious), Krusteaz Crumb Cake
Breakfast: Oatmeal, dried fruit, granola bars, hot chocolate
Lunch: PB & J sandwiches with flatbread, cookies
Dinner: Pick up food on the road, while driving home
Hopefully this gives you some good ideas for menu and meal planning in the Boundary Waters! Now go have a great trip!