Using a Padded Food Pack

Padded food packs are being used more often in canoe trips. They provide a couple advantages over traditional unpadded packs and olive barrels. They provide protection like an olive barrel, but conform easier to a canoe like a traditional Duluth Pack. They also take up less space than an olive barrel, which allows you to squeeze in that extra pack. There is no right way or wrong way to use a padded food pack, but there are things you can do to take advantage of the padding, the extra insulation that the padding gives, and the shape to help you carry fresh food into the wilderness comfortably.

Making it Waterproof

There is nothing worse than getting to camp, starting a fire, and opening your food pack to discover that the bag of fry bread you wanted for dinner is completely soaked and ruined from the bilge water that accumulated in your canoe. Because these packs are made from nylon and zippers they are not waterproof, and this scenario is a real possibility. Although zippers make it easy to open and get at your food, it does introduce a little worry. The best way to make your food pack waterproof is to first repackage all your food into plastic sandwich bags. The zip locks are very convenient and work most of the time, but the sandwich bags that use twist ties are cheaper, so you can use two on every item, and they seldom come open. If somehow the inside of the pack gets wet, an open bag will often mean ruined food or a forced meal choice.

The second step you take is to buy trash bags sold as contractor bags. These are extra thick and big trash bags that seem like they were built for food packs. Use these bags to line the inside of the pack. You will place all of your repackaged food inside this liner and then twist the opening on the bag closed. Then fold this twist over and put a large rubber band around the turn it makes. The best rubber bands are those that come off of bikes packaged from the factory. You should be able to get these free from your local bike shop.

On a longer trip, you may want to line this liner with another plastic bag or a giant nylon stuff sack. Plastic bags take a beating on canoe trips and one hole will put an end to a waterproof seal.

How to Pack the Pack

A padded food sack is like a big tube and is easy to use as a big dump bin, but if you pack correctly these packs carry more comfortably than a Duluth Pack, and you will be able to find that fresh apple in a few seconds with a few simple organizational tricks.

First, if you load it so the heavier foods are towards the bottom and up against your back it carries better - any backpacker knows this trick. By packing the food low and close to your back, it keeps the heavy part of the pack close to your center of gravity and transfers the load to your hips better.

If you aren't packing any fresh food, by separating your meals into three different color stuff sacks you will make loading your pack easier. All your breakfasts should be in one bag, and the same goes for lunches and dinners. Having a forth stuff sack for snacks, drink mixes and other misc. foods is a nice addition. A fifth sack should be filled with snacks and lunches that you will be eating during the current day. I like it if this sack is red, because it stands out in the pack. It seems like everyone is in a hurry when trying to eat lunches during the day. The less time searching for food is the more time savoring the food.

When packing your sack start with the cooking fuel, in a freezer bag, on the bottom of the pack and close to your back. This protects the fuel bottle, but also protects your food in the event of the fuel spilling from the bottle. Behind that, pack the food for supper. Usually, your snack bag will be the heaviest, and this should be packed above the fuel and close to your back. Your cooking gear and stove should go in front of this. Then fill the pack with the remainder of sacks, leaving your day bag on the top of the pack.

The ability of a padded food sack to keep fresh food cold is one of its best features. To take advantage of this, you will have to take a few extra steps before you leave for your trip.

For a steak or hamburger on day four of your trip, you will need a way to keep it cold. The best way is to freeze two 2-quart platypus water bottles. Put your frozen meat, stored in freezer bags, in between the two frozen bottles and this will keep the meat cold and partially frozen until you are ready to eat it. It helps to rubber band this together. A cheap and easy way to add insulation is to cut up an old closed cell foam-sleeping pad and tape it together with duct tape in a box shape. This makes a great meat cooler. In warmer weather, it usually lasts a couple of days, but in early spring or fall it could go as long as five days. On a river trip once, after pulling off the river from a damaged canoe, my pack sat in the back of my car full of food in 100-degree heat for a full day. It was still cold when I checked it at the end of the day.

For vegetables and fruits, it is nice to have a little extra protection to prevent bruises on the food. Many people use Tupperware for this, but Tupperware is non-flexible and takes up too much room. It is much better to put them in a box made out of an old sleeping pad and duct tape, like the meat cooler. This is more flexible than Tupperware. It is best to pack fresh fruit right on top of your meat box. This provides extra insulation for the meat pack, but it also protects the fruit and vegetables from getting bruised up.

Get Out and Use It

So, now that you can waterproof and pack your padded food sack, it is important to get out and use it. Plan a weekend trip or long weekend with all fresh food to test out your new system. A great trail menu that is a lot of fun is as follows:

  • Day One:
    Lunch: Cucumber sandwiches. Pack a cucumber, cream cheese, rye bread, and dill. Spread the cream cheese on the rye, add sliced cucumbers and top with dill.

    Dinner: Hamburgers and Potatoes. Pack a small backpacking wire grill to cook over the fire. Cut fresh onions, and cheese from a cheddar block. Wrap the potatoes in aluminum foil before you leave your house and throw them in the fire at the campsite.

    Desert: Cheesecake that was mixed at lunch and set to chill next to the meat.
  • Day Two:
    Breakfast: Grape Nut cereal, milk, and bananas. Keep the milk cold by carrying it in your meat cooler. A one-quart platy provides plenty of milk for two.

    Lunch: Cold cut sandwiches and Pringles.

    Dinner: Steak, wild rice with mushroom sauce, and salad with vinegar and oil dressing. Make the salad, and then cook the rice and mushrooms with your stove. Set aside in a pot cozy and start the steak on your fire, which is already cooking coals. Eat the salad while the steak is cooking. Serve the steak with mushrooms. The wild rice makes a great side dish.
  • Day Three:
    Breakfast: Bagels and cream cheese.

    Lunch: Tuna salad sandwiches and fruit salad. Use the ice cold water from your Platypus bottles to mix some ice cold lemonade.

When your weekend trip comes to an end, you can paddle back to your car and reflect on how nice it was to have a padded food pack.

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© 2006, Wesley Kisting

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