How to Use a Padded Food Pack

Cooking over a fire in the BWCA.

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 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

Cooking over a fire in the BWCA.
Cooking over a fire in the BWCA.

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 means 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 caries 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.

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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 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 F 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
    Platy’s to mix some Ice Cold Lemonade.

Paddle back to your car and reflect on how nice it was to have a Padded Food Sack. If
you have suggestions for three-day menu plans, please, share and email them to me. I
will post them as they come in.

Note: This article also appears in the Iowa’s River Cookbook. Please, help support the Iowa Whitewater Coalition by buying a copy of this fine book.