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A Simple Menu for a 12,000-mile Backcountry Journey

dave and amy freeman kayak on Lake Superior

On backcountry kayak camping trips, a varied and robust menu seems a given. There are dozens of camping cookbooks devoted to the topic, and 100s and 100s of recipes and even magazine columns devoted to cooking tasty treats while on the trail. All that food planning and preparation takes time and effort, so you might be tempted to ignore all that advice and just pack mac and cheese. National Geographic Adventurers of the Year Amy and Dave Freeman did just that on their 3-year, 12,000-mile kayak, canoe and dogsled journey from Seattle, Washington to Key West, Florida. They ditched the fancy menus and simplified each of their daily meals to just one of two choices.

“We found that we preferred this simplicity for the sake of easier packing, shopping and traveling. What I mean by traveling is that we didn’t have to put much thought into our meals and could focus more on the trip itself. Believe it or not, neither of us got sick of the limited menu,” said Amy.

For breakfast, when they had enough time to boil water, they cooked oatmeal, otherwise granola. Occasionally, when wind bound, they’d splurge and cooked bannock. To spice up the meals, they carried raisins, dried fruit, nuts, powdered milk and peanut butter.

Dave and Amy Freeman paddling canoes in the BWCAFor lunch, they ate tortillas filled with peanut butter and jelly or a meat and cheese. For the meat, they’d either pack summer sausage or tuna. Just like breakfast, they’d carry along something to spice up the meal. Their favorite condiment was mustard. Lunches can consume lots of time, because you have to land your kayak, get your lunch out, make your lunch, put everything away and launch again. When paddling big miles, paddling time is of the essence. To save time, the Dave kept the lunches packed inside of a dry bag at his feet. That kept it easy to access and even saved time from having to open and repack a hatch.

“Our two dinners were really exciting! Pasta or rice and beans,” said Amy.

To add variety, the couple varied sauces. For the pasta, they’d make either a tomato or cheese sauce, and for the rice and beans, the variety came from the choice of beans and spices. They ate black beans and hot sauce most often, but would sometimes eat lentils and curry. Vegetables, dehydrated before the trip, and textured vegetable protein (TVP) were added to bulk up the dish. When the couple paddled in more populated areas, such as down the east coast, they packed canned and fresh vegetables. Carrots, garlic, onions and cabbage lasted the longest in the hatches, but they occasionally carried broccoli and green peppers.

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Every morning after breakfast, they rationed out ready-to-eat energy bars. The Freeman’s favorites included Clif Bars, Shot Bloks and Macro Bars. They ate granola bars, gorp and Pop Tarts when running low on Clif Bars. Because they could easily reach these snacks throughout the day, lunch became less important.

While reminiscing about big water days, Amy said, “There were times when we would have to just keep paddling due to big swell, limited places to land or plain old crummy weather. Having an ample supply of accessible snacks was crucial on these days because we might find ourselves stopping for a very late lunch or not stopping at all.”

Even the Freeman’s spice kit was simple. It contained basil, oregano, curry powder, a bottle of hot sauce and parmesan cheese. In the kit, they also carried flour, baking powder and a small bottle of oil. The flour and oil allowed them to make bannock or bread an occasional fish. During parts of their journey, they caught and ate fish regularly.

U.S. Forest Service fire grill in the BWCAEating like this allowed the Freemans to concentrate on route challenges, making camp and the physical exertion of the day instead of preparing food. The menu was flexible enough to adjust to the number of calories used at different parts of the trip. During the canoe and kayak legs of the trip, they carried 1.75 pounds of food per person per day. For dog sledding, they increased the food allowance to 2.5 pounds and included more fatty foods. This menu was also cheaper, simpler and saved both space and weight. The most complicated food preparation involved putting the beans into a GSI Fairshare Mug in the morning to allow them to hydrate and then boiling water at dinner. This saved time at night to carry out other chores such as journaling and updating their expedition website.

When asked about special food treats, Amy said, “We wouldn’t do this every day, but a good bar of chocolate, rationed out piece by piece was a much anticipated dessert.” Much like the rest of their menu, the simplicity of rationing chocolate kept it interesting.

While this menu seems simple, the combination of spice choices kept it interesting. Could the Freemans pair the menu down further? Amy said, “If we had to limit ourselves further, we would both choose granola for breakfast and rice and beans for dinner. I think I really would be okay with eating these things every single day. This answer is based not only on taste, but the energy we get and how we feel after eating these meals.”

While Dave and Amy didn’t simplify down to just mac and cheese, their simple menu of only two choices for each meal, kept them fed well throughout their 12,000 odyssey across North America. The only downside: they couldn’t write a cookbook based on their menu.

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