Eating is a highlight of any trip to the Boundary Waters. 

Hunger might be the best sauce, but spending a day portaging and paddling, working up a fierce appetite really makes you feel like you really earned those spork-fulls of macaroni. 

More than a tasty way to replenish calories and chase away hunger, the meals you make with those you travel with are one of the best ways to bond. 

It’s hard to overstate how important a good meal is to the experience. There are many more reasons why you should really put in the time to plan your meals right. Especially if you’re introducing new people to the Boundary Waters, make sure you have good food with you.

Boundary Waters food is different

As a rule of thumb, the food you bring should be nonperishable. That is, dried, dehydrated or packaged in a way that will prevent it from spoiling. Think rice, powdered cheese, granola, dehydrated milk and so forth. 

But you don’t need to be limited by this!

There are plenty of people who bring cheese, eggs, bacon, even steaks with them. Packing perishables like this work can certainly work on shorter trips, but there is some risk involved. A lot of the food we refrigerate can be surprisingly shelf stable (such as cheese), and last a while in your food pack, especially in colder weather. Then there are more cumbersome methods of bringing coolers and ice packs into the wilderness, but we won’t cover that here.

Where to shop for BWCA food

If you know what you’re looking for, it can be easy to find everything you need at your local grocery store. For instance, a bag of rice and those ready-made packets of Indian food, beans and rice mixtures, dried soup packets, and so forth.

You can always buy some prepackaged meals designed for travel in the outdoors. Because you just add water to these and eat them out of a pouch (i.e.: no dishes), taste pretty good and are super convenient. However, they also make Whole Foods look like a bargain, and are loaded in sodium. They serve their purpose, but you can do better!

Before we get into menu ideas, let’s lay some important groundwork first, namely, how to pack your meals.

3 ways to pack your meals

  1. For larger groups (more than four or five people) going out for an extended period of time, the so-called “pantry” style might be the way to go. Simply put, this method involves packing your staples in bulk. For example, putting 10-cups of oatmeal into a single bag and using it for two meals, and doing the same with rice, pasta, and so forth. In addition, you have things like a bag of sugar or a jar of peanut butter on hand to dip into and enjoy.
    The pantry style allows for flexibility and creativity. Whoever is cooking can simply pick from the ingredients at hand and make what their heart desires.
    For instance, instead of beans and rice or macaroni and cheese, you can mix it up and use the dehydrated beans and taco seasoning with the macaroni to have some taco-mac (highly recommended) then the next night mix the block of Velveeta (even the French agree that this is best cheese ever) with rice for cheesy rice.
  2. The second way to go is to pack each meal individually. Before you leave on your trip, measure out all the ingredients so you have just what you need. Package each meal individually then when it’s time to cook on trail, this method is simplicity itself.
  3. Finally there are a few groups where each individual packs their own separate meals. This usually happens due to different dietary restrictions, allergies and so forth among the group. If at all possible, however, try to accommodate everyone’s diet and enjoy a shared meal. You can eat garbanzo beans instead of hamburger for a few days!
    The tradeoff that comes with bonding and togetherness over a shared meal in one of the most beautiful places on earth is worth it!

3 square meals

The following is a general overview of breakfast, lunch or diner. For complete recipes, check out the following menu planning guides:

Ideas for breakfast

  • Hot cereal: Seven grain or twelve grain hot cereals (available in most bulk sections) are filling and compact. Oatmeal is a classic, as is Malt-O-Meal. Add a dollop of peanut butter to any of these for a creamier, more filling meal. Don’t forget raisins and sugar!
  • Cold breakfast: Bring some dehydrated milk and you can have any type of cereal. Whole grain granola (such as Crapola) will fuel you until lunch.
  • For the more leisurely mornings: Pancakes are easy to make, and for the more intrepid cooks, you can try baking roles, muffins and pretty much anything else.
  • Coffee. Obviously.

Stopping for lunch

Lunches should be ready made and require little to no preparation, that is, no cooking or baking. Here are the basic ingredients to a basic lunch. Modify as you will!

  • Trail mix – Go to the bulk section and be inventive! Mix and match snacks, be daring!
  • Beef jerky, summer sausage or some sort of salty protein.
  • Dried fruit.
  • Energy/ power bar/ candy bars. Choose a few of your favorites. For most people, two bars a day will do.

The splendors of dinner

For most crews, dinner is the meal with the most variety. The easiest way is to serve up a one-pot wonder. Here’s the general recipe:

  • Start with a base, usually some sort of grain. This can be couscous, rice, a pasta (macaroni, spaghetti, orzo), quinoa, etc.
  • Protein, such as dehydrated beef, dried beans (be sure to get the quick cook variety), lentils, textured vegetable protein (which is great for both vegetarians and meat eaters).
  • Sauce. You can find red sauce, cheddar, alfredo (the Knorr packets of alfredo and pesto are great), gravy, and more at most grocery stores
  • Other goodies, such as dehydrated peas, carrots, corn.
  • Spices. Bring a variety. Favorites include Spike, Cavender’s, Old Bay, butter-flavored sprinkles. I’m serious about the last one.

Dessert, of course

An easy way to do dessert is to make a pan of brownies or rice crispy bars at home, cut them into squares and have them ready for an after-meal treat. On trail, Jell-O no bake cheese cakes are an unbeatable dessert many experts swear by.

When it comes to eating on trail, we’ve only scratched the bare surface. There are many different directions you can go. Ask others about their favorite trail meals. It’s fun to exchange ideas and recipes. You might find that you become a truly inventive, gourmet wilderness chef.

The right way to do dishes in the wilderness

Cleaning up requires a few guidelines. First, eat or pack away all food scraps. Don’t dump them down the latrine or throw them in the woods or the water. Second, always use biodegradable soap. This is available at most camping stores, even big-box stores like target carry it. Now, just because it’s biodegradable doesn’t mean it’s as harmless as spring water. Use the soap sparsely and be sure that you dump the dirty “gray water” from your dishes 200 feet or more from shore. This is necessary for the soap to properly breakdown and bio-degrade.

How to Pack

There’s a lot of water in canoe country, both below you and above. One of the main goals of packing is to keep that water off your food.

To do this, try to pack all your food in waterproof bags, whether it’s Ziplock or Sealine bags.

Don’t just throw a bunch of boxed meals into your pack. Cardboard boxes and other types of food packaging tend to be bulky, flimsy and not very water resistant. They can fall apart easily and leave you with a pack full of spilled food — perfect bear and squirrel bait.

Instead, buy in bulk or unpackage your food, measure and transfer it into a Ziplock or other type of container.

Bears and food

You can’t talk about food in the Boundary Waters without talking about bears. The traditional wisdom is to hang your food from a tree branch so that it’s at least 30 feet off the ground and 10 feet from the trunk. This may help deter a lazy bear, but if a bear wants that food bag, they’re going to get it.

I rarely hang my food. However, I’m militant about keeping a clean camp and properly storing my food overnight. Here are some guidelines for bear-proofing your camp:

  • Keep your food separate, ideally in a bear canister. Bear Vault makes some of the best canisters available and they come in a variety of sizes. They do the double duty of sealing in odors and making it incredibly hard for a bear to break into your food. Another option comes from a company Ursack, which makes bear bags that are virtually puncture proof and are far less bulky or heavy. However, these bags don’t lock in the odors as well.
  • Clean fish and dispose of their entrails 200 feet from where you camp.
  • Make sure there are no scraps of food lying around camp.
  • Store your food away from your tents, away from camp, and away from where you eat. These are the areas bears associate with human food, so don’t keep your food here! You just might fool a hungry bear!
  • Never, under any circumstances, eat or store food in a tent.

What about drinking the water?

While the Boundary Waters is famous for having some of the cleanest fresh water in the country, you still need to treat your drinking water. There are several ways to do this.

  • SteriPEN, which is a relatively new method, is a small, pen-like tool that uses ultraviolet light to kill off 99.9 percent of bacteria, protozoa, even viruses. This is one of the easiest methods out there. However, you can only treat one liter at a time.
  • Hand-pump filters work by simply pumping water from the lake through the filter mechanism and into a bottle. The only downside is that pumping can get rather tiring, especially if you’re filtering for more than a couple people.
  • Gravity filters, such as made by MSR and Katadyn, are great for groups. You simply fill one reservoir bag up with water, attach the hose and filter mechanism, hang the bag of water and let it run through the filtration mechanism. Gravity does the work and without much effort you have a few liters of water to drink in no time.
  • Iodine tablets were once the main way people treated water. It might make the water safe to drink, but it tastes awful. Still, it’s worth carrying a small bottle of Potable Aqua Iodine Tablets in case of an emergency.
  • Boil. Simple and highly effective, boiling water isn’t exactly convenient. That is, unless your making coffee or boiling water for dinner.
  • If you do not have any means of treating the water, go to the middle of the lake (or 200 feet from shore) and get your water there.

Do Your Part to Protect the Boundary Waters

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