One of the best parts about going on a Canoe Trip the BWCA is planning the meals. Being in the remote wilderness there are few concerns. First, you have to make sure everything is shelf-stable.
There are no coolers in the BWCA. Keeping everything light will make your life a lot easier too. You also need to keep your stuff safe from bears. It’s not as hard as you might think.
If this is your first time going up to the wilderness, you want to check out this Campfire Cooking for the Family in the BWCA Guide.
The difference between backpacking and canoeing is that you don’t have to carry your stuff for as long. You usually only carry your gear for an average of 150 rods per portage.
A rod is 16ft, or about the length of a canoe. Everything gets packed in large portage packs also known as Duluth Packs. Carrying all of your gear can get exhausting so I always lean towards bringing lighter things.
Seeing pictures and videos of people bringing everything other the sun makes me laugh. Please don’t be one of them.
You can cook as simple or elaborate you normally cook, just with a little planning. I’ve made blueberry pancakes and calzones many times. Now, I like to plan easy meals that just require a little water and a pot.
This cuts down on the things we need to bring. You can bring all the spices you like or pre-spice your food before you go. It’s up to you.
Where to get meals for Campfire Cooking for the Family in the BWCA
You can buy pre-made backpacking meals, or you can make them yourself. Outfitters are also happy to provide you with all the meals you need.
If you have food allergies or like to do things yourself, you can save a little bit of money and bring your own. There is no need to visit sporting goods stores or specialty natural stores for ingredients either.
The grocery store sells a lot of things that are easily made. What you can’t find in your local store, you can often dehydrate yourself.
I had the best luck finding things at Aldi and Target. I did run by the natural food store but came up empty-handed.
The biggest money saver it to Dehydrate your own foods. Dehydrating fruits and vegetables are a lot easier than you think.
For tomatoes, I quartered cherry tomatoes, left them face down on the trays, and left it on overnight at 135 degrees. The same was down for mixed vegetables and corn.
The mixed vegetables were from the freezer section of the grocery store. They were left out to thaw. Once ply able, I put them in the dehydrator overnight again.
I use a Nesco Food Dehydrator and Jerky Maker I got 20 years ago. Not much has changed in the food Dehydrator world so you don’t need to buy the latest and grates model.
Food Dehydrators are like bread machines, people buy them with the greatest of intentions but you often see them on Facebook Market Place or at Good Will.
Meats I’m not as comfortable dehydrating or smoking. You have a couple of options: Shelf Stable Bacon, Beef sticks, Summer Sausage, or Jerkies. Summer Sausage is the only thing that that doesn’t hold up as well once the package has been opened.
For meats, I altered the recipes I found online. Most were asking for freeze-dried chicken. Unless you plan to make a lot of meals, buying an economy-size container of freeze-dried chicken for $50 is probably out of the question. I substituted with packages of tuna.
Target had varieties in dozens of flavor combinations that go well with every meal. We planned to bring individual tuna packets for each person to add to their meal.
Things like Eggs and Milk have easy to find powdered substitutes in the stores baking aisle. And butter is already shelf-stable.
Four Day BWCA Meal Plan
Granola Cereal with Powdered Milk
Eggs and Bacon
Coffee and Tea
Beef Sticks, Salami or Jerky
Crystal Light Drink Mix
Fiesta Rice with Corn and Tuna* wrapped up in a tortilla shell
Thai Peanut Noodle with Tuna* and Vegetables.
Cous Cous with Tuna* and Vegetables
Drinks and Desert
Decadence Chocolate Pie
Snickers Bar (Treat for the First Night)
These recipes were found in a variety of different places. Mostly in Lip Smacking Backpacking by Tim and Christine Conners and on various online forums and backpacking sites.
Each recipe was altered slightly to meet the needs of my picky family. My daughter has a dairy allergy, so we used almond flour as a substitute for powdered milk.
We also packed enough food to get us through an extra day in case we got stuck out there in bad weather or other conditions.
Packing Your Meals
Everything needs to be double-bagged in the BWCA. This is for two reasons. If your canoe goes over, you want your food to stay dry. It will give an extra level of defense against rodents and bears by keeping smells in.
If you have pokey food, like pasta, the second layer of plastic reduces the chance of anything breaking a bag.
Before packing, remove everything from their cardboard package. It takes up more space and gives you more to pack out.
Yes, you can burn it but in the State of Minnesota, it’s illegal to burn any trash. Also, open up any packages that seem to have extra air in them. Chances are, you’ll be low on it.
Keeping yourself and your food safe up there is the number one priority. That is why you need to properly secure your food at night. This used to be achieved by creating a Bear Pack.
Everyone puts all their food into portage packs, and hang it from a tree. It must be from a branch, hanging 10ft from the ground, and 10ft from either tree.
This is becoming less and less popular as it usually requires tying a rope to your water bottle or other heavy object and throwing it over a tree limb.
All the while you are hoping it doesn’t get stuck somewhere or get hit by it as it comes back down. Trees are hard to find and not that effective.
That is why they are recommending people bring a bear bag or barrel to store food in.
Best methods to keep your food safe from bears
This is a reinforced bag that bears can not rip through. They also have a smell resistant liner. Bear canisters or barrels are a little bulkier and provide the same type of protection.
Both methods have you keep the container 100 feet away from camp. Some lakes in the BWCA, like Seagull and it’s surrounding lakes, require that you have a bear barrel.
Most outfitters rent Bear Canisters. The location we rented our canoe from rents a 60L barrel that is carried like a backpack. It was far too large for us.
We opted to purchase a medium size Fronterisman Bear Canister that fits in our pack but will allow for food for a family of 4. Backpacking canisters usually designed for one person for 5 days of food.
Freshwater is in every lake. In the 80s it was common practice to pull your canoe out to the middle of the lake, dip your water bottle in and take a drink. That is not the case anymore.
Most everyone, including myself, purifies their water before drinking it. This can include boiling water taken from the lake for 1-3 minutes. Using iodine tablets. Or getting a water purifier. There are many options available at a variety of different price points.
I use a Swayer Water Purifier 2.0. The purifier costs just over $25 and comes with everything you need to clean water. It’s small and lightweight.
The system comes with 2 bags, one for dirty and one for clean water. The backpacking community has mixed feelings about the foil bags that come with the purifiers and have come up with a few hacks.
First is using a disposable Smart Water bottle you can pick up at any convenience store. Fill it up with water, screw it on to the end and squeeze or wait for the water to drip through the filter.
Periodically you have to release the pressure in the water bottle to keep water flowing.
The original bags the Swayer Water Purifier comes with a 32oz bag and fills one Nalgene Water Bottle.
Needing to fill multiple water bottles at a time, I opted to get a 2-liter Platypus Water Bladder. I used a hole punch on the base of the dirty bag so it could be hung from a tree.
Water bladders need a flow of water in it to fill up which is tricky in a lake. I found that scooping the bag through the water was the easiest way to fill it up. The hack added $10 to the setup.
If you select the right food, you don’t need a lot of equipment. One pot, maybe one pan, a cup for everyone, and a spork for everyone.
I only took a small portion of the camp set I have with us to cut down on weight. You could cook more at once but you’ll have more to clean. Try and keep it simple.
For cups, we used a FlexWare Collapsible Bowl. They make them in smaller sizes too, but I enjoyed having a larger cup. You can expand it all the way for drinks, keep it short for breakfasts or have it flat for tortilla meals. It was very easy to clean.
Having a good set of silverware is great too. We used UCO Utility Spork. It’s a three in one tool. Because of our meal choices, we didn’t need to bring strainers, large spoons, or any other serving tools.
We had a collapsible Coleman butane stove with us that worked great when we didn’t want to look for firewood. We also used it in the mornings for quick exits from camp.
There are some camping hacks out there showing people cooking directly in a plastic bag. The thought is to put your dried ingredients and liquid into a pot of boiling water to cook.
When you are done, eat directly out of the bag, zip it up, and throw it away. This isn’t the greenest approach to life and seems like a little more work than it’s worth in my opinion when cooking for a family.
I prefer to cook in the pot and do a little cleanup, especially when you are cooking for a group or family.
To clean up, use some boiling water and your spoon to scrape the edges of the pot. Some like to bring a small sponge to help get the grit out.
You can also use some fresh moss. True wilderness enthusiasts will drink what’s left in the pot. If you are not that hardcore, walk 100+ yards from camp and throw it into the woods. Never put it in the lake or near your site.
All waste needs to be eaten or packed out. So only cook as much as you think you can eat. You can also bury it in the ground. Make sure you get it deep so the smell doesn’t attract animals.
The biggest mistake I keep making in the BWCA is overcooking. My eyes at home are always bigger than my stomach, and for some reason, I always put all the food in the pot.
The first portion always tastes great, the second and third portions become too much to eat. Be careful!
I’m already thinking about the great new food options for my next trip. I’ll probably bring less food for the simple fact that I was too stuffed to eat dessert at night.
I’ll start with the flavored tea during the day and never get on a big lake without full water bottles again. Campfire Cooking for the Family in the BWCA doesn’t have to be overly complicated. But one thing for sure, everything tastes better after a long day of paddling.