A great blog post from Wholesum-user Ellen Marshall on how she planned food for a recent 20+ day Colorado river trip. Read the full post here: https://riverbent.com/river-trip-food-packing/
Most river rafters with experience on multi-day trips have a basic understanding of what’s required in terms of gear, food, and other basic supplies. But a multi-week trip raises the stakes quite a bit in terms of organizational needs and requirements. And nothing is more challenging than figuring out the food for a 20-plus-day trip.
The most famous multi-week trip in the U.S. is, of course, the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. But these food pack tips will apply to any extended trip, including ones where you are fortunate enough to string together back-to-back permits—on the Salmon, for example, or the Green River. (Note: This post contains a few affiliate links, which are marked.)
Dutch oven breakfast on the river
(photo by Ellen Marshall)
In this post, we’re focusing on how we organized the food pack for our Grand Canyon trip in spring 2021. All of the major Grand Canyon outfitters offer packages to coordinate and pack all of the food for multi-week trip. It might cost a little bit more, but some would argue that it’s worth every penny in terms of saved brain cells and hassle. As the trip leader for this trip, I took on the food pack challenge. This post explores how we conceived, secured, and packed the food for our three-week journey on the Colorado River.
Creating a food pack system
At the outset, it helps to have an overall system in mind for how you want to manage the food on the river. The system helps guide everything from menu planning to food storage for the trip. I was taught to use a camp-based system. Each camp day will have one rocket box and cooler that contains items for that night’s dinner, and the next day’s breakfast and lunch. The rocket boxes are marked Camp 1, 2, 3, and so on, and we used one cooler for the first three to four camps, another for days 4-8, etc. For simplicity on the river (or maybe because I’m a Virgo), we’ve opted to pack the boats so the camp boxes and coolers are aligned on each boat.
Grand Canyon camp boxes packed with food
There are other systems to be sure. Some like to arrange coolers by type of contents—with a meat cooler, dairy cooler, produce cooler, and so on. And I’m sure there are other ways of managing dry goods. The remainder of this post, however, is based on a camp-based system.
Creating a menu
Food planning begins in earnest with a food preference survey that helps establish group consensus on the types and amounts of food for the trip. It also uncovers any food allergies or dislikes that might be unpleasant to discover on the trip. Our survey showed that about half our trip was vegetarian, so we decided to create a vegetarian menu with optional side offerings of meat.
Based on the survey, we came up with a draft menu and associated recipes. In creating the menu and finding recipes, we were looking for meals that were:
- Consistent with the survey
- Relatively straightforward to prepare
- Not inordinately bulky or inconsistent with our camp-based system
In addition, the menu envisioned using more fresh foods, especially produce, early in the trip. In the latter stages, we relied more on a variety of recipes that used canned and other durable ingredients.
This romaine lettuce—washed, dried, and packed between paper towels—was still in good shape in the last week of our Grand Canyon trip
Food management tools
As mentioned in an earlier post, having a strategy or food management tool is essential for figuring out quantities, creating shopping lists, and managing the actual process of loading the food into boxes, crates, and coolers. You could use a variety of ways to do this—from an old fashioned ledger to an Excel spreadsheet.
We used a subscription-based software system called Wholesum. This system is a cornerstone of our food management strategy—keeping track of recipes and ingredients; keeping track of what’s been purchased and what remains to be acquired; and managing inventory (meaning the placement of food in the rocket boxes, coolers, and the various other containers needed to haul everything over 280 miles). You can test it out during a free trial period. We found it to be well worth the modest investment.
Shop early and often
With a final menu and recipes keyed in to Wholesum, we were able to produce a comprehensive shopping list. This list will open your eyes as to the scale of the food pack undertaking. For a 16-person trip, the list is enormous. Don’t panic over its scale. Rather, plan to acquire the food over time—starting with long-lasting dry food and ending with fresh produce in the days prior to launch. A large percentage of your food can be bought at a big-box store like Costco. For smaller quantities and specialty products, we’ve supplemented the Costco runs with visits to the local grocery store and Trader Joe’s.
The amount of food required for 16 people on a three-week trip can seem overwhelming
River trip food pack tips
As with purchasing the food, it is a good idea to pack it over time. This process begins with generating a list that shows where every item goes—by day, by camp box, by cooler and/or other storage container. This is the master inventory and it is invaluable over the final weeks of trip preparation.
Purchasing your dry goods ahead of time, rather than buying them at the last minute, allows for rechecking carefully to make sure nothing is overlooked. It also helps make sure everything will fit in your planned storage boxes. We rented most of the ammo cans for the food pack, but didn’t get them until two days prior to launch. So we used cardboard boxes of about the same size to stage our food beforehand and make sure everything fit.
Food staged in cardboard boxes that approximate the dimensions of the rented rocket boxes to ensure everything would fit
Regardless of when you buy the food, make sure to keep a careful record of what has been acquired and what gaps need to be filled. I highly recommend creating a spreadsheet—whether on your own or via Wholesum.
Once you’ve bought the items, the food pack becomes something of a running competition with space. All the dry goods for a given camp day (three meals) need to fit in one rocket box. Vacuum sealers are extremely helpful for eliminating excess packaging (trash) on the river and dead air space in storage. These sealers also keep food fresh. Press-seal plastic bags are an alternative. To cut down on waste, consider using something like these reusable bags (affiliate link) that can withstand high heat and cold. Whatever method you use, it’s a good idea to get plastic around most items as a hedge against water infiltration. Again, it really helps to do this kind of packing over time lest it become tedious and error prone. The same is true for foods that will be frozen—whether vacuum-sealed or not.
Storing the food on the rafts
Once all your shopping and packaging is done, it’s time to start thinking about how and where you’ll be storing goods in camp boxes and coolers. As noted, we brought together all of the dry ingredients for a given camp in a cardboard box—checking and re-checking to make sure everything needed was in the box. We lined the rocket boxes with two compactor bags—first to ensure that contents stayed dry, and second for trash—with one bag left in the ammo can for that day’s trash and the other used for the next day’s lunch items and trash.
Each camp box contained a list of ingredients for the meals, recipes and cooking instructions, and a “shopping list” for the items that needed to be collected from coolers and dry boxes for each meal. The shopping list helped with effective cooler management by minimizing the time coolers needed to be open. If the system is working properly, the relevant cooler is opened only for shopping or returning items to refrigeration. Remember, air is the enemy of ice.
Breakfast bacon on the river (photo by Jeff Francis)
We organized our coolers by camp day as well. For example, we put all of the refrigerated ingredients for camp 1 on the left side of the cooler—frozen goods on the bottom, covered by produce and other items that shouldn’t be frozen. Subsequent camps were distributed across the coolers. Depending on the size of your cooler, anywhere from 3 to 5 camp days can be stored in a cooler.
We stored longer-lasting items outside of camp boxes and coolers, including bread and produce (apples, onions, etc.) that don’t need refrigeration. You can store these items in dry boxes and in milk crates stored in bay hatches.
As a first-timer to this process, I was eager to confirm that the volume of our food was consistent with the volume of our storage space. To ease any fears, I did some calculations as to how much storage space was available in a given crate, dry box, or cooler. Then I did some rough estimates of how much space our major food items would require. While it was impossible to know for sure until we packed everything up, these calculations reassured me that we would have sufficient storage. Just in case, we brought an extra dry bag and gamma-seal bucket or two.
DIY multi-week trip food organization isn’t for everyone
Taking on the food pack for a multi-week trip for 16 people is no small task. It requires foresight, patience, and careful organization. Some river trippers won’t enjoy this at all. We mostly enjoyed the process and appreciated the ability to customize our menu, ingredients, and overall quality of food choices for our river team. As it turned out, we had plenty of good food for everyone—in an incomparable setting.
Firepan cooking in Grand Canyon