Keeping food cold for multiple days on a kayak

This summer I’m going to introduce my wife & kids to remote camping by kayak. We have an easy 2-nighter and a slightly more adventurous 3-nighter planned. I’ve done wilderness camping by canoe before, many years ago. But they are used to car camping, and we all enjoy a nice dinner at camp, so no backpacking meals. The main sacrifice we’re willing to make is cold drinks.

The primary challenge seems to be finding a cooler that can keep food fresh for up to 72 hours and fit on my boat, a Neris Smart Pro DX. The maximum dimensions for a cooler that can fit under the spray deck are 12" high x 16" wide x 24" long, but I’d like to use some of that space for camp kitchen stuff as well. Alternatively, I could strap it to the top of the deck between the cockpits, which gives me some relief on the width but not really the height, and all but the smallest coolers are too tall if carried upright.

With all that said, the main thing I’m looking for advice on is whether to get 1 medium sized cooler (20-30qt) or 2 small coolers (10-16qt), and secondly how to pack food such that it doesn’t perish before day 3 and (hopefully) allows us to bring fresh veg without freezer burn.

If we take a single cooler, the best options seem to be the Icemule Boss or the new Engel roll top that just came out last year. These are both backpack coolers with closed cell foam insulation and dry bag style closures, so they can be carried laying down without leaking. If we go this route, I’m thinking of using a 1" styrofoam board to divide it into two sections: ice & meat at the bottom, and veg, cold cuts & cheese on top. As we consume the food, I’d fill the space on top with food scraps/garbage in plastic grocery bags.

If we go with two coolers, I’m not sure whether it’s better to separate the meat into one cooler and the veg into the other, or put food for the 1st half of our stay in one cooler and food for the 2nd half in the other. Going with the first approach, I’d start with the meat frozen and transfer ice from the meat cooler into the veg cooler once a day. With the second approach, the second cooler would remain sealed until needed. I’m not confident the former approach will keep things cool till the 3rd night, but the latter approach seems to rule out packing anything that can’t be frozen in the second cooler. I know small coolers are not that well insulated, but I can find styrofoam shipping containers up to 1.5" thick. Will these be better?

I’d appreciate hearing how other camp cooks manage to keep food on longer trips without big plastic coolers.

There is nothing magical about these premium soft-side coolers, they just have thicker insulation than other, cheaper coolers.

I increase the insulation of the soft sided coolers that we already own (SWAG gifts from work) by placing a layer of 1/2" upholstery foam on the top side and bottom of the cooler. With this simple modification I can keep food items cool/cold for 3 days.

For ice, I just freeze 500 mL water bottles, which stay frozen quite some time, don’t leak, and can be used as drinking water by the end of the trip.

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I can get 4 or 5 days in the spring and maybe 3 if its really hot out of my 54 qt Igloo BMX. In a large ice chest, I have a plastic liner out of a large soft side that covers about a quarter of the inside of the chest. I line the entire bottom with Nordic Ice / Cooler Shock type ice packs, the put in the liner on one side, put all the frozen food in the bottom of the liner, add a towel and the keep cold stuff on top. the is put any drinks in the bottom, then fill the cooler with as much ice as it will take. I always transport the cooler inside my truck, never in the bed of the truck or in the canoe trailer as I usually have 5 or 6 hour drive to get where I’m going. last gas stop, I check it and top off the ice if needed. When its in the canoe, I keep it covered with sun shade material that I have fashioned into an over cover as an extra layer.
That being said you would need a really big kayak to haul it, but the concept can be scaled down and you are on the right track. Were it me, I would go with either a soft side Ice Mule or Yeti (not a big fan of Engle) and go with the two smaller as opposed to one. big one. Try to get white or light gray, no dark colors. Line the bottom with gel packs (use the soft ones as they take up less room) in the freezer . then pack your frozen food, cover it with a dish towel and a thin piece of Styrofoam. then add cold items on top. the key is that the cooler be as full as possible, so two smaller ones would be better than one big one as you can consolidate as you use the contents, eventually eliminating one.

The inflatable kayak you have could possibly have room for a real cooler. When I camp out of sea kayaks, we generally don;t have room for anything beyond a small, soft cooler.

There are some strategies you can use to make better use of small space.

If you are paddling in a cold water area, keep your items close to the water (may not be possible in an inflatable, where they may be separated from the water by an air chamber). We keep items that prefer cold up against the skin of the kayak below the waterline.

Meat you will use on 2nd or 3rd day can be frozen, and that will act as an ice pack to keep other items cool as the meat defrosts.

Choose your menu with items which last well without refrigeration. Block cheese instead of shredded, canned foods, root vegetables, etc. Also choose items which pack smaller - i.e. tortilla instead of bread, pastas that aren’t hollow, etc…

Get a larger double sided,screw top modern thermos and freeze the fresh food in it before you go. It will keep frozen for a two or three night trip. It may take more than one thermos since they are relatively small. That’s my trick for keeping fresh meat or prepared food I want to carry to a remote location. The challenge is having enough time to thaw it when you want to cook.

I have to fit everything in small hatches. What works for me is a plastic bag inside a neoprene lunch bag, put in all the stuff I need to keep cold that can freeze, fill the rest of the bag with water and put it in the freezer a couple of days ahead so it is a solid frozen block. Then when I leave I put all that in a soft-sided cooler. There is still ice after a couple of days, but the last days of longer trips involve food that doesn’t need refrigeration.

There is no secret to buying a good cooler. Look for something with thick walls (you want small on the inside), and shame on any manufacturer who sells coolers that are not white. If you take drinking water freeze them ahead of time and use as ice cubes.

Thanks for the replies. These are some good ideas.

The kayak is a 17.5’ tandem hybrid type, skin on Al frame with integrated inflatable side tubes. One of the reasons why I went with this style of kayak was the carrying capacity, but it can’t match a canoe for that. I’m limited by the side tubes to nothing more than 16” wide. I could fit a Yeti Tundra 35 lengthwise and have no worries about keeping the food cold, but then I don’t know where I’d carry the non-perishables. If I can keep the soft cooler (or coolers) under 12” in height, then I can fit the spray deck and put Neris’ big 60L deck bag on top.

We use water bottles for ice packs in the Lifetime 55 we take car camping, but I doubt I’ll have the space for them here. I hadn’t thought of putting an extra layer of foam insulation in the cooler, but it makes a lot of sense, especially at the top end of one of those roll top coolers where the insulation is minimal. And it gave me another idea; I could augment the insulation of a small cooler by wrapping it in foil-backed insulation blanket. With foil side out, that would be even better than white, which is a surprisingly hard to find color in soft coolers.

I hadn’t thought of using a thermos either. I see Stanley still makes a big 2.5qt bottle. If we can’t fit all we want in a cooler, that’s enough to carry a meal’s worth of frozen meat in marinade or stew or chili.

We do have a couple of neoprene zipper pouches. It seems like they would work to contain the frozen stuff and keep it from damaging the fresh stuff inside the same cooler, but I worry it might work too well and prevent the frozen food from working like an ice pack.

You can also cruise your supermarket for canned goods…and noodles etc. I used to trip for three weeks with no cooler and would cruise the forbidden inner aisles for ideas… Instant mash with frozen ( and dehydrated) veggies and tuna or chicken (canned)… Frozen veggies for your short trip won’t stay frozen but they will stay cold enough to be food safe.

I love spaghetti with the various sauces available… Add pepperoni, or clams etc

Consider dehydrating ground beef in your oven…150 8 hours.

I can’t advise on coolers…I have never used a big cooler but have kept cheese from molding in a lunch size softside cooler in hot weather for two weeks… Had no ice but did have a terry cloth towel that was saturated with water then wrung out…The principle of evaporative cooling…We had a resupply plane every two weeks.

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Yeah, I know I don’t NEED to carry a lot of fresh food. But I’ve spoiled my family with car camping and it will take a few trips to reset everybody’s comfort and culinary expectations. To give you an idea, here are some of my family’s favorite camp dinners from the last couple years:

Cioppino with fresh seafood and toasted garlic bread
Smoked baby back ribs (4.5 hours!) with sweet corn on the cob
Rack of lamb with Brussels sprouts, skillet potatoes, and pan sauce
Pizza with grilled sausage, chicken, peppers and onions

I normally cook on a Cobb BBQ grill that packs into a 12” cube box with accessories and a trip’s worth of charcoal. I’m not sure I even have space for that, so I bought a Trangia 25 cook kit with gas burner, a grill grate, and 4.5L pot that it all fits into.

Now I have to downsize the fresh food as well. No smoking or roasting. No seafood aside from maybe frozen shrimp. Less bread. I’ll prepare salad ahead of time, bag it, and compress it with a vacuum sealer. We’ll try foil dinners with potatoes and canned veggies. Maybe a lamb stew or turkey chili or curry made ahead and frozen.

Here are some of the family’s specific requests that should be easy enough:
Pad kra pao (Thải basil stir fry) with rice
Spiedie sandwiches (cubed marinaded meat grilled on skewers)
Copycat chipotle chicken tacos with fresh fixings
Ribeye steaks
Corn on the cob

Love your menu - I say get a canoe - lots more carrying space.

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Can I come? I have a pack canoe.

Boring meals are not a requirement on kayaking trips. Get a copy of Michael Gray’s cookbook “Hey, I’d Eat This at Home”. I and my stomach can attest to his skills and recipies as a camp chef. I’ve also used a few of these as well.

Take frozen food. Take dehydrated meals. Take prepared precooked foods that have been frozen. . Make it and freeze it. This is what our guide at Yellowstone Lake did and what we do.

. If going longer get some dry ice from grocery store. It will freeze your cooler block hard. Carry first days in regular ice different cooler.

Last time we boat camped we took a Yeti cooler in the Grumman Canoe. These days we take the travel trailer and base camp.

I’m gonna be the curmudgeon here: I’ve been going on 3 day to 2 week wilderness trips since I was 7 years old which gives me 65 years of experience. Started with my family when my sis and I were little and we car camped with an old canvas wall tent, then starting with girl scouts in 6th grade did overnight canoe camping. Through my 20’s into my 40’s I backpacked or canoe camped at least one weekend a month year round as well as one to two week long backcountry trips several times a year, including guiding others professionally (adults and kids’ groups) and as part of a wilderness adventure club. In the 30 years since I have regularly done backcountry camping and adapted my cooking and food prep to that kind of travel.

I have NEVER used any sort of cooler or ice nor bothered bringing frozen food or fresh meat on a trip – not only is that asking for extra hassle and potential spoilage but the leftovers and mess from raw meat prep create clean up problems at a camp site that attract wildlife, from insects to apex predators (like bears), though skunks, mice and raccoons tend to be the most common and annoying. But despite this, I have always eaten enjoyable meals and nobody else on my trips ever suffered.

If you must have meat, bring pre-cooked, which will resist spoilage better. Trader Joe’s sells prepackaged grilled chicken servings each individually sealed in a plastic cell and other precooked stuff that doesn’t need freezing. There are plenty of great one dish casseroles you can make from scratch as well with packaged shelf-stable ingredients

In my opinion, part of the specialness of wilderness adventures is that the “cuisine” is different from what you get at home – no less tasty. In fact, as kids, we looked forward to the different camping foods Dad (an experienced outdoorsman and World War 2 vet who spend many months on the advance lines of combat in Europe) prepped. We loved canned corned beef hash to which he would add canned crispy fried onions. Even back in the 50’s he would manage to find foods that worked without having to worry about keeping them cool – we used to be able to buy tinned bacon (an entire pound rolled up and in a can that opened like sardines.) Not to mention sardines, which we turned our noses up at home but ate with gusto on a campfire toasted bagel with a big slab of sliced tomato when we were camping.

These days the stores are full of great packable foods that don’t need any special storage. I especially like the olive oil and lemon marinated seafoods (sardines, tuna, mussels, salmon) which make great additions to noodle or dried or fresh potato mix stove top casseroles or stove top pizzas. Vegetables, fruits and most hard or wax wrapped softer cheeses, butter and even eggs do NOT need refrigeration for 3 or 4 days. Pick greens like chopped kale, asparagus, green beans, shallots and corn on the cob that dont’ readily spoil. Summer sausage and pepperoni can be diced and mixed into eggs or casseroles or even garnish salads. Our dad also added a another feature to our wilderness trips because he was an avid fan of the “Stalking the Wild Asparagus” books that taught what wild foods could be collected (you do have to make sure you are not in an area where that is prohibited). We often got to prep salads that included wild greens and wild flowers, or sprinkle berries on our morning pancakes that we helped him find and harvest. And of course there was the chance to cook weenies and marshmallows over the campfire or Coleman stove – all part of the fun of camping.

So I propose altering your routine and making a change in the menu to make the trip easier and possibly more fun and unique. Kids are more adaptable than most parents realize and novelty is often more enjoyable for them than parents making strenuous efforts to keep things “normal”. Kids learn best when they are challenged with something out of their usual routine – “spoiling” them by trying to keep things familiar doesn’t stimulate growth.

It’s also been my observation that simpler foods that might seem dull at home, can taste like ambrosia after a long day out in the wilds. On one winter backpacking trip years ago 4 of us decided to pool what foods we had brought to make a quick one pot meal once we had made camp. We had a packaged egg noodle mix with a cheese powder packet, a can of SPAM, a package of freeze-dried green beans and some bacon bits. We cooked it up in a huge pot and everyone raved about how delicious it was. So a few weeks later I decided to make that “fabulous dish” at home and gathered the same ingredients and cooked it. You have probably already guessed that it was awful. Atmosphere and genuine hunger after a long day outdoors are major contributors to whether a dish is appetizing.

I have done 3 or 4 day trips and been perfectly happy and well-nourished with nothing but peanut butter and jam sandwiches, apples, oranges, cans of V8 (drunk without refrigeration – drinks don’t have to be chilled to be palatable), raw carrots, room temp water, crackers with hard cheese and summer sausage, granola bars and snack mixes of nuts, dried fruit (and some M &Ms). Why add the stress of complicated food storage and prep to your trips when it isn’t necessary? And most kids are happy with simple foods and all day “grazing” when they are out on an all day trip. They won’t starve and all of you can relax and not obsess about the larder and kitchen duty.

I have also been stuck camping with people who created a huge burden for themselves by hauling all sorts of high-prep need fancy ingredients and seen them waste a lot of time and frustration making a “gourmet” meal and then having to clean up after it and fret about continued storage safety.

Fresh air and sunshine and just being out in Nature creates a hearty appetite that doesn’t need to be prompted by fancy food. You can still eat well by finding creative and simpler alternatives to dragging your home kitchen with you. And who know, you might establish a new family tradition like ours did where the kids looks forward to the novelty of “camp food” as part of the fun of the trips.

Doesn’t address your cooler choice query, but maybe offers a different perspective?


Dried fruit, nuts, seeds, and M & Ms - there’s a reason it’s called trail mix! Add some jerky, bannock and camp coffee and it’s wagons ho!
Or cast off?

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When camping, we don’t eat the stuff we usually make at home, we eat better, because unlike at home, we have the time and nothing else more important to do. I genuinely enjoy cooking and I don’t mind the prep and cleanup. It’s relaxing and gives us something to do in the evenings.

I get that food is not that important to a lot of people, but it is to my wife and I. Our vacations tend to revolve around kid-friendly activities during the day and food in the evening. When we’re not camping, we often plan our itinerary around where we want to eat. It doesn’t feel like we’re on vacation if we’re not looking forward to a nice dinner.

The only real wilderness canoe trip I’ve taken was on a chain of lakes in Glacier National Park. IIRC, it was a 5.5 mile carry to reach the first lake and another 2 mile carry to reach the second lake where our camp site was, so we packed light and ate nothing but fresh caught trout and dehydrated meals for 4 days. We saw some beautiful scenery and wildlife, but the most memorable highlight of the whole trip was the steaks we ate at the hotel the night we came out.

I ate improvised meals in the Boy Scouts and MREs in the military and hated it all, which is why I have no interest in backpacking trips. The great thing about traveling by boat, IMHO anyway, is that you don’t have to be a gram counter and limit yourself like that.

To each his own, but to us, fresh food is up there with sleeping pads and bug protection at the top of the priority list to bring.

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And I really want to say thanks for all the suggestions. I just joined and this was my first topic. I didn’t expect so many responses so quickly, and I appreciate them.

And yes, I need a canoe, please tell my wife :slightly_smiling_face:
Seriously though, if these initial trips go well, a canoe is in our future plans. The main thing holding me back is that my kids are too small to contribute much of anything to the paddling effort, and I’m not confident about handling a loaded tandem canoe in a squall or moving water without a paddler up front.

I will definitely check out Michael Gray’s book.

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This is always an option :upside_down_face:

Seriously though, maybe a rotomold cooler on a tube would work?

I followed the link and saw they have a 30 qt version as well. I was really smitten until I read the reviews. I hadn’t thought of a towable, but the idea merits serious consideration for a calm water trip, which our 2nd trip of the summer should be. Thanks again.

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Take a look at the book More Backcountry Cooking… It’s been my go to for the last 20 years… Since 1996I I have spent 70 days in the summer on wilderness canoe and kayak trips until 2016.

While we will be based out of an RV for five weeks this summer in Labrador I still will be using the book…There are three grocery stores in 800 miles.