Food Barrels or Food Packs For Your Next Canoe Trip?Jeff Lynch
In packing food for a BWCA trip there are two main pack styles that are usually used. Either soft
sided traditional canoe packs or blue food barrels. We outfit and sell both packs and barrels made by
Granite Gear and Recreational Barrel Works. Both options work well and have several advantages
and a few drawbacks. It really comes down to preference. On a side note I have used both barrels
and food packs on many trips and still use both, but I tend to like using barrels best.
Barrels are great. They keep your food dry and also prevent it from getting crushed and banged up.
Contrary to some opinions they are not completely bear proof, but they do help reduce the odds of
having bear issues and stop any smaller animals from getting your food. We outfit our barrels with
an additional locking device that allows you to secure the barrel to a tree. This will keep a bear from
being able to take the barrel into the woods and away from camp. It also makes it more difficult and
louder for a bear to get in the barrel.
One obvious disadvantage to the barrel is the size and bulk of the barrel. They are a ridged
container, which can be tougher to fit in a heavily loaded canoe. In my opinion this is about the only
real disadvantage to barrels. The other possible disadvantage can be that barrels are more awkward
to portage. This can however be fixed with the addition of a strap system like the Granite Gear Vapor
Harness. With this addition portaging barrels no tougher than a standard canoe pack.
Barrels come in two primary sizes. These sizes are 30 liters and 60 liters. Most groups of two will be
able to pack a week worth of food in a 30 liter barrel. You can use this metric to determine how much
space you will need for your group based on the number of people and the number of days you will
Regardless of barrel size you can choose to add barrel organizers and coolers. This will allow you to
keep things nice and neat. You can use four organizers per barrel, giving yourself one for staples
and one for each of the three daily meals.
Food packs are more traditional than barrels and many of us began our canoe tripping using packs.
They are easy to carry and convenient to load into a boat. They have an advantage of getting
smaller as you eat down your food supply. In addition they can be lined with a plastic bag for water
resistance or an insulated liner that will help to keep cold or frozen food usable for a longer period of
The down side of food packs is they just don’t provide the protection of a barrel. Be it protection from
water, impacts crushing you crackers or wildlife getting to your grub. Regardless of what you line a
pack with they will not be waterproof in the event of a capsize like a barrel will be. Additional
although it is possible I have rarely ended a trip without smashing some of my food when storing it in
a traditional pack.
If you are on a shorter trip or traveling solo a food sack put inside you gear packs is the way to go. In
these situations you just don’t need a whole pack devoted to food. A dry bag will serve the purpose
well and it will be relatively small it is easier to hang if you decide to do so. Another option for storing
smaller amount of food are bear proof containers like Bear Vaults or Ursack bear bags. These bear
proof containers are required in some National Parks, but have not gained as much popularity in the Boundary Waters.