Canoe camping food barrels: Everything you need to know

by | Jun 8, 2022 | Gear

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The first time Elise and I went on a canoe camping trip, we didn’t even know what a canoe camping food barrel was. We did, however, notice several other canoe campers carrying them.

We didn’t even have waterproof packs. Needless to say, everything got soaked once it was in our canoe and we found ourselves having to constantly get in and out with every portage on our route.

Live and learn, right? It wasn’t long after that when we decided it was time to invest in a canoe camping food barrel if we were serious about doing more trips.

What is a canoe camping food barrel?

Canoe camping food barrel

A canoe camping food barrel is a large, barrel-shaped container for storing all of your food and cooking gear while canoe camping. Most of them are blue and made out of durable plastic—such as high density polyethylene (HDPE).

The idea behind using a food barrel is to keep all of your stuff dry. This is especially important for when water enters your canoe during portages, running rapids, paddling in wavy conditions, traveling in rainy weather, or possibly flipping your canoe.

The big food barrels typically have a capacity of 60 litres (16 gallons), which is more than enough space for everything you need for a canoe camping trip. You can also get smaller ones with a capacity of 30 litres (8 gallons) for shorter trips.

Standard food barrel features

Components of a canoe camping food barrel
  • An air-tight plastic lid that you place over the opening of the barrel to close it and create a barrier against water.
  • metal snap-closure ring that you secure over the lip of the lid and barrel to further ensure a waterproof seal.
  • Two external side handles you can use to lift and carry the canoe camping food barrel with two hands.

The benefits of using a canoe camping food barrel

  • Protects food from water damage and being crushed in the canoe
  • Keeps small animals out (mice, squirrels, raccoons, etc.)
  • Air-tight seal keeps smells contained so animals aren’t as easily attracted
  • Ideal for bringing food for long trips or trips with multiple people
  • Can be used with a harness to comfortably carry on your back (like a backpack)
  • Extra accessories can be purchased for additional storage and organization
  • Barrel lid can be used as a serving or cutting board
  • Extra accessories can be purchased for additional storage and organization
  • Can be used as a small table or stool at camp
  • Can be placed a short distance away from camp at night instead of hung in a tree

The drawbacks of using a canoe camping food barrel

  • Can be big, awkward, and heavy to move around
  • Not ideal for lightweight camping trips (or potentially single portages)
  • Smell-proof, but not bear-proof
  • Harness and extra accessories must be purchased separately
  • A pain in the butt to try and hang in a tree (too heavy)

What’s the best canoe camping food barrel?

The absolute best canoe camping food barrel you can get is from Recreational Barrel Works. They’re a small, family-owned business located in northern Ontario, Canada.

Recreational Barrel Works canoe camping food barrel

All of their canoe camping food barrels are made out of high quality materials and are compatible with a variety of different accessories. We bought ours from them, and it’s held up strong even after being thrown around in the canoe, at portages, and at camp.

Recreational Barrel Works canoe camping food barrels are also some of the most affordable on the market. They offer a 60-litre (16-gallon) barrel for $145 CAD and a 30-litre (8-gallon) barrel for $108 CAD.

How to load your canoe camping food barrel

Loading a canoe camping food barrel.

Depending on what you’re bringing, how long you’re canoe camping for, and how many people are in your group, the contents of your canoe camping food barrel will vary. We recommend organizing it as much as possible so you can easily access whatever you need while you’re at camp.

Load heavy items first

For starters, aim to load the heaviest items (like cooking gear) first so they’re at the very bottom. We load our Bushbox XL titanium stove followed by our titanium cookware like pots, pans, plates, and cutlery.

Use barrel buckets

Barrel buckets

Next, we make use of our two barrel buckets, which is basically a round bag that fits inside the barrel, to load our dry food items. We find it easiest to place all dry food items together in a dedicated freezer bag according to the meal.

So, for instance, if we’re planning to have a dehydrated chicken alfredo meal for dinner one night we’ll grab a freezer bag and place the dehydrated food (pasta/spinach/mushrooms/ground chicken), powdered milk, and alfredo sauce packet in it. Then we’ll take that whole freezer bag of dry items and place it in the first barrel bucket, repeating this process for every other meal we’re planning to have.

Stack everything with light items on top

Once the first barrel bucket is full of dry food items, we move onto the second barrel bucket and fill it with lighter items—like bread—and then place it on top of the second one. Our barrel buckets are open at the top, but you can also get ones with lids to keep items from falling out.

Use a barrel cooler for cold foods

Barrel cooler

Right before we set off on our trip, we load our barrel cooler with the frozen and refrigerated items—like meat—that we plan on eating within the first two days. We prefer to place it on the very top of our barrel buckets, but if it’s really heavy, we’ll place it on the bottom with the two barrel buckets on top of it.

Make use of the extra room

The barrel buckets and cooler have a good amount of wiggle room around them, so you can place smaller items down the sides of them for extra storage and to help keep everything in place. We often do this with long, awkward items like our grill, saw, and axe.

Consider extra storage accessories

We have two barrel pouches, which are vertical bags that you can fasten on each side of the outside of your barrel. They’re great for storing things you want easy access to—like snacks or your rain jacket—but they do mean adding extra weight to your already heavy barrel. These pouches also aren’t waterproof, so anything you put in them will probably get wet.

Pocket organizers fit around your barrel bucket or cooler and can be used to store smaller items like packets of spices, soup mixes, tea bags, and more. There’s also a kitchen organizer you can clip to the side of your barrel to keep all of your utensils in one place.

How to portage your food barrel

Portaging a canoe camping food barrel.

You’re going to need a harness to help you portage your canoe camping food barrel. We recommend getting one with a padded hip belt and shoulder straps for extra comfort.

Recreational Barrel Works offers two types of harnesses—an expedition harness and a minimalist harness. We have the expedition harness, which is the one you want if you plan on portaging during your trips. It’s extremely comfortable and fully adjustable, so you can tweak it to your body type.

The harness of a canoe camping food barrel.

The minimalist harness doesn’t come with shoulder straps. It’s designed for trips without any portaging—where all you’re doing is moving your barrel from the canoe to your campsite.

Considering the fact that your food barrel is probably going to be very heavy—anywhere from 50 to 75 pounds depending on your length of trip and number of people—you’re going to want to take extra care when portaging it.

Use the harness handles to lift the barrel in and out of the canoe.

You’ll notice that the expedition harness has two handles on the opposite side of the straps—one at the top (close to the lid), and one at the bottom (close to the base of the barrel). You can use these instead of the barrel’s external handles to lift it sideways, which makes it easier to loading and unloading it from the canoe.

Place the barrel on its side in the canoe in a spot that distributes the weight evenly.

Avoid placing the barrel in the canoe in its upright position, which can throw off balance if you’re paddling in wavy conditions of fast water. Instead, place it on its side to lower its centre of gravity.

If you and your paddling partner are around the same weight, you’d place the barrel in the middle, However, if you’re not the same weight, and you’re carrying more gear, you’ll want to place your barrel slightly forward or backward to distribute the overall weight of the canoe as evenly as possible.

Fishing with the canoe camping food barrel in the canoe.

Use the buddy system when picking up the barrel to putt the shoulder straps on—or taking them off.

You can really hurt yourself if you try to pick up or take down a heavy barrel all by yourself. When planning to portage the barrel, pick the barrel up by the top of the two shoulder straps at the same time as your partner, who picks it up from the two harness handles at the top and bottom.

They can help take some of the load off of you and keep the barrel upright as you turn around and get your arms inside the straps. Similarly, when taking the straps off at the end of a portage, you’ll want your partner to be holding the two harness straps as you slide your arms out of the straps to help lower the barrel down gently.

Should you bring your barrel on every canoe camping trip?

Portaging a canoe camping food barrel.

When we got our food barrel, we thought we’d be bringing it with us on practically every trip… until we realized how much extra weight it adds.

For us, the barrel poses problems for single-portage trips. Single portaging means that you’re able to bring all of your gear (including the canoe) from one end of the portage to the other—in one go. Double-portaging, on the other hand, requires bringing some of your gear to the other hand, then going back to get the rest of your stuff.

If we bring our big 75-litre canoe pack, plus our barrel, plus our canoe—it’s just too much for us to single-portage. Ross can’t portage the canoe with such a big, awkward, heavy load on his back.

In these cases, where portaging is either long or frequent or both, we go without the barrel in favour of the canoe pack. Elise carries the canoe pack while Ross carries the canoe plus a much smaller and more lightweight pack with a few essentials in it.

So, no, you really shouldn’t bring your food barrel on every canoe trip you have planned. For trips that require a lot of travel and portaging, you may want to go without it like we do. The only exception would be if you have multiple people coming, who can carry stuff.

For trips that involve paddling straight up to your campsite, a food barrel is a great idea. Just make sure to think about your length and style of trip when you’re considering bringing the barrel.

How to use your food barrel at camp

Using the canoe camping food barrel at a campsite.

There are a few campsite rules you should be following with your barrel to stay safe.

Keep it closed as often as possible. If you leave the top open, critters can still get in. Putting all food items and cookware in it and sealing it up is especially important when you venture off your campsite for the day.

Keep it in the shade. You might notice that direct sunlight makes everything in your barrel warm. Even if all the contents of your barrel are dried goods, you’ll still want to keep them as cool as possible. Aim to keep your barrel under tree cover or a tarp while at camp.

Load all of your dishes, cookware, garbage, and toiletries in it at night. Everything that smells should go in your food barrel—no questions asked. You might even want to consider rinsing and wiping the outside of the barrel or the lid to get rid of any residual smells from food that may have come in contact with the barrel.

Seal it up at night. You should also be sure to put the lid on your barrel at night and seal it with the metal ring. Not only will this keep smells contained, but it will help keep your food safe from animals that might be prowling around your campsite.

Carry it a decent distance from your campsite or hang it if it’s light enough. Our food barrel is always so heavy that we never even bother hanging it. Instead, we just drag it into the woods—usually somewhere around the privy—and leave it there.

Yes, it’s a risk, because bears can still tear through it if they want to, but as long as you’re not camping in an extremely popular spot where bears have learned to expect to find food, you’ll probably be fine. If, however, your barrel isn’t terribly heavy, you can certainly hang it from a sturdy tree branch with some strong rope.

How to clean and store your food barrel at home

Given that your food barrel is meant for storing food, chances are it will be very stinky, sticky, and potentially wet from leaked foods or liquids by the time you get back home. It’s important to address this as soon as possible to keep your food barrel in tip-top shape.

Step 1: Empty everything out of your food barrel.

Step 2: Bring everything outside.

Step 2: Use a bucket of warm water with dish soap and a sponge or rag to wipe the interior and exterior of the barrel. Do the same for the lid.

Step 3: Leave everything outside for a few hours to dry out.

Step 4: Once dry, pack any gear into the barrel that you want to store in it and place the lid on it if you want, but avoid closing the metal snap-closure to keep the pressure off and prevent permanent indenting.

If the barrel buckets are sticky or wet, we’ll soak them in soapy water for a bit and then let them dry. The interior of the barrel cooler always gets a wipe-down with soapy water or sometimes isopropyl alcohol.

We’ve never had to clean our expedition harness, but if we did, we’d probably do it just by submerging it in water at camp or pouring water over it at home in the backyard—then letting it dry.

Food barrels vs. dry bags vs. Ursacks

Dry bags

A food barrel is just one way to store and carry your food on a canoe camping trip, but there are others. A dry bag is a great option for canoe camping if you’re looking for something lighter weight and more packable. Ursacks are also a good option for canoe campers who want to protect their food from animals (especially bears) but don’t necessarily need the extra capacity that a food barrel provides.

Food BarrelDry BagUrsack
Storage capacityUp to 75 litresUp to 30 litresUp to 15 litres
LightweightNo (75-litre barrel approx. 8 lbs without harness)Yes (approx. 1.5 lbs for a 30-litre bag)Yes (appox. 0.5 lbs for a 15-litre Ursack Major XL)
Good for portagingYes—with expedition harnessDepends—no if it doesn’t have shoulder strapsNo—must be stored in canoe bag for easy carrying
AccessoriesYes—barrel buckets, cooler, and moreNoNo
Critter-proofYesNoNo—small rodents can get in
Bear-proofNoNoCertain models are bear-proof (such as the Ursack Major)
Easy to hangNoYesYes
AffordabilityMedium to high rangeLow to medium rangeMedium range

Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide what storage option is best for your canoe camping needs. If you like the idea of having a big, sturdy container for all your food and gear, then a canoe camping food barrel is certainly the way to go. But if you’re looking to save space and weight, then one of the other options might be a better fit. Whichever option you choose, just be sure to take the necessary precautions to keep your food safe from animals.

We hope this guide has provided you with some helpful insights on how to use a canoe camping food barrel. If you have any questions or tips of your own, please share them in the comments below!

Happy canoe camping!

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Elise & Ross

We’re Elise and Ross, avid backcountry campers and outdoor adventurers! We started Gone Camping Again as a way to share our knowledge and experience about wilderness living and travel. Our hope is that we inspire you to get outside and enjoy all that nature has to offer!

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