There is lots of great advice and not so great advice and some myths out there about what type of grub is best for trips, so here is a little info. In relation to myself (Pajo), I have worked in the sports nutrition business for near on four years with body builders, combat sports athletes and power lifters so I’ve picked up a few bits – and yes, that’s right, Oisin was once a body builder, Gerry O’F was a combat sports athlete and Paddy was a Power lifter (only one of them is false btw, which one I wonder?)

Anyways, let’s look at what we need most from our food in relation to trips. Trips can be physically demanding and tiring and in many cases mentally challenging. We need our food to prop us up and keep us in top form for these types of challenges.

The three major issues that can effect our performances and our well being on the river are:

  1. Dehydration,
  2. Low energy levels (low blood sugar levels)
  3. In cold conditions hypothermia.

I don’t think we need to worry too much about hyperthermia here in Ireland, but it can happen.

Dehydration can effect the body in a number of different negative ways. The majority of the population walk around everyday dehydrated due to a lack of water intake. How this can affect you on the water is through unexplained tiredness, headaches, muscle cramp and irritability. The more extreme cases involve fainting and seizures but that’s after spending a few days in the desert!

Low energy levels due to low blood sugar is when you just reach a slump and your whole body just wants to lie down. You may feel shaky and experience a lack of strength and some irritability, severe cases hold symptoms similar to hypothermia in that your concentration wains, mood is effected and you may have trouble speaking or finding words to say. Once glucose supplies in the body has depleted and the liver has no more to give we start to feel the effects of mild hypoglycemia.

Hypothermia as everyone knows (if you don’t know – you need a REC 2/3 course soon!) is a big problem for Irish kayakers due to the cold nature of our weather for the majority of the year. Although proper insulation and correct river wear can help prevent hypothermia, early onset of hypothermia can be avoided through the correct intake of food and fluid.

As an add on to that, you may have come across Raynaud’s Syndrome where your feet and hands get abnormally cold very quickly because of vasoconstriction in the limbs which reduces blood flow to the extremities leaving your hands and/or feet a deathly pale or blue colour.

So how do we go about avoiding these problems as much as possible?

To be honest, kayakers should spend less time worrying about what are the important foods to bring on a river trip and focus more on the time spent in preparation.

Your preparation time in relation to heading out on a river trip starts the night before. What you ingest the night before a trip will have a direct effect on you and on your trip the next morning. Therefore, if your night previous consists of alcohol – prepare to be dehydrated and to experience cold limbs.

Alcohol in large quantities acts as a vasoconstrictor. Your mood will also be effected, alcohol is a depressant. So a feed of drink the night before a trip will mean your peers have to endure a cold, cranky, depressing switched off kayaker who will probably need more than one or two T-rescues.

Similar to that, any ‘fast food’ junk that is high in saturated fat and trans fats ingested the evening before will cause issues. The high fat content of these foods means it takes extra hours for your body to digest the chemical grease-bulge in your stomach.

Chipper food can take over two days to fully digest. In order for your body to work to break the ball of fat down it needs extra energy, yes, that’s right, the energy you needed to paddle is now else-where working to digest your snackbox. The high salt content of these foods also adds to increased dehydration. Add to all that, any good food you might take on the morning of the trip will sit in the waiting room to be digested as it mixes up with the grease already sitting in your belly.

Food for the night-before should help to bolster your energy levels for the next day’s trip.

In the business we used to call this ‘Carb loading’ – athletes who train early in the morning time will ‘carb load’ before bed so their bodies are prepared for the physical demands the next morning.


Ideas for carb loading:

  1. Some brown rice and veg and fish as a last meal at about 7 or 8pm
  2. Oatmeal and berries
  3. Pineapple rings before bed – Pineapple is a great for glycogen restoration. Glycogen is the main way the body stores glucose for later use. It is a large molecule produced in the liver, although it is also stored in the muscle and fat cells. After carbohydrate ingestion, more glycogen will be produced, and then released as blood glucose levels fall.
  4. A glass of water to stave of dehydration.


Supplementary ways of carb loading:

The use of any waxy maize starch shakes such as Vitargo or 2:1 Recovery shakes are great also.

Also in the preparation category is breakfast. The most important meal of the day and even more so when it comes to the physical demands of a river trip. If you get your preparations right, you will need to worry less about what foods to bring with you. The better you are prepared, the easier the food demands become on the river.

I’ll be brutally honest here, 99.9% of breakfast cereals are useless and not nutritious at all. Anything with the brand names Kellogg’s and Nestle on them are all bad news. Bin them. And for God’s sake don’t be feeding them to your kids, and on that note don’t give them to the dog either!

Other cereals that market themselves as healthy options are mostly bad too. Special K is useless, you might as well be eating sawdust, Shredded Wheat is also not great  (google ‘wheat allergy’ for a wake up call), Alpen is full of sugar,  and granola likewise. The ‘best’ of that bad bunch is Weetabix which isn’t great either due to it’s sugar content but is a tad better than most.

The king of all breakfast cereals is porridge oats. I can hear the moans and groans already… “but I don’t like porridge”, “I can’t get it down me” etc etc… that’s because our folks only knew how to make porridge like prison gruel. Now here’s a challenge…

Get yourself some organic porridge oats pour yourself a half bowl of uncooked oats (the smaller you are the less you need – on average an 80kg person should have about 100g of oats) – now instead of your usual dairy milk try using some juice (not from concentrate) or Rice Milk/Oat Milk, be liberal with the liquids as the oats will soak it up really quick, cover the top of the oats and the berries with it.

Add to it, some blackberries, blue berries and strawberries. Leave it to settle for a minute, then enjoy it COLD! Yes that’s right uncooked porridge oats! Start small and work up, too much in the bowl could lead to constipation if you are unused to ingesting oats so start with a few handfuls.

You have now fed your body the best complex carbohydrate available for breakfast time, it also top of the charts for keeping glycogen levels topped up for the next 4 or 5 hours depending.

You can also have a boiled egg with that if you are wondering about your protein intake, or you could buy some Glutamine in the health shops and mix a teaspoon in with some water or juice and you will now have added to your armoury of good preparatory foods for your day out.

Other good options include, scrambled eggs on spelt or wholegrain bread – your bread intake should depend on you and any allergies you may have, however in relation to fueling up with carbs, oats are the way to go. The full Irish should be avoided for the same reasons that chipper food should be avoided also.

Coffee or tea will depend on you. If you suffer with cold feet and hands you may want to avoid caffeine as it narrows the blood vessels causing vasoconstriction. If the cold is not an issue, have your early morning brew. Nothing will separate me from my coffee in the morning

Now that you have prepared correctly, what should you bring with you?

There are many factors that need to be taken into account when deciding what food to bring;

  1. The length of the trip
  2. The weather
  3. The water levels (will there be time to stop and eat or will I be eating while holding an eddy? or will I be eating while riding wave trains?  )
  4. Your storage facilities.

The food you should bring should be functional. Sandwiches are not functional, Mars bars or other chocolate bars are not functional in the strictest sense.

To get the best out of your food you should be looking to bring two or three small pieces that can fit into your BA for quick access. These should be foods that are functional in relation to keeping your sugar levels up. These can be, Power Bars (available in cycle shops), Power Gel sachets (also available in cycle shops), Glucose tablets (available in health stores) – all of these are used by athletes who need a quick boost while they are on the go – hence why cyclists use them. They act as a great in-between snack that is 100% functional. They consist of pure glucose, dextrose and maltodextrin. Some have added caffeine so again if you suffer with Raynauds or cold limbs you will need to suss this out for yourself.

Attached to the front pillar of your boat should be a litre bottle of water that you should slug out of regularly especially if you are in a dry suit where the temperature can be quite warm compared to the wets suit. This does bring with it it’s own complications of needing to pee more, however staying hydrated is most important. Other options for carrying water can by the water bladder that you can attach to the inside back of your BA – ask Niall O’Broin about these, he has used them in the past.

The food you carry in your dry bag for the trips that you will be having a lunch on, should be similar to what you had for breakfast which was a combination of complex carbs and fast acting sugary carbs.

In my flask I carry some preheated Uncle Bens brown rice mixed with a little bit of Reggae Reggae sauce… haven’t heard of it? see here -> Levi Roots – Reggae Reggae Sauce (HQ)

The brown rice acts as our complex carb which releases glucose into the bloodstream over a protracted period, keeping energy levels up until you get off the river.

Added to that you may like to have a fast acting sugary carb such as glucose and or dextrose – Topaz sell these bars called Half-Time, they look unhealthy but they are a tasty hit of glucose, I find them great. You find them beside the coffee machines in the garages.

Other option to follow maybe some small amount of nuts, or nut bars – honey and oats bars, Tracker bars etc will suffice here.

On cold days, the hot rice can do wonders but there is always the need to carry a hot drink in case of hypothermia issues. The WWKC favourite of hot Ribena is a grand way of getting some sugar into you, as well as a hot drink. Try not to consume it all on the break, it may be needed at the end of the trip or someone may need it during the rest of the trip.

So there you go, some ideas about food and river trips. Obviously none of this is medical advice nor should it be taken as such, and even more obvious if you are diabetic or celiac etc you should already have your dietary needs sussed. The information here should be used as simple guide and nothing more, what you ingest is your own business. This is mine.

Reproduced from the forum with permission of Pajo – 2012

Remember: Watch out for the river bugs! Bring the hand sanitiser. Eat from the wrapper where possible without directly touching the food with your hands. – Andrew, WWKC Forum, 2012