Behind the Scenes of a Grand Canyon Food Pack

5 Min. Read
A group of people work together to pack large YETI coolers for a Grand Canyon rafting trip
The job of packing food for a Grand Canyon rafting trip is no easy feat | Photo: Dylan Silver

The Giant Job of Packing Food for a Grand Canyon Rafting Trip

Yes, river guides are an incredibly important part of a Grand Canyon rafting trip. You have to get down the river after all (and safely). But there may be one person who is even more important than them: the official food packer.  Until she retired in 2020, OARS Grand Canyon Assistant Manager Denice Napoletano had played a role in Grand Canyon trips in one form or another since 1984 when on a whim she started working for Grand Canyon Dories.

“I had a chance to do a trip in the fall of ’84, so that pretty much hooked me for life on Grand Canyon trips. A friend I worked with at Alta on ski patrol, Mark Johnson, his wife was a cook for the Dories. She needed a helper in 36 hours and if I could make it, then I could go.  I was like, ‘Another Grand Canyon trip? Sign me up, I’ll be right there.’ And that kind of started that,” recalled Denice.

After guiding for several years, Denice eventually found her niche in the warehouse as the official food packer—a role she was in for nearly 20 of her 30-plus years with OARS Grand Canyon Dories.  Here’s a little behind the scenes insight into what it takes to pack food for a multi-week Grand Canyon rafting trip from the one person who knows best.

A Longtime Grand Canyon Food Packer Reveals How it’s Done

The Secret Job of Packing for a Grand Canyon Rafting Trip
Denice Napoletano was a fixture at OARS Grand Canyon Dories for more than 30 years

How many people are on the average Grand Canyon trip?

On an average trip we have sixteen clients, but we’ll have seven to eight crew members. So that ends up being mid-twenties as a number of people to feed.

Some trips can be on the water more than two weeks.  Is there often much overlap on the menu?

We have a rotation system with the breakfasts and lunches, but we don’t repeat too many dinners. So for an 18-day Grand Canyon trip, we might have chicken or pork loin twice, or maybe even steaks. But other than that, I would be willing to say that we would probably do twelve to fourteen different meals.

How do you keep track of all of that, and how it needs to be packed?

We make the menu from top to bottom. So when we pack, we start at the bottom and we go up. The thing that comes out last goes in first. From trial and error we’ve learned these things.

How do you make ice last for the length of a Grand Canyon trip?

We have huge 225-quart coolers. They’re probably four feet by two feet by two feet deep. We put them in a walk-in freezer, put two inches of water in the cooler and then we freeze it. And then a couple of days later we put two more inches of water in it and that freezes. We do that three times. So essentially, we have six or seven inches of water in the ice chest that’s going down river, but it’s one solid block, and that allows the ice to last.

How are the coolers organized?

Let’s say for example we have five coolers. One of them is a different-colored cooler that only carries the frozen meats, and then one has dairy, one has eggs and breakfast meat, maybe another one is for vegetables and so on. Once we finish with one, we might put the lettuce in there that has been in a dry, cool space at the bottom of the boat.

So when the guides pull out a fresh head of lettuce 15 days into a trip, that’s the secret? 

Just imagine how the raft or dory sits in the water.  At least a third of it is under the water level, so the lettuce, if they can keep it under deck, it’s cold down there. That allows the produce to keep a nice temperature to make it last longer. They keep things that are potentially hazardous foods that need temperature control, like dairy products or eggs, in the coolers.

Grand Canyon rafting trip food by the numbers

Speaking of eggs, how many do you pack for the average trip?

Like forty dozen, almost 500 eggs. They come in those nice cardboard packages and they are pretty gingerly cared for. We’ll put them in a cooler and pad the side, pad the top, and they usually do very well. What’s really interesting is the number of dozens of eggs almost directly correlates to the number of loaves of bread, which also correlates to the number of bags of cookies.  So, there’s probably forty dozen eggs, forty loaves of bread, and forty bags of cookies on almost every trip.

What are some of the meals that surprise people most on a Grand Canyon river trip?

The comment about food is always, “How did they pull that out on day twelve?”  I think a “wow” meal might be the filet mignon dinner. That’s served with sautéed onions and mushrooms and all kinds of good fresh green beans and a salad. And our last night might be a marinated pork loin with brown sugar carrots and coleslaw. People really like to be impressed on the last night, so the guides usually make brownies in a Dutch oven. There’s not much that has more of a “wow” factor than a cake coming out of a Dutch oven.

An earlier version of this post was published in December 2014 and has since been updated.

Cari Morgan heashot

Cari Morgan

Cari Morgan is the Content Marketing Manager for OARS. Since 2014, she has managed the company’s blog, The Eddy, and has been the primary “voice” behind the brand’s social media sphere.

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