No Refrigeration?

While both our cruising boats have had refrigeration, I’ve done several long-term camping trips without refrigeration.  On four different occasions, Dave and I have gone two months or longer without a refrigerator.  And we ate well!

Even if your boat has refrigeration, it’s a good idea to at least think about what you’d do if it died.  Dave and I always figured that we could just continue on with our plans — no, we wouldn’t have cold drinks, but that was a better option than missing some prime cruising time while waiting for repairs or parts.We could always do the repairs when we were “in town” for other reasons.

I’ll be honest — for long-term cruising and living aboard, having a refrigerator is nice.  But it’s not essential.  Don’t let the lack of refrigeration stop you from cruising, whether for a weekend or an open-ended trip.

The trick to not being deprived is to plan your provisions and meals so that you’re not eating “make do” meals, but real meals. Yes, you can buy those freeze dried meals and just add boiling water, but they’re honestly not too appetizing for eating day in and day out.  There are lots of better options, using real food.  Admittedly, there are some differences in how you might do things if you set off without refrigeration, versus what you’d stock as a back-up plan.

Actually, I’ve talked about a lot of my ways for having great food without refrigeration in other articles dealing with specific issues.  In contrast, this article is more of an overview tying it all together with links to a number of those other articles for more detailed information. And if you want still more information, check out my book on Storing Food without Refrigeration.

Canned Meat

Unless you’re a vegetarian, canned meat is a core food when you don’t have refrigeration.  Even if you do have refrigeration, it’s a good idea to keep some on hand in case the refrigeration goes out — or, if you’re like us, and just don’t have room to keep much fresh or frozen meat.

Canned meat isn’t all Spam and tuna casserole.  You can make a wide variety of meals with canned meat, once you learn a few tricks for keeping it from turning to mush:

Veggies

If you leave port without a refrigerator, you most likely have a cooler with ice where you’ll stow your veggies.  But if you have refrigeration that gives out, the situation is a little different:  the refrigerator box can be used as a cooler, but you won’t have access to ice until the next time you’re able to provision.

Still, there are lots of veggies that do well even without refrigeration (and this can help stretch a small refrigerator, too):  potatoes, onions, cabbage, carrots, celery and squash will all last longer than you’d expect.  Tomatoes can be bought in varying stages of ripeness and will ripen in sequence.  Oranges wrapped in aluminum foil will last weeks to months.

Storing Veggies without Refrigeration Quick ReferenceA while back, I made a cheat sheet for storing veggies without refrigeration — notes on how to store various things and how long they’ll last. It’s really just the tip of the iceberg as far as storing food without refrigeration goes, but I’m happy to share it.

Download Storing Veggies without Refrigeration Cheat Sheet
Most boats also carry a variety of canned vegetables, too, and these go a long way in providing variety if you don’t have refrigeration.  For example, while lettuce is almost impossible to keep without refrigeration (especially with the motion of a boat tending to bruise it), you can make a great salad from canned ingredients.

We always carried a stock of dried fruits such as raisins, dates, apricots, banana chips and whatever else we could find.  Even with refrigeration, many fruits are hard to store on board for very long, and so we used both canned and dried to add variety to the menu.

Eggs

Eggs that have never been refrigerated will stay good up to a month.

While its relatively easy to find non-refrigerated eggs in less developed countries, it’s almost impossible in most parts of the US and you may have to make do with powdered eggs.  I just recently found out about some really good powdered eggs — read here.

Condiments

Most condiments, such as catsup, mustard, jelly, and so forth don’t really need to be refrigerated.  I’ve kept all of these for 3 to 6 months at a time in the tropics just in a cupboard with no ill effects and not even any mold.

Even though they cost a bit more per ounce, I usually bought smaller containers than I would if we were living ashore, just so that I was opening a fresh container more often.

Mayonnaise and items such as salad dressings that might contain mayonnaise are the most troubling. I never put them in the refrigerator, but always use a clean spoon or buy squeeze bottles so that the contents don’t get contaminated.

True, it’s hard to carry lettuce for a classic tossed salad without refrigeration.  But cabbage lasts forever, and another of my favorite salads uses canned green beans for the base.

A simple vinegar-and-oil dressing is easy to make from non-refrigerated ingredients.  And, to be honest, it’s my favorite!

Butter

Butter and margarine aren’t really a problem if you have a cooler or are cruising in temperate climates.  Otherwise, you can use canned butter, available online here, or oil.  Olive oil is great as a “dip” for bread, and canola oil or vegetable oil work well for most cooking.

Milk and Other Dairy Products

While carrying milk and other dairy products without refrigeration can seem like an insurmountable problem, it’s actually one of the easiest to solve.

For milk, you can now buy “boxed milk” in packages like juice cartons in most grocery stores (at mine,  it’s in the Baking Supplies aisle, near the Carnation powdered milk).  If you buy small single-serving boxes, you won’t waste any if you don’t have a cooler.  Boxed milk is available everywhere in less developed countries.

Another option are some of the good powdered milks out there.  Forget the Carnation and generic nonfat ones.  In the US, go to the Latin/Mexican foods aisle and look for Nestle Nido Classic.  It is fantastic!  We also found some great Australian and New Zealand powdered milk in our travels — there are probably others as well.  Use this to make your own yogurt, too — it’s fairly easy and tastes great.

For cooking, cans of evaporated milk work well and can substitute for milk and also for cream.  Evaporated milk isn’t as rich as true cream, but it also has fewer calories.

Also in the Latin/Mexican foods aisle — and in all Latin American countries that I’ve visited — you can find cans and/or boxes of cream and half cream (media crema).  These work well for cooking when you need something richer than evaporated milk, and you can also use them to make your own sour cream.

Many cheeses, particularly hard cheeses, will last a month or sometimes more without refrigeration, especially if stored in a cool place such as the bilge.  Velveeta also does well without refrigeration, although it must be eaten within a couple of weeks of when it is opened.

With all of these great foods that don’t have to be refrigerated, it doesn’t take a lot to be able to eat well without refrigeration.  On a cold day, you can easily make a pot of chili from a canned of roast beef, cans of kidney beans and tomatoes, an onion, green pepper and some spices.  Or a pot of split pea soup with some dried split peas, a can of ham, a carrot and onion and a few spices.

Make my Chocolate Upside-Down Cake for dessert.  For breakfast, have yogurt or a ham omelet.  With a can of shrimp and another of tomatoes and a few fresh veggies, you can make Shrimp Creole.  The list goes on and on!

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16 Comments
  • Brittany Stephen Meyers on Facebook
    Posted at 27 December 2011 Reply

    Yes you can!! This is great 🙂

  • Tanya
    Posted at 05 March 2012 Reply

    I have refrigeration on my boat but I was wondering how you feel or what you have heard about supplementing fresh fruits and veggies with the freeze-dried versions. One of my biggest concerns when we go to the islands is the availability and affordability of fruits and veggies. Thanks.

    • Carolyn Shearlock
      Posted at 05 March 2012 Reply

      Hi Tanya!

      If you’re thinking of using freeze-dried foods, I’d get some small quantities first and try them. I’ve used them on backpacking trips 10+ years ago, and while they were edible, they sure weren’t anything I’d want to eat all the time. The other thing is that freeze-dried foods tend to be expensive themselves.

      I’ve heard that drying your own generally gives better-tasting results BUT the foods don’t last nearly as long as it’s hard to dry them as thoroughly as commercial processors can (I haven’t tried, so I am NOT speaking from experience). And while you can DRY your own food, you really can’t FREEZE-dry it.

      I’m not sure what islands you’re headed to, but I’ve never really heard of cruisers complaining too much about the cost of fresh fruits and veggies, since they tend to be grown locally. The things I’ve really heard friends gripe about are meat, eggs, liquor and anything “imported.” In most places, canned veggies cost more per serving than fresh.

      The bigger problem is being in remote places — where there just aren’t stores, farmer’s markets or even veggie boats or trucks. We liked to go two to three weeks between provisioning runs in the Sea of Cortez, and used canned fruits and veggies (and some dried fruits) to make it work.

      There are Yahoo Groups (sharing info via e-mail) both for cruisers in the Pacific islands and in the Caribbean. I’d check with them on cost and availability before doing too much with freeze-dried foods. Join the group, then send an e-mail asking for info on cost and availability — I bet you’ll get tons of replies!

      Pacific Puddle Jumpers (South Pacific islands):
      http://groups.yahoo.com/group/pacificpuddlejump/
      Cruisers Network Online (worldwide, but majority are in Caribbean):
      http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Cruisers_Network_Online/

  • Jan Alexander
    Posted at 21 October 2013 Reply

    Your readers might also like to know about this: http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/French_butter_dish
    I first saw them in France many years ago. I was surprised to see them for sale at Ace Hardware here in the Caribbean. I mentioned it to a neighbor who is at the end of his 20+ year circumnavigation and without refrigeration. He had never heard of it but promptly went out and got one.

    • The Boat Galley
      Posted at 21 October 2013 Reply

      Thanks! I’ve never seen one personally but Dave Skolnick (SSCA and delivery skipper) also recommended one.

  • Jan Alexander
    Posted at 21 October 2013 Reply

    Replied – check other.

  • Nicola Kamper
    Posted at 19 October 2014 Reply

    I found a terrific website for sourcing Ova Easy and other dried foods. They come very well packaged for long-term storage. Pleasant Hill Grain is dedicated to long shelf-life foods, and have a big variety. At first I was intimidated by the large sizes, but I was able to buy a “sample” can that included samples of a lot of their dried products. I was particularly impressed with and pleased to find “tomato powder”. It mixes with water and makes either paste or sauce depending on dilution. A great solution to those recipes that call for 2 or 3 tabs of tomato paste so you have to open a whole 6 oz can…also is lighter and easier to store than cans, and can be mixed on demand. I would use this in a dirt home, not just on a boat. Thy also have NZ butter and cheese in cans. Check them out!

  • Jane Gammons
    Posted at 19 October 2014 Reply

    We have a 28′ motor cruiser with no room to put in refrigeration. We did a 4 month trip with a large cooler getting ice at stops. For the next trip we purchased an Engel Cooler (at bit pricy) http://search.yahoo.com/search?ei=utf-8&fr=befds&p=Engel+electric+coolers&type=ffds-3.11-1404 We can store some meats and veggies and in 24 hours refreeze four 2 liter juice bottles filled with water. These get change out every morning and no water build up in the cooler, big plus for me. The Engel Cooler is wired in the cockpit and automatically switches to battery or shore power. If you plan lots of time on the hook you may want a designated battery. My husband built our cooler to fit the space we had aboard. (directions are on the net) See my blog for pictures at: daves1stmate.blogspot.com

  • Sheenagh Neill
    Posted at 28 August 2016 Reply

    Åse Jakobsson

  • David Grimm
    Posted at 28 August 2016 Reply

    For the same size of a ice chest you could have a ARB or Engle fridg/freezer. They are very low draw amps. In the long run they pay for themselves when ice melts away @ 2 bucks a bag ?

  • Rachel Roy Smith
    Posted at 28 August 2016 Reply

    We lived without refrigeration for 10 years in the Caribbean…….just a cooler! We were never sick and ate well!

  • Richard Scott Howerton
    Posted at 28 August 2016 Reply

    Brittany Mcmanus

  • Kenneth Dodson
    Posted at 06 January 2017 Reply

    Shelf Stable Butter Option. I use your recipe for sour cream after reading about it here and keep several batches of ingredients as home for emergencies. I thought I would share my butter option in case you or your readers were not aware of it. I keep a case of Gossner UHT Heavy Whipping Cream on hand. No refrigeration needed and a real shelf life of several years, best by of 12 months. Trader Joe’s has a store brand UHT Whipping Cream that they get from Gosnner’s and is rebranded. I think they have the smaller 1 cup sizes as well which would be more convenient for galley use. It is just Whipping Cream. They are Utah based. http://www.gossner.com/product/whipping-cream/ . Cool it on ice before you want to use it. Add a little vanilla and whip into whipped cream for topping. Whip it plain past whip cream until it separates and it turns into butter, starts to look like scrambled eggs. Add a pinch of salt if you like it that way. Press into a dish and pour off the butter milk and use it in other recipe if desired. Some people wash it for longer life but it doesn’t stay around long enough for me to worry about. Use it the same as a regular whipping cream from the store. Best part for me is price. $46.80 for 12 quarts shipped to my door. That is $3.90 a quart, cheaper than regular whipped cream and lasts a lot longer without refrigeration. If you are going to whip it it needs to be real cold. I order mine from Diversified Foods Inc. which offers free shipping.

  • Shelby Nicholson
    Posted at 27 June 2017 Reply

    Yes but what do you eat when you eat only fresh foods? I’m talking about the Caribbean. I need a low carb high fat diet in tins. Anybody?

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