Tips to Properly Pack Your Camping Cooler

packing a cooler

Coolers are essential for a camping trip. But, you may not be getting the most out of your cooler – both in space and performance.

Most folks only bring a single cooler with them on their adventures, and just toss all of their food and drinks in with some ice and call it packed. Then they open it up to find soggy bread, water-soaked snacks and other mildly infuriating mishaps.

Packing a cooler is more than just throwing in some ice and your food right after. Here are some tips to help you pack your cooler properly so you don’t have to leave anything at home, and have nothing spoil while in there.

Selecting the Right Cooler

If you don’t already have a cooler, well you’re going to need one. If you’ve still got your old-school Coleman that you’ve been using for years and years, you may not be aware that technology has really changed over the last decade and there are some extremely impressive models out there. Instead of your ice melting by the end of the day, many new coolers are able to keep ice frozen for more than a week!



Not everyone needs a 100qt+ cooler to keep food for a multi-day trip. If you need a big one then by all means, but if you just need a beach cooler for day trips a small one, your packing capacity is reduced, but then you don’t haul around a cooler with unused space.


Roto-molded coolers are all the rage these days since the thick insulation and seamless walls provide great ice retention and a durable, long-lasting cooler. But, they are a bit more expensive so if you don’t need days and days of ice, you can opt for a more affordable traditional cooler.


Some products come with a steeper price tag simply because of the name associated with it, not necessarily the quality of the manufacturing. Another thing to consider is where the companies do their manufacturing – in the USA or overseas. Here’s a list of our favourites to hopefully help you make a decision.

Prepping Your Cooler

Scrub it!

The last thing you want to do when coming back from a trip is to clean out your cooler and give it a good scrub. If you’re anything like us, you likely just dumped everything out and tossed it back in the garage. Grab that cooler and wipe it down with some soap or other disinfectant to make sure you’ve got a nice food-safe ready vessel.

(Pre) Chill Out

Because of the way coolers work – retaining cold – they also operate in the inverse way, trapping heat. The insulation of coolers (especially newer models like roto-molded ones) are extremely effective at holding heat just as well as cold.

If you store your cooler in a warm place and go to use it right away, the heat trapped in the insulation will just melt your ice and warm your food up before you even get to your destination. Best practice is to pre-chill using a “sacrificial” bag of ice, or cold water at least a few hours before you need to use it get the best performance of ice retention.

What Ice to Use

Freezer Packs

One question we get a lot is if we prefer to use ice cubes or freezer packs when we pack our coolers. Personally, we prefer to use actual ice in our coolers, but that’s just a personal preference. Freezer packs are much less mess since they won’t melt in your cooler over time. But, we find that they just don’t stay cold the way ice does. You could also try making your own!

Ice Cubes or Blocks

We also like to take some old yogurt containers or other reusable plastic container and fill with water then freeze. Block block iceice doesn’t melt as fast as ice cubes do which is a hugeplus, however using both is a great way to go too. The block ice can lay on the bottom of your cooler while the ice cubes fill in all of the empty space. Less air = less melting.

Dry Ice

If you really need your stuff cold you can also go the dry ice route. It’s likely overkill for most folks but it’s always something to look into if you need your things near-frozen for a long time.

Best Packing Practices

Order of Operations

The best way to pack your cooler is to think in reverse. What foods will you be eating for dinner? Which foods need to stay coldest? Put those on the bottom of the cooler closest to the ice. Then, fill the cooler up in order of the foods and drinks you want easier access to – snacks and your first meal. Having the food and drinks you will frequently be reaching for on top means less time with the lid open and longer-lasting ice. Also consider the durability of your groceries – put fragile foods like chips, eggs and lettuce on top to avoid being crushed.

Containers and Bags

Are the foods you are packing covered in excessive packaging? Use tupperware containers that stack neatly to pack your fruits, veggies and meats, or ziploc bags that can be laid out flat to conserve space and also take up the nooks and crannies.

Divide(r) and Conquer

Some coolers will come with a tray or dividers to help keep the inside of your cooler organized and keep dry goods dry and away from ice. If not, you can always pick up a set of kitchen inserts that will fit your cooler to do the job for you.


Keep Cool

When you use the cooler, try to keep the lid open as little as possible to limit the heat penetrating the inside of your cooler. You should also always try and keep it in the shade and out of a hot car or tent.

Draining the melted water every so often will help too – but not too much – a little water with the ice helps keep your cooler especially cold.

Another trick you can try is to soak a towel and drape it over the cooler for an “evaporative cooling effect.” This is essentially the same way that sweat keeps us cool when it’s hot.


Hopefully these packing tips will help you get the most out of your cooler on your next camping trip. If you’ve got some great tips to share with our readers make sure you drop us a line!