Tips to Properly Pack Your Camping Cooler
Warm soda. Crushed sandwiches. And, maybe worst of all, wet, soggy snacks, now potentially crawling with harmful (even deadly!) bacteria.
Whether camping, tailgating, or just out on the trail these terrors and more are the deepest fears of anyone who’s ever been put in charge of the cooler for the weekend. With just a little prep, know-how and smart planning you can be a master of packing your cooler – Avoid all these horrors and make sure your weekend stays nice and chill with our helpful tips.
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
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 your cooler has just been hanging around in the warm attic or garage all summer then the first thing your ice is going to start chilling is your cooler itself – Makes sense, right? You can help extend the lifespan of your ice by making sure your cooler is well-chilled before adding anything inside; either pre-load the cooler with a bag of ice four to five hours prior to use or, if you’re venturing out in the fall or winter months, leave it outside in the cold weather overnight.
Cold Contents = Coolder Cooler
Just like your cooler, if your planned pack-ins aren’t already chilled your ice will start fixing that problem straight away, wasting vast amounts of its refrigerating power. Pre-refrigerated drinks and frozen foods are as good as ice in helping you keep your cooler nice and chilly.
What Ice to Use
When it comes to keeping your cooler cold there are no worse enemies than air and surface area – The fewer gaps you have in your packing the better, and solid blocks of ice will last much longer than smaller pellets. It’s best to use large ice blocks (or freezer packs) at the bottom of your cooler, filling in gaps with smaller chunks or pellets of ice as you pack.
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 ice 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.
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.
You can strategize all you want, but part of the issue is the type of cooler you use. Check out our detailed reviews of many cooler models for more info on brand and type selection.
Best Packing Practices
When going on trips longer than a day it’s a smart exercise to prepare and plan out your meals as much as possible. Prep any raw ingredients before packing them and other perishable foods in plastic containers & resealable bags – Ditch their original packaging so you can pack more efficiently, and help guard against water leaking into your snacks. It’s smart to do a dry test run of packing your empty containers inside your cooler prior to filling them, so you can be sure you’ll be able to pack everything in as tightly (and preferably flat/evenly) as possible.
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.
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.
When to Drain
If going on a long haul trip make sure to drain your cooler regularly; ice exposed to water will melt much more rapidly than ice exposed to air, and the water can become a vector for bacterial growth as well. On short trips (less than a day) the water can usually be ignored, and if there is no way to replace the ice in your cooler the cold water can help keep your drinks chilled for just a bit longer.
Lock it Down
The disaster of a lid left unlatched for an hour or two can lead to massive heartbreak at the end of a long day. Always make sure the lid is properly closed after opening, and if out on bumpy terrain consider using bungee cord or even a spare belt to make sure your cooler doesn’t accidentally pop open during the trip.
Your cooler will thank you for any additional insulation it can get, and even just wrapping your cooler in a spare blanket can help keep the cold in and the heat out. For coolers exposed directly to the sun a reflective surface, such as a car dash mat, can help with keeping the temperature down.
If particularly concerned about your cooler’s internal temperature a small food thermometer can be purchased that will help tell you the temp inside without needing to check for yourself. Designs ranging from long probe thermometers to wireless models can be found, as well as ones that are made to fit within the cooler’s drain plug.
Let Mother Nature Help
Any shade will do but if outside try to find a large tree or outcropping you can tuck your cooler behind to keep it out of the sun’s harsh rays. If near a body of cold water, such as a lake or a river, you can toss your cooler in to help keep things chilled – Be warned, though, as water can carry bacteria and diseases, and strong currents can either bang your cooler’s lid open or even sweep it along down stream. The “cooler in the creek” may be a classic, but use at your own risk.
Always Clean & Store Properly
Once you’re done with your cooler resist the temptation to toss it in the back of your garage – Coolers can be a hotbed of mold, bacteria and other nasty surprises, meaning it’s best to see those gone before packing your cooler away again. A quick wash & rinse with dish detergent and water should be enough to get rid of any nasties lurking in the corners.
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!