Packing food in a camping cooler seems like a no-brainer, but it can be challenging unless you’ve an unlimited amount of ice. It’s particularly tricky if you’re going out for a few days.
Fortunately, as an outdoor adventure outfitter, I know a thing or two about how to properly pack a cooler for camping.
Here’re some of the packing tips we follow:
- Choosing the right cooler
- Prechilling the camping cooler
- Prepping camping food
- Line the bottom of the cooler with a block of solid ice
- Packing camping meals in a chronological order
- Storing the cooler in a shade
With that said, I’ll go into detail and cover each of the individual steps to ensure your food stays cool during your camping period.
1) Choosing the Best Camping Coolers for your Needs
As I hinted in the introduction, the first step to ensuring optimal cooler performance is picking one that is optimal for your cooling needs.
Therefore, we shall start our guide by looking at some crucial details when selecting the right cooler for your needs.
Upgrade your Existing Cooler
The first step is upgrading your existing coolers.
It’s particularly important if your coolers always fail to keep your food cold enough. I’m speaking out of the experience because my last cooler couldn’t last a day, and I kept spoiling my food.
You might think upgrading is getting an expensive cooler, but it’s far from that.
You don’t have to spend on a Yeti cooler or other brand names.
Today, there’re plenty of inexpensive options with similar cooling technology and a manufacturing process to the premium options.
In particular, I’d recommend you go for a good quality, thick-sided, rigid, and rotomolded cooler.
The rotomolded coolers are generally durable, stronger, and with better ice retention properties.
Most Yeti coolers are built this way, but other awesome brands are also RTIC, Orca, and Pelican.
My recommendation would be the Roade 24 for day trips. It goes for less than 50 bucks, performs well, and stands up to abuse.
Regarding the choice of materials, avoid metal coolers. They tend to hold heat for longer when left in the sin.
Get the Right Size Cooler
Sizing your camping cooler is crucial as it determines the performance and everything.
Ultimately, the size of your camping cooler will depend on its usage and portability. You’ll need something different for camping multiple days versus something for taking to the beach daily.
Regarding usage, understand that nearly more than half the internal camping cooler size goes to storing ice.
So, you must account for the ice storage space versus the actual camping item storage.
The most important thing for me is usually portability. I usually pick something I know can and move for long distances.
Otherwise, having a bulkier cooler will only give me more reason to leave it at home.
I’ve a Roadie 24 for personal day fishing camping trips. It keeps my crab catch fresh until I get home and some groceries, meat, and milk.
It also has enough height to accommodate four 1/2L gallons of milk and two hamburgers.
Don’t Focus too Much on Brand Names
Our third selection point is in line with what we mentioned earlier: don’t choose an expensive cooler.
Sometimes, campers are tricked into buying a brand than quality.
But if you search good enough, you’ll realize there’re some great and unknown options.
RTIC and Thermax are great examples.
I’ve both brand models, and they’re great. Yet, they cost way less than Yeti or Coleman.
And, no, this isn’t to say Yeti or Coleman don’t deserve their price tag or are not worth it. But you could find something much cheaper and with better value than those.
Pick a Cooler with Two Cooler System
This one is one of the vital considerations I usually make when selecting the right cooler for camping.
Having a cooler with two or multiple cooling systems is crucial for your cooler’s performance.
I like to have a cooler with a different compartment for drinks and food.
I tend to open the drink department more often than the food cooler. And as we know, coolers tend to lose their ice retention faster if they’re opened frequently.
So, I can keep my food department cooler longer than the drinks department.
Of course, there’re plenty of other features to consider when selecting a camping cooler, but these are, in my opinion, the most crucial details.
And now that you understand how to pick the right cooler let’s move to the next step.
In the section below, I’ll share a detailed step-by-step guide on how I usually pack my camping cooler for optimal cooling performance.
2) Cooler Preparation
Regardless of what camping cooler your pick, a big part of the cooler’s performance is directly related to the pre-work you do.
The steps you take before packing food will go a long way to determining how long it keeps your items chilled.
Bring your Cooler Inside
I’ve talked with a couple of campers over the last few years, and their biggest complaint is that camping coolers were junk.
I usually ask them where they store their coolers-typically in their garage, hot attic, shed, or basement.
You need to bring it inside your living room because you don’t want to start packing with a hot cooler.
Clean your Cooler
You probably don’t clean your cooler after camping if you’re like me.
It’s not the best habit, but anyway, it’s important you thoroughly clean your cooler before packing.
A strong detergent, followed by a chlorine solution, will work. Have a spray bottle for this.
Squirt the inside, and then wait for a few minutes. Next, use a wet cloth or towel before rinsing it off. I prefer to hose it down.
Clorox spray is usually my go-to bleach. It works wonders and ensures the cooler is sparkling clean.
Pre-chilling your cooler is a mandatory step. It’s probably one of the steps that will determine whether your cooler keeps your camping items cool or not.
As its name suggests, pre-chilling simply involves chilling your cooler before packing.
There are different ways to go about this, or rather there’re different items to use for pre-chilling. It all depends on your situation.
Before any big camping trip, I usually bring my cooler inside, open it and turn the AC down to temperatures. I then shove all my ice in there and shut the lid.
I’ve also seen folks use freezer packs like those you get with delivery meals to pre-chill camping coolers.
Others do it using frozen water bottles or a frozen jug the night before you head out.
Essentially, anything cold that can lower the internal cooler temperatures will work. Bags, ice packs, dry ice, to frozen gallon jugs.
Failure to pre-chill your camping cooler means cooler ice will be spent on stabilizing the temperature. A significant amount melts to cool the walls of the cooler.
3) Food Preparation
Food preparation is key for saving the cooler space and makes using the cooler more convenient.
There’re different ways to prepare your camping food for cooler packing. It all depends on your camping situation and the types of food.
One thing that I usually recommend all my readers to do is pack their food at home.
For example, start by packing small portions and condiments of foods you plan to bring and use in the wilderness, rather than carrying the entire meal package.
You could also remove the excess packaging on the packed food to save on food space.
The key to preparing your food is ensuring you save as much space as possible to create room for ice and other foods.
Transfer to water-tight containers
One of the popular ways that I usually see many campers do this is by transferring their food into water-tight containers.
Food containers, especially plastic, are great storage options for keeping your food organized.
However, I’m not a big fan of containers and prefer zip-lock freezer bags. Think tamale pie filling.
Yes, I frown the single-use items, but sometimes I make exceptions.
The zip lock freezer bags are such an item.
I love them because of their storage flexibility. I can lay them flat or make them stand on the wall. It’s an important benefit, especially where space is premium.
I don’t have to figure out space for an extra container.
See, one trick for ensuring your cooler prolongs its ice retention is filling in all the space, and the freezer bags are great for this.
On top of that, once I’m done with the freezer bag, the empty bags make great trash bags for storing my leftovers.
The other trick I learned during my scouts camping was the drinking straw storage. Drinking straws are awesome storage options for spices, single-use toothpaste, and other smaller camping essentials.
Creating a drinking straw storage is super easy. Pinch one of the ends with a nose plier, and use a flame to seal. Fill the other end.
You should also consider labeling your straw. The fat shake straw holds more items.
Whatever storage method you choose, ensure it’s completely waterproof. Items in a cooler will get wet, so transfer them to a waterproof container.
The final checklist I usually make regarding food preparation is freezing the food.
Frozen food helps in two ways: One, it extends the freshness of the food. Secondly, it acts as an additional ice block, so it’ll help keep the cooler cold for longer.
But you shouldn’t freeze any food you plan to eat right away or for the first night. It should be refrigerated.
4) Ice Preparation (Fresh Ice & Ice Cubes)
Ice preparation determines how long ice will stay in its solid state and, in part, the cooling capacity of your cooler.
Generally, campers usually go with two main forms of ice: block ice and crushed ice/ice cubes.
The block ice has less surface area and takes longer to melt. Lining your cooler base with the block ice is a great way to retain the much-needed coolness.
But I like to take a big water jug and freeze it as an ice block. Luckily, I’ve containers the perfect size. It makes blocks that I can fit at the bottom of my cooler.
The good thing with the container ice blocks is the cooler water jugs can serve as emergency water supply once the ice thaws.
Crushed ice/ice cubes are also necessary to fill the air spaces between the containers. Remember, the air is an enemy of cooling. Plus, they’re awesome for cocktails.
Therefore, you enhance the cooling capacity by filling the entire cooler with crushed ice.
But a big problem with crushed ice is that it makes for soggy food once it starts to melt. I prefer using crushed ice or cubed ice on the drink’s cooler.
Otherwise, my choice of filling up the empty spaces is through the small frozen water bottles. They’re great for filling in the space. And as they melt, you’re left with icy cold water for the cold hot days.
When freezing the small water bottles, dump a tiny bit. It helps when they freeze and expand. It keeps the bottles from getting in a wonky shape and losing air-tightness.
Icepacks are also an awesome alternative. They’re great because they’re reusable and don’t leave a watery mess as the crushed ice/ice cubes.
I DIY the icepacks out of vacuum seal bags and salt water.
Ice vs. Dry Ice
As I’ve mentioned, crushed ice cools items faster, but it doesn’t last long.
The other alternative is dry ice. It lasts longer and keeps your food dry but requires special handling.
As an avoid dry ice user, here’re some of the tips I use to handle dry ice:
- Don’t touch dry ice with bare hands to avoid frostbite.
- Don’t keep it in an enclosed location. If you’re traveling, ensure your RV windows are open to allow the escape of CO2 and fresh air to replace it.
- Dry ice should always be wrapped in paper (NOT PLASTIC) such as those for leaf pick up/yard clipping.
- Don’t lay bare, dry ice on your cooler for camping, or it could explode if left long enough. It might also crack your plastic cooler if left directly at the sides.
- Instead, place the dry ice on a rack or barrier or cut down a cheap Styrofoam material. You might also try a steek dish rack with legs.
- Any camping gear stored right or next to dry ice will ultimately freeze. So, don’t place dairy, fruit, veggies, or other items you don’t want to melt.
- Dry ice doesn’t melt. It sublimates to keep your items dry and frozen.
Ice Or Reusable Freezer Packs
Whether to use ice or freezer packs will depend on the duration you plan to camp, space considerations, and the number of resupplies stops along the way.
Generally, if you’re out for the weekend or for a short camping trip that doesn’t last more than four days, freezer packs are an ideal option.
Freezer packs are incredibly useful, especially in moderate temperatures.
I prefer the freezer packs because they don’t flood my cooler for camping with water and don’t get my foodstuffs all soggy.
The best part is I can use them for physical therapy functions. The ice sheets are handy for pain relief for my back, shoulder, knee, neck, leg, and arms.
On top of that, the freezer packs are handy for space spacing. I love their flexibility because they can flatten better than the traditional water bottles and spread out the cool.
And finally, you can use the reusable options over and over. The ice freezer sheet options are thin and easy to store before activation.
Of course, they’ve several drawbacks, the biggest one being that they last shortest compared to ice.
Secondly, their water isn’t drinkable once they thaw.
However, if you spend more than a week in the wilderness, it makes sense to get ice.
Ice has better cooling retention than freeze packs, so it will last much longer.
The other plus with ice is you can always drain out the meltwater and replenish it with the fresh ice purchased from gas stations, grocery stores, or campgrounds.
Plus, the melted ice water is perfectly safe once the ice thaws.
What’s The Ideal Ice to Food Content Ratio in a Cooler for Camping?
The perfect ratio is 2 to 1.
It means you should have twice as much the amount of ice as the number of foods and drinks.
But to maximize the content, always count the frozen foods towards the “ice” part of the ratio.
Now, it’s easy to think that adding more ice will improve the cooler’s performance. It does, but only to an extent.
With extra ice, you start to experience diminishing returns.
However, anything lesser than the 2:1 ice content ratio, you’ll notice a dramatic drop in the cooler’s capacity.
5) Packing Cooler
Packing your food and contents in chronological order improves your cooler’s performance. It also makes life at the camp much easier.
Your packing should depend on how you plan to eat your food.
It’s simply a reverse of what you plan to eat daily, with the last day at the bottom.
Here’re some of the basics to follow when packing your cooler:
1) Block ice at the bottom
The block ice should form the basis of your packing. It should be at the base layer, and everything else should come at the top.
2) Fill with ice
I already mentioned air is your enemy, so fill up the empty pockets of air within the cooler with crushed ice.
Alternatively, have smaller food items meant to be frozen to fill the empty spaces.
3) Use a Reusable freezer sheet
Next, lay a reusable freezer sheet over your block of ice so that it doesn’t get your food all soggy when the block starts melting.
I don’t know whether it has ever happened to you, but egg trays can get messy.
4) Make a meal plan
The secret to packing your food in a cooler has a meal plan,
Plan your menu, so you eat the fresh food sooner and have other options later.
If you’re heading out for several days, plan on the meals you plan on eating towards the end of the trip already frozen.
So, you’ll be ready to consume them when they’re coming to temperature. All the while, they’ll be keeping your other items and the cooler cold.
Here’s a brief of where to pack some of the common camping items:
- Cold air sinks, so foods that you want to be frozen for longer should be at the bottom of your cooler
- Canned foods and some packed foods don’t need refrigeration, so you can save on your space by packing them in other locations.
- Perishables such as meat and dairy should be placed nearest the ice blocks.
- Fragile foods such as fruits and veggies should go at the top. They should be placed in a basket and wrapped in a paper towel to absorb the excess moisture and keep them fresh.
Best Cooler Packing Practices
Here’re some of the awesome cooler packing tips I usually employ when I head out for my camping trips:
Using an Insulation Mat
I usually put an insulation mat over my food.
Lining your cooler with reflective foil insulation also works great in preserving heat and reflecting heat and light away from the cooler.
Use Mylar Survival Blanket
Covering your cooler with Mylar survival blankets keeps it much colder as the blanket reflects sunlight and warmth.
They’re cheap, so there is no reason why you shouldn’t have one.
But they’re ultra-light, so be sure to weigh them down.
Dig a Hole
If you’re camping at the beach, you could dig up some holes in the sand and place the cooler inside.
It’ll keep your cooler colder for longer.
Keep Cooler in Shade
Once you arrive at the campsite, keep your cooler and its contents in the shade, away from the sun. Similarly, if you’re car camping, leave your cooler inside the car in a shaded area.
It makes a huge difference in the ice retention of your cooler.
Only Open your Cooler when Necessary
Only open your cooler when you need to.
Frequent opening and closing of your cooler will allow hot air inside, ultimately working against its ice retention capacity.
Don’t Drain Excess Water.
Popular opinion says you shouldn’t drain excess water, and I agree.
Of course, ice is the only thing that cools the cooler contents. The meltwater may function like a heat sink, making the block ice melt faster.
So, you might think draining the meltwater slows the ice melting process. This is true.
But here’s the thing, since the melt water is still far colder than the ambient temperatures, draining it is simply getting rid of another source of “cold.”
And worse off, you replace the cold water with the ambient temperatures, which are raised.
By all means, if you’re to drain the water, then refill the void with ice or frozen packs. Remember, the air is an enemy of cooling.
Bring a Separate Cooler
It’s imperative to have a second cooler for your drink.
You won’t keep anything cold if you always open your drinks cooler and replace it with warm ones.
Ideally, your cooler should be closed as much as possible, so bring your food cooler different from the drink’s cooler.
But if you don’t have room for two coolers, consider getting a smaller bag-type cooler, allowing you to transfer your drinks each morning.
That’s a wrap for today, and I hope you’ve enjoyed our tips and tricks for packing your cooler properly for camping.
Feel free to share any other tips you like to use in the comment section below.
I hope my tips will help you keep your drinks and food cold for much longer.