The last thing you want to do while camping is worry about whether your food is still cold or not. Packing a cooler properly is definitely a learned skill. Here is my game plan for the perfectly packed cooler, so you can spend less time worrying about melted ice and more time making a fire and hanging out with your camping buddies.
Make sure to have a cooler or coolers with enough space for everyone. A 54-quart cooler is usually large enough for two to three people for a weekend depending on how much fresh food you are eating. Having an extra cooler for adult beverages is usually a good plan since it will be opened more often than the food cooler.
Start with a clean, chilled cooler. If you haven’t used your cooler since last summer or even just last weekend, always clean it thoroughly before using it. Use a mixture of one part white vinegar to one part water to clean the cooler inside and out.
After your cooler is clean, fill it with froze ice packs, frozen drinks or ice to pre-chill it. Do this the night before you leave and make sure not to fill it with anything you’re bringing on your trip. Remove the contents when you start packing your cooler in the morning.
We want to move all the foods we are bringing into water-tight, stackable containers or re-sealable freezer bags to protect the food from melted ice. This is a great time to also prep any food to save time while cooking. If you are bringing prepped meals that are freezable, like chili, freeze them in containers. This will help keep food cold without adding more liquid.
Chill or freeze everything going into the cooler to ensure their temperature stays cool when they are added. Freeze water bottles to fill any empty space in the cooler and use as drinking water once melted.
Packing the Cooler
- Crushed or Block Ice Base
Crushed ice gets food cold quicker but block ice lasts longer. If you are packing frozen drinks and prepped frozen meals you can skip the blocks and just use crushed ice.
- Bottom of Cooler
Pack the bottom of the cooler with prepped food in containers (hopefully some are frozen) and any drinks you are packing. Cover with ice and shake the cooler to make sure ice has filled any empty spaces.
- Top of Cooler
Add cooling rack(s) or a wire freezer shelf on top of the ice/containers/drinks. This level is for any bagged foods or foods that you don’t want to be directly touching ice or to get wet. Make sure the bags are all properly sealed.
- Pack Cooler Full
Fill any empty space in cooler with frozen drinks. Empty space will fill with warm air and that will melt the contents faster.
Once the Cooler is Packed
Keep your cooler out of the sun. Ice lasts twice as long when kept in the shade. Don’t open the cooler too often as every time you open your cooler you are allowing in warm air.
If water builds up inside the cooler and isn’t getting into your food, don’t drain it unless you are replacing it with fresh ice. The water will continue to keep the cooler colder than if you were to drain it.
When camping for more than a few days, keep your cooler cold by replacing ice every few days.
And there you have it! With these tips and tricks you’ll be keeping your food and beverages cool and fresh for all of your camping extravaganzas all summer long.
Going camping? Try one of these delicious plant-based camping recipes:
- Campfire Recipe: Breakfast Burrito
- Campfire Recipes: Grilled Veggies with Stone Fruit
- Campfire Recipe: Banana Boat
- Quick Camping Fajitas
What are your favorite ways to pack a cooler?