A cooler is the best way to keep food cold on camping trips. It is important that you pack it properly to keep food cold for as long as possible. If you don’t have a cooler, we have other tips below on how to keep food cold while camping.
How To Keep Food Cold In A Cooler While Camping?
For most campers, a cooler is the most convenient and one of the cheapest ways to cool and preserve food while outdoors.
With the right preparation and proper packing, a good quality cooler can keep food cold or even frozen for days.
Here are 5 tips on how to get the best out of your cooler.
1. Get a good quality cooler
The first step is to make sure you have a good quality cooler. This is especially important for long camping trips when you need to preserve food for days.
The difference between cheap and premium coolers is the quality and level of insulation.
Premium coolers are designed to retain cold inside and keep out heat. These can keep food cold or frozen for longer.
If you camp often, it’s best to invest in a pricier but better quality cooler from brands like Yeti, Coleman, and Igloo. It’ll serve you better and longer.
Also, make sure you get the right capacity. This depends on whether you go campaign alone or with other people.
Don’t just think about how much food you’ll need to carry. As we’ll see shortly, you also need plenty of space in the cooler for ice.
2. Don’t use store-bought ice (Buy ice packs or make your own)
If you want your food to stay cold in the cooler for more than a day, don’t use ice from the store.
It’ll melt too quickly. This not only reduces how long food stays cold, it also leaves your cooler in a watery mess. You have to keep draining it.
On the same note, also avoid ice cubes from your ice maker or freezer. Those will also melt quickly.
What you need is a large block of ice. A block of ice takes longer to melt, so it’ll keep food cooler for longer.
You can freeze water in a large container, then put the frozen block in a freezer bag or leave it in the container.
Alternatively, freeze water in a freezer bag then put it in the cooler.
You can also freeze water in bottles and put them in the cooler.
Tip: Add salt to water before freezing it. The salt will lower the melting point of ice, which means the block stays solid for longer.
An even easier option is to buy an ice pack. Many coolers come with one. You just freeze the pack then put it in the cooler.
3. Pre-freeze food before packing
The job of a cooler box is not to chill your food; it is to keep your food cold for as long as possible. If you put room temperature food in there, it will not freeze or get cold enough that it won’t go bad.
Freezing food before packing it in a cooler extends its shelf life.
Tip: It’s also a smart idea to pre-chill the cooler itself. Fill it with ice cubes the night before (then drain the melt water in the morning) or put the cooler in a freezer chest if you have one that’s big enough.
4. How to pack your cooler like a pro
Don’t just stuff everything in your cooler. Use a layering system that begins with the foods that need to be kept the coldest and add ice between layers.
- Start by placing an ice pack, a frozen block of ice (in a freezer bag), or frozen water bottles at the bottom of the cooler.
- Place foods that need to stay frozen or super cold on top. These include meats, foods with meat, dairy and frozen veggies. Remember to pack raw meats in double freezer bags to avoid contamination.
- Layer delicate foods (like fresh veggies) and food that needs to be kept least cold at the top.
- Add a pack of ice between layers to keep everything cold. If your cooler is not big enough to accomodate all that ice, place ice packs at the bottom, on the sides and at the top.
- Make sure you pack the cooler as tightly as possible. Leaving spaces melts the ice faster. Pack empty spaces with more food or ice.
Here’s a short video summarizing these tips.
5. Have a separate cooler for drinks
One of the ways to keep your cooler box cold is to keep it closed most of the time.
This is impossible if you pack foods and drinks in the same cooler. You need to get drinks frequently, and this lets heat into the cooler.
Packing drinks in a separate cooler lets the main food cooler stay undisturbed.
Also, remember to store the cooler under shade. Don’t leave it in direct sunlight or inside a hot vehicle.
How To Keep Food Cold Without A Cooler While Camping?
If you don’t have a cooler or you’d prefer not to use one, here are other ways to keep food cold while camping.
If you often drive to campsites or you camp in your car or truck, get a 12V car refrigerator. You can plug it into your vehicle or a portable power station.
A car refrigerator is more expensive and needs a power source, but it doesn’t need any ice and it can actually chill or freeze food.
A car refrigerator is also great for long camping trips since you can keep food cold for as long as you want.
Thermoelectric coolers are like cooler boxes, but they are lighter and cheaper. They also don’t use ice.
A thermoelectric cooler uses a small component (called a peltier module) that transfers heat from the cooler to the outside.
A thermoelectric cooler depends on ambient temperature to keep food cool. If it is too hot, it’ll struggle to keep the inside cold.
A thermoelectric cooler also needs to be plugged into a power source (usually 12V).
On the upside, it’s lightweight and costs less than a traditional cooler. You also don’t need to deal with ice or melt water.
We recommend a thermoelectric cooler for short camping trips to places that don’t get too hot.
To get the best out of a thermoelectric cooler, pack it with frozen or chilled food.
A cooler bag, also called a thermal bag, is an insulated bag that keeps cold food cold and hot food hot.
A cooler bag is ideal for short camping trips as well as picnics and road trips. That’s because it cannot keep food cold for as long as a cooler box.
Cooler bags also generally have a smaller capacity and cannot carry a lot of food for a long camping trip.
Similar to a cooler box, you can put an ice block or ice pack in a thermal bag to keep food cold.
How To Keep Food Cold Without A Cooler or Refrigerator While Camping?
If you don’t have a cooler (either the traditional one or a thermoelectric type) or a refrigerator, you’ll need to come up with a DIY solution to keep food cold.
The best one we can think of is a large container, similar to a cooler but without the thick insulating walls. Use any adequately sized container from your kitchen as long as it has a lid.
Pack food in it the same way you would a cooler. Use frozen ice packs at the bottom, between layers, on the sides and at the top.
Add extra insulation to the sides of the container. A couple layers of aluminum foil around the container work great. They reflect away heat and keep the inside cold.
Keep in mind that any DIY solution works best for an overnight camping trip. Anything longer than one night requires a proper cooler box.
Alternatively, don’t carry anything that needs to be kept cold. Buy dry, preserved, and canned foods.
Can You Use Dry Ice In A Cooler?
Dry ice is much colder than regular ice (-109.3°F vs. ice temperature of 32°F), making it great for keeping food cold in a cooler. In fact, it’s so cold that you need gloves to handle to avoid severe frostbite.
Another advantage of dry ice is that it doesn’t leave a puddle in your cooler. Instead of melting into water, it sublimates directly into carbon dioxide gas.
Because dry ice will freeze any food in contact with it, only place it at the bottom of the cooler. Keep foods that need to stay frozen at the bottom layer.
If you want to keep food cold, not frozen, place cardboard, newspaper or a towel between the dry ice and food.
Because dry ice sublimates into CO2, don’t keep the cooler in a confined space without adequate ventilation.
If you are traveling with it in the car, roll down a window or two.
When camping, occasionally open the cooler lid to let accumulated CO2 escape. It is rare but the buildup of gas in the cooler can cause it to explode.