how to keep food cold in a cooler while camping
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How to Keep Food Cold While Camping

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An important skill for beginner campers is learning how to keep food cold while camping.

When you’re car camping, a cooler is a very essential piece of camping gear. Having good food that stays cold will make or break any camping trip.

No one wants to eat a warm yogurt or soggy food on the third day of camping. With our great tips, you’ll learn how to keep food cold while camping and never eat food that smells like hotdog water again.

The Best Way to Keep Your Food Cold While Camping:

  • Get a quality cooler
  • Freeze or refrigerate all food before packing
  • Use twice as much ice as food
  • Don’t leave air pockets
  • Pack food by meal
  • Put your cooler in the shade
  • Don’t leave your cooler open
  • Have a separate drink cooler

Most people don’t think too much about how to pack a cooler, but taking a bit of time to pack your cooler properly will keep your food colder for longer. Keeping your food cold from the start will also prevent you from going to buy fresh ice from the local gas station every day.

It will also prevent your perishable food from spoiling, food safety is important! You do NOT want to get food poisoning while camping.

Splurge on a good cooler

You don’t have to go buy the most expensive yeti cooler (we do love ours), but I highly suggest a rotomolded cooler over the old red and white picnic coolers that everyone owned in the 90s.

There is a difference between a cooler for camping and a cooler for a picnic or tailgate scenario so be sure to get the right camping gear for your next adventure. I’ve even seen people still using Styrofoam coolers, yikes! This is 2022 people, get a well insulated cooler.

New model coolers are better than ever and some can hold ice for up to a week before it starts to melt, opening up a whole new world of options for amazing food on long camping trips.

Take the time to look into what size of cooler you may need for your family. Keep in mind that to properly pack your cooler you’ll want at least twice as much ice as you have food.

Even the best cooler can’t keep your food cold if it doesn’t have enough ice in it. If you’re not sure, get the next size up from what you think you’ll need so you can be sure to bring enough food and ice.

Cooler packing tips

The time you take for packing your cooler properly can be essential to making your camping adventure all that much better. The longer your camping trip is and the hotter it is going to get, the more you need to plan how you pack to make the most of your trip.

  • Prepare your food

Food often comes in original packaging with excess stuff you don’t need, and the less packaging you have in your cooler, the more ice you can have. Take time to chop veggies and take food out of its carboard box before you pack your cooler.

You can also put food into freezer bags or containers to help keep your food dry. Having food containers is also a great way to keep your food organized so you’re not letting all of the cold air out of the cooler to dig through and find what you need.

We have these containers and I love them for packing things like precooked ground beef or chopped veggies. (I don’t like bringing raw meat camping, so I precook all of our meat) You can also premake sandwiches and then add cubed cheese or fruit on the side so everyone’s lunch is ready in a snap!

Covered food boxes for packing in a cooler.
  • Prepare your cooler

If you want, you can prechill your cooler, but if you don’t want to do that at least bring your cooler inside and put it in a cool spot the day before you go camping. Packing a cooler that’s just been pulled out of the hot garage is just going to make your ice melt instantly.

Also make sure your cooler is clean. You don’t want to start off your trip with a cooler that smells like last trip’s questionable broccoli.

  • Pack in layers

Start packing the first layer with ice packs and other frozen items. Then pack the heavier items and end with the top layer being fragile items like eggs and non-frozen food like cheese or veggies. Layer another ice pack in the middle and top it off with an ice sheet to seal in all the cold.

  • Fill the cooler

If you have a large cooler you need to take up all the space with something, either ice or food items. Dead space will just turn into warm air every time you open your cooler. If you have extra space, add frozen water bottles as you pack to take up the extra space and add extra ice and eventually drinkable water.

  • Leave it alone

Draining out all of the water seems like a good idea, but unless you’re going to add more ice it’s better to leave it alone. Like we just said, you don’t want dead space in the cooler and that cold water is much better to have than warm air.

As you eat food the cooler is going to become more empty anyway, so you don’t need to get the water out to gain more space.

Tips keeping your food cold longer

To help keep your food cold you should take the time to freeze food that can be frozen. If you have the space in your freezer or a deep freezer this can be as simple as tossing everything in the week before you go to give it time to freeze solid.

This will extend the lifespan of your food items in the cooler and act as ice packs to keep everything cold longer during your trip.

Just have an idea of when you want to use each item, as you don’t want to bring frozen ground beef that you intend to cook up the first night.

Open your cooler as few times as possible. This is a great reason for having two coolers for your camping trip even if everything can fit into one. If it’s hot out the cold air will dissipate in the heat quickly so don’t leave the cooler open for longer than is necessary.

Keep your cooler out of direct sunlight. Either leave it in the back of the car, or put it under the picnic table.

You can also try covering your cooler with a mylar survival blanket if you can’t find decent shade. You can reflect the heat from the sun back out instead of it heating your cooler up. Don’t put your cooler in your tent as that can attract unwanted animals.

While you’re driving to your next adventure try to keep the cooler inside the car as well. Having your perfectly packed cooler heat up in the truck bed or heaven forbid, on the roof is just not cool dude.

When you’re packing to leave, put your cooler in the car last. This way you can unpack it first, as everyone will need a snack before setting up camp.

Don’t count on cool weather to keep your food colder. We went camping in early spring and under packed the cooler with ice, thinking that the cold weather would keep the food colder for longer. The cooler maintained a temperature that was WARMER than the ambient night time temperature because it is so amazingly insulated. So even if you’re camping in cold weather, add enough ice to your cooler.

Tips for organizing your camping cooler

Plan how you load your cooler to help keep things colder longer. Place the items you will be using first on the top and outer edges of the cooler and your last day’s meal in the very center of your cooler. This will help to protect your meats for your last meal by reducing how much heat will radiate and reach your last meals keeping them frozen longer.

Plan your menu before you pack your cooler. Try organizing your food by meal into large zip bags allowing you to pull out what you need for each meal without digging to gather ingredients when it is time to cook. This will allow you to leave your cooler closed more and make it easier to get meals cooked.

An added bonus is that as you’re packing you can see what food you’re bringing and it’s less likely you’ll forget an important ingredient.

Ziplock bags are also great for keeping things dry. Somehow, no matter how good I think I am at cooler packing, the ice melts and all the food gets wet.

Two cooler system

Having more than one cooler is one of the best things you can do for keeping food cold for longer. When you are using the same cooler for both food and drinks you end up opening your cooler more often which will melt your ice cubs faster.

Having a separate drinks cooler will ensure that your ice will have the longest lifespan possible. This is essential when camping with kids, as we all know they’ll stand with the cooler open for 5 minutes and then make you come find their juice box. We use a smaller cooler for drinks and snacks so everything is easy to access.

If you plan to take a lot of fresh produce for snacks with you on your camping trip you may want to keep the produce in its own cooler. This one can have less ice to keep it cold without making you have to dig around things that need to stay frozen or risking the fresh fruits and vegetables from going bad before you can use them.

Types of Ice

Cubed Ice

A lot of us grew up getting bags of ice cubes at the gas station and watching our parents dump them all over the frozen food. While that’s really cool to watch, and takes up less space than other options, it’s not the best way to keep food cold and it usually results in melted ice cubes and wet food.

When we have used ice cubes, we put them in plastic bags in an attempt to keep the water from the ice off of the other food. The bags aren’t always leak-proof, but it still makes a big difference in how much water is on the bottom of the cooler.

The benefit of using ice cubes in baggies is you can also use them in your drinks if you’re camping in hot weather! You can also drink the water from the bags if you are craving some ice cold water. You can use the water from the ice baggies for anything you want, this is perfect if you’re running low on drinking water and don’t feel like boiling water from the stream to purify it.

If you’re using a two cooler system, it’s perfect to use ice cubes in the drinks cooler, as nothing will get soggy. We recommend if you’re using loose ice cubes to NOT put them in your drinks as everyone’s dirty hands will have touched them. Also, don’t drink the cooler water for the same reason. We were on a road trip and the other car we were with decided to put their drinks into their 5 gallon water jug instead of in a separate drinks cooler. At least 2 of our friends had upset stomachs by the end of the second day.

Block ice

You can occasionally get blocks of ice from some grocery stores and while I wouldn’t pack a cooler with solid ice, they can be a great way to pre chill your cooler before use. The day before your trip, add a few ice blocks to your empty cooler, then remove them and all of the melted water before packing your cooler for the trip.

Another way to use block ice is to fill up a gallon jug or water bottles most of the way with water and freeze that before your next trip. This way when the ice starts to melt, you can grab the bottle of drinking water and take it with you on your hike.

Dry Ice

If you are looking for an option that will stay cold for a very long period of time you can not go wrong with using dry ice. Dry ice will stay colder longer though you should take precautions if you have children with you as it can cause a lot of damage to little hands.

This is more for those who are going on extended week-long trips or are planning on bringing back animal meat from their trip. Standard family camping trips should stick with normal ice.

Ice Packs

Ice packs are an amazing way to keep your cooler cold without worrying about your food swimming around in melted ice water. Ice packs can be soft sided or hard sided and in a properly packed cooler they can stay cold for over a day.

Ice packs can also double as part of your first aid kit if someone trips and gets a bruise.

Keeping Food Cold While Camping Summary:

Get a quality cooler, pack it as full as possible with twice as much ice as food. Don’t let the sun shine on it or the kids leave it open all day and you should be on your way to an amazing adventure with great food and awesome memories!

Happy Camping!

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