Proper handling of your camping food is critical for the safety of you and your campmates. Knowing how to pack a cooler for camping is easy with these genius tips and hacks!
In This Post:
Packing A Cooler For Camping
Have you ever thought about how to pack a cooler efficiently?
Avoiding cross-contamination, keeping coolers cold while camping and keeping food dry are all important camping tips we’ll discuss.
Food Safety Cooler Storage
The best way to protect perishable food items from bacteria and cross-contamination is to use a separate cooler for meats, eggs and other foods in case of leaks. Then use another smaller cooler to hold condiments, vegetables, butter etc.
When it comes to food cooler organizer ideas, there are two theories on the order to pack the layers in a cooler for camping food safety: FILO and RMAB
Camping Cooler Packing Theory 1: FILO
Some people like to keep meals together placing the meals they will eat at the end of the trip at the bottom of the cooler and work backwards.
In other words, FILO … first in, last out.
On a personal note, my husband and I had a catering business for years and would have failed a health safety inspection if we ever stored raw meat above vegetables so I can’t bring myself to use this method.
I can’t even begin to think about raw chicken liquid dripping into my leafy green lettuce no matter how tight the container lid happens to fit … um, not happening!
Camping Cooler Packing Theory 2: RMAB
Some people, like me, are concerned with where they are storing raw meat in coolers.
They pack their coolers with raw meats at the bottom and build up the contents of the cooler ending with the least temperature-sensitive foods (like vegetables) towards the top.
In other words, RMAB … raw meats at bottom.
Keeping your cooler organized is a great start to keeping your entire campsite clean and clutter-free! Get more tips on camping organization for the rest of your gear.
Keep Food Dry In Cooler
Knowing how to keep food dry in coolers is essential to having a “healthy cooler” … here are 6 simple ideas.
- Use the drain spout. As the ice in the cooler melts, drain it and replenish with more ice.
- Use waterproof plastic containers. Placing your food items in re-sealable plastic bags and food storage containers with tight-fitting lids will prevent water from getting in your food.
- Use a cooler basket. Food placed in a cooler basket that is above the ice will stay dry but be mindful of keeping it at safe temperatures too.
- Use an electric cooler. A 12 volt cooler can be plugged into a vehicle’s 12v cigarette lighter but has limited space so you may want to put meats and critical temperature foods in it … while storing other non-critical foods (like fruits and veggies) in a regular cooler.
- Use alternatives to ice. If you don’t want to worry about water from melting ice, you can use freezer packs instead.
- Use frozen water bottles. If you are carrying bottled water on your trip, you can freeze it in advance … as the bottles defrost, they continue to provide the “cold” without the “wet” of ice cubes. This is one of my favorite camping cooler hacks to prevent soggy food.
Ice And Ice Substitutes For Coolers
The larger the ice blocks, the longer they last but the more room they require leaving less space for food.
Ice packs are an ice substitute that last longer than ice made with water … they don’t create the need to drain the water from the cooler like regular ice does.
How To Keep Cooler Cold While Camping
Do you know how to keep food cold in a cooler for 2 days or more? It is critical that you know how to keep food cold while camping, we have an entire post to teach you all the tips and tricks!
A typical weekend camping trip requires a significant amount of cold-storage space … even if you are camping with a small group … but especially when you are making easy camping meals for large groups.
Tip 1. Pre-Cool/Freeze Food Before Your Camping Trip
Use the power and efficiency of your home refrigerator/freezer to thoroughly cool/freeze your food inside the containers you are taking on your trip.
I like to measure my recipe ingredients at home and only transport what I will be using to the campsite.
Why lug a big jar of mayo if I am only going to use 1/2 cup in a recipe?
I measure my ingredients and put them in the smallest possible food storage, tight-locking lid containers … then I place the containers in my home fridge the night before I pack them in my camping cooler or refrigerator.
I also freeze foods that I defrost at the campsite (like meats or reheat meals like chili.)
Placing these frozen items in my cooler or refrigerator helps keep the temperature down but it also requires timing considerations when defrosting.
I learned that lesson the hard way when my chicken breasts were not defrosted in time to make dinner so we ended up eating cheese and crackers that night. LOL
Tip 2. Pre-Cool Your Coolers
Make sure your coolers are pre-chilled and cold-soaked before packing them.
For ice-cooled coolers, fill with ice the night before your camping trip and keep them in a cool place (like inside an air conditioned house rather than a hot garage or attic.)
For powered coolers, refrigerators and freezers turn them on the day before your road trip and let them get down to temperature before adding food items.
Tip 3. Load Beverages In Separate Camping Coolers
Opening and closing a cooler is the fastest way to heat it up.
Beverages are in demand throughout the day while food is usually only accessed at mealtime.
So, keep your drinks in their own coolers and don’t drain the cold water from it as the ice melts UNLESS you are replacing it with more ice because empty space fills with warm air making ice melt even faster.
I prep my drinks cooler by storing it in the cold air of our air-conditioned house a few days before the trip. I pre-chill all of my drinks, soda, bottles of water and beer, in my home refrigerator too.
It’s a good idea to place a layer of frozen reusable ice packs at the bottom of your cooler, to provide a nice solid foundation. Then, place the drinks inside using loose ice to fill all the empty spaces between the drinks and the cooler walls.
If you load the cooler the night before your trip, drain the melted ice water from your cooler and pour fresh ice over the bottles and cans. Use as much ice as necessary to fill the top of the cooler and eliminate open space where warm air can build up on a hot day. I also like to add a layer of ice packs on top because the ice keeps longer than just pouring a bag of ice cubes on top.
This is just one of our 19 tips we share on how to keep drinks cold when camping!
Tip 4. Open Coolers Only When Necessary
Keeping cooler lids closed helps keep the cold in … and, the heat out.
Know what you need from the cooler before opening it, get your food or drink out and close the lid as rapidly as possible.
This can be a bit of a challenge at night so consider using a cooler light to help you find the necessary items quickly in the dark.
Tip 5. Keep Coolers In Shaded Campsite Locations
Help your cooling devices stay cool by keeping them in the shade.
Remember, while you’re out hiking, the sun is moving so anticipate the sunny spots at the campsite and avoid storing your cooler in them.
We like to store our coolers under the picnic table beneath our pop-up canopy.
How Long Will Food Stay Frozen In A Cooler?
The length of time food with stay frozen in a cooler depends on several factors:
- How well insulated is the cooler? Cheap coolers have much less insulation than expensive ones. There is a trade-off … expensive coolers with lots of insulation have a smaller amount of space for food than cheaper coolers of the same external size.
- How hot is the ambient air temperature? If you are camping in hot conditions, keep your cooler in the coolest part of your campsite … out of direct sunlight and away from heat sources (like campfires) and surfaces (like vehicles) that radiate heat.
- How “dense” is the food? Consider the mass of the objects in your cooler. How long will meat stay frozen in a cooler … depends on … how thick the cut of meat is. A large beef roast will stay frozen much longer than the same size beef roast that is cut into 1-inch cubes.
Yeti vs. Coleman
We own two Yeti coolers as well as a few Coleman coolers. You can’t get better quality than what you find in Yeti camping gear. Their coolers are durable and built for rugged conditions in the great outdoors.
The Tundra is the best cooler for ice retention because of the exceptional cooler insulation. It requires a much lower ratio of ice as a result.
On longer trips, I serve a lot of my make ahead camping meals. These are freezer meals I prep or cook at home, freeze flat in Ziploc bags so I just defrost, “dump & cook” or “dump & reheat” during the trip.
The last thing I want to do is put these meals in a Yeti because the extra cold temperature won’t allow them to slowly defrost. In these situations, I use a second cooler with less insulation, like a Coleman, that keeps cold food at safe temperatures but doesn’t keep it frozen.
How To Make Cheap Coolers More Efficient
You should buy the best camping cooler you can afford. If your budget won’t allow for a top-of-the-line Yeti, you can use an awesome camping hack to improve the efficiency of a cheaper cooler by adding “outside insulation”.
Wrap the outside of your cooler with a foam pad, then, wrap the entire contraption in a moving blanket tarp to create a barrier between your cooler and the summer heat. That added exterior insulation will keep the cold air inside while keeping the ambient hot air away from the exterior surface area. This hack will turn a good cooler into a great one.
How To Use Dry Ice In A Cooler For Camping
Here’s how to keep frozen food in a cooler … frozen!
When we are camping in our tent and storing frozen food (including ice cream, it is one of the best camping snacks in the summer, you know) in a cooler, we use dry ice to keep it at the proper temperature.
Here are a few things to consider about dry ice:
- Dry ice does not melt, it evaporates because it is carbon dioxide in solid form.
- CO2 gas can build up when dry ice is stored in small air-tight spaces (like well-sealed coolers) so allow a bit of airflow when using dry ice. If the cooler lid will be opened/closed periodically, the gasses will escape but if the cooler lid remains closed, opening the cooler drain plug/valve will provide needed ventilation.
- Dry ice is much colder than regular ice made from water which means it is NOT good for storing in coolers with fragile refrigerated foods but it is good for storing frozen foods.
- You should never touch dry ice with bare hands because it is so cold (−109.3 °F/−78.5 °C) it will burn/freeze exposed skin (you know, frostbite kind of burn.) Ouch!!!
- The life of dry ice can be extended by wrapping it inside an insulating material like newspaper.
How To Store Your Vegetables
Storing your fresh camping veggies and maximizing their life requires a little effort. Our easy tips can help!
Food To Bring Camping No Cooler
If you want to reduce the cold storage space you need … or … eliminate the need for coolers completely, you can consider these no cooler camping meals.
Our camping food recipes using no refrigeration are made completely with non-perishable pantry items.
FREE Printable Menu Planner
Meal planning can be easy and fun, if you have the right tools!
Get your FREE printable camping trip & menu planner before you create your next meal plan!
Food Ideas For Your Trip
Properly packing your cooler means you’ll have nice and fresh ingredients for your meals. Try some new and exciting camping recipes for each meal of your trip.