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Tips for Packing a Cooler Like a Pro

Tips for packing a cooler like a pro header

By Anthony St. Clair on December 28, 2020 in Travel

Ever open a cooler for food or a beverage only to discover a soggy, unappetizing mess? What about when that mess isn’t cold enough?

While a faulty cooler scenario is all too common, it’s also easily preventable. Use these tips to choose, cool, and pack your cooler the right way to protect what’s inside and prevent food waste.

How to Buy the Right Cooler

Cooler technology has advanced over the past few decades and the market for portable coolers is expected to grow by more than $5 billion from 2020 to 2024. With more materials, sizes, and configurations than ever, buying the right cooler can seem daunting. Fortunately, all these options mean you can easily match your needs to the right cooler.

  • Size: A small personal cooler can be perfect for a solo day trip. Larger coolers are a great fit for a multi-day family adventure. Multiple sizes can help you mix and match as needed.
  • Number: A two-cooler system dedicates one cooler for drinks and another for food. A third cooler could be dedicated to raw meat or meals for a longer trip.
  • Color: Reflective lighter colors help your cooler stay cooler. Or you can make a statement by picking a bright color or the colors of your favorite team.
  • Budget: Capable coolers are available for virtually any price. Performance brands such as Yeti and Engel are often considered top of the line, but Coleman and Igloo offer solid cooling at budget-friendly prices.
  • Insulation: The bigger your cooling needs, the better and thicker the insulation you’ll want.
  • Material: Plastics generally provide a good balance of affordability and durability, with the added bonus of weighing less than metal. While more expensive, metal coolers can endure rough handling on demanding trips and come in larger sizes. Styrofoam models are often the cheapest, but more prone to damage. Soft-sided fabric coolers typically do not feature the same level of insulation as plastic or metal models but weigh less and can be squished into tight spaces. If you want a cooler that functions like a mini fridge, you can opt for an electric cooler which can plug in to your vehicle’s electrical system.

Tips to Pack Your Cooler for Convenience and Food Safety

Whatever cooler you get, use the following tips to pack your cooler for optimal food safety, organization, and convenience throughout your trip.

Make a pre-trip food and drink checklist

The journey to an organized cooler starts before you ever open the lid.

As part of your trip prep, write a checklist of the food, beverages, condiments, etc., that you want to bring. Break down your list into meals and snacks for each day. This simple step can prevent you from forgetting the mustard, half-and-half, mixers, or other culinary essentials.

Pre-chill the cooler for 12 hours before packing it

Just as you warm up before you work out, pre-chilling preps your cooler for packing. If you store your coolers in a space that gets hot, bring them into your main living space. (This is also a good opportunity to clean them.)

Next, fill your cooler with bags of “sacrificial ice” to chill the walls and floor for 12 hours or overnight. If you don’t have that kind of time, even an hour or two helps.

The colder you make your cooler, the easier it is to keep it cold — and keep your food and drinks cold.

Remove excess packaging and prep food before you pack it

While your cooler chills, gather up everything you will put inside it. Next, chuck any excess packaging. Not only will it wind up wet and gross, it also means more trash you have to deal with on your trip. If you need to, re-package items in food storage containers or doubled-up resealable freezer bags. You’ll have less waste to deal with on site, and it’ll be easier to keep your food clean.

While you line up your food, you can also devote some time to pre-trip prep. Mix up dry ingredients, sauces, or other combo items while you’re at home. Chop up produce, especially anything you plan to use as soon as you arrive. Less prep means less waiting when you’ve worked up an appetite from traveling.

Double-bag raw meat

Cooking meat camp-side is a wonderful experience, but dashing to a pit toilet in the dark because the meat was spoiled? Not so much.

  • Raw meat is the likeliest suspect for spreading pathogens that can make you and your trip-mates ill.
  • To prevent spoilage, you must keep meat cold.
  • Prep your meat at home, for instance by pre-forming burgers or slicing large cuts into smaller pieces.
  • In addition to washing your hands after handling meat and keeping meat-touching utensils separate from others, double-bag raw meat as you pack it.
  • You can also bag your meat together in dedicated areas of the cooler to lower the chance of any raw meat touching anything else in the cooler.

Freeze food and drinks you plan on enjoying later in the trip

If you don’t need it on the first day and it can be safely frozen, freeze food and drinks in advance. Freezing foods serves two purposes: Not only will these items last longer in the cooler, but they’ll function like ice, cooling non-frozen items too. Avoid putting any room temperature food or drinks in the cooler.

Beverages such as bottled water and fruit juice (or fruit juice concentrate) freeze great and so does meat. (For liquids, leave a quarter of the container empty to compensate for expansion.)

Plan to eat more perishable, non-frozen foods earlier in the trip. As frozen foods thaw, eat them later in your adventure.

Make ice blocks by freezing water in repurposed containers

Block ice lasts longer than cubes and keeps coolers cold longer. While it can be hard to find, you can make block ice at home. Empty pint, quart, half-gallon, and gallon jugs work well for a DIY version.

Disinfect your containers with a diluted bleach solution, rinse, fill three-quarters full with water, and freeze.

When packing your cooler, stand or layer frozen jugs and cartons for long-lasting block ice. Not only will you save money, but you can also keep your cooler cold — and have an emergency water supply — all in one.

Lay ice blocks on the bottom of the cooler and fill the spaces with ice cubes

When it comes to ice, start big and end small. Aim for approximately a 60/40 ratio of ice to food and beverages. As you pack each layer of food and drinks, fill any empty spaces with ice cubes.

Super-chill your cooler with rock salt

In addition to seasoning your food, salt is a secret ally that keeps your cooler colder because it lowers the freezing point of water, which allows liquids to get colder without freezing.

When it comes to coolers, we’re not talking about table salt or kosher salt though. We’re talking about rock salt. After adding some food, drink, and ice to your cooler, sprinkle a handful of this larger, coarser salt over everything. Anytime you add a layer of ice, add more salt.

Wait until you’re almost ready to leave to pack the cooler

Only one item should go in the car after your cooler: you. The longer your food and drinks stay in the fridge or freezer, the colder they will be when you put them into the cooler.

Pack your pre-chilled cooler after everything else is loaded up. That way everything that needs to be cold is as cold as possible when you leave. And remember to pack all non-refrigerated items separately — they can reduce the effectiveness of your cooler.

Organize your cooler according to types of food or meals

Rummaging around for food will likely leave you with a warm cooler. Keeping your cooler colder longer means opening it only when you need to — and having it open for as short a time as possible. The way to do that? Organize your cooler.

Insulate your cooler with padding if it’s hot outside

Outdoor adventures in hot weather bring the extra challenge of keeping the cooler cold — especially when the sun is high. To protect your cooler from outside heat, insulate it with these strategies.

  • Wrap the cooler in a light-colored blanket or towel, or at least cover the top with a piece of reflective material.
  • Make sure the cooler is set in a spot with minimal direct sun.
  • Move the cooler to shady areas as needed.
  • When you close the cooler, make sure the lid is secure with no gaps or cracks.
  • Put a small food thermometer inside the cooler so you can monitor the inside temperature.

A Clean, Cold Cooler Is Your Trip’s Best Friend

Keeping a cooler cool gives you peace of mind about food safety and helps you have more fun. A little planning and organization go a long way to helping you leave your cooler worries at home!

Anthony St. Clair is a consultant for Say Insurance. He's an author, globetrotter, craft beer expert, and professional writer based in the US Pacific Northwest. When he’s not writing, Anthony is with his wife and two children, usually either cooking or going on some sort of adventure.