It’s just like what they say – always keep your campfire hot and your drinks cold.
Many campers, especially beginners, made the mistake of thinking that packing a cooler is simply placing your food and drinks inside then throwing some ice in it.
Later on, when they ended up drinking warm beers or when someone got sick from eating rotten food, they realized that packing a cooler for a camping trip should be given more thought. It’s really a simple process that requires little time and effort to achieve.
Step 1: Air Out and Pre-Chill Your Cooler
A day before your camping trip, bring your cooler out of storage. You might be storing it in your attic, garage or shed and it’s important that it gets aired out. The goal is to get its core temperature to be as cold as possible before you start packing.
To do this, begin by cleaning and disinfecting your cooler. Whether you gave it a good wash from your last trip or not, don’t miss this step. Wash it down, give it a good scrub and spray with a disinfectant. This greatly helps with food safety.
Once it’s squeaky clean, dump a bag or two of ice then fill it with cold water at least 12 hours before you start packing. Experts refer to these ice bags as “sacrificial ice” to help get the core temperature of your cooler to its lowest possible. Discard the ice water RIGHT BEFORE you put food and drinks in.
Tip # 1: Don’t let the ice water go to waste – use it to water your plants at home!
Step 2: Prepare Food For Packing The Right Way
When packing a cooler, it’s important to maximize the space and be able to bring all the food and drinks that you need for the entire trip. That’s why it’s advisable to do most of your food preparation at home.
- Plan out your meals – Make a list of the daily meals you plan on cooking at the campsite. This way, you bring only the things you’ll really need. Remove excess packaging of food items (like a cardboard caddy of a six-pack) and only bring the amount of condiments needed (no need to bring the whole bottle!) to save space. Remember, the less space food takes up, the more room for ice to keep everything coder longer.
Tip # 2: It’s okay to bring extra food in case of emergencies, as long as there’s space in the cooler. Opt for dry, no-chill snacks for your emergency stash like energy bars and beef jerky.
- Prep the food at home – Based on the list you made, prepare as much as you can of the ingredients for your meals at home – marinate meats, portion out condiments and chop vegetables. This will make cooking at the campsite easier and more convenient, too!
- Pack them right – Because of all the ice, assume that everything placed inside your cooler will get wet, that’s why it’s important to place food in reusable, leak-proof containers. You don’t want your drinking water floating in liquid from your meats!
- Freeze and refrigerate food before packing – No matter how much ice you dump in your cooler, they’ll melt quickly if you pack a warm beer. Pre-chill or pre-freeze food and drinks before placing them inside your cooler – this will greatly help keep everything colder for longer!
Tip # 3: If space permits, consider bringing a separate cooler for your drinks – this gets opened more often which will help keep the more temperature-sensitive food in the other cooler colder for longer.
Step 3: Bring out the ice
According to experts, the best ice foundation for coolers would either be large reusable freezer packs or block ice (as they take longer to melt compared to cubes). If these are unavailable, you can opt to freeze bottles of waters, just be sure to remove about 1/4 of the water so the ice can expand. Place your ice foundation at the bottom of the cooler. Once food and drinks are placed inside, fill in the cracks with a bag or two of ice cubes.
For longer trips, you can choose to use dry ice. However, this needs to be used with caution so you have to be careful about it.
Step 4: Start the packing process
Experts recommend that you don’t start packing your cooler until everything else is packed and loaded in the car – it should be the last thing you do right before you leave for your trip.
- With your ice foundation at the bottom, start with food for the last day and work your way up to food for the first day.
- You don’t want anything to leak, so make sure containers (especially those that contain liquid) are stable and arranged vertically.
- It helps that you arrange food in a way where you could easily search for food items, minimizing the time your cooler is left open. For example, you can place breakfast ingredients to the left, lunch in the middle and dinner to the right. Use dividers if you can!
- Remember to fill as much of the air gaps with ice cubes as you can, as pockets of air accelerates melting of ice.
- If you don’t have a separate cooler for your drinks, pack them at the top since they’re the least perishable.
Step 5: Keep it cool
Once your cooler is packed and you’re ready to go, be sure to load it in the car INSIDE with you! In the car and at the campsite, make sure it is placed in a shaded area (like under your picnic table) and away from sunlight. You can cover the top with a wet towel to insulate it further, especially on a hot day.
Contrary to popular belief, do not drain meltwater. Draining it will cause more harm than good. And lastly, keep your cooler closed as much as you can. Open it only when truly necessary – the less you open it, the colder everything in it will stay!
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