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How to Keep Food Cold While Camping

Planning a camping trip could be so exciting whether you are going with your significant other, a group of friends or your whole family. 

Depending on how long you will be going, you will need at least one cooler, but typically more for a few days with a few people. Like any other trip, proper planning is essential before you head out on your camping adventure for a few big reasons. 

How to Keep Food Cold While Camping

Picture getting out into the wilderness with a group of friends and you’re ready to rough it out in the woods for a few days. Everyone is excited to be secluded from the world and disconnected for a while. 

You start unpacking the car and setting everything up and you realize, as you go to grab the cooler, that you forgot to get ice on the way. 

Now you are out in the middle of nowhere that would take almost an hour to get to a store to purchase ice, but by the time you get to the store it may already be closed and you don’t have cell phone service to call and ask or look it up online.

What do you do? Take a chance and trek back to the store to attempt to get ice, or let everything in the cooler spoil in the 85-degree weather that’s expected the next day?

What about if you are going on a camping trip with your family and you are tasked with making sure the cooler is prepared and ready for the trip. You finally get to your destination and the kids are a little cranky because it’s already been a long day of travel and once everything is unpacked and set up, you have to make something for everyone to eat. 

When you go to get out the food you packed in the cooler, you realize the ice has started to melt and things have started to thaw out. You didn’t think about double wrapping the meats and the juice from the defrosted raw meat has leaked and contaminated everything else in your cooler. Do you risk getting everyone sick and ruining the vacation or everyone going to bed hungry? 

While these are extreme scenarios that might never happen, it’s always better to be well prepared than to find yourself in a situation like one of these. 

Lucky for you, you won’t have to be in any of these awful predicaments because you are doing your research beforehand to make sure you get it right the first time. From now on, you’ll always be the one people rely on when it’s time to prepare the food for a camping trip because you’ll have all the tools to make every trip a success!

Step-By-Step Preparation Instructions

Keeping Food Cool While Camping: Cooler and A Stove on Rocks

1. Plan your meals before you go

You should plan out each meal of the day in sequence so you know what you will be eating and when you will be eating it. 

If you plan ahead, you can pack the food according to when you will need it so you don’t find yourself needing something all the way at the bottom the first day. 

This is more efficient and prevents you from having to keep the cooler open for too long and exposing the food inside to the heat.

2. Separate cooked and uncooked meats

If you want to cook some of the food ahead of time and other food you are bringing raw to cook while you are camping, you should always keep them separate. 

You don’t want to mix up the two and you don’t want any of your raw meats contaminating your other food.

3. Repackage items in freezer bags

You should always put your uncooked meats in freezer bags for extra safety. You can either take them out of their original packaging and put them in freezer bags if you want to condense your items and save room, or you can put the entire package in freezer bags. You don’t want to run the risk of any thawing out meats leaking in the cooler. 

4.  Freeze food before your trip

You should always freeze the food for a few days prior to your trip to make sure it is all the way frozen before it’s time to pack it into the cooler. If it is completely frozen, it will take much longer to thaw out and will be much easier to preserve and keep cold. 

5. Cook food before your trip

The more items you could prepare and cook before your trip, the better off you will be. If there are any dishes you plan to make that you know you can cook ahead of time and keep it fresh for when you are ready to eat it, that is always the better options than taking a bunch of raw food.

6. Freeze your bottled water

Freeze your bottles of water for a few days prior to your trip and use them like an added ice pack for your cooler. 

Keeping them on the top of a cooler will keep it cool longer and you won’t lose any room with more ice or another ice path because your bottle’s water will be both an extra ice pack and a cold drink when you are ready for it.

7. Package loose ice

It is always best to keep the ice more confined like a bottle of water or an ice pack, as opposed to pouring loose ice into the cooler. 

Packaged ice is much easier to preserve because it won’t melt nearly as fast. It will also prevent the ice from getting contaminated so you could use it to put in your drink if you need to. 

If you have loose ice and there’s a bunch of food in the cooler and people are going in and grabbing things with their bare hands while you are out in the woods, the ice and everything it touches will be contaminated. Once the ice melts, it will be even worse.

8. Give your cooler a pre-freeze

Pre-freezing the cooler for at least a few hours before your trip to help it stay cooler longer. Ideally, you should freeze your cooler the night before, but a few hours will do. Putting food, ice, drinks and other items in the cooler

9. Secure a thermometer inside your cooler

It is always helpful to secure a small thermometer onto the inside of your cooler so you can keep track of what the temperature is inside. 

That way you will know if the food is staying fresh or not. It will alert you to how much longer things will remain frozen or how long you have until certain things will need to be cooked. 

10. Use a separate cooler for your drinks

The best option for coolers is to keep the drinks and the food in separate coolers if you have the ability to do so. 

If you are able to carry another cooler to the campsite without too much hassle, it is recommended to package them separately. 

This is beneficial for potential risk of contamination, but also because drink coolers are opened a lot more frequently than food coolers and the frequent opening and closing of the drink cooler will continue to increase the temperature inside the cooler and everything will defrost much quicker.

11. Use cooling aids

It is always helpful to have as many cooling assistants as possible in the cooler. As discussed before, freezing water bottles is one option. 

Another option is using cooler packs. You can buy reusable freezer packs that you fill with water and freeze before your trip. They are insulated packages that get colder than ice, don’t leave behind food swimming in dirty water and last up to 48 hours. 

There are also extra thin freezer packs you could use as well that are only ½ inch thick and can slide down the side of your cooler with ease and along the bottom, saving you a ton of space in your cooler. Dry ice packs also work very well.

12. Pack cooler with long lasting ice

As stated before, loose ice always melts much faster than compacted ice. Prepare your ice in freezer bags to keep it confined, uncontaminated and cooler for longer.  

13. To pack it right, pack it tight

The tighter you pack the food into the cooler, the longer it will stay cool. If there are too many spaces between the items, 

it allows more air to move between them, which defrosts everything quicker. Pack things in as neatly and tightly as you can, and as stated before, plan your meals ahead of time so you can pack it strategically as well.

14. Insulate your cooler

Once you get to the campsite, keep your cooler well insulated. Bring a heavy blanket or other item to drape over your cooler whenever possible. 

Insulating your cooler will preserve the frozen items for a longer period of time and prevent the sun and heat from increasing the temperature inside.

15. Keep opening your cooler to the bare minimum

Only open your cooler when you absolutely need to and if you do have to open it, try to be as quick as possible. The longer it is open, the quicker things in the cooler will defrost. You want to keep the cold air in, not let it out.

**One last suggestion**

Use a portable cooler fridge. If you have the ability to bring along a portable fridge, this is a great option for not only keeping everything cool, but also for extra storage. 

Great Coolers For Keeping Food Cold While Camping

YETI Hopper Two Portable Cooler

YETI Hopper Two 30 Portable Cooler, Field Tan/Blaze Orange

  • 100% leak proof
  • Keeps ice cold for days
  • Built with comfort for easy hauling
  • Waterproof exterior
  • Straps are nearly indestructible
  • HydroLok zipper to lock in the cold

Coleman X-Treme 5-Day Cooler

Coleman Rolling Cooler | 50 Quart Xtreme 5 Day Cooler with Wheels | Wheeled Hard Cooler Keeps Ice Up to 5 Days, Black

  • Extendable strap and wheels for easy transport
  • Durable lid can hold 250 lbs. when closed
  • Holds up to 84 12 oz. cans
  • Built in cup holder
  • Keeps ice cold for up to 5 days

Pelican Elite 30 Quart Cooler

Pelican Elite 30 Quart Cooler (White/Gray)

  • Polyurethane insulation
  • 360-degree freezer-grade gasket hold ice longer
  • Lock latches with lockable clasp to keep lid secure
  • Easy to carry handle
  • Built-in bottle opener & 4 self-draining cup holders
  • Holds up to 23 12 oz. cans

Igloo BMX

Igloo BMX 52 Quart Cooler with Cool Riser Technology, Fish Ruler, and Tie-Down Points - 16.34 Pounds - Carbonite Gray and Blue

  • Heavy duty
  • Durable, yet lightweight
  • Proven 4 to 5-day ice retention at 90 degrees
  • UV protection for extended life
  • Can hold 83 12-ounce cans (52 quarts)
  • Stainless steel to prevent rusting
  • Latches keep lid secured shut
  • MaxCold with insulation
  • Elevated base to improves cooling sustainability

Coleman Steel Belted Cooler

Coleman Cooler | Steel-Belted Cooler Keeps Ice Up to 4 Days | 54-Quart Cooler for Camping, BBQs, Tailgating & Outdoor Activities

  • High-capacity, 54-quarts
  • Holds up to 85 12 oz. cans
  • Insulation keeps ice up to 4-days up to 90 degrees
  • Built for durability and sustainability
  • Comfort-grip handle

10 Final Tips for A Successful Trip

  • You should always cook any perishable foods you have that are no longer frozen within 2 hours. This is also a general rule for any perishable foods you have out. If it sits out for more than 2 hours, it is probably time to throw it out, so you don’t risk getting yourself or anyone else sick
  • Always bring a package of disinfectant wipes as well as cleaning wipes. You should always make sure you clean your cooking utensils, your pots and pans and especially your hands before and after you cook any raw meats. Camping has a lot more germs and contaminants than other locations, so try to clean up well. You definitely don’t want to be handling raw meats and forget to wash your hands after and then go into the cooler to grab a cold beer. (Yuck!)
  • Don’t forget garbage bags for any trash and uneaten cooked food. You want to keep your campsite as clean as possible (I know, it’s outside, but you know what I mean!) so you don’t attract a lot of bugs and animals with the leftover food that was left out. Once you are done eating, put all the garbage in a garbage bag and secure it somewhere so the smell isn’t lingering in the air. Pop-up garbage bags are even better!
  • The best kinds of coolers for camping are made with steel or fiberglass because they help retain the cold for longer periods of time.
  • If all else fails, make sure you have a pretty healthy stock of non-perishable items for everyone to eat. Even if you make a tragic mistake and everything goes bad, if you keep the people fed you will keep the people happy! Always come prepared.
  • Keep your cooler in the shade. The more exposure your cooler has to the sunlight, the warmer it will get, and the quicker things are going to start defrosting.
  • Bring a heavy blanket or tarpaulin sheet to help insulate your cooler once you get to the campsite.
  • Don’t drain your cooler unless you absolutely have to have to. Even the melted ice will act as a cooling agent because the water from the melted ice remains cold for a while after it melts, which will continue to cool the items in the cooler.
  • Always bring along a small first aid kit just in case. 
  • Plan your trip from the car to the campsite so you know how far you have to walk and what type of terrain you will be walking. You don’t want to bring a bunch of heavy coolers along with you if you have a long distance up hill in the middle of the woods. Knowing where you have to travel will give you an idea of what you should be traveling with.

**Pro Tip** 

You may not know this, but salt naturally reduces the melting point of ice. This comes in handy if you want your ice to last longer in your cooler. Sprinkle a little salt on your ice for a little added time buffer.