How to Keep Food Cold While Camping: 9 Expert Tips

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If you’re staying for more than 24 hours and you’re not staying at a fully hooked up site, you’ll need to figure out how to keep your food cold while camping. Thankfully, we’ve been there and done that so often, we’ve learned every trick and probably committed most of the mistakes, too, over the years. So we’re sharing our 9 top tips for keeping food cold while camping.

how to keep food cold while camping

Get the Best Cooler You Can Afford (AND Get a Cheaper 2nd Cooler)

Now this really isn’t a sales pitch, although we do, of course have a recommendation, but getting the best cooler you can afford goes a long way to keeping your food cold. It doesn’t matter what else you do to keep the temperature in the cooler down if the cooler itself is cheap and inefficient. 

So don’t skimp on this. If you can afford it, we’d recommend the YETI Tundra Haul. Not only is it bear proof, but it can keep your food cold for up to 7 days. It holds up to 55 pounds of ice or 45 beer cans + ice at a ratio of 2:1 ice to cans, so you can get a fair amount of food in here. 

It’s not the biggest YETI model, but, because YETIs are notoriously heavy, because of their armored build and 2-inch insulated walls, we chose this model because it’s got wheels. Honestly, I’m not sure why it took them this long to produce a cooler with wheels, but holy smokes, it makes moving a cooler full of food much, much easier! 

For keeping drinks cool, you can and should get a second, cheaper cooler. Drinks don’t need to be kept as cold as fresh food and it’s more likely campers want drinks more often than food. Every time you open a cooler, you let cold air out and hot air in, increasing the internal temperature of the cooler. Hence, a second cooler for drinks. This way, any time someone grabs a beverage, they’re not warming up the food. For a cheaper drinks cooler, we like the Coleman Xtreme 5 Day Rolling Cooler – notice a theme here, with the wheels?! Its a good size, holding up to 95 cans, we think it’s great value, and it doubles as a seat, with the unit, even when empty, able to support 250 pounds. 

2. Use the Right Kind of Ice

Ice is ice, right? Wrong! Bags of ice from the grocery store will do in an emergency, but they’re really not ideal. They melt way too fast and end up ruining your food as they fill your cooler with water. There are a few options. But you’ll definitely need something long-lasting. If you want to buy ready-made reusable ice packs or dry ice packs, go with Cooler Shock Cooler Ice Packs, which are large and heavy duty, or Cool Coolers Fit & Fresh slim ice packs. Both of these products are good options and they’re not too pricey. If you go with Cool Coolers, just make sure you buy a few more than you think you’ll need, as they are super slim and you can slide plenty into the cooler between food items to increase cooling power. 

And, of course, you can also make your own packs. Simply fill sturdy watertight freezer bags with 2 cups water to 1 cup rubbing alcohol. Squeeze as much air out as possible, seal the bag, and freeze it. Et voila – an ice pack. Just be sure to make enough of them to pack your cooler with. You can also freeze some of your bottled water. After all, you’ll need it while you’re camping anyway, so why not make it useful until you want to drink it? Just make sure you freeze it for at least a week before your trip. It’ll stay frozen much longer than a bottle frozen only 24 hours before travel.

3. Don’t Open the Coolers More Than Necessary

This one seems pretty obvious, but you’ll be amazed at just how many times you open the coolers without even thinking about it. Plan your meals so you have a list of exactly what you need before you open the cooler. If you want to keep your food cold while camping, you have to keep the cooler’s internal temperature as low as possible, so try to get everything out of it quickly, in one go, at the start of each meal prep.

4. Freeze Whatever You Can Before You Leave

Now you obviously can’t freeze everything. Frozen ‘slaw, anyone?! Yuck! But whatever you can freeze, do. Meat, raw or blanched vegetables, milk – whatever is safe for home freezing. This helps keep the internal cooler temp low and gives you a few extra days where you food stays fresh as it thaws.

5. Pack The Cooler Tightly

Empty space is filled with air, and it gets filled with warm air every time you open the cooler lid. Therefore, one of the best ways to keep food cold when camping is to pack it as tightly as possible. Got some spare space? Add another ice pack or squeeze in some frozen water bottles. 

6. Pack the Cooler Right

Really? There’s a wrong way to pack a cooler?! Yes indeed! If you want to keep your food cold for your camping trip, it all starts with how you pack your cooler. You want to add cold and insulation around all your food, and the one place people forget is the bottom. They just trust to the cooler walls and dump their food into the cooler, only adding ice packs at the sides and on top. But here’s how to pack a cooler the right way:

  • Take your empty cooler and cover the bottom with ice blocks
  • Next, add (preferably frozen) meat 
  • Ideally, to avoid contamination, you should add a layer of baking parchment here, followed by more ice packs
  • Next comes sealed and packaged goods and any veggies that need to be cooked before eating.
  • Another layer of ice is a smart plan if you have the space
  • Reserve the top layer for anything you eat raw or delicate stuff like soft fruit and eggs.
  • Fill the rest of the space with ice packs or frozen water bottles.
  • In an ideal world, your tightly packed cooler contains no more than 60% food. The other 40% should be ice and frozen water.

7. Keep Coolers In Shaded, Cooler Spots

No sh*t, Sherlock! But you’d be surprised at how quickly the sun moves round and puts your coolers in direct sun. Some folks make the mistake of leaving the cooler in their vehicle, but the inside of a car gets real hot, real fast. And even the best cooler cannot keep food cold in extreme heat. So yes, this is an obvious tip, but be mindful of where you’re keeping the cooler. Look for shade and relative cool and be aware of where the sun is.

8. Rig a Tarp Over the Coolers

One great idea is to rig a brightly colored or reflective tarp up over the coolers to deflect heat and create shade, no matter where you are. It’s easy enough to do with a couple of poles and a simple tarp.

9. Take Emergency Rations

Now, this one isn’t so much about keeping food cool as it is about being prepared just in case all your careful planning counts for nothing and somehow a bear does get into your cooler, or you forget, just for an hour or two, that the cooler is sitting in the midday sun in your car, and the contents is now warm, reeking, and rancid. Emergency rations! Keep a few liters of bottled water separate from the coolers. Same for some pre-packaged emergency rations, whether it’s some jerky or protein bars. Make sure you’ve got plenty of these kinds of food stuff to hand, just in case you lose your fresh supplies and can’t get to a store right away. 

These simple tips help you keep your food cold while camping so you can enjoy campfire cooking safely, without worrying about your supplies going bad. Just remember to avoid cross-contaminating anything you consume without cooking, like dairy products, with raw meat – that’s a sure-fire way to ruin your camping vacation.

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