How to Pack Any Cooler to Keep Your Food Colder Longer (video)

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9 Best Ways to Keep Your Food Cold Longer in a Cooler

Whether you’re willing to spend hundreds of dollars on a roto-molded cooler or your budget is more in line with a traditional double-walled cooler – we all want the same thing. We want a cooler to keep our food and drinks cold for as long as possible!

Here are some common sense tricks to help maximize your cooler’s cooling capacity even in the warmest weather camping season will throw at you.

To pack any cooler for maximum performance, see our Best Tips video here.

1. Pre-Cool Your Cooler

cooler prechill cooler block ice2Ice will last longer, and your food will stay colder if the cooler is already chilled when you pack it. If it’s winter time outside or you have the luxury of a walk-in cooler chill it down overnight. The best is a couple of sacrificial blocks of ice placed inside the cooler for 24-hours before packing. Block ice works better for this purpose and may even be good for a second trip if you keep it in a freezer between uses.

2. Only Put Frozen/Cold Items in Your Cooler

cooler frozen cold foods2Putting only frozen or cold items in your cooler almost goes without saying, but maybe not! When packing a cooler for maximum efficiency, you should load it with frozen or well-chilled items directly from the freezer or refrigerator. We’re not talking about cooling off beverages for a party in the backyard where you can replenish with more ice. Using cold or frozen items is about packing a cooler to keep things frozen or chilled for many days.

3. Keep the Coldest at the Bottom

cooler coldest foods bottom2 The most important principle to remember when packing your cooler is that cold air sinks, so the items you want to keep the coldest the longest should go at the bottom of the cooler. These would be frozen items like meats, frozen fruits, and vegetables, and even those ice cream treats for the kids in camp – of any age!

4. Fill Gaps With Frozen Drinking Water Bottles

cooler frozen water bottle tip2Full coolers keep things colder than partially filling them. Avoid gaps between the cold items you’re packing into the cooler. When you’re creating layers in your ice chest, make sure they are well-packed rather than loosely tossed together. Moreover, make sure there is plenty of ice packed in and around the food items.

The best way to do this is to buy 16-ounce water bottles and freeze them. These are a super-convenient size to pack around other bulky items and squeeze in anywhere there’s a gap. Additionally, as they thaw, you can open them and drink them! Using water bottles is a great way to always have clean, fresh, cold water at the campsite.

5. Add Layer of Ice Packs or Blocks

cooler large blocks ice layer2Immediately on top of your frozen foods and water bottles goes your primary layer of ice. Big chunks of ice last longer than cubes or smaller pieces, so try to use block ice if you have room or those re-freezable ice packs like YETI Ice sold at Bass Pro Shops here. Remember the two fundamental principles so far – A) cold air sinks, and B) full coolers stay colder than partially full coolers.

6. Lock In the Cold With an Insulating Layer

cooler extra insulation layer2If you have the room, add an insulating layer on top of this layer of larger ice blocks. Picking up a piece of foam insulation at the hardware store and custom cutting it to just fit inside your cooler is a great way to go. The extra padding blocks warm air from dropping to the items in the bottom layer you want to keep frozen each time you open the lid.

7. Layer In the Items You'll Need Frequently

cooler easy access layer2On top of the bulk ice goes the foods you’ll want to access most often. These are things like condiments, hot dogs, cheese, butter, eggs, bacon, milk, etc. These are items you’ll be in and out to get at least several times a day. If you have room for it, add an insulating layer on top of the ice before putting in these condiments. Spread more frozen water bottles around to keep them cold, too.

8. Add More Frozen Drinking Water Bottles

cooler stowing more water bottles2Again, be sure to fill any open spaces with frozen 16-ounce drinking water bottles. As the water bottles thaw and you remove them for drinking, you should replace them with more frozen bottles. Because they are right there at the top, they are easy to swap out without disturbing and warming the frozen contents at the bottom of the cooler.

9. Cover With a Blanket of Cold

cooler insulating blanket2Using a fabric layer is a little-known trick, but will do more to keep the cooler cold than any other! On top of the essentials, put down an insulating cover. It might be a piece of an old wool blanket or even an old towel. It should be cut or folded to fit as well as possible inside your cooler. When you open the lid to grab something, lift enough of the corner to remove what you’re getting. When you’re done, drop the mat back in place. You won’t believe what a difference this makes.

10. A Few More Tips Beyond Packing the Cooler

Try these other packing tips that will optimize the efficiency of your cooler:

  • The biggest enemy of keeping a cooler cold is opening and closing it frequently. If possible, it’s best to have one ice chest dedicated to beverages that you’ll open and close most often and another that’s just for items that need to be kept very cold and won’t be accessed that often. If you have space, a third cooler for the “in between” items like the hot dogs and condiments is a good idea, too.

  • Where you keep, the cooler is essential too. Don’t leave a cooler out in the sun. The more shade you have for it – at all times – the better. Under a picnic table is better than on top of it. Placing your cooler in the shadow underneath the RV is better than under the picnic table. Also, covering it with a nice thick blanket under the RV is better yet.

You’ll be surprised how long you can keep ice and make foods stay cold with just a bit of planning and care – no matter how much or little you spend on your cooler.

How-To Pack Any Cooler for Best Results

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