If you’re going out for a weekend camping trip, chances are you’re going to want great food and cold drinks. These just go hand in hand with camping.
But how do you keep it all cold without your refrigerator or a freezer?
Well, unless you glamp in an RV and have a built-in refrigerator, you’re going to need a cooler. But there’s more to it than just tossing in the food and heading out to the woods. You need to make sure you have the right equipment and that it’s adequately prepared.
We’ve put together this guide and some tips from our experts for prepping and packing your cooler full of food and drinks.
It all starts with a high-quality cooler.
Before diving into exactly how you can keep your food cold, make sure you have a cooler that is up to the task.
You don’t have to go out and buy a $500 cooler just to keep the beer chilled, but you do have to get a well-built cooler that can withstand the summer heat.
This means no soft-sided coolers or cooler bags. They just don’t do the trick. Sure, they’re portable and great for keeping food and drinks cold for a short duration, but you’re going for the weekend. You need something that will last days.
Look for a cooler with rugged, durable sides, a secure latching mechanism, and a lid that seals. We’ve found that the RTIC 65-quart cooler offers a balance of price, durability, chill-ability, and size for a weekend camping trip.
Keeping the food cold the entire trip.
Now that we’ve laid out what type of cooler you need let’s dive into how you need to prepare this cooler. Following these steps in order is essential to the longevity of your chill.
Chill the food first.
Keeping your food cold during a camping trip starts days in advance.
A few days before your big camping trip, make sure you have all of your food and drinks in your home’s refrigerator. This will bring the temperature of your items as low as possible and result in your cooler having to do less work to keep the food cold.
Pro Tip: Store bottles of water in your freezer before adding them to the cooler. This way you’ll have bottles of water that double as ice packs and will thaw (eventually) for drinking water. They’ll keep your food and drinks colder longer and will serve as a refreshing beverage later on.
If you have items you need to freeze, make sure they’re entirely frozen beforehand. For example, if you take burgers with you, they need to be frozen anyway. By freezing them and putting them in your cooler, they’ll act like ice packs keeping everything else in the cooler cold.
Furthermore, bottles of water act as great ice packs.
Pre-cooling the cooler is essential.
Before the big trip, most people pull their cooler out of the attic or the garage and start filling it up. This is the wrong way to do things.
Think about it. Your attic or garage is the hottest place in your house. In fact, an unventilated attic could get up to 150°F in the summer. That’s toasty. Well, that cooler heats up and then retains the heat, so it’s sitting at a balmy 105°F. Now you’re going to put your sodas in that?
This is where pre-cooling your cooler comes into play.
Bring your cooler into your home, where it’s nice and cool. Throw in some ice (not all of it, just a couple of pounds) and let the temperature drop. Keep in mind that this ice will probably melt, and that’s fine. It’s the sacrificial ice.
After years of camping, we’ve found that bringing your cooler in for 2-3 hours before you pack it will get the temperature down. However, we typically pre-cool the cooler for at least 24 hours before we embark on our trip.
Once your cooler is icy cold, dump out the water and the ice used to pre-cool the cooler. You’re ready for the food and ice! We’re going to pack this thing perfectly so you can keep your food cold throughout your entire camping trip.
Pack the cooler with layers.
At this point, you have frozen foods in your freezer, cold foods and drinks in your refrigerator, and a pre-chilled cooler ready to go.
It’s time to pack it all up and get ready to go!
Start by packing in frozen goods first. You’ll want those frozen hamburgers and steaks at the bottom of the cooler. Why? Because cold air sinks. Sure, we’re talking a few inches difference, but we’re trying to squeeze every bit of performance out of our cooler. When you’re ready to thaw out an item, just move it to the top of the cooler a few hours before using it.
Pro Tip: Make sure you put your frozen foods in sealable bags. As the ice melts the bottom of the cooler will fill with water and you don’t want your burgers, brats, and steaks soaked.
Once the frozen goods are packed, follow it with the chilled items such as water, sodas, fruits, etc. This actually works out perfectly because you reach for cold drinks more often than frozen hamburgers. So having them on top will not only keep your food cold but make it easier and more efficient to hang out and enjoy some drinks.
Lastly, top it all off with your ice packs and bags of ice. Be sure to evenly distribute the ice across the top to keep it throughout the entire cooler. Allow the smaller pieces of ice to fall between the drinks so you get lower levels of ice as well.
Keep the cooler closed as much as possible.
When you’re out enjoying your weekend camping trip, you’ll find yourself digging into the chilled cooler throughout your stay. However, try to make as few dips into the cooler as possible.
Every time you open the lid, it lets warm air into the cooler, which will raise the temperature of your food. The more frequently you open it and the longer it’s opened, the faster it will warm up.
One great way to regulate how often you open the lid is to make one trip for everything you need. If you’re grabbing yourself a cold one, see if anyone else needs one while you’re in there. This way, you’re grabbing two or more drinks but only opening the lid once.
Another way to minimize traffic in and out of the cooler is to prepare multiple coolers. You might consider having a cooler dedicated to foods and one devoted to drinks. Have at least one cooler per 3 people if you have a large group.
Find an excellent spot to keep your cooler.
You’re camping and enjoying the summer sun, but let’s not forget that cooler. Try to keep it out of the sun as much as possible.
Over time, as the cooler’s exterior heats up, it will slowly start to raise the inside temperature. Sure, the cooler does a great job at insulating everything inside, but there’s only so much it can do in the sweltering heat of the sun.
Find an excellent shade tree or picnic table to place the cooler under. These will provide suitable shade and protection from the sun.
You’ll also want a place with decent airflow, so I would stay away from stashing the treasure chest of goodies in a tent or a car. Sure, they’re out of direct sunlight, but the overall temperature can still soar in there.
It’s essential to know how to keep food and beverages icy cold while camping.
Follow these tips, including pre-cooling your cooler before you start packing it with ice and food and ensuring that you’re not opening the lid too often or in a hot location where there isn’t much airflow.
You’ll find that following this ultimate guide will help keep your cooler from heating up quickly and keep your food cold while camping.