How To Pack A Cooler For Camping: Tips & Hacks You Must Know

by Julie | Last Updated:   October 7th, 2022
How To Pack A Cooler For Camping: Tips & Hacks You Must Know
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Many people look forward to weekend camping trips once the season comes around. It’s a getaway for family, friends, or even solo trips. There is no doubt that this is a beloved outdoor activity by many. Like all else, when camping your want to plan, pack, and prepare accordingly and beforehand.

Food and drinks are a huge part of the planning and preparation process. It is very important to pack and store them appropriately so that they will last the duration of your camping trip. This is what makes a cooler so invaluable.

Using a cooler to keep your food cold will save you in a lot of ways. However, you need to know how to pack a cooler for camping correctly. So, that way it will last and hold cold air for the longest amount of time possible.

For those that love weekend trips and stay at campgrounds or easy-access campsites, a cooler can be one of the most important pieces of camping gear. So, you need to know how to pack it accordingly.

Cooler Preparation: How To Do It Properly

The first thing we need to tackle is how to actually prep your cooler for camping. By doing these things, they will ensure that your cooler is ready, and sanitary, and will hold cold air for longer.

Bring Your Cooler Inside

Most of the time, people will have their coolers stored out of the way in closets, the basement, garage, or hot attic. So, taking out your cooler in advance is a good idea before a camping trip. You don’t want to pull it out at the last minute and pack food and drinks into a dusty hot cooler that smells of mothballs.

Clean Thoroughly

Not everyone cleans and washes out their coolers after their last use, so sometimes they can build up some nasty grime. You always want to clean it before a new trip so that it will be a clean place for items you will be consuming.

You can go through this quick cleaning process outside with the use of your hose. Most coolers that you bring on camping trips are too big to wash in the sink.

  • Rinse the cooler first with a hose. Spray off any build-up, dirt, and grime.
  • Next, you can use a mixture of dish soap and warm water to scrub the inside clean with a sponge or brush.
  • To eliminate any foul odor, you can mix a half cup of bleach with a gallon of warm water. Use this mixture to wipe down the inside with a towel and let it sit for a few minutes.
  • Finally, thoroughly rinse your cooler and then let it dry.
  • Bring it inside once this is done.

Click here to watch and view steps to take to clean your cooler:

Pre-Chill

This is an optional step, but definitely a good one you should try out at least once. The night before, you would fill your cooler with ice cubes and/or ice packs. So, the inside is already chilled and holding cold air when you pack it the next day. This is better than putting your food and ice in a warm or room temperature cooler and it has to work to get cold.

Packing A Cooler For Camping: How To Do It The Right Way

How To Pack A Cooler For Camping

Now that you have your cooler pre-chilled and prepared, and your food premade and frozen, it’s time to sort out how to pack a cooler for camping. The key is to be organized and efficient when packing food. Don’t forget that for drinks other than water, it is a better idea to have them packed in a separate cooler.

Also, the less space you have left over in your cooler the better because that will keep the cooler colder for longer!

Pack In Layers

Keeping your cooler organized is the best way to ensure that your food stays cold for as long as possible. A full cooler will hold cold air longer than if it was only half full. For your cooler packing, this is how you should layer everything from the bottom up:

  1. First layer: The very bottom of the cooler should be a cold layer. This is where you should place your ice packs, block ice, or ice cubes. You can even use frozen water bottles here as well.
  2. Second layer: This is where you’ll want to keep your meat products. The meats should be properly packed in sealable bags and best if they are pre-frozen. You may want to add another layer of ice over the meats as well if it is raw meat and not pre-cooked.
  3. Third layer: Place your fruits, vegetables, and dairy products here. Again, ensure that these items are placed in sealable plastic bags or containers.
  4. Top layer: You can have either frozen water bottles or juice boxes here to drink as they thaw and/or another layer of ice or ice packs. This is also where you can place snack items.

Similarly, you’ll want to pack your drinks in another cooler with a bottom layer of ice, with the drinks on top and then another layer of ice on top of your drinks. Effectively sandwiching them to ensure they stay cold.

You can watch this video here to see how to pack a cooler for camping for both food coolers and drink coolers:

Keep Your Food Organized and Separated

The best thing you can do with your food items is to keep them cold and separated in their own sections. You always want to make sure that your food is contained in waterproof containers or bags. You keep all of your meats organized in one section of the cooler, and all of your fruits and veggies on a different layer packed into proper containers and bags as well.

This keeps everything separate, clean, and safe for when you are ready to cook or want to snack.

Don’t Trust Food Packaging

The original packaging on food isn’t the most secure and best way to keep your food, especially after you open it. There is no way to seal many food packages once they are opened properly. So, to prevent the concerns that would then surround this, pack your food into zip lock bags and waterproof containers that can be properly sealed and packed.

Freeze Your Food And Drinks

One of the best things you can do for a camping trip is pre-cook meals, especially meat, and then freeze them. This way, the frozen food will act like additional ice packs and coolants to keep the cooler cold for longer.

It will also make meal prep much easier and quicker. As the meats are already cooked and will just need to thaw and get a quick sear on the stove. This ensures they’re hot and fully cooked through.

Pre-chilling and freezing your drinks also helps to act like additional ice packs. Most certainly with water bottles and even a jug of water. Having them frozen and then packing them in the cooler will keep everything colder for longer. It takes more to thaw the water bottles once they’re frozen so they will last.

Bring A Separate Drinks Cooler

How To Pack A Cooler For Camping

You can pack some frozen water bottles in your food cooler to help keep them cold, but for other drinks like soda, beer, juice, etc. it’ll be easier to bring a separate drinks cooler. It saves room and ensures you are able to pack enough food items in one cooler and enough drinking water and drinks in the other.

You don’t want a drink that isn’t water to spring a leak and then get all over your food too. It is more sanitary and manageable to have a two cooler system.

Use Ice Blocks Instead Of Ice Cubes

A majority of people will use bags of ice cubes to fill their coolers and keep their food and drinks cold. True, they do the job, but at the cost of filling your cooler with a lot of water and constantly putting more ice inside. A way to avoid this and get more longevity out of ice is to use ice blocks instead.

You can make them at home using rectangular Tupperware and fill them with water, then freeze them. It is easy to make several of these, and they’re effective. They are much denser than a bag of small ice cubes, and ice blocks will take significantly longer to thaw.

Layering several of these blocks on the bottom of the cooler will keep food and drink colder for longer. You can even make one or two large ice blocks to use to keep your cooler cold.

Watch this video to see how to make large ice blocks that you can use for your cooler:

Ice Substitutes For Coolers

There is an alternative for those who want to avoid the hassle of buying bags of fresh ice cubes or using ice in general. Ice packs are a popular choice for keeping items cool in the cooler. You can get different types of ice packs, either hard or soft, and they can come in a variety of sizes from small to large. They are an easy and cheap substitute if you don’t want to rely on ice.

You can also use dry ice packs, which simply need to be soaked and then frozen to properly activate. They are a synthetic option that can be convenient for camping trips.

Keep It Locked And Closed

If you want your drinks and frozen foods to stay cold, then don’t open the cooler too much! That is the best and only way to make sure that the chilled air stays inside the cooler. If you are using bags of cubed ice, frozen water bottles, or block ice, then keep the cooler closed as much as possible.

Otherwise, you’ll cause the ice to melt, and if the ice melts, your food won’t be kept cold or frozen for very long afterward. So, keep your cooler closed and out of direct sunlight to get the most longevity and functionality out of it. It will help prevent melting ice.

Drain Water On Long Trips But Not On Short Trips

Any time you have ice in your cooler, it is inevitable that it will begin to melt. The cooler water that results from this isn’t always bad. When on a short weekend camping trip, it is best to leave the ice melt inside because the water will still be cold enough to chill the food and drinks.

However, if you plan on staying for a longer trip, then draining the cooler of this water is in your best interest. Even if you have waterproof food containers, you don’t want to leave those items sitting in water. On longer stays, this water will just continue to warm and build up which will thaw your frozen food items faster.

So, once it starts to build up drain out the water and replace it with more ice or ice packs if you have them.

Check out this video here to see when to retain ice melt water and when to drain it:

Final Thoughts & Takeaways

When it comes to packing a cooler properly, it’s pretty simple. Just remember to pack in layers to keep food separate and organized. Efficiently packing will maximize the cooler’s ability to keep all of your items cool.

The less space there is inside of the cooler, the better. That will keep it colder longer than if it wasn’t fully packed. You can freeze water bottles and juice boxes and put them in the food cooler because they’ll act as additional ice packs.

Bring two coolers for additional organization. Keeping some of your drinks separate, like beer and soda, is easier than fitting it all into one and will be more sanitary if a bottle or can leaks.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do you put ice on the top or bottom of the cooler?

Both. You want two to three layers of ice inside the cooler. A layer at the bottom, one over items like raw meat, and another at the top. Ensuring this is all tightly packed within layers of ice will keep your items chilled for much longer.

How to pack meat for camping?

You can pack meat for a camping trip in a couple of different ways. You can pre-cook it and then freeze it to make meal prep much faster. If you want to bring raw meats to cook in the great outdoors you want to pack them carefully.

They should be placed on top of the layer of ice on the bottom of the cooler, and then had an additional layer of ice over top to keep them extra cold. Keeping them on the bottom will help the meat stay cold longer than anything else.

How to keep ice from melting?

You can’t. Regardless of how well you pack a cooler and what kind of cooler it is, the ice will melt at one point or another. Some coolers like a yeti cooler may be able to keep ice for a couple of days before melting.

If you are using regular ice there is no way to prevent it from melting, but you can stall by packing efficiently, keeping your cooler closed and locked as much as possible, and putting it in the shade, not direct sunlight.

How long will dry ice last in a cooler?

Usually, dry ice will last from 18 to 24 hours in a cooler. They can last as little as 3 to 5 hours when in the outdoors, though so keep that in mind. You’ll want to have other ice or alternatives mixed in to increase longevity.

Dry ice is colder than regular ice so it should be able to keep your cooler colder for longer. If properly taken care of and put in a large enough cooler, dry ice could even last a few days.

How to use dry ice in a cooler?

Both longer lasting and colder than regular ice dry ice is a great alternative for some campers. You need a quarter-pound of dry ice for every gallon so keep that in mind for the size of your cooler. Wrapping the dry ice in a newspaper or similar will help you to pack it in more and hold the cold better.

You’ll want to put a layer of dry ice on the top layer of the cooler and have regular ice at the bottom. Dry ice will lose its effectiveness if it comes into contact with water.

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I was fishing before I could walk and it's been a family tradition for centuries. Fishing is my life, or at least as long as I can remember. In the Lake Champlain International Fathers Day Fishing Derby, not only have I won first place twice but also third place! Also, in addition to majoring in Wilderness Recreation Leadership, I also happen to be a licensed camping, hiking, and hunting guide for NY.