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A cooler full of soggy food and tossing raw meats that haven’t been properly chilled can ruin one of the best parts of camping: the food! If your best strategy for how to keep food cold while camping is a daily trip to the store to stock up on bagged ice, you can easily avoid one of the most common camping mistakes with these effective ways to stop the melting and keep the food cold.
- How to Make Ice Last Longer in a Cooler
- The Best Coolers for Camping
- Frequently Asked Questions
How to Make Ice Last Longer in a Cooler
The Food in the Cooler
Using up the food that needs to be kept cold reduces the need for a cooler and will help you get through the camping trip without buying more ice.
1. Eat the cold things first
Plan camping meals around perishable foods, so that you’re eating cold items first. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are on the lunch menu after turkey sandwiches. Pasta is served after the hot dogs have been eaten.
2. Freeze food that will be eaten later
A lot of camping food is freezer friendly. Soups and stews, raw meats, and bottled drinking water can all be packed frozen if not getting used in the first day or two.
Getting the Most Out of Your Cooler
3. Keep that lid closed
Each time the cooler is opened, cold escapes and warm gets in, so get into the cooler only as frequently as needed. The best way to get around this is to….
4. Bring two (or three) coolers
Have one cooler just for food and a separate cooler for the drinks. Drinks are accessed more frequently and are not prone to food safety concerns.
If there is space to bring a third cooler, have only ice in one. When more ice is needed in the food or drinks cooler, you’ll have a supply ready to go.
5. Organize your cooler by meal
Take the time to group foods by meal, even bagging the ingredients separately in zip top freezer bags. When prepping for a meal, just grab the bag and you’re ready to go without digging through the cooler for that ingredient that slipped to the bottom.
Related Reading: The Ultimate Guide to Tent Camping for Beginners
6. Prechill the cooler
We were thrilled by how well this one works. The day before packing up the cooler, fill to the top with ice cubes or blocks of ice. Let the ice chill the cooler.
After about 24 hrs of chilling, empty the cooler, then add new ice and the food/drinks. You’ll be surprised at how well this works to keep food cold while camping!
7. Buy a good cooler
Coolers wear, warp, and crack over time. If it’s time to update your cooler, consider investing in a good rotomolded cooler. There are now many manufacturers making this type of cooler, so there are more options than the high ticket Yeti.
The construction of a rotomolded cooler is more durable than traditional coolers, so the investment can go a long way. And you’ll see even more savings with buying fewer bags of ice and less food waste from coolers that aren’t holding ice well.
8. Insulate the cooler
Even the best cooler could use additional protection from sun and heat to make the ice last longer in a cooler. Cover or wrap the cooler with:
- damp towels over top of the cooler
- a (dry) wool blanket or reflective insulation wrapped around the cooler
- a car window shade over your cooler
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9. Where you put the cooler matters
The best place for a cooler is away from the heat and sun, especially when camping in hot weather. Find a shady spot that is out of the direct sun. Keep your cooler out of the car and off the ground.
Cars can heat up quickly, reaching temps much higher than outside, so keep coolers out of the car during the day, if possible. This doesn’t apply at night time, especially when camping in bear country. Locking coolers up in the car at night is always recommended!
Keeping the cooler off the ground will allow the air to circulate around the cooler and keep the temperature around the cooler lower.
Related Reading: Simple Space Saving Camping Ideas and Tips for Easy Packing
How to Make Ice Last Longer In a Cooler with the Right Ice
10. Use larger blocks of ice
The larger the block of ice, the longer it will take to melt. Use gallon or quart jugs, gallon zip top freezer bags, or large ice packs in the cooler.
The smaller the ice, the faster it melts. Freeze large chunks of ice in gallon jugs or bread loaf pans for the slowest melting ice. Hotel ice machines make ice that is very small and barely frozen, so should be used as a last resort.
- Lasting Cold: Our durable ice pack for both coolers and lunch boxes are colder than ice at 18° F (-8° C) to keep your favorite sandwiches & soft drinks cold for up to 48 hrs
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11. Build layers of ice
Line the bottom of the cooler with ice packs, then add ice cubes on top to create a cold foundation. Keep food that needs with most temperature control close to the ice layer.
12. Try dry ice to keep food really cold while camping
For extended trips, consider using dry ice to keep food cold while camping.
Use with caution though. Dry ice is unsafe to touch directly and can actually keep food frozen too long.
Layers work well here too. Dry ice goes on the very bottom of the cooler, then add a protective layer of cardboard before adding food. Keep things you don’t want frozen on the top of the cooler, away from the dry ice.
13. Use good ice cubes
Cloudy ice cubes are not as dense as clear ice cubes and will melt faster than clear cubes. Small or thin ice cubes, like those from hotel ice machines, should also be avoided. These have more surface area that will start to melt when in contact with warmer air.
If a hotel ice machine is your only option, keep it stored in a bag to extend the life of the ice.
14. Keep (some) bagged ice in the bag
Ice in the bag prevents exposure to warmer air and other items in the cooler, helping the ice last longer in a cooler. While spreading the cubes around in the cooler helps fill in all the space of the cooler, drop the rest of the ice in while still in the bag
15. Use salt to keep ice cold
When freezing your own water, make it a salt water solution. Salted water melts more slowly, keeping the frozen water colder for longer. Add to the bottom of the cooler to keep it insulated from air when opening the cooler.
The Best Coolers for Camping
When choosing the best cooler for a camping trip, consider the cooler volume, trip length, and your budget.
Choose a cooler that is at least 70 quarts for extended camping trips, and at least 50 quarts for weekend trips.
Rotomolded coolers, like the Yeti, are a great option because of their durability, but the higher price tags and weight can be deterrents.
The Best Coolers for a Long Camping Trip
Here are a few of our top picks for coolers that are large enough to get you through a long weekend camping.
The Best Coolers for Weekend Camping
Coolers left with too much air end up with melted ice, so you’ll lose ice faster if the cooler is too large. These 50+ quart coolers are great for weekend trips.
Top Picks for Coolers to Hold The Drinks
Drink coolers can be a little smaller because the similar size and shape of drinks lets you pack things in a little more efficiently. Don’t forget to leave room for ice though!
The Best Coolers for Picnics and Hikes
The budget friendly Artic Zone 30-can cooler is another highly rated option for a tote cooler.
We also love the CleverMade 30-can soft sided cooler that collapses for storage when not in use.
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Frequently Asked Questions
How do you keep meat cold while camping?
The best way to keep raw meats cold while camping is to freeze them before packing into the cooler. Cooked meats may not keep the right texture after thawing, so store these close to an ice pack or block.
Does salt make ice last longer?
Yes! Salt lowers the freezing point of water, so the water becomes much colder when frozen.
Make a salt water solution by adding a ¼ cup of salt to a gallon of water (not quite filled to the top to give the water room to expand when it freezes). Keep in mind that because salt lowers the freezing point, it will take longer for the salted water to freeze than plain water.
How long will a bag of ice last in a cooler?
It depends. A bag of ice won’t last much longer than a day if the cooler is opened frequently, the cooler isn’t prechilled, and the ice isn’t kept in the bag when placed in the cooler. Follow the tips above to make the ice last longer in your cooler.
What is the best cooler for the money?
Rotomolded coolers are more expensive, but the quality will make it easier to keep food cold while camping:
- the even molding and UV resistance creates a more durable cooler
- dense and consistent insulation in rotomolded coolers help make ice last longer in the cooler
- can be the best coolers for camping because the latches are often animal proof, keeping critters from snacking on your camping meals
The drawback? In addition to the price, these coolers are heavier than their injection molded counterparts.
How do you store food while camping?
Like storing food at home, perishable foods like meat and dairy items should be kept in a cooler between 33°F and 37°F.
Fresh fruits and vegetables that need refrigeration should be kept in a cooler, but away from ice to prevent them from freezing.
Tip: learn from your grocery store when determining if produce needs refrigeration. If the store stocks the produce in chilled cases, then you should keep the food chilled as well (items like berries, mushrooms, and lettuce). Produce found in the center displays (e.g potatoes, citrus, and tomatoes) do not need to be stored in a cooler at the campground.
How do you keep food cold while camping? Add your best tips in the comments below!
Save these tips on keeping food cold and how to make ice last longer in a cooler for later!