One of my favorite parts about camping is celebrating with great food and cold drinks. I like to have everything I need for a few great meals for the whole crew, cooked over the fire, cowboy style.
Over the years I have refined my system to make the most of limited cooler space and limited access to fresh ice.
With a little planning and some pro tips, you can expect to keep food cold at camp for about three days, sometimes a bit longer, without having to refresh your ice while camping. In this guide, I will share all of my tips to help you play it cool.
The 40/60 Ice to Food Ratio:
For a long camp trip, you want to have enough cooler space for about 40% of the interior to be filled with ice. If the ice to food ratio is too low, then your ice will melt much faster. More ice means a slower melt.
One of the largest factors to successfully storing food while camping is making a good choice in cooler size, and hitting this 60/40 ratio is the first consideration to make when planning food for your trip, and choosing the right cooler for the job.
Skip the Bags:
Bags of ice are great for one thing: short term cold beer and soda storage. The loose ice will mold around the cans and bottles, rapidly chilling them to a refreshing temperature. However, other than this rapid cool feature, loose ice is generally your worst choice for long term duty keeping things cool.
One reason is that as it melts it will start too pool up as water in the bottom of the cooler, getting everything wet. Sure, a cooler with a drain will let you keep water levels down, but it also means you are pouring out cold water, thus literally draining away some of your cooling power.
Don’t air it out:
If you have extra space in your cooler when it is packed for hitting the road, you’re doing it wrong. You want your cooler packed as tightly as you can without smashing anything.
More cold density is more cooling power. Any dead space in your cooler is a missed opportunity for more cooling power. Consider Ziploc bags of ice or frozen water bottles to fill in any pockets before you seal up your cooler for the drive.
Pack a thermometer in your cooler:
Anything below 41° is considered a “danger zone” for food that spoils, especially meats, cheeses, dairy and mayonnaise. Having a thermometer that can be relied on to give you an accurate core temperature reading on your cooler is a major bonus for peace of mind at camp.
Prevent cross contamination:
One of the key concepts to be thinking about as you pack your coolers for a camping trip is to prevent cross contamination.
Raw meats should be frozen in advance when possible, and kept in a separate cooler from fresh foods that are eaten raw. One great idea is to go ahead and dress and marinade your meat before freezing. When it thaws at camp it will be all ready for throwing on the camping stove without the fuss of messing with a marinade.
If you must mix raw meat in the cooler with other things, then double or triple bag it in sealed plastic freezer bags to try to prevent leaks in the cooler.
If you are bringing prepared foods such as soups or sauces, freeze them in advance of the trip.
Think about the space of your cooler when choosing containers. Odd shapes tend to be wasteful in terms of creating dead space in a cooler. You can use empty half gallon milk cartons as molds for plastic bags full of food to shape your food into large cube shaped blocks that will fill your cooler more efficiently.
Bigger is Better:
The larger the ice, the slower it takes to melt, prolonging your cooler power. Juice and soda bottles can be cleaned and filled with fresh, potable water and frozen in advance. Many juices in the shelf stable juice isle come in rectangular shaped bottles. These are ideal for maximizing space in a cooler.
If you are going to use single serve water bottles, make sure to pour a little bit out before freezing to allow for water expansion.
Cool it First:
It probably goes without saying, but whenever possible, only put items already refrigerated into your cooler. Room temperature foods will rob your cooler of cold in a heartbeat. If you have additional sodas or beer that are room temperature, try cooling them in the creek before tossing them in the cooler.
Shade and Insulate Your Cooler:
A blanket over your cooler will help keep it insulated from warmer air. It may not sound like it would add much, but keeping your cooler wrapped and out of the sun goes a long way towards prolonging the cooling power of your ice.
The hottest place your cooler is likely to sit is actually in your car. This is the time you definitely want to think about avoiding direct sun and providing insulation to give your cooler the best head start on the journey.
The most critical items in need of the cold should be packed in the bottom of the cooler, the last place that will eventually lose it’s cool. Things like whole veggies and fruits can top off your cooler pack, taking up the spaces that are first to warm up.
Consider a separate drink/snack cooler:
Every time you open the cooler you are losing valuable cooling power. We tend to go for drinks and snacks the most, so having a separate cooler for them will keep the food in your main cooler colder longer.
Try to limit cold foods:
To save yourself some packing room and the hassle of keeping foods cold, try to think up ideas for snacks and meal components that do not require refrigeration. Here are some great ideas to get you started:
- Trail mix
- Dried pasta
- Shelf stable sauces
- Dried beans with seasonings already measured and mixed in
- Canned tuna, chicken or salmon
- Nuts, dried fruits
- Dried soups, ramen noodles
- Breakfast bars
- Peanut butter
- Fruits/veggies that don’t require refrigeration: onions, potatoes, squash, melons, cabbage, citrus, bananas, apples, for examples.
- Buy local: Most fresh produce lasts at least a day or two in the shade. Consider shopping at local grocer stands near your destination to get the best in seasonal local produce.
Plan meals out:
If you are camping for several days, plan on eating the foods that need to be kept cold first, and saving shelf stable meals for later in the trip.
Most people love to have at least on hearty egg breakfast on a camp out. There are a few tricky things about taking eggs with you – I am sure you have noticed the cartons they come in at the grocery store are absolutely useless for packing eggs for camping. I have a few tricks up my sleeve for that:
- Camping Egg Carrier – These egg carriers are made for camping and you will find that they are great for keeping your eggs whole and protected, even when shoved into a tight cooler.
- If you don’t mind scrambled eggs or are using eggs for recipes at camp, consider scrambling them the day you leave home, and use a funnel to dump into water bottles and pack those into your cooler. If you are really on the ball, do it in advance and freeze the bottles for even more cold power.
- Hard boiled eggs travel well and offer a great protein packed snack at camp.
I hope that this list of tips will help you with some ideas for how to keep food cold while camping. If you have some other creative ideas, please feel free to share them!