Camping is one of the most popular recreational activities and pastimes, especially in the fall when the leaves turn bright orange and the weather hits just right.

Some campers pack everything but the kitchen sink, while others might try to pack as little as possible. Whether you choose to bring the luxuries of home or keep it simple, a quality cooler is on the list of necessities.

How you go about packing your cooler can make or break your camping trip. Do a bad job and you could end up with soggy bread, warm beer–or worse yet food borne illness.

But if you do it right, you can ensure that your meals and refreshments make it to your destination. There are a lot of tips and hacks out there, but here are some of the best space saving and efficient ways to pack your cooler for a fun camping trip!

Pick a Great Cooler

It starts with getting the right cooler. YETI started the trend with their highly insulated containers, but now there are a lot of competing brands that also prove to keep ice frozen for days. Depending on where you live, there might even be regional brands. In Texas, HEB, a popular grocery store chain, has their own brand and you can actually purchase them online

Some coolers look bigger than they actually are. Part of the reason they are so well insulated is because of how thick the layer is between the outer shell and the empty storing cavity.

Pre-chill Food and Cooler

What they don’t tell you is that you have to pre-chill before you chill.

Due to the air-locking seal, the temperature inside of your ice chest is dependent on what you have in there. It makes a world of difference if you place a few ice packs or something frozen inside your vessel to lower the internal temperature. That being said, it’s probably a good idea to pack your cooler while indoors, away from the heat. However, if you’re camping during the colder seasons, ignore that last comment and leave your cooler on the porch (with ice packs inside) while you gather everything.

The same concept applies to the food you will be placing in your cooler. Room temperature items will only raise the temperature inside of your ice chest. Pre-chill all your drinks and food to help slow down the melting process. You can even freeze certain items like juice or raw meat to go one step further. If you aren’t sure what foods are bad to freeze, check out this list 

Avoid a Soggy Bottom

The key to avoiding a soggy cooler is to create layers using blocks of ice instead of covering everything with a bag of tiny ice cubes.

One way to do this is to start with an even layer of ice on the bottom of the cooler. You can use ice cubes, or, even better, make your own large ice blocks using silicone or plastic food containers. Try using these silicone loaf pans as a mold, and then use them again later to make banana bread!

Freeze a couple of gallon sized water bottles and then drink or use the water to cook with later. The point is, the larger you make the blocks of ice, the slower they will melt.

One more option is to buy block ice from a local vendor. Dry ice is available at most grocery stores and takes longer to melt, making it great for longer trips.

Next step is to put a barrier between the ice and your perishables. Reduce and reuse by using leftover packaging (bubble wrap) or take apart a milk crate and use that to separate items in your cooler.

Using something sturdy like hard plastic will also help keep things from falling over, but as long as it’s water resistant, creating some kind of separation will be beneficial.

These containers from IKEA have so many uses and they stack. They are also perfect for food separation in your cooler .

Contain Your Food Correctly

Some food items come in vacuum sealed packages, making them easy to throw anywhere in your cooler. There are some really affordable vacuum sealers out there, but if you don’t have one, don’t worry. Containers with locking lids work great too!

If you want to go with lightweight plastic, just make sure the containers are leakproof and have a rubber seal!

If you have the budget, go for the longer lasting and easier to clean glass version. Some glass containers are also oven proof, giving them a second purpose.

Prep Smart

Cooking fancy meals while camping has become super popular. Maybe it’s the challenge of cooking outdoors with fewer tools that is appealing to people. It could also be that nowadays, people are more health conscious and want to include things like veggies instead of hot dogs.

Now that you have some air tight containers,  prep all your food beforehand and leave the knife and cutting board at home. In a container, pre-chop onions, peppers, and cooked potatoes. When your ready for breakfast, pour a little oil in a cast iron pan and add your pre-cut ingredients to make a tasty hash.

If you’re set on eggs too, you can pre-crack your eggs, whisk them up, and funnel them into a plastic bottle with a good sealing lid. Check out how this person did it!

If you want to keep things super simple, stick to cold cuts and finger foods. And if you’ve never tried some of the freeze dried meals made for backpacking, you are missing out! There are some really tasty ones made by Mountain House. As an added benefit, freeze dried meals allow you more room in your ice chest.

To Drink or Not to Drink

So depending on your style of camping, you might need more room in the cooler for your beverages. If you have a truck or an SUV, be a little extra and use a separate cooler just for drinks.

Whether it’s beer, soda, or Gatorade, there’s nothing better than drinking it ice cold. Having an extra cooler for drinks is nice because you don’t have to worry about ice melt making other items soggy, in fact, all that super cold water helps with ice retention, making it the perfect environment for beverages.

However, if you pack it the right way, your ice chest can fit everything your heart desires.

Remember These Things

To recap, here is a quick rundown of the most essential tips for efficient cooler packing:

  1. Pre chill cooler, food items, and drinks.
  2. Large ice (if you can) on bottom. Ice cubes will work fine if you do a thorough job protecting your food from getting wet.
  3. Use barriers to separate ice and food from touching.
  4. Put containers within containers to keep things more organized and to prevent food from getting water logged.
  5. Avoid putting your cooler in direct sunlight.

With a little planning and the right supplies, your cooler contents will last you through the weekend in one piece. Happy camping!

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Hollie Brown