The old-school styrofoam igloo of yesteryear has evolved over the course of seven decades into more than just a cooler. Demand drives the ice chest industry with projected growth by more than $5 billion from 2020 to 2024.
It’s every outdoor person’s survival kit. You may be surprised to know the modern ice chest has gone off the rails but with these projections, it’s easy to understand how coolers have become a thing. Some cool history behind ice chests.
Whatever you call it, an ice chest, cooler, igloo, koozie… this trusty outdoor companion has morphed into the essential alfresco accessory. And just like a suitcase, your cooler must be packed properly to make the most of your trip.
Ever open a cooler for a sandwich only to discover a soggy mess or fish for a cold beverage and find a warm drink? Doesn’t sound too appetizing or refreshing.
While a faulty cooler scenario is all too common, it’s also easily preventable. Use these helpful tips to purchase the perfect cooler, preserve and pack your ice chest the right way. Because protecting what’s inside not only makes for happy times, it prevents food waste.
How to Buy the Right Cooler
With more materials, sizes, and configurations than ever before, buying the right cooler is daunting. The good news is, with all these options you will easily match your needs to the right cooler.
- Size: A small personal cooler is perfect for a solo day trip. Larger coolers are a great fit for a multi-day family adventure. Multiple sizes offer a mix and match advantage.
- Number: A two-cooler system dedicates one cooler for drinks and another for snacks. A third or fourth cooler would be dedicated to meals and meats for longer trips.
- Color: Reflective lighter colors help ice chests stay cooler. Make a statement by picking a bright color or your favorite team’s color.
- Budget: Capable coolers are available for virtually any price. Performance brands such as Yeti and Engel are often considered top of the line, but Coleman and Igloo offer solid cooling at budget-friendly prices. Many offer features like organizing trays, electrical and USB plug-in capabilities.
- Insulation: The bigger your cooling needs, the better and thicker the insulation you’ll want.
- Material: Plastics provide an affordability and durability balance, with the added bonus of weighing less than metal. While more expensive, metal coolers can endure rough handling on demanding trips and come in larger sizes. Styrofoam models are often the cheapest, but more prone to damage. Soft-sided fabric coolers typically don’t feature the same insulation level as plastic or metal models but weigh less and can be squished into tight spaces. If you want a cooler that functions as a mini-fridge, you can opt for an electric cooler that can plug into your vehicle’s electrical system.
Tips to Pack Your Cooler for Convenience and Food Safety
Whatever cooler you choose, use the following tips to pack your cooler for optimal food safety, organization, and convenience throughout your trip.
Make a pre-trip food and drink checklist
The first stop for an organized cooler starts before you ever open the lid. First up. Write a checklist for beverages, meals and condiments, etc. Break down each day into snack and meal sections. This simple step prevents you from forgetting essential comforts like mustard or half-and-half.
Pre-chill cooler for 12 hours before packing it
Just as you warm up before a workout, pre-chilling coolers are great for optimal packing. If you store your coolers in a space that gets hot, bring them into your main living space. This is also a good opportunity to clean them.
Next, fill your cooler with bags of “sacrificial ice” to chill the walls and floor for 12 hours or overnight. If you don’t have this kind of time, an hour or two helps.
The colder you can get the cooler, the easier it is to keep cold thus keep your food and drinks cold.
Remove excess packaging and prep food before you pack it
While your cooler chills, gather up all items you plan to place inside. Next, chuck any excess packaging. Not only will it wind up wet and gross, it also means more trash to deal with during the trip. Re-package cardboard-covered items in food storage containers or doubled-up resealable freezer bags. This creates less waste on-site, and it’s easier to keep food clean.
While lining up your chow, devote some time to pre-trip prep. Mix up dry ingredients, sauces, or other combo items while at home. Chop produce, especially anything you plan to use upon arrival. Less prep onsite equals faster meals.
Double-bag raw meat, and throw it out. Just kidding. But seriously, some people are vegetarian or just simply don’t like meat. If that’s you, skip this part.
Cooking meat camp-side is a wonderful experience, but dashing to a pit toilet in the dark because the meat was spoiled? Not so much.
- Raw meat is the likeliest suspect for spreading pathogens that can make you and your trip-mates ill.
- To prevent spoilage, you must keep meat cold.
- Prep your meat at home, for instance by pre-forming burgers or slicing large cuts into smaller pieces.
- In addition to washing your hands after handling meat and keeping meat-touching utensils separate from others, double-bag raw meat as you pack it.
- Bag your meat together in dedicated areas of the cooler to lower the chance of any raw meat touching anything else in the cooler.
Freeze food and drinks planned for later in the trip
If you don’t need it on the first day and it can be safely frozen, freeze food and drinks in advance. Freezing foods serves two purposes: Not only will these items last longer in the cooler, but they’ll function like ice, cooling non-frozen items too. Avoid placing any room temperature food or drinks in the cooler.
Beverages such as bottled water and fruit juice (or fruit juice concentrate) freeze great and so does meat. For liquids, leave a quarter of the container empty to compensate for expansion.
Plan to eat more perishable, non-frozen foods earlier in the trip. As frozen foods thaw, eat them later in your adventure.
Make ice blocks by freezing water in repurposed containers
Block ice lasts longer than cubes and keeps coolers cold longer. While it can be hard to find, you can make block ice at home. Empty pint, quart, half-gallon, and gallon jugs work well for a DIY version.
When packing your cooler, stand or layer frozen jugs and cartons for long-lasting block ice. Not only will you save money, but you can also keep your cooler cold — and have an emergency water supply — all in one.
Pack the cooler last
Only one item should go in the car after your cooler: you. The longer your food and drinks stay in the fridge or freezer, the colder they will be when you put them into the cooler.
Pack your pre-chilled cooler after everything else is loaded up. That way everything that needs to be cold is as cold as possible when you leave. And remember to pack all non-refrigerated items separately — they can reduce the effectiveness of your cooler.
Lay ice blocks on the bottom of the cooler and fill the spaces with ice cubes
When it comes to ice, start big and end small. Aim for approximately a 60/40 ratio of ice to food and beverages. As you pack each layer of food and drinks, fill any empty spaces with ice cubes.
Layer store-bought or homemade block ice on the bottom of your cooler.
Optional: Sprinkle a handful of rock salt over the ice.
Lay down a solid ‘floor’ layer of thin material, such as cardboard wrapped in plastic (like a garbage bag) or a cut-up yoga mat cut to fit the cooler’s floor and ceiling.
If you have room, stand block ice on the walls of the cooler.
Air space is the enemy of cold. As you pack each food and drink layer, fill any empty space with cubes and/or ice packs before starting the next layer.
Top off the cooler with a layer of ice cubes or ice packs before starting the next layer.
Continue until the top is reached leaving enough room for one last thin layer of ice and plastic cardboard or cut-up yoga mat used as an igloo ceiling.
During your journey, consider not draining the cooler water. Even when melted, cold water continues to insulate the cooler and its contents.
Be sure to wrap all food in well-sealed containers and/or plastic zip locs as needed so your goodies don’t get wet and soggy from any melted ice.
OPTIONAL: Super-chill your cooler with rock salt
In addition to seasoning your food, salt is a secret ally that keeps your cooler colder because it lowers the freezing point of water, which allows liquids to get colder without freezing.
When it comes to coolers, we’re not talking about table salt or kosher salt though. We’re talking about rock salt. After adding some food, drink, and ice to your cooler, sprinkle a handful of this larger, coarser salt over everything. Anytime you add a layer of ice, add more salt.
Insulate your cooler with padding if it’s hot outside
Outdoor adventures in hot weather bring the extra challenge of keeping the cooler cold — especially when the sun is high. To protect your cooler from outside heat, insulate it with these strategies.
- Wrap the cooler in a light-colored blanket or towel, or at least cover the top with a piece of reflective material.
- Make sure the cooler is set in a spot with minimal direct sun.
- Move the cooler to shady areas as needed.
- When you close the cooler, make sure the lid is secure with no gaps or cracks.
- Put a small food thermometer inside the cooler so you can monitor the inside temperature.
Organize your cooler according to types of food or meals
The later in the trip you need it, the lower you pack it.
Organize food by meal and day, not by food type.
Keep raw meat in a separate cooler when possible especially when packing chicken. Your meat cooler is a good time to use the rock salt option.
Beverages also deserve their own cooler when space is available.
Use baskets, dividers, or other organizers to section off the cooler contents.
For longer expeditions use one cooler for meals earlier in the trip and a second that stays closed with meals for later in the adventure.
Rummaging around for food will likely leave you with a warm cooler. Keeping your cooler colder longer means opening and closing it only when needed and as quickly as possible. The way to do that? Other tips and container purchase options from REI.
A Clean, Cold Cooler Is Your Trip’s Best Friend
Keeping a cooler cool gives you peace of mind about food safety and keeps fun the focus. Don’t go off the rails with your adventure. Planning and organization will keep you on track. You’ll go a long way when you are free to leave your cooler worries at home.
Anthony St. Clair is an author, Good to Know Magazine contributor, globetrotter, craft beer expert, and professional writer based in the US Pacific Northwest. When he’s not writing, Anthony is with his wife and two children, usually either cooking or taking some sort of adventure. He keeps his family safely insured, with affordable insurance rates from Say Insurance.