How to Keep Food Cold While Camping

June 20, 2020

pelican consumer blog how to keep food cold while camping

Part of the fun of a camping trip is being away from the routine of normal life. The tradeoff, of course, is that you have to give up some luxuries. One such luxury is the refrigerator. When you’re heading off the grid for a couple of days, you’ve got to eat and — if you’re like many modern campers — you want to eat well. The key to feasting (and drinking) like royalty in the woods is to develop a food-cooling strategy that keeps everything fresh.

The Cooler Matters

If you’ve got a camper or RV and are considering installing a fridge, there’s no need. Unless you intend to stay out in the wilderness for weeks on end or are determined to drain a car battery with an electric cooler, we have a better option. Get yourself a high-quality camping cooler. Unlike styrofoam coolers that become room temperature in hours, a hard case high-end cooler from Pelican has excellent ice retention and the ability to keep your food cold for up to 10 days.

But other than extreme ice retention, how do you choose a cooler? Basically, it comes down to size and features.

For example, it’s essential that you choose a cooler with enough interior space for all your food and drinks for the entire trip. If you plan to park far from your site or take a multi-day backpacking trip, use a cooler backpack, a soft cooler with a strap or a rolling cooler that won't break your back along the journey.

Deciding which coolers to pack and settling on a chilling strategy should come down to a few important considerations. What meals do you want to bring? How many people will be pulling from the cooler? What’s the environment like? Whether you go all gourmet and break out the charcuterie board and soft cheeses or just need to heat up homemade frozen chili on the stove, camping trips require the right cooler -- for you!

There’s a cooler for every kind of camping trip adventure -- solo hiking into the backcountry wilderness or car camping on a family vacation -- so be sure to spend the time strategizing a bit before you head out into the woods. Most people will benefit from bringing more than one cooler, especially on longer trips or outings with large groups.

keeping food cold camping

Proper Cooler Packing: Dry Ice, Freezer Bags and More

The cooler itself matters a ton, but so does the packing strategy. An ill-packed cooler lacks proper refrigeration and can leave bread, egg cartons and other food items soggy, your beverages lukewarm and your cans floating in a pool of filthy cold water once the ice melts.

Here are some quick tips on how to pack your cooler so it keeps your food cool for longer.

Layer With Frozen Water Bottles

Start with a layer of frozen water bottles and cans on the bottom. The bottom of the cooler will be the coldest, which makes it ideal for beverages, and the cold drinks act as ice packs to keep the rest of the food thoroughly chilled. Once the warm air eventually melts the frozen bottles, you have more drinking water to stay hydrated.

Pre-Freeze Perishable Foods in Bags or Containers

Put all food in airtight plastic bags to protect the contents and packaging from getting soggy or spilling out into the rest of the cooler. Also, pre-freeze anything and everything that you possibly can. Frozen food packed in freezer bags essentially acts as one more layer of ice.

Keep Non-Perishables in Dry Rack Baskets

To ensure that your bread, eggs, butter, firm cheese, beef jerky, trail mix (or whatever snacks you love) stay cool without cross-contamination or being exposed to pools of water, pack them on the very top of the cooler. Better yet, use a cooler basket to keep them cold and dry.

Use Dry Ice

Consider using dry ice in your cooler if you’re going on a trip longer than a few days. A form of compressed carbon dioxide that reaches a -109-degrees Fahrenheit temperature, dry ice keeps food colder up to three times as long as regular ice, and it doesn’t melt and leave all your cooler contents soaking wet. You can usually find it in a grocery store, but sometimes you might have to ask since some keep it safely stored in the back.

Use Ice Packs or Blocks of Ice

Invest in some high-quality ice packs that you know will last longer than regular ice and, like dry ice, won’t leave your food all wet. However, if you can't get your hands on either, you can use blocks of ice or regular loose ice cubes sold from a local gas station and the like.

Designate a Drinks Cooler

One useful tip that might come in handy? Have a designated drinks cooler separate from the food cooler. Bottled waters and other beverages are what keep that cooler lid opening and closing throughout a camping trip. But by using a separate cooler for drinks and non-perishables from perishables, you can keep the food cooler cold far longer.

For more detailed information, reference our guide on how to pack a cooler with more essential tips and tricks for camping.

The Importance of Keeping Food Cold

When you’re away from home and civilization, you need to make sure you have a reliable supply of food on hand to keep you full and energized at all times. Poor or improper packing can translate to a number of issues out in the woods. Safety tips and general food safety is one thing you need to be mindful of.

Rotting perishable foods like raw meats can cause food poisoning and open containers can attract curious animals and potentially dangerous bears. (Luckily, some of Pelican's best coolers are Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee certified.) Of course, some common sense like keeping a cooler out of direct sunlight helps too.

Ultimately, taking the time to select a quality cooler and strategize a good cooling plan is worthwhile for your safety and enjoyment while taking in the fresh air. This way, you can enjoy a worry-free camping trip.

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