How to Pack a Cooler the Pelican Way

Though not complicated, packing a cooler is a task that involves some considerable forethought and strategy. We’ve all experienced the dreaded soggy butter boxes and floating soda cans once the ice melts, but prevention comes down to two important factors: selecting the right cooler and packing it properly. The first one is easy if you use a Pelican cooler. The second one takes a little bit of practice and planning, but it’s practice and planning that go a long way.

Here’s the Pelican guide to how to pack a cooler. With these packing tips, your food and drinks will stay perfectly cool and dry no matter where your next camping trip, road trip or cooler-worthy adventure takes you.

cooler dry ice pack

Pick the Right Cooler

Your cooler packing job is only as good as the cooler itself, so be sure to spend some time selecting the right one. So what is the best cooler for the job? That depends on where you're headed and the activities planned.

Hard Coolers: Reserve your heavy-duty hard coolers for the times when you don’t have to go too far and need a reliable, lasting cooling vessel for serving lots of people. For example, hard coolers are perfect for tailgating parties or backyard barbeques.

Rolling Coolers: If you need a high-capacity cooler and will have to walk far to your final destination (such as the beach or campsite), grab a hard-sided cooler with wheels. Most larger ice chest-size models for anglers and fishing vessels offer heavy-duty wheels to take down a pier or to the shore -- plus a fish scale for added convenience.

Soft Coolers: If lightweight portability is your main desire, soft coolers are a great way to go. With features like padded shoulder straps, high-density closed-cell foam insulation and a puncture-resistant material, you can rest assured your six to twelve cans will last all day long.

Extra Tip: For the absolute coldest possible interior, you can even pre-chill your cooler and foods beforehand. A deep freezer (suits smaller coolers) or a below-zero garage in the middle of winter will work perfectly for this.

Consider Dry Ice

Dry ice is an incredible tool for keeping food and drinks ice-cold for long periods of time, but it’s not right for every application. It is ideal for many situations because it gets colder than regular ice cubes and stays dry, so it doesn’t leave refrigerated or frozen food items soggy. Read our guide on how to use dry ice in a cooler our guide on how to use dry ice in a cooler if you’re interested to learn how to use it safely and properly.

If you can't get your hands on dry ice, no worries! There are still several alternatives to pack a cooler with, including ice blocks, ice packs and a regular old bag of ice cubes from the convenience store.

Pack the Cooler

Now it’s time for the fun part — loading! For the longest ice retention and maximum coldness over time, start with cold items. Remember, there is no such thing as cold — only the absence of heat. Starting with warm or room temperature items will immediately begin to slowly melt your ice. Pack COLD! You can even start with frozen meat, bottles of water and non-carbonated drinks.

  • Place all cans and bottles on the bottom of the cooler. Organize logically and don’t just throw everything in willy-nilly! We like to start with stronger drinks to one side (IPAs, hard seltzers, etc.), and gradually create a full spectrum of beverages, ending with the lightest drinks, such as cold water bottles or soda. Remember: Heat rises, so the bottom of your cooler will be the coldest. It’s also where the melted water will settle, so don’t put anything fragile or sog-prone at the bottom.
  • Add a light layer of ice. The reason we apply a light layer on top of the cans and bottles is to make sure we fill any gaps or spaces. This layer not only keeps the drinks cooler but also keeps them more securely in place. This method will help you keep your items organized in transit and utilize the cooler's maximum capacity.
  • Add the final layer of ice. If you're only packing the cooler full of drinks, you'll want to fully submerge them in ice, filling the cooler all the way to the top. If you’re also going to bring food or other cold items that you don't want to get soggy, leave enough room on top of the ice for those items or invest in a cooler basket that keeps these items high and dry. You may consider tossing non-beverage items like veggies or condiments in plastic containers or heavy-duty plastic bags like Ziplocs for an extra layer of protection.

As you pack your cooler, remember that you want to eliminate empty spaces and pockets of air. Freeze everything you possibly can ahead of time and fill it to the brim with any remaining ice.

Extra Tip: Campers, tailgaters or whoever is in your party will grab drinks often, opening and closing the cooler life repeatedly and releasing that nice cold air along with it. Instead of allowing warm air into your main food-packed cooler, designate a separate cooler for beverages and refreshments.

Pack Smart, Stay Cool

food drink beverage cooler

Packing smart can keep food cold, preventing melted ice and perishables like raw meat and milk from spoiling. However, packing smart means you can also keep items contained and in their designated spaces. Still, some things are out of our control -- like the inescapable direct sunlight at the beach -- which can cause a watery mess.

In other words, accidents happen, so remember to clean your cooler thoroughly after a long trip (especially if it has odors or mold). All you have to do is use a gentle bleach-free disinfectant using white vinegar and hydrogen peroxide, spray it down with a garden hose and wipe it dry with paper towels. Maintaining your cooler will not only keep the interior free of funky smells but prevent food-borne illnesses like food poisoning.

An improperly packed cooler is a serious bummer that could result in wasted food and wasted money. But following this guide will help ensure that your essential packable items stay in perfect condition. You will always have fresh food and drinks on hand wherever you’re headed, whether it be the tailgating lot or the deep wilderness.

Compare