How to Pack a Cooler like a Pro


An experienced camper always has some tricks up his or her sleeve for making a camping trip go smoothly. This may become especially obvious when you’re struggling to set up your tent, starting a campfire, or even when trying to get that sleeping bag back in its stuff sack.

Camping: it’s all about the skills.

However, one of the most important camping skills comes into play before you even depart for your campsite. Packing a cooler correctly can help ensure your food stays fresh and unspoiled, minimize the risk of contamination, and reduce the risk of having to consume improperly chilled beverages throughout your weekend.

Here’s what you need to know:

Choose the Right Cooler

The fundamental difference between coolers is the amount of insulation. For camping trips of 3 or more days, you definitely want to select an option that has a greater amount of high quality insulation (look for insulation in the lid, as well). For day use, a less insulated cooler might be sufficient.

Coolers are typically rated on how many days they can keep contents cool (in ideal conditions). Choose one that is consistent with your usage & you’ll be setting yourself up for success.

Start with a Clean Slate

A cooler should be cleaned and dried between uses. In the case where raw meat was stored and potentially leaked, disinfecting with a diluted bleach solution should be completed prior to storing the cooler. If you have only used the cooler for beverages, hot soapy water is sufficient.

Regardless of what has been stored in the cooler, a person’s hands going in & out can introduce soil and bacteria.

Prep Your Food

If you’re pre-cooking anything prior to packing, make sure it is cooled (or frozen, if possible) prior to packing. Keeping food frozen that is to be used on your second day will help keep the cooler temperature low, without having to waste too much space on ice.

If you are packing raw meat, seal it inside containers, bags, or both, that will not leak. Test them first—many food containers do not have leak proof seals. When starting to pack your food, raw meat should be stored in the bottom of the cooler, for two reasons: (1) cold air is always going to travel downwards, so it keeps your meat as cold as possible; and (2) if leakage does occur, it stays in the bottom of your cooler. If you have the luxury of space in your vehicle, keeping raw meat in a completely separate cooler will ease your mind if you’re worried about potential contamination.

Ice Packs vs. Ice

Although cold water will keep items cooler than if there was none at all, prolonging the ice melting process is the best way to maintain the lowest temperature for the greatest amount of time. If you’re going with ice cubes, try to purchase a bag from the back of the freezer that has frozen into larger blocks. Another option is freezing bottles of water, or freezing water in zipper bags to make large blocks of ice yourself.

If you’re purchasing ice, the ideal guideline is using .75 lbs. of ice for each quart in your cooler.

Packing Know-How

The order you put your food in is important, so give it some thought. Packing by perishability will help keep the most critical items as cool as possible. Start at the bottom of the cooler with the most perishable foods (meat and dairy), and work up with items that are less of a concern. Layer ice in between items.

For multi-day trips, packing a cooler for each day of the trip will help you keep food colder, as you won’t have to open any cooler until you are going to eat from it.

Lastly, packing a separate cooler for drinks will help you keep your food coolers colder longer since they won’t be opened as regularly.

At Your Site

Throughout the duration of your trip, move coolers around your site to keep them out of the sun. Temperatures can be many degrees cooler in the shade, so use that to your advantage.

Pro Tip

Here's something not all campers know: the same insulation that keeps your food cold can also help keep your food hot. Consider this for your next dinner party or backyard potluck!