The beers, sandwiches, and fruit salads aren't going to keep themselves cold.
The beers, sandwiches, and fruit salads aren't going to keep themselves cold. (Photo: Aurora Photos)
Gear Guy

How to Properly Pack a Cooler

Everything you need to know to ensure your beer and steaks stay cold

The beers, sandwiches, and fruit salads aren't going to keep themselves cold.

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Coolers are only as good as the users who pack them. If you don’t organize right, you’ll squander all that fancy insulation you paid through the teeth to get.

For tips on how to maximize those cooling powers, I turned to several guide friends who’ve taken their coolers on weeklong rafting, climbing, and camping trips around the world. Here are their tips.

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Chill the Cooler Before Packing

A cold cooler keeps ice longer. If you somehow have access to a commercial freezer, let the cooler spend the night inside. For everyone else, keep it out on your porch overnight, or stick it in the coolest part of your house the night before your trip.

Freeze Your Food and Drinks

If you’re planning to have steak and chicken on the third night, pack them frozen, and let them thaw over time. They’ll contribute to the overall cool and be ready just in time. The same goes for your water and other noncarbonated drinks. Start with frozen bottles in the cooler, and pull them out to thaw once you arrive at camp. “[Freezing bottles] is also a good way to save money,” says Lars Alvarez-Roos, a guide who owns Bio Expeditions.

Use Ice Blocks Instead of Ice Cubes

Ice blocks, which you can make at home by freezing water in Tupperware, are more work than regular cubes—you’ll need to bring a pick or hammer to knock pieces off—but their additional mass means they don’t melt nearly as fast. “It’s easier to chip off ice for your cocktails than watch cubes melt in front of your face,” says Grand Canyon guide and outdoor educator Saylor Flett.

Drain Water on Long Trips But Not on Short Ones

The guides I spoke with don’t drain the cooler water on short trips because it keeps items like beer extra cold. But the water also makes the remaining ice melt faster, so if you’re trying to preserve your blocks for the next seven days, you’ll need to drain your cooler a couple times each day.

Pack in Layers

Pack your ice blocks at the bottom of the cooler, and then cover the ice with a thin, solid layer like the side of a milk crate or a sheet of cardboard. This barrier keeps food from slipping between the ice and getting soggy.

Don’t Trust Food Packaging

It’s happened to most of us: you resealed the tortilla bag before putting it back in the cooler, only to find a bunch of soggy mash when you went in for breakfast. I always take my food out of its original packaging and put it in Ziploc bags or Tupperware before a trip to prevent this very mishap. This also cuts down on trash once you’re at camp. Pro tip: wrap your greens in wet paper towels before sticking them in bags. It will help them stay crisp longer.

Add an Extra Layer of Insulation

Even if you own a Yeti cooler, it doesn’t hurt to put more insulation over the top of your grub to fight off the beating sun. Some people cut old sleeping pads into cooler-size rectangles. Reflectix works, too.

Keep It Latched and Closed

If your cooler is fully sealed when not in use, less cold air will leak out. Go into the cooler for what you need, then shut it immediately so you’re not unnecessarily venting cool, beneficial air.

Keep Your Food Organized and Separated

If each food type has its own section—meat, vegetables, condiments, etc.— and you know where everything is, you’ll be able to rifle through everything much more quickly.

Bring a Separate Beer Cooler

Beer takes up a lot of space in a cooler, so give it some room to stretch out. Plus, campers reach into a cooler for beer more often than food, which can kill valuable ice for your chicken. Warm beer is better than salmonella.

Clean and Air-Dry Your Cooler After the Trip

It’s easy to throw your cooler in a dark corner and head inside for a shower after you get home. Resist. Hit that thing with soap and warm water, and maybe even some bleach. You don’t want bacteria festering inside. Once the cooler is clean, let it sit out to fully dry. Even a little water left inside can be the perfect breeding ground for all kinds of funk.

Store It Inside

Your cooler might be designed to withstand a falling tree, but it’s not designed to live in the sun, which can break down the plastic. Keep it in the garage and the thing will last forever.