Having a reliable cooler or ice chest is a must for any camping or RV road trip adventure. Here are some tips to help you get the most out of your cooler and keep your food and drinks cold for longer.
Choose the right camping cooler
Coolers are not created equal! There are high-end coolers built to retain ice for days (like this one), while less expensive models may only keep ice for a few hours.
When shopping for a cooler, look for ones with thicker insulation, secure lids, and excellent seals. Also consider how you will use your cooler. If you only need to keep food cool until you reach the campground, perhaps a less expensive cooler will do. If, however, you plan to camp for several days without electricity or other way of preserving food, investing in a higher quality cooler might be a better option to consider.
Pre-cool before loading
Before you load your cooler with food and drinks, pre-cool it by adding a bag of ice or several ice packs. Securely close the cooler lid and let the ice do its thing for several hours. This will help lower the temperature inside the cooler. Remove the ice and any water right before packing the cooler with food and drinks.
While you’re pre-cooling your cooler, do the same for food and drinks you plan to eventually pack into the cooler. Never place room temperature or warm items into a cooler. By pre-cooling the cooler contents, your food and drinks will remain colder for a longer period of time.
For maximum efficiency, try to pack twice as much ice as you have drinks and/or food. (Frozen foods count as ice.) This 2:1 ratio has worked really well for us.
- When packing your cooler, start with a layer of ice on the bottom. Or consider using an ice mat or ice sheet like these.
- Next, pack items that are less likely to be needed that first day/evening (like dairy products, frozen meals, or meats). Cover this with a layer of ice or frozen ice sheets.
- Finish with the items you plan to use right away, like food for tonight’s meal.
- Top everything with a foldable freezer sheet or a damp towel.
Solid is best
An ice block or ice packs outlast cubed ice. The block ice melts slower because it has much less surface area than ice cubes. We’ve found that using block ice means a lot less melted water in the bottom of the cooler.
Shade is your cooler’s friend
As you travel, it’s best to keep the cooler inside the air-conditioned car with you. If possible, avoid placing the cooler inside the hot trunk or outside strapped to a bumper or vehicle roof. In either scenario, the cooler will be exposed to the sun’s heat.
When parked, keep your cooler in the shade or cover it with a blanket or tarp to block out the sun. Direct sunlight can heat up your cooler and melt the ice much faster than if you get the cooler into the shade.
Keep it closed
Each time you open your cooler, warm air enters it. This causes the temperature inside the cooler to rise. Plan ahead and only open the cooler when it’s absolutely necessary.
Drain the water?
Water will accumulate in your cooler as the ice melts. It’s actually better to leave the meltwater inside the cooler than drain it because water has a higher thermal density than air. The temperature won’t change as rapidly with the melted ice water.
Extra tricks and tips for your camping cooler
- Make your own block ice. Begin the process several days before you plan to start traveling. Freeze water inside cake pans, loaf pans, or other containers. Once frozen, put the ice inside zip-close plastic freezer bags for storage.
- Fill it up. Try to keep the cooler as full as possible. We usually try to fill air gaps with ice cubes or frozen reusable ice packs. This reduces air space and helps retain the cold temperature.
- Freeze meals. For longer trips, we usually make and freeze meals ahead of time. The frozen food counts as ice in the 2:1 ratio and saves prep time when we’ve been hiking or sightseeing all day. I also pre-chop veggies and make salsa ahead of time. That way, individual prep ingredients stay at our stix-n-brix home, and we save space inside the cooler.
- Condiments. Read the condiment labels. Not all of them may require refrigeration. Consider portioning out the condiments you know you’ll use. No need to take that big jar of mayonnaise if you’ll only be making sandwiches on one day. Instead, spoon out a small bit of mayo and place it into a small plastic container.
- Protect it. In the past, we’ve inadvertently ruined food by failing to put it inside waterproof bags or containers. Now we always make sure all food is protected from melted ice.
- Remove packaging. Take the store packaging off before stowing food and drinks in the cooler. The packaging takes up precious space and will probably be thrown away at the campground anyway.
- Go small. We used to pack our travel snacks and drinks inside our big cooler. We discovered that by opening the cooler several times during our travel time on the highway, the ice always melted before arriving at the campground. Now, we put travel drinks and snacks inside a smaller cooler. This arrangement helps the larger cooler stay much colder for a lot longer.
- Wireless thermometer. You may want to purchase a wireless thermometer like this one and place it inside your cooler. That way, you can easily monitor the temperature without opening the cooler and know if food is being stored safely. (Temperatures should be below 40 degrees Fahrenheit.) You can also use this to monitor your RV fridge and freezer.
Hopefully, by following these tips, you can get the most out of your cooler and keep your food and drinks cold longer. This will make your RV trip more enjoyable and stress-free.
During my 38 years as an adult Scouter the best we found was to freeze water in gallon plastic jugs with screw on tops. The ice melted slowly and the defrosted water provided cold drinking water to mix with powdered flavoring or to make iced tea, etc.
I rinse and use my empty box-wine bags to make flat ice mats for the cooler. Nice thick plastic can be re-used. Also provides cold drinking water when they eventually melt.
Good ideas, most of which I do already, but I might have to take a look at those ice mats. I really like the CORE water bottles. They are very heavy duty. I don’t drink them, but a friend does. I get some from her from time to time, wash well and fill with bottled water. I keep them in our home freezers, along with gallon water jugs, in case the power goes out, then whichever ones I need I put in the cooler/s. I don’t know, there is something about those CORE brand bottles I really like!
Freeze water in jugs or other water bottles. 2 for 1: block ice that melts slowly and fresh drinking water you know is safe.
We used to drain the water out, due to contamination being formed from everyone’s dirty fingers getting drinks out. Just something to consider. Also had strict requirements in the Fire Service while in Fire Camp, on this issue by health department inspectors and Safety Officers. Use gloves, or practice safe habits (hand washing) to avoid a nasty vacation experience! Of course, If you are the only one using it, Rock On!
The best cooler I have ever had is an old metal Dr. Pepper cooler that I bought for 75 cents at an auction about 45 years ago. I once took it with me to summer camp when I was in the Ohio National Guard, and it held ice for 4 days. It still gets used occasionally. These coolers seem to be collector items now, especially if they’re red and say Coca Cola.
We recently moved from FL to TN, having frozen food in our freezer meant giving it away or finding someway to transport it. Buying a large cooler that would hold it and buying dry ice we successfully transported it 2 days and another day and a half awaiting delivery of our new fridge/freezer. Yes it took several pounds of dry ice but our food was saved. Upon opening the cooler there was still a little amount of dry ice still left and everything was still frozen, even the extra frozen cooler packs we had placed in the cooler. Be careful handling it, use gloves as it is so cold it will freezer burn bare skin.
We found the lifetime insulated cooler with wheels to be our best friend. We also use the cooler insert and have had great success. We move it into the shade when necessary. I have a photo if you would like to see it.
I’d like to see it!
We used to keep three five-gallon buckets with frozen water in our garage deep freezer. When we were getting ready to leave we’d put them into our huge Costco cooler and the ice would last well over a week. We DID have to put the cooler in the back of the truck before loading it up, otherwise there was no way we could lift it. Somewhere along the line we abandoned the whole cooler thing and no longer do this.
And there was still room for food with all that ice?? lol
Mimi, this cooler is HUGE, which is why we had to put it in the truck bed BEFORE loading it with mostly liquid stuff. You know, soft drinks, dairy, and BEER.