Before you set out on your next adventure, give some serious consideration to how you pack your cooler. A well-packed cooler will keep your food safe, maximize your cooler's efficiency and make life easier while you enjoy the outdoors.
The Basics of Cooler Packing
Start (and End) With a Clean Cooler
Be sure your cooler is clean before you put anything in it. If you store your cooler in the garage, it may have been exposed to mold or bacteria that breeds in warm, moist environments. And when you get home, no matter how tired you are, resist the urge to simply toss the cooler into the garage. Give it a good cleaning first, and then air dry it outside.
Use Leak-Proof Containers
It's a good idea to pack your food in containers that won’t allow water from the melting ice into your food packaging, or the contents of the packaging out. Ziplock bags and Rubbermaid containers will be very helpful, and they will also help you cut down on trash at your campsite.
Raw Meat and Beverages Should be Packed Separately from Everything Else
Raw meat should stay cold and ideally separated from other foods. You wouldn't want raw meat juices to get into the melting ice that is all over everything else. It's a recipe for disaster. And the beverages will be consumed more frequently than everything else, which means frequent opening of the cooler. So give these items their own cooler.
Additional Cooler Tips
Chilling your food and beverages before you put them into the cooler will help the ice last a lot longer. While you're at it, cool off the cooler by filling it with ice water and letting it sit for up to 24 hours before you load it.
Add Ice Last
Heat rises and cool air does just the opposite. In a beverages-only cooler, put the cans and bottles in first, then cover it all with ice.
Ice Cubes or Blocks?
Use both. Although crushed ice cools food and drinks faster, block ice lasts longer. So why not get the benefits of both.
To keep stuff as cold as physically possible, dry ice can help achieve that better than any normal ice. Handle with care as it may cause frostbite if held for any extended period of time; meaning more than a few seconds. It doesnt last nearly as long as regular ice, but can get the regular ice temps down real low, talking freeze anything liquid near it low. Best to be used sparingly and not in direct contact with any meats or fruits and vegetables.
Beverages Make Great Ice Blocks
Freeze drinking water, lemonade or juice in clean milk jugs and you have a very useful block of ice that will also double as a cold drink when it melts.
You should pack foods in reverse order from when they will be eaten. Foods that will be eaten last should be placed into the cooler first. This will eliminate the need to keep the cooler open for long periods to shuffle food around.
Perishables like meat and dairy products should be kept directly on ice.
Keep the Cooler Cool
Always keep coolers out of the sun whenever possible. Open the lid only when necessary and close it right away. When driving from place to place, surround the cooler with blankets, sleeping bags or clothing for added insulation. Cold water will preserve ice better than air. So don't be so quick to drain the melted ice from the cooler. Only do it when you are adding more ice.