The Best Way to Pack a Cooler


Illustration for article titled The Best Way to Pack a Cooler
Photo: David Stuart (Getty Images)

There are few things more disappointing in the height of summer than pulling a lukewarm beer or spoiled food out of your cooler. Truly keeping food and beverages cold in very hot weather may seem like an impossible task, but it can be done if you pack your cooler strategically. Here’s how to do it.

Pre-chill your cooler

You wouldn’t expect a room-temperature freezer to keep things cold. A cooler pulled right from your hot attic, basement or garage won’t be that effective either. Fill it the night before (or at least a few hours ahead of time) with a full bag of ice to cool it down.

For more on packing a cooler, check out the video below:

Use block ice

Block ice melts more slowly than cubes, and can help keep things cooler for longer. It may be hard to find at your local grocery store or gas station, but you can make your own if you plan ahead. Simply freeze water in a baking pan or cooler tray.

Wrap your block ice in an extra-large Ziploc or a trash bag before packing it—this can at least slow the water leakage around your food as the ice melts. You may also want to place a piece of cardboard over your ice blocks for extra insulation before placing food on or around them.

Freeze (or at least chill) everything first

Get a head start on cooling by freezing everything that can be frozen and chilling the rest. This works especially well for items you’re not planning to use for a few days. Frozen food can double as ice packs, and will slowly thaw in your cooler so it’s ready when you need it. Ditto for kids’ juice boxes, water bottles and noncarbonated beverages.

For other types of drinks, make sure they’re chilled before you pack them into the cooler if you want to drink them cold.

Separate food and beverages

If you have two coolers, keep food in one and drinks in the other. Neither will be packed too tightly, which means you can keep more ice in each and layer more easily (more on that in a second). Plus, you’re likely to open and close your drink cooler more frequently, and if food is packed separately, it’ll be protected from exposure to warm air for longer.

Layer strategically

Stacking items in your cooler at random and dumping ice on top is an inefficient cooling method, and also makes it difficult to find what you’re looking for. You can help mitigate this by planning ahead. Put what you’ll need last on the bottom and alternate foods (or food and drinks if you’re working with a single cooler) with layers of ice.

Michael van Vliet of camp meal blog Fresh Off the Grid shared a helpful layering strategy with Mel Magazine:

  • Layer the bottom of your cooler with block ice.
  • Put the food you’ll need last in first. If you have drinks (in the same or separate cooler), pack cans tightly and horizontally with the labels facing up.
  • Put in a 1.5-2.5 inch layer of crushed or cubed ice.
  • Repeat.

This keeps you from digging around to find what you need since you’ll work your way from the top layer of food down. Van Vliet also recommends mixing drink types in each layer so people don’t have to search the bottom of the cooler.

Keep the cooler closed

This one is crucial to keeping everything cold. The more air gets into your cooler, the faster the ice will melt, and the sooner your food and drinks will start to warm up. Try to minimize the number of times you open the cooler: get out everything you need to prep dinner at once, for example, and then quickly close it back up.

Obviously, you’ll also want to store the cooler in the coolest, shadiest spot possible. Keep it in the backseat rather than the trunk while you’re driving, and move it around camp as needed to avoid the sun.