The No-Stress Guide to Packing a Cooler

Multiple days of great campsite eating all start with how well you set up the cooler

Justin Burke, a chef and recipe developer based in South Carolina, remembers camping with his grandparents as a kid, and how his grandmother would unload a small feast from the coolers they’d brought. “She would have a buffet: breakfast, lunch, and dinner all planned out,” Burke says. “I thought you could cook anything while camping, because she just made it seem so easy.” And while packing for a camping trip is stressful to begin with — Do we have batteries for the lantern? Do we really need to bring this complicated shade structure? — perhaps no item is more nerve-wracking (and important!) than the cooler, the main home for several days’ worth of sustenance.

But packing your cooler for a multi-day trip doesn’t need to be difficult. Just heed these tips:

The first rule of packing a cooler is, ideally, to pack more than one.

Burke suggests dedicating one cooler to vegetables and non-meat foodstuffs, another to raw meat if that’s on your list, and another solely to fresh ice. (Keeping fresh ice in a separate cooler ensures it doesn’t soak up and transfer the smell of onions or other food to your drinks.) If there’s not enough room to plan for separate coolers, then get the largest cooler you can possibly find (seriously — it’ll fill up faster than you think), and plan to leave room for a bag of ice designated just for cooling down drinks. 

Plan to use ice packs for the cooler’s perimeter, and loose ice in between.

Buy enough reusable ice packs to ring around the perimeter of the cooler. Once frozen and stacked along the edges, they’ll help keep the interior as cold as possible — in a well-insulated cooler, ice packs should stay cold for about two days. From there, while you fill up the cooler with all your items, use loose ice to fill any nooks and crannies in between food: As the loose ice melts, it stays cold enough to effectively keep things at a colder temperature for at least another day.

Waterproof everything.

Vacuum sealers and freezer-sized zip-top bags are your friend here. If you’re bringing raw meat, avoiding meat juice contaminating the rest of the cooler’s contents is one priority; but generally, as your ice packs and ice cubes melt over the course of several days, you can count on everything getting slick and wet. Airtight plastic bags are preferable for packing as they can lay flat and save space, but failing those, airtight plastic containers are also your friend here.

Layering is key.

To maximize space and proximity to coldness, think in terms of layers.

  1. The bottom: Start with raw protein at the very bottom — it can lay right against those reusable ice packs for maximum coldness.
  2. The middle: On top of raw proteins, Burke recommends you stack pre-mixed dishes like egg salad or a made-at-home sauce. These foods still need to be kept quite cold, and packing them above the raw meat also reduces the risk of cross-contamination — even if a bag does burst. This middle layer is also where you’ll store any dairy products — “just so they get maximum chillage and airflow,” he says — though Burke tries to bring a limited amount of milk and cream because they spoil quickly. Cheese and butter are less of a concern, as they can stand up to a little extra aging. 
  3. The top layer: Burke says this top layer is where to pack raw vegetables, and anything else you’re not too worried about getting a little less cold air if the sun is beating down, like drinks.

If possible, leave your coolers in the shade.

Remember, “If the coolers are sitting outside, and the sun gets to them, they are still going to get warmer, even with the lids closed,” Burke says. Give your ice a fighting chance by leaving the cooler in any bit of shade you can find.

Leave some room for improv.

Consider this guide a framework, not an unbreakable set of rules. You may find there’s a secure bit of space at the bottom of your cooler where a carton of eggs fits perfectly. And of course, as you cook and empty the cooler, things will get a bit less organized and neatly stacked. “I typically pull out what I need, but I’ll [make sure my layers stay neat as they get smaller], to keep everything organized and cold evenly,” Burke says. 

Rachel Jung with Rayco Design is a graphic designer, illustrator, and adventure addict creating her passions within the outdoor culture.

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