Camping trips are incredible experiences that bring humans closer to nature – but that’s not all.
Camping trips are also a test of human ingenuity as humans invent more ways to bring modern comforts into the woods.
One of the many ways that humans have improved the camping experience is by developing a vast number of ways to keep food cold.
In this how-to guide, we’re going to cover several tips to help you keep your cold food chilled on your next camping trip.
Tip 1: Use Your Cooler Wisely
The most common way to keep food cold while camping is in a cooler. When you buy a camping cooler, it’s important to choose the cooler that meets your needs.
For longer trips, you’ll want a higher-end cooler with thick walls and better insulation. However, these coolers are more expensive, so if you’re only camping for a couple of days, you might be able to choose a cheaper alternative.
However, you shouldn’t just throw your food in with some ice and expect it to stay fresh. Instead, try these tips to ensure you get the maximum cooler life from your perishables.
1. Bring More Than One Cooler
If you’re going camping more than one night, consider bringing two coolers to separate your drinks from your food to lower the chances of your food spoiling.
Most people open their drink coolers more often than their food coolers, which means that reaching for drinks releases more cold throughout the day.
By separating your drinks from your food, you don’t have to worry about spoiling your perishables every time you’re thirsty.
Furthermore, having two coolers allows you to organize your items more efficiently.
2. Pack Your Cooler(s) Properly
Speaking of efficient organization, it’s important to pack your cooler correctly to get the longest life out of your ice.
For one, packing your cooler tightly increases the time it takes for your ice to thaw.
Moreover, a messy cooler means you spend more time with the lid open digging for what you need.
To pack your cooler properly:
- Layer the bottom with ice or ice packs
- Place frozen foods on top of the ice
- Cover your frozen food with ice, ice packs, or frozen water bottles
- Pack your fresh produce on top
- Add ice to fill in the gaps
3. Keep Your Cooler Closed
The fastest way to lose the cold in your cooler is to open it repeatedly.
By keeping your cooler closed and only getting what you need, you can ensure your ice stays frozen longer.
4. Store Your Coolers in the Shade
If you’ve ever opened your car door after your car has been in the sun for a while, you know why leaving your cooler in the open is a bad idea.
Parking your cooler in the shade will reduce direct sun exposure and make your ice last longer.
Tip 2: Consider Ice Packs, Dry Ice, and Frozen Bottles
There are a few different ways to keep your food cold in a cooler.
While ice is the traditional method, rarely is just plain ice the best way.
By being aware of your options, you can better prepare for your camping trip in advance.
1. Make Your Own Ice Packs
You can spend a bunch of money on ice packs – or you can make your own. There are a few ways to do this:
Method 1: Pour 2c water, 1c rubbing alcohol, and ½ to 1c of rock salt in a freezer bag. Press the air out and seal the bag tightly. Freeze the bag for at least 2 days before your trip.
Method 2: Pour 2-3c dish soap into a freezer bag and freeze at least 1 day before your trip.
Method 3: Soak sponges in water and freeze the sponges at least 2 days before your trip. This method provides more rigid ice packs that are uniform in size and easily stackable.
2. Add Salt to Your Ice
If you choose to use ice instead of cold packs, try mixing in some rock salt.
Due to the nature of the salt, it will reduce the temperature of liquid water below the freezing point of water, which will keep your food cold longer.
However, if you use this method, you’ll want to pack your food and drinks carefully in airtight containers. Otherwise, you’ll salt your food before it’s time to cook!
3. Try Dry Ice – But Be Careful!
Dry ice can keep your food cold for days, but it’s also a riskier method due to the danger of freezing your skin. You’ll need to use insulated gloves and pack the dry ice in paper.
Furthermore, remember to place the dry ice above your food, not below, in order to maximize effectiveness.
4. Freeze Your Water
This is a common alternative to ice that serves two purposes at once.
By freezing your water in bottles or jugs, you’ll keep your water fresh and cold, which will keep your other food cold.
This method can work for either your drinks or food cooler. There are a few different ways to use this method:
- Freeze your water in small, thin bottles and line the outside of your cooler
- Use water bottles instead of ice packs when layering your cooler
- Freeze some (not all) of your water in gallon jugs and divide the jugs between your drinks and food coolers
Whatever method you choose, this is a good way to ensure you have plenty of fresh water while also keeping your food cold.
This technique will save you space and maximize your cooler use.
Note that if you use this method, you may still want to use ice packs or ice as well.
Furthermore, be sure to leave some of your water unfrozen, since it will take some time for your water to thaw.
Tip 3: Pack the Right Food the Right Way
Picking the right cooler and packing it full of ice packs does no good if you don’t know how to pack and prepare your food. Try these tricks to get the most mileage out of your food.
1. Prepare Your Meals in Advance
Preparing your meals before you leave makes it easy to keep organized while cooling your food properly.
By slicing and dividing your produce and packing your proteins by meal, you will store your food more effectively.
Consider plastic baggies, Tupperware, or meal trays in which to store your food.
These will also make it easier to locate your meals come dinnertime.
Note that it’s important to pack any frozen meals you make at the bottom of the cooler.
This will keep them colder longer, and they will also as an ice pack!
2. Keep Perishables Off Your Shopping List
One way to keep your perishables in good condition is by not bringing any. If this is an option, consider dried, smoked, or cured meats and produce.
These will fulfill your nutritional needs without the hassle of bringing fresh food.
You can also try bringing only fresh produce and get your proteins from all dried means, which allow you to enjoy a crisp apple with your dinner without the risk of salmonella from bad chicken.
3. Bring Backups
Whether you bring fresh food or not, you should always bring backups.
While this can take up space, it’s better to have emergency rations than to not.
Trail mix, dried meats, hard cheeses, and protein bars can make excellent camping rations in a pinch.
Tip 4: Take Advantage of the Great Outdoors
This isn’t always an option, but if you’re camping somewhere with cool water or snow, you can use your natural surroundings to help keep your food cold.
These methods work best as a backup, but they can also come in handy for large groups.
However, if you’ve done your research on the area and the weather, there are a few ways to use Mother Nature to your benefit.
1. Store Your Drinks in Bodies of Water
If you’re camping in an area with fresh springs or a cold lake, you can store your drinks directly in the water.
All you need to do is make sure you have an enclosure or mesh bag tied to a rock or tree keep your drinks from floating away.
2. Pack Your Cooler Full of Snow
On the other hand, if you’re camping in an area with a lot of snow, you can use the snow to replace your ice reserves as they melt.
You can also store your drinks directly in the snow!
Just be careful not to contaminate any fresh food with dirty snow – this method works best for tightly-closed containers.
3. Store Your Produce with “Evaporative Cooling”
Evaporative cooling is a natural method to keep your produce cold.
Put your produce in a mesh sack, such as burlap, and wet it with water. Hang this bag from a tree or pole in a shady, well-ventilated area, and ta-da!
Note that with this method, you’ll need to reapply water to the bag between 2 and 3 times per day, depending on temperature and sun exposure.
Therefore, this is not a good method to rely on if your camp will be unattended for long periods of time.
Keeping perishables at the proper temperature is important for health and safety.
There’s nothing worse than getting food poisoning and squatting in the bushes your entire trip!
Furthermore, keeping food cold means it lasts longer, which reduces food waste on your adventures.
So, next time you go camping, try out some of these tips and tricks and see what works best for you!