Cooking outdoors is tremendously rewarding and all part of the camping experience. A hearty meal at the end of a long day enjoying the backcountry sounds like bliss, while the quality camping coolers of today make keeping food fresh for longer a possibility. However, this isn't quite as straightforward as putting food in your fridge at home – not knowing how to keep food cold while camping can spell disaster.
You might spend hours planning a healthy and nutritious camping menu, shopping for food, prepping meals and carefully packing your cooler, only to have a soupy mess of lukewarm, soggy food by day two.
Not only is soggy food unappetizing, it can have serious health implications as bacteria thrives in warmer conditions and the last thing you need is tummy trouble out in the woods. Having the best camping cooler is obviously a good start, but it only gets you so far if you don’t know how to best prepare your food, pack your cooler and store it properly all once you get to camp. Our nine cool hacks for how to keep food cold while camping help you to bring your favorite camping meals on the hottest trips and enjoy delicious food safely.
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Meet the expert
Julia is an avid camper and enjoys frequent adventures with her tent in tow. Whether its a spot of car camping or wild camping in the Scottish mountains, she's in her element under canvas. As one of our main gear experts, she's tested her fair share of camping gear, from tents and stoves to coolers and portable kitchen units.
How to keep food cold while camping
1. Freeze your food first
A great way to prolong the cold inside your cooler is to fill it with frozen food which will slowly defrost once you get to camp. For hygiene purposes, it’s better to cook and prepare your meals first, freeze them, then just heat them up using your camping stove at camp so you’re not at risk of food poisoning, but basically anything that can be frozen without spoiling should be, except for anything you want to eat the night you arrive of course.
2. Use two coolers
If there’s room in your budget, a great hack is to get yourself two coolers: one for food and one for drinks. If we’re being honest, the drinks cooler is likely to get opened a lot more frequently than the food cooler, so this way your food isn’t being exposed to warmer air every time you want to grab a cold one.
3. Cool your coolers before you pack them
You’ll do better to start with coolers that haven’t been sweating away in your garage. If you live somewhere where it’s cold overnight, you can leave your coolers out to cool off the night before you leave. Otherwise, fill them with ice, or very cold water, a couple of hours before you plan to pack them.
4. Use ice packs or block ice
Ice packs are preferable to a bag of ice cubes for several reasons: they freeze colder than water, they’re more compact, they don’t get your food soggy when they melt and they’re more economical. Invest in a few ice packs and you can reuse them for many camping trips to come. If you have to use ice, a big block of ice at the bottom of your cooler is better than cubes, because it will melt more slowly.
5. Use frozen water bottles
Feed two birds with one seed by freezing any water you’re bringing. That way the water bottles serve as extra ice packs, and once they melt you can drink them.
6. Pack your cooler tightly
You need to pack your cooler as tightly as possible since more air circulating inside it will warm things up faster. Make sure you don’t buy a cooler that’s far too big for your purposes – in fact, it’s often a good idea to have a few coolers in different sizes for different trip durations. If you have a big cooler and aren’t bringing too much food, fill any excess space with frozen water bottles.
7. Keep cooler in the shade
It sounds obvious, but once you get to camp, set your cooler in the shade and keep it there. Don’t keep it in your car, which will get warm in the sun; rather, find a tree or picnic table or set up a shelter with a tarp.
8. Don’t open the cooler often
Keep your cooler closed and latched when not in use. The less frequently you can open your cooler, the better, which you’ll recall is why we suggested bringing a separate drinks cooler. That’s why there’s also a good argument for keeping any non-perishable snacks in a separate container so you don’t end up opening the cooler every time you want some nuts or granola bars. Where possible, you can also make sure you pack the items you want first at the top, so you don’t have it open for ages while you’re digging through it. One exception though – do make sure that all meat is placed at the bottom so it doesn't contaminate the rest of the food.
9. Don’t drain your cooler
If you are using loose ice, don’t drain the cooler once it starts to melt as the cold water will still do a good job keeping your food and drinks cold. If you’re worried about food getting soggy, just make sure it’s all prepacked in sealable plastic bags.
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Julia Clarke is a staff writer for Advnture.com and the author of the book Restorative Yoga for Beginners. She loves to explore mountains on foot, bike, skis and belay and then recover on the the yoga mat. Julia graduated with a degree in journalism in 2004 and spent eight years working as a radio presenter in Kansas City, Vermont, Boston and New York City before discovering the joys of the Rocky Mountains. She then detoured west to Colorado and enjoyed 11 years teaching yoga in Vail before returning to her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland in 2020 to focus on family and writing.