Properly storing, preparing, and cooking food is one of the biggest tasks you’ll have on a camping trip. If the temperature of your food isn’t controlled, you could end up with food poisoning or worse. Knowing how to keep food cold while camping is key to an enjoyable trip.
So, what is the best way to keep food cold while camping?
Using a high-quality cooler with ice or cold packs is the best way to keep your food cold while camping. There are many different types of coolers on the market, so it’s important to research which one will work best for you.
There are some additional ways that you can make sure your food stays fresh and delicious throughout your entire trip, as well as extend the life of your cooler.
Read on to learn more about how to keep food cold while camping.
Table of Contents
How to Keep Food Cold While Camping: 11 Tips
1. Freeze Your Food & Water Beforehand
Freezing your food before packing it in your cooler is a great way to extend the shelf-life of your food. Freezing water bottles can also help keep coolers colder for longer.
Make sure to place the frozen items in different areas of your cooler so that they can evenly thaw.
There are some foods that freeze well and others that don’t. Make sure to do your research before freezing anything!
2. Use A High-Performance Cooler
Not all coolers are made equally and some can retain cold for much longer than others.
Having a high-performance cooler will ensure that you won’t have to make as many ice runs throughout the weekend, and it’ll keep your food items fresh for longer periods of time.
A higher-end cooler will have thick walls and materials that can efficiently insulate your ice and food. These coolers can keep food cold or even frozen for up to 5 days at longest, outperforming a lower-end cooler that will hold its temperature for 1 to 2 days.
3. Replace the Ice Regularly
If you’re planning on keeping your cooler outdoors for a long time, it’s important to replace the ice as needed. Ice will stay solid in a cooler for anywhere from 1 to 24 hours depending on its conditions.
You’ll need to keep an eye on it and identify how quickly the ice is melting. When the ice is about half solid and half liquid, this is a good time to go get another bag.
The melted ice water is actually quite cold and will do a great job of insulating your food. However, it settles at the bottom and is unable to evenly distribute cold to all of the items, especially the ones on top.
Make sure to drain all water from prior melts before adding new ice to your cooler. This will help ensure even cooling and reduce the chance of leaks or contamination.
4. Use Dry Ice
Dry ice is a great way to keep food items – or even perishables like milk – cold while camping. It doesn’t melt and it’s not water, which means that the dry ice won’t contaminate your other foods or ruin any of your equipment.
Because dry ice can be dangerous and difficult to transport and store in large quantities, you’ll only want to use this option if you know that your cooler can handle it.
It’s important that you wrap your dry ice in insulation or newspaper before placing it in the cooler. This will reduce direct exposure to cold, prevent injuries, and protect your other items from melting due to high temperatures.
Place your dry ice at the bottom of the cooler and add regular ice to the middle and top sections. Keep in mind that the food or drink items that are touching the dry ice will freeze almost immediately.
5. Use Ice Packs
Ice packs or cold packs can be a great way to ensure that your food items stay at their optimal temperature while you’re camping. They don’t create a watery mess and they’re reusable, making them a great alternative to regular ice.
These packs are typically made with gel that is safe for human contact and will absorb your cooler’s cold temperatures.
Store them in the freezer for several hours or overnight before placing them in your cooler. You will want to evenly space them around the cooler for maximum cooling power.
When placing items on top of ice packs, make sure to place a cloth or some paper towels between them and the cold pack so that they don’t freeze together.
Some ice packs are rigid, while others can be folded and placed in a cooler’s crevices. In order to decide which ice pack is best for your needs, consider how often you plan on using it and its overall size.
Since you won’t have a way to refreeze the ice packs throughout your camping trip, this method is best for single-night or day trips.
7. Organize Your Cooler Carefully
The way you pack your food and ice into your cooler will have a big impact on your overall experience.
Keeping raw animal-based foods at the bottom of your cooler will protect them and give them a more consistent cooling effect during your trip. In the middle layer, you should pack lunch meats, cheeses, and preheated foods. The top of your cooler should be filled with drinks and other foods that are less sensitive to temperatures, such as fruits and vegetables.
By organizing your cooler in this way, all of the most temperature-sensitive foods are protected at the bottom, while the beverages and quick lunch supplies are easy to grab at the top.
When you’re packing your cooler, keep in mind that it is easier to add items than remove them. You’ll want to organize and separate everything so that it can be easily found later on. Some people like using dividers or even towels for this purpose.
You may also want to pack things strategically by placing heavier items at the bottom of your cooler and lighter items on top. This will make it easy to remove the items on the top if you need to grab something deeper down.
8. Don’t Leave Your Cooler in the Sun
Leaving your cooler in the sun will cause it to heat up, which can ruin or at least reduce its overall effectiveness. You should always try to keep your cooler out of direct sunlight when you’re not using it.
There are many ways that you can get your cooler out of the sun. If you have a car nearby, you can store it inside, or in the trunk. This is also a great way to keep critters from trying to get inside your cooler.
You can also place your cooler in your tent as a way to keep it in the shade as well as out of reach of animals and insects.
If you must keep your cooler outside, you can place it under a picnic bench, in the shade of the tree, or near another structure that blocks out the light. You can also set up a tarp or umbrella over the top of your cooler to provide shade.
9. Use Your Cooler Sparingly
One of the fastest ways to heat up your cooler and food is by opening it frequently.
Every time you open your cooler, it will take a few hours to cool back down to its optimal temperature range and will make the ice melt more quickly. This is because the cold air escapes each time that you pop open the lid and warm outside temperatures rush in.
You should only use your cooler when necessary during camping trips so that it doesn’t have to work as hard. When you’re grabbing items to make a meal, take a moment and think about all the ingredients you will need beforehand.
This way you won’t need to open it two more times for the two items you forgot. These small mistakes add up and can quickly warm up your cooler.
Make sure to put items such as beverages, sandwiches, or snacks that are less sensitive to the temperature on top of your cooler. This way, you can easily access them during a picnic without having to dig through the cooler and keep it open too long.
10. Bring a Food & Drink Cooler
Another great solution for keeping your food cold is to use two coolers. Keep one filled with items you will regularly access, such as drinks and snacks. Put whatever else you need to eat in a separate cooler that will stay shut tight for most of your trip.
This makes it quick and easy to grab things without opening up your entire cooler or having to dig through all of the ice. It also allows for the more temperature-sensitive food to be kept in a cooler that is tightly sealed for a majority of the camping trip.
11. Add Salt to Your Ice
If your cooler is not as cold as you would like it to be, then try adding salt to the ice. This will lower the melting point of your ice and keep everything colder for longer.
Adding a few tablespoons of salt should do the trick and will help bring down that temperature quickly if needed. Just make sure not to add too much, since you don’t want the salt to affect your packaging or make any unwrapped food items taste salty.
Food Temperature and Food Safety
When food doesn’t maintain the proper temperature, bacteria can grow and make you sick. Contamination starts to occur when food is exposed to the “danger zone” of temperatures between 40 degrees Fahrenheit and 140 degrees Fahrenheit.
This can be prevented by properly storing, preparing, cooking, and cleaning your food and supplies while camping. Here are some helpful tips and best practices for camping food safety:
Wrap Food in Foil & Bags
For any items that are cooked, make sure to wrap them in foil or pack them in bags. This will prevent any bacteria from the outside of the food from coming into contact with your meal.
Please note that you shouldn’t reuse aluminium foil once it has been used for cooking unless it is first washed clean with soap and allowed to dry completely.
This also helps to prevent water from seeping into your food and making it soggy.
Bring A Thermometer
A thermometer can be a very helpful tool to have when camping. You can use it to check the temperature of the meat before and after cooking, as well as ensure that your cooler isn’t losing its cold air due to a faulty seal or damaged insulation.
Eat Non-Perishable Foods
Limiting the amount of raw meat, cheese, and eggs you bring to the campsite will reduce the risk of food poisoning. Instead of relying on these foods, consider eating more canned or dried goods.
Drink Bottled or Boiled Water
When camping, it’s best to avoid drinking directly from natural sources unless you are experienced with water purification. This is due to the potential for bacteria and parasites.
Bottled water or boiled water that has been cooled can be used instead of fresh spring or well water. You should also bring along some chlorine tablets in case you need them for emergency disinfection purposes.
Carefully Wash Eating Utensils
It can be easy for your plates, bowls, and cutlery to get contaminated with bacteria if not properly washed. Even though it can feel inconvenient, make sure to take the time to wash these items thoroughly.
A great way to wash your dishes is to use a small collapsible sink. Pack one of these along with some biodegradable soap and you’ll have everything you need in just the right size for camping meals.
Wash Your Hands Before Preparing Food & Afterward
Make sure that your hands are clean before preparing food or handling raw meat, fish, or eggs. Be sure to wash your hands after touching any of these items or using the bathroom.
If water isn’t available in your location or is limited, make sure to bring hand sanitizer and use it frequently.
Will Frozen Food Stay Frozen in a Cooler?
Yes, if it’s frozen solid when put into a cooler with ice or cold packs. However, your food will start to thaw over time. This length of time depends on the type of cooler, the quality, and quantity of ice or cold packs inside your cooler, how full it is, etc.
Once your food has thawed, the temperature of the cooler has risen above 32 degrees Fahrenheit. It will be safe to eat between 32 and 40 degrees. Once it begins to get warmer than this, the food will need to be eaten within 2 hours or thrown away.
How Long Will Meat Stay Good in a Cooler With Ice?
Fresh meat can be stored in your cooler for 3 to 5 days in a cooler that is 40 degrees Fahrenheit or colder. Raw meats have a shorter shelf life and should only be stored for 1 to 2 days in a cooler. You can add up to 2 days of additional shelf life if you froze the meat beforehand.
Keeping your food cold while camping is easy with good equipment and some helpful tips. Remember to pack a thermometer, non-perishable foods, and clean eating utensils so you can stay safe while enjoying your outdoor adventure.
Looking for more expert tips for your next camping excursion? Check out our other guides to an enjoyable camping experience here.