How to keep food cold while camping

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    There’s nothing better than sitting by a campfire with the wonderful smells of a meal cooking. 

    But many avid campers wonder how to keep food cold while camping. After all, the idea of getting food poisoning while being stuck in the middle of nowhere is enough to put anyone off.

    In this guide, I’ll run you step by step through the surefire way to keep your food cold on camping trips and some key tips to keep in mind.

    The seven steps to keep your food cold while camping are:

    1. Freeze or cool the food before leaving
    2. Pick up some ice packs (or make your own)
    3. Pre-chill your cooler
    4. Properly pack food into your cooler
    5. Pack your cooler tightly
    6. Open the cooler as little as possible
    7. Keep cooler out of the sun

    Freeze or cool the food before leaving

    If you want to remove much of the stress, cook your meals before you go on your camping trip. This can save you a lot of worry, especially if your food contains meat.

    Food and drinks should then either be frozen or chilled before leaving as this will keep the cooler cold for much longer.

    Make sure to pack all your food in sealable bags. You wouldn’t want the food to defrost and contaminate everything else in the cooler. Extra care should be taken in sealing raw meat as any contamination can be dangerous.

    Pick up some ice packs (or make your own)

    It’s important to use the right type of ice for camping.

    It’s perfectly fine to use a bag of cubed ice that you’ve picked up at the store for chilling your cooler before you leave.

    But this type of ice is far from ideal for keeping your food cold once you leave. The small cubes mean that plenty of air gets in and they quickly melt. On top of this, a torn bag or loose ice can mean water gets everywhere.

    Instead of cubes, you should use a large ice block.

    A thermal ice pack is ideal for this and can be frozen and reused as much as possible. The fact that the ice is packed also helps keep food from getting wet in the cooler.  Of course, non-toxic packs should be used just in case of spills.

    Want to make your own? Just throw some cold water in freezer bags, add a bit of salt to speed up the process, squeeze out all the air and stick the bags in the freezer.

    Should I use dry ice?

    Dry ice is made from carbon dioxide rather than water and it is very, very cold. We don’t recommend you use dry ice as standard because special care needs to be taken with it.

    If you do choose to use it, make sure to wear insulated gloves (yes, it is THAT cold!). 

    Also, be aware that when dry ice melts, it turns into carbon dioxide rather than water. It should therefore be kept well away from humans and pets.

    Finally, as the dry ice melts and releases carbon dioxide, the pressure inside the cooler increases. If you’re using a considerable amount of dry ice then you will need to open the lid once every while to ensure that it doesn’t burst open.

    Pre-chill your cooler

    If you’re looking to take perishable food with you then packing a cooler is a must.

    But you wouldn’t want your room temperature cooler to heat up all your chilled and frozen meals.

    If you’re wondering how to keep a cooler cold then simply throw in some ice a few hours before packing the food. The basic ice cubes that you pick up at your local gas station work perfectly well for this, although they shouldn’t be used when packing the food.

    Properly pack food into your cooler 

    Packing a cooler for camping should follow one simple rule – the food that needs to stay the coldest should go closest to the bottom of the cooler.

    This means any meat or frozen food should go at the bottom with the leash perishable (and more delicate) items going at the top.

    Need to defrost meat? Move it up to the top layer!

    Try to layer the food items with ice. Stick a layer of ice at the bottom, another layer of ice above the meats and a layer of ice on top. 

    Tip: Avoid packing the cooler with too much food as you’ll need plenty of space for the ice packs.

    Pack your cooler tightly

    The less space in the cooler, the longer it stays cold.

    If you end up with a bit of extra space try filling this with more ice packs or more food.

    Open the cooler as little as possible

    Keeping the cold environment inside the cooler undisturbed is essential for keeping your food cold. Every time the lid is pulled back, warm air rushes in to replace the cold.

    The cooler should therefore be opened as little as possible.

    Keep the cooler out of the sun

    The one quick tip to guarantee the ice will melt and the food will spoil? Leave it in the sun!

    Try as much as possible to leave it in the shade. Some of the best ideas for shade include:

    • Trees
    • Rocks
    • Cars
    • Tents
    • Set up your own tarp

    Be careful about the shade moving as the day goes on and the sun moves in the sky. 

    Cooler sitting on a path beside the sea

    Pro tips for the cooler

    Choose the right cooler

    Quality coolers have thicker walls, better insulation and better latches to keep the cold air in and the hot air out.

    Because of this, these high end coolers can keep everything frozen for days

    For instance, these Coleman coolers provide a means to keep ice cool for 4 days in temperatures as high as 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

    This Yeti Tundra cooler also comes with a formidable reputation as an excellent cooler, and high ratings to boot.

    Wondering how to keep a cooler cold without ice? If you’re staying at a campsite then you may want to consider an electric cooler. If not then consider our tip above for making homemade ice packs.

    Bring a second cooler

    An important part of keeping the cooler cold is to avoid opening it as much as possible. 

    The main problem? Drinks. Every time you open it up to grab another drink the cool air escapes and is replaced by a rush of warm air.

    If you have space then you should consider bringing two coolers, one for the food and one for the drinks.

    Tip: Make sure the two coolers are easily identifiable, so you don’t keep dipping into the wrong cooler. Attaching a piece of colored tape or string can help identify which cooler is for drinks.

    How do you keep food cold without a cooler?

    While a cooler is certainly the most effective way to keep your food cold, there are alternatives that can be used at a pinch.

    Thermal bags can help keep your food cooler when packed with ice. 

    And if you’re wondering how to keep your food cold while backpacking but don’t want to have to lug a cooler around then the Ice Mule is an imaginative solution. It’s basically an insulated backpack that provides many of the benefits of a cooler but provides the versatility needed for getting out and about. 

    Freezing water bottles

    Bringing lots of water with you on your camping trip? Consider freezing a good portion of it.

    The frozen water can act as large blocks of ice which can help coolers stay cold for some time. On the flip side, this can mean they take a while to freeze in the first place and should be placed in the freezer at least 48 hours before leaving.

    Just remember not to freeze all your water though, as you may need it in a pinch.

    Food safety guidelines when camping

    When you’re cooking outdoors, it’s often easy to forget some of the basics that we do without thinking at home.

    It’s important to remember to wash your hands before and after handling food. Bottled water can be used for this, or a nearby stream if the water is safe.

    Cross-contamination should be avoided. Anything you use for meat should not be used for other foods. This includes chopping boards, utensils and so on.

    Food should be properly cooked through. This can be especially tough to know when camping as you won’t be using your usual cooking appliance. 

    A food thermometer is especially helpful for knowing when the food is safe to eat. Remember that ground beef and poultry should be cooked through to 165 degrees Fahrenheit. The last thing you want when you’re away on a camping trip is to end up with food poisoning!

    Finally, the make sure the cooler temperature remains below 40 degrees Fahrenheit to ensure that bacterial growth is slowed. Use a non-food thermometer inside the cooler to check this.

    Bring alternative options

    It’s always sound advice to plan for the worst and hope for the best.

    What if the cooler breaks and the food spoils? Or the bag holding the raw meat breaks and contaminates the rest of the food?

    The last thing you want to happen is to find yourself stuck without food on your camping trip. Always make sure to bring alternatives to the perishable foods and keep these in a separate location. Non-perishable camping food includes snacks like beef jerky, ramen noodles, dried fruit and nuts.

    Tip: If you’re desperate to bring cheese, avoid soft cheeses like brie and consider bringing firm cheeses like cheddar or gouda.

    Over to you

    Do you have any tips on how to keep food cold when camping? Let me know in the comments below!

    James Black

    James Black

    James has been escaping to the outdoors for as long as he can remember. This first started in family camping trips but soon turned into adventure camps and hiking through the Scottish Hebrides. Now he has turned towards trying to make camping more comfortable and accessible.

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    James has been escaping to the outdoors for as long as he can remember. This first started in family camping trips but soon turned into adventure camps and hiking through the Scottish Hebrides. Now he has turned towards trying to make camping more comfortable and accessible.
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