Expert Tips for Cooler Packing

Don't allow the summertime heat to depress you. We offer our advice on how to pack a cooler for camping so that your food and beverages stay chilled for a longer period of time.

Hands reaching into a blue cooler full of ice to pick up a drink can

How difficult can it be? Simply place your food in the cooler and top it off with ice, right? ”

When it came to packing our cooler, this is how we used to think: not very much. But after a calculation error left us eating potentially unsafe food that had been refrigerated, we made a serious decision regarding our cooler situation.  

We've compiled some best practices for packing a cooler after conducting a ton of research and experimenting with a few methods, including: ways to make your ice last longer, ideal organizational techniques, and a pre-trip checklist.

You'll understand how to pack your cooler like a pro by the end of this article.

A white cooler stacked on top of a larger blue cooler We have two coolers: an RTIC 45QT and a Yeti Tundra 35.

How to choose (your) BEST cooler

Making sure you have the appropriate cooler for your unique needs is the first step in enhancing your cooler's performance.  

Think about replacing your cooler.

Over the past few years, cooler insulation has significantly improved. If you currently use one that you purchased on sale years ago, you might want to think about upgrading to a more recent, better-insulated model.  

New coolers come with details like freezer-style gaskets and tighter-fitting lids, better insulating materials, and improved construction techniques. These characteristics can significantly help keep out the cold.  

Sizing your cooler appropriately

Nobody talks about this, but the most crucial aspect of a cooler's performance may be its proper sizing. For the best performance, your cooler should have an ice-to-content ratio of at least 2:1. We will discuss this in more detail later.  

You will invariably shortchange the ice if you want a premium brand cooler but choose a smaller model out of sticker shock, negating any performance advantage you may have gained.  

We advise buying a cooler that is a little bigger than you anticipate needing it to be (you can always fill the extra space with ice) But you don't want to have to reduce the amount of food you eat to maintain the proper ice ratio.  

Our Opinion: We made the same error here. When we first started out, we bought a 35-quart cooler when we really needed a 45–50 quart cooler.  

Michael in a store looking at a display of coolers

Avoid obsessing over brand names

Although cooler insulation has improved, no one company has complete control over proprietary technology that could change the game. There are many excellent products available on the market, and it's a very competitive industry (valued at over $1 billion in the US alone).

Think about a two-cooler setup.

There is a compelling case to be made for having one cooler for food and one cooler for drinks, depending on the size of your group and your budget.  

The drinks cooler will be opened much more frequently and warm up more quickly as a result. In addition to being a hassle, digging around under your food to find a cold beer at the bottom is a huge energy waster.  

In our opinion, the drinks cooler can be a less expensive model or possibly an older cooler that has been retired. Drinks have a bigger margin of error when it comes to food safety than food does. Beer that isn't quite cold isn't a big deal, but lukewarm chicken is a serious issue.  

Therefore, if you can afford it, a two cooler system can significantly lengthen the time that perishable food items stay cold and safe.

Cooler prepare

There are a few things you can do the day before your camping trip to successfully prepare your cooler. The way we prepare our cooler before a long trip is as follows.  

Bring in your cooler

Bring your cooler inside at least one day before your trip if you keep it in a warm attic, shed, or garage. You shouldn't begin with a hot cooler.  

Thoroughly wash

You probably didn't do a very good job cleaning the cooler after your previous trip, if you are like us. Now take a moment to spray some antiseptic on it. Start with a spotless cooler as one of the best ways to increase food safety.


Although it is incredibly optional, you might want to pre-chill your cooler with cold water and/or sacrificial ice a few hours before your trip if you're really looking to maximize performance. Just before you're ready to begin packing the cooler, dump this ice/water mixture out and refill with new ice. Your cooler will start out extremely cold as a result of this step, which will chill the interior.

Watertight containers of food stacked on a refrigerator shelf.

Preparing food

Your preparations will make the rest of your camp cooking experience much simpler and more enjoyable. Here is how we cook our food before putting it in the refrigerator.

Prep food

You should prepare as much of your camping food at home as possible to conserve space. Prepare marinades and pre-chop your vegetables. If you don't need the entire bottle of a condiment, portion it out into smaller containers. Ice has more room in a cooler when there is less room taken up by food.

Eliminate extra packaging

Remove as much of the store packaging as you can because it usually takes up extra space and isn't watertight. If you only need six eggs, there is no need to bring the entire carton. The cardboard box that comes with a six-pack of beer is also unnecessary. At camp, it will simply become soggy and need to be discarded.  

Put in watertight containers after moving

Another justification for removing store packaging is that it frequently cannot be sealed. Assume that everything in your cooler will become wet because it undoubtedly will. Therefore, if you don't want your partially opened hot dog packet to float around, we advise transferring everything into washable, watertight containers.

What you can freeze

You should freeze as much of your food as you can before longer journeys. Food that won't be consumed until the first night shouldn't be frozen, such as eggs, dairy products, mayonnaise, etc.

However, any meat that won't be consumed the first day should be frozen. (Just so you know, when you're doing your 2:1 ice ratio calculations, this frozen meat counts as ice. )

Keep the remainder chilled.

Before packing, everything that is not frozen should be chilled. That also incorporates food containers with lids  

Nothing at room temperature should be placed in the cooler because doing so wastes your ice by making warm items cold instead of keeping cold items cold.

examples of different kinds of ice To keep your food cold, use block ice, ice cubes, and re-freezable ice sheets.

Ice prep

Making your own ice in advance allows you to save a ton of money with a little planning. Making as much of your own ice as you can is still worthwhile even if you must supplement with store-bought ice. Especially block ice...

Ice blocks.

Block ice, which is essentially a solid block of ice, will last a lot longer than crushed or cubed ice because it has a smaller surface area. Block ice is difficult to purchase, but it's very simple to make at home.

Any loaf pan, casserole dish, or sizable reusable container can be frozen by simply being filled with water. Start a day or two before your trip because this process can take some time depending on the size of the water you're attempting to freeze.  

Crushed or diced ice

Set the ice maker in your refrigerator to Party Mode and begin stockpiling as much as you can. Alternately, use the vintage trays. Ice that has been crushed or diced is excellent for securing drinks and food containers together.

Our Opinion: Ice cubes are a great addition to cocktails, but we advise storing them in a ziplock baggie for drinking. You don't want the ice from general admission to mix with your VIP ice.  

Reusable freezer bags or ice

The length of your trip and available space will frequently determine whether you use ice or reusable freezer packs.  

Weekender (two to four days)

We advise looking into using reusable freezer packs if your trip is shorter than 4 days. There are some really amazing products on the market that will actually last longer than ice, such as Dry Ice Freezer Sheets or Arctic Ice Freezer Packs. Additionally, nothing in your cooler will become wet from melted water.  

4 days longer than a week

Using ice will be your best option if you plan to travel by car for a few weeks. You can remove the meltwater from the cooler and restock it with ice from supermarkets, gas stations, or campgrounds.  

Or, if you're taking a long trip and have the extra room, you might think about using reusable freezer packs at first, taking them out after a few days, and then, if necessary, switching to ice.  

Appropriate cooler to ice ratio

A 2:1 ice to content ratio should be your goal when packing your cooler.  

Therefore, you need TWICE as much ice as you do for your food and beverages. You can count any food you freeze toward the "ice" portion of the ratio to maximize the amount of food that fits.

Up until a certain point, adding more ice can make your cooler perform better, but after that, the benefits start to fade.  

However, anything less than 2:1 will result in an exponential decline. Simply put, there isn't enough material that is 32°F to keep everything cold.  

How to pack a cooler step by step photos

Assembling your cooler

There are some crucial procedures to follow when it comes to packing your cooler. Setting up your cooler properly will not only improve performance but also make life at camp much simpler.  

Block ice at the base

Put a layer of frozen food or casserole dish-depth block ice on the bottom to start, then add food in the opposite order that you intend to use it. Food for the first day should be on top after starting with food from the previous day at the bottom.

Place ice in it.

The enemy is air. Large air pockets inside your cooler will hasten the melting of the ice. Crush or add ice cubes to that area to fill it up as much as you can. Your cooler should ideally not have any "extra" space. It must be entirely stocked with food, beverages, and ice.

We've discovered that stacking food and ice in successive layers until the cooler is full is the most effective way to accomplish this.

Add a reusable freezer sheet on top.

We like to add a few frozen ice sheets to the top of the cooler after it is nearly completely filled. When opened, these reusable, foldable freezer packs do an excellent job of maintaining the cold and preventing warm outside air from entering the cooler.  

They fold up so you can access just a portion of the cooler without exposing the entire contents, including the ice, to the elements.  

You could use a damp towel instead if you don't have a freezer sheet.

Categories of meals

If there is room, think about putting dinner on the right and breakfast to the left. That way, when it's time to cook, you won't have to look everywhere for your ingredients.

Create a more appealing map.

Making a quick cooler map can help you locate items quickly in a large cooler, reducing the amount of time your cooler is left open while you look for what you're looking for.

A cooler underneath a picnic table with a tent in the background.

Highest standards

The performance of your cooler will be impacted by how you move it and store it. You will maximize the use of your cooler by adhering to a few of these best practices.  


If at all possible, keep the cooler inside the car as you load it. Avoid strapping it to the roof or placing it in a hot trunk where it might be exposed to direct sunlight.  

Maintain shade.

Place your cooler at the campsite under a picnic table or another covered area. You should try to avoid direct sunlight as much as you can because the sun is a source of heat. Another solution is to attach a piece of Reflectix to the lid.  

Keep it shut

How frequently your cooler is opened and exposed to the temperatures of the outside air is one of the single biggest factors in determining how long the ice in it will last. It stays cold if you keep it closed.  

Draining the meltwater is not always necessary.

It is preferable to leave the meltwater in the cooler rather than drain it if you want to increase the cooler's "cooling" capacity. This is because water won't change as quickly as air because it has a much higher thermal density.

However, there is no harm in draining the meltwater from the cooler to make it lighter to carry if you anticipate replacing your ice supply soon.

Cooler accoutrements

Here are a few of the camping cooler accessories that we personally use.

Thermometer for cooling

Consider purchasing a small food thermometer and attaching it inside your cooler if you are truly interested in knowing what is happening there. This will allow you to quickly determine whether food is being stored safely (at a temperature below 40F).

One of these thermometer strips was attached to the interior of our cooler. These can read as low as 39F, allowing us to determine when our cooler temperature is beginning to approach the danger level.

Ice Techni

The best reusable freezer sheets we have ever used are these. They genuinely remain frozen for days, which is much longer than regular ice. They fold up and fit flat inside your cooler.

To sandwich in the cold when using only reusable freezer sheets, we place one or two on the bottom and one or two on top. This is extremely effective for up to 4 days.  

Hands reaching into a blue cooler full of ice to pick up a drink can


How you use your cooler will determine how well it performs. While owning a high-quality, well-built cooler will undoubtedly be beneficial, there are many things you can do to enhance the performance of any cooler you already own.

Originally posted on May 25, 2017, this article was updated on July 27, 2021.

Off The Grid Fresh

A culinary resource for the outdoor community is called Fresh Off The Grid. In order to help you enjoy delicious food in the great outdoors, we provide a selection of recipes, how-to articles, and camp cooking supplies.

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