How to Clean Your Cooler or Ice Chest If It Has a Funky Odor

Is there a stale death odor coming from your refrigerator? And what the heck is that black mold doing to your fridge? Does the lingering stench of your last camping trip make you gag whenever you open your cooler? It's a common misconception that a simple washing with dish soap will eliminate the musty smell and lingering odors from a cooler.

So, how do you get rid of the stench and look of a failed science experiment that has taken up residence in your picnic cooler?  

So that you can pack your ice chest full of delicious food and drinks for your next camping trip or tailgating event, let's examine how to get rid of or prevent the buildup of foul odors.

Clean and Deodorize Your Cooler

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Why does your cooler have a foul odor

Clean and Deodorize Your Cooler - Smelly Foods

To digress a bit, let's discuss the kinds of food you typically bring along with you when you go camping or tailgating. Do any of these, or dishes containing these pungent ingredients, exist?

      • Culinary use of onions and scallions
      • Garlic
      • Dairy Merchandise
      • Cheese
      • Cabbage
      • Protein-rich seafood
      • Wine or beer?

Vegetables that produce strong odors when cooked, such as broccoli, cabbage, brussels sprouts, onions, and garlic, are not recommended for use in a refrigerator or freezer. Fermented foods have that nauseating stench because they release hydrogen sulfide, also known as sulfur.

Cheese, as we all know, has its own distinctive odor. Protein breakdown, or rind, results in the release of putrid gases responsible for the cheesy odor.

Your refrigerator will still pick up odors even if you store food in airtight containers or plastic bags containing those ingredients.

Prepared foods like broccoli salad, coleslaw, shrimp cocktails, meat and cheese trays, marinated meats and fish, etc. can still give off unpleasant odors, even if you don't pack the individual ingredients.

Coolers are typically made of plastic, which means they will absorb the flavors of whatever you pack them with. Also, you might end up with mold and mildew while you're trying to get rid of lingering odors from your last camping trip.   Large ones resemble Petri dishes.

Let's see your methods for getting the cooler ready for the next camping trip by cleaning it out.

Clean and Deodorize Your Cooler - Ice Chest with Food

Preventing odors before they even begin

In the first place, make sure you always give your picnic cooler a good scrub down before and after each use. Since it stores perishable items, cleaning the cooler is as important as washing the dishes.

Some odors from food contamination will linger even if you're just using it as a beverage cooler for now. Who would want to use that as a source of ice for a cocktail?

The best method for getting rid of odors in a cooler is to stop them from forming in the first place.

For the sake of keeping your food and drinks fresh, it's best to line your cooler with an unscented plastic bag before adding ice and other contents. An open container of food, no matter how airtight, will still release some of its aroma.

Before putting anything in our cooler, including my food containers and raw meats, I will seal them in a plastic zipper bag. If there is a leak, the food will remain contained in the plastic bag rather than soaking through to the bottom of our cooler.

To prevent air and moisture from getting into your food, you can use a plastic disposable zipper bag instead.

In addition to keeping the container sanitary, this will reduce our water consumption while boondocking. Not only do my containers have a better stacking design for the fridge,

Check out this article for more information on how to get the most out of your recreational vehicle's fridge.

Keeping your food containers and cooler out of direct sunlight is another option for odor control.

As everyone knows, things that get baked in the sun tend to last.

Set your ice chest in the shade, or cover it with a light-colored tarp or blanket. This will aid in insulating your cooler, allowing the food inside to maintain its cold temperature for a longer period of time.

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Instructions for Deodorizing and Cleaning Your Ice Chest or Cooler

Wind and Sun

Back in the day, when we were kids, our parents used to dry certain items in the sun and air them out. The bacteria responsible for those odors are killed by the sun's UV rays. Many people believe that the sun's ultraviolet rays are the most effective disinfectants available. Fungal contamination is decreased by the sun's rays.

Once you get home from your camping trip, you should immediately empty your cooler. Make sure you wash it and rinse it thoroughly. And then put it in the sun so its antimicrobial rays can do their work there.


Should the cooler's base lingering smells, fill the bottom three inches with cold water and a 32 ounce clear vinegar in a bottle

Let the solution rest for at least two full nights.

Wash in hot soapy water, repeat with rinsing water, and pat dry. Before putting your cooler away, make sure it's completely dry.  

Use of Baking Soda as a Cleaning Agent

How to Clean a Smelly Cooler - Baking Soda

When I worked for Tupperware, I was trained on how to clean with baking soda.

Famous for their convenient plastic containers and food storage solutions, Tupperware has been a household name for decades. Tupperware is an investment, so I was frequently asked for advice on how to maintain its pristine condition and prevent stains and odors.

It's simple to use baking soda as a cleaning agent. Simply combine some water with some baking soda to form a paste. Apply the paste to the container's bottom, sides, and lids with a soft cloth, and rub to distribute.

Rinse after letting the baking soda paste sit for a while. The procedure should be repeated if the stains or odors persist.

Baking soda also works great as a cooler cleaner.

Dry baking soda sprinkled into the cooler's bottom after a thorough cleaning and airing out is another great way to prevent unpleasant odors from forming while the cooler is being stored.

The RV Expert's Tip: A great resource is Baking Soda: Over 500 Fabulous, Fun, and Cheap Uses You've Probably Never Thought Of.

Clean with Lemon (or Lime) Juice

How to Clean a Smelly Cooler - Lemons and Baking Soda

Limes and lemons have more uses than just in tequila.

Lemon, in addition to its other uses, can be used as an antibacterial.

Using lemons to neutralize the smell of food contamination is a great all-natural option. Citric acid, found in citrus fruits like lemons and limes, is an effective deodorizer.

Plus, lemon juice is an effective disinfectant. Pure lemon juice can be used in its place if you don't have any lemons on hand.

However, if you'd rather use lemons for a more traditional lemon-based cleaning, you can always cut them into thin half-inch slices.

One by one, use the lemon slices to scrub the inside of your refrigerator.

After that, allow your cooler to sit open in the sun with an inch or two of water in the bottom and the leftover slices.

Get rid of those odors for good with the help of the sun's heat and UV rays and a lemon solution. Remove all moisture by draining and drying.

Bleach cleaning

How to Clean a Smelly Cooler - Bleach

A great disinfectant thanks to its caustic chemical composition, but not my first choice for eliminating persistent odors in coolers.

Bleach can be useful, but it's important to be careful about which containers you put it in. Bleach has been shown to reduce the strength of materials, most notably synthetic fibers and plastics.

Remember that the cooler's or ice chest's dyed or colored parts could fade or get bleach spots if exposed to the sun.

Bleach should never be mixed with any other substances.

Discard any used bleach immediately and keep it out of the reach of children and pets.

Wear old clothes, just in case you spill some bleach, or even diluted bleach, on them.

Following a thorough cleaning and deodorization, where and how long can you keep your ice chest?

Clean and Deodorize Your Cooler - Lifetime High Performance Cooler


It's important to wash and dry your cooler or plastic-lined lunch bags before putting them away for the winter.

Then, just crumple up some newspaper and toss it in your cooler before closing it.

Coffea beans

Clean and Deodorize Your Cooler - Coffee Beans

Awaken yourself; the coffee's ready.

Before putting away your cooler, try laying a few mesh bags containing coffee beans on the bottom.

As a result of the nitrogen it contains, coffee is commonly used to eliminate and absorb unpleasant odors.  

A small container of used coffee grounds is an all-natural substitute for baking soda or even lemons if you don't have any whole beans on hand.


How to Clean a Smelly Cooler - Charcoal

Charcoal is an efficient way to reduce humidity and odor in your cooler or ice chest.

Activated charcoal is much preferable to chemicals due to its ability to absorb up to 50 percent of its weight in noxious gases and odors without harm.

Putting some charcoal briquettes in your cooler is a cheap and easy way to keep food cold.

Or, if you'd rather avoid the hassle of cleaning up charcoal messes, you can purchase charcoal bags.

The Use of Desiccant Packs

How to Clean a Smelly Cooler - Desiccant Silica Gel

One of our favorite RV hacks is using desiccant packs, also known as desi packs, to reduce or eliminate condensation.

At 77 degrees Fahrenheit and 80% relative humidity, desi packs can absorb more than a quarter of their weight in water vapor due to the chemical composition of calcium aluminosilicate clay or bentonite clay.

Before storing your cooler or ice chest, make sure to add a few desi packs. Keep your cooler's interior completely dry to prevent the growth of mold and mildew, which can produce unpleasant odors.

The majority of desiccant bags have a shelf life of up to three years in moderate humidity and climates, so there's no need to worry if you won't be using your cooler or ice chest for a year or more. Additionally, they are rechargeable.

We prefer these multi-sized desiccant packets. You may wish to investigate:

Specialist RV Advice: Reducing Condensation in Your Recreational Vehicle

Substitute for Sodium Bicarbonate in Baking

Earlier, I mentioned that baking soda could be used to disinfect your cooler.

Nonetheless, you can deodorize and absorb odors in your cooler even while it is in storage by using baking soda absorbers.

What you should know about deodorizing your cooler

Clean and Deodorize Your Cooler - Little Girl in Cooler

You can clean up any lingering odors in your cooler, so there's no need to toss it.

Your cooler will last for many more outdoor adventures and tailgating events if you follow these simple maintenance guidelines.

Clean and Deodorize Your Cooler

Contents That May Be of Interest

10 Top Rated Coolers for Camping (2021)Here are the 10 Best Camping Coolers of 2021.

How to Maximize Efficiency of Your RV RefrigeratorImproving the Refrigerator's Energy Efficiency in Your Recreational Vehicle

RV Storage Solutions Made of Plastic

A Budget-Friendly RV Camping Guide: 20 Tips

Avoiding Dampness in Your Recreational Vehicle

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