Tips on Keeping Food Frozen in a Cooler

Jenn Martin
camping food in a cooler

Any camper or road tripper bound for a multi-day excursion has come across the conundrum of how to keep food viable for the duration of their stay. Cooler material and size, type of cooling agent, and storage choices all impact how long you can trust that dairy-packed frozen casserole you made just for the occasion.

10 Ways to Keep Food Frozen in Your Cooler Longer

1. Use Both Large and Small Ice Chunks

Small chunks of ice are able to reach a larger surface area of your food, thus cooling it down quicker. Larger chunks, however, take longer to melt. Using a combination of both large and small chunks of ice is best to strike a balance so you can enjoy cold drinks on the first night but still trust those chicken skewers for dinner the next day.

2. Use Frozen Water Bottles

Simple cubed ice is great because it is easy to acquire and you can buy it from park stores to continually add throughout your stay. For your larger chunks of frozen material, however, consider freezing water bottles prior to your trip. The bigger the ice chunk, the longer it takes to thaw, plus the plastic adds an additional (if not very substantial) layer of insulation. Once the water has thawed it can be consumed, making efficient use of the space in the cooler.

3. Store Food in Sequence

Air is the enemy of your war against melting. The more air that gets in the cooler, the quicker the contents will thaw, so you want to make sure you spend as little time as possible rummaging through the cooler. Therefore, you should plan out your meals and make sure that you store the food in sequence of use so that what you'll need will be easily accessible at the top of the cooler.

4. Don't Drain the Water

Once your ice has melted, keep the cold water in the cooler instead of draining it. It will have a lower temperature than the air that would replace it if you took it out and thus will keep your contents cooler longer. Plus, keeping liquid in the cooler means that more surface area of your frozen foods will be touching a cooling agent. If you plan on leaving the cold water in with your food, make sure everything is properly sealed.

5. Freeze Dense Food Items

Consider using your frozen foods as their own type of ice pack. You may not often go camping with large chunks of meat, but a small frozen ham will act as an extremely effective ice pack, save on space in the cooler and provide the base of a delicious meal. It may be so effective in its capacity as ice pack that it needs to be thawed briefly by the edges of a campfire before cooking! Think about what food you may want to bring camping and decide what of that can double as a cooling agent.

6. Choose Your Cooler Carefully

The kind of cooler you need depends to a degree on how long and where you'll be travelling.

  • If you are looking to store only lightweight items over a short period of time, a Styrofoam or insulated cooler bag will be fine. The LIFOAM 30-Quart Styrofoam Cooler is perfect for day trips like picnics or days at the beach, and basic soft-sided coolers like the RedHead Camo Cooler, though intended mainly for drinks, will also work for shorter trips.
  • If you need substantial space and durability over the course of several days, you'll want to buy plastic or even stainless steel and pay closer attention to ice-holder ratings and the quality of the lid seal. The longer you camp, the more important the lid seal becomes, because if you are opening the cooler time and again over the course of five days, you want to make sure no excess air is getting in. The Coleman 62-Quart Xtreme is a popular and well-reviewed choice. Its wheels and cup holders make it a pretty advanced choice for a plastic cooler.
  • If you will be camping near water, a tightly sealed stainless cooler like the Coleman 54-Quart Stainless Steel Cooler is best, as oftentimes it will be beneficial to store your cooler in the water, depending on the time of year and water temperature.

7. Consider Using Dry Ice

If you own the proper type of cooler, you can consider using dry ice to keep your frozen food from perishing. Certain types of coolers, specifically those made by pioneering, top-of-the-line outdoor gear manufacturer YETI, are designed with this in mind.

The coveted YETI Tundra 45 gets outstanding reviews but will run you $350. You can acquire a more affordable alternative if you sacrifice the name in favor of something like the Igloo Sportsman Cooler.

A relatively new practice in the world of camping and hunting, dry ice can be an alluring alternative to regular ice, but is costlier and requires protective gear. If you plan trying out this technique, visit the dry ice directory to see where you can purchase in your area.

8. Add Additional Insulation

It's simple: more insulation means it will take the ice longer to melt. Consider the level and specific kind of insulation offered by your cooler.

  • If you're sporting a typical plastic tote, see if there's room to squeeze in a small layer of Styrofoam on the sides of the cooler (you can buy Styrofoam blocks online from wholesalers).
  • Put items that you fear will defrost quickly (or be more problematic when thawed, such as chicken) in a separate insulted cooler bag before placing them in the cooler.
  • Also add additional insulation in the form of a frozen towel on the bottom or top of the cooler.

9. Store the Cooler in a Cool Shaded Area

The sun will definitely expedite melting, so as soon as you arrive at your destination, scout a cool, shaded area to store your cooler. If you are an adventurous camper who plans on communing with nature during the winter or early spring, look for holes in frozen lakes (or make one yourself) and set the cooler there, as long as it's not in direct sunlight or in danger of floating away.

10. Freeze for as Long as Possible Beforehand

Make sure you freeze all frozen food items for at least two days before the trip is set to begin. Also, it's a good idea to lower the temperature of the cooler before placing food items inside. Grab a sacrificial bag of ice and let it melt inside the cooler to pre-chill it before packing.

Plan Ahead

Planning ahead is the key to successfully sustaining your camp food. Consider the number of days you'll be gone and buy the appropriate type of cooler. Plan ahead and pack the cooler accordingly, but not before pre-chilling it (and your food!) Add extra insulation, use more than one kind/size of cooling agent and make sure you find a good place for your cooler as soon as you set up camp. With a bit of advance planning, you'll have no trouble enjoying all the food you prepared for your special trip.

Tips on Keeping Food Frozen in a Cooler