Tips For Packing A Cooler Efficiently ( Save Room, Time And Hassle )

How hard is it to pack a cooler? All you do is throw your drinks and food in the cooler and pour ice over the top. Or is it? Your goal is to keep your food cold and safe on your camping trips, so just throwing things in willy-nilly is not the answer. There are several tips from professional campers, and one great tip is to use at least two coolers, one for food and one for drinks, and if you can, one for snacks.  If you don’t have space for more than one cooler, then follow these tips and tricks to help you pack a cooler efficiently.

How do you pack a cooler efficiently?

To pack a cooler efficiently, make sure all items are already cut. This allows them to be packed more efficiently into storage containers. Fill your storage containers to the top. If it isn’t full, use a smaller container. Pack frozen meats tightly in the bottom, this will help keep them frozen longer. Pack items that need to be cold and not frozen towards the top.

For more in-depth information, be sure to read through the whole article.

Try using several techniques that will help you pack a cooler more efficiently. If you want to know how to pack like a pro, try these several tips and tricks. There are also great ideas for keeping your food colder longer. Freeze your food beforehand, keep your cooler in the shade, and use blocks of ice instead of cubes or pieces. Blocks won’t melt as fast. Another tip? Select the right cooler for your camping trip. Coolers have improved over the last few years, and you can find excellent brands like Yeti, Orion, and Cabela’s that have superior products.

Ready Choosing and Getting Your Cooler

Coolers and ice chest for camping are designed to keep food fresh and drink cold. It doesn’t matter if you are going camping for a night or a few weeks, you need ice chests and coolers to adequately store your food and keep it safe. Depending on your lifestyle and personal preferences, there are many ice chests and coolers that will meet your needs.

Here’s what to look for if you are in the market for a new cooler or ice chest:

  • Big enough for your needs.
  • Storage bin inserts
  • Good insulation
  • Tight-fitting lids
  • A drain plug

Be efficient and use several different coolers. Use a small 6-pack cooler for keeping drinks cold as you travel. For weekend campouts use an ice chest for storing drinks and a larger ice chest for storing food. Your larger cooler can stay at the campground as you fish, hike or sightsee.

If you store your cooler in an attic, shed or garage brings it inside the day before your trip. Clean it thoroughly and fill it with cold tap water and add a bag or two of ice about 12 hours before your trip. Dump this ice water out before you pack your cooler.

Do you have an old Rubbermaid cooler you paid $20? Or a cooler you borrowed from family? You need to upgrade. Try out brands like Yeti, Lifeline, Orion, and even check out Cabela’s. You need modern coolers that are rotomolded and have insulation of at least 2” thick.  If you have the room and can afford it, use two coolers – one for your food and one for your drinks.

Packing Tip #1

Prep your food to save as much space as you can. Pre-chop veggies and make marinades ahead of time. Portion out condiments into small bottles. The less space your food takes up packing containers, the more room you have for ice and other things.

Packaging takes up a lot of extra space, so remove what store packaging you can. If you don’t need to bring an entire carton of eggs, leave some behind. Transfer food into leak-proof containers. Everything in your cooler will get wet since the ice melts. If you want your butter cubes floating in the water, great, otherwise transfer everything into reusable and leak-proof containers.

For long trips, you will want to freeze as much of your food as you can. Don’t freeze the food you’ll eat on your first night, but if you plan on having hamburgers on the last night of your camping trip, freeze the meat. You can also freeze water bottles to conserve space and help with cooling. Dump out about ¼ of the water to allow for expansion.

Everything you are not freezing should be refrigerated before being packed. Include your resealable food containers. A good rule of thumb: nothing should go into your cooler that’s at room temperature. Don’t waste your ice cooling things down instead of just keeping them cold.

Believe it or not, your ice selection is important in packing your cooler. The best ice to use is blocks of ice or large reusable freezer packs. Solid blocks of ice take much longer to melt, and you can place them on the bottom of your cooler and build on top of these ice blocks.

Try freezing bottles of water in gallons and lay them horizontally inside your freezer. Ice cubes are great, but they do melt faster than block ice, so use ice cubes to fill in the cracks to keep the spaces in between your food items filled with ice.

The last thing in your vehicle should be your cooler. Wait until you are about to go before you start packing your cooler.

  • Block ice goes on the bottom. Start with a layer of block ice and pack in food items in reverse order. Start with the last day’s food on the bottom and work your way to the first day’s food.
  • Ice cubes go in in the empty spaces. Large pockets of air inside your cooler will accelerate ice melt, so fill up as much space in your cooler as you can with ice cubes.
  • Right side up. Things will probably leak. Place containers that are full of liquids vertically. Keeping your liquids vertical, like ketchup and mustard, will prevent them from spilling.
  • Categorize your meals. Pack your breakfast food in the left and dinner and lunch foods to the right. If you categorize, you will not messily scramble through all the packed food and get them out of order.
  • Map out your cooler. If you have a large cooler, make a cooler map, so you know where things are located. A map will let you know where food items are and minimize the time your cooler is left open as you search.

Good Ideas

Keep your cooler inside your car with you. Putting your cooler in the hot trunk could cause your cooler to overheat.

Keep coolers shaded. At the campsite place your cooler under a picnic table or in the shade of a tree. Avoid direct sunlight on your cooler as much as possible. You can also place a wet towel over the top of your cooler to insulate it even more.

Keep your cooler closed. Only open it to get something out and shut it quickly.

Do not drain meltwater. You have probably drained your ice melt or meltwater frequently, but if you drain meltwater in your cooler, it will make the temper higher. Scientifically (yes, there are studies on ice melt in coolers), it is better to leave the meltwater in the cooler than to drain it; especially for short trips.

Packing Tip #2

A good saying to remember, “Coolers are only as good as the users who pack them. If you don’t organize right, you’ll squander all the fancy insulation you paid through the teeth to get.”

Read these tips and follow them to have a successful camping trip.

  • Chill your cooler before you pack it. A cold cooler stays cold longer. If you have access to a commercial freezer, let your cooler stay inside the freezer for the night. If you can’t find a commercial cooler, put your cooler on the porch overnight or stick it in the coolest part of our house the night before you pack it.
  • Freeze food and drinks. Pack meat frozen and let the meat thaw over time. Keep frozen meat in your cooler, and they will contribute to the overall coolness. Freeze water and noncarbonated drinks. Let them thaw out once you arrive at camp.
  • Experienced campers give this advice, again: Use ice blocks instead of ice cubes. You can make ice blocks by freezing water in square Tupperware containers. If you need to bring a hammer to knock pieces off, great, but an ice block’s mass means you won’t get meltwater nearly as fast. “It’s easier to chip off the ice for your drinks than watch cubes melt in front of your eyes. Block ice also stops you from going to the camp store every day for cubed ice.
  • Most camping guides don’t drain the cooler water on short trips. Water left in a cooler seems to keep items like drinks extra cold. However, if you are trying to preserve your ice blocks for the next several days, you will need to drain your cooler a couple of times a day. Water makes the ice melt faster – even block ice, and if you are on a long camping trip, you want your ice blocks to stay as solid as long as possible.
  • Pack in layers. Put your ice blocks at the bottom of the cooler. Cover the ice with a thin barrier like a sheet of cardboard. This barrier keeps food from slipping between the ice and getter soggy.
  • Don’t’ trust grocery store packing. Replace items in sealable bags or containers before putting it in the cooler. A nice tip from a pro: wrap your greens like lettuce in wet paper towels and then place them in resealable bags. Your greens will stay crisp longer, and lettuce won’t go limp.
  • Keep you cooler latched and closed as much as you can. Only go into the cooler for what you need and then shut it immediately. Beware of venting cool air.
  • Keep food organized and separated. Every food should have its section. Put meat, vegetables, condiments in separate spaces. Organizing will help you know where everything is, and you will be able to pack even more in your cooler.
  • Bring a separate drink cooler. Cans of soda and beer take up quite a bit of space in a cooler. If your beer and drinks have their cooler, you won’t be disturbing your food.

Packing Tip #3

It is important to be prepared for weather conditions, wild animals, and fire building skills, but it is almost important to know how to pack a cooler. Another tip is an eight-step process that has many similarities with steps 1 and 2. With three different professional campers telling you how to pack a cooler, following their tips and tricks should help you have a successful camping trip.

  1. Gather everything you need. Make a menu. Map out exactly how much of each ingredient you need. Prep as much as you can for each meal. Cut up vegetables, marinate meats, pre-packaged foods for breakfast, and pack up small containers for condiments. Don’t forget to pack the salt!

Put everything in resealable containers or plastic bags.

  1. Use the right cooler. The thicker the walls, the better insulated your cooler will be, and the longer it will keep things cold. Make sure your cooler has a thick and well-insulated lid. If your cooler doesn’t have a good lid, give it an extra boost by packing a thick towel on top of everything under the lid. Make sure your cooler lid locks in place.
  2. Start with a cool cooler. Coolers are built to keep food cold, and if you store your cooler in the hot sun of your garage or attic, bring it into the house days before you go camping. Air it out and get it cold. You can dump a sacrificial bag of ice in your empty cooler to chill it for a few hours before you pack it. Discard that sacrificial ice before you start packing.
  3. Chill what you are packing. The colder the food and drink you put into your cooler, the longer food and drink will stay cold. In other words, get your food items cold before you pack them in the cooler. Don’t pack warm beer in your cooler; warm beer mucks up everything else in there. Better yet, give your sodas, drinks, ad beers their cooler.
  4. Have a mix of ice. For short trips, reusable ice packs are okay, but if you’re going for a longer trip, you need real ice. A professional camper suggests that you don’t get your ice at the front of the freezer. Dig back in the back to get ice that is almost a solid block. Better yet, purchase block ice and wrap in it a plastic garbage bag.
  5. Use a mix of small ice cubes to chill thing quickly and big blocks to make the cooler chill longer. Throw in a couple of reusable cooler packs to help keep ice cubes frozen longer.
  6. Pack in Layers. Start with a layer of ice on the bottom, preferably blocks of ice. Then add in the items you need to stay the coolest on top of the ice. Add another layer of ice, more food, and then more ice. Almost like making a lasagna! On the top, put foods that don’t need much refrigeration like vegetables. If you don’t have a separate drink cooler, pack the drinks on top. They are the least perishable and will probably be the first things you eat up.
  7. A good rule to note: Air is you cooler’s enemy. If you have even a small bit of space at the top of your cooler once you’re done packing, then throw in the towel. Once you get to camp, keep the cooler out of direct sunlight and don’t open it more than necessary. Snacks and goodies, like drinks, should have their separate cooler.

The trick of efficiently packing a cooler is to keep it closed as much as possible. Use block ice, layer, and use cubed ice to fill in the spaces. The best suggestion for keeping you cooler efficient is to put everything in resealable bags or containers. Sort them according to the meal and make a map (paper or mental) of where everything is in the cooler. Keep your cooker out of the sun and out of a hot tent. Placing your cooler or ice chest under a nice shady tree is optimal but at the very least, make sure your cooler is out of direct sunlight and locks to keep out marauders.

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Rickie Arms

Hi, I'm Rickie Arms, owner of Glampingorcamping.com. I am so invested in writing the best and most informative articles for you that I went out and bought a travel trailer just so I could write about it for you. I spend just about all of my off time both camping and glamping so I can share everything I have learned and will learn with you. I have spent my whole life camping and over the last 10 years, I have spent a large amount of time checking out glamping experiences with my wife and kids as well. Thank you for coming by and we hope to see you back here getting great information in the future. Rick Arms-

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