Camping is a great way to vacation if you want to take a break from your noisy and fast-paced everyday life. If you are doing that, you don’t want to have to leave your campsite every night for fast food; you also don’t want to bring only nonperishables.
Why sacrifice your comfort? You can safely bring along your fruits, veggies, and meat if you know how to adequately store your food and take it with you to keep it fresh and cool. That is why I am going to show you how to do it and give you tips to make this camping trip a success.
So how do you keep food cool when camping?
The best way to keep food cold while camping is to use the right storage containers and cooling methods. This can include a good ice chest with ice packs and simply tricks to keep your cooler colder like making sure you keep your cooler in the shade or partially bury your cooler in the ground.
Here’s what we will cover to help keep your food cool and fresh.
Essentials for Storing Food And Keeping It Cold
Before you put your food in your cold storage containers, you must know what to put your food in initially so it will stay unspoiled and survive the trip. Sturdy, airtight containers that can stand extreme cold and preserve food are a must have.
- These Rubbermaid food storage containers are freezer safe and leak proof; you can put almost anything in them, as long as it fits. This product has 4.6 out of 5 stars with over 500 reviews. One reviewer says, “I have a problem with strawberries: they go fuzzy in days no matter what I do or don’t do. I washed, cut up, sweetened slightly (It is late November!) & then stored them in a Brilliance container. Usually, I would have fuzz two days later, but in these containers, they were as fresh as the day I bought them.” Fruit lovers everywhere, rejoice!
- If you need a little more space for food and plastic is too immovable, you can always opt for these silicone food sealing bags instead! They are reusable, freezer safe, and easy to clean. They come in a range of sizes for any food you could store. A reviewer says, “We just used these reusable silicone food storage bags for a picnic, and were very impressed! They are eco-friendly, easy-to-use, save a ton of time, and perfect for a family with little ones. We were able to put carrots, cucumbers, and broccoli in one, and stone fruit in another one. They were easy to rinse and dry, and we used it again for leftover food from the picnic. I love these bags and plan to purchase a set for my mom and brothers. Thank you!”
- You may only be preparing a portion of food once before it’s all gone, and you do not feel the need to buy reusable bags or containers. If you really want to invest some money, vacuum sealers and bags work wonderfully to prevent any spoiling. These are specifically made for food to be frozen, so you do not have to worry about leaks, cracks in the plastic, or lids that may not stay on. This is the best and safest way to store meat you bring, as the bags keep the meat fresh and do not release any odors that may attract animals.
These are just a few examples that cover basically anything to fit your needs! Odor resistance, air locking, and freezer safe containers are the key to a great camping experience without having to go out and find the nearest supermarket or fast food joint. Now that you are a master of proper food storage, you need some suggestions for actually preserving the food by keeping it cool.
Products that Keep Food Cool
Packing food is only half of the battle. Finding ways to chill it in the great outdoors is the other. Not to worry, though; there are plenty of things that will help you win the war!
- These are the most common and well-known products made to insulate your meals and shield them from the heat of the day! There are several types to choose from based on size, price, and your personal needs.
On the more affordable end of the spectrum, you have the choice of buying an Igloo MaxCold Roller Cooler. At $45, you are getting a great deal! It holds 40 quarts, and it is convenient to tow from place to place with its handle and wheels. It is heavily insulated to trap the cold air and prevent ice from melting.
This is best for camping for a weekend with both food and drinks. One 5-star review reads, “Needed a cooler for a camping trip, got this one and LOVED it. I put ice and food/drinks in on Friday around 10 AM. It stayed in my car the whole trip, was opened many times and today (Sunday) at 7 PM when I got home there was STILL ice in it! It’s the end of July right now, so very hot outside!” Imagine how much longer the ice will stay frozen if you put the cooler in the shade instead of your car. (We will go over that tip just a little bit later.) This is great for weekend trips for small groups.
If you plan to stay outdoors for a week and want to spare no expense, the Pelican Progear Elite cooler is the right fit for you. While it is admittedly quite expensive at $400, it holds 65 quarts and has a 10-day ice retention time even directly under the blazing sun. It is sturdy, huge, and guaranteed to keep your food cold all week. This should last for a lifetime, even with some spills and bumps. Your investment now saves you all the money later on other camping trips, tailgates, and pool parties!
A review states, “This is an excellent cooler. I bought this over the competing Yeti cooler because it was both cheaper, and made by a brand I had experience with. I am not disappointed. I have since had an opportunity to compare it to the equivalent Yeti cooler, and am glad I went with the Pelican. The main reason for this is the closures. Yeti uses rubber pull-cords like were used on older Jeeps for hood tie-downs, while Pelican uses aluminum mechanical latches.
I expect the latches to hold up to extended use much better than the rubber.” The only con to buying this is that it will not fit into the trunk of a smaller car. This cooler is great for people with trucks or for feeding bigger groups!
Campers with babies need a special place to store baby food, and the Polar Bear soft cooler can do that easily! It is heavily insulated and easy to cart around. This is perfect for storing breastmilk or premade bottles. It is $80 and well worth the money spent because it will last a long time and can be used practically anywhere. One reviewer states that she carried it on a plane ride to store her baby food with no issue because breastmilk is TSA approved and easy to fit under the seat!
- Food Bags. These are made with portability in mind, and they are insulated to keep anything hot or cold, depending on how you like it. They can be used for everyday grocery shopping after your trip, so you will be paying for something with several purposes. The best part is that reusable bags are eco-friendly! You can say goodbye to all of the plastic bags and the easy to tear paper sacks. To me, that is more than worth it! If you are only taking a weekend trip, this Earthwise bag could be great for you at only $30. These are a good fit for smaller groups, maybe two people for one weekend.
- Ice packs. These leave no mess behind like loose ice cubes will when they start to melt. Who wants to stick their hands in freezing water every time they need something? There are plenty to fit all coolers. For example, these Fit & Fresh Cool Coolers are slim and fit into something as small as a lunch box with no problem. Obviously, you will need to supplement these with plenty of other ice cold packs or bags if you are bringing a lot of food, but these will surely help! They are also extremely affordable at $8 per 4 ice packs. The downside is that they are not flexible and will take up more room in small bags. So will most things, though, so do not sweat it.
If you need to use multiple of these, you could fit the smaller bags in the giant coolers to save space in the car and keep something extra chilly! I would suggest doing so with meats to ensure that no matter what, they have a good chance of staying within a safe temperature.
I hope these give you at least a starting point for your cold storage hunt. Let’s move on and talk about how you can use things you may have in your own home to aid you in your efforts.
At Home Items to DIY and Tips for Cold Storage
There are a few things you may have lying around the house that are more useful than you think. Some are obvious, but some may not be. In either case, you will save money without compromising your food!
- Plan ahead. Look carefully for the dimensions of the cooler before buying one. Make sure it fits in your trunk or the seat; if it will not, it’s worthless to you. If you have a truck, don’t worry about it! Just keep it covered and secured while you are driving, so it does not slide or tip over. If you leave it directly in the sun, the ice will melt faster. Do your best to keep it under wraps.
- Keep your frozen items in the freezer until the very last minute. They will last for much longer if you do not take them out too early. It is a fairly simple solution! The same can be said of items that stay in the fridge. Do not chance wasting all of your cold storage by taking your food out the night before the trip.
- Make your own ice packs. If you do not trust the ones you can buy, do it yourself! There are a few different ways to do this.
Giant blocks of ice melt more slowly than loose cubes, so fill up gallon Ziploc bags with water and let them freeze overnight. They take up a little more room and tend to bulge as the water molecules expand, so make sure your cooler has plenty of room and plan accordingly.
If you want to make your own ice pack that will be softer and leaves more room, mix up two parts water and 1 part rubbing alcohol or high-proof vodka to keep your bags frozen but not hard. Some people recommend using Everclear, so you must be 21 or older if that is the route you plan to take.
Alcohol prevents the water from freezing entirely. While most flexible packs run up to $15 for 1, you can create these for just a little over a dollar each. These are also useful to put on any aches and pains you have after hiking all day, so that is a bonus in my book!
If you need to use loose ice cubes, put them in a bag or bags together, so they do not melt everywhere and get your containers wet. Another upside to doing this is that you can use the cubes in drinks because they weren’t contaminated by human hands and dirt. The ice in your freezer is free; the only money you will use is for gallon bags.
- Some storage manufacturers recommend that you chill the cooler before heading out as well. The best way I could see to do this is to give it a nice ice bath in the tub. Pack all items into it there after sealing them, then take it to the car after all of your other luggage is in.
Keeping Food Cool on the Trip
After you leave home, there is no more going back to get more ice cubes and alcohol (unless you want to defeat the purpose of the trip by leaving camp and going to Walmart). While you are outdoors, there are still a few tricks and tips you can use to make the ice and the food last even longer. You also need to know what not to do for your own safety when it comes to food and camping.
- Set your cooler and insulated bags in the shade. If you are at an established campsite near a pavilion or gazebo, leave them under the cover of the roof if possible. If you can’t do that for whatever reason, bring a tarp and some rope. This will be your makeshift shade in which to place over the food. String it up, and you are ready to go! I recommend laying another tarp down under the cooler to prevent the bottom from getting mud and dirt in your car on the way back home.
- Never store food in your vehicle or your tent. For one thing, both of them trap hot air because they are enclosed spaces, unlike tarp covers or pavilions. Your ice will melt faster, and the food you brought may spoil quickly. Your fruit may be fine for a day, but meats will be useless. More important than that is the danger wildlife can pose to you if they smell your food. They are not likely to do so before you open your containers, but they will afterward, especially when it comes to meat. It is easier to let a bear maul your cooler outside than it is to fight one-off when it comes through your tent or ravages your car.
- Layer your food and ice packs. This way, each food container will be covered with ice on both sides. Nothing will be left lukewarm!
- For further insulation, line the inside edges of the coolers with your ice packs. The outside surface can get really hot depending on the weather, so protect the inside as much as possible.
- Buy coolers and bags in light colors. Lighter colors tend to reflect sunlight while dark colors absorb it. Science is cool, but your cooler will not be if you buy it in black.
- After the food items in one container are depleted, put them aside in something else. You no longer need them to be chilled, so give the rest of your food and drink more room to be covered in ice.
- If anything at all looks or smells off to you, do not eat it. You can only do so much to make your food cold. Sometimes, weather conditions make it impossible for any ice pack to stay frozen. Exercise caution always.
You are ready to rock n’ roll after making use of all the items and tips available to you! Plan ahead, do some preparation before the last minute, and always exercise caution before eating just in case. Have fun, and be happy in the knowledge that you won’t get a bad bout of food poisoning from spoiled chicken.
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