Food preservation has been at the heart of the success of human civilization for over 14,000 years. Salting, boiling, and drying were early and practical techniques to keep pathogens from fruit, veggies, and meat. But how to keep food cold while camping?
Today, we take our home fridges and freezers for granted. But the moment we set out on a camping trip, it’s like we’re back in the stone age, desperate for good ways to cool our food in the wild. We’re eager to share our top ten ways to keep the heat off your food in this article.
Keeping the Food Cold While Camping
1. Freeze Your Drinking Water
If you have any experience packing lots and lots of bottled water for summer outings or a kid’s sporting event, then you’ve likely learned about the benefits of freezing water bottles.
Freezing bottled water serves two purposes for camping trips. It allows you to stow away safe drinking water and long-lasting portable ice packs all at once. As the day goes on and the camping trip starts to turn hot and sticky, simply drink the thawed water from their bottles.
2. Precook Some Meals
There are lots of ways to ensure that your food fends off bacteria and harmful pathogens while camping. Precooking meals and pieces of meat before camping is one of the most effective ways to prep for a hot day in the wild.
Sure, you may lose some of the thrills that come from cooking food directly over a campfire by precooking. Our tip is to precook half your meats (especially those that are harder to cook over a fire) and leave half uncooked. Then everyone’s happy, both the outdoorsmen and the preppers in your family.
3. Invest in a Quality Cooler
Not all coolers are the same. In fact, the last ten years have shown an explosion in tech upgrades to the tried-and-tested traditional cooler design, led mainly by companies like YETI and RTIC. But what should you look for in a quality cooler?
Budget, personal preferences, weight, and space limitations are a few factors to keep in mind. On the whole, here’s a breakdown of what makes each cooler different:
- Fiberglass: The best combination of cooling and lightweight design
- Steel: Offers the longest cooling time (multiple days) but heavy
- Styrofoam: Limited cooling (at most 3-5 hours), but very light
Additionally, look for coolers with multiple layers of insulation. If you plan to carry your cooler for long distances, buy two smaller ones so two people can share the load.
4. Don’t Forget Emergency Non-Perishables
Eventually, everyone who likes to camp has one time when everything went wrong. You can’t avoid disasters in the wild, but you can plan for them by bringing food that doesn’t need to stay cold to be safe.
Check out a long list of great non-perishable foods online. In brief, some good non-perishable foods and snacks for camping are:
- Nut butters, like peanut, almond, and vegan-friendly varieties
- Wheat crackers
- Trail mix (GORP is a favorite American blend)
- Dried fruits like raisins and apricots
- Canned seafood, chicken, and turkey
5. Learn How to Pack Smart
Packing a cooler the right way is a skill that can take decades to master. Luckily, a few tips can improve everyone’s camping experience (and double food’s lifespan!)
Pack the bottom layer of the cooler with block or crushed ice. Then, the meat layer. Make sure all the packages are sealed to avoid spreading bacteria. Next, add your dairy products and another layer of ice if you can. Finally, top off the cooler with prepackaged meals, drinks, condiments, and sandwiches.
6. Bring Ice Packs
Ice packs provide a lot longer cooling time than regular block or crushed ice. Some brands offer ice packs infused with safe chemicals that keep them cool longer.
Make your own ice packs at home with the help of Ziploc storage bags. Simply fill the bags with water and lay them out on a flat tray in your freezer. The bags will freeze into a portable, thin shape that’s perfect for packing a tight cooler. Frozen veggie bags also work well as a substitute.
7. Select Quality Ice
You might think that all ice is the same. To a degree, you’d be right. But the crushed ice you see at local gas stations and supermarkets will not stay frozen as long as other types of ice.
Ice blocks, either homemade or bought, are the preferred way to keep food cold while camping. They thaw more slowly and don’t create as much of a mess as crushed ice.
8. Pre-Chill Your Cooler
Here’s one of the tips we’re most proud to share. Prechilling your freezer the night before a camping trip is an easy and simple way to start your vacation off on the right foot.
Simply fill your cooler (or coolers) with a bag of ice or icecube trays the night before your trip. Or you might find room in your fridge or deep freezer. The following day, just remove the thawed ice and pack the cooler again with your food. The food will last hours longer than if you throw it into a room-temp environment.
9. Bring Multiple Coolers
We mentioned briefly above the benefits of bringing more than one cooler on a camping trip. But there are more reasons to do it other than sharing a heavy load of food and drinks.
Two coolers give you the option to store meat and dairy in one and drinks in the other. This is a great way to limit the spread of microorganisms and to keep flavors separated. No one likes opening a cooled water bottle only to taste the faintest trace of hotdogs and potato salad!
10. Drain Your Cooler in Moderation
Good coolers will have a drainage tap built-in to their sidewalls or base. First of all, make sure you purchase a cooler with a tap. But it’s important not to overuse it. Why?
Draining thawed ice too quickly isn’t a good idea. You lose the cooling properties of the water (which may only be 1 degree over 32 degrees Fahrenheit), and the ice that remains in the cooler will start to thaw faster. Better to drain water when it becomes a hindrance, sloshes around unnecessarily, and submerges meats.
Camping is one of the best ways to spend time with friends and family while enjoying the adventure of stepping back in time to a world without technology. But cooling food is a technology (and a skill!) in itself.
We hope the above list will give you and your companions some tips on how to keep food cold while camping.