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7 Ways to Best Pack an Ice Chest Cooler

Men looking through cooler

There is more than one way to best pack a cooler for maximum freshness. In fact, we think there are actually 7 ways to pack a cooler efficiently and utilize your cooler’s space to keep your food colder and fresher, longer.

Read on for the best cooler packing hacks.

Tip #1: Plan your Meals

Even if you aren’t much of a meal planner in your day-to-day life, planning meals when camping is the number one tip to help you avoid wastefulness of both food and precious cooler space. Try to utilize the same items for multiple meals.

For example, fajitas for dinner, with any leftover cooked meat or veggies used in a breakfast burrito the next morning.

A pound of sausage can be split to cook delicious breakfast omelets and a spicy cajun pasta for dinner. The charcuterie options for lunch and snack time can double as ingredients for a fancy grilled cheese come supper time.

You get the picture. 

Tip #2: Food Prep

In the same vein of planning your meals out, prepping your meals can not only save you time but also helps you, again, avoid food waste and wasted cooler space.

Chop your vegetables and put them in a reusable sealed bag, measure out liquids like milk or broth instead of bringing more than you need. Depending on your meal choices, you may even be able to cook some meals ahead of time and bring them to reheat over your stove or campfire, which could save on the space all of the ingredients would take up.

Making pasta primavera? Cut up your broccoli and slice your peppers, fitting them all into one bag instead of having large bell peppers and huge heads of broccoli sitting in your cooler.

Tip #3: Freeze Food Ahead of Time

Stash foods that can be frozen in your freezer before your trip. Those foods will help maintain a colder temperature for a long period of time. This is also helpful if you won’t be cooking them for a few days and need them to stay as fresh as possible. 

The same goes for refrigerated items; keep food in your regular fridge until immediately before you load it into the cooler to help maintain that icy chill.

woman getting drink from ice chest cooler
man grabbing item from ice chest
Tip #4: Prioritize

Bringing a 12-pack (of beer, soda water, etc.) to drink over the course of a few days? Don’t put them all in the cooler to start. Instead, put in a few and replace them as you go to keep the space they take up to a minimum. 

Not all produce needs to be kept cold, especially if you are going to cook it later that night. Which vegetables or fruits can be put in dry storage instead? Peppers, most squashes, broccoli, root veggies, most herbs and many more will keep just fine for a day or two at room temparature. This will also help save space in your cooler. 

Tip #5: Organize

Many larger coolers will also come with things like wire racks for storage at the top of the cooler. Utilize this piece to store items that you want to be able to easily grab, or if using an ice chest, that you want to keep from getting wet. You can also achieve this same effect by using plastic or glass tupperwares.

You can also organize your cooler efficiently by storing your largest foods first (keeping in mind when you will eat them) and place smaller items in and around them. You’ll fit far more in this way, which is incredibly important when extra space is hard to come by.

Ice Chest Tips for Maximizing Coldness

Tip #6: Pack Layers – and we don’t mean clothes…

When it comes to filling your ice chest, air pockets are the enemy. The more air, the more quickly your ice will melt, lowering the temperature inside the cooler (see our other blog about how to choose the right size cooler to help avoid this). You may want to pack a layer of food, and then a layer of ice, for the optimal temperature.

Foldable ice sheets can be used as the top layer and help prevent cold air from escaping and warm air from getting into the cooler. They’re inexpensive and can be used over and over, but a wet, frozen dishtowel will produce a similar effect.

Tip #7 Make It Cold! 

The recommended ratio is 2:1, ice to food, so keep this in mind when you pack your cooler.

You can make your own block ice to save space and slow melting; pour ice into a pan and let it freeze overnight. You can then place this at the bottom of the cooler. Or choose reusable, frozen ice sheets that don’t melt and stay frozen longer than ice.

Dry ice is also a great alternative. Though it can seemingly be more difficult to pack, it lasts much longer than regular ice, and doesn’t leave a mess behind. 

Overlanders set up at camp

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