How to Keep Food Cold While Camping


Summer is the most popular time for campers to pack up their gear and hit the trails. But with the summer season comes excessive heat that can make both you and your food melt, if you aren’t careful.

Knowing how to keep food cold while camping is essential for safety, hygiene, and overall enjoyment. No one wants to dig into a soggy sandwich or risk foodborne illness from poorly preserved perishables! So if you want to know how to keep your meals nice and chilly, here are some of our top tips for campers.

Key Takeaways:

  • Select a cooler that suits your needs and budget.
  • Use a separate cooler for drinks.
  • Freeze your food in advance to extend its shelf life.
  • Consider using reusable freeze packs to maintain a cold temperature in your cooler.
  • If you need prolonged cooling, dry ice can be a reliable option.
  • Salt can help keep ice from melting quickly (and preserve your food).
  • Avoid direct sunlight by keeping your cooler in the shade.
  • Consider a portable car fridge.
  • Freeze water bottles to act as ice packs; they’ll also provide hydration as they melt.
  • Pre-chill your cooler, before adding food, to lower its internal temperature.
  • Minimize opening and closing the cooler to prevent warm air from entering.
  • Pack items snugly to reduce air circulation and heat transfer.

Tips for Freezing Food

1. Freeze Your Foods in Advance

meat on ice with herbs

Freezing your food in advance is a great way to keep it cold and fresh while camping. This method not only preserves and extends the shelf life of your food, but it also turns it into an additional ice pack for your cooler.

When freezing your meals, consider using Ziplock bags or plastic containers that are easy to pack and store in your cooler. I’d recommend separating the ingredients into individual portions, so they’re ready to cook without any extra cutting or dicing while you’re at the campsite. Do your best to remove all the air before sealing, and ALWAYS label your containers with the contents and the date that it was frozen.

When it comes to thawing, your best bet is to keep the food in the cooler, allowing it to maintain a low temperature to prevent bacterial growth. If you know you’re going to be cooking soon, you can always remove it from the cooler for faster thawing, as long as it’s not left out for too long.

2. Use Freeze Packs

Freeze packs are reusable ice packs that can keep your food cold while camping. I find that they’re more convenient and effective than loose ice, which can melt quickly and create a mess. You also get more flexibility with freeze packs, as they come in various shapes, sizes, and materials to suit different coolers and foods. Just make sure to look for options that are flexible, durable, leak-proof, and non-toxic.

Freeze packs are super simple to use, as all you need to do is pre-chill them before sticking them in the cooler. As far as placement goes, some people prefer to stick a few at the bottom and then layer their perishable items on top, while others arrange them around the items to distribute the cold evenly. Feel free to test different layouts to see what works best for you.

3. Try Dry Ice

gray cloud in the air

If you have a long adventure ahead and need to keep your food frozen or refrigerated, dry ice is a pretty solid option. In case you don’t know what it is, dry ice is frozen carbon dioxide. Unlike regular ice which melts into liquid water, dry ice sublimates, turning directly into gas. Because of this unique property, dry ice can maintain cooler temperatures for longer periods, ensuring your food stays cold throughout your camping trip.

I do have to warn you about safety, though. Dry ice is much colder than regular ice, and isn’t safe to handle with your bare hands for any extended amount of time. Overall, I’d recommend always wearing insulated gloves when handling it, as direct skin contact can cause frostbite. Also, it’s good practice to wrap the dry ice in newspaper or cardboard to create an insulating barrier. This helps in maintaining the temperature and prevents extreme cold spots in your cooler. Place the wrapped dry ice on top of the food items, as the carbon dioxide gas will sink, cooling everything below it.

That being said, dry ice is a lot harder to get your hands on than normal ice. If you don’t feel like exerting the effort, don’t worry, the other methods in this article are more than enough to keep your food cold while camping.

4. Use Salt to Keep Ice from Melting

bowl of salt on a table

Did you know that salt can help keep ice from melting quickly? It’s a little-known fact, but when you add salt to ice, it lowers the freezing point, effectively keeping your cooler cold for a longer period of time.

But what is a little more well known is that salt is a natural preservative. That being the case, using it in your cooler not only helps keep the temperature down, but it also helps preserve your food. By creating a brine solution, the salt inhibits bacterial growth, keeping your perishable items fresher for longer. And let’s not forget, a little salt can add some extra flavor to your food (when you use it sparingly).

So, if you’re camping and don’t have access to other cooling methods – or you just want to extend the life of your ice – consider using salt. The best part is, it’s super cheap and easy to implement, as long as you follow these simple tips:

  • Choose coarse salt: Coarse salt is better suited for this purpose than fine salt, as it dissolves more slowly and provides a more even layer over the ice.
  • Sprinkle evenly: To create the ideal brine solution, make sure to sprinkle the salt evenly over the ice layer in your cooler.
  • Add more as needed: Keep an eye on your cooler and add more salt as needed to keep a consistent brine solution, maintaining that sweet spot of cold temperature.

Just remember that, while using salt is a handy trick to keep ice from melting, it will affect the flavor of any exposed foods. Packaged goods won’t be impacted, but anything that isn’t wrapped up will take on a much saltier taste. That being the case, I’d recommend packaging all of your food in a container anyway, regardless of whether you’re using salt or not.

Tips for Keeping Food Frozen

1. Keep Your Food in the Shade

pulling grabbing water out of a cooler

When the goal is to keep your food cold, it’s definitely in your best interest to avoid direct sunlight as much as possible. During the hottest hours of the day, finding a shaded spot for your cooler can significantly prolong the life of ice packs and the food itself.

Luckily, it’s pretty easy to find shade in the form of trees and rocky outcropping. But if you’re in the desert or other barren place, you can also use a variety of materials like tarps, tents, umbrellas, and blankets to create your own shade when camping.

If you really want to maximize the benefits, you can move your cooler as needed when the sun changes position throughout the day. By making the most of the available shade, you can save energy on ice replacement and avoid unnecessary trips to refill your ice supply.

2. Try a Portable Car Fridge

A portable car fridge is an electric cooler designed to keep your food cold. Generally speaking, all you have to do is plug it into your car’s cigarette lighter or battery and it will maintain a constant temperature. The real benefit here is that you don’t need ice or freeze packs, and you can keep your food cold indefinitely, as long as your car has power.

When choosing a portable car fridge, it’s good to pay attention to its power consumption, capacity, and additional features. You’ll want a fridge that’s efficient and fits your camping needs, but here are a few specific tips to help you make the most of your portable car fridge:

  • Check the fridge’s power consumption to ensure it won’t drain your car’s battery too quickly.
  • Consider the fridge’s capacity, opting for one that can hold the amount of food you plan to bring.
  • Look for additional features such as adjustable temperature settings, a digital display, or USB charging ports.
  • Place your portable car fridge in a secure and ventilated spot away from direct sunlight and heat sources.

By following these tips, I think you’ll find that a portable car fridge is well worth the cost. If you’re curious and want to look more into this type of product, our top pick is the Dometic CFX3 35 powered cooler.

3. Use Frozen Water Bottles

water bottle on its side

In case you didn’t know, you can bring your own water through TSA when you’re at the airport. As long as it’s frozen solid, they won’t make you throw it out when going through security. There’s your random lifehack for the day…

But anyway, frozen water bottles are useful for more than just playing the loopholes in airport security. When you’re camping, they can act as reusable ice packs for your cooler, while providing a refreshing drink once they’ve melted. Given the dual purpose of the water bottle, they can also save space and weight in both your cooler and backpack. For the most part, I’ve completely replaced my ice packs with frozen water bottles.

It’s pretty simple to do, and it doesn’t require you purchasing any ice packs, if you don’t have any already. Just choose plastic or metal bottles, fill them three-quarters full (to allow for expansion as the water freezes), and pop them in the freezer at least a day before your camping trip. When you’re ready to hit the road, place the frozen bottles strategically around your food inside the cooler. This way, they’ll help keep your food chilled while also taking up minimal space.

Tips for Using a Cooler

1. Use a Top-Quality Cooler

two people walking on the beach holding a green cooler

If you want to know how to keep food cold while camping, you’ll inevitably have to turn your attention to coolers. They’re the most efficient way to keep food nice and chilled for long periods of time, but with so many on the market, it’s essential to select the right one for your needs.

Fiberglass coolers provide excellent insulation and durability, making them a popular choice for all types of campers. However, they tend to be heavier and more expensive than other options, so they’re not really for people on a budget. Steel coolers are even more robust and durable, but they’re often bulky and the priciest option. Styrofoam coolers usually provide adequate insulation but are less eco-friendly and not as durable as other materials. I don’t really recommend using them, unless you don’t use them very often, or don’t plan on keeping it for long. Electric coolers can maintain a constant temperature, but they also require a power source like a car battery. And finally, soft coolers are lightweight and easy to transport, but their insulation capabilities may not be as effective as other cooler types.

As far as brands go, Yeti and Coleman are two well-known names in the camping cooler industry. For instance, the Coleman X-Treme cooler has a 50-liter capacity and can keep its contents cool for up to five days in 90°F temperatures. On the other hand, Yeti coolers are known for their exceptional performance and durability, but they come with a higher price tag.

2. Bring a Separate Cooler for Drinks

drinks in a cooler with ice

Having two coolers, one for food and a separate cooler for drinks, can make a significant impact on how well your food stays cold while camping. When you constantly open and close a cooler, it lets warm air in and reduces the cooling efficiency. Drinks, such as bottled water and sodas, are often accessed more frequently than food items during camping trips.

So… Why not have a dedicated drinks cooler? This way, you can open it as often as needed without affecting the temperature and freshness of your food stored in another cooler.

It’s a good idea to label your drinks as well, especially if you’re camping with a group. This will make it easier for everyone to find what they’re looking for without rummaging through the cooler and letting more warm air in.

3. Chill Your Cooler Ahead of Time

Chilling your cooler ahead of time is an excellent way to keep your food cold while camping. By pre-chilling your cooler, you lower its internal temperature and prevent it from (immediately) absorbing heat from the food or the environment. It’s one of the simplest tricks in the book, and it can also make your ice or freeze packs last longer, which is obviously a good thing.

There are a couple of ways you could go about this, but I’d recommend you start by filling the cooler with ice or freeze packs for a few hours before packing it with food. Choose a cool place to store the cooler, like your basement or garage, where it won’t be exposed to direct sunlight or high temperatures. And of course, remember to drain any melted water before adding your food and ice packs, as this can help maintain the cooler’s low temperature.

Playing off the next point, you should also act quickly when it comes time to pack your chilled cooler. Keep it closed as much as possible and consider using adhesive insulation strips or aluminized bubble wrap to further insulate the inside.

4. Keep Your Cooler Closed as Much as Possible

two men sitting by a red cooler

Keeping your cooler closed as much as possible can significantly help keep your food cold while camping. When you frequently open and close the cooler, you’re letting warm air in and cold air out. As you might expect, this isn’t very conducive for keeping food and/or drinks chilling on the inside – at the very least, they’ll warm up faster than anticipated.

So, how can you effectively keep your cooler closed as much as possible? Well, the best tip I can give you is to plan ahead. Before you even open your cooler, think about everything you’ll need, so you can grab it all at once and swiftly close the lid. While you’ll still let some warm air inside, it’s much more effective than constantly opening and closing the lid ever 10 minutes to grab something new.

You may also consider using a latch or lock on your cooler to ensure it remains tightly sealed. It’s a good way to maintain the cooler temperatures inside and prevent unwanted access from the outside

5. Pack Your Cooler Tightly

Packing your cooler tightly is key to keeping your food cold while camping. This is thanks to a bit of science that’s easy to overlook at first, but makes complete sense when you think about it. Because a tightly packed cooler reduces air circulation and heat transfer inside the cooler, it helps the food maintain low temperatures for longer periods of time. Not to mention, it prevents your food from shifting and spilling during transport, keeping your meals fresh and in one piece throughout your camping trip.

To pack your cooler tightly, I’d recommend using containers, bags, or wraps that fit snugly in the cooler. Arrange the items in layers and fill any gaps with ice or freeze packs to maximize colder spaces and eliminate warm pockets. Just make sure you don’t overload the cooler to the point where it doesn’t close (and seal) all the way.

Here are some tips to effectively pack your cooler:

  • Start with a layer of ice or freeze packs at the bottom.
  • Place heavier and sturdier items first, such as canned goods and large containers.
  • Use smaller containers or bags to nestle more delicate or perishable items like fruits, vegetables, and sandwiches in between the heavier items.
  • Fill the gaps with ice, freeze packs, or even frozen water bottles. These not only help maintain the cold environment inside the cooler but also minimize air circulation and act as backup potable water sources.
  • Finish with another layer of ice or freeze packs on the top.

If you follow these steps, you should be able to extend the life of your food significantly. Just remember, if your food is room temperature (or warmer) and you don’t know how long it’s been that way, you’re better off throwing it in the trash. The risk of foodborne illness isn’t worth it.


How Can I Keep Food Cold Without A Cooler While Camping?

If you don’t have access to a cooler, here are a few hacks to keep your food chilled while camping:

  1. Use natural cold sources, such as snow, a nearby stream, or a shaded area with cool earth.
  2. Purchase and consume perishable items, such as meats and dairy, early on in your trip and shift to non-perishable foods as time progresses.
  3. Store your food in a waterproof container or bag, and submerge it in a cold stream or lake, ensuring that it’s properly secured to avoid being swept away or disturbed by wildlife.

What Are The Best Ways to Preserve Food While Camping?

How Can I Keep Food Chilled In A Car Without A Cooler?

Meet the Author!

By the age of 20, Spencer had already tackled some of the most famed mountain ranges in Europe, Asia, and North America. His mission is to help others accomplish their own outdoor-related goals, even within the time constraints of a 9-5 job and a busy life schedule.

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