How to Keep Food Cold on a Camping Trip

How to keep food cold is the number one challenge for anyone who goes on a camping trip. This is especially true for groups of people who go camping for longer than a weekend. 

Even the best coolers and preplanning may not keep food cold longer than two days. 

This is not good news if your week-long camping trip doesn’t allow for electric-powered refrigeration to keep food cold. Since keeping the meal-time complaints to a minimum is the goal, keeping food supplies cold is a priority. It’s right up there with getting a fire going. 

So let’s look at how to keep food cold longer, to provide a hot meal after a long day. 

Any Kind of Cooler Will Keep Food Cold

You can spend as much as you want, but all portable coolers keep food cold in the same way. And if you are like most people, you will have several junked coolers sitting around in your garage. These are all semi-impulse buys for a camping trip, barbequing, sporting events, or the beach. They are in various states of usability, and you think maybe they should all be thrown out.

But you have another camping trip planned. So you find yourself once more staring at new, improved coolers in the big box sporting goods store. The coolers are different prices and of different qualities. Nevertheless, they all have explanations as to why they will keep food cold longer. 

What to Look For in a Cooler

  • Heavy-duty materials to hold water in as ice melts
  • External storage for sunscreen, keys, snacks
  • Sturdy hinges and latches
  • Rubber seal inside lid to keep cold air in
  • Easy-to-grab handles for a two-person carry
  • Strong enough to double as a place to sit

Pro Camping Trip Tip:

Always buy a cooler with a plug in the bottom to drain the water. If you get stuck with grocery store ice melting, drain the ice cooler every day. Water in your cooler will make any ice that is left melt even faster. The truth of the matter, though, is that any cooler will keep food cold if you pack it correctly. Unless you are willing to spend big bucks to chill water bottles a few times a year. 

So go back to your old coolers because they are probably fine. The key to keeping food cold the longest is all in the prep work.

Cool the Cooler First to Keep Food Cold Longer

Putting ice into a cooler that is a room temperature will only serve to melt the ice. Instead, the night before you need the cooler, fill it with a few bags of grocery store ice. Leave the ice chest in a cool place overnight inside your house. In the morning, the cooler will be nice and cold on the inside. It will start cooling anything you put inside it, instead of the other way around.

Putting cold food into a cold cooler is like transferring food from one refrigerator into another. Think about it this way. You wouldn’t put food into a warm refrigerator, plug it in, and expect it to immediately keep food cold.    

Pro Camping Trip Tips:

  • If it’s summertime, don’t leave your ice chest in a hot car. If you stop to eat or run errands on your camping trip, don’t keep your cooler in the car. 
  • As well, always keep your cooler out of direct sunlight. This is the fastest way to get a warmed-up cooler and spoiled food. Even in the car, keeping your cooler under a tarp will delay the inevitable melting of your ice packs. 

Don’t Buy Grocery Store Ice to Keep Food Cold

Unless you need it on a camping trip emergency, don’t buy grocery store ice. This is because grocery store ice melts very quickly. If you have ever bought it, you already know what happens. You have a cooler full of cold water and soggy groceries by the second day of your camping trip.

This is because, quite naturally, small cubes will melt much faster than larger blocks of ice. So the best thing to do is freeze water in several 2-liter plastic juice bottles. These are the perfect size to put in a cooler and stay frozen without taking up too much room. 

You should also freeze about half a dozen small water bottles. Then you will have a variety of sizes of frozen-water ice packs to keep food cold. 

Pro Camping Trip Tips: 

  • Freeze water bottles for three or four days (up to a week) before a camping trip. This will allow the water bottles to form into solid blocks of ice. These solid water bottles are less likely to melt for at least a few days in a cooler. Water bottles may freeze overnight, but they will still melt fairly quickly if they’re not frozen solid. 
  • For super-cold frozen water, put about ¼ cup of salt in each of the larger water bottles. Salted water bottles freeze faster and stay frozen longer. Just make sure to mark the water bottles so no one drinks them when they thaw. 
  • Packing your cooler as tight as possible is the key to keeping it the coolest. The less air space you have in the cooler, the colder it will stay. The more air space you have – the faster it will become warmer. 

You can also drink from semi-frozen water bottles after a few days if anyone wants cold water. If you do happen to have access to a freezer, you can refreeze any of these bottles overnight. 

This is where ice packs will also come in handy. Once you have frozen juice bottles of water and bottles of frozen drinking water, ice packs will fill in the smaller spaces. This way, you will have as little air in the cooler as possible. If you go on a lot of camping trips, always be on the lookout for ice packs on sale. Ice packs are usually on sale at the end of the season at outdoor outfitters. 

Keep Food Cold on a Camping Trip by Packing Frozen Foods

Freezing every piece of food you can, will keep all of your food cold longer on a camping trip. If you go camping a lot, a vacuum sealer is the best way to freeze food for a cooler. Vacuum-sealing meat as individual pieces and then freezing it solid keeps it frozen for extended periods of time. This is because there will be no air in the freezer bag. A vacuum sealer costs about $35 to $50 new, or you can buy one used.

These frozen pieces of meat can be stuffed into a cooler in between many other items. This will effectively reduce the amount of air in the cooler. This will also keep your other food cold at the same time. In addition to meat, anything that you can vacuum-seal and freeze can double as ice packs.

Pro Camping Trip Tip:

On the plus side, vacuum freezer bags can be reused. This is better than buying grocery store zip-lock bags and throwing them out after every camping trip. 

Camping Trip Foods that Can Be Frozen Ahead of Time:

  • Meats
  • Cheeses
  • Juice Boxes
  • Water Bottles
  • Butter/Margarine
  • Cooked Fruits and Veggies
  • Chocolate/Candy
  • Bread/Buns

These items can then be tightly packed into a cooler. As these items are all different shapes and sizes, they will fit snugly together. This way, there will be no air in the cooler. This is the best way to pack a cooler to super-chill it. 

Pro Camping Trip Tip:

Fill small plastic sandwich containers with water and freeze the water into blocks of ice. Pop the ice out and vacuum-seal the block of ice to store in the freezer until your camping trip. These homemade ice packs will stay frozen longer. They can also be quickly refrozen if you get access to a freezer. 

Other Items That Can Be Refrigerated:

  • Ketchup
  • Mustard
  • Jelly
  • Peanut Butter
  • Milk

Anything you can chill before your camping trip will keep your food cold longer.

Taking Two or More Coolers to Keep Food Cold

There’s no rule that says everything you take on a camping trip has to go into one giant super-cooler. In fact, it’s a mistake to do this if you have the room to take two coolers. This is because the more often you open a cooler lid to get something out, the warmer it gets.

Two or more smaller coolers will work better for keeping food cold on a camping trip. You can have one cooler of frozen items that only gets opened at mealtime. A second cooler can be for drinks and even filled with ice cubes. A third cooler could be for snacks that need to be cool but not necessarily frozen with ice packs. 

How to Pack an Ice Chest to Keep Food Cold

If you pack your cooler correctly, you can keep your food cold much longer. 

  • First, line the bottom of the cooler with vacuum-sealed ice packs. However, any layer of ice on the bottom of the cooler will keep it colder. 
  • Put layers of frozen, vacuum-sealed meat in the cooler next. This way, anytime someone opens the ice chest, the meat will be protected.
  • Then, place another layer of vacuum-sealed ice or ice packs on top of this. 
  • Then you can put in the plastic frozen juice/water bottles on top of this. If you can, buy juice bottles that are squared off, rather than round.
  • The rest of the frozen food can be mixed in with this layer. Put anything that might get squashed on the very top. Feel free to fill up any gaps with ice from the convenience store. Remember, the least amount of air will keep food cold longer. 
  • If you have a separate drinks cooler, put the drinks in first, and then ice in around them. Or, a few frozen water bottles mixed in with one or two ice packs should keep them cool.

Using Dry Ice to Keep Food Cold

Many people who are going on a camping trip consider using dry ice to keep food cold. However, the advantages of using dry ice may not be worth the effort. 

Dry ice is actually frozen carbon dioxide gas, so it doesn’t melt – it evaporates. Dry ice also registers at a temperature of -109.3 degrees Fahrenheit or colder. These are two pluses to taking dry ice on a camping trip to keep food cold. 

However, since you can’t keep it that cold at home, dry ice must be purchased on the way to the campground. Which means that a store on the way will have to be selling it. This is something you will have to find out before you go on your camping trip. As well, 5-10 pounds of dry ice will evaporate within twenty-four hours, which still leaves you with no ice. (No water mess either, though.) 

Also, keep in mind that the carbon dioxide gas dry ice gives off while it evaporates is harmful. If you ride with dry ice in an enclosed vehicle, it can trigger headaches or cause you to pass out. You must also keep it away from your campsite where people or pets may breathe in the gas. 

Dry ice also will burn your skin – worse than fire. So you must wear gloves and long sleeves to handle it. Also, keep dry ice wrapped in a layer of newspaper when it is in your cooler. Make sure that it is securely wrapped and that it is sitting on top of everything else. Any contact with water will make it evaporate very quickly. 


Using a Portable Electric or Solar Cooler to Keep Food Cold 

One answer to keeping food cold that is much easier to use is an electric or solar-powered cooler. These coolers come in a variety of sizes (19 to 42 quart) and are priced from $179 to $499. These kinds of coolers also serve a variety of functions. They can act as traditional coolers, portable refrigerators, or even portable freezers. This also means no more melting ice packs, dry ice, or frozen water bottles to worry about ever again. 

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Sam Brooks

Hi, my name is Sam Brooks and I'm a huge hiking, fishing and camping enthusiast. I bring my dog Max as often as I can because he also loves the great outdoors. Although I consider myself a private person, I really want to share my passion and knowledge with the readers here at