How to Pack an Ice Cooler
Packing an ice cooler takes some thought and preparation, but if you do it right, you can rest easy knowing your food is safe.
KEEP IT COLD—Make sure the temperature inside the cooler stays at 40°F or below. Be sure to include a thermometer in the cooler.
PRE-CHILL and PRE-FREEZE—Coolers aren’t refrigerators, they won’t freeze things for you, they’ll just keep them at the temperature they were when you put them in. Pack perishable foods straight from the refrigerator or freezer into the cooler. Meat and poultry should be packed while still frozen. Try to pack 30 minutes before departure.
KNOW YOUR PERISHABLES—Perishables include meats, poultry, seafood, dairy, cut fruit, eggs, anything with eggs, and generally anything with a high moisture content.
TAKE MORE THAN ONE COOLER—Consider taking a cooler just for beverages since it will be opened and closed frequently throughout the day, and another for perishable and prepared foods. It’s nice to keep raw meat, poultry, and seafood in their own cooler so there is no chance of their juices contaminating other perishable foods. (And, it will make your vegan and vegetarian companions happy.)
LABEL IT—Label your frozen meals with the name of the recipe and/or what day you plan on eating it. For example: “Vegetarian Chili” or “Saturday Night”. Use freezer tape and a permanent marker.
PACK IN ORDER—Pack the food you’ll eat first on top, along with the most perishable. Group meals together. Keep food in sealable plastic containers or resalable plastic bags to prevent contact with melting ice water.
KEEP IT FULL—A full cooler will stay cold longer than one that is partially full. Fill the gaps with more ice. When coolers are opened the cold air escapes and warm air rushes in. So, keep it tight in there.
AVOID THE SLOSH—Drain coolers twice a day. Buy fresh ice as often as possible to replenish the melt. Don’t put the coolers in the hot trunk! You like air conditioning in the summer and so does your cooler. Keep coolers in the shade when possible, and cover them with a sleeping bag or extra blanket for insulation.
HOME AGAIN—When you get home, transfer any perishables to the refrigerator immediately. Clean out the cooler with mild biodegradable soap and warm water.
How do you pack your cooler? If you have any tips, we’d love to hear them!