Much time and preparation typically go into packing food for a camping trip. You want to ensure that you have enough meals and snacks for everyone and that the options are varied and enjoyable.
However, food safety often poses an issue, especially when camping in the warmer months. Nobody wants to wind up with a cooler of spoiled meat and vegetables during their camping trip.
Our team has tried various methods and tips for packing and storing food during camping. We’ve researched and tested so that you don’t have to. Here’s everything we’ve learned about how to keep food cold while camping.
11 Ways To Keep Food Cold While Camping
Keeping food at the right temperature doesn’t have to be complicated. Here are 11 of the best ways to keep food cold while camping.
Invest in a Good Cooler
Not all coolers are made alike. You may want to consider investing in a high-end food cooler for camping.
Some higher-end models have thick walls to keep your food at the right temperature for a week or more.
However, if a high-end cooler doesn’t fit your budget, you can also find less-expensive options that will keep your food chilled for several days.
Also, consider purchasing a cooler with wheels for easy transportation, especially when it is full.
Finally, “pre-chill” your cooler before your trip by filling it with ice the night before you pack for your trip.
Pack Your Cooler As Tightly As Possible
How you pack your cooler can also affect the temperature of your food during your camping trip. Ensure that the most perishable foods, such as meats, are placed directly on the ice layer at the bottom of your cooler.
If you have room, add another layer of ice on top of the meat. You should also pack any dairy items directly on a layer of ice. The tighter you can pack the cooler, the better. A densely-packed cooler will stay cold longer than one that has empty space.
Bring Frozen Food or Freeze Your Meals In Advance
Purchase your vegetables, meats, and other items from the grocery store’s frozen section. These items will stay colder longer when packed in a cooler than cold but not frozen ones and work great for keeping food cold when camping.
They also help maintain the temperature in the cooler by acting as ice packs.
You can also prepare and cook items in advance at home and then freeze them in individual portions in ziplock bags. This method works particularly well for things like sauces, cut vegetables, and fresh fruit and makes meal prep easier at the campsite.
Choose The Right Kind of Ice
Just like coolers, not all types of ice are created equal. If possible, using blocks instead of loose ice cubes will help your cooler and the things in it stay colder for a more extended period of time.
Loose ice cubes tend to melt quickly and will create a pool of water in the bottom of the cooler that could cause food to turn soggy or spoil.
You can make your own block ice from baking pans, gallon milk jugs, or other household containers. Another option is to buy specially-made cooler “ice packs.” These liquid or gel-filled packs freeze quickly, stay frozen longer, and fit nicely inside coolers.
Separate Your Food From Your Drinks
If you have the room, you should consider packing two different coolers for your camping trip. Have one cooler for food items that are perishable like meat, vegetables, and other ingredients that you may use for cooking while camping.
In the other cooler, pack your drinks and non-perishable snacks. Separating these items will help you avoid constantly opening the cooler with your meat and vegetables whenever someone wants a drink or a snack.
Even with your drink and snack cooler, try to avoid opening and closing it more than you need. Although drinks are less-perishable than other items, you will want to keep them cold as long as possible for enjoyment.
Use a Thermometer Inside the Cooler
You do not need an expensive thermometer to monitor the temperature of the food inside your coolers, but you should bring at least a basic one with you on your camping trip.
Make sure that the temperature inside of the cooler stays below 40°F at all times, especially for your portable meat cooler. If the temperature exceeds that benchmark, it could encourage bacteria growth in the food.
If the temperature inside of your cooler reaches above 40°F during your trip, you should either eat the food inside of it immediately or throw it out to avoid getting sick.
Add Salt To Your Ice
Mixing a bit of rock salt with your ice will help the temperature inside the cooler remain lower and keep the temperature of any liquid water from the melting ice below the freezing point. It will also help prevent the remaining ice from melting too quickly.
Just make sure to carefully pack your food and beverages and keep them in airtight containers to avoid the salt mixing in with the food before you are ready to eat it.
Put Your Coolers In The Shade
Hiding in the shade is a great way to stay cool while camping and the same applies to your food.
Find the shadiest spot on your campsite and place your coolers there, so they remain out of the direct sun during the hottest part of the day. You may need to periodically move your cooler around throughout the day as the position of the sun changes.
If there is not a lot of shade on your campsite, bring a tarp or blanket that you can hang from trees to create a shady spot to store your cooler. You can also place the blanket or tarp directly on the cooler itself to help protect it from the hot sun.
Freeze Your Water
It’s a good idea to add some frozen water bottles to your drink and snack cooler. These will act as ice packs, keeping the other beverages and food cold, and also provide you with fresh cold water for drinking during your trip.
You can either freeze your water in small bottles and place them around the perimeter of the inside of your cooler, or you can freeze some of your drinking water in gallon jugs for a larger ice pack.
Just make sure you use regular ice packs or ice as well since you will drink the water from the jugs as it melts.
Use Communal Fridges At Campsites
If you’re lucky enough to stay at a campsite that offers communal refrigerators, you can take advantage of this amenity to help keep your food safe and at the right temperature.
You will mostly find this option available at commercialized campgrounds. Just make sure you label all of your food clearly to help prevent mix-ups or other campers taking it from the fridge.
You will also want to pack it in leakproof containers so that you won’t risk contaminating other people’s stored food.
Use An Electric Cooler or Car Fridge
Some campsites also have power hookups. If that’s the case, you can easily pack a small electric refrigerator or cooler to keep your food and drinks at the right temperature. This method makes a reliable way to ensure food safety.
A car fridge uses the 12-V connection in your vehicle to power the fridge from your car’s battery. Using a car fridge will keep food cold without ice, so you will not have to worry about replenishing ice or spoiling food.
You may also want to bring an extension cord with you so that you can keep the fridge out of your vehicle.
The best way to keep food cold while camping is to pack it in a high-quality cooler with the right amount of ice. Other alternatives include bringing a small electric refrigerator (if the campsite has power), using the communal refrigerator at the campsite (if available), or keeping your food in a car fridge that runs off your car’s battery power.
Your food should easily stay cold in the cooler for two days if you pack it correctly and use the correct type of ice. Pack the cooler as tightly as possible. Also, consider pre-chilling your cooler before you pack it or packing it with frozen foods and/or frozen water bottles.
If you need to keep food cold without a cooler for several hours (such as if you are backpacking or hiking), using an insulated bag with a small ice pack will adequately maintain the temperature of your perishable food.
Using and packing your cooler correctly should keep your food cold for approximately five days. Some higher-end models of coolers can keep food cold even longer than that, sometimes even for a week or more.