Skip to main content

How to Pack a Cooler for Camping

Whether you are camping for two nights or a full week, camping requires some careful forethought and planning. No one wants questionable food due to the cooler getting too warm too soon or an unidentifiable snack that’s soggy from falling out of an open package and into melting ice. With some consideration and preparation, you can easily pack a cooler for camping that will seamlessly serve you well throughout the length of your trip.

Type of Cooler

Yeti cooler in the back of a car camping set up

The two greatest factors to consider when choosing the best cooler for camping are its ability to insulate well, the size, and features of the cooler. Brands like Yeti and ORCA are both top performers for backpack coolers because they are incredibly durable and excellent at insulating. If you are in the market to buy a fancy new cooler, you can get good sizes from both brands too, should you need a compact design or a more sprawling cooler depending on your needs.

Related Videos

Size: A 56-quart cooler can hold enough food and keep it from spoiling for up to six and a half days, which makes it a versatile option for campers who go on both long and shorter trips.

Features: If you know you’ll be moving the cooler around with other camping gear, opt for a cooler with wheels. And if you plan to have a cooler just for drinks and ice, find a cooler with long ice retention and easy drainage.

Cooling Materials

Man putting a Yeti Ice into a Yeti Cooler

The key to making these coolers keep your food cold and fresh for as long as you need it comes down to how well you pack it with cooling materials. That begins with getting the cooler itself as cold as possible before you even place the first item or ice pack inside. If you have a spare fridge in your garage and can somehow move shelves around to fit your cooler inside, let it chill for about a day prior to packing. Otherwise, place the cooler in the coldest spot you can, even if it’s outside, to let cool it.

Next, line the bottom with ice packs. If you need more than what you have but don’t want to buy additional ice packs, consider filling sealable plastic bags or food storage containers with water and freezing them. Do, however, stay away from using ice cubes that don’t last as long and actually cause the other ice cubes to melt faster once they start floating those that have melted first.

After that first layer of ice packs is down, place a thin, insulating layer of cardboard, a broken down and cleaned milk carton, or even a foam pad between the ice packs and your food. This benefits the cooler in two ways. It will keep your food organized by preventing it from falling between the ice packs, and, if there is water in the bottom of the cooler, it will also keep the food from turning into mush. It’s also a good idea to place an additional insulating layer like this between the food and the lid of the cooler too.

Pack Food and Drinks the Right Way

Woman taking a drink out of a Yeti Cooler

Consider which foods need to stay the coldest as well as what you will need later in the trip. Those items should go at the bottom. Add another layer of ice packs and continue this layering pattern of food and ice packs until you reach the top.

Drinks: Reserve one side of the cooler for drinks so you can easily reach in and find them without leaving the cooler open for too long. Always latch it all the way so none of the cold air slips out. The rest of the food should be well organized so you know where everything is and can easily find it without having to stand over the cooler pulling tons of items out. One way to prevent this from happening is to pack by meal. The last day should be on the bottom while the first day should be at the top of the cooler. You can even incorporate a separate section for snacks.

Something to consider as well is a second cooler for drinks. You’re likely going to be reaching in for drinks like water, soda, or beer a lot more often than you are ingredients for meals. So, if you are able to, packing a separate drinks cooler will allow you to keep the food a lot colder in the long run.

Food: Coolers are top of the list for camping cooking gear and a great way to make everything last as long as possible is to freeze the items that need to stay cold prior to packing them. Things like meat, water bottles, and even fruit can be frozen then packed. It’s also helpful to remove the original packaging for most food and repack it in sturdier containers that are less likely to leak. This also allows you to prevent any wasted space because you can do meal prep and package it well. One example is eggs. You can crack them into a plastic bag, add any toppings or mix-ins you might want such as veggies, then seal it and pack it in a much smaller space.

As you use your camping meals and containers become empty, you can drain off any water from the bottom of the cooler into the now free containers. Though it won’t freeze, the water should still be cold enough to help keep the rest of the cooler cold within the sealable containers without leaking.

Editors' Recommendations

The 7 Best Mobile Camp Kitchens for an Epic Camp Cookout
Friends sharing a meal while camping by a lake

A fresh, hot meal is usually out of the question when it comes to camping or hiking in the wilderness. Most people usually munch on trail mix, sandwiches, or beef jerky for sustained energy. But what if we told you that foods like fire-roasted hot dogs, seared steaks, and even spaghetti with meatballs are all possible to cook in the great outdoors? Well, thanks to the magic of camp cooking gear, you're able to cook almost any type of food in any location. So check out our top picks below that will guarantee a gourmet meal for your next camping adventure.

Read more
The Best Dehydrated Camping Meals For Lasting Energy

At some point on the trail, food just becomes fuel, and you lose count of the number of bland tortillas you've eaten. The same goes for our old friend the bagel, and the metric ton of trail mix we've inhaled over the past few years. But why should you settle for the same old snacks that are clearly not doing you any favors in the "flavor town" department? Our solution: Treat yourself every now and then to a few tasty dehydrated camping meals.

We've been testing, tasting, and loving a wide variety of dehydrated options this year, and decided to share a few of our top picks for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We also have a few of our favorite pre-packaged backpack-stable snacks to throw some extra flavor and variety into your regular camping food rotation.

Read more
How to Plan a Grand Adventure to Blue Ridge Parkway, a Road Tripper’s Guide
A bird's eye view of Blue Ridge Parkway.

Tracing the spine of the southern Appalachian Mountains from Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park all the way to the eastern edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Western North Carolina, the Blue Ridge Parkway is an epic East Coast road trip. The first motorway in the country designed purely for recreational purposes, the parkway weaves through six different mountain ranges and four massive national forests, first following the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains and then snaking through the Black Mountains, the Great Craggy Mountains, the Pisgahs, and the Balsam Mountains before arriving at the edge of Great Smoky Mountains.

Stringing together some of the wildest spaces in the East, the 469-mile motorway also showcases some of the most spectacular fall colors in the country, as the richly biodiverse forests of the southern Appalachian Mountains blush with autumn color.

Read more