How to Keep Food Cold While Camping (13 Icy Tips for Campers)

Outdoor Survival Skills

Planning a camping trip? You’ll want to know how to keep food cold while camping because it could make all the difference in whether you have a fabulous or miserable experience. Here are 13 icy cold tips to help you keep your food cold when camping.

how to keep food cold while camping

Campers Guide to Keeping Food Cold

Eating food that’s above 4 °C (40 °F) or lower poses the risk of food poisoning. And no one wants to get sick while camping.

In this post, you’ll find two sections. The first part has 13 tips for keeping food cold while camping, and the second section covers food safety tips and common questions people have about keeping food cold.

So, let’s get started!

Camping picnic food

What is a safe food storage temperature?

For food safety, your cooler should maintain a temperature of 4 °C (40 °F) or lower, according to Health Canada.

13 Tips: Keeping Food Cold When Camping

1. Invest in the right cooler

This is the single more important decision to keeping your food cold. Don't buy a cheap cooler – no amount of ice will keep your food chilled during your trip.

There are lots of different types of coolers on the market, ranging from cheap styrofoam to high-end steel or fiberglass coolers and electric types that hook up to car batteries. Some of the more expensive kinds come with handy features like thermometers, shelves, handles, wheels and drainage plugs.

What type of cooler should you buy? This depends on factors like your budget, personal preference, and how long you plan on camping. Fiberglass and steel coolers are designed to keep food cool for several days, but styrofoam coolers weigh much lighter. This is something to consider if you plan on carrying one for long distances.

You should choose a cooler that is well insulated and will keep your food cool for the duration of your camping trip.

Keep reading because I’ve got more tips to show you how to keep food cool while camping no matter which cooler type you use.

2. Pre-chill your cooler

Don’t start your camping trip off with a lukewarm experience. Help your cooler keep your food cool longer by chilling it the night before or a few hours prior to your trip.

You can do this by filling it with a bag of loose ice or frozen ice packs. When you’re ready to travel, you can empty the cooler and transfer your refrigerated food to a pre-chilled environment as opposed to a room-temperature one.

If you have the space, you can put your whole cooler inside your deep freeze. This will help your ice last longer – because it only has to maintain the cool temperature instead of lowering it first.

3. Choose long-lasting ice

Sure, you can use the loose ice found at gas stations and grocery stores, but it will melt quickly, and then you'll have a cooler full of water and soggy food items.

It’s best to use large blocks of ice that you place in the bottom of your cooler. Large ice blocks will take much longer to melt, keeping your food cool longer.

Even better, make your own ice blocks by freezing water in plastic water bottles or milk jugs about four days before your trip. The advantage of this is that the ice won’t melt into a mess with your food floating in water. Plus, after the ice melts in the bottles or jugs, you have safe drinking water, which is great in an emergency situation.

how long does ice last in a cooler

What about dry ice? If you're camping in the United States, you can find dry ice at many grocery stores. This is a good option because it lasts the longest while also keeping your food dry, but it requires careful handling. Dry ice will burn your skin and crack your cooler unless you first wrap it in newspaper. Also, don’t place any food items next to dry ice that you don’t want to be frozen because dry ice will freeze whatever is directly next to it.

4. Freeze your food

Kill two birds with one stone by freezing your food a few days ahead of your camping trip.

The frozen food can be used as ice blocks. Plus, your food will stay cold until you’re ready to cook it at your campsite.

5. Use ice packs

Use ice packs to help keep your food and drink items cool longer. You can buy manufactured ice packs online or at grocery and camping stores. These ice packs can be reused over and over again and stay cold for up to two days.

If you don’t want to spend any extra money, you can make your own ice packs by freezing water in ziplock freezer bags.

Frozen bags of vegetables also make good homemade ice packs. Plus, you can eat the contents when you get ready to cook them. Oh, and ice packs come in handy to reduce swelling if you get injured while camping!

6. Two coolers are better than one

If you have space, bringing two coolers on your camping trips is recommended to separate food from drinks.

Opening a cooler frequently will cause it to lose cool air quickly. So, when the kids keep going to the drink cooler for another drink, you can rest easy knowing the food is staying cold in the other cooler.

Guide to keeping food cold

7. Pack your cooler tight, and pack it right!

When you’re camping, you don’t want to have to search through frozen food looking for a particular item. Neither do you want to open your cooler too frequently. So, to avoid all this, it’s best to pack your cooler the right way.

  • Begin your first layer with block ice or crushed ice. (Block ice is recommended if your trip is more than a couple of days).
  • Next, lay frozen or cold meat on the ice. Make sure that it is contained in sealed packages so that it doesn’t contaminate other foods when it defrosts.
  • If you have space, add another layer of ice on top of the meat.
  • Now add any dairy products you have directly on the ice.
  • Next is other food items that are in sealed in their own container or ziplock bag.
  • The top layer should be foods that will be consumed first or most often such as drinks, condiments, sandwiches and snacks.

After you have your food packed in the cooler, make sure that every air pocket is filled with an ice pack to keep cold air going downward to the bottom.

8. Keep your cooler in the shade

Once you arrive at your campsite, place your cooler in a shady spot, away from direct sunlight. You may occasionally need to move the cooler in different areas throughout the day as the sun moves across the sky.

For extra insulation, cover your cooler with a blanket or tarp.

9. Bring along non-perishable foods

In addition to food in the cooler, it’s a good idea to bring along some snacks that don’t need to be kept cold. Things like canned foods, protein bars, dried fruit, and trail mix as well as a gallon of fresh drinking water can all be stored without a cooler.

10. Don’t drain the cooler unnecessarily

Even after the ice melts in the cooler, the cold water continues to keep the food cold. As long as you have space, try not to drain the water from the cooler.

11. Freeze (most of) your drinking water

If you are car camping, you might decide to bring your drinking water. Of course, you could just boil river water. But if you are bringing lots of ice, why not freeze water that you can drink when it thaws?

12. Cook your food before leaving

Cooking some of your camping food in advance will make it easier to manage your coolers. This can help some food keep longer. Not to mention how nice it is to have some food ready to go after setting up camp on your first day!

And if you freeze your prepped meals before leaving, they can also serve as cooling ice for the rest of your food.

13. Use a thermometer inside the cooler

This is a simple way to ensure that your food stays safe. Pick Up a basic fridge thermometer and drop it in the cooler. It'll tell you at a glance if you're in the safe temperature zone.

A cooler thermometer like this will give readings in Celsius and Fahrenheit and from -40°C to 50°C (-40 ° to 120°F). It's just a couple of bucks and takes the guesswork out of food storage.

best coolers for camping

3 Best Coolers to Keep Camping Food Cold

1. YETI Hopper Two Portable Cooler

This soft sided cooler is 100% leak proof. So even if your ice melts and begins to puddle, it won't get anything else wet.

It features a hydrolok zipper and super durable carry straps.

Check current price on Amazon

Empty weight is 5.5 lbs and can hold up to 30 pounds of ice. Now that should cool things down. For volume, it will hold 24 cans of beer – using a 2:1 ice to beer ratio.

2. Coleman Xtreme 5-Day Cooler

This is a classic cooler – but with way more life. I've used this wheeled model for years on camping trips. And by using some of the tips in this post, we've seen the ice last longer than 5 days.

Check current price on Amazon

This beast will hold 95 cans and has an easy to use drain for any melted ice. If you have to travel far, you'll love the wheels and long tow handle.

This is the most inexpensive cooler in the list – and definitely worth a look.

3. Pelican Elite 30 Quart Cooler

Features 2 inches of polyurethane insulation for exceptional ice retention.

Pelican offers a pretty unique guarantee: “You break it, we replace it. Forever!” 

Check current price on Amazon

Comes in 9 colors – perfect for using the two-cooler approach to keeping food cold.

Camping food safety tips

6 Food Safety Tips for Campers

No one wants to get sick during their camping trip, so it’s a good idea to keep these basic food safety tips in mind:

  1. Always keep uncooked meat and poultry separate from other foods to prevent cross-contamination.
  2. Prevent the spread of bacteria by “keeping hot foods hot and cold foods cold.” Perishable foods should be eaten or discarded within two hours of being unrefrigerated.
  3. Raw beef, pork and lamb should be cooked to at least an internal temperature of 145°F while raw poultry should be cooked to an internal temperature of 165°F.
  4. For safe drinking water, bring bottled water or boil your water.
  5. Prevent sickness by washing eating utensils with clean water and soap. Bring disposable wipes and/or hand sanitizer to keep your hands clean. Remember to always wash your hands after handling raw meat and poultry.
  6. Bring garbage bags to dispose of any leftover food and other trash.
How to keep camping food cold

12 Questions About Keeping Camping Food Cold

1. How do you keep food cold when camping?

There are lots of ways to keep your food supply cold – even for many days in the woods.

Here's a summary of the tips above for how to keep food cold while camping:

  1. Invest in a good cooler that is well-insulated.
  2. Pre-chill your cooler with ice a few hours prior or the night before your trip.
  3. Use block ice and dry ice for longer-lasting results.
  4. Make your own ice blocks by freezing water in water bottles or milk/juice jugs.
  5. Freeze your food a few days ahead of leaving on your camping trip.
  6. Use ice packs to fill air pockets in your cooler.
  7. Bring two coolers to use one for drinks and the other for food.
  8. Pack the cooler right by putting meat on the bottom and most frequently used items on top.
  9. Always keep your cooler in the shade and covered with a blanket or tarp.
  10. Don’t drain melted ice water unless necessary.
  11. Freeze most of your drinking water
  12. Cook some of your food before leaving for the trip.
  13. Use a thermometer: keep food at 4 °C (40 °F) or colder.

2. How long will a cooler keep food cold?

Your cooler will keep food cold for as long as the internal temperature remains below 4 °C (40 °F), so it’s a good idea to have a thermometer handy.

Keeping ice or ice packs in the cooler will help keep your food cold. Even during really hot weather, block ice can last between 5 and 7 days if your cooler is well-insulated. Covering your cooler in a tarp or blanket offers extra insulation for your cooler so that it can keep food cold longer.

Once the cooler’s internal temperature rises, food should be eaten within a few hours.

How long will a cooler keep food cold

3. How do you keep food cold without a cooler?

If you don’t have a cooler, one of the ways you can keep food cold is by using a thermal bag. Like with coolers, the thermal bag keeps food cold longer if you pack it with ice packs and frozen or pre-chilled food.

Don’t have a cooler or thermal bag? Make a homemade cooler by insulating a cardboard box with aluminum foil and putting a top on the box. This won’t keep food cold as long as a cooler, but it will do the trick if you're just going on a picnic or a single overnight camping trip.

You can also do what people did back in the day. Put your food in cold, running water or store it underground. To do either of these, you’ll need to be sure to put your food in a sealed container so that it’s not contaminated or stolen by fish or animals.

4. How do you store food while camping?

If you leave your food unattended, wild birds and animals may sneak in and steal it, so here are some storage tips:

  • When you’re enjoying outdoor activities like hiking, fishing and boating, keep your cooler in your car unless you have a padlock on it.
  • Some campsites feature metal bear boxes. If there is one, you can store non-perishable food in it.
  • You can also store food in a bear canister or some other bear-proof container.
  • Put your non-perishable food in a plastic bag and hang it in from a tree or pole.

This video shows you more about how to store food while camping:

Watch on YouTube

5. How long do insulated lunch bags keep food cold?

Insulated lunch bags can keep food cold for up to three days and longer if you’ve packed it with ice packs and/or frozen food. But don't expect your ice to last that long – especially if it's a hot day.

6. How can I keep food cold in a cooler for 2 days?

Large blocks of ice will keep food cold in the cooler for at least two days. Dry ice will keep food cold even longer.

If you don’t have either of these, you can buy bags of crushed ice at camp stores and keep your cooler filled with it, but crushed ice will melt quicker.

7. How long will ice packs keep a cooler cold?

Not all ice packs are created equal. Once frozen, some ice packs are designed to keep food cold for up to 24 hours. Others may last up to 48 hours or longer.

8. How does a cooler keep things cold?

Coolers come in a wide variety of sizes, styles and brands, but all of them keep things cold by insulation. Various coolers are made with different types of materials that prevent heat from transferring into the cooler.

Keep food safe while camping

9. How do you keep drinks cold when camping?

Besides keeping drinks on ice in a cooler separate from the food cooler, you can also freeze your drinks before leaving on your camping trip and carry them inside a thermal bag.

However, you do need to take caution when freezing carbonated drinks because soda will expand and explode in its original can or bottle. It’s best to pour the drinks in a separate container, leaving enough room at the top for expansion.

You can also keep drinks cold under running water. Just make sure the drink containers are sealed to prevent contamination.

10. How do you keep eggs cold when camping?

No one wants broken eggs in their cooler, so to avoid this, determine how many eggs you’re going to need on your camping trip.

Before you head out, crack each egg and place the yolks (separately or together) into a resealable container or plastic bottle. Pack the containers in the cooler with other cold stuff, and your eggs should stay cold.

11. How to keep food cold in a car?

You could buy a portable car fridge, like this one by Igloo.

Otherwise, keep food cold in your car by packing it in a well-insulated cooler. If your car has air conditioning, the cooler and food should be fine while you’re driving. During the summer or when your car is parked, you should keep the cooler in the trunk covered with a blanket or tarp to keep it insulated.

12. How to keep food cold while backpacking?

Lugging around a bulky cooler while backpacking would be ridiculous. So instead, you can put your food and drinks in a thermal bag.

These bags are lightweight and can even be packed inside your backpack. You can put the food in the main part of the bag and then put ice packs in the pockets to keep the inside cold. Thermal bags can keep food cold for several days, especially if you freeze or chill it beforehand.

how to keep food cold when camping

Your Turn

We hope this post has provided you with valuable tips on how to keep food cold while camping. Do you have any tips of your own that are not included in this post? Let us know in the comments section.

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Hi, I'm the Author!

Bryan Haines

Bryan Haines is a travel blogger, photographer and content marketer. He is co-founder of EhListers (Nova Scotia travel blog) and Storyteller Media (content marketing for Canadian travel brands). Bryan is also an avid photographer. Check out ClickLikeThis, a GoPro tutorial blog he runs with his wife, Dena.

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