How To Keep Food Cold While Camping

Written by: Karyn James

There are various steps to keeping food and drinks cold while camping for a week, for 5 days, or for 3 days in a cooler without electricity: 

Ways to Keep Food Cold While Camping

  • Find ways to prepare and freeze meals in advance
  • Choose a quality cooler
  • Have an extra cooler handy
  • Cool down the cooler before filling it
  • Pack the cooler properly
  • Store the cooler correctly

One day into our first extended camping trip, we realized that our cooler couldn’t keep up with hot temperatures and haphazard food packing. My biggest takeaway from the trip? Well, other than unpleasant chicken can smell in 95-degree heat? Outdoor enthusiasts like you and I should learn how to keep food cold while camping for food quality and safety. 

This comprehensive guide explains how to do it so that you won’t need to worry about spoiled milk or warm deli meat. Let’s dive in!

What You Will Need To Keep Food Cold While Camping 

Before packing your cooler, have a list of food and drinks you’d like to pack. It may seem counter-intuitive, but the more full a cooler is, the longer it will keep its temperature.

Then, read this tutorial to learn how to pack your cooler for successful cooling throughout your camping trip.

To follow this tutorial, you’ll need:

  • A quality cooler with long-lasting cooling properties
  • Prepared meals and non-perishable foods
  • Bags of ice or long-lasting ice packs
  • Frozen water bottles
  • A cool area in which to store your cooler

It could also be good to have an extra cooler to separate food and drinks or meats from vegetables. Otherwise, you’re ready to get started packing!

Step-By-Step Instructions for How to Keep Food Cold While Camping

Learn from my chicken catastrophe and pack your cooler properly. Let’s go over the best ways you can prepare for your camping trip.

Step 1: Prepare Meals in Advance and Freeze

Frozen food can stay cold much longer than refrigerated food when the power goes out. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a full freezer can keep food safely cold for about 48 hours when it loses power.

A fully packed cooler that you’ve cooled down before packing can work similarly. Consider preparing some of your meals ahead of time, freezing them, and packing them in the cooler tightly to keep them cold. As I said earlier, the more you pack in, the colder it will stay. 

However, you should still check for thawing before eating your prepared meals. Most thawed meat, dairy products, and vegetables held above 40℉ for more than two hours will need to be discarded. 

I once thought I’d risk putting a little milk (that I should have discarded) into my coffee because I thought, heck, it’s just a couple tablespoons. It won’t hurt! 

Trust me. It did hurt. Don’t do that to yourself. If it’s out of temp, just toss it!

Step 2: Understand the Best Cooler Options: Which Ones Are the Coolest?

Your cooler is one of the most important pieces of the puzzle for keeping your food cold on your camping trip. A couple of years ago, we splurged on a high-quality cooler because we knew it would be a worthy investment for our future camping trips. After the chicken incident, I couldn’t even look at our old cooler.

Many types of coolers are available, but I always suggest thermoelectric 12V coolers that distribute heat away from the inner compartment to keep it cool. Yes, these are pricier than traditional coolers, but they can extend your food’s life for a couple of days on longer trips. However, you’ll need to plug it in to work, so it’s only worthwhile if you’re taking your car on your trip or if you plan on running it off a battery bank.

Other types of coolers to consider include:

  • Standard hard-sided coolers: These tend to be the least expensive options that can hold ice for a day or two, depending on outside temperatures. This type of cooler may be suitable for a quick weekend trip. However, if temps are high, these coolers may fail you. And your chicken.
  • High-efficiency coolers: These coolers provide better insulation and air leak protection than standard coolers, but they also fall into a higher budget category. However, if you’re going to hike in hot areas, they’re worth the price.
  • Portable refrigerators: Think of these like a mini fridge that uses a similar compressor system as your home’s refrigerator. They’re more efficient than other coolers, but they sit at the highest price point. You’ll also need a power source for these bad boys.

Step 3: Invest In a Good Quality Cooler

Learn from our mistakes: buy the best cooler you can for your budget. I promise, you and your chicken (or milk!) will thank us later. 

Portable refrigerators are excellent options for long camping trips, but I know they don’t fit into all budgets. We own one now since we have a camper, but we also have a high-efficiency cooler that we keep on hand for cold drinks. 

No matter what budget you have, consider quality over price as much as possible. Coolers can be investments. Still, when you consider how much food you’ll save instead of waste with a high-quality cooler, that price is worth it. There’s nothing worse than being three days into a camping trip and realizing you have to waste half of your food because it’s out of temp.

I personally love heavy-duty coolers, like this Igloo 52-quart cooler with thick insulated foam and T-grip latches for a tight seal. Ever since switching, we’ve never had a case of rumbly tumbly or questionable milk again. Of course, we switched to powdered milk for some of our trips, but that’s beside the point.

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Step 4: Bring Two Coolers

Every time you open the lid of your cooler, you’re letting out some of the cool air that keeps its contents cold. So, no staring into the contents of your cooler, zombie-like, like you might the fridge at home, wondering what you have to eat. Know exactly what you need, get in, get out, and shut that cooler ASAP.

We like to bring two coolers with us instead of one, with drinks in one and food in the other. This is because the cooler usually gets used more frequently for drinks, so keeping drinks and food separate allows the food cooler to stay sealed, preventing unnecessary air loss.

Still, we keep a few frozen waters in our food cooler, just as additional boosts.

Step 5: Cool Down Cooler Before Filling It Up

Before packing up your cooler, make it cold first, or the air inside may bring up the temp of your food before you even set out on your trip. If you have room in a deep freezer to place your cooler in for several hours, do so. Otherwise, you can buy a few bags of ice and use them to fill up your cooler for a few hours.

Doing so lets cold air build up inside the cooler, making it better prepared to keep your food cold once you begin filling the cooler.

Step 6: Pack Cooler With Ice

Now, it’s time to fill your cooler with the ice or ice packs you’ll use to keep your food cold during your trip.

You could use bags of ice to scatter around the cooler, but ice cubes don’t usually last long. If possible, use a large ice block instead. I just fill up a sandwich bag with water and freeze it. 

High-quality ice packs are an even better option if they fit within your budget. Choose a large thermal ice pack that keeps food cold without getting it wet. 

Using several frozen water bottles can also work in a pinch, and they’ll double as cold drinks when they thaw out. I don’t know about you, but there’s little that I love more than a nice cold bottle of water after a long hike. 

Step 7: Pack Cooler the Right Way

Heat rises in a cooler just like it does in your home or outdoors. With that in mind, pack things you need to stay coldest (e.g.: your chicken) near the bottom.

Start with a block of ice, a large ice pack, or several frozen water bottles laid next to each other. Then, add meat, which is the most important ingredient you’ll need to keep cold. Layer more ice or ice packs on top of the meat, then follow with dairy products. Continue layering ice and other food as space allows, with things that can stand to be warmer on the very top.

Step 8: Avoid Keeping the Cooler Open for Too Long

Once your cooler is packed, keep it closed as much as possible. Let others in your group know that they should try to avoid opening the cooler frequently. When you do need to open it, be as quick as possible.

One thing I like to do to save cool air in the cooler is asking everyone if they need anything from the cooler before I open it. This way, we’re condensing the number of times we need to use the cooler each day. 

If you notice someone lingering, I like to keep a little spray bottle at the ready to squirt them like a misbehaving cat. They learn quickly not to stare aimlessly. (Ok, I lied. I don’t really do this but you get my point…)

Step 9: Choose the Location of Your Cooler Wisely

Keeping your cooler in the sun is a sure way to melt your ice (or the milk you froze for your coffee) as quickly as possible. While camping, look for an area out of direct sunlight to place your cooler. Keep it under the awning if you have one or under a tree. This may mean you need to move the cooler throughout the day as the sunlight hits different areas, but it’s worth the effort.

Step 10: Refill Cooler With Fresh Ice

Depending on how long your camping trip lasts, you’ll probably need to refill your cooler with fresh ice. Many campsites have areas nearby where you can get bags of ice. Consider refilling your cooler with fresh ice daily to avoid having warm food. 

camping food safety

7 Food Safety Tips

Keeping your cooler cold can help keep your food safe to eat. Still, following the tips below for maximum food safety when handling food is important. After all, it isn’t just sour milk in your coffee that can give your stomach a run for its money, if you catch my drift.

1. Keep Hands Clean When Handling Food

Any germs that are on your hands can easily transfer to the food you touch when you’re preparing or eating a meal. Even though you’re camping, you still need to find ways to maintain hygiene. 

Wash your hands thoroughly before and after you eat to prevent bacteria from making their way to your food and into your mouth. We always keep hand sanitizer nearby, even when camping.

2. Be Mindful Of Use By Dates

When you’re busy camping, it can be difficult to remember to check the dates of food you packed. Still, it’s a necessary step in food safety.

Better yet, make sure everything you pack will last throughout the length of your trip. That way, you won’t need to think about checking expiration dates each day. 

No, the sniff test, while a sure-fire way to know when something is way off, is not good enough to keep everyone safe.

Any food that you’ve pre-prepared should be labeled clearly with a use-by date. I slap a strip of tape onto each container and use a sharpie to label it with a date.

3. Ensure Thorough Cooking

Always cook food to the proper temperature to avoid bacteria growth. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services lists the following safe cooking temperatures for commonly cooked foods:

  • Ground beef or pork: 160℉
  • Ground poultry: 165℉
  • Beef: 145℉
  • Poultry: 165℉
  • Egg dishes: 160℉
  • Fish: 145℉ or until flesh is opaque

Use a thermometer designed for meat. Insert the probe into the thickest part of the meat for accuracy.

4. Keep the Cooler at the Right Temperature

The danger zone for foods is 40℉ to 140℉. In this temperature range, bacteria have the opportunity to multiply to dangerous levels very quickly. 

That’s why it’s imperative to keep your cooler cold for any food that needs to stay refrigerated. I like to keep a probe thermometer hanging on the inside of my cooler so that I can check its temperature any time I open the cooler. 

Again, learn from our mistakes and get a thermometer.

5. Wash Fresh Foods

Fresh produce may contain bacteria and dirt from shipping or handling at the supermarket. Wash fruits and vegetables before packing them in the cooler to prepare them for your trip.

Wash your hands first. Then, run them under tap water, gently running your hands over them to remove dirt and bacteria. 

6. Avoid Cross-Contamination

Cross-contamination occurs when bacteria from one product move to another. This can happen if you handle raw meat and then touch fresh, ready-to-eat produce.

When preparing food, keep all raw and cooked or ready-to-eat foods separate. Use different cutting boards and knives to cut them, and clean them thoroughly before using them again.

I know this can be a challenge when camping since you may not have more than one cutting board or knife. It’s still worth cleaning them as you go to avoid having to sit on the toilet all night rather than by the campfire…

7. Use Clean Water

It’s best to bring gallons of water on your trip to use for drinking and cooking if space allows. 

If you can’t, you can use nature’s water sources. However, you should boil the water first to kill microorganisms that may live in streams. Bring the water to boil for a few minutes to ensure everything is thoroughly killed off. If you need to store some for later, allow it to cool for at least 30 minutes before placing it in lidded containers.

Food That Doesn’t Need Refrigeration

Several foods don’t need refrigeration, so they can be excellent additions to your camping rations. Best of all, you don’t need to worry about your cooler defrosting when you go to grab these as they’ll be in your car or RV instead. 

Crackers or Bread

Bread typically lasts a few days if it’s not exposed to direct heat and sunlight. Keep it in a cool spot to use for sandwiches or as a side with stew. 

Crackers can last even longer when you keep them inside their sealed packs. Once opened, you can still get a few days out of them if you close the bag tightly after each use.

Beef Jerky

When stored properly, jerky can last a couple of months, making it one of the most convenient snacks to take with you while camping. Plus, it’s a great source of protein that you (and your stomach) can trust.

Fresh Vegetables and Fruit

Keep fresh vegetables and fruit that don’t need refrigeration, such as tomatoes, peppers, or apples, away from heat and sunlight, and you might find that they last your whole camping trip. Potatoes can also sit out of the cooler, and they’re an incredibly versatile ingredient.

Just be sure to keep produce covered and off the ground to prevent pests from getting to them.

Instant Potatoes

You might also consider instant potatoes instead of regular potatoes. Bags of instant potatoes take up less space than a bag of potatoes, and they’re ready to eat in a few minutes with the addition of boiled water. Toss in some salt and maybe a little butter, and you won’t even know they aren’t fresh.

Canned Foods

Bring cans of meat, vegetables, and fruit along for your trip. There’s no need to refrigerate them, and you can heat up their contents over your campfire in a few minutes. Just remember to bring a can opener! Or you can bring my favorite type of can: a pop-top!

Nuts or Trail Mix

Nuts and trail mix are ideal snacks when you’re camping because they store for several days — sometimes weeks — in their containers without refrigeration. Plus, they have those tiny little chocolate chips that the kids and I adore, especially after a long hike.

Frequently Asked Questions About How to Keep Food Cold While Camping

How to keep a cooler cold for 3 days?

If you’re using bags of ice to fill your cooler with, be sure to remove melted ice and replenish your stash with fresh ice each day. Also, when packing the cooler, keep your items as densely packed together as possible with layers of ice in between.

You can also tell everyone in your group to avoid opening your cooler frequently to keep its cold air inside. 

How to keep food cold without electricity?

An electric cooler can be convenient to have, but it’s not a necessity. A quality cooler with excellent insulation can keep your food cold for a couple of days or longer with the right storage techniques.

Keep your cooler out of direct sunlight and away from heat sources, like the campfire. Pack food tightly together, and replace ice or ice packs at least once daily.

How to keep drinks cold while camping?

If you’re bringing a bunch of bottled water with you on your trip, freeze them before putting them in the cooler. Not only will they stay cold longer, but they can also work like ice packs to keep your other drinks (or food!) cold.

Before packing your cooler, add several ice packs to it and close the lid to cool it off. Also, keep your drinks in the refrigerator to cool them down first. Then, pack your cooler with fresh ice or ice packs, preferably placed between layers of drinks.

How to keep food cold when camping for a week?

The best thing you can do is choose a quality cooler with excellent insulation. Get a portable electric cooler that acts as a mini-refrigerator if it’s within your budget.

Also, bring two coolers: one for drinks and one for food. This way, opening the cooler for drinks won’t affect the coldness of the food cooler.

Keeping food and drinks cold when camping

Final Thoughts: How To Keep Food Cold While Camping

As someone who now takes monthly family camping trips with no food-borne illness, I wish I knew at the beginning of our journey what I know now. I hope that my tips help you find a cooler that meets your expectations and understand the best steps toward keeping your food cold for as long as possible on your trip.

Did you find the answers you were looking for in this tutorial? Let us know your thoughts in the comments, and feel free to share this guide with other camping enthusiasts. 

Photo of author

Karyn James

Karyn often went camping and boating as a child with her family where she has learned a lot about wildlife and the environment. Now that she has two very active little kids, she knows that planning is key to a fun and stress-free journey. You can find out more about Karyn here.

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