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How to Keep Food Cold While Camping: 12 Pro Tips

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Food poisoning is, for lack of a better word, awful. For those who haven’t experienced such pain before, imagine someone clenching their fist around your insides again and again, repeatedly until you’ve thrown everything up. And then doing it a little longer, just for good measure.

As you could imagine, the risk of getting food poisoning is much higher in those environments where food can’t quite be looked after or maintained as well as in your home. And it goes without saying that camping is one of these environments. The main reason for this is that it can be very difficult to keep food – such as meat, milk, fresh fruit or vegetables – cold and cool.

So, here’s how to keep food cold while camping:

1. Prepare Your Meals in Advance

Getting your food ready in advance of your trip, either by putting it together or pre-cooking set meals, can be a fantastic way to keep your food fresher for a longer period of time. Just keep in mind that this comes with its own risks, as food must be properly re-heated throughout before consuming.

The more perishable foods should be eaten the earliest, as these will be safe to eat for the least amount of time. And any frozen foods should be kept at the very bottom, as this is the coldest part of the cooler, and will ensure they stay frozen.

So, whether it’s spaghetti bolognese, lasagna, a stir-fry, or homemade burgers – consider pre-making your meals and freezing them before the trip. It’s a great way to have home food when you’re well away from home!

2. Buy a Good Cooler

You’ve probably seen them at campsites, festivals, or even just days out on the beach. Coolers are the best way to keep your food and drinks at a low temperature when venturing away from home. But, like with most outdoor equipment and accessories, not all coolers are made the same, and the amount you’re willing to spend will definitely have an impact on how well yours works.

For those who are willing to fork out a bit more cash, you’ll be able to reap the benefits of better levels of insulation (i.e. keeps your food cooler for longer), better quality materials, and a longer-lasting product in general. If you’ve got anything that needs to remain cool to be safe to eat, rather than just taste good, then it’s a good idea to keep a thermometer stored inside the cooler itself, just to double-check the temperature.

Cheap, second-rate coolers will only keep your food cool for a few hours, whereas a decent high-quality cooler is able to keep your food cool for days. This makes them perfect for those long summer trips away, as it means you can go without the worry of your food going bad, or your drink getting warm.

Some premium models even include bottle openers, shelves and compartments, and come with a warranty for that extra peace of mind.

3. Bring Two Coolers with You

Although you might have found the perfect cooler than works great for you, you might find that you’re struggling to get everything you need into the cooler.

The best solution for this isn’t to shove everything in or pack it all like an ultra-hard game of Tetris, but instead to buy two coolers! Many seasoned campers use this method, and often separate their consumables by category – usually one cooler for food and one for drinks. Not only does this help ensure that all of your food and drink stays cool, but it also helps keep it organized so everything’s easy to access and doesn’t get mixed up.

The last thing you want when you’re pitched up and enjoying the sunshine is to have to dig around in your cooler box just to grab a snack or beverage.

So, if you’re struggling to fit it all in, either buy a second, smaller cooler, or just the same one but twice, and you’ll be sure to keep everything nice and cool, as well as well-organized.

4. Always Put Meat and Vegetables at the Bottom of the Cooler

As said before, hot air rises and cold air sinks, so the stuff that needs to be kept the coldest – or even frozen – should always be placed at the very bottom of the cooler.

It’s also a good idea to create a sort of ‘cold barrier’ between this food and the rest, to prevent them from being affected when the cooler door is opened. By placing an insulating blanket, or even a pack of ice, over the frozen food, this will lock in the cold air, meaning you can pack more immediate foods and drinks on top.

This means that when the cooler door is opened, the warm air coming in will have a minimal effect on your frozen food at the bottom.

5. Try Dry Ice Packs

You’ll often find ice packs included within your cooler. These can be frozen before the trip and placed in the cooler itself, to keep the temperature down.

These dry ice packs can make a huge difference to your cooler when out on the road, but you should bear in mind that the ones included might not be of the best quality, so it may be worth buying some separate ones in order to double-up on the effect. The best ice packs aren’t too expensive and can be picked up from large stores or online.

They’re designed in a way that makes them small and light, so they don’t take up too much room within the cooler, whilst still be able to provide great cooling, to keep your food and drinks nice and fresh.

6. Don’t Open the Cooler Often

This is probably pretty obvious for most, but the more you open your cooler, the less ‘cool’ it’s going to be. This is because, whenever it’s opened, the warm air from outside gets in, gradually lowering the temperature.

This reduces how long it keeps your goods cool. So, instead of grabbing a drink every five minutes, try to grab a handful at a time, minimizing the amount of time the cooler is opened, just to be doubly sure that your stuff stays nice and cold.

This is another reason why having a second cooler can make things easier. One for today’s food and drink, and one for tomorrow.

7. Don’t Leave Your Cooler in the Sun 

This one is pretty obvious but those who get carried away with the excitement of their trip can often forget it! Ensuring your cooler avoids direct contact with sunlight, and keeping it in the shade only, can make a world of difference in the internal temperature, and ultimately how long your food stays cool for.

It might even be a good idea just to put it in a tent or leave it in your car until it needs to be used. If you’re camping in the winter, this isn’t such a huge deal, as the outdoor temperature won’t have much of an effect on your cooler.

8. Make Sure You Freeze Water

Most people know that ice works a whole lot better than water inside the cooler, but a lot of them don’t realize that freezing your actual drinking water is a great idea too. Bottle up your water and freeze it a good few days before the trip, ensuring it’s frozen solid.

Not only will this allow you to have nice ice-cold water, but it’ll also act as another ice pack inside the cooler, keeping everything else cold as well. If you’re worried that your water won’t melt in time for you to drink it, bring an extra bottle that isn’t frozen, so you have some to drink for the first day or two.

9. Add Some Salt to the Frozen Water

This one comes as a surprise to most people, and is usually something only seasoned campers are aware of, but by adding salt to your water, when frozen, you can actually lower its melting point.

This means that your ice will stay solid throughout the day, and you won’t have to worry about your food or drinks going bad. And if you mix the right salt, depending on the conditions, you can actually prevent the water from freezing, making it colder than ice itself – complete science hack, we know!

You can check this out on Google and YouTube yourself to see the proof. Just be careful not to add too much as the effect won’t be as good. Not only that, but sipping a beer can that’s been soaked in ultra-salty water isn’t the most pleasant thing!

10. Don’t Bring with You Food That Goes Bad Quickly 

We all prefer high-quality fresh food over anything else, but this type of food often comes with the most issues, especially when camping. Trying to keep fresh food staying ‘fresh’ whilst out on the trail isn’t always easy, and can come with a load of potential risks too, as it doesn’t take a lot for it to go bad.

However, there are many other ways to get your nutritional intake. You can simply go for healthy snacks, such as dried fruit or nuts. Perhaps dehydrated food like instant noodles or instant rice. Those meat-lovers out there can opt for dried beef jerky.

There’s a wealth of options when it comes to food that’s safe to take out with you, so have a look around your local supermarket and see what options they have. Taking low-risk foods means there’s one less thing to worry about!

11. Put a Thermometer in the Cooler

This is the best way to play things safe. Popping a thermometer inside the cooler allows you to constantly read the temperature, taking the guesswork out of it when deciding whether something’s safe to eat or not.

Before you go, take a mental (or physical) note of what temperature certain foods should be kept at, so you’ll know for sure what’s still safe to eat, and what isn’t.

12. Have a Backup Plan 

Whether or not you decide to go with fresh food, always bring some sort of backup with you. It’s the last thing we want to consider, but should anything go wrong, you always want to make sure you have enough food before help can arrive.

Bringing an extra bottle of water, some tinned food, and a few healthy snacks can make all the difference if things don’t quite go to play. You’ll thank yourself later!

Tips on Food Safety for Campers

Getting ill on your camping trip, especially from your own food, is the last thing you want to happen.

So, to make sure it doesn’t, keep track of these food safety tips and tricks:

  • Uncooked meat should be separated from other foods at all times, in order to prevent the spreading of bacteria and contamination.
  • Perishable or ‘fresh’ foods should be consumed within a few hours of being taken from the cooler.
  • Any raw meats should be cooked to their desired internal temperature before being eaten – this can be checked online for each meat.
  • To ensure your drinking water is safe, either bring pre-bottled water or alternatively boil your water before drinking it.
  • Always wash utensils and cutlery before and after use – this can be done with water and soap, or by using sanitizing wipes.
  • Dispose of any unused or eaten food in garbage bags.

FAQs

How can I keep food cold without using a cooler?

For those who don’t have a cooler, a thermal bag is a good way to keep your food cold. They work very much in the same way, by insulating your food and drink and preventing the temperature from rising too much.

You can even make one yourself, by following the DIY videos available on YouTube. Although not as good as a proper cooler box, it’s still a really effective method of keeping your food cool and making it safe to eat on your trip.

For how long can a cooler keep food cold while camping?

Provided that the inside temperature remains below 4 degrees Celsius, then your cooler will keep your food cold.

As mentioned before, having ice or cooler packs will keep your cooler cold for a longer amount of time – often days. You can even add an insulated wrap or blanket to prevent external temperatures from having an effect.

For how long can insulated lunch bags keep food cold?

Insulated lunch bags tend to keep food cold for two to three days, but it all depends on the environment the bag is kept in, as well as the bag itself. Unless yours has been well-packed with coolers, it probably won’t last that long.

For how long can ice packs keep my cooler cold?

Some ice packs work better than others – the higher-quality ones can keep your cooler cold for up to 48 hours, whereas the lower quality ones will struggle to keep it cool for a day.

How to keep food cold while camping in a cooler for two days?

Ice bags and dry ice coolers help keep food cold for a longer amount of time, as these prevent the external temperatures from increasing the internal temperature of the cooler. To keep your food cool for even longer, keep the cooler out of direct sunlight, and open it as little as possible.

How can I keep eggs cold while camping?

There are two ways to do this – you can either put your eggs in a hard, protective case, and pack them to one side, just to ensure that they don’t get damaged. Or you can ‘pre-crack’ them, and take them in a lockable bag or small container, so they’re ready to be fried and can be poured straight into the pan.

How can I keep food cold while backpacking?

Thermal bags are a much better choice for those who are backpacking, as they’re much easier to carry around than a cooler box. These bags are smaller, lighter, and can easily fit inside your pack without taking up too much room.

It’s best to keep your thermal bag in a separate compartment so it doesn’t get muddled up with the rest of your stuff, and doesn’t get banged or moved around.

How can I keep food cold in a car?

The best way to keep your food cold in a car is to keep it away from warm parts inside the vehicle. If keeping it in the boot, for example, ensure the rear window is covered, or the cooler is covered, to prevent direct sunlight from hitting the cooler. Using the air-conditioning can help prevent the warm car from heating up the cooler.

Final Thoughts

It’s great to venture into the great outdoors, and what better way to celebrate than bringing your favorite foods and drinks with you?

Although this can make the trip a much better experience, being wary of the dangers and risks involved with certain perishable foods is crucial to make sure that you stay safe and avoid any illnesses.

By adhering to the steps outlined here, you’ll know just how to keep food cold while camping, and be able to enjoy the food you love out on the trail.

David Miller

My name is David and I have been an outdoor guy for as long as I can remember. I have a strong passion for the great outdoors in general and specifically camping. I am the kind of person who spends more time outdoors than indoors. I am a staunch believer in the fact that outdoor life should be well lived because it's in the natural, serene, and untamed wild that we find out who we truly are. Let’s take the journey together.

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