12 Ways to Keep Food Cold When Camping

Have you ever gotten food poisoning?

If you haven't, just imagine that someone punched you in the stomach, causing you to lose control of all of your bodily functions.

In other words: it sucks.

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When it comes to camping, the risk of food poisoning is a lot higher since there is not typically proper refrigeration in the outdoors. That’s why I’ve put together a quick list of 12 tips on how to keep food cold while camping.

1. Don’t Bring Perishable Food

cheeses

Simple, right? Still, it can be difficult living without a fresh meal for a few days in the outdoors.

While fresh meat and dairy will go mad quickly without refrigeration, there are some alternative foods you may want to bring with your on the campsite to get your protein fix.

For meat, you can always opt for summer sausage or beef jerky.

As for the cheeses, you’ll want to avoid any “young,” soft cheeses like mozzarella or brie. Instead, bring a firm, aged cheese like cheddar or gouda. When I’m camping with my wife, I like to bring some crackers and wine too!

Camper's Tip: If you do decide to go with dried meats and firm cheeses, consume plenty of water as these products are high in sodium.

2. Invest In A High-End Cooler

It may seem pointless to spend a couple hundred dollars on a cooler, but they truly do keep your food safe to eat. The more expensive products tend to have thicker walls and better insulation, which will prevent any ice from melting.

While I don’t tend to bring too many perishable food items to the campsite, I do own a YETI Tundra Cooler which I use for road trips. Leaving it in the back of my SUV and opening it about every few hours, the ice inside stays solid for about 3-4 days. I think it would perform quite well on the campsite.

Camper's Tip: Just in case, keep a thermometer (tk) inside the cooler to ensure that the temperature remains around 40℉.

3. Bring Two Coolers

If you have enough room, consider packing two separate coolers: one for drinks and one for food.

Since the drink cooler will be opened more regularly, it will get warmer first. This way, you’ll prevent any hot air from entering the food cooler from the person who want to grab a brewski every half-an-hour.

Camper's Tip: If you have a large chest freezer at home, consider freezing the coolers beforehand as it will give them a head start at keeping your food and drinks cold.

4. The Airline Food Prep

What's the deal with airplane food? It's frozen. Great way to transport fresh food, if a bit detrimental to the taste.

You can use this nifty trick to transport your camping dinner!

By freezing meats, vegetables, and other perishables, you’ll be able to store them longer on the campsite. If you are camping in a location far away from home, and are planning on stock up at a grocery store, choose items from the frozen foods aisle as opposed to fresh products.

Camper's Tip: Cook your entire meals at home and then freeze them. You’ll be able to reheat them over the campfire and not have to worry about any contamination.

5. Get Some Ice

ice

The easiest way to fill a cooler with ice is by going to the local gas station and grabbing one of those 20 lb. frozen bricks (you know, the ones you have to slam on the ground ten times to break up into cubes). 

Unfortunately, this ice isn’t the best quality because there is tons of trapped air, causing it to melt quicker.

Plus, have you ever actually looked inside those giant ice machines? They are disgusting!

Camper's Tip: If a giant bag of ice is your only option, make sure all of your meals are packed in non-permeable bags. That way, when the ice melts, your food doesn’t get soggy.

6. Make Your Own Ice Packs

Instead of going to the store to buy those weird blue gel ice packs, you should already have most of the ingredients in your home to make them yourself.

If you would like a rigid ice pack, you can soak sponges in water, then throw them in the freezer. For a more flexible ice pack, freeze dish soap in Ziploc bag.

Camper's Tip: To lower the freezing point of water, add salt or alcohol to your ice pack liquid mixture.

7. Freeze 90% Of Your Water

If you don’t want to create an ice pack, just freeze most of the water that you plan on bringing to the campsite. The frozen water bottles will serve as a temporary ice pack, and once thawed, you can drink it!

Camper's Tip: Don’t freeze all of your water in case you need it for an emergency.

8. Organize Your Cooler

coolers organized neatly

Pack your cooler tight. The less empty space, the longer your cooler will stay cold.

As for how to pack your cooler:

  1. Start off with a bottom layer of ice.
  2. Next goes any foods that you have frozen.
  3. On top of that, another layer of ice packs.
  4. Finally, place the rest of your items on top and sprinkle in some ice cubes to fill in the gaps.

Camper's Tip: Place what you will be eating first on the top of the cooler, that way you won’t have to dig deep into the ice and your food will have less contact with the warm air.

9. Stage Cooler In The Right Area At Camp

Paging Captain Obvious: keep your cooler in the shade!

Just like your car turns into an oven in direct sunlight, so does your cooler.

Camper's Tip: For an extra layer of protection, drape a sheet or blanket over the cooler to avoid excess radiation from the sun.

10. Use Evaporative Cooling For Produce

tomato moisture

Interesting enough, you don’t need a cooler to keep produce fresh at the campsite.

Utilizing a technique known as “evaporative cooling,” fruits and vegetables can last days on end without refrigeration. Here's how:

  1. Add the produce to a porous sack (burlap, mesh, etc.) and wet the entire bag.
  2. Hang it in a shady area with a breeze.
  3. When the sack dries, simply wet it again (usually 2-3 times per day).

Camper's Tip: You can also dig a hole in the ground at the campsite to store produce, but I’m not a fan of this method, since insects in my food really bug me.

11. If All Else Fails, Use Dry Ice

If conventional methods aren't enough for you, try dry ice.

At -109℉, the frozen carbon dioxide will keep your food cold for at least a few days. Dry ice is not something you can pick up at the gas station, so ask Google to find your local suppliers. Before you place the dry ice in your cooler, wrap it in a layer of paper and always place it on top of your food, not on the bottom.

Camper's Tip: Use dry ice with extreme caution. Store it away from your tent and always handle while wearing insulated gloves.

12. Always (And I Mean Always) Bring Backup

Even if you follow all of these tips down to the letter, problems may arise. Plan for all eventualities by packing plenty of extra food and water that will not spoil.

I always carry a couple of CLIF bars and a water filter with me to the campsite. If I don’t need them, that’s fine, but they could literally be lifesavers.

Camper's Tip: Not just for camping, but in case of any emergency, always keep a gallon of water and some non-perishable snacks in your car.

Your Turn

Experiencing the outdoors should be about spending time with your loved ones and soaking in the serenity of nature, not worrying whether or not your food is going to spoil.

Improperly storing your meals may lead to some serious (and sometimes embarrassing) health problems. Follow these tips to keep your food cold in the outdoors, and you might just save not only the food, but your entire camping trip from turning rotten.

Jay toes the line between hiking enthusiast and vagabond as he treks across the world, soaking in it’s natural wonders. When he’s not exploring the trail, he writes articles to help guide others through their outdoor conquests.

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