Primer: How to Pack A Cooler

Photo: Pelican

Understanding how to pack a cooler is one of those skills that knows no boundaries. For most of us, we associate packing a cooler with a trip to the beach. But on the contrary, this skill can come in handy for just about any recreational activity. From an afternoon at the ballpark to spending some quality time away in the great outdoors to even prepping for impending power outages associated with winter storms in the winter or hurricanes during the summer months. Nevertheless, it’s obvious knowing how to utilize limited space to get the most out of your cooler is an important skill to have.

It’s for these reasons that, no matter what the season, we decided to break down what you need and – more importantly – how you’re to properly pack a cooler. And don’t worry, no matter how large or small your cooler may be, these methods remain the same. All it takes is knowing how to scale these tips properly and you’ll be feasting, and staying hydrated without worry.

The Cooler

A Wise Selection

Here’s a seemingly obvious first step: selecting the cooler. In this instance, however, too many of us opt for budget options that not only break or chip way too easily but have a seriously difficult time retaining ice for more than a few hours. And if you’re to be spending time away from any semblance of an ice machine or convenience store, this is a crucial oversight. So, what do we suggest? Well, first is to get rid of that cheap $20 cooler you picked up from the grocery store. Rather, invest a bit of well-earned coin in a cooler that’s bound to last for years on end. Basically, anything from Yeti, Orion, Otterbox, or Pelican will work perfectly here.

Our Pick: Yeti Tundra 35

Looking for a quality cooler shouldn’t be difficult. However, if you’re torn, then we suggest checking out any one of Yeti’s fine options that are readily available. Their Tundra 35, for instance, features three inches of PermaFrost Insulation, a rugged rotomolded construction, and can easily fit up to 21 cans of beer.

After upgrading, it’s important to tally the size of your group. We say this because, given a larger number of people, you may want to opt for the two-cooler system in which one cooler is designated strictly to food and the other for drinks. This is important to remember because a drink cooler will be opened much more frequently than a food cooler will – leading to inevitable warming – and since it’s more important for food to keep cold rather than say a 12 pack, this is certainly worth considering.


Setting You Up For Success

Prepping. The next big step in packing a cooler. Clearly, you’re not interested in packing a dirty cooler up with food and beverages, so it’s an obvious next step here to bring the cooler inside (out of the shed, garage or attic) and begin to clean it thoroughly. Take some time to wash it down with some disinfectant spray and even hose it out if you have the opportunity. Next, you want to lower the core temperature of the cooler by pre-chilling it. To do this add a bag or two of ice to the cooler and let it chill for at least 12 hours before the trip is set to commence. This will go a long way in ice retention down the road.

Also, while prepping the cooler itself is important, an equally important prepping task comes in the form or food prepping. Not only does this task save space in your cooler, but makes meal rationing and access so much easier. For instance, pre-chopping veggies and marinating them at home, portioning out condiments into smaller bottles to save room, removing excess packaging from foods beforehand, even freezing some of your food as well – especially for longer trips – are all great ways to pack wisely. Finally, and this is an obvious one, everything should remain refrigerated before being packed in the cooler – meaning nothing that’s room temperature should go into the cooler otherwise you’re going to waste your ice cooling it down.

Ice selection

Dry vs. Cubed

Now, before you go ahead start dumping ice into the cooler, consider the different means through which you can keep all your food and beverages nice and cold for the maximum amount of time. To start, it’s best to think in blocks – blocks of ice rather – when packing. From here, standard block ice or large reusable freezer packs are ideal to help keep things cool. These also function as a solid foundation on the bottom of your cooler, on top of which you can begin stacking your desired items.

In this informative video, Denise of OARS, a whitewater rafting and adventure company, walks us through her time-tested methods of packing a cooler so it will keep cold for up to 14 days.

Freezing bottles of water also works as well. You’re just gonna want to make sure 1/4 of the water is removed from the bottles to allow the ice to expand. Additionally, you have the more generic and accepted way to keep things cool, as well as a not so traditional method ideal for those longer hauls.

We’re speaking of course about ice cubes and dry ice. Ice cubes, obviously, are a great way to fill in the cracks that are left between your big blocks of ice on the foundation. However, for longer hauls, and if your cooler supports it, dry ice can be a great way to really prolong those Arctic temperatures surrounding your food. This substance just requires a lot more care since it will automatically freeze to anything it comes in contact with – including your fingers.

Packing the Cooler

It's all about placement

Now, once you’ve got everything in order (food prepped and refrigerated, ice on standby, and the cooler cleaned) it’s time to start packing. Once more, it’s important to save this part of packing for the trip until the very end, minimizing the amount of time your perishables are outside of the fridge. So, to make things easy, we’ve gone ahead an broken down the steps for you.

  1. Block Ice on the Bottom: Here, you’re going to want to establish a cold flooring for the food and drinks in your cooler. This prevents warmer air from sneaking in underneath while forming a cold base for the remaining layers.

  2. Begin Layering: Once you have your base established, go ahead and start packing the cooler with the last day’s meals first. Also, if you have any frozen food, best stack these near the bottom as well. In addition, it could be a good idea to add a layer between your food and the ice foundation at the bottom – thus preventing anything from getting wet when the ice decides to melt. Also, while you’re layering, it’s always a good idea to separate food items accordingly (i.e. breakfast and dinner) as to eliminate confusion when the time comes to cook.

  3. All Liquids Up: No matter how tight you think the cap might be on those sports drink bottles, if you can avoid it try not to place liquids horizontally in your cooler. Instead assume that leaks are highly probable and err on the side of caution by storing these liquids vertically in your cooler of choice.

  4. Separate Meals: To help eliminate searching for food items, rifling around inside the cooler time after time, and letting all that precious cold air out, try or organize your food items by meal. For instance breakfast items on the left, lunch in the middle, and dinner on the right. Of course, this method only works for larger coolers, but with a little know-how and common sense, you’d be surprised how handy this sort of prepping comes in handy.

  5. Keep A Map: For larger coolers, partially in line with the methodology above, it could serve in your groups’ best interest to keep a map handy to help guide any hungry campers in the right direction. It’ll also eliminate the amount of time the cooler is open, and keep things organized in the process.

Final Thoughts

A few tips from the top

Aside from these best practices, there are a few additional tips we’ve discovered over the years that help to keep things even more organized and chilly for extended periods of time. Keep in mind this is not gospel by any means, just a few suggestions that could very well work for you as they’ve worked for us.

Water Draining

Basic science will tell you that water resulting from melted ice will work to further melt the remaining ice. However, for shorter trips, this ice water will help to keep things like beer extra cold for longer. Therefore, a good rule of thumb is to not drain the water on shorter day or weekend trips but do in fact keep the water drained on longer trips.

Extra Insulation at the Top

No matter what rugged cooler you may own, extra insulation never hurts. So, consider topping off your food items with a thin layer of insulation to keep the beating sun from warming things up too quickly. You can use anything from traditional foam pads to an old sleeping pad you have lying around.

Beer is Separate

If this is a going to be a booze-fueled trip, then it could be beneficial to pack the brews in a separate cooler entirely. This way, you have a maximum amount of space for food in your primary cooler, and it’ll keep closed longer considering you’ll be probably be going for a second beer before grabbing another sandwich.

Keeping it Cool

No amount of ice or insulation can withstand the wrath of the sun. So, it’s always a good idea to store your cooler in your car (not the trunk) when traveling, and in a shaded area (if possible) when in use. Trust us, you’ll be surprised how much of a difference this can make.

10 Best Rugged Coolers

Time to chuck the cheap option by the wayside and get yourself a rugged cooler that will keep ice for days (even weeks) and last for years on end. This list should help.