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How to Pack a Cooler With or Without Ice the Easy Way

WriterAubrey McShan
10 min read

How to Pack a Cooler with Ease

Does anything spoil a party or outdoor gathering that you’ve looked forward to faster than spoiled food? The most important goal for packing a cooler is to keep your food and beverages fresh, safe, and cold for as long as possible. That’s why you should know how to do so with care before you head back out to the great outdoors!

Despite its name — a cooler doesn’t do any actual cooling. It just preserves the temperature of what’s inside and prevents heat from escaping. Therefore, the more prep work you do, the more perfectly packed your cooler will be. Here are our best tips to help you easily preserve your stuff:

Step 1: Prep Your Cooler

One of the most tried and true ways to extend the life of your cooler’s performance is to pre-chill it. To do so, simply place a spare bag of ice or even ice packs like the Igloo XL Ice Block in your empty cooler and close it. Set it in a shaded part of the house away from heat and direct sunlight for the best results for at least 24 hours.

There’s more reason to pre-chill your cooler before packing it than achieving better performance. Every time you chill a cooler (especially larger ones), a lot of energy is needed and therefore lost — or the ice you toss inside melts too quickly to chill the cooler PLUS the food you store inside safely.

Expert Tip:

An empty cooler can actually store heat in its insulation, which will warm up your ice and cooler contents rather than chill them once packed. Pre-chilling your cooler should always be a non-negotiable step when you plan to camp.

Step 2: Pack It Perfectly

Layering guide for packing a cooler

Although we recommend having two coolers on hand — one for raw, uncooked food and another for cooked food, snacks, and drinks, not all parties and camping trips are the same. Using a separate cooler for your uncooked food and/or meats can help to eliminate the risk of transferring bacteria.

But the two-cooler system is better suited for longer outdoor stays where you’ll likely need to pack more uncooked or raw foods together. Shorter stays (or even day trips to your favorite beach) can benefit from a one-cooler setup.

Expert Tip:

Each layer of like items should have a decent layer of ice between them. Air melts ice, so this method helps eliminate any air pockets when you pack in the ice.

When you plan to use one cooler, start with all your frozen foods or meats. The idea is to store these items at the bottom since you’ll likely need less frequent access to them. Drinks can go in the middle, so they have two layers of ice to help keep them chilled. Top off your cooler with any snacks that need to be chilled.

When you use the two-cooler system, pack the heavier meats/items at the very bottom. Any time you plan to pack frozen, raw meat into a cooler, remove them from the original plastic wrap or paper they come in when you buy them at the store. Instead, transfer them to a waterproof bag or container:

  • Vacuum seal bags

  • Ziplock bags

  • Tupperware containers

This option is also extremely helpful for keeping items cold! Your uncooked food will remain in an unopened cooler until you’re ready to use it — rather than in a frequently-opened cooler with beverages.

Expert Tip:

Ziplock bags are ideal when transporting raw, frozen meat. These bags are often heavy-duty as well as thin enough so that your meat can ‘touch’ the ice while it’s protected from the melted ice water.

Step 3: Preserve Your Chill

Transporting coolers can often be a headache in the making for many campers. No matter if your campground is just outside the city or a few hours’ drive away from home, there are a few measures you can take to preserve your cooler’s internal chill.

Whenever possible, always avoid loading your cooler into a hot pickup bed or car trunk crowded with your gear. Instead, load your cooler(s) into the passenger portion of your vehicle and place it near an AC vent.

Upon arriving at the campsite, follow these recommendations to maximize your cooler’s performance:

  • Keep all coolers in the shade.

  • Have a purpose with each open — get in and get out quickly. The less frequently you open the cooler, the longer the cooler remains cold!

  • Make sure it’s shut tight when closed.

Expert Tip:

Not all terrains you camp in will have tall, thick trees around. In these cases, you can bury your cooler in the ground to help preserve your chill. Alternatively, you can even use a canopy.

How To Pack a Cooler (& Keep It Cold) Without Ice

Friends at the beach carry a cooler

Did you know that coolers don’t actually need ice to keep your food and drinks nice and cool? In reality, all ice does is keep them colder longer. While we recommend using ice to fully maximize the capability of your cooler, you might not actually want to for a few reasons:

  • You want less trash or have limited space to handle waste: Outdoor parties looks different to everyone. If you camp in a remodeled van or car, you might need that space for other things.

  • Your destination is too remote: If you’re taking a trip beyond the middle of nowhere, frequent trips to the store really aren't possible. You need gear that can handle your adventure and fun — not gear that limits that for you.

  • Your trip or party is short or overnight: A properly pre-cooled cooler will do the work for you and should remain cold enough for a short- or overnight camping trip.

  • You’re concerned with your car’s load weight: Forgoing ice will shave several pounds off of your vehicle’s total weight. Every little bit helps!

Step 1: Pre-Chill Your Food, Drinks + Cooler

In addition to cooling down your cooler a day before departure, freeze any food you want to bring and refrigerate the beverages you plan to pack. Similar to pre-chilling your cooler walls, pre-cooling your food, snacks, and drinks will make sure the cooler maintains its already chilly temperature.

Expert Tip:

Despite what you think, coolers don’t need ice to function. It just helps your cooler stay chill for longer!

Step 2: Line Your Cooler with Aluminum Foil

Don’t skip this step! Lining your cooler with a layer or two of aluminum foil will help reflect heat radiation and keep it cooler longer without ice. If you’re lugging raw, uncooked meat, this step really isn’t negotiable.

Step 3: Dampen a Towel or Cloth with the Coldest Water Possible

To prevent air pockets, place a wet, cold cloth over each layer of items in your cooler, and make sure to fill in all of the gaps. Again, the idea is to make sure your food remains safe to consume even after transporting and setting up your campsite. Remember, the air warms things up faster!

Expert Tip:

Because air melts ice, only use a cooler adequately sized to the number of things you’re bringing. Don’t use an oversized cooler when you’re only bringing a few things.

Step 4: Preserve the Chill

We’ve said this before, but it’s worth mentioning again: keep your cooler out of the sun. To protect the safety of your food, open it as little as possible. If you're somewhere like the beach, you can even bury your cooler in the ground to help keep it cold.

Next Steps

You’re on your way to being a cooler packing pro! If you’re planning your first outdoor trip or party, you can also read up on our beginner camping tips. Our printable packing checklist as well as our tailgating checklist can help you choose the right gear before you hit the road. Have fun out there!