Cooler Packing: For Multi Day Trips

Keeping your food cold and ice frozen is a challenge on multi day trips.

My wife is smarter and more meticulous than I am. She is in charge when it comes to packing our cooler. Through trial, error and advice from others, she has developed a good system for maximizing the potential of our cooler and keeping  ice for as long as possible. Here’s her method:

Freeze any food ahead of time that can be frozen and doesn’t need to be eaten on the first day. For example chili can be packaged in ziplock bags and frozen at home. When packed this adds more ice to the cooler and saves time by having to simply reheat a meal in the field instead of preparing it from scratch. If still frozen on the day you want to eat the meal, just take it out ahead of time and let it thaw.

Then freeze a few (number will vary depending on size of cooler) one gallon milk or juice jugs full of water (orange juice jugs tend to be the most durable). Put one on either end of the cooler, put pre frozen food in-between with another jug on top. My wife hates having standing water in the cooler which has a tendency to get into bags of cheese, salad greens and other items and ruin them, so we use no loose ice in our main food cooler. Fill in the rest of the cooler with food putting delicate items on top. Note that we do have a separate beer cooler, which I am in charge of, that contains lots of cubed ice.

If you have any space leftover on top, cut squares of ensolite (closed cell foam) to lay across the top of your food. This will provide additional insulation and while it may seem odd, it pays dividends later. Once you close the cooler lid open it as little as possible. If you are on a trip with a large group pack coolers marked to be reopened on specific days with a separate cooler containing items, such as lunch foods, that need to be accessed daily. Once packed work hard to keep your cooler out of the sun whenever possible and strap a foam pad or Paco pad to the top of the cooler if it is going to be exposed to direct sunlight, such as when you are traveling in a boat.

Today there are also an impressive array of coolers to choose from. High end coolers such as those made by Yeti are impressive and when combined with using the tips above can easily keep ice for 4-5 days and maybe a couple more depending on conditions. I have also found the Coleman Extreme to be a great cooler and it costs about a quarter of what a Yeti does with only a small drop off in performance. So whatever you have, enjoy getting outside this summer and get the most out of your cooler to make your adventures that much more comfortable.


10 Comments on “Cooler Packing: For Multi Day Trips

  1. I have lined a Coleman Extreme with that Reflectix insulating bubble wrap stuff you can find at Home Depot or Ace Hardware. It is really thin (a little over 1/4 inch) and if you put it on the sides and under the lid it will add at least a day or two to your cold storage. I just used dots of the sticky backed velcro to keep it in place so I can take it out to clean the cooler. Also works wonders to block convection between your sleeping pad and the ground when camping in colder weather as well as make pouches to put Mountain House meals in when they are rehydrating to hold the heat in the water.

  2. To drain or not to drain; that is the question,,,, here’s a simple science fair experiment; for your next road trip fill 2 similar water bottles and freeze solid, remove from freezer and hit the road, keep one as empty as possible and allow the other to sit next to the one being drained regularly, how long the ice remains in one over the other is amazing.

  3. Something to keep in mind also is that some coolers can be bear proofed, or are bear certified. regulations requiring this are coming next year on the Smith, here in Montana, and I would expect similar regulations elsewhere in the future.

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  5. I agree on the orange juice bottles…. love them. My husband and I both hate standing water in the food coolers. We will be trying the ensolite on our next hunting trip. Which happens to be in two weeks 🙂 Thanks for the information!

  6. Having done 19 days on the Colorado through the Grand Canyon this past summer, we learned a few things that are obvious, but worth sharing. Keep the cooler out of the sun, even on your boat. We have quilted fabric covers (Sunset Manufacturing) that fit snug over the coolers and keep them wet. We strap our self-inflating sleeping pads over those covers. Only get in your cooler when you absolutely need to. Repeated access throughout the day for a can of soda/beer is stupid. Try a drag bag for your drinks. Also, if you have left overs from a meal, make sure to cool them down before putting them back in the cooler. On the Grand, where daytime temps were consistently over 100 degrees, cooling food down to ‘room temp’ meant putting 100 degree stuff back in the cooler. Putting the leftovers in zip lock bags and cooling them off in a bucket of river water was the thing to do.

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