How to Pack a Cooler for Camping: Must-Know Tips

If you love to camp and cook, then learning how to pack a cooler for camping is an important skill. Not only am I going to cover how to pack a cooler, but I’ll also share my top tips for keeping your cooler colder for longer. Let’s dive in! 

This post may contain affiliate links. Read my full disclaimer here. 

opening the cooler at camp

How do you pack your cooler so it stays organized and cold during your camping trip? 

When I first started camping, the cooler was a constant source of frustration. Between the ice melting, my food sitting in a puddle of water, and not being able to find anything in there, I knew there was room for improvement.

So after years of camping and trying different coolers and methods, I finally figured out how to keep things cold and organized. Here are my top camping cooler hacks! 

Start with a Good Quality Cooler 

The soft-sided zipper coolers from Walmart are not going to cut it for your multi-day camping trips.

Out of all the camping gear you need, I think the cooler is one of the items that you don’t want to skimp on, especially if you love to cook at camp like I do. 

No matter what brand of coolers you go with, there are a few key design features to look out for. 

What makes a good cooler?

  • A tight lid – This is important because you don’t want any of your cold air to escape from the inside. This is one of the reasons I don’t recommend zipper coolers. 
  • Hard-sided and durable – It can also double as a seat or small table at camp if needed! 
  • Thick insulating walls – This is one of the reasons that hard-sided coolers are more efficient. Look for a cooler that has thick walls. This is what helps unsulate the cooler.
  • It’s the right size for your needs – More space isn’t always better. If your cooler has too much extra space (and therefore air) it will not perform as well. The cooler must be large enough to hold all your food, while still having enough space for the ice. I have a 50 Liter cooler and it’s a great size for a couple of people for 2-4 days.
a Yeti Tundra hard sided cooler

Best Coolers for Camping Examples: 

I have a Yeti Tundra cooler and love it. Nick and I have been using it for years and haven’t had any issues. Highly recommend! We have a Yeti Tundra 50. They no longer make a 50 and instead make a Tundra 45 and 65. The Tundra Hard Coolers are also certified as Grizzly Resistant when secured with the proper locks.

If you’re a Costco member, I saw that they have a very similar cooler by a different brand. It was a great price, so check there if you’re looking for something cheaper. (Although, I think they’re only available seasonally.)

Lastly, I’ve heard great things about the RTIC hard-sided coolers. They are very similar to the Yeti Tundra.

Prefer to watch? Check out my tips on how to pack a cooler for camping in the video below!

7 *MUST-KNOW* Cooler Hacks to Keep it COLDER for LONGER

How to Pack a Cooler for Camping Step by Step

1) Pre-Chill the Cooler

Now let’s get into the packing specifics. Maximum ice retention can be attained by pre-chilling your cooler. 

A couple of hours before you need to pack the cooler with your food, place extra ice or ice packs inside the empty cooler to cool it down. This will cool the insulation, which helps the thick walls of your cooler work for you. 

If you skip this step, a lot of the power from the ice will go toward cooling the insulation. Once the insulation is cold, the cooler can work a lot more efficiently, so give it a head start by pre-chilling! 

Another option is to store your cooler in a colder place. For example, if you have a basement that’s cooler in the summer, store it down there instead of in a hot sunny part of the house. 

a cooler with a water jug on top

2) Prep and Organize at Home 

Now that your cooler is pre-chilling, it’s time to prep and organize all your food and drinks at home. This is one of my biggest tips! 

I say this a lot in my YouTube videos, but organization is key when you’re car camping! This is especially true when it comes to your cooler.

Here are a few at-home prep steps that you can consider: 

Wash, dry, and chop ingredients for the camping meals that you’re planning to make. Of course, there is a limit to how far head you can chop things, but if you’ll be cooking in a day or two, most things can be chopped ahead of time.

  • For example, if I was going to make my one-pot jambalya the first night at camp, I could chop the pepper and onion at home beforehand. 

Transfer condiments and food into smaller containers or less bulky containers.

  • For example, Nick loves sour cream and I always pack it, but there’s no need to bring a huge container. Instead, I just portion a little into a smaller container.
  • For other ingredients such as chopped veggies, I like to use Stasher bags. They take up a lot less space in the cooler when compared to traditional tupperware.

Write out a brief meal plan for your camping trip with a list of ingredients that you need to pack. If you use my meal planner in my free Camp Cooking Starter kit (get it below), you should have everything you need written out and organized. 

  • Consider what ingredients and items in the cooler you’ll need to access first and make sure they don’t get buried on the very bottom when packing.

Freeze stuff when you can. Can you freeze any of the components to a meal that you won’t make for a few days? 

Make sure everything that you want to put in the cooler is cold or frozen at the start. Technically, you could put room temp drinks in the cooler, but why waste the ice? Instead, make sure your drinks are cold at the start. 

get my free

Camp Cooking Starter Kit

Printable camping recipes, a gear checklist, and a camping meal planner so you can go camping with confidence (and good food!)

3) Minimize Air 

To maximize ice retention, minimize air. In other words, fill your cooler to the top with ice and food/drinks. 

The general rule of thumb is to use twice as much ice as food. That’s 1 part food to 2 parts ice.

For example, if 1/3 of your cooler is full of food, then 2/3 of it should be ice. 

Air is the enemy here. 

Think of packing the cooler like a Tetris game, you want to minimize the air pockets in the cooler. 

If you have extra space in the cooler, it’s best to either fill it with more ice or even stuff an extra towel on the top to minimize the air. 

Related >> How to Build a Campfire (step-by-step guide)

Ice Cubes, Ice Blocks, or Reusable Ice Packs 

What method is best to cool a cooler? Is it ice cubes, ice blocks, or ice packs? 

There are a lot of options, and this is where I might differ from what others say about keeping coolers cold. 

Ice Cubes

Overall, I really don’t like to use ice cubes. They melt fast, get everything in the cooler wet, and make it really hard to stay organized and see what you’re looking for. 

Then, when you do take something out, the ice cubes fill that void and then you can’t get the item back in the same way. Before you know it, the cooler is melting rapidly and you have no idea where anything is. 

Smaller ice cubes will melt the fastest, but they’re great for getting into all the nooks and crannys of the cooler to minimize air. 

Ice Blocks or Frozen Water Bottles

Bigger ice blocks, however, are slower to melt because they have less surface area. You can buy ice blocks or make them. I have a silicon loaf mold that I use to make larger ice block for camping trips.

Simply fill the loaf mold with water and freeze. But again, with this method, everything still gets wet. 

Another option is to freeze plastic water bottles. This way you have ice blocks that won’t leave your items soaking in water, and you have backup water for drinking if needed. 

Cooler Shock ice packs being used while camping

Ice Packs

Lastly, we have reusable ice packs and I love these! The ones I have are the Cooler Shock Ice Packs and they work so well. They’re reusable, colder than ice, don’t melt all over, and come in a few different sizes. 

They are thin and great for lining the edges of the cooler. I have the cooler size and the lunchbox size. You have to fill them up when you first purchase them, but then they’re good to go! 

The ice packs are my prefered way to keep the cooler cold. Be careful because the items that you put directly on these ice packs might actually start to freeze, so avoid putting vegetables directly on top of them. 

All this being said, the best way to keep your cooler cold is to use a combination of all of these methods. A combination of ice cubes and packs with at least a 2 to 1 ratio of ice to food will yield the best results. 

If you do use ice and it starts to melt leaving a pool of water on the bottom of the cooler, it’s best not to drain the water until you can replenish the ice. The cold water will help to insulate the remaining ice. 

What about dry ice? 

I don’t like to use dry ice in my camping cooler for a few reasons. 

First of all, not all coolers are dry ice compatable, so make sure to check on that with the manufacturer of your cooler.

Second, dry ice is much more expensive than regular ice. It’s also much colder than normal ice and best used for when you need to keep items frozen, not just cold. 

Lastly, dry ice can be dangerous and cause freezer burn, so it needs to be handled with protective gloves and should be kept away from kids. Since the freezing power of dry ice is not nessecary for basic car camping, I don’t use it. 

sitting on a Yeti cooler at camp

How to Keep Ice Longer in a Cooler 

Packing correctly by pre-chilling the cooler, minimizing air, and organizing at home will go a long way to keeping your ice colder for longer, but here are a few more key points to keep in mind. 

Minimize How Many Times You Open the Cooler 

This seems obvious, but every time you open the cooler, you’re letting cold air out and warm air in. The warm air then needs to be cooled. Repeatedly opening your cooler will cause the ice to melt faster.

If you’re organized like I suggest above, you should have a good idea where to find things and thus reduce the amount of time you’re rummaging around in the cooler looking for something. 

When I’m packing, I like to organize the cooler in a way that makes the things I need first easiest to access. 

how to pack a cooler while camping with fruit and vegetables

Consider Two Coolers

Another easy way to reduce cooler access is to consider 2 coolers – one for food and one for drinks. This is especially helpful if you have a large group.

With everyone accessing the cooler for drinks throughout the day, you can keep the food separate and colder for longer.

Keep the Cooler Out of the Sun 

Another simple tip, but this one makes a huge difference!

The sun will move throughout the day, so be aware and make sure to move the cooler as needed to keep it out of direct sunlight. 

Popular Camping Recipes to Make on Your Next Trip 

Now that you know how to pack a cooler for camping, check out some of these easy and delicious camping food ideas! 

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  1. I have 2 RTIC coolers and they are more economic than the more known brands
    and work just as well. I purchased a 20 qt (for drinks) and a 40 qt for food. That way if we are going to the beach or picnic we just take the 20 qt and not have to carry a heavy cooler.