How to Clean A Cooler? Here’s How To Keep It Both Cool And Clean

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Coolers are great. They help us keep the cold stuff cold and the warm stuff warm. They are our trusty companions whether we’re going out on an adventure in the water or just tailgating with friends. It’s pretty hard to replace a cooler in your life.

The only other trusty friend that’s even close to being as trusty, or as friendly, is my dog. However, just like my dog, my cooler needs a regular cleaning or it’s going to stink up the garage real bad!

The thing about coolers, especially the good ones, is that they are so versatile that we throw just about anything in them. We throw the food and drinks inside and the ice and we forget about it. We just pick stuff out as and when we need it and that’s that.

However, when the ice melts and we leave the cooler in our garages for a while, we end up being reminded of all the things we’ve put in it in the stinkiest of revelations.

Whether it’s food, drinks or, the worst of them, fish, the things we put in our coolers will leave a mark and these marks are usually less than impressive in an olfactory sense. Also, if you don’t clean your cooler, you allow any leftover food and other organic stuff to rot and create the perfect breeding ground for bacteria and other microorganisms.

It’s just good practice to clean your cooler. Period.

But how to Clean a Cooler?

When it comes to cleaning routines, there are two special times you should consider: the time before you use your cooler, and the time after you use your cooler.

It’s important to have a clean cooler before you put anything in it for obvious health reasons. The last thing you want to do is put foodstuff in a dirty cooler. Not only is it disgusting, but it is also unhealthy.

You also want to clean your cooler after the fun is done. I get it, it’s pretty tempting to just leave it there and take care of it in the morning. The problem is that the morning after usually turns into the morning never and you never really get round to cleaning the cooler after all.

That said, it’s also important to clean your cooler immediately after use so you don’t give any stains time to set. If they do, they’ll be much harder to clean. Cleaning it immediately also makes it easier to get rid of any unpleasant smells.

Cleaning Cooler Routine before Use

Whether you’re going out for a picnic, barbecue, tailgating with friends, or fishing in the lake, it’s important to be prepared. To start with, make sure your cooler is thoroughly clean before you take it with you. You don’t want any traces of the last time you used it. It’s even worse if you’re going to be having raw food in the cooler that you will later cook, such as at a barbecue. Contaminating that food can lead to poisoning.

The first step is to make sure you have all the basic things you’ll need going forward. It might help to have a list at this point so you don’t leave anything behind. A bar of soap, or even a bottle, is important, and so are some clean towels. You’ll need them for both the cooler and your own hands.

You’ll also need plenty of clean water. The first thing you need to do is find out if there’s going to be plenty of clean water at your destination, such as a picnic. If you’re going hiking or even fishing, you will have to bring your own water. Carry a few bottles of clean water from home to help with the cleaning. If you can’t do that, then at least carry some wet wipes to clean your hands with as you handle the stuff in the cooler. You should also clean all the surfaces you use before you cook or eat on them.

Cleaning Cooler Routine After Use

The cleaning routine pretty much begins after the ice has melted. Once there is no more ice in your ice chest, then it’s no longer safe for your perishable food. Your beer can stay longer, but your food can’t. Dispose of all the leftovers and used wrappers and bags immediately. Leaving them there any longer will contaminate your cooler.

Once you get home, you need to clean the cooler immediately so the stains don’t get to set and become permanent. What you need is soap or a mild detergent and some warm water. Clean the cooler both inside and outside and rinse it thoroughly with clean water.

If the tough stains are giving you a problem, use some baking soda to clean them away. You can mix it with the warm water and use it to scrub the tough stains till they disappear.

The Special Case of Fish Smell

cooler how to get rid of fish smellNothing smells worse than rotting fish. I honestly still haven’t come across a worse smell. Once your cooler reeks of fish after one too many fishing trips, you won’t even want to put your beer in it. Getting rid of the smell can be a headache, but it doesn’t have to be.

Once you’ve cleaned your cooler with soap and warm water, you can deodorize it with a sanitizing spray that has hypochlorite, the active ingredient in bleach. A good example of this is Clorox Anywhere sanitizing spray. The bleach is safe for fabrics, your food, and the cooler, but will completely kill the fish smell.

Once you’re done, leave the cooler lid open overnight. The smell should be gone in the morning. You could also soak a cloth or piece of paper in vanilla extract and wipe the cooler with it after deodorizing it then leave the soaked cloth or paper towel in the open cooler overnight. In the morning, not only will the smell of rotting fish be gone, but your cooler will be smelling like vanilla extract too!


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Greg’s a co-founder of and author of 100+ product reviews and comparisons on this website. When not at work, Greg’s an avid sportsman who enjoys running marathons, loves snowboarding, hiking and discovering new single tracks on his bike.

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