How To Keep Food Cold While Camping – An Expert Advice

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Let's talk about some important, which is how to keep your food cold while camping.

Camping is fun! It gives you the chance to be outdoors and enjoy nature in her essence. It’s a great way to clear your mind and get some much-needed peace.

However, it also has its own logistics, and part of that is figuring out how you’re going to keep yourself well fed.

While you’re out camping, it’s going to be really hot sometimes. You’re going to need cold drinks and you’re also going to want fresh food.

No one wants to survive on canned food for three days consecutively. You want fruit, and fresh vegetables and meat and all the other good stuff you enjoy at home.

The thing is, however, food can go bad if not kept sufficiently cold.

When it goes bad you get food poisoning and not only does that ruin your ability to have a good time while out camping, it could also be very dangerous for your health.

That’s why we decided to write this general article. We want to give you some useful tidbits on keeping food cold while camping.

Once you’re done reading this article, at the very least, you should be able to keep your food cold and fresh for up to 3 days.

ways to keep food cold outside

So, if you’re are ready, let’s go!

How To Keep Food Cold While Camping? Here Are Our Tips

Buy A High End Cooler

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When you’re out shopping for coolers, you might feel like the best thing is to try and save money. You’ll go for the cheaper coolers on the market and ignore the more expensive ones, like YETI Tundra.

However, spending a few hundred dollars on a high-end cooler, while expensive, will allow you to keep your food ice cold for days and literally save your life (from food poisoning). 

The more expensive the cooler, or at least the more premium the brand, the more likely it is to have better insulation and thicker walls.

High-end coolers also often come with helpful accessories like dry foods baskets to help you keep dry food separate from other wet things in the cooler.

A good high-end cooler should be able to keep your food adequately cold for 5 to 6 days,  Some of them will go up to 7+ days or more of ice retention. This should, therefore, be your no. 1 consideration.

An extra tip is to bring a thermometer along and keep it inside the cooler to make sure the temperature is always around 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

Have More Than One Cooler for Camping

While we’re still on the story of coolers, one of the determinants of how quickly a cooler gets warm is how often you open it.

If you happen to use the same cooler for your drinks as you use for your food, then you’re probably going to be opening it very often, especially if you’re in a hot campsite and get thirsty often.

keep drinks cold outsideA good way to mitigate this is to have 2 coolers if you have room in your car and can afford a second cooler.

You can use one cooler primarily for drinks and the other primarily for food.

That way, the drinks cooler can suffer the frequent opening without affecting the ice retention of the food cooler.

While we’re on this subject, it is important that you limit how often you open your cooler if you want the contents to stay cold for longer, whether they are drinks or food.

Taking out what you will need in batches that will last you several hours at a time is a good way to do this.

Another option you might want to consider is getting an electric cooler on the side.  This way, you can have the high-end ice chest as the main cooler and a 12-volt electric cooler as an emergency cooler.

Alternatively, the electric cooler can be purely for food while the high-end cooler is used for drinks. The food can then stay permanently cold, just like it would in your freezer at home.

Pre-chill the Cooler

While we’re still on the subject of coolers, you can consider pre-chilling the cooler the night before you set out on your camping trip.

Fill the cooler up with ice the night before and let it sit in a cool dark place, such as your garage.

At least 12 hours of sitting there full of ice will guarantee a very cold cooler by morning when you’re about to begin your trip.

You can then just remove some of the ice and start packing in food.

Use Dry Ice in the Cooler

This should be a great option if conventional methods fail, or if you don’t have much faith in them, to begin with. Dry ice is frozen carbon dioxide, and it exists at -109 degrees Fahrenheit. 

This is guaranteed to keep your food cold for at least 3 days, as long as you don’t open your cooler too often. Just make sure your cooler is dry ice compatible because not all are.

keeping camping food chilled with dry iceDry ice isn’t something you can just pick up at the department store or your local gas station.

It can only be bought from select suppliers, so you should try ordering some online.

It is also very important to handle dry ice with caution for your own safety. 

First, wrap the dry ice in a layer of paper or aluminum. Never touch it directly. Next, always wear insulated gloves when handling dry ice, for the safety of your hands.

Always have the dry ice at the top of the food and not at the bottom. Because carbon dioxide is heavier than air, it will seep down to the bottom as it sublimates and your food will remain cold.

If you keep it at the bottom, on the other hand, only the food at the bottom will remain cold while the food at the top will be unaffected.

Finally, ensure you keep dry ice far away from your tent. You don’t want carbon dioxide to infiltrate the air you breathe as that can be fatal.

For more details, we recommend reading our guide on how to use a dry ice in a cooler.

Use Ice Cubes, Ice Packs or KoolerGel

Here you have a few options. You could go to your local gas station and buy some party ice cubes. These are pretty cheap and are easy to find.

However, I wouldn’t advise you to get them. For starters, they have lots of air in them, which causes them to melt quickly.

Second, I wouldn’t trust that kind of water in my cooler. I have had a look inside those giant ice makers and disgusting doesn’t even begin to describe how I feel.

An alternative idea is to get KoolerGel ice packs. These are made of silicone, freeze at a lower temperature than regular water, keep cool for longer, and are reusable, meaning you can bring them along with you every time you go camping.

Ice packs are a great option, but they’re expensive. You’re going to have to be willing to spend a little extra. On the flip side, since they’re reusable, it would be a worthy investment.

If you aren’t ready to spend too much money on ice, there are other options. You can try and make own ice at home. You could make ice cubes at home yourself with some clean water, or get some Ziploc bags and fill them with water.

The great thing about Ziploc bags is that, because they’re airtight, you can fill them with any kind of water, from crystal clear water to dish soap.

You could also make block ice. Along with Ziploc bags, block ice is a much better alternative to ice cubes since it takes longer to melt. It will keep your food cold a lot longer than smaller ice cubes will.

ice to keep food drink coldYou might also want to try water bottles. You can fill up a bunch of bottles with water and throw them in the freezer and let them freeze.

This makes some great block ice as well. Also, note that the water bottles are likely to be the very drinking water you need.

By freezing 90% of the water you need on your camping trip, you kill two birds with one stone. On the one hand, you ensure your drinking water is already cold.

On the other, you use it to cool the other contents of your cooler. Do not, however, freeze all the water you bring along. Have some in liquid form in case you need it for an emergency.

If you’re making ice yourself, one trick you can use to get the water to stay cold longer is to add some salt to it. A quarter cup of salt added to a Ziploc bag full of water can go a long way in prolonging the amount of time the water stays frozen.

One tradeoff you should consider when comparing block ice to ice cubes is the bulk. With ice cubes, it’s easier to store the food among the ice cubes as they get easily dispersed.

With block ice, on the other hand, you will have to be a lot more deliberate with the food arrangement as space will be a major constraint. Also, if you’re using bags to make ice, ensure your food is stored in non-permeable containers to avoid getting it soggy when the ice melts.

Sponge Can be a Help

Sponges are something else you should consider. You can soak a clean sponge in water and put it in the freezer. It makes great block ice.

Alternatively, you can use sponges for another purpose. Place a dry sponge in your cooler alongside the ice. When the ice melts, the sponge soaks up the melted water.

This makes the cooler drier and reduces the amount of wasted space. It also provides you with a cool sponge to cool down your neck on a hot day as well as to clean your cooler at the end of the camping trip.

Pack Your Food Properly

You should pack your food properly to keep it cooler for longer. For example, you can consider putting your food in insulated lunch boxes or bags to add an extra layer of cooling. You can also borrow a leaf from how airplanes pack their goods.

Airplane food is frozen, which is a great way to transport food. Of course, this is responsible for how appalling airplane food can taste sometimes. However, it’s a small price to pay to avoid food poisoning.

Freeze vegetables, meats, and any other perishable foods you might have brought along so they can last longer while you’re out camping.

Double wrap any frozen meat you’ll bring along. If you’re going to pass by the grocery store to stock up for your camping trip, for foods in the frozen food aisle instead of the fresh produce.

You could also consider preparing your food at home. Cook the entire meal for the camping trip at home and then freeze it. When you’re out camping you can just reheat it over the campfire. No need to worry about contamination then.

Alternatively, you can use a little technique known as ‘evaporative cooling’. This is great for getting your fruits and vegetables to stay fresh for many days without being refrigerated:

  • Start by packing the fresh produce in a burlap or mesh sack and then wet the entire sack.
  • Hang the wet sack laden with produce in a shady area with a nice breeze.
  • Now let the sack hang there and wet it again every time it dries up. That should be about twice or thrice in a day.

You might also consider digging a hole the ground at the campsite and storing your produce in it. I personally don’t support this method because insects might get in your food and that can be really buggy.

Organize Your Cooler Well

How you organize your cooler also matters for your food. The less empty space you have in your cooler, the better. Here is how to layer the different contents of your cooler for maximum cold retention:

  • Start by placing a layer of ice at the bottom of the cooler (Remember: this is only for regular ice, though. Do not do this with dry ice).
  • On top of the layer of ice, add your frozen foodstuffs.
  • On top of the food, add yet another layer of ice. This will keep the food constantly sandwiched in ice to keep it cold.
  • On top of the final layer of ice you can place everything else you’re bringing along and then sprinkle some ice cubes in there to keep the air gaps to a minimum.
  • Ideally, you should have what you’ll be eating first at the very top of the cooler so you don’t have to rummage through the ice to get it. That way you avoid the contents of the cooler having contact with warm air.

You might also consider minimizing the amount of non-perishable food you bring along. Non-perishable food will last a lot longer than perishable food, whether you freeze it or not.

It’s also a good idea to have it along as backup in case of an emergency. If your food goes bad or you lose it for any reason, have some non-perishable snacks and canned food along.

Keep the Cooler in a Cool Area

Staging can go a long way in keeping your cooler cool, even in a hot campsite. Make sure your cooler is in the shade at all times when you’re out camping.

Your car will overheat and become an oven if you leave it in direct sunlight. The same pretty much applies to a cooler, no matter how premium it is or how much ice you packed in it.

Have your cooler sit in the shade and cover it with aluminum foil or a blanket to block as much radiation from the sun as possible.

If shade isn’t easy to find, consider using a car windshield cover to provide a shadow.

Bonus: Keep Your Cooler Safe

This isn’t anything to help with keeping your cooler cool, but it’s still an important point to consider.  If your camp is rife with wildlife, such as bears, then you will want to protect your cooler.

You might want to protect it even if there aren’t any wild animals around. In crowded campsites, your fellow humans might be the greatest threat to your food safety, especially if your food is yummier than theirs.

Consider getting certified bear-resistant coolers (almost all premium coolers are certified) or buying premium cooler locks for an added layer of security.

Keeping Food Cold While Camping – Bottom Line

And with that, we come to the end of our little article on ways of keeping your food cold outside, while camping.

With these tips, you should be able to get about 4 to 6 days out of your perishables without having to worry about contamination or food poisoning.

camping tents food drinks

We hope you know have a good understanding on how to keep food cold when camping. Stay tuned for more helpful tips like these in the future. Happy camping!

Last update on 2024-04-17 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API


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Luke is a co-founder of, a cooler expert and author of 70+ reviews on this website. Luke has a deep passion for sports and all-things-outdoors. From fishing to hiking, from family camping to solo bike trekking, Luke adores spending quality time enjoying nature, oftentimes checking out new coolers while doing so.

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