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How to Pack a Cooler Like a Pro


There’s not much worse than opening a cooler up mid-adventure to find the grapes swimming in a lovely pool of lunch meat juice. Or that the lettuce is frozen and the raw chicken is warm. Or that you’ve simply run out of ice. Here are some tips and tricks that our cooler packing professionals at America’s Rafting Co have figured out over years and years of packing for multi-day Hells Canyon rafting adventures:

1. Preparation is your friend.

Marinating meat? Dicing veg? Slicing raw chicken? These are tasks that are best suited to be done pre-trip in an indoor kitchen. Taking time to marinate meats* and prep out some food leaves you with a cleaner camp kitchen, a generally a cleaner cooler, less stress and just more time to enjoy your adventure. Pulling bags of pre-marinated grill-ables out of your clean cooler is sure to impress your friends too.

*vacuum sealers are dreamy for the cleanest cooler friendly marinades

2. Pack separate coolers for beverages and food.

Coolers stay the coldest when not opened every 2 seconds for a frosty beverage. With separate coolers, the beverages stay at whatever drinkable temperature they’re at and the food safely keeps cold at the same time. Also, keeping raw meat away from the rims of drink cans is highly recommended, but if a stray bottle of wine happens to find its way into the food cooler…it’s not the end of the world.

If you don’t have the luxury of multiple coolers, beverages can be put with food. Be sure to refrigerate them ahead of time, and place them on top in the cooler for easy access. Just be careful they don’t squish any items below!

3. Pack big coolers.

The biggest ones you got. This obviously depends on the length of your adventure and how much food you’ll be packing, but the right amount of ice takes up a ton of cooler real estate. You want a cooler than can comfortable fit all your food and a ton of ice without an excessive amount of empty space. Any empty space will cause your ice to melt faster. If you find yourself with too much space in a cooler, just add more ice. It can always be used in a delicious beverage or to ice down an injury *knocks on wood*.

4. Choose your type of ice wisely.

You’ve got a few options here: ice cubes from your freezer, block ice from the store, or our favorite: plastic milk jugs filled with water and frozen. These jugs are inexpensive, reusable, work great, and keep the cooler water inside the jugs instead of mingling with the food. Take any plastic container (milk, juice, vinegar, etc), wash it out, fill it, and freeze it. When your next adventure arises, you’ve got a big free chunk of ice in the freezer. They can be put in the bottom of a cooler as is, or smacked with the back of a hammer into smaller chucks of ice (but then it’s obviously not reusable). Just be sure to give the jugs a wash after use with any raw meat or questionable cooler. 

Don’t have the freezer space for a small army of frozen milk jugs? Block ice from the store works great too. Pro Tip: Cut a piece of cardboard the size of the inside of you cooler to put in between the ice and food. This’ll stop your food items from swimming in the dreaded cooler water.

5. Pack too much ice.

The right amount of ice in a cooler really depends on outdoor temperature and length of trip. Hot weather means packing more ice, cool weather means packing less, and a 5 day trip needs way more ice than a day trip. It’s difficult to give a hard and fast rule about ice quantity, but in general it’s always better to bring more than less.

Pro Tip: Worried about the amount of ice you’re bringing? Got an extra cooler? Pack a bunch of ice into the spare cooler for a backup and refill the food cooler whenever it needs it. The ice cooler will stay cold because it’ll hardly ever be opened and as a bonus you’ll have clean ice for beverages.

6. Ice goes on the bottom.

Duh. But really, put a nice thick bed of ice on all (or almost all) of the bottom of the cooler. This keeps your food from getting squished and keeps the cooler juices away from the food. If you layer your food correctly (See No. 8), everything will be cool, safe, and clean.  If it’s super hot out (100+F) or if you’re worried about it, a thin ice pack can be layered over the top. 

7. Put (almost) everything in ziplocks.

Got a block of cheese from the store? A few carrots for dinner? A couple sticks of butter? A package of lunch meat? Put. Them. In. Ziplocks. Then when you eat only half the cheese, you’ve already got a container to put in back into. The carrots, butter, and lunch meats will not be swimming in the cooler water no matter how hard they try. Got leftovers? These lightly used ziplocks work great for that too.

8. Pack only cold or frozen food.

Cooler’s aren’t refrigerators. They’ve only got so much cooling power in the ice, which is really for keeping cold food cold and not for making food cold. By refrigerating or freezing everything ahead of time, you’ll extend the lifespan of the ice in the cooler.

Leftovers are a tricky situation with coolers. Put leftovers into a cooler and you risk losing the ice quickly and warming the cooler up. Leaving the leftovers out and you’ll risk them going bad. Handle leftovers at your own risk.

Pro Tip: freeze all meats before putting them in the cooler if you’re on a multi-day trip. It’s free ice, safer for the meats, and they’ll eventually thaw out as the days go on. Just be sure to take the first night’s meat out earlier to give it a chance to thaw.

9. Use your noggin when it comes to layering foods.

Food at the bottom of the cooler touching ice will stay the coldest (and sometimes freeze) while items at the top of the cooler will be warmer (and sometimes be at questionable temperatures). Food like meats and dairy that need to stay very cold should be put at the bottom of the cooler: on top or next to the ice. All raw meats should be put together and at the very bottom of the cooler (this will keep them as cold as possible AND from contaminating other foods). Produce is best on the very top of the cooler where it won’t get squished, contaminated or frozen. Everything else should be tetris’d into the middle. The tighter the pack, the longer the cooler will stay cold.

Pro Tip: packing soft produce like peaches or tomatoes? Cut off the bottom of a small cardboard box so it’s just a few inches tall. Put in all your soft produce and you’ve got the perfect disposable bruise-free container. 

10. Clean coolers after every use.

I know, it’s not our favorite task either but it makes packing for your next adventure a breeze instead of a moldy gamble. We recommend simply washing it with a hose, sponge/scrubber and dish soap in your backyard. A little bleach goes a long way if it got grimy or *gasp* you didn’t wash it right away.

BONUS:

Put a thermometer in your cooler. This is the only true way of knowing how safely your food is being stored. The ideal cooler temperature is below 40F.


Looking for an adventure but want to skip all this cooler packing and maintenance? Check out ARC’s Hells Canyon Rafting Trips and Salmon River Rafting Trips for incredibly fun all-inclusive overnight rafting trips with no food planning or cooler packing sight.

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