Enjoying good food and drink in the great outdoors can come with some frustrating challenges, but camp meals don’t all have to be freeze-dried pasta packets, chips, and granola bars.
Any fresh ingredients you bring with you can turn bad pretty quick ― which, at best, might mean going hungry, and at worst might mean being intimately familiar with the campsite latrines.
Unless, of course, you can work out how to keep food cold while camping.
Below, we’ve put together a list consisting of just that ― 30 tips on how to keep food cold while camping.
- Most campers store food in a portable cooler. If you pre-chill them and pack them right, they’ll keep your food chilled for five days ― or even longer.
- Refillable ice packs or gel packs are the best way to keep your cooler cold, but you can also use dry ice, frozen drinking water, or frozen food.
- To keep things cold without a cooler, you could try evaporative cooling, stash sealed containers in streams, or use communal fridges at campsites.
- Food safety and hygiene are super-important when you’re camping. By avoiding cross-contamination and basing your meals around non-perishable items where possible, you can dodge the risks of spoiled food.
Get a Cooler That Suits Your Budget and Needs
There’s a huge range of coolers out there. Top-of-the-line models with thicker walls will set you back hundreds of dollars and keep perishable food refrigerated for well over a week, but even an inexpensive cooler can keep food cold for four or five days if used right.
When you’re shopping around for a cooler, think about how big you need it to be and what sorts of features you want.
Speaking from experience, a cooler with wheels can make a camping trip a lot easier!
Open Your Cooler as Little as Possible
It sounds obvious, but the more you’re in and out of your cooler, the quicker you’ll end up with warm beers and E. coli.
Try to be tactical about going into your cooler ― getting everything you need for each meal out at once.
Bring at Least Two Coolers
It makes sense to have a dedicated drinks cooler, since, on most camping trips, it’s going to get opened up a lot more often than the food cooler.
Keeping perishable foods in a separate cooler will help your fresh items last longer, and also makes for good food hygiene.
Pre-Chill Your Cooler
Filling up a well insulated cooler that’s already ice-cold is a great start. Use cheap bags of store-bought ice, or even cram the whole thing in a chest freezer if it fits.
Pack Your Cooler Carefully and Tightly
Line the bottom with ice packs before the food items go in, then pack your food in layers ― starting with the things that need to stay coldest at the bottom.
Keep the Cooler in the Shade
To keep food cold while camping, your food cooler needs to go in the shadiest spot you can find — especially if conditions are warm.
For some extra prep, check out our 30 tips for camping in the heat while you’re here.
Keep a Thermometer in Your Cooler
For food, you need to make sure the temperature remains below 40°F. Higher than that and the bacteria might get to your burgers before you do.
Try a Powered Cooler or Car Fridge
If your campsite has powered hook-ups, an electric cooler is the most reliable way to keep your food fresh and your drinks ice-cold.
Or, if you’re on an unpowered pitch, a compact portable car fridge can be a decent alternative.
Types of Ice
Those big bags of loose ice cubes you get from the local gas station or store are fine for pre-chilling your cooler, but they’re not great for much else.
Loose ice cubes melt quickly and will pool in the bottom of your cooler, which gets messy. Plus, having your meat, cheese, and salad all floating around in a soup of cold water is the opposite of appetizing and is just asking for trouble.
You can use molds like ice cream tubs or silicone baking molds to freeze water into much bigger lumps of block ice. These will stay cold a lot longer than cubes, but you’ve got the same problem that they’ll eventually melt away into slushy cold water.
Reusable Ice Packs
Available in loads of shapes and sizes, ice packs are sealed containers that you fill with water then slip in the freezer.
Depending on thickness, ice packs can stay frozen pretty well — with the added bonus that they don’t make any mess when they eventually melt.
Gel packs are becoming increasingly popular. They often come in soft packs that are more malleable before you freeze them, and — depending on the gel used — they can sometimes freeze faster or thaw out slower than plain old water.
Dry Ice (Frozen Carbon Dioxide)
Some campers swear by dry ice packs. Dry ice is extremely cold and it’ll give your camp that 80s horror movie vibe, but it’s got some downsides too — not least that it’s reasonably difficult to get hold of and it can freeze-burn both your food and your skin.
With that in mind, be sure to use gloves if you’re handling dry ice packs.
Freezing your perishable foods before they go into the cooler not only makes them last longer, but it also keeps the cooler temperature down and saves filling up so much space with ice packs. Win-win!
Frozen Water Bottles
You can make your own ice packs from frozen water bottles. Frozen bottles stay solid pretty well, don’t melt into the bottom of the cooler, and thaw out into lovely ice-cold drinking water.
Just make sure you don’t fill the bottles right to the top or they’re liable to split when the water freezes and then leak when the ice melts.
Keeping Things Cold Without a Cooler
Insulated Lunch Packs
If you’re hiking from place to place and carrying your camp on your back, you won’t want to pony around a fifty-liter ice chest.
Many hikers opt for food that doesn’t need chilling, but if you do decide you want some cheese, yogurt, or summer sausage and need to keep it cool, you could try an insulated lunch pack like kids take to school.
Try Evaporative Cooling
As water evaporates, it cools the warm air around it. You can take advantage of this to improvise a “camp fridge” that will keep your food fresher.
This can be as simple as draping a wet towel over your food box, or putting your food in an absorbent fabric bag, wetting it, and then hanging it in the shade.
You could also go full MacGyver and build a camp pantry from a framework of sticks with a wetted fabric covering. Just make sure you keep the material dampened throughout the day.
Evaporative cooling with cold air isn’t efficient enough to use for meat, but it works well for fruits and veggies.
Use Your Environment
Options include storing sealed containers in streams or pools, dangling them from the back of a canoe, digging down into the ground where the earth is cooler, or hanging food parcels in the shade away from hot air.
Whatever you do, make sure you protect your food from critters and insects.
Use Communal Fridges on Commercial Sites
Some campsites have big fridges that campers can use. Label your perishable foods clearly, keep them in leak-proof containers, and try not to feel too aggrieved when someone steals one of your beers.
Food Planning and Hygiene
Buy Food Frozen
Instead of browsing the chilled section at the grocery store, head over to the frozen food instead. You’ll find a lot of the same things, and if you buy frozen food items then they’ll last longer in the cooler.
Freeze Meals Before Your Camping Trip
Cook things in advance, then freeze them in the quantities you need for each meal. This works especially well for sauces, marinades, and purees, but you can also do it with meats and some fresh fruit and vegetables.
It’s not just about how to keep food cold while camping — it’s also about staying safe.
As raw meat thaws out, it runs the risk of contaminating your other foods. Double up on the zip-lock bags to make sure those meaty juices stay where they’re supposed to.
Food poisoning is no joke — especially when the bathroom’s a fifty-yard dash away past eight other pitches.
You need to be even more careful about food safety on a camping trip than you are in the kitchen at home.
Keep meat well away from salads, dairy products, and anything else you’re going to eat raw. Use different chopping boards and implements, and clean everything down diligently when you’re done.
Cook Everything Through
A camping trip is not the place to have your steaks blue and your eggs extra runny. Make sure everything is cooked properly — especially if you’re using fire or coals, which have a habit of charring things on the outside and leaving things raw in the middle.
Lots of campers take a meat thermometer to make sure those finger-lickin’ chicken drumsticks don’t come with a side-order of salmonella.
Use Things That Don’t Need Refrigeration
There’s a reason most hikers eat freeze-dried meals, and it’s not usually the taste.
Keeping food cold in the outdoors is always going to be a food safety challenge, and by picking camping food that comes in cans, jars, and packets, you can make life a lot easier.
Live Off the Land
Supplement non-perishables by picking up smaller amounts of fresh stuff as you go along. Depending on the season and the environment, you might be able to fish or forage during your camping trip.
However, there are also often smaller local grocery stores, campsite kiosks, or other places where you can get hold of fresh produce for immediate consumption.
You might need to be adaptable, but bringing less fresh food with you means fewer worries about keeping it cold.
Be Tactical About Your Menus
When it comes to a fresh meal, the things that will spoil fastest need to be eaten first. That means items like salad, soft fruits, and especially raw meat.
Other foods like root veggies, pasta, and the like can stay in reserve for later on.
Consider a Dehydrator
Dehydrated food lasts longer, is much lighter, and takes up less space. Plus, unlike with commercial freeze-drying, home dehydrating locks in much more flavor, and you can pick up a dehydrator for very cheap.
Lots of campers use them to dry store-cupboard ingredients like mushrooms or onions, but the possibilities are endless.
You can dry out sauces on thin sheets of greaseproof paper, make fruit leathers, or dehydrate blueberries to throw into your pancakes. And homemade beef jerky is the best.
Bring Non-Refrigerated Back-Up
Cooler disasters happen. Someone leaves the lid open, the weather takes an unexpectedly warm turn, or that chicken just smells plain wrong when you get it on the chopping board.
Keeping some cans or freeze-dried meals in reserve means that even if the worst happens, you won’t go hungry on your camping trip.
Be Wary of Critters
Ants, flies, bears, raccoons, gulls… they’re all looking to mooch a bite of your lunch.
Wherever you store your food and however you decide to keep it cool, be sure to protect it from critter-pilfering.
How Long Does a Cooler Keep Things Cold for?
Used correctly, a decent cooler will stay cold for about five days. But the best models will keep food cold longer, in some cases for over a week.
How Do You Keep a Cooler Cold for Three or More Days?
There are lots of ways to optimize how long your food and drink lasts in the cooler.
These include pre-chilling your cooler, using decent ice blocks, packing the cooler tightly, and freezing as much of your food beforehand as you can.
How to Keep Food Cold While Backpacking?
Keeping food cold while backpacking can be pretty difficult. Some hikers use an insulated lunch pack, while others might try techniques like evaporative cooling or storing sealed food containers in streams.
Ultimately, freeze-dried meals are usually better for backpackers, along with non-perishable snacks like dried fruit and trail mix.
How to Keep Food Cold Without a Cooler?
To keep food cold without a cooler, you can try using evaporative cooling. Put fruit and veggies in a fabric bag then wet the bag and hang it in the shade.
The evaporation will cool the air around the bag and keep the food fresher.
How to Keep Food Cold While Traveling?
The best way to keep food cold while traveling is to use a cooler. If you’ve got a vehicle or are staying in a campsite with powered hook-ups, you could even use an electric cooler or portable car fridge.