Keeping your food cold becomes a struggle when you’re out camping for more than a night. Raw foods, especially meats, must be kept cool to avoid spoiling and prevent the growth of dangerous bacterias. Raw meat, for example, has to be stored at temperatures between 28°F to 32°F, according to Meat Science. On a camping trip, without a fridge, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to sustain this low temperature for a very long period of time.
It’s pretty clear that DIY home hacks just won’t be enough and it’s really not worth the risk of getting food poisoned. You’ll need a good cooler for which you’ll have to do some upgrades to make it last for a week. Alternatively, if power is not a problem, a camping fridge will save you from all the headaches.
Keep your food cold in a camping cooler
A cooler box is the cheapest way you can keep things cold while camping. Although you can find them in many different sizes and shapes, they all pretty much work the same way: they rely on ice (icepacks or blocks) to keep the temperature as low as possible.
But they all share the same problem: the ice will eventually melt, and if you can’t replace it, the cooler becomes pretty much useless.
On average, a cooler can keep food cold anywhere between 1 and 4 days, depending on the type of ice that’s being used, how you pack the food and the level of insulation that the cooler box has.
Here’s what you need to make to keep it going for longer:
Insulate the cooler
You’ll see some cooler already have some good insulation, probably built-in inside the plastic wall, that you won’t even notice it. But that’s a relatively thin insulation that won’t cut it if outside temperatures are very high.
You can improve this value by wrapping the box with some insulated blankets or any other insulation material that you can find.
The slower the heat transfer process will occur, the longer it will take for the ice to melt.
Store the cooler and a cold place and away from air movements
The cooler box should stay in a shaded place, away from sunlight and if possible, where there’s little to no air movement. A tiny hole in the ground in a shaded place would work great, but if you can’t have that, find a place with permanent shade and protected by the winds.
If you’re wondering why it has to stay away from winds is because air movement intensifies the process of heat exchange. Although you might feel the wind to be cold, it is actually pretty much the same temperature as the environment. You feel it colder just because you might evaporate some sweat at the moment.
Chill your food ahead
Although they are called coolers, they don’t actually cool down things. And if they do it, it is only for a tiny amount and for the price of completely melting down the icepacks and making it useless.
If you take warm food and put it in the cooler box, there’s going to be an instant heat exchange between the ice and the warm food. The food might get slightly colder, but the ice packs will probably melt in hours.
If you can chill or even better, freeze the food before you store it in the cooler it will increase its operational time by a lot.
The size and shape of ice blocks
Crushed ice has the biggest surface area where the heat exchange process will take place, meaning that it will melt much faster and larger ice blocks.
The shape is also important. Ice will melt much slower if it’s in a sphere shape than in a cubic shape.
You can find more about ice melting speeds in this article.
Ice placement inside the cooler
What people often do wrong is that they only place the ice at the bottom of the cooler box. By doing this, the food that is right at the top of the cooler will be much warmer than the one at the bottom.
The way it works in nature is that warm air rises and cold air sinks. It doesn’t make sense the work in a different way inside your cooling box.
Have some ice blocks on top as well, and as the cold air from the ice will sink down, it will affect the food stored at the top as well.
How you pack your food matters
If possible, have all the food in plastics bags rather than keeping it in food containers. Have everything as close together as possible, and in the middle of everything keep the food that is the most likely to go bad.
Given that you’ve pre-chilled everything, the food that’s right in the middle will stay colder for longer if and only if everything is closely packed together.
Having everything stored in vacuum bags not only will make it easier to pack together, but it will prevent bad bacteria growth.
If it’s beer or other drinks that you want to keep cold, we also have an article about that.
Dry ice vs normal ice
Normal ice doesn’t really have the ability to cool things, but rather it’s a good choice to keep food cold if it’s already cold.
If your plan is to quickly cool food or drinks, you might want to consider using dry ice, but keep in mind that it comes with some handling risks.
Benefits of using dry ice to keep food cold:
- it is much colder than normal ice, with temperatures going down to negative 100 degrees Fahnrenheit.
- It doesn’t turn into a liquid as it melts, therefore your food won’t get wet with time.
- dry ice much lighter, making cooler a lot easier to carry around.
- it can quickly cool down food and beveragees.
The downsides of dry ice:
- it melts, or better said gasifies a lot faster than normal ice, making it a one day only solution.
- is much more expensive to buy.
- the byproduct of using dry ice is CO2, and this comes with it’s risks.
Dry ice is a good alternative to normal ice, but it should be used with caution and works much better with frozen goods rather than foods that only need to be chilled.
Keep your food cold in a camping fridge
If you have access to electricity, it’s probably best to invest in a good portable camping fridge.
You can find them pretty much in all shapes and sizes, and some even come with the ability to run them at 12/24V, 120V, or even 240V.
Tips on how to use them properly:
- don’t overfill them
- don’t leave them in the car if the temperatures can skyrocket.
- open them as little as possible, as the cooling power is not as high as your home fridge.
- keep them clean all the time.
Technology has given us ways to keep food cold when we’re out in the middle of nowhere enjoying the great outdoors. How we use this technology can make the difference between having a 1 day only cold food or perhaps even keeping it cold for an entire week.
Of course a camping fridge will always work better than a cooler, no matter what you do and how well you pack, but campsites are often away from power sources and the only solution is a good cooler box. But you’ll need to do some work to have it working for more than one day.
Food choices also have a role to play here, not because some are easy to cool, but because some can last longer even though the temperatures start to rise a bit.
With a cooler, you’re always fighting against nature, and I’ve never seen nature lose. Never.