Real Food Tips: How to Pack a Cooler (Safely)

After years and years of weekend camping trips I honestly can’t believe I am just now figuring out there is a proper way to pack a cooler to ensure food safety (and avoid food poisoning).

So today I want to share these newfound, valuable tips because, when the precautions are so easy, why not be safe instead of sorry? Surely I’m not the only one that has been living in the dark on this topic.

It all started on our camping trip this past weekend when I opened our cooler to find that ice had melted and leaked (potentially contaminated cooler water) into the container holding our caprese pasta salad. That salad took me a long time to make from scratch…and I wanted to eat it! Melted ice has leaked into containers on us before, but it only seemed to happen with a few questionable leftovers that were still in the cooler after returning home – not a brand new dish we hadn’t even eaten yet!

So I turned to my facebook community for some important advice – eat it or toss it? And after sifting through more than 1K responses to this question, and using my brain a little, I realized we need to make some serious, yet simple, changes before ever packing up the cooler with a weekend’s worth of food again! And just for the record – we tossed the [what would have been delicious] pasta salad so we learned our lesson for sure.

How To Pack A Cooler


Cooler Packing Tips

  1. Start With A Good Quality Hard Cooler.
    High quality, thick-sided, hard coolers are better at insulating and keeping your food cold than the soft-sided alternative. So when it comes to packing perishables for an extended period of time (or when it’s extra hot outside) skip the light-weight insulated bags and go for something sturdier instead. For example, my daughters’ school lunches are fine in an insulated bag with several ice packs sitting in the air conditioned school building until lunchtime, but when I recently sent my 6-year-old to an outdoor camp in the middle of our hot Carolina summer they recommended a personal-sized hard cooler to ensure the food stayed cool enough in the heat.
  2. Wash Your Cooler Before Packing It.
    I am sure we’ve washed our coolers at some point in their decade+ lifetime, but, admittedly, not that much. And like most people we store our coolers in our garage, which is steaming hot in the summer and therefore a breeding ground for bacteria. So rather than taking any chances, it’s always best to start your trip off with a cooler that has been given a nice little bath with some warm, soapy water. (I would also recommend washing it after you get home from a trip as well – especially if you were transporting raw meat.)
  3. Pack Raw Meat [And Beverages] Separately.
    After the first facebook commenter shared the advice to pack raw meat in a separate, smaller cooler my first thought was – duh. So if our big cooler with the pasta salad would have been clean AND was not sharing space with any raw meat (which – for the record – it was) then that cooler water wouldn’t have been so terribly frightening after all, although I am still not sure if I would have eaten it. :) Also, if you are able to pack beverages in another separate cooler this will reduce the frequency of opening the food cooler, therefore keeping it…cooler!
  4. Store Food In Leak-Proof Containers.
    If you still don’t like the possibility of cooler water seeping into your food (like me) you can always just pack your food in containers that won’t take on water no matter what. Taking this precaution will relieve me of my constant (self-imposed) duty to ask my husband if he’s drained the melted ice out of the bottom of the cooler before adding new ice. So for that reason alone – I am sold. After doing a decent amount of research (including testing some other supposedly “leak proof” containers that weren’t) I just purchased some leak-proof “Lock & Lock” containers from Amazon and can’t wait to try them out on our next trip. Also, don’t forget that if canning jars are sealed tightly they are leak-proof as well so depending on what you need to pack (and how you feel about bringing glass) those would be another great storage option. Have you found a good, reliable leak-proof food storage container for your camping foods? I’d love to hear what brand containers you have tried in the comments.
  5. Don’t Pack Room Temperature (or Warm) Items.
    When packing items like bottled water or freshly made – and still warm – slow cooker baked beans make sure everything is cold (or in the case of raw meat, it could even be frozen) before adding it to the cooler. Room temperature or warm items will only make the ice in the cooler melt faster.
  6. Monitor The Cooler Temp With A Thermometer.
    A recommendation on the government’s food safety website states, “an appliance thermometer takes the guesswork out of knowing your food is safe to eat. So put one in your cooler, and make sure it reads 40 °F or below.” So if you really want to be certain you aren’t screwing anything up this would be something to consider.

So the moral of the story is this – it’s better to be safe than sorry. And funny enough, I was really sick on a camping trip once and now I will forever wonder if it was due to some food mishandling in the cooler! Never again now that we are going to change our ways. But before I let you go I thought this would be a good time to share my current top 5 favorite foods to bring with us camping…while it’s on my mind and all.

Top 5 Camping Foods

My Top 5 Favorite Foods To Pack In The Cooler for Camping

  1. Grill Packets.
    Spend time preparing these meat and veggie packets in advance for a super easy dinner. Plus these tasty packets have the added bonus of being able to cook right in the campfire (preferably on prepared charcoal) if your campground doesn’t come equipped with a grill.
  2. Appetizer Trays.
    I love to repurpose our divided, BPA-free, leak-proof lunch containers (by Ziploc) as little camping “snack trays” as well! The possibilities are endless including fresh sliced veggies, dips like hummus or homemade ranch, whole-grain pretzels, roasted nuts, diced cheese cubes, grapes or apple slices, and olives. Once you go through all the effort of setting up camp you’ll appreciate this ready-to-go snack before having to start the fire or grill for dinner.
  3. Scrambled Eggs and Organic Bacon.
    The trick here is to break open and scramble (and season) the eggs in the advance so they’ll go right from a (leak-proof) tupperware container to the pan with no mess. We also have a little camping tradition of cooking the bacon first so we can scramble the eggs in the bacon grease for added flavor. We now call these “camping eggs” and look forward it. Trust me, you won’t want to be stuck with boring bowls of cereal when you suddenly smell your campsite neighbor frying up bacon and eggs. :)
  4. Slow Cooker Baked Beans.
    Few things “taste” like camping more than homemade baked beans. Make these in advance and heat them up on your camp stove for a delicious addition to your lunch or dinner.
  5. Burgers and Dogs.
    What is a camping trip without traditional fare of grass-fed hamburgers and organic hot dogs (with whole-wheat buns and organic ketchup of course!)? Just because you are avoiding highly processed food doesn’t mean you have to miss out on any of the fun. :) We like to “prepare” our burger patties in advance so we can mix in seasonings, diced onion, and sometimes grated cheddar cheese – yum. Or you can always just melt some homemade pimento cheese on top while they are cooking. No matter what you can’t go wrong with this option!

We’d love to hear your cooler stories and favorite camping foods in the comments below…please share.

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120 thoughts on “Real Food Tips: How to Pack a Cooler (Safely)”

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  1. Curious about opinions on cooking in aluminum foil packets… I have heard that this is not a safe/ healthy choice?

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi there. Lisa does not use foil for cooking very often. There is research that has concluded that foil is safer for storage.

  2. I freeze our hamburgers, hotdogs and sausages in food saver bags, and then put those bags in ziploc as back up. I also pre-wash and prep lettuce, peppers and onions and put them in the vacuum seal bags. they lay nicely at the top of the ice chest and take up less space.

  3. I found zip lock bags or food save bags work the best. Freeze everything in them nights before departure….they aid in keeping each other frozen / cold.

  4. We freeze water bottles to use as ice. When it melts, we have water…and no mess in the bottom of the cooler. We also use plenty of containers / bags to separate foods.

  5. A dayear ahead of time you can put ice, that you have at home, in the cooler, and cool it down. Like you said a lot of people have their coolers in the garage or basement. After washing it, put lots of ice in it, jam pack it with ice, then on the day of departure from home, your cooler will already be cold. Put frozen cooked and raw meat in bottom of cooler, top with ice and then top with cooling racks, the kind you put baked goods on. On top of the cooling racks you can place your butter, and other things that are not water tight or the containers are questionable. Try to freeze as much as possible at home before putting in the cooler. As it will stay frozen longer.

  6. Hey Lisa – I linked to your page, hope it is ok – please take a look at my TailgaterBox when you have time – I think you would love it! Thanks for this article, great tips.

  7. I agree with the Lock nLock, I love mine and I not only use them for camping. I have them in my cabinets for storage of all of my gluten-free items that I want to keep separate. My hubby has always complained about pineapple juice leaking out of whatever container he puts the pineapple in, until I gave him a small LNL and now he’s hooked too. He uses them in his bike bags and trail packs because he knows that they are sturdy and he’s not going to have a mess. I bought a couple sets off Groupon a few years ago and I’m realizing that I should have bought more when I had the chance :) Have a Blessed weekend all- Hug a Vet and take a moment to remember those that gave it all for our freedom.

  8. That super cold water from melted ice is better than actual ice at keeping things cold. My husband scolds me if I dump it out – because I too hate everything wet, but he’s right. Everything stays much colder in that ice water,

  9. Holy Wow. There are a LOT of camping tips out there!
    My most tried and true method for packing coolers is super simple:
    Use One Gallon Sized WATER jugs. Toss them in your freezer and freeze them solid for a couple days, then pack them into the bottom of your cooler. Toss one of those nifty “ice mats” on top of all the food, and you are all set. This way, your food won’t get wet/soggy (you can avoid the cross contamination concerns this way as well), and once they do melt, you have fresh, cool, clean drinking water! A Note about this method: DO NOT USE OLD MILK JUGS. The textured nature of these types of jugs leaves small pockets in which particles can become trapped, thus harboring bacteria and making them unsafe for reuse. And no, it doesn’t matter if you clean them out well with bleach.
    As far as toting water for 5 for a weekend, I strongly recommend getting a 5 gallon collapsible water container. It’s plastic, BPA free, doesn’t take up a TON of space and likely won’t shatter if it falls off of a table ;).

  10. “Real” Tupperware, purchased from a Tupperware consultant, is the best in terms of water-tight seals. When a Tupperware container advertises a water-tight, air-tight seal, it is guaranteed for life. You can purchase cheaper containers at Target or Amazon, but they are not guaranteed and real Tupperware is a better buy for the money. All Tupperware is also BPA-free and 100% dishwasher safe. I do sell it, but I wouldn’t if I didn’t love it and stand behind what I am saying. Don’t waste money trying gimmicky containers, get tried-and-true Tupperware.

  11. We use a 5 day Extreme cooler for 5-8 days of camping. I freeze water in 5-6 of the 64 oz plastic juice bottles and put these on all 4 corners and 1 or 2 in the middle. I freeze or cool everything that can be frozen ahead of time, even butter. The left side of the cooler has the meat in between ice jugs; milk, eggs and cheese is in the middle; and condiments stay on the right with fruit and veggies. If we have more than 6 people, I have a soft-sided cooler for the fresh fruit and veggies with just 1 jug of ice since they only need to be kept cool if it is real warm outside. By the time the ice has melted we have eaten the perishable food. I am the only one who opens the cooler. The organization helps find food faster to keep the lid closed longer. We use something and I put it back in the cooler ASAP so nothing “warms up.” I try to keep everything in glass or zipper seal bags, sometimes even double bagged. We still had good, cold milk on day 8 of our trip last week. I was skeptical of the 5 day cooler, but along with these tips, it really makes a difference. Beverages, except for milk, are in another cooler and kids can open that cooler all they want!

    1. Freezing water in 1/2 gallon milk containers works great for a longer camping trip. Usually still cold after 5 days.

  12. I love camping, but one thing that really irritates me is wet stuff– think cheese floating in melted ice. Ugh! We had some plastic flooring from a “critter cage” that we never used. We cut that to fit inside the bottom of the cooler. The new floor of the cooler is raised about inch from the real cooler floor, but the melted ice collects at the bottom… UNDER all our food. Oh, happy day!

  13. Great article! On the subject of camping, has anyone solved the problem of what type of container to store water in for a family of four on a camping trip? Glass seems to be the safest, but it’s super heavy (not to mention breakable). All the bad press on plastic (even BPA-free isn’t necessarily safe) is making the task of preparing for a camping trip a little daunting. Many thanks!!!

    1. If you look at the real scientific facts about BPA, you would have to eat something like 400 lbs of food each day heated in BPA-leaching containers to see any effects of it after many years’ time. Most plastic containers made today do not contain any BPA at all, and those that do will probably be okay to use for a weekend camping trip. Live on the edge for one weekend and don’t worry!

      1. Bravo Renee. I think of all my senior relatives and friends who have eaten grilled dogs and burgers without a thought to organics and lived into their 90’s. As you suggested, always buy the cleanest food, but camping trips are measured in days, not carcinogens. Go crazy.

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi Sarah. Sorry, we can rarely answer questions in real time. How was your trip? The packets are fine for a weekend trip as long as they are kept cold. ~Amy

  14. I have always been camping since I was about 3 years old. The most handy and safest way to guard your food from contamination either from dirty ice water or other sources. I vacuum seal everything!! I got a car adaptor for our trips and it has become the best thing I have ever taken camping. It is the type that has 2 electrical sockets and plug-ins for cell phones, tablets and so on. I started vacuum sealing everything that goes in the ice chests, freezing whatever I could. The only bad thing about doing that was you had to open the package at some point, making it hard to keep safe. One day while packing for our trip it hit me, why not take the sealer with us. It is small enough to not be a hassel and then we could reseal any packages we needed to. It turned out to be fantastic!!! Not only did everything stay fresh and dry, but it also made every part of cleaning up and keeping things organized a breeze. The rest of the family and friends even used it for sealing up fish bait, electronics that they were taking in the boats and many more things. It even helped to keep the bugs out of our camp. I found out that if you use the vacuum bags to freeze water for your ice chests, the bags are thicker and the ice lasts longer with no air inside. It has been such a better experience camping that I will never go camping again without taking a vacuum sealer.

    1. Dawn, what vacuum sealer do you use? Could you post a link to it? I’ve been considering buying one but was unsure which one to get. Thanks!

  15. Do you know where the lock and lock containers are made? I can’t seem to find the info but they do sound great. I am having a hard time finding containers made in the USA.

  16. I always buy dry ice for camping. Put 2 large chunks in the bottom of the cooler & lay an old towel on top. Then put a bag of ice on top of that. My milk stays so cold it is almost icy!

  17. We are serious BEACH campers. we use the 2 liter bottles with frozen water, on the bottom of the ice chest, at the end of the trip, we use the melted fresh water to rinse with before we leave. All meat, is packed in vacuum sealed bags. we only use the LOCK & LOCK containers for everything else. We also have a separate chest for drinks “ONLY” because it is opened a lot more than the food chest. We also freeze all of our bottled water before hand, which also helps. We also save those brown paper bags from the grocery store, (the ones you get to keep you cold stuff cold till you get home) we lay these out flat across the top of our food and drinks for extra insulation, they really do help!

  18. I just started reading some of your blog posts, so forgive me if someone has given you this idea before. When we pack a cooler, instead of ice, we use old OJ containers or two liter bottles filled with water that have been frozen in our deep freezer. They stay frozen a long time vs. regular ice. When we return home, I wash them off and stick them back in the deep freeze for another time.

  19. How long do pre-scrambled eggs stay good before you need to cook them up? It sounds like a great way to save time and mess at the campsite!

  20. Just had a thought, the mid-size Gatorade bottles would be great in a cooler after being washed out and frozen. The flat bottoms would keep them upright and the shape makes them easy to grab from above. Just inherited an Igloo Ultra Cold 50 from my in laws and can’t wait to give this a shot.

  21. As for the type of waterproof containers to use…REAL Tuppeware (some people use the word “Tupperware” to describe any plastic container, however there is only one real Tupperware brand). All Tupperware is BPA-free, and most of the major product lines have air-tight and water-tight seals. They make several varieties of bento-box type containers, although most are not in the main catalog, several have come up in the monthly sales flyers in the past year. What’s more, they are guaranteed to last forever. If the seal becomes non-air-tight or water-tight they can be replaced for free, no matter how many years after purchase. No Tupperware should EVER be thrown away, lessening the burden on the environment compared to cheapo zip-loc containers. The seals on the zip-loc containers are not always that tight! Not intentionally to advertise here, but if you don’t know where to find Tupperware, it is still sold at parties hosted by people like you and run by consultants, or you an view a catalog or order online at websites like http://my2.tupperware.com/rhaugen.You can also find a local consultant online.

    1. You can also simply fill water-tight Tupperware containers with water, freeze overnight, and use as ice-blocks in your cooler instead of bags of ice that leak.

  22. I like using frozen water bottles instead of bagged ice. They fit nicely around the food and no worries about water at the bottom of the cooler. I also separate the food & drinks into separate coolers to keep down the need to open the food cooler. After 3 days at camp the bottles still have ice in them & make a great cold drink.

  23. I am an advocate of dry ice. There is a learning curve. First time I used it I froze everything. Another time I put grapes in there and they became fizzy (carbonated). I now use a two ice chest system (freezer & refrigerator). As the insulating materials (water bottles)freeze I move them to the other chest to keep that stuff cold. If I get too many, we drink the ice cold drinks. I have not had a soggy chest for years. And even after 6 days, when I get home everything is still COLD. Best advice is to buy BEST ice chests. The cheaper ones just don’t insulate well. My experience says to buy IGLOO cold max. The wall are very think and they work better than Rubbermaid and other off brands. I will never go back to bags of ice or block ice to keep my cooler cold.

  24. Something you might have overlooked in your step #5. Per-chill your cooler. Just like warm food isn’t good to add to the cooler, a warm cooler is going to use up some of your ice to get to 40 deg. So the night before a long camping trip, ice down your cooler so it is already cool in the morning when you pack it. But make sure you drain off any water that may have accumulated overnight. Most cooler manufactures recommend you do this to increase the length you ice will last.

  25. Our family throws a big party every year at a barn with no running water nor electricity. We put all of the cold food in ziploc bags so they are sealed but also fit nicely into the cooler. Bowls and trays are carried separately saving valuable cooler space. When it is time to serve, simply squeeze the salad into the bowl. We also freeze water in bags in a flat layer in the freezer, leaving room for expansion. These wedge snugly between other items. Have never had a leak issue plus everything fits in so much easier and stays colder longer.

  26. I use Clip and close. They are top tested in Europe and very sanitary as well as leak proof. Sold by a company call Frieling USA. You can find them on Amazon made by Emsa.

  27. I like to use Mason Jars to keep my food items in, as much as possible. I also started dehydrating some meals myself, so I don’t have to have so many meat items. I don’t like to cook much when I’m camping, so I like a pre-made meal or two to have along, and it saves cooler space.

  28. I pack frozen meat and put a block of ice on top of the leak proof container that the meat is in (in the ice chest.) Also, instead of using ice pieces around every item, I use two big blocks of ice to create more of a refrigerator. I stand one block upright and place milk and mayo right next to it for added cooling.

  29. I save the jars that Miracle Whip, peanut butter, etc come in to pack potato salad, mac salad, fruit salad, etc in. They do not leak, are free, and do not allow water in.

  30. Freeze your own ice blocks in plastic gallon milk jugs or juice bottles. Stand them upright in the cooler and as they thaw they won’t leak. Also if you’ve cleaned them out before making ice, you have spare ice cold drinking water.

    1. I tried this last year with store bought jugs of water. And learned a very stupid science lesson. Ice Expands as it freezes. All of the jugs burst….so much for the extra water. This year I will dump a little of the water out before freezing. Sigh….Lesson learned!

  31. We have been using Lock n’ Lock containers for camping for years. You will love them. Which reminds me I need to get some more…off to shop!

  32. Dry ice is also FANTASTIC if you can get it where you live! Keeps food super cold (it’s actually frozen sandwiches before) and no melty ice to deal with. It’s my new go to!

  33. Great tips! I actually have the very same Coleman cooler you show in your picture and can’t recommend it enough! The trick I find is making sure things are cooled or frozen before they go in. Plenty of ice blocks and not to leave it open too long when you go into it, press the lid down firmly to make sure it is properly sealed, and after 5 days camping, I still have a few tiny cubes of ice left when I get home.

  34. I wash and save containers other food comes in, butter, fruit, cottage cheese etc …. most are leak proof and can be recycled at the campgrounds …