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. Another option is to use sealed ice packs instead of ice. Or freeze your water bottles and use them as the ice. Save your latest empty 2-liter bottle, or any plastic bottle with a screw-on lid, and fill with water, freeze, and pop it in the cooler. Then as the ice melts it will all stay contained. Yes, your food containers won’t be surrounded by icy water, but if you keep the cooler closed then everything should still stay cold.

  2. I love the Lock & Lock containers! We use them in our pantry but I had no idea that they are completely leak proof. Yay!

  3. To keep the cooler colder longer, put it in the shade. Seems like a no brainer, but it’s easy to overlook. Remember, a shady spot at 9 am may be in full sun by 3 pm.

    Also, blankets help keep the cold in (or heat out), so if you’ve got an extra one around camp, fold it up and throw it over the cooler. This also acts as padding if one wants to use the cooler as a stool.

    Finally, try filling empty plastic milk jugs with water and freezing those. I have a few that stay in my chest freezer because a full freezer runs more efficiently than on that’s half empty, so those are easy to grab.

  4. After experiencing similar cooler problems in the past, I now keep large juice plastic containers for just these occasions. I fill them with water and keep them in the freezer ready for the next picnic or camping trip. Because they’re large size the ice lasts much longer and as it melts you now have water you can use in cooking. They are leak proof and I’ve never had a problem since with water in my cooler.

  5. We are big campers!!! We actually have a 3 way fridge which means no ice… yay!!

    But can I strongly recommend for those using coolers that the best way to keep your food cool is to freeze water in old drink bottle containers! Having blocks of solid ice, means the ice doesn’t melt as quick. It also means that when the ice melts you have bottled water!! A 2litre frozen water bottle normally lasts 2-3 days before melting, perfect for a weekend away!!

  6. Anne-Guri Eriksson Bishop

    I found tall containers stacked in the high quality cooler are easier to deal with – cut up veggies- premade salads – chili – baked beans – etc can slide right out into a pan if they re warming. Keep the empty container back in place to keep the others stable. You can fill them with ice to weight them down. We also have a 12v cooler for traveling with frozen raw meat or premade scrambled eggs or potato salad. ( but don’t leave it on too long when you get there – it drains your battery fast) Fill with ice when you are not driving. Keeps foodsore likely to spoil fast cooler longer.

  7. If at all possible, I freeze all food items before packing in the cooler. Also, cold air sinks, so put the colder items on top of the not as cold ones.

  8. Typo in previous post – one “thing”, not one “think”.

    Also, sealing any raw meats into vacuum bags (then washing the parts of them that might be contaminated) and keeping *those* in the large cereal-type containers is another tactic we’ve used.

    It all depends on how much cooler space I have. Hubby likes to think it takes only one cooler – I prefer to take two. I may try to fool him this year and buy a huge one during fishing season ;-)

  9. One think I’ve found helpful is to create a tray within our cooler using a plastic “dishpan”. It sits easily above other foods and floats (unless it gets tipped, which has only happened once). Anything that might be damaged by icewater goes into the tray.

    We also have used large lock-n-lock cereal-type containers to hold lunchmeat and cheese and condiments. Again, they’re fine unless they get too light and tip – just keep them loaded and they’ll sit in the water without contaminating the items inside.

  10. We pack a ton of freeze dried ingredients like beans, veggies, pasta, herbs, then we add water and have fantastic stews over the camp fire. We also bring potatoes for morning skillet dishes. And oatmeal with dried fruit and nuts. We’ve almost eliminated the need for a cooler by bringing mostly add water/oil ingredients for trips that require really light packing.

    1. Where do you get the freeze-dried ingredients? Or do you make them yourself somehow? How do they taste compared to regular?

      1. sometimes we dehydrate ourselves, other times ingredients can be purchased at the grocery store in the soup section. camping stores are great too

  11. I freeze plastic bottles of water (about 3/4 full) to put in the cooler around the food. No mess! DON’T DRINK THIS WATER THAT HAS BEEN FROZEN — just wash the exterior and refreeze it when you get home and you’re ready to go again.

    1. As far as how many frozen bottles to use: it varies according to what I’m cooling and for how long. I put some in the bottom of the coolers and some around food that would be more perishable (like meat or dairy). Larger bottles will stay frozen longer, of course.

    2. What is the reason for not drinking the water after? Due to the breaking down of plastic when it is frozen? Do chemicals leak into the water like when you leave bottled water in a hot car? I’ve just never heard of this problem with cold temperatures.

    3. We do the same thing and it works great! I usually freeze 1-2 milk jugs per big cooler. I’ve used 2-liters in the past too. I do use the water that thaws for making coffee. After 3 nights of camping there is always ice in the milk jugs. I love not having the melty mess that bags of ice create!

  12. As for leak-proof containers, I haven’t found many that reliably stay leak-proof after many uses/washings, but if I’m packing something I’m afraid might leak or be contaminated by something else, I put the whole container in a plastic bag (you can wash and re-use these) with a twist-tie.

  13. When we took our 2 week road trip out west this summer we made up big batches of tuna salad, egg salad, pasta salad and potato salad and put them in the largest canning jars we could find. They stayed extra cold in the glass jars and never took on water. We ate them for at least 5 days as we traveled (it saved us a boat load of money, not to mention tummy issues by not having to stop at the Golden arches every day for lunch and/or dinner!!) We also packed up frozen hot dogs and polish kielbasa, hamburgers, chicken and bacon. When we got around to using those things almost a week later they were all still completely frozen!! Frozen food will keep cold in those coolers forever as long as you are keeping ice on it. Our cooler is one of those keeps food cold up to 7 days and we only have to add ice every few days. It was about $60 but it’s been worth it!!

  14. I *always* bring precooked chili or something of the sort for the first night. I usually freeze it in a Food Saver boilable bag, so it can just be heated right in a big pot of water that doesn’t have to then be washed…

    I’ve done this ever since the fiasco weekend when we got there late, the driver was exhausted, we had trouble setting up, and the place we’d planned to get dinner was closed… I’ll cook Saturday night, but I want something totally mindless for Friday, that can give us a good meal with almost no effort if things didn’t go smoothly. (And, if they did – that’s even better – we can start relaxing Right Now!)

  15. I have camped my whole life-including while pregnant, with a newborn, while potty training and during epic storms. My entire menu for the trip is set up to make the most of thawing food. Everything that can be is packed frozen. I use a total of THREE coolers: one to hold frozen foods including raw meat and frozen dishes that will be heated through when thawed-all packaged to prevent leaking and contamination, one to hold condiments & cold foods that are not frozen, and a separate one just for drinks-including a bin for ice that doesn’t mix with the rest of the container. I also make use of storage food such as freeze-dried and dehydrated foods that I practice using in a primitive setting so that I will know how if the time comes when I have to do it for real.

  16. We do A LOT of camping. My husband in fact is camping for the next two weeks (hunting). But he has the motor home so that’s not a very good example because he has a fridge and freezer in it. When we do go on weekend trips we get a good use out of our food-saver. We grow our own Beefalo and Llama so we just take the frozen packages and seal them up either by themselves or we add a marinade while still frozen and as it thaws it soaks up the marinade. This also works for any type of soups/sides and takes up less room. So whether you use the frozen bottles, dry ice or bagged ice. It all works with the food-saver bags to keep everything germ free. Ziplock bags tend to break occasionally and if I am going to put in the work to make yummy food I want to make sure it isn’t going to get opened accidentally or break.

  17. My suggestion is to not use ice at all…. make sure all (or at least most) the food you put in the cooler is frozen before you add it, and then use additional freezer packs (the blocks you can freeze, allow to thaw and re-freeze – I am sure you know what I mean!) to help keep it cold… then add some frozen bottles of water as well.

    If you plan on the first meal of your trip being something that you can cook from frozen (a pre-cooked chilli or soup for example), you can defrost it in a pan over the camp-fire or on your camping stove – just keep it at a low heat and it will slowly defrost and reheat….
    Then you can eat other stuff as it defrosts.

    I do like the tip about keeping raw meat separate from the cooked food though… but even then, I would still take a lot of it frozen and packed around with the freezer-packs.

    on my last camping trip, I managed to keep food frozen/very cold for at least 4 days by doing the above… and there was no need to drain out any water from the coolers.

    If you have to add more frozen stuff on a longer camping trip, buy bagged ice from a gas-station and leave it in the bag – just put that in the bottom of the cooler and put the food on top.

    The other thing is that beverages don’t have to be cold… it is OK to drink room-temperature/warm water. I would not waste valuable cooler space with bottled water (except for the frozen bottles that are keeping other food cold) or other beverages. Then again, I am British – I think it is ok to drink warm beer ;-)

  18. We freeze a case of bottled water and use that for ice. It helps keep everything cold, it really doesn’t leak (sometime we put them in Ziploc bags as they can sweat) and you have bottled water once it thaws, it’s a win-win.

  19. We do a lot of camping, and I never use loose Ice. All meat is frozen solid and I use bottles of drinking water frozen in the deep freezer so that when it melts, it is contained and can be consumed. That eliminates water in the ice chest and food becoming contaminated. If you must add ice before the trip is over put it in large Zip Lock baggies so it doesn’t melt into the cooler.

  20. Or, along with your ice, put in all the popsicles in your freezer (contained in handy ziplock bags of course). They stay cold and help keep the cooler cold and then, when they get melty, well, you just have to eat them!

  21. Don’t drain the melted ice before adding more!!! If it is still icey cold water keep a good amount of it in there. The ice and cold water slush is colder than ice alone.

  22. Hi! We are a camping family too and I hate the battle of water getting into foods in the cooler. I remember one of my jobs as a kid was scrubbing the cooler after every camp out and leaving it in the sun to dry. Not sure how I got lazy about this as a grown up, but thanks for the reminder of the importance of this chore!

    I can tell you about the Lock & Lock containers… The are definitely the best I have found, but they aren’t without fail. The only food I’ve had trouble with consistently is oil and vinegar dressing. Not sure if the little bit of oil that gets around the seal messes things up or what… But this is a regular problem I have when sending salads for lunch. I put everything (even stuff still packaged) inside of these containers though when we go because any water logged food grosses me out!

    One more tip about Lock & Lock: be sure to pull the little silicone seal out when you wash them to clean the seal itself as well as the groove where it sits. Otherwise it can get grody up in there!

  23. We pack a large cooler weekly since we spend the day away from home, and I agree – the gallon jugs frozen with water are great. But if packing for a longer period, I also include ziploc bags filled with ice I made at home. We have an icemaker, so I just keep running it and filling up the bags. The smaller ice melts quicker which makes things colder. Also, it’s very important to not only clean your cooler each time you use it, but BE SURE TO LET IT DRY. I wash it out when we get home and then leave the lid open until it’s perfectly dry, otherwise the moisture will grow bacteria.

  24. two words….DRY ICE

    get a block of it,put it in the bottom, cover with newspaper, fill cooler and use a few reusable ice blocks. It will hold at 40 degrees or below all weekend.

  25. We fill gallon ziploc bags with ice to use in the cooler. The ice/water stays in the bag and clean, so it is useable for drinking or cleaning. They are flexible and can be packed around food that needs to stay particularly cold. No melted water in the bottom of the cooler to get into what sounds like a lovely salad.

    We also freeze what can be frozen. Meat especially lasts longer in a cooler this way, and also serves as additional cooling for other foods that can’t be frozen.

  26. Lock and Locks are THE greatest containers ever. I have probably 30 of them, and I use them for everything. LOVE LOVE LOVE them!!

  27. I can definitely agree with the “you don’t want to be stuck with boring cereal when your someone starts frying up bacon on the next site over.” This may have been my hubby’s and my first big fight in our marriage. Lol (I brought the cereal, thinking it was a super easy idea, and he apparently was raised with BIG camping breakfasts. Oops!! :)

  28. Best advice I ever got is to fill the cooler with a few frozen very large bottles of water the night before your trip. Because coolers work like thermoses (keep the temperature you start with) packing a COLD cooler the morning of your trip really helps! Also, the best leak-proof containers are at Kids Konserve. They are stainless steel (no plastic worry), super leak-proof, are square and easily stackable in a cooler, and now have clear lids so there’s no mystery about what’s inside!

  29. We are about to head out for a 4 day camping adventure 450+ miles away, so this is perfect! We intend on freezing gallon jugs of spring water to use as ice, but also to waste less when needing water to drink. Thanks for the post!

  30. We fill old milk jugs, or any other jugs, with water and freeze them ahead of time. Then you don’t have water all over the place and you have extra drinking water if you need it. We also had extra coolers for drinks so everyone wasn’t getting into the food.

  31. When we go camping we freeze the gallon jugs of water either reused or not used that I get on sale for one dollar. Usually they crack if you do not let a small amount of water out to decrease the air pressure. They typically stay frozen for the entire weekend. We do not drink the water from the jugs. But the large protected blocks of ice prevent the need to drain frequently, the need for replacing ice frequently and it stays really cold for much longer. :) Happy Camping!

  32. We go camping regularly and I can tell you that the Coleman Extreme cooler is by far the best. Another keeping stuff cool tip (right from the cooler instructions) is to pre-chill the cooler. The day before camping, we ice up the cooler. Our cooler’s instructions also said not to drain off the water – it helps keep everything cold. Who knew?

  33. I have camped for many years and always found that blocks of ice are great for your food cooler b/c they stay cold a longer amount of time and you don’t have so much water in the cooler. Also, Ziploc bags that zip shut are great for food b/c they are leak proof and can just be molded to fit inside the bowl/container you want the food to be in. This is not the most environmentally friendly option but if you are bringing food I would rather be safe and wash and reuse the plastic bags than be out what sounds like a really good pasta dish. This would eliminate the need for glass hopefully which could break in the cooler or on the campsite.

    1. We use quart and gallon size Ziplocs to hold the ICE and food during our trips. The melted water stays put inside the bags and when we get home we either water plants/garden or refreeze the washed ice bags depending on how much the ice had melted.

      1. When I go to visit my folks I often bring leftovers home with me. I have to fly from Maryland to Texas so the time out of the fridge is usually 8-9 hours. I have several cooler bags that we purchased at the grocery store and I put the food in ziplocs in there, then I fill one or two gallon sized ziplocs with ice and put those in too then the whole bag goes in my suitcase. I haven’t had issues with TSA because the ice is still frozen when it goes through the screening.

        Very important though – only use the ‘snappy’ ziplocs – the slider ones are not airtight and will leak everywhere!

  34. Lisa,
    Your blog just keeps getting better and better. I wish I had those food (and cooler) tips before our camping trip this summer but we’ll be sure to refer back to them when we camp again next year. Thanks!