Tips on how to make your cooler, ice chest stay cold longer

You know who you are: You’ve lusted after those expensive, made-in-all-the-trendy-colors coolers bearing the four-letter name of a mythical beast that shall remain nameless. You want one, you crave one, but … for that much money, you could stay in a hotel instead of camping.

So here are 10 quick tips for keeping your campout food safely chilled, but still tasty, no matter what kind of cooler you’re packing into.

Pre-cook and freeze. You can do this fancy or easy, but it’s the sure way to avoid raw meat going bad if you have a cooler disaster. You can do this in sealing bags if you have that equipment, but it works almost as well if you have only glass storage containers or resealable plastic bags. To seal liquid or liquid-esque things like chili, freeze in a square container first, then bag, whether you’re vacuum sealing or not. Square items pack space-efficiently into coolers (I say this having fed 185 people dinner one crazy summer).

Check cooler condition. While you’re preparing, check the condition of that cooler. Clean it out; make sure the drain doesn’t leak and the lid closes tightly. And conventional coolers — i.e., the under-$50 type — don’t last forever. Maybe it is time to spring for the more durable variety after all.

Pack cookware lids. If you pre-cook and freeze all of your entrees, they help keep the rest of the items in your freezer cold. But they may not thaw in time to eat them. Lidded cookware – for a skillet or boiling-water pot —  is more energy-efficient and will thaw and heat burgers, bacon, muffins, even Pop-Tarts —  faster. Depending on the weather and altitude of your camp, hot food might taste good.

Adjust the menu. The more tightly you can pack your cooler, the more it will hold cold. So put as many things as you can into square containers or square shapes. Think chopped ham rather than ham slices. Think frozen spaghetti-sauce bricks; noodles can be cooked on-site. Think “glop on carbs” — curried chicken on instant rice or couscous. The carb portion won’t need to be refrigerated.

Pre-chill as much as possible. If it’s cold going in, it’s more likely to stay cool. So freeze and refrigerate all the food you’re packing two days before trip day.

Get ice in chunks. Loading a cooler for a single overnight can be done sloppily: First add food, and dump ice cubes to fill in all the little spaces. But it still works better if all the food going in is frozen or cold. If it isn’t, all those little chunks of ice have to work harder and melt faster. Better still: Freeze a rectangular chunk of ice and make room for it in the top of your cooler.

Divide and conquer. Given equal thermal efficiency, two small (or one medium and one small)  coolers work better than one large. Why? Because there are things you’ll be eating and drinking that aren’t damaged if they’re not kept as cool as others. Such as beer. And fruit. And chips. Yeah, it’s nice to have all your food and drink together (and essential to do so in bear country, when you must secure all edibles so they don’t attract wildlife). But it’s even nicer to not have food spoil. Like a refrigerator, the less you open a cooler, the more efficient it is —  so separating snacks and fruit from main-dish proteins is a good idea.

If you must have cold beverages, keep some cubes in a bag on the top of your cooler to chill them, or designate a smaller cooler just for them. Bring your reusable, insulated water flasks.

Made in the shade. Granted, coolers often double as seating, but try to keep your camping refrigerator out of the sun. In a pinch, you can use your car’s windscreen shield. You uber- prepared crafty folks can make an insulated cover and cushion.

Conquer chaos. If your campout is multi-day, de-chaos your cooler as you prepare dinner. This lets you get rid of trash, do any necessary reorganization, assess which meals are thawing and plan a trip out for ice if needed. It also lets you ponder whether chilled food is even necessary and sustainable. Perhaps going the dehydrated route is easier, cheaper, and a much-needed dose of mindfulness in a hectic world.

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