Coolers serve as your camp kitchen refrigerator, but for the coolers to do their job they can’t be overloaded. They need to have enough ice in them to maintain foods at 40°F or below; otherwise, bacteria starts to grow. Keep your coolers in the shade to help them keep their cool.
Coolers are one place where you want to spend the money and opt for the highest quality you can afford. Hard-shell coolers are best. While soft-sided coolers may be fine for short day trips, hard-shell coolers will insulate far better and protect foods from being crushed in a fully packed vehicle.
When packing your coolers, be sure to isolate meat packages in plastic bags to prevent contaminating other foods like fresh fruits and vegetables. Freeze any fresh poultry or meat that will not be used within two days. Not only will this keep meats from spoiling, but they are now working as ice to help keep your cooler cold. If you’re packing in water for drinking and cooking, freeze some of the bottles and use them in your coolers as ice.
If you are bringing eggs to camp and you don’t need them whole for frying, instead of trying to transport fragile eggs, you could just bring a carton of egg beaters. Or, at home, you could crack your eggs into a plastic container and bring them to camp that way. If you do need to bring whole eggs, transport them in a hard plastic container to prevent breakage.
And, just as you do with the refrigerator door at home, discourage people from standing at the cooler with the lid open. Know what you want, get in, find it, and get out. Ice is melting! Organize your cooler so that foods you will be using first are on the top and foods you will be using last are on the bottom, or do the same thing going left to right. Find a system that works for you. The goal is to minimize as much as possible the time that the lid is open.
Here’s another option to limit the amount of lid lifting: Rather than bringing one giant cooler, bring smaller ones and designate each one for a different meal or different day. The cooler that is designated for Sunday breakfast never gets opened until Sunday morning.
If you plan on packing lots of canned and bottled beverages, consider bringing a beverage-specific cooler. Beverage coolers are opened and closed frequently, which allows chilled air to quickly escape. If your food is stored in a separate cooler that is opened less frequently, your temperature-sensitive foods will stay chilled for a longer period of time.
And, just like we discussed in “Think Inside the Box Part 2-Your Camp Pantry,” remember to secure or store your coolers against critters.