If you're taking a cooler on a long trip the way you pack it matter a lot.
Pack it properly and ice can last for days at a time or even weeks. Fail to pack it properly and everything will warm up super quickly meaning you'll need to buy more ice or you'll be stuck with warm food and drinks.
Packing a cooler for a long trip isn't hard but it does take some care and preparation.
To pack a cooler for a long trip first pre-chill your cooler. Fill bottom with tightly stacked block ice and frozen food. Use ice cubes to fill in the gaps. Place a foam roller on top of ice then put chilled food over that with ice packs or loose ice and add a final layer of foam. Make a cooler map and only open your cooler when you absolutely have to.
In this article I want to outline the absolute best tips on how to pack a cooler for a longer trip.
After reading this you'll know exactly how to pack your cooler properly and your items will stay colder way longer than they would otherwise.
You'll Need a Good Cooler
First things first, when planning on packing a cooler for a long trip you'll want a good quality cooler and the right sized cooler for the trip.
A good quality cooler makes a HUGE difference when it comes to ice retention and keeping things cold.
For example, the best cooler for ice retention I have found is the Kong Cooler. This cooler can keep ice frozen for 10-14+ days. A cheap cooler from the local hardware store might be lucky to keep ice 1-2 days. So the quality of your cooler makes a huge difference.
Yeti is the most well know brand and I personally own a Yeti and love it but there are also a lot of great alternatives to Yeti coolers that I would be happy to recommend if you wanted to save some money or you want some different features on your cooler.
I've done A LOT of research on coolers and there are so many good ones, but if you're looking to invest in a good cooler then you can't go wrong with either a Kong Cooler or a Yeti cooler.
If you'd rather something smaller and more portable then you may want to consider a soft sided cooler instead.
These are smaller, lighter and much easier to fit in a car. They also contain carry straps making them easier to take with you.
It's a good size, made from the most durable materials possible for a soft sided cooler and it has ice retention to rival even the best hard sided coolers. It's hands down the best soft sided cooler for ice retention and nothing even really comes close to it.
It's made by a good brand and it's just an overall great cooler. It also comes in a smaller size if 30-Quart is too big for you.
You'll Need The Right Sized Cooler
Having the right sized cooler is almost as important as having a high quality cooler. This is one of those cases where size actually does matter!
When I did my in-depth research to find the best cooler for ice retention I discovered that if you put the same amount of ice in a high-quality small cooler and a high-quality large cooler the small cooler will hold ice significantly longer than the large cooler.
Having too much air space in the cooler causes the ice to melt faster and the contents of your cooler to warm up quicker.
But it's also important to note that a large cooler completely filled with ice will drastically outperform a smaller cooler also completely filled with ice.
Below you can see a video of someone testing the 4 different sizes of Kong Coolers. To save you the trouble of watch the entire video the test results are below the video:
- Igloo Regular Cooler – 4 days 2 hours
- Kong 25-Quart – 6 Days 8 hours
- Kong 50-Quart – 8 Days 12 hours
- Kong 70-Quart – 9 Days
- Kong 110-Quart – 10 Days
As you can see the larger coolers kept ice longer than the smaller coolers.
This makes sense because the more ice you use the more total heat energy that is required to melt all that ice.
When choosing a cooler you want the biggest cooler you need, but not too big that you have lots of air space.
Too small and you won't have enough room for all the ice and everything will melt quickly. Too big and you're cooler will be full of air space and everything will melt really quickly.
Also remember that for long trips you'll be filling your cooler up with half to two thirds ice so only half to one third of your cooler will be available for contents. Learn how much ice to use in a cooler.
Pre-Chill Your Cooler
This is another absolute MUST if you plan on taking your cooler on a long trip.
While it would be great if you could just throw everything in your cooler with no preparation, failing to pre-chill your cooler will lead to super fast ice melt and your expensive cooler will actually work WORSE than a cheap cooler.
Failing to pre-chill your cooler is the #1 reason people complain that ice melts so quickly in their expensive Yeti cooler. This recently happened to my dad when he tried to store blueberries he picked in the Yeti.
He left the cooler in his hot car for days. The thick insulation in the cooler absorbs and retains a lot of heat. Then when he put the ice in the hot insulation melted it all really quickly.
You need to pre-chill your cooler before loading it up for a longer trip. Pre-chilling takes out all the thermal energy from the insulation and makes it cold.
This means your fresh ice isn't melted as the insulation cools down and your ice and contents will stay colder for longer. Pre-chilling a cooler is easy:
Put in a sacrifical bag or ice or some frozen water bottles the night before loading your cooler. Leave overnight and then discard them before loading up your cooler with fresh ice.
For even better pre-chilling put your cooler in a walk in freezer or deep freezer or use dry ice to make your insulation extra extra cold.
Pre-Freeze Anything You Can
Before loading up your cooler you want to pre-freeze anything you possible can.
Pre-freeze water bottles, drinks, meats and other foods that can be frozen.
This will serve two purposes. The ice won't be melted to cool down these items plus the frozen items themselves will act like ice keeping your cooler extremely cold.
Pre-Chill Anything You Can't Freeze
Anything you can't freeze make sure to pre-chill it in your fridge.
You don't want to be putting room temperature drinks into your cooler when you're packing for a long trip as this adds lots of thermal energy into your cooler melting the ice.
Put everything you can't freeze in the fridge the day before to bring it down to a cool temperature.
How To Pack a Cooler For A Long Trip
There is a specific method for packing coolers for a long trip to get the most out of your cooler and to keep things cold for longer.
Yeti have an incredible video on how to pack a cooler for adventure travel and Denice shows us exactly how to do it.
She runs adventure tours in the grand canyon where they go off grid for up to 18 days at a time in 100ºF (38ºC) heat. She says can still have ice in her cooler at day 15 which is extremely impressive.
Having a lot of experience with how to keep a cooler colder for the longest I know that what she does works. I've also added a few little things to get even better results.
1. Put a Layer Of Solid Ice Blocks On The Bottom
The first thing you'll want to do when packing a cooler for a long trip is to fill up the bottom of your cooler with large blocks of ice.
Large blocks of ice will stay colder and last longer than bags of loose cubed ice. You can buy them in bags from specialty stores or you can make them yourself using large containers, milk jugs or large water bottles.
Freezing large water bottles is great because then as the ice melts you can use it as drinking water.
Stack the block ice on their side so you can fit more in and pack them as tightly together as possible.
2. Fill In The Empty Spaces With Cubed Ice
Once you've packed in the large blocks of ice useless cubed ice to fill in all the empty gaps around it.
When packing for a long trip you don't want to waste space and you don't want to have empty air space.
So take your time and fill in all the nooks and crannies with smaller pieces of ice.
3. Add a Foam Pad On Top Of The Block Ice
Get some closed cell foam from your local hardware store and cut it to the same size as your cooler.
Place the foam over the bottom layer of ice. This will help to insulate your ice against the warmer air coming in the cooler as it'll also stop your ice from freezing everything.
If you don't have somewhere to buy a roll of foam can pick up a cheap Yoga mat like this thin foam Yoga mat at Amazon and cut it to size. It's an affordable option and a good addition to any cooler.
4. Add Tightly Packed Frozen Food In The Bottom Of Your Cooler
As we already mentioned you'll want to start with as much frozen food in your cooler as possible. Frozen food will act as extra ice keeping everything cold for a longer period of time.
Place the frozen food tightly stacked together under the first layer of foam with all your frozen blocks of ice.
This will keep your frozen food completely frozen for as long as possible.
5. Place Your Drinks and Other Food On Top
On top of the layer of foam you'll want to put all the food you want to keep cold but not frozen.
Fresh vegetables, cheeses, yoghurts, drinks, eggs and anything else you want to keep cold.
When packing your food on the top be sure to pack the food you'll be eating first near the top so it's easy to grab and keep food that you'll eat later in the trip towards the bottom of the cooler.
6. Intermix Ice Bricks or Loose Ice
On the top layer with you cool food and drinks you can intermix loose ice or ice bricks to help keep everything cold.
You won't be stacking them as tightly as the bottom of your cooler and these bits of ice will melt first but they'll keep everything cold for the first part of your trip.
A good idea is to freeze smaller water bottles and use them as your ice bricks. They'll keep the top layer of food cold but they'll also melt before the ice on the bottom of your cooler.
You can drink this water first, saving the large frozen water bottles at the bottom of your cooler for later in the trip.
7. Add Another Foam Layer To The Top
Once your cooler is completely filled up with all the food and drinks you want to keep cold then it's a good idea to put another layer of foam on the top of your cooler.
This will stop your ice and cold items from being exposed to the warm outside air everytime your cooler is opened.
Also, as the ice starts to melt and you start to eat things in your cooler and the level goes down the foam layer can drop down with it. This protects your contents from the dead air space in your cooler keeping your things cold for longer.
8. Create a Cooler Map On The Top Of Your Cooler
Use masking tape or electric tape to make a cooler map on the top of your cooler.
Label where things are so when people open the cooler they can quickly go to the exact spot where the item is and grab it.
This stops the cooler being open for too long and stops the warm air getting into the cooler as much.
9. Only Open Your Cooler When You Absolutely Have To
Everytime you open your cooler you're losing the cold air in the cooler and replacing it with the warm outside air.
To keep your cooler cold on a long trip you'll want to keep your cooler closed at all times except when you absolutely have to open it to get something.
Don't be tempted to look in your cooler and see how your ice is going. Trust your cooler to do it's job.
10. Drain The Water as You Go (Optional)
Different people say different things about whether or not you should drain the ice in the cooler.
There are pros and cons to draining the water as the ice melts or leaving it in.
Intuitively you would think that cold water would be better than just having air space in the cooler. But in reality water contains a lot more thermal mass than air and so can melt your ice fast.
Some tests show draining your ice means you get longer ice retention and things stay cold for longer.