If you want your food to stay cold and not get soggy on those long road trips then it's important you pack your cooler correctly.
To pack a cooler for a road trip it is generally best to use frozen bottles of water or frozen gel packs instead of loose ice which turns to water and ruins your food. Place items for later in the trip towards the bottom of the cooler and items you'll be accessing more frequently or that don't need to be as cold towards the top. Make sure you keep your food in waterproof bags or containers and wrap frozen gel packs around items you want to keep especially cold.
Depending on the size of your cooler and the length of your road trip will determine the best way to pack it, but the above guidelines should set you up for a trip where your drinks stay cold and your food doesn't get soggy.
Use Frozen Bottles or Gel Packs
When it comes to road tripping water is not your friend. Unlike camping where your cooler stay stationary, on a road trip water will slosh around in your cooler.
This can lead to your food getting soggy and gross, or to you struggling to find what you are looking for because it's now deep in the water of your cooler not sitting on top.
For this reason I recommend freezing bottles of water and using them instead. As they melt the water will stay contained and it has the added benefit of giving you cold water to drink for your entire trip.
Supplement your frozen bottles with frozen gel packs. They don't get wet as they melt and you can layer them through your cooler to keep everything cold even it it's towards the top of the cooler.
They can also act as a protective later from melting water if you do decided to use loose ice in your cooler.
Place Your Least Needed Items Towards The Bottom
Access is everything when road tripping. You don't want to be fumbling around trying to find your sandwiches whilst also trying to keep your eyes on the road.
So pack your cooler in such a way that items you won't need whilst driving are tucked away. The tomatoes and lettuce that you have for when you stop to make salad sandwiches don't need to be near the top. So put them in the bottom corner to make space for the things you will want to access.
Place Frequently Accessed Items Towards The Top
Item's you're going to be accessing frequently or items you're going to need early in the trip should go closer towards the top, or to one specific side so you know where they are.
This will make them easy to find, but it also means the arrangement of your cooler won't get mixed up as you search through everything to find that one chocolate bar you want to eat 30 minutes into the trip.
Keep Food In Waterproof Containers
No one likes a soggy sandwich, or soggy biscuits…or soggy anything for that matter.
For this reason it's vital that you prepack your food in waterproof/airtight containers or bags.
Zip lock bags or plastic/glass tupperware containers are your friend here. They will allow items to stay cool in your cooler, but they will keep out unwanted moisture that would ruin your food.
Wrap Frozen Gel Packs Around Items You Need To Keep Especially Cold
Frozen gel packs can be wrapped around drinks or food that you want to keep extra cold. Maybe a refreshing can of soda, or some chocolate or cheese you want to keep colder than the rest of the cooler
What Should You Eat On a Long Road Trip?
If you don't consciously choose what you are going to eat on a long road trip you are likely going to end up spending more money than you like on unhealthy fast food.
It's very difficult to eat healthy, or cheaply, on a road trip unless you plan for it. That's why getting a good roadtrip cooler and packing your food ahead of time is so important.
There are lots of articles out there with ideas for what you should eat on a road trip.
For me I find I want a mixture of interesting snacks (that aren't too unhealthy) combined with sustenance food that is going to actually fill me up.
As a Dad, as well as someone with younger friends, I tend to do the lion's share of the driving whenever I go on a road trip. I am fine with this as I really don't mind driving.
But hours staring at the road can get tedious and boring. So having interesting snacks to munch on whilst driving is key.
I think the key with snacks is to have items that are interesting to eat slowly.
Chocolates are an obvious one which we will talk about in a second but apart from that I also find nuts good as well as cut up carrots, celery or cucumbers but with a good dip to make it more interesting.
Popcorn or other healthier alternatives to potato chips are also good as well as fruit, which again is sweet and easy to eat but not too unhealthy.
Jerky is another good item to snack on, but I'm a vegetarian so it's harder to find good jerky for me.
Let's face it 9/10 people are likely going to eat some form of chocolate whilst road tripping. The sugar hit is great and they are easy to eat.
I try to stay away from chocolate bars like Mars Bars as you tend to consume them really quickly and then you are bored again. Instead I opt for something like M&Ms or Maltesers where you can slowly suck on one at a time.
This way you get to enjoy some chocolate but you aren't eating copious amounts of it.
Apart from your snacks you need some real meals that will actually fill you up along the way.
Sandwiches are an obvious choice for me. They aren't something I eat a lot of in everyday life (my kids do but I don't) but on a road trip I make an exception.
Pre-made sandwiches with spreads are great for sustenance food while you are driving. Or I like to pre-cut tomatoes, lettuce, cheese etc and make salad sandwiches for the crew during one of our regular stops.
Pre-made guacamole with corn chips are also a family favourite for us when we stop.
What Are The Best Types of Drinks For A Road Trip?
Choosing your drinks for a road trip can be difficult. The natural choice is sugary soda's but are there some better choices?
Obviously drinking water is really important during a long hot road trip. We have already talked about freezing bottles of water to help keep all your other food and drinks cold, this means you also have nice cold water to drink throughout your entire trip.
Rather than trying to get my sugar from drinks (to keep me awake and not bored) I try to get my sugar from snacks and drink more water or coffee.
I am a coffee FIEND! I love my coffee and studies have actually shown coffee is likely good for you (the sugar and milk not so much but the coffee yes).
Hot coffee is difficult to keep hot (unless you have an amazing tumbler like these) so on my road trips I do a mixture of hot coffee because it's amazing and iced coffee which I can slowly sip as I drive.
The iced coffee gives me a caffeine hit but is also something that is interesting that I can drink slowly while I drive.
I generally drink one can of soda or an energy drink during a long trip. But again my approach to this is to sip it slowly and enjoy the interesting flavour while I drive, rather than drinking it quickly.
This gives me something interesting to do and no it's not healthy, but given I'm not drinking a lot it's not too bad either.
Juice is another good alternative for a long road trip. Ideally a green juice that you made yourself is going to be the healthiest option, but you can also find some juices at the supermarket that aren't too bad.
Staying away from the “fruit drink” which is basically just flavored sugar and going to real juices is a better option.
Foods That Travel Well In A Cooler
Food that keeps it's quality in colder temperatures as well as food that doesn't get ruined when exposed to moisture tends to be the food that travels best in a cooler.
Examples include fruits and vegetables, especially those that have their own “wrapping” or exterior layer to keep them protected. Fruit like apples and bananas that have their own skin or vegetables like cucumbers or tomatoes are all fine to get exposed to moisture and still taste great.
Other items that travel well in a cooler are items that you would usually keep in your fridge. Cheeses, processed meats, chocolate and even last night's leftovers can travel great in a cooler, but extra care needs to be taken when packaging them.
Keeping them in watertight containers or just making sure they aren't exposed to excessive amounts of water is key.
Cheese or meat sandwiches can travel well in a cooler, but even further care needs to be taken with these as they can't really be exposed to much moisture. Zip lock bags as well as plastic or glass tupperware containers are great for these items.
Items that don't travel well in a cooler are items that need to stay warm and dry. Biscuits, crackers, chips, nuts and other crunchier items will be ruined being a cooler, so it's best to keep them separate.
How Do You Keep Food Frozen On a Road Trip?
Keeping food completely frozen in a road trip can be extremely difficult. Especially if they are being left in a hot car. Here are some tips to keep food frozen on a road trip.
Dry ice is frozen carbon dioxide. It is much much colder than regular ice and thus can easily be used to keep food frozen on a road trip.
Place dry ice in the bottom of your cooler, followed by a protective layer of paper or plastic sheeting to protect your food from the extreme nature of the cold. Then place your frozen items on top of the dry ice.
To keep items extra cold then place another layer of dry ice on top of your food, or even layer on the sides of your food.
Do be careful though as the dry ice will turn directly into carbon dioxide so you will want to have good ventilation on your road trip and drive with the windows down.
Keep Frozen Items At The Bottom of the Cooler
If you don't have access to dry ice or that feels like too much effort for you then you can still keep items frozen during a road trip.
Using a similar strategy to the dry ice you want to place ice at the bottom of your cooler, then place your frozen items directly on that ice. Then place another layer of ice on top of your frozen items, effectively completely covering the items in ice.
Have A Dedicated (High-Quality) Cooler For Frozen Items
One of the problems with keeping food frozen during a road trip is that regular access to the cooler to access food and drinks continually adds warm air into the cooler.
This makes the ice melt faster and lowers the overall temperature of the cooler, melting your frozen goods.
Having a good quality cooler like a Yeti Tundra or similar that is specifically dedicated to frozen items and having a separate cooler for items accessed more regularly, will keep your food frozen on a road trip much longer.
Keep this cooler in a shady spot in the car and even put a towel over it for further insulation from the heat and sun.
12v Freezers like this Whynter Freezer are designed especially for vehicles and can run off your cars power supply and keep items below freezing temperatures as long as you have power.
While these are arguably the best way to keep items frozen on a road trip they don't come cheap with most car freezers costing in excess of $500+. So if you can afford it or have enough use for it great, but otherwise the methods mentioned above will be a much more cost effective method for shorter or less frequent road trips.