How you pack your cooler for a long road trip can make all the difference between dry or soggy sandwiches and between deliciously chilled beverages or warm disgusting ones.
Long road trips can be especially challenging to manage your food and drinks to make sure everything stays fresh and the right things stay cold and that wrong things don't get wet.
Prior preparation and the correct packing of your cooler can make a huge difference.
Choose The Right Cooler
It all starts with choosing the right cooler for your road trip. Some coolers work great for long road trips and can hold ice for days at a time while other coolers won't last more than a few hours until everything warms up.
Ultimately it comes down to budget and preference as to which cooler is going to be best for you. Click here to read my full article on the best coolers for long road trips.
Soft sided coolers are great for in the car as they can fit into tight spaces and the more expensive ones are leakproof and can still hold ice for days at a time. If you're short of space or want to be able to access the cooler easily then these tend to be the best.
Hard sided coolers can store more stuff and are good to have in the boot and each time you make a pit stop you can get out the things you need for the next round of driving. They are bigger and take up more space and can't really be moved around while driving, but with the right setup you can still access the insides of your cooler whilst driving.
Freeze or Pre-Chill Whatever You Can Ahead of Time
One of the things that will make your ice or ice packs melt quickly is not pre-chilling things ahead of time.
The night before your road trip put your water bottles in the freezer and other drinks in the fridge to bring their temperature down. The same does for food you want to keep cold. Put your fruit in the fridge and even those sneaky chocolate bars.
If items start cool they won't melt your ice as quickly and your cooler will stay cold for longer. Click here for more tips on how to keep ice longer in your cooler.
Frozen water bottles are great to have because it means you don't need as much ice or as many ice packs and they won't make your cooler wet as they melt. As the road trip goes on you can also drink out of them to keep yourself hydrated.
Keep Items You Don't Need Until Later Towards The Bottom
If you're heading out for a long drive there will be some items you'll want towards the beginning of your trip and some items you'll want later in the trip.
Chances are if you leave early in the morning you'll want some small snacks and you'll be saving those sandwiches for lunch time. Plus you don't need to drink all 4 of those drinks at once.
Put the stuff you'll be using soon towards the top of your cooler and put the stuff for later towards the bottom of your cooler.
The stuff at the bottom will stay cold longer while also giving you easy access to the items you need now without having to dig around.
The exception to this is if you have items you need to keep dry and you want to put them near the top of the cooler up and out of the way of ice.
Wrap or Package Dry Foods in Plastic/Tupperware To Keep Them Dry
There are likely going to be some items you want to keep cool but don't want getting wet.
I made the mistake once of putting an open block of chocolate loosely in my cooler. As the ice melted the chocolate got soaked in water and it was inedible.
We have all had the experience of the sandwich that gets soggy and disgusting. Life is too short for that nonsense.
In this case tupperware or reusable plastic containers that are watertight are you best friend. Load them up with food you want to keep dry and then you can keep them cold without having to worry about them getting wet.
Pro Tip: Take Two Coolers – One For Now Stuff and One For Later Stuff
This is a pro trip for those of you like me who like to be super organized on their long road trips and who REALLY want to have the right things in arms reach while keeping everything else nice and cold.
For me I like to have a larger cooler stored in the back of my car with most of the items for the trip. I then load up a smaller cooler with some frozen water bottles and whatever we'll need for the next leg of the trip.
Then every 2-3 hours when we stop for a break I take a couple of minutes to transfer what I need from the big cooler into the little cooler.
This keeps everything nice and organized so we don't get overwhelmed with too much stuff in the cooler we are using whilst driving and it also makes sure that everything stays as cold and fresh as possible.
Strap Down Your Cooler So It Won't Fall Over
The last little tip I'll give is to strap down your cooler so it doesn't fall over while you're driving.
Even though a lot of soft sided coolers like Yeti are now completely waterproof and leak proof you still don't want everything sloshing around and getting disorganized.
Use a seatbelt to strap down your cooler or use one of the tie down straps that a lot of coolers now come with.
If you can't tie it down wedge it between the seat or between other stuff so it won't slide around or tip over as your driving.
Keep Your Cooler Within Arms Reach
Having your cooler within arms reach for both drivers and passengers is also important.
So many times I've been driving while everyone else in the car is sleeping and wanted to grab myself a drink.
When the cooler is right there I can grab it and everyone gets to keep sleeping.
The worst is when I can't reach it and don't want to wake anyone up so I just go without even though I could really use that iced coffee right about now.
Again this is where the 2 cooler setup can come in handy. A small cooler that the driver can reach while people are sleeping and a bigger cooler for the food and drinks for everyone else.
Enjoy Your Road Trip
Hopefully these tips will help you to enjoy your road trip even more and to make sure your drinks stay cold and your sandwiches stay dry.
The Best Coolers For A Long Road Trip
I've done a full writeup on the best coolers for a long road trip which you should check out but below is a quick summary for you:
1. Engel HD30
The Engel HD30 is the best all around cooler for long road trips.
It has the best ice retention of any soft sided cooler and is able to compete with hard sided coolers when it comes to keeping ice.
It’s also completely waterproof so if falls over when you brake hard then you don’t have to worry about having water, food and drinks spill all throughout your car. It also has tie down points so you can strap it down if you’re worried. Learn more about the Engel HD30 in my full review.
The top zipper is easy enough to open that you could do it whilst driving or your road trip buddy can help you out.
2. Yeti Roadie
This is the perfect little cooler to throw on the front seat if you’re driving by yourself or on the back seat if you’re driving with a travel buddy.
The rubber gasket makes it splash proof and mostly leak proof so you shouldn’t have any spills and it has tie down points so you can strap it to the chair if you want.
It’s big enough to store a good amount of ice but still be able to fit lots of drinks and food in there.
3. Coleman Xtreme
For people travelling with their family, kids or a large group it may make sense to actually have a smaller cooler in the front for things you need for the next leg of your trip and then a larger cooler in the trunk to stop everything else for your trip.
The Coleman Xtreme is a great affordable option for a larger cooler in the trunk. Starting at 50-Quart these are larger coolers than some of the other ones mentioned above.
These coolers are incredibly cheap and if you want something that will keep ice a decent amount of time but won’t break the bank then check out this cooler and grab one for your next road trip.