How To: Pack a Perfect Cooler

Most of us don’t think about a better way to pack a cooler until we’ve retrieved (and suffered through) a soggy sandwich from the slushy bottom of one. Let me spare you that horrible experience with some cooler packing tips from the pros. I can guarantee, as you read these, you’ll smack your forehead at least once or twice and say, “Of course! Why didn’t I think of that?”  (At least that’s what happened to me.)

Two Coolers Are Better Than One. Assign one “wet” cooler and one “dry” cooler for your food. The wet cooler will store drinks and the dry cooler will store perishable food that should remain dry.

Label It. Every time a cooler is opened, cold air escapes. A simple strip of masking tape can help everybody remember which cooler has the drinks and which has the food.

Cold Start. Chilling drinks in advance will keep your ice lasting much, much longer. Freeze your bottled water before putting it in, serving two purposes—more ice and fresh cold water upon thawing. This also works with meats for your dry cooler.

Cold Air Travels Down. We all know that heat rises, but few of us realize the counterpart, that cold air travels down or “sinks.” Put your ice or frozen gel packs on top of your drinks and food for optimum cooling.

Choose Your Chill. Crushed ice works best for drinks, but block ice or reusable frozen gel packs work best for dry foods.

Contain Yourself. Keeping your food in air-tight plastic containers will make it easier to pack and stack neatly, and also protect foods from that pesky sloshy water.

Take Its Temperature. If you’re going to be storing perishable food (dairy, cut fruit, egg products, or meats), especially for several days, pack a thermometer in the cooler to ensure that the temperature never dips below 40 degrees. If you’re getting close, it’s time to replenish the ice.

Pack It Tight and Full. Empty space in a cooler is an invitation for warm air to stay once the cooler is shut. Keeping your cooler stocked full and tight will leave no space for ice-melting air.

Stay in the Shade. You cooler does a better job when it doesn’t have to fight the elements outside. Keep it stored in a shady, cool spot for best results.

Drain and Drain Again. For extended trips, drain any melted water from the cooler at least once, but ideally twice a day. Water speeds the melting process of the ice.

Try a Hot Cooler. It sounds like an oxymoron, but your cooler can also be used to keep hot foods hot. Place heat pads or reusable hot packs, wrapped in kitchen towels at the bottom of the cooler. Pack warm foods on top, filling any extra spaces with kitchen towels to keep the heat contained.

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