10 Tips for a Perfectly Packed Cooler

Packing a cooler for a day on the water is both an art and a science. A lunch of  warm drinks and waterlogged sandwiches can put a damper on the whole experience, so use these tips to establish yourself as Master of the Cooler and bask in your glory (and the sunshine) all day!

  1. Use separate coolers for drinks and food. This is the number one tip because your drink cooler will get opened several times all day long, allowing cool air to escape, which can be dangerous for food. The temperature in the food cooler will be easier to keep consistent and safe if it is separate.
  2. Mark your coolers. A strip of masking tape with “FOOD” and “DRINKS” written on it is all you need to keep your friends from opening the food cooler a hundred times looking for drinks.
  3. Pre-chill drinks. Your ice will last 2-3 times longer if drinks are already chilled.
  4. Use crushed ice in the drink cooler. Lay cans and bottles on their sides along the bottom of the cooler and cover with a layer of crushed ice and repeat the process. This allows the ice to touch a greater surface of each drink, and as the cooler gets opened and closed, the ice will melt a bit, which will keep drinks nice and ice cold all day long.
  5. If you have a variety of drinks, have them represented in each layer, so that no one has to dig to the bottom of the cooler for their favorite drink.
  6. Always pack water. Hot sun, water activities and alcohol all dehydrate the body, so make sure to have plenty of water on hand. You can also freeze water bottles ahead of time and use as ice packs in the food cooler for backup water if needed.
  7. Avoid ice in the food cooler. Ice melts into water and water seems to find its way into everything. Use frozen gel packs and pliable freezer sheets to keep foods cool. There will be minimal condensation and no slushy water to mess with. Cool air travels down, so put your cooling mechanism on top of the food and allow it to cool from the top down. If it’s an especially large cooler, add gel packs in the middle and the top.
  8. Pack your food cooler in chronological order. Think about what you’ll need first and most often, and have that available at the top. This will help you contain the cold air and keep you organized.
  9. Keep perishable items in sealed containers and close to a cold source. Meats and dairy products should be stored in an airtight bag or container and placed directly next to a gel pack to prevent spoil and contamination.
  10. Keep coolers out of direct sunlight. All your smart packing and cooling techniques will not do much good if the cooler is baking in the sun all day. A shady spot will make all the difference.

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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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