A full yeti soft cooler bag

How to Pack a Cooler

Don’t buy a premium cooler without knowing how to prep, pack, and use it in the field.

So, you just purchased a premium cooler. Congratulations. Now it’s time to make it walk the walk and live up to its chilling billing for your summer outing, be it a beachside barbecue or weekend camping trip in the woods. Following are the best practices for cooler prep, packing and usage to ensure that your ice lasts longer. Take the extra care and attention to take full advantage of a quality cooler’s ability to extend your journey by adding precious time that you can keep food fresh and drinks cold.

Cooling Fundamentals

Ice ratio: Don’t shortchange the ice. Experts recommend a 2-to-1 ice:content ratio for maximum cooler performance. (Hint: Count any frozen food inside toward the ratio.) To that end, err on the side of getting a slightly larger cooler than you might need rather than a smaller one—though you’ll need to factor the total weight of the loaded cooler when planning logistics if it needs to move anywhere beyond your vehicle. 

Block vs. cubed: With less surface area, block ice lasts much longer than cubed; use it whenever cooler space allows. Make your own by filling up and freezing a pan or Tupperware at home, or freezing spare plastic water/juice containers. Bonus: It’s cheaper. Use cubed ice (ideal for drinks) to fill in the gaps in your cooler.  

Reusable freezer packs: Reusable freezer packs (i.e., Techni Ice) are a great alternative or supplement for ice on shorter trips, with many lasting longer than ice and not creating meltwater. For longer trips where refreezing isn’t possible, use ice.

Double down: Consider having one cooler for food (to help perishables stay colder longer) and a second for drinks (after all, you’ll open the drinks cooler more often). Plus, it will save you from excavating ice to find your cold beverage, draining coldness in the process. And use your better cooler for your food, which is more important to keep safe and fresh. 

Pre-chill cooler: To maximize performance, don’t start with a hot cooler from the porch; bring it inside before filling (you can also pre-chill it with cold water). 

Freeze/refrigerate contents: Going on an extended trip? Freeze as much of your food as possible beforehand (especially meat) and refrigerate everything else, including drinks. Don’t use your cooler to make warm items cold.   

Organization and Packing 

Prep food beforehand: To save space, prepare camp food at home ahead of time, including pre-chopping vegetables and moving condiments into smaller containers. The less space the food takes up in the cooler, the more room there is for ice. 

Remove store-bought packaging: Bulky packaging takes up valuable ice space; remove what you can beforehand (e.g., boxes and oversized cartons). Hint: Transfer everything into reusable, watertight containers so it doesn’t get wet.  

Put block ice on the bottom: Put block ice (and frozen food) on the bottom where it won’t squish food items, then fill up any air pockets with cubes, drinks, smaller items and other food that fits. Try to eliminate any unfilled space, filling it all with drinks, food and ice. Hint: Once your cooler is packed, top everything with reusable, foldable freezer packs or frozen, damp towel to trap in the cold.

Plan your meals: Load food in the reverse order that you’ll need it (e.g., first day’s on top, last day’s on the bottom). Place fragile foods like fruits and veggies near the top. If your cooler is big enough, alternate layers of food and ice.  

Categorize: If you have the space, consider another level of organizational loading. For instance, pack breakfast items to one side and dinner to the other to eliminate open-lid searching and its resulting cooling loss. 

Field Use

Transit tips: When transporting your cooler, keep it inside your car as long as possible where it’s cooler (avoid hot trunks and sun-drenched rooftops). At camp, avoid placing your cooler in direct sunlight. Place it in the shade—under a picnic table, the shade of a tree, or some other shaded area. No shade? Even a damp towel over the cooler can add a degree of cooling insulation.

Keep it closed: Try your best to limit refrigeration loss that comes from opening the cooler. Avoid unnecessary searching and digging around. Know what you’re looking for and where it is. Get in and back out.

Don’t drain: Unless it’s getting items wet that shouldn’t be, leave the meltwater inside instead of draining it; it has a higher thermal density than air, so it won’t change temperature as rapidly. Drain whenever you refresh your ice supply. 

Baskets, dividers and sleeves: Many people like using these for additional organization and separating meals and food from drinks. They work great, but take up valuable cooler space. Base your decision on your cooler’s capacity.   

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.