Coolers and camping go hand in hand. Knowing how to get the most from your cooler while family camping is one of the keys to a successful camping trip. After all, having cold drinks and great camping food is a big part of the excitement of camping.
There are no secrets about getting the most from your camping cooler. It all starts with choosing the one that is right for your family and your style of camping. In this article we are going to look at these features:
- Choosing a good cooler
- Packing it well
- Keep your food and drink cold for longer
- Looking after your cooler
Knowing which cooler to get, and how to utilize it, can make the difference between a successful camping trip, and a not-so-great trip. Let’s learn more about coolers and what you can do with them.
Choosing a Cooler for Family Camping
There used to be only one kind of cooler you could buy. Lightweight, lightly insulated and, once full of ice, good for about 24 hours. Over time, newer coolers have come along with improved insulation and lots of additional features.
Now, cooler doesn’t just keep your food cold, it could double up as a camping wagon, provide a food preparation tray, be tough enough to use as a camping stool, and it will almost certainly provide cup holders.
You can get soft sided coolers made from anything from nylon to neoprene and with a range of insulation materials.
Soft coolers have a role to play, but for most family camping trips the main cooler is going to be hard sided. Hard sided coolers fall into 3 main categories:
Knowing which type of cooler would be best for your camping trip can be a bit challenging. There are just so many coolers available.
Choosing the best cooler is not so important if you are always going to be camping at a National or State campground. You are always likely to be able to easily get more ice. Adding ice is a quick and effective way of keeping your cooler cold.
Just make sure you get a cooler with a drain plug – you don’t want the water from the thawed ice to build up and ruin your food.
Tip – Keep your food dry and out of the melt water.
For more adventurous backcountry or wild camping trips you are less likely to be able to get fresh ice every day. You will need a cooler that:
- Has a large volume to store all your food and drink along with enough ice to keep it cold – we recommend a minimum of 50Qt for family camping trips
- Stays cold for several days – most of the sample coolers we highlight below claim to keep ice from 8-10 days
- Is tough enough to take a few knocks as you get to and from your campsite
- Preferably has wheels to help you move it to where you need to be (a fully loaded 50Qt cooler is going to weight upwards of 100pounds)
You might be surprised just how big a cooler you need to cater for a 4 or 5-person family camping trip. The general rule is, ‘ the larger the better’.
Note: All top-end coolers are made using a process called rotational molding. Manufacturers make a lot of their ‘rotomolded’ products. It is not all hype. Rotational molding means the cooler bodies are made from one piece of plastic. There are no joins. Items made in this way are stronger and have fewer weak points.
Examples of Top Coolers for Family Camping Trips
Knowing which type would be best for your camping trip can be a bit challenging. Most people stick with traditional coolers. Ice is cheap and readily available on or close to many established campsites. For trips of 2-nights or less you can get away with a cheap cooler – no problem. Something like the Coleman Xtreme 70-Quart could be ideal.
For longer stays, particularly if you are planning on being a little off the beaten track, you will need a more modern ice chest cooler. As we have said, the best of the new era of coolers can make ice last for 10 to 11 days depending on usage. That’s enough for even demanding boondocking in the deep backcountry.
It is a super modern, rotomolded cooler with tough wheels for easy handling.
The biggest problem with ice chest coolers is the amount of the volume that the ice takes up. To get something near to the claimed 10 days ice retention, your need to use ice in a ratio of 2:1 to the other contents. So, even for a big, 60 Quart cooler, you are only getting 20 Quarts of usable space.
Twelve-volt electric coolers aim to eliminate the problem ice taking the majority of the space in traditional coolers. There are 2 types of electric cooler: Thermoelectric, and, fridge coolers
Thermoelectric coolers are simple and cheap. The cooling mechanism has no moving parts. Air is circulated around the cooler by a simple electric fan.
However, they can only reduce the inside temperature of the cooler by 40F compared to the outside temperature. If you need them to keep your food safe to eat you need to ensure the temperature inside the cooler remains at 40F or less. You cannot rely on them when the outside temperature is above 80F.
Our current choice of thermoelectric cooler is the Knox 48Qt Electric Cooler. All the coolers we looked at in our 2020 review were good. The Knox 48Qt came out on top because it includes DC and AC leads, and it has wheels for easier handling.
As the name suggests, fridge coolers work on the same principles as your home refrigerator. Most can be used as freezers or fridges but not at the same time. A few have dual zones allowing a freezer and a fridge section.
We adore fridge coolers. They provide capacity and temperature control not available with the other types of coolers.
Our choice of fridge cooler for 2020 is the LiONCooler 1st Battery Powered Portable Solar Fridge Freezer. It is the first cooler that runs off an internal, rechargeable battery. It is not directly solar powered which is a bit misleading. Instead, you can charge its battery from a solar power source.
The Problem with All 12VElectric Coolers
The big problem with all 12V coolers, even the battery powered LiONCooler is the need for electricity. They work great in transit when they are connected to your car’s electrics. A car alternator provides plenty of juice to power a cooler.
The problem comes when you reach your campground and you take the cooler out of your car. The cooler still needs power to keep the contents cold.
You can run a lead from your car to your tent. The cooler will run as long as you have charge in your battery. Generally, you should only expect to power a cooler for about 12 hours from your car battery before you charge your battery. Run the cooler for longer and you run the risk of your car not starting.
It is easy enough to run your car engine every day to charge your battery. It is not something you want to do and it may often not be acceptable/possible to run your car engine for an hour or more each day just to charge the battery.
To be able to keep your electric cooler running at all times, you are going to need an electrical hookup (only possible on a few established campgrounds (think KOA) and will require pre-booking), an alternative power pack, or, our choice, a camping generator.
So, what is the best cooler to take family camping?
As you have seen, it depends. If you are new to camping and don’t have a camping generator, we suggest you start out with a traditional ice chest freezer.
When you get a bit more experienced and gather more advanced kit, you will find fridge coolers to be much be manageable and versatile.
Most of the rest of this article assumes you are using and ice chest freezer.
How To Pack A Camping Cooler
So, you picked out your cooler. Now it’s time to pack it properly so all of the contents can fit in and remain safe during your trip. It’s also helpful to know what to do to keep your contents cold longer.
Get Most Stuff In
The first obstacle most people encounter when packing a cooler is getting most of their stuff in. It seems like there’s always one or two items that can’t fit in, and this can be frustrating.
Here are some tips to help you squeeze the most of your stuff into a cooler:
- Waterproof your food– Put some food packaging that is at risk for becoming soggy into ziplock bags or Tupperware.
- Big to Small– Put in the bigger objects first, then fit the smaller ones on top of them. Especially if they’re heavy, this will reduce the risk of your content becoming damaged.
- Stack and layer- Place items that are stackable on top of each other. Or, you could layer items like ziplock bags.
- Create a dry zone– Laying the ice at the bottom and placing a board on top will prevent the contents from falling through and becoming soggy. This is called a dry zone.
- Organize– If you plan on putting in drinks with food (more on that later), then insert the cans on one side, and the food on the other. This way, you won’t have to dig through the food to get to your drinks. Put your food groups in the same place each time, so you don’t need to guess where it is, which means the lid will be closed almost immediately, persevering the cold air inside.
Want to see how the pros pack a cooler? Read how coolers are packed for 18-day trips in the Grand Canyon. It certainly surprise me.
There are other fun and creative ways to get the most out of your cooler. For example, you could add Velcro strips to the inside of the lid and attach a gallon-sized plastic bag to it. Then you could insert napkins, forks, and spoons, or other essentials. You could even add glow sticks for nighttime use!
Keep Contents Safe
The next step is to make sure the content will remain safely inside the cooler on the way there. You will also need to keep it safe at the campsite.
This is where these secure latches and handles come in handy. If you know you’re going to be camping out in bear country, then you’ll need “talcon-grip” latches. They’re made to prevent a bear from tearing into your food supply.
In many National Park Service Sites you must keep your cooler in a bear locker over night even if the cooler is rated as bear proof. It is permissible to keep your cooler in your car during the day.
Here’s what it says on the NPS web site
What items must be stored?
All food and anything with a scent (even if you don’t consider it food) must be stored. This includes but is not limited to the following:
- garbage and recyclables
- soap, shampoo, toothpaste, sunscreen, first-aid kits, baby wipes, lotion, hairspray
- scented tissue, air fresheners, candles, insect repellent, cleaning products
- pet food, tobacco products, baby car-seats
- any food item, including dry goods
- any beverages, whether they are opened or closed
Bears are able to recognize items like coolers, camp stoves, and grocery bags, so be sure to store them too. They are likely to have residual food odors, but bears that have received previous food rewards from these items may target them even if they are clean and don’t contain food.
If you’re going on a simple bbq or family camping trip, and using a causal cooler like the Rubbermaid Durachill, then the strong-grip latches are not necessary, but precautions can still be taken to prevent accidental spillage. You can put camping equipment on top of the cooler to keep your lid securely shut while you’re driving.
You should ask a buddy to help you carry your cooler to the campsite. Moving it alone can be a strain on your back, especially if it’s heavy.
Keep Your Contents Cold
Now that you’ve made sure your stuff fits in, and they’re all safe inside the cooler, it’s time to make sure they stay cold. Most people wonder how to keep the ice from melting so fast.
Coolers that are designed with better insulation can keep the ice cold for up to ten days, but simpler coolers like Rubbermaid can only keep ice cold for 1.5 days – despite a claimed 5 days. It’s always wise to take extra steps to ensure your cooler stays cold as long as possible.
A common mistake some campers make is waiting until the last minute. Filling the cooler to the brim with your food and drink and then getting some ice from a gas station that is then dumped over the contents. The contents are not cold enough, the ice doesn’t last long, and the user is disgruntled and posts reviews about the abysmal performance of the cooler.
Coolers should be prepared in advance. Here are some tips to get the most use out of your ice and help keep the contents cold longer:
- Pre-cool the cooler- Pack it with ice for 24-48 hours prior to use. Throw this ice away and repack with fresh ice when you add your food and drink. Alternatively store it in a commercial freezer for 24 hours.
- Use ice blocks- Try ice blocks instead of ice cubes, if possible, because they take longer to melt. The ice blocks can be created at home by filling up Tupperware with water and freezing it. If you want to use some of the ice for drinks, bring a hammer or a pick so that you can chip away at the ice block.
- Be creative- Fill Pvc pipes, or other items, with water, seal them, and freeze them. They can be put along the bottom and won’t make a soggy mess.
- Pack the ice blocks in layers- If you put the ice blocks in layers along the bottom, you could try to create a dry zone by covering them with a thin board so your contents don’t slip between the ice and become soggy.
- Freeze your food and drinks- You can freeze your items the night before, like milk, and insert it into the cooler. Over time, it will thaw and give you the milk you need, while keeping the contents (and ice) cool. Keep in mind that there are some beverages, like a cola, that cannot be frozen.
- Add more insulation- Some experienced campers like to add an extra layer of insulation to their cooler by cutting old sleeping bags into rectangle pads and laying it on top. Reflectix is a good alternative.
- Keep it shut as much as possible– Opening the cooler multiple times will cause the ice to melt faster. Preventing cold air from escaping will keep it cooler longer.
- Don’t leave it in the sun– Leaving a cooler out in the sun is one sure-fire way to warm it up. Even though it has insulation, the heat will eventually make the contents warmer than if it was in the shade. Better yet, you can attach pool noodles around the cooler and place it in a cool lake or stream.
- Drain the water– Open up the spout at the bottom of your cooler, and draining the water will prevent the remaining ice from melting faster. However, on shorter camping trips, the water doesn’t have to be removed, unless you don’t want the contents swimming in water.
Don’t forget to use the spout at the bottom of the cooler to let out melted ice on long trips, so it doesn’t make your contents soggy. The last thing anyone wants is to reach inside and find a slushy mess inside the cooler. Besides, if you’re camping far away from a store, it’s essential to have food on hand that isn’t spoiled.
If you find yourself in a situation where you need more ice, there’s usually a wood and ice stand by the admission center at the campsite.
Separate Coolers for Foods And Drinks?
There’s usually two kinds of campers, one that throws drinks inside one cooler along with the food, and one that prefers to keep them separate in two coolers. So which is best? It depends on a few things:
- The length and duration of the camping trip
- How much stuff you need to bring
Where Are You Camping?
When going into the backcountry or camping deep inside the rugged woods, when you may not be camping near your car, a smaller cooler will be needed. Two coolers may be easier to move around.
If you are able to pitch your tent close to your car or truck, we think that bigger coolers are the way to go.
How Long Will You Be Gone?
If you’re going on a short family trip to the lake, then it’s probably best to bring two coolers—one for the food, and one for the drinks. You’re going to have many people reaching in for a cold drink often, and it will let the cold air escape. To prevent the food from spoiling, it would be a good idea to have a cooler just for the drinks.
How Many in Your Family Camping Party?
The number of people going on a camping trip will make a difference when it comes to whether you should keep food or drinks together in a cooler. If you’re by yourself, you would be less inclined to open the cooler repeatedly but throw in a few more people, and then you’ll see the cooler opening more often.
More people also means more food. You’ll need a second cooler to make room for more content either way. You could ask your friends to pitch in with the packing process and help carry the coolers to the location.
Now that you’ve finished your camping trip, what should you do with the cooler? If it is maintained properly, it can stay in great condition for a long time. Here are the usual steps you should take to get the most out of your cooler:
- Drain- There’s a good chance there may be some water left over from the melted ice when you get home. Even if you drain it at the campsite, the humidity from the contents may cause some water to accumulate. Give it a good drain one last time before cleaning it out.
- Clean it- This should be a no-brainer, but some people tend to dump the water out and think it’s all set for storage. All coolers should be cleaned thoroughly. If there was meat, then it should be sanitized as well.
- Air it out- This is an important step that some people forget. Airing it out will prevent any mold or mildew growth.
- Store it properly- Coolers shouldn’t be left out in the sun, because the plastic can start to break down. It’s best to keep your cooler in a cool and shady area. The garage is a great example. If properly stored, they can last many years.
- Upgrade your wheels- If the cooler has wheels, there’s a chance it may become worn over years of use. Thankfully, they can be easily replaced.
- Replace lids- Some hinges may break after multiple uses, causing the lid to come off. This is typical with coolers like the Rubbermaid Durachill.
If you complete all these steps, then your cooler should last for many years. However, if you find yourself in a situation where you need to replace your cooler, here’s what you can do with your old one.
How To Get The Most Out Of Your Mini Cooler On The Go
There are times when people don’t need a big cooler and choose to take a smaller one along instead. Here are some of the reasons:
- Road trips
1. Road trips
It’s helpful to have a way to keep your drinks cold while you’re on a long car trip, especially if there aren’t many stops in between destinations. Even if you manage to stop at a quick stop to get a drink, chances are the drink will become lukewarm after a while. Then you’ll have to stop again for another drink.
Having a smaller cooler makes it easy to carry your drinks on the go and keeps them cold. The size makes it easier for you to place it between seats in some vehicles. This also means more room in the trunk for your clothes and other possessions.
If your vehicle is crowded and you want to save space, you could get a collapsible mini cooler. It can be flattened and put away when not in use.
Small coolers are not only for drinks, you could also store snacks or cold lunches in the smaller cooler. Speaking of cold lunches, there was a small cooler that became a family staple for the working class. The lid would slide back with a push of a button, exposing the food inside. Here is an example.
Traveling from place to place could mean you could be without a fridge for the majority of the day. A small collapsible cooler would come in handy for keeping your meals cold and fresh while you’re transitioning between places.
It can also be used to preserve meals for lunch or dinner wherever you’re going. Here’s a tip: if you’re traveling abroad and don’t want to take your cooler with you onto the plane, you can have Amazon send you a cooler ahead of time before your arrival, so it’s ready for you at you.
Sipping on cold drinks while basking in the sun with the waves crashing in the background, that’s the beach dream. The good news is it can be achieved with a small cooler on hand.
Make sure you pack it with two or more ice packs to keep your drinks extra cold on a hot sunny day. It would be a good idea to bring some kind of shade for your cooler and yourself to prevent overheating.
Some people like to use small coolers in the trunk of their car or truck to store perishable food that needs to remain cold while they’re out shopping. This way, they can hit several stores without having to go home in between to unload all the groceries.
There is an alternative, a flexible bag that serves as food transport bags. It’s specifically made to keep groceries cold until you arrive home. It can be folded or rolled for easy storage in the car.
Watching a school or community team play on the field can be fun, but some of them don’t have drink stands, so it would be a good idea to have a small cooler on hand. This way, you’ll have access to drinks and snacks.
More often than not, you’ll see “soccer moms” bringing a small cooler full of cold drinks for the children that participate in these sports. The kids will run over and replenish their thirst during breaks. This also applies to other school activities.
Keeping Content Cold for Small Coolers
Keeping a smaller cooler cold is slightly different from a bigger cooler. We covered how to keep contents cold in the bigger cooler for camping earlier, so let’s talk about how to keep the smaller cooler cold longer.
On The Go
If you’re traveling in the car for a long amount of time, without a place to freeze your thawed ice packs, and you’re out of frozen drinks, then you can pack the mini cooler with some ice. You can usually find ice from a gas station drink dispensary since the bagged ice would be too much for a small cooler.
Another option would be to fill up a large soda can with ice and place a lid over it, then insert the whole thing into the center of the cooler instead of simply scattering it on top of the contents. This way, the melted ice will be contained while the contents stay cold and dry.
Being on the go also means you can pull over and drain any water and refill it with new ice from any gas station drink dispenser.
Traveling And Misc.
If you’re traveling between hotels or residences, you won’t need to use ice blocks or create a dry zone. Instead, you can buy two ice packs (the kind you’d use for cold lunches) and alternate between them.
You can use one ice pack for about 24 hours, then switch over to the second ice pack while the first one is refreezing. If you don’t have any ice packs, you could ask your hotel nicely if you could use their ice machine. A bag to contain the ice would be a good idea, but not necessary.
Same goes for beach time and sports events, use ice packs to keep your contents cold if possible, but if you don’t have any, then bagged ice will work just fine. Don’t forget to drain the melted ice.
What About Foam Coolers?
We talked about coolers for camping and smaller ones on the go, but what about foam coolers? Are they worth the money?
You’ll find them in any camping or fishing section in the USA for a few bucks, but they are less common in other parts of the world. Like the name says, they look like a block of styrofoam that’s been shaped. In fact, styrofoam material acts as insulation.
People usually buy them for special occasions because they’re cheap and easy to obtain if they’re in your area. However, they are quite disposable. In other words, these coolers are fragile and don’t last very long. After using them several times, you may see some leakage.
Many fishermen like to use them to hold fish or bait while they’re fishing. This helps keep the water temperature stable and cool for the contained fish. Even though they may be good for fishing, they are not recommended for camping, mainly because they’re not durable.
So, How to Get The Most From Your Cooler While Family Camping
This has been a long post. Coolers are just so important to the success of your family camping trip.
If you will be camping for anything more than 2 days, you will definitely benefit from a larger capacity cooler. 60 Qts is probably the realistic minimum size. You will certainly benefit from one of the longer lasting coolers in this review.
For our money, we always take 2 coolers. One for food and perishable items. We actively try to open this one as little as possible. The second one is for drinks. Everyone is in and out of the drinks cooler all the time. Ice will not stay frozen too long in this cooler.
The good things is, it doesn’t really matter. You won’t get sick if your next beer is a bit warmer than you would like. You can’t say that if your steak has gone green.
Our current favorite family camping cooler is:
It’s not cheap but with the rotomolded plastic, large wheels and super strong latches, this cooler will last you a lifetime.