Cooler Fail: How Not to Pack a Cooler

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This summer we spent two weeks on the road, which is not uncommon for us, but we camped for the entire two weeks. And that means we lived out of a cooler for two weeks. I had a great food plan for our trip. Unfortunately, our cooler did not like my plan.

I saw something online recently where someone suggested freezing smoothies and using them like ice in the cooler. It sounded like a good idea so I thought I would try that but with our dinner foods. Frozen meat has to stay cold longer than frozen smoothie, right? Heads up: it was an epic fail. I’m not sure if it would have worked if we had a better cooler or if it was just a bad idea altogether. Either way, I won’t make that mistake again.

Here’s what we did (and what you should not do). We took two coolers – a smaller one for the frozen foods and a larger one for everything else. Our hope was that by freezing the dinner foods, packing the cooler full of ice, and not opening the top of the smaller cooler except for once a day, that the food would stay frozen. Nope. Didn’t happen. Several days into the trip and everything had thawed. I had to make five nights worth of food in one night. Even then some of it got thrown away. It was a total bummer.

Prior to our trip I made hamburger patties and froze them; I measured ground beef and chicken and froze it in bags according to how much we would need for each meal; I made spaghetti sauce and froze it; and I made a pot roast the day before we left. Everything frozen went in the little cooler and non frozen in the big cooler. That was supposed to be dinner for an entire week.

Edited Food Picture

What did we learn from this? For starters, taking perishable food for an entire week just isn’t possible. At least not with our current cooler. Going forward we will plan to shop every three days. I throw away food on every single camping trip because it ends up water logged, thawed too early, or gets mushy from being in the cooler. My veggies always get weird. I assume it’s because they’re directly on the ice.

The problem with shopping while traveling is that it can be hard to control food costs and stores do not always carry what you’re used to/want. While traveling through Montana this summer, we stopped at the only store in a small town to stock up on dinner foods and they only had beef products. That’s a lie, they had frozen whole chickens. I am not opposed to beef but I prefer not to eat it every night. In the end though, buying food every couple of days is probably cheaper than replacing entire coolers full of food.

Here’s a tip: always put your food in plastic bags. Basically, you want to double bag everything. As soon as the ice starts to melt the water will get in everything. I cannot tell you how many items I’ve had to throw away though the years because they’ve become waterlogged. Last summer we were nearing the end of our trip and stopped at the store to buy food for the last several days of our trip. I was being lazy and just wrapped the chicken up in the grocery bag and stuck it in the cooler. I meant to put it in a Ziplock bag when we got back to our campsite but forgot. The ice melted and the raw chicken had cooler water in the package. Which meant it’s possible everything else in the cooler was touched by raw chicken water. We had to throw almost everything in the cooler away. Don’t be like Caroline. Double bag your cooler items. Even things like butter and hummus go in bags.

What would we do differently next time? Before our next big road trip we will buy a better cooler. I have shied away from purchasing a Yeti cooler because, frankly, I couldn’t fathom why anyone would pay so much for a cooler. I now understand why. Cheaper coolers are fine for weekend trips or day events. If you plan to travel for more than a couple days invest in a good cooler. We were on the road for two weeks this summer. We had to add ice to our cooler every single day. Ice costs $3 – $5 a bag and we need two bags at a time. We spent well over $100 on ice. $100 on frozen water plus all the food I thew away. A Yeti is looking better and better.

If someone from Yeti happens to be reading this and you’d like to send me one to try out, I’d be happy to send you my mailing address. 😉

The three takeaways from this post:

  • Don’t freeze meat and use it like ice or expect it to stay frozen
  • Double bag everything in the cooler
  • Buy a good cooler if you plan to spend more than a couple days on the road

If you have any cooler tips to share I’d love to hear them!