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The most frustrating part of camping is keeping food cool. Nobody wants to throw food in the bin because it has defrosted quickly, a soggy mess as the ice has melted. Or worse, food poisoning, which always worried me.
How do you keep food cold for camping?
Here are some of our tips for keeping food cooler for extended periods.
- Use campsite freezer or fridge
- Pre-cool passive and electrical coolboxes
- Prepare and freeze food 2-days before travelling
- Convert a storage box or bucket into a coolbox
- Leave perishable food at home
- Prepare a meal plan and pack in order
- Create layers and sections
- Place food in sealed bags
- Increase insulation with newspaper
- Use the correct size coolbox for your trip
- Store in the shade
- Use more than one coolbox
- Pack to the brim, not leaving any air gaps
- Keep coolboxes cool whilst travelling
- Place an insulated shopping bag inside your coolbox
What is the correct, safe temperature to store fresh and frozen food?
UK government guidelines state that perishable foods must be below a temperature of 8° C or below. Frozen foods to be below -18° C or below. Safe storage temperature regulations vary per country.
Bacteria grows on food within 20 minutes at room temperature between 8° C (40 ° F) to 60° C (140 ° F). For every 20 minutes, food is left at these temperatures, bacteria doubles, increasing the risk of food poisoning.
1 – Can you use campsite fridges or freezers to store food?
On average, 80% of campsites offer facilities to keep food frozen or fridges for no extra cost. Campers typically use the freezer facilities to refreeze ice blocks and not for storing food.
Food can be stored using the campsite facilities. Ideally, inside sealed bags with a name to identify to whom it belongs—avoiding mixing items with other campers.
Freezers are emptied by campsite owners once a week, mainly on a Friday morning or afternoon. Check with the campsite owner before storing food.
I usually store ice blocks or bottles of water in the freezer and rotate them daily. Using small bottles filled with water to freeze is a cheaper option than buying ice blocks. Depending on the size, water bottles will last longer, and you can use them as drinking water.
Another option is to freeze ice trays, as you can empty them into sealed bags to fill gaps in your cool box.
2 – Pre cooling passive and electric coolboxes before using
Both passive and electrical cool boxes need to chill before use. Placing food inside a non-cooled coolbox defeats the reason for using it, as food will warm the inside.
Ice blocks will melt quicker if placed inside a warm coolbox and not reduced temperature to protect the contents.
Condensation will build up inside as warm air meets pre-cooled products, increasing condensation build-up, resulting in excess water laying in the base and defrosting food quicker.
Some people will pour cold water into a cool box 30 minutes before using it. I’m not particularly keen to do it as it is a nightmare to dry quickly and sufficiently. Plus, it’s not safe for an electrical coolbox.
- Soft cool bags – Place inside freezer day before required
- Passive hard shell and electrical cool boxes – Place bottles of frozen water or icepacks inside the prior day.
- Store in a cool area – store in the coolest area of your tent or outside if minus temperatures
- Keep the lid closed – to stop warm air from entering as the cool box will not remain cold
- Electrical coolboxes – switch on about 2-3 hours before leaving
3 – Preparing and freezing food a before camping
Freezing food before camping not only saves time, but food will last longer. Pre-freeze food at least 2-days before your trip. Frozen food in a coolbox will help to keep the contents cool.
Frozen food defrost quicker in a passive coolbox than in an electric coolbox. Food will defrost within 24 hours, depending on how cold the coolbox is. Food that has defrosted for more than 2-days, not eaten, needs to be thrown away.
As the food defrosts, remove any water from the base of your coolbox and clean. This will help to avoid cross-contamination of foods and avoid food poisoning.
4 – Convert a bucket or storage box into a coolbox
There are several ways to keep food cool by using items from a home to make a temporary coolbox. Food needs to be in sealed waterproof bags for protection, and the bucket or storage box needs a lid.
Converting a bucket or storage box into a temporary cool box by:
- Lining with foil or emergency foil, leaving an overlay to cover the top of the food – place food inside either with ice in bags or ice packs.
- Fill with cold water – ideally used just for storing drinks, and storing food in secure waterproof bags.
- Dampen a towel and line container – place food inside wrapped in newspaper as it is a natural insulator.
- Layer with sand, placing clay pots inside to store food.
For additional cooling, dampen a wet towel, lay it over the top, and store it in a cool area.
I have left my coolbox at home before. I converted a storage box that transported camping gear into a temporary coolbox—using frozen water bottles and newspapers for additional insulation.
5 – Leave perishable food at home or shop locally
Perishable foods have a limited shelf life, and it can be challenging to keep food cold. Non-perishable food doesn’t need to be held at a set temperature to avoid going bad. It can be easier not to take perishable foods camping, especially for a short trip.
Camping using non-perishable food is a great way to reduce stress and simply a trip.
Non-perishable foods include tinned meats or fruit, coffee, tea, nuts, pasta, rice and specialised camping food packs.
We often take Wayfarer food with us for quick meals if we only camped overnight. All in one bag, and you only need to heat up. Food types include breakfast, chillies and desserts.
Some perishable foods, such as milk, fresh fruit, or meats, may be required for BBQ. Buy from a local or campsite store daily will ensure freshness. Nobody wants to interrupt their camping trip to go shopping, but usually, this is the ideal way to keep food fresh and not waste food.
6 – How to organise a coolbox to keep food cool longer
Plan meals for each day so the coolbox is packed in line with the meal plan. Food items needed daily should be placed to the top to avoid removing food as you search for items needed.
Pack small items into gaps to reduce air space; it will seem like it has been very overloaded. Keeping cold food touching other foods will help to keep food colder for longer.
If you have more than one coolbox, keep a list of the food stored in each one. Stick the list to the lids and cross it off when used. Number the cool boxes 1 and 2, matching the daily meal plan.
Keep the second cool box for food that will remain fresh longer. Use cox 1 to store items you need daily access to and the second box to stay closed, keeping the food cold.
It is essential to avoid opening, closing or leaving open whilst you search for food as much as possible. Cool air will be ventilated and replaced with warmer air.
7 – Creating layers and sections
Creating layers and sections in a coolbox is a great way to keep the cold air in different areas.
Place a layer of iceblocks on the base to sit the first level of food on. Ensure that no air gaps are left. Ideally, the first layer should be the food you will not need for a few days. Place another layer of insulation and iceblocks. You are repeating until complete.
Whilst you are packing, consider the bottles of drinks you want to store. Create a pocket that will be easy, quick access to retrieving without disturbing any other food.
Keep extra insulation to lay over the top of the food inside. You are keeping items that are used frequently at the top. This way, you will only need to pull back a small section of the cover at a time.
Insulation foil is expensive. For cheapness, I purchased car windscreen insulation covers. They cost me under £1 each from a local store.
8 – Waterproof zip bags to avoid cross-contamination
Leave food in its original sealed plastic wrappings, but remove from any boxing and place inside sealable zip bags. It is removing excess air before sealing. When it defrosts, leaving food in boxes will leave a soggy mess, and the food may have to be thrown away.
Whether it is meat, cheese, or milk bottle, adding additional protection will prolong the freshness. Sealing inside zip bags will also help to avoid cross-contamination between foods as they defrost.
Food can be easily destroyed as it lays in water at the bottom of a coolbox, especially if it is not emptied and cleaned regularly.
9 – Increase insulation using newspaper
Before packing the coolbox, wrap food individually in either newspaper, insulated foil or everyday kitchen foil. Adding additional insulation will increase the length of frozen time before defrosting, especially if you are opening and closing the coolbox often.
To be identified food quickly, as you are wrapping, label the food. It will help to avoid unnecessary unwrapping whilst searching for food.
10 – Selecting the correct cool box
When buying a coolbox, we assume the bigger, the better. We believe it will be used for every camping trip and filled to the brim with delicious food. That is not always the case. Why would you use a 32L cool box for a 1 or 2-night camping trip?
Selecting a passive or thermostatic coolbox depends on how large the group is, how much food you will need to take, and how long.
I have three cool boxes for different types of camping trips.
- 28L Thermostatic (Electrical) for camping for more than 2 nights
- 26L Passive Material cool box for up to 2-nights of family camping
- 10L Passive cool bag ideal for 1-night camping wild, car or backpacking
Having different designs and sizes of cool boxes will save money. Using an oversized coolbox that has to be filled with extra ice packs or bags of ice to reduce excess space will be more expensive than purchasing a smaller coolbox. As the food gets eaten, the food remaining will defrost quicker. Unless you can easily buy extra ice, fill it with cans of drink or place damp towels inside the box.
Not sure about the cool box you need? Capacity, whether an electrical or passive cool box, is what you should buy. Read our guide on buying a cool box that will suit your trip and group.
11 – Don’t leave in direct sunlight
Leaving a coolbox in direct sunlight will reduce the effectiveness. Hardshell cool boxes will have to work harder to keep the temperature inside below 15 – 25 Degrees ambient outside temperatures on average. Leaving it in direct sunlight will leave a coolbox struggling and often unable to maintain a consistent temperature. Reducing the lifespan due to the motor working harder to maintain temperatures inside.
Keeping them in a shaded area will help to control the inside temperatures. Passive cool boxes are easier to move to different tent areas during the day to avoid sunlight. Electrical cool boxes are more difficult because of the cable restrictions. Use an extension cable if required, but not an everyday household extension to the mains kit. Use an EHU extension cable outside to increase the length.
12 – Use an additional coolbox
Having more than one cool box can help maintain temperatures inside the main food coolbox, whether passive or electrical. Divide food between more than one coolbox using one for main foods that need to be kept cool such as frozen meats, salads or side dishes. The second is to contain canned or bottled drinks and other items that need access.
They do not need to be expensive and high quality; the coolbox for drinks can be passive. At the same time, food storage can be electrical.
I keep our electrical coolbox for perishable foods, and the second is a material passive cool bag. The passive cool bag is soft, and usually, no drink will be left, so it is easy to condense down for packing.
For drinks, I use the HI-Gear 30L Inflatable cool bag. It self-inflates, although you may need to add some additional air by blowing in. I use this for large bottles of drink and a few smaller items. You can get 4 large bottles inside easily, providing you do not overinflate. It is available from Go Outdoors and Amazon. It condenses down easily, and the handles are used to secure and remain flat.
13 – Not leave gaps in a coolbox
The gap in a coolbox only relates to when you open and close, trapping warm air inside. Air gaps will increase the rate of ice melting quicker. Food will not remain cold and will start to defrost. Treat packing like a jigsaw puzzle, layers of ice, food and repeat. But in order, you will need to eat.
Thermoelectric coolboxes need space for the fan to work effectively. The fan extracts warm air from the inside to keep the coolbox cold.
14 – Keeping a coolbox cool whilst travelling
Passive coolboxes need to be placed in the shade whilst travelling, not in the boot of a vehicle. Cool the car before travelling and place the coolbox in the rear footwell, covering it with a damp towel. Electrical coolboxes can run on 12V, plug into your in-car charger and keep cool whilst travelling.
If your car is not running, don’t leave the cool box on charge, as you will quickly run your car battery down.
15 – Increasing the insulation of an old coolbox
Instead of purchasing a new coolbox, upgrade to an old one. Local supermarkets sell thermal insulated shopping bags, which are ideal for placing inside an older coolbox. They only cost a couple of pounds, which is a perfect solution until you find a suitable coolbox.