How to Keep Food Cold While Camping

By Fred Decker

Campfire chef secrets for the freshest ingredients

How to Keep Food Cold While Camping

Camping is great fun and a way to build lifelong memories, but it does present a few challenges at mealtime. Toting a refrigerator on your back isn't really a practical option, so how will you keep food safely cold on your trip? The answer depends on whether you're carrying everything on your back, or have the luxury of a car or canoe to do the heavy hauling. Either way, you have plenty of well-proven options.

When you have the option of a cooler

Food safety is a lot easier for tent campers when you're at a site that's accessible to vehicles, or where you can bring in your gear in a canoe or other boat. This means you can bring one or more coolers, which are essentially just scaled-down versions of the iceboxes people used before refrigerators became common. There are five things you can use in varying combinations to keep your foods cool: loose ice, block ice, frozen gel packs, dry ice and the food itself. Loose ice and gel packs can last for several hours, block ice is good for a day or so, and dry ice if well wrapped can last for several days. Each has its advantages and disadvantages, which you'll find discussed at length on online camping forums. The role the food plays is often overlooked, though. Food that's frozen to start will last longer and will help keep other things cold until it thaws.

My cooler is cooler than yours

There are a few ways to finesse your cooler-packing for the best results. First, if you have the option of bringing more than one cooler, keep your really perishable items – meats, eggs and so on – in one, and less-crucial items such as snacks and beverages in a second. That way, you open the cooler less often, and its contents stay colder. It helps to put a piece of long-lasting block ice or dry ice at the bottom and then use loose ice to fill up the spaces around your food. You could even find a container similar in size to your cooler, and custom-freeze your own block ice to fit it.

Pro tip: If you're using ice, put cooling racks or trivets at the bottom to keep your ice and food out of the melted water. Sealing food into individual bags or watertight containers helps, too. Frozen water bottles are good tools for cooling as well, and have the added benefit that you can drink them once they've thawed.

Alternative cooling methods for backpackers

Weight is a major consideration for backpackers, so if you're leaving the car behind, your options are more limited. A lightweight, insulated lunch kit is a useful carry-along: You can fill it with gel packs and frozen meats or prepared meals, and it will keep them cold for a day or two. Freezing steaks, chops or burgers in individual bags with a liquid marinade can keep them cold longer in your backpack, because the marinade acts as a small ice pack on its own. For green vegetables, cheeses and other foods that need to be cool but not cold, evaporative cooling can work. Wrap the food in a dampened cloth or towel, and as the moisture evaporates, it cools the food inside. If your destination or your evening's campsite is near a body of cool water, food in sealed containers can be placed in the water – or dangled from a canoe, as you paddle – where it will stay several degrees below the ambient temperature.

A quick primer on food safety

Making sure your food is safe while you're camping requires a combination of preparation and proper food handling. The preparation part comes while you're planning: You always want to eat the most perishable foods in the first day or two, and have more durable items for later in the trip.

As for food handling, the same safety rules you'd follow anywhere else – cleanliness, sanitation, and temperature – apply out in the woods. Wash your hands and utensils carefully, don't let raw foods come into contact with cooked foods, and be sure foods are both stored and cooked to the correct temperature. Pick up an inexpensive fridge thermometer for each cooler, so you can make sure your perishables stay at or below 40 degrees F, and use an instant-read thermometer to verify you've cooked or reheated your foods to the recommended temperature.

A smart option: carrying fewer perishable foods

You can make life a lot simpler by giving some thought to the food you take, and choosing those that require the least cooling. Hamburgers cooked over a campfire might be your Very Favorite Thing Ever, for example, but they're also quick to spoil. Dry-cured sausages or jerky, on the other hand, remain safe at room temperature for a long time. One simple mental exercise is to think about where items are displayed at the supermarket. If you focus your meal planning on items that aren't sold from refrigerated showcases, you'll conserve space in your cooler and cut down on the number of "ice runs" needed. After all, driving (or worse, hiking) miles to the nearest store probably isn't what you had in mind when you decided to go camping.

About the Author

Fred Decker is a trained chef and certified food-safety trainer. Decker wrote for the Saint John, New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal, and has been published in Canada's Hospitality and Foodservice magazine. He's held positions selling computers, insurance and mutual funds, and was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.