Cooking up gourmet food in your camp kitchen is an excellent way to make the most of your time outside.
However, unlike in your kitchen at home, it can be pretty darn hard to keep food cold while you’re camping in hot weather—a fact that can be quite problematic for your outdoor dining experience.
What’s more, keeping your perishable food cold while camping isn’t just a culinary issue—it’s also a safety concern.
We know how important it is to keep your food and beverages properly chilled while you’re outside, so we’ve put together this guide to get you started.
Coming right up, we’ll discuss everything you need to know to keep your food as fresh as can be while you’re outside, plus some top tips for doing just that.
The Importance of Keeping Food Cold While Camping
While properly refrigerating perishable foods during your camping trip might not seem like an important concern, your ability to store your food properly can have a major impact on your camping experience.
Don’t believe us?
Consider this: Improperly stored perishable foods, like milk, eggs, and leftovers, can cause a host of health issues.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), eating perishable foods that have been left in 40ºF to 140ºF (4ºC to 60ºC) temperatures for longer than 1 to 2 hours can lead to food poisoning.
While food poisoning might seem like a minor, short-term health issue, it hospitalizes around 130,000 people and kills around 3,000 people each year in the US alone.
In North America, Europe, and other developed parts of the world with robust sanitation systems, food poisoning is generally caused by bacteria and viruses, such as:
Although there are plenty more foodborne illnesses out there, the illnesses listed above are often caused by eating undercooked foods or food that has been left unrefrigerated for far too long.
To prevent these illnesses, keeping your perishable foods cold while camping, or skipping perishable foods altogether, is of the utmost importance.
10 Tips on How to Keep Food Cold While Camping
Keeping food cold while camping is all about preparedness. It can be challenging to properly refrigerate your food when you’re camping in hot environments, so having the right gear and know-how is essential.
Here are 10 of our top tips for keeping food fresh during your adventures.
1. Pack a Quality Cooler
Most people know that a cooler is an essential piece of gear for keeping food fresh while camping.
However, the flimsy disposable styrofoam coolers that you can buy for a picnic at the beach aren’t going to cut it during a long camping trip in the middle of the summer.
Investing in a quality cooler is one of the best things you can do to set yourself up for success while camping. Of course, there are hundreds of coolers on the market, so here are a few things to look for as you shop for a cooler:
Rotomolding is a method of producing plastic objects, like coolers, that results in a stronger, more durable, and better-insulated product. Rotomolded coolers have thicker walls, no seams, and a more even distribution of plastic, which prevents hot air from getting inside.
A freezer-grade rubber gasket is essential in a quality cooler because it helps seal out hot air and keep your food fresh. Without a proper gasket, warm air can easily make its way through the tiny spaces between the lid and the main body of your cooler.
The best coolers on the market come with the highest quality insulation. This means they have thick walls filled with
pressure-injected foam insulation, which is capable of evenly insulating the entire cooler, thereby keeping your food colder for longer.
Although there are other features to consider when selecting a cooler, if you’re serious about keeping your food cold, a rotomolded construction, freezer-grade gaskets, and pressure-injected foam insulation are must-haves.
2. Opt for a Portable Fridge
Alternatively, for car camping in very hot conditions or with large amounts of perishable food, a portable camping fridge is likely your best bet.
These portable camping fridges can keep your perishable food at just the right temperature during your adventures, giving you peace of mind that your food is being stored properly.
Plus, they provide you with full control over the cooler’s temperature so you can adjust the chilling settings to meet the needs of your environment.
Of course, you’re probably not going to be able to take a portable fridge with you on a mountaineering trip.
However, if you’re planning an extended family getaway at a local campground or heading out on a long road trip, a fridge is a solid option.
For more information about camping fridges, check out this article where we reviewed the best camping fridges available in 2021
3. Keep Your Fridge or Cooler Closed As Much As Possible
All fridges and coolers have one major flaw: Hot air enters the cooler or fridge every time you open the door. That means every time you reach in to grab a drink or a snack, you’re speeding up the food spoiling process.
When you’re at home in a climate-controlled room, this might not be a major issue. However, at the campground, allowing warm air to infiltrate your cooler on a regular basis is a recipe for disaster.
Moral of the story? Keep your fridge and cooler doors closed as much as possible.
Although you have a bit more wiggle room with portable fridges (because they actively cool your food), coolers are notoriously sensitive to repeated opening and closing.
So, think about what you need from inside your cooler or fridge before you open it. Then, grab what you need and quickly close the door when you’re done, to keep as much hot air out as possible.
4. Put Your Cooler in the Shade
One often-overlooked method for improving the performance of your cooler is to simply put it in the shade.
Though it might be more convenient to place your cooler in the sun by your picnic table, doing so is a sure-fire way to make your food spoil faster.
While we’re certainly not saying that keeping your cooler in the shade should be your sole method of refrigeration, placing your cooler in the sun isn’t going to do much to help, either. This is particularly true in sunny locales, like the desert, but it’s generally good practice, regardless of where you’re camping.
5. Consider Block Ice Instead
Many folks opt to fill their coolers with ice cubes because they’re highly convenient. However, going out of your way to purchase block ice instead can have a big impact on your ability to keep your food cold while camping.
That’s because block ice tends to melt much more slowly than its cubed counterpart. Why? Well, block ice has less surface area than cubed ice, so less of it is exposed to the heat at any given time. That means less melted ice—and colder food.
If you really want to commit to keeping your food cold, consider dry ice (which is not frozen water, but frozen carbon dioxide).
Dry ice is a good option for keeping food cold because it has a much lower sublimation (transition between solid and gaseous states) point of an astonishing -109ºF/-78ºC.
However, dry ice is expensive and is dangerous to handle because it is so cold. If you do want to use dry ice, you’ll need a pair of protective leather gloves for handling it.
You’ll also need a hard-sided cooler, which is better able to handle such intense cold temperatures.
6. Separate Your Food and Drinks With a Second Cooler
If you have space in your car for a second cooler, using one to separate your food and your drinks can be a great option.
That’s because, in general, people tend to reach for a new drink much more often than they dig around in a cooler for food.
As a result, if you can keep your food and drinks in separate coolers, you’ll be less likely to open your food cooler, thereby helping it stay colder for longer during your camping trip.
7. Bring Frozen Food Instead
Depending on what you plan to pack for your trip, opting for frozen vegetables, meats, and other foods can be a nice alternative to fresh food. Because these foods are, well, frozen, they’ll take longer to warm up to a potentially problematic temperature.
Moreover, because frozen foods are frozen, they serve double duty as a cooling agent within your cooler. So, frozen foods tend to last longer inside your cooler and they help to keep other foods cold in the process. What could be better?
8. Freeze Your Water Bottles
Another nifty option for keeping your food cold on a camping trip is to fill your water bottles with water and then freeze them before you head outside.
If you freeze some water inside your water bottles, you can use these as extra “ice blocks” inside your cooler during your camping trip. When they do eventually thaw, you can either drink the water or use it for cleaning dishes.
This makes frozen water bottles a simple, mess-free, and effective way to keep food colder for longer while outside.
9. Minimize Air Space Within Your Cooler
Fact: Pockets of air within your cooler are not ideal.
Coolers are insulated objects, which means they cool everything inside their compartments, regardless of whether those objects are your food or simply dead air space.
However, the large amounts of dead air space trapped inside your cooler can accelerate the melting of your ice because all that cold air emanating from the ice is busy trying to chill the air itself.
Therefore, minimizing any dead air space within your cooler by packing it full of extra food, or even towels, can help your ice stay frozen longer.
Oh, and as that ice melts, don’t drain the water. Though it might not be as cold as ice, the chilly meltwater from your ice does help insulate the ice from the heat.
This meltwater also takes up physical space inside your cooler, thereby preventing excessive amounts of dead air space.
10. Pre-Chill Your Cooler Before Leaving Home
Coolers do not actively chill your food. They simply insulate their contents from the heat.
Therefore, if you store your cooler in a warm locale, like your shed, you’ll end up wasting large amounts of your precious ice at the start of your camping trip simply by trying to cool your cooler.
To prevent this issue, place a bag of ice inside your cooler for 3 to 4 hours before you load it up with food for your trip. Doing so will help lower the internal temperature of your cooler to about 35ºF (2ºC), which is perfect for storing most perishable foods.
How to Keep Food Cold Without a Cooler or Fridge
At this point, you’re well-versed in the art of keeping food cold with a cooler or fridge, but what if you’re camping without a cooler and fridge?
Unfortunately, there are no reliable options for keeping food cold in hot environments without a cooler.
Although it is possible to keep food at a reasonable temperature in mild weather conditions, there’s not much you can do to make a difference in hot weather when it comes to storing perishable foods.
Of course, non-perishable food items, like crackers, nuts, rice, pasta, and the like, all do just fine in hot environments (your chocolate might melt, but, hey, it’s still edible!).
Really, the only problem with camping without a cooler is that you don’t have any method of keeping perishable foods at an appropriate temperature.
As a result, we don’t recommend packing perishable food items, such as milk, cheese, or raw meats, on a backpacking trip or any other camping adventure on which you don’t have a cooler.
This is simply because you won’t be able to keep these foods at a cold-enough temperature to prevent the spread of foodborne illnesses.
Alternatives to Perishable Foods for Camping
In situations in which you’re camping without a cooler, we recommend non-perishable alternatives to some popular foods, such as:
- Meats: Jerky or summer sausage
- Milk/Dairy: Powdered milk, evaporated milk, condensed milk
- Eggs: Powdered egg crystals or vegan egg substitute
- Butter: Olive oil, vegetable oil, coconut oil
That being said, most fruits and veggies are still a-okay to bring camping, even if you don’t have access to a cooler.
Other foods, like cheeses, might be okay if you opt for hard cheese (e.g., cheddar). With cheese, it’s best to consume it quickly and to keep it out of the sun as much as possible.
Otherwise, you might notice that it starts to “sweat.” This isn’t dangerous, per se, particularly with pasteurized cheeses, but it will cause the cheese to quickly lose its flavor.
At the end of the day, it’s best to be conservative and opt for non-perishable foods when camping without a cooler than to pack a whole lot of perishable foods and risk contracting a serious foodborne illness down the line.
Here are answers to some of the most common questions about keeping food cold while camping:
How Long Do Thermal Bags Keep Food Cold?
An insulated or thermal bag can generally keep food cold for anywhere from a few hours to up to 3 days.
However, this depends quite a bit on the quality of your thermal bag, the quality of the chilling agent (e.g., ice), and the surrounding air temperature.
In general, thermal bags are best for short-term use rather than long-term perishable food storage.
How Can I Keep Milk and Eggs Cold When Camping?
To keep milk and eggs cold while camping, you’ll want to use a high-quality rotomolded cooler or a portable camping fridge. Because milk and eggs can spoil very easily, keeping these foods cold is essential.
In fact, if you can’t bring a cooler or a portable fridge on your next camping trip, it’s best to not pack any fresh milk or eggs, as these foods must be constantly refrigerated. If you do want to pack milk or eggs while backpacking, it’s best to use powdered milk and dehydrated egg crystals, instead.
How Long Will a Cooler Keep Food Cold When Camping and Traveling?
For as long as the internal temperature remains below 4 °C (40 °F) the cooler will keep your food cold. Having a thermometer can come in quite handy when camping with a cooler.
Adding ice or ice packs into your cooler will help keep your food cold a little longer.
Keeping your food cold while camping doesn’t have to be an impossible task. There are plenty of great ways to properly store your perishable food at the campground. The key is to come prepared for the conditions you’ll face.
About the author
Gaby is a professional outdoor educator, guide, and wilderness medicine instructor. She holds a master's degree in outdoor education and spends most of her time hanging out with penguins and polar bears in the polar region. When she's not outdoors, you can find her traveling, reading Nietzsche, and drinking copious double espressos.