Pack Your Cooler Like a Pro

Pack Your Cooler Like a Pro!

What is the first thing that comes to mind when I ask, “What is the coolest thing about summer?” Is it the open sunroof on a drive along the coast? Extra time with family? A day-trip to the San Juan Islands? All of these things sound great, by my hope for you is the coolest thing on all of these adventures is your cooler!

Whether you’re camping, on a road trip or picnicking in your favorite park — few things are more disappointing than biting into a soggy sandwich. Unfortunately, wet bread and slimy meat is the fate of most people throwing a cooler together. But it doesn’t have to be. Let’s make swimming sandwiches a thing of the past so your smorgasbord overlooking Puget Sound is nothing but a chilled-out good time.

1. Size and Strength Matter

Coolers come in all shapes and sizes. Now days some even have blenders and speakers built in! Accessories aside, nothing is more frustrating than starting to pack your cooler just to realize you don’t have enough room, no matter how good you are at Tetris.

The longer the excursions, the sturdier your cooler needs to be. Soft-sided coolers tend to be ideal for day trips, as they’re easier to carry and take up less space. Hard-sided coolers typically offer better insulation, making them ideal for longer trips.

Having a second cooler is also sometimes a time and space saver, so you don’t have to dig through all of your food to find a cold beverage. 

2. Chill Out and Don’t Forget the Ice

Now that you’ve planned, picked out your cooler and remembered the ice try and maintain a 2-to-1 ratio of ice or gel packs to product. . It’s a good rule of thumb when it comes to packing a cooler. Gel packs have the distinct advantage of keeping the temp down, without dispersing moisture. It’s also a good idea to pre-chill or freeze any items going in your cooler. Room temperature drinks will quickly deplete your ice supply. And finally, pre-chill your cooler. Packing ice into a hot container will just cause it to melt, so bring your cooler inside a day or so prior to packing.   

For extra-long adventures, you can use dry ice. It is much colder than normal ice (it will freeze anything it touches) and can help keep your ice and gel packs frozen longer. But, dry ice requires a few extra steps:

  • ALWAYS wear gloves when handling.
  • Wrap dry ice in layers of newspaper. This helps it stay frozen longer and can help protect other elements in your cooler from coming into contact with it. Additional layers of newspaper can be added to further increase its lifespan.
  • When using dry ice, leave your cooler lid closed, but not airtight. This is because dry ice turns from solid into gas (carbon dioxide), so the air needs somewhere to escape.
  • Never transport dry ice in an enclosed space, as the gas will need to escape. It’s best to transport in a truck bed. Alternatively, you may need to keep the cooler near a window and the window cracked.

3. Skip Tetris. Pack in Layers.

Always start with a layer of chill at the bottom, such as ice or gel packs. Next, add your protein and dairy (such as eggs and cheese). Not only do these items need to stay the coldest, they often are the coldest. Add another layer of ice, followed by drinks and condiments. Follow that up with more ice and then top with delicate items, like fruit or sandwiches.

Pro Tip: Pack meal items close together to limit the amount of time spent digging through the cooler.

4. Stay Shaded

It may seem like common sense, but the cooler you keep your cooler, the longer your ice and food will last. When possible, move your cooler into the shade. Even just covering it with a light-colored towel can help you keep the interior temp from climbing.

5. Keep Closed and Carry on the Chill

Constantly opening your cooler is another common pitfall, as this lets cold air out and warm air in. As much as possible, limit the number of times you go rummaging for goods. 


A HUGE Thank You to Mel

This post was written and illustrated by Melanie Cates, an amazing friend and incredibly talented artist. It first appeared in the Summer 2020 issue of explore:NW. A HUGE thank you to Mel for working with me to pull this off.

Additional Reading

How to be an Outdoorsy Mom

hiking with pepper

An outdoorsy mom with a baby is any gal who has young children and loves maintaining an active lifestyle outside. Discover practical tips and gear from a mom on the trail.

Raising a Baby with a Rottweiler

tummy time

How do you help your Rottweiler and your new baby get along? While your fur baby will likely recognize that the new human is part of the pack, there are a few things you can do to help.