Summer may be winding down, but fall presents plenty of opportunities for outside adventure — especially if your region suffers through hot summers. One indispensable part of a day out or a roadtrip? A cooler of all your favorite snacks and drinks. But packing the cooler can be tricky, and nothing’s worse than digging in for a snack and finding things soggy, leaky, or not cold enough. Read on for 7 tips on packing the perfect cooler
Cool it before you pack it. Take time to cool the cooler before you pack it. That ensures that your ice and food don’t have to the work of cooling their environment — thermodynamics is a tricky master! Fill the cooler with ice (bagged is fine) or bottles of frozen water. Let this sit for 12 hours for ideal cooling. You can also just leave it out on your porch or in the yard overnight. If you’re lucky enough to have access to a commercial freezer, let the cooler (literally) chill in there overnight
Contain your goodies. Don’t rely on store packaging, especially if it’s just plastic or (even worse) paper. Transfer food into airtight, leakproof containers. Prep food the night before so it can be in the fridge for some extra cooling if you can. Choose square and rectangular containers over round or oval when you can — this allows for more efficient packing and stacking
Freeze what you can. If you are going for a long trip, freezing things that can be safely frozen and eaten when thawed or reheated is an excellent trip. These frozen items add extra cooling power to the cooler and stay fresh longer. Freeze drinks like water and iced tea and allow the bottles to serve as ice packs. Remember to leave room for expansion in jars or bottles
Let your food chill. Keep items that can’t be frozen in the fridge until you’re ready to pack them. This will help bring them down to the right temperature so they don’t have to do it when they’re packed. It will also let these items serve as extra cooling packs in the cooler itself
Pack in the order in which you’ll use things. Pack the items you’ll use later in your trip on the bottom, if you’re traveling for multiple days. This avoids unnecessary digging and disturbing of the layers of items in the cooler. If you’re just going for the day, still think in terms of what you’ll use in which order
Ice responsibly. It’s common sense — the longer your ice lasts, the cooler your food and drinks will stay. Reusable ice packs are great since they don’t leave a mess when they thaw. If you don’t have these, frozen bottles of water or tea are good choices. Block ice is the best choice for the bottom of your cooler — it creates a uniform surface. Fill in the spaces between items with ice cubes. You can use dry ice if you have highly perishable items or plan to be traveling and eating out of the cooler for an extended time, but for most trips block and cube ice will do just fine
Layer it. Don’t just stick food containers and drinks in randomly. Following Tip #4, pack your items in layers. Add ice after each layer so that there is as little direct contact between containers in the layers as possible. It will seem like a lot of ice — go with it anyway, as long as the cooler lid will still close securely.
Fill it up. Air is the enemy! The more air you have in your cooler, the faster your ice will melt. Choose the right size cooler from the outset so you don’t have to backfill empty space. If you do find yourself with extra space, fill it with ice. As you use up items in the cooler, backfill the air pockets as well. Use cube ice or reusable packs. Extra bottles of water (frozen) are also a good choice — if you don’t use them on your trip, they can go back in the fridge or freezer at home, and you can also enjoy the cold water while you’re traveling.