Sure, you can just place all of your items in a cooler, close the top, and head to the beach. But have you ever eaten a smushed sandwich that was wedged underneath a six pack of beer? Or watched your food slowly warm up over the course of the day?
The truth is, there's some strategy involved in packing a cooler. Use these tips to do it more effectively.
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1. Start With a Quality Cooler
Do you really need to spend almost $400 on a cooler? We tested seven large coolers, ranging in price from $19.99 to $379.99, and found that yes, the rugged and sporty Yeti Tundra 45 (our winner!) really does live up to the hype, especially if you’re going to be camping or outdoors for more than a day or two.
But the Yeti is pretty pricey, so for a cheaper alternative, we also recommend the Coleman 50 QT Xtreme Wheeled Cooler. It’s lightweight, has wheels, and is perfectly suitable for a casual weekend or occasional beach trips.
For an even easier-to-carry option, our winning soft cooler is the Engel HD20 22qt Heavy-Duty Soft Sided Cooler Tote Bag. It aced all of our tests, and even kept ice frozen for three full days.
2. Chill Your Cooler Before You Use It
If you don’t have a fridge big enough to fit your cooler, at the very least, move it to a cool place in your house or garage. If it’s a particularly hot day, you can fill it with an ice bath and pour it out before you’re ready to start filling it up.
3. Prechill Your Items
And while you're at it, you should also make sure that your items are nice and cold before you pack them in your cooler. They'll stay colder if they are prechilled, so if you want an ice-cold beverage at the beach on a hot day, don't put it in the cooler when it's warm.
4. Choose the Ice Pack (Or Bag of Ice) That’s Best for You
Our testing of ice packs revealed that ultimately, if you don’t mind the cleanup and have time to go to the store, plain ice will do a good job of keeping the contents of your cooler cold (loose ice cubes can snugly surround the contents of a cooler the way rigid ice packs can’t). But if you’re looking for a reusable option that won’t leave your cooler dripping wet, go for a hard-sided ice pack. Our favorite is the Arctic Ice Alaskan Series, X-Large, which keeps a 38-quart cooler chilly for 14 hours, doesn’t form bulges as it freezes, has a convenient handle, and can be reused over and over to maximize savings.
5. Add Another Tier to Your Cooler
Small stackable shelves typically used to add extra tiers to cabinets can also work in coolers. They’re great for raising foods such as cheese, fruits, or sandwiches to prevent them from getting wet in melting ice; they can also be used to keep beverages separate.
6. Fill the Cooler to the Brim
Food stays colder the more contents that are inside the cooler. So don’t break out the big cooler for just a few sandwiches. You don’t need a different-size cooler for every amount of food, but try to use the cooler that best fits your haul.
Generally, for ultimate ice retention, manufacturers recommended filling the cooler with ⅔ ice and stuffing the rest with food and beverages. If you’re looking to keep items cold for a few days, place ice packs or ice on the bottom of the cooler, then fill in the gaps with ice cubes.
7. Organize Your Packing
Keep similar foods together: snacks in one section of the cooler, sandwiches in another. Foods with meat in one section, vegetarian stuff in another. You can also come up with your own groupings that make sense for you and your crew; the bottom line is that if you know where everything is, you’ll find what you’re looking for far more easily.
Complete Summer CookbookReady to take the party outside? This book is designed to keep you and your kitchen cool, with make-ahead meals best served cold (or at room temp), fix-and-forget recipes that won't heat up the kitchen, and lots more.
8. Use Leakproof, Stackable Containers
In most cases, you’re going to be dragging or rolling your cooler over uneven terrain. No matter how jostled it gets, our favorite plastic food storage containers—the Rubbermaid Brilliance Food Storage Container—and our favorite glass food storage container—the OXO Good Grips 8 Cup Smart Seal Rectangle Container—will stay closed. (If they could stay closed getting knocked off the counter in the test kitchen, they’ll stay closed in your cooler.) They also stack well and are lightweight, so they won’t weigh your cooler down.
9. Set the Cooler in the Shade
Put your cooler in a cool (or at least, shady) location, since even the best cooler plopped in the middle of a desert will heat up rapidly.
10. Keep It Closed (Within Reason)
Every time you open the top, you’re letting the cool air escape, so only open the cooler when you really need that drink or snack. Some people use one cooler to store some items and a different one for easily accessible items that will be used quickly.