Sure, you can just place all of your items in a cooler, close the top, and head to the beach. But have you ever had to eat a smushed sandwich that was wedged underneath a six pack of beer, or had to remove every item from the cooler just to access that small container of potato salad? Use these tips to pack more effectively and avoid a lot of frustration.
Start with a Quality Cooler
Do you really need to spend $400 on a cooler? We tested seven products, ranging in price from $19.99 to $379.99, in our testing of large coolers and found that yes, the rugged and sporty Yeti Tundra Haul really does live up to the hype, especially if you’re going to be camping or outdoors for more than a day or two. It's our overall favorite (its predecessor, the Yeti Tundra 45, was our original winner but has been discontinued—though the Yeti Tundra Haul has wheels, which the Tundra didn't). But 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.
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.
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.
A Full Cooler Is a Happy Cooler
Food stays colder the more contents that are inside the cooler. So don’t break out the 65-quart cooler for a few sandwiches. You don’t need a different sized cooler for every amount of food, but try to use the cooler that best fits your haul.
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 if you know where everything is, you’ll find what you’re looking for far more easily.
Use Leak-Proof, 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.
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.