Camp Cooking – Post 1, The Cooler

      5 Comments on Camp Cooking – Post 1, The Cooler

At home it’s easy to boil water, make toast, let dirty dishes pile up in the sink, or stare mindlessly at an open refrigerator. When camping, you have to consume your provisions sensibly, contemplate how to build and tend your fire, and cook using different techniques that often take longer and require keen guessing skills. Clean-up is another exercise which also takes longer. And you must be mindful of water use and responsible disposal. From start to finish – packing the cooler to cleaning up – is with thoughtful consideration. 

The one thing to keep in mind is, even when it’s as simple as corn on the cob, baked potato or a salad, there’s something deeply satisfying about a camp meal. I seem to forget this factoid, and still sweat the small stuff: if I just had a little flour, wine vinegar, a slotted spoon…

The Cooler

Miller Beach Party, Indiana Dunes, 2018

In today’s world, “The Cooler” is considered serious GEAR. You can spend $400.00+ for an average-sized cooler. I, for one, am not there yet…. Yeti? Sure, they come with wheels, locks, handles, racks, bear resistance, tie downs, cup holders, “non-marking rubber feet”, and on & on. But seriously, we are talking A COOLER here. And, unless you plan to be isolated from civilization for more than a week, investing this much money doesn’t make sense to me. For us, we continue to go on our merry way with our $40 cooler and 4-5 days of camping.

Keys to the Keeping the Average Cooler, COOL

ICE. Block ice keeps longer, it has less surface area. In our perfect ice-world, we freeze our own, using a gallon jug, and a liter water bottle. Block ice is difficult to find these days, but when we make our own, our cooler stays dry too. After we lose the ice, we have cold drinking water. If we have to replenish our ice with store-bought cubes, I prefer to keep those in the bag, and then in a large zip-lock bag – again, to minimize the cubes surface area, and to keep the cooler dry.

CLOSE THE LID. You cannot stare into your cooler trying to figure out what’s for dinner, keep the lid closed. Air is the enemy. For this reason, it also helps to completely fill your cooler, minimizing airspace. When melted ice does make its way to a soggy bottom, I like to keep that in the cooler too – minimizing airspace and generally speaking, it’s very cold water which maintains a cooler, cooler.

Feeling the way through the cooler

EAT WITH A PLAN. It’s great to pack your cooler logically: first meal on top, eating your way top down, or left to right. I’m all for that, but even with our best intentions, by day two our cooler is chaos. Our best plan is having a camp menu, this way we know what’s in there, and what it “feels” like when digging around. Good meal planning means eating things that may spoil first, first. We always feel successful after 4-5 nights camping, and land at an AirBnb with only a couple items which need fridge space.

Follow the Shade!

DAY IN THE SHADE. Find a spot in camp that has the least sun, a good sign is moss is growing. Move the cooler as necessary, so it stays in the shade. I like to cover it with my space blanket – reflective side out. Why all coolers aren’t white (or reflective) makes no sense to me.

Keep it COOL

Additional Thoughts

  • Include meals that you can freeze ahead, eating those on your last camp day(s) help maximize cooling capabilities.
  • Choose food that stands up to camp life, such as cabbage instead of lettuce, a tub of butter instead of a stick of butter, sausage instead of raw meat.
  • The soggy bottom is my personal peeve – we have eaten our share of water-logged everything – using zip lock baggies help.
  • Even if you typically put carrots, fruit or other veggies in the fridge, many hold up fine not being in a cooler.
  • Lastly, we often plan a “free day,” without a meal in mind. This forces us to clear out things that somehow got overlooked or mis-planned, helps us not overbuy, and we can always tap in to the can of tuna, or the quinoa, or rice… those sort of staples that our rig generally has on hand.

Love to hear if you have any Cooler thoughts…?

5 thoughts on “Camp Cooking – Post 1, The Cooler

  1. Hali Post author

    I often get email responses which do not post publicly – simply easier for some of our readers. I appreciate and welcome all feedback! Thought I should put this one out there for all to see (Thank you John!):

    “Use coolers all the time for our four or five day trips to the Shack in the Spring/Fall. Regular cooler work somewhat but my brother bought a Yeti and using the tips you described we can keep ice cold with minimal loss for up to five days. I could not even think of spending that kind of money for a cooler. But I was going thru WalMart and they have one that looks like a Yeti and cost under $100. Bought one and find it works just as good as the expensive one. Might be something to consider. Even has a better closing system. “

  2. Mormor

    Great advice. On our 7 day pack trip the cook packed a couple of large frozen roasts that keep the other food cold and by days 6 and 7 they were ready to roast over the fire. Of course on the pack trips with grandma and grandpa we had no cooler. Just a wet gunny sack with cabbage, ham, bacon, salami hung in a tree. (Bears thought that was a neat pinata!)

  3. Michele

    Cooler health is a Big Deal. We precool ours with block ice for 2 days prior to using it. And yes, we use Yeti. We also have a Canyon, that is slightly less expensive but no less badass. They both have 360 seals, which is really what makes them worth their weight in gold. Packed right and fully sealed, they are waterproof. Enjoy your summer fun!

    1. Hali Post author

      I’ve heard of the pre-cooling idea and have yet to put it in practice – it makes complete sense to pre-cool the cooler. Our interim stops don’t allow enough time for that option. HOWEVER, at your mention of 360 seals, Woody is now tampering with some weather stripping and I’m seeing some silver bubble wrap and duct tape… soon I think we’ll be traveling with a Frankencooler!


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