Max out cooler capacity with these simple packing tips.


Whether for camping, tailgating, a day on the boat, or the beach, get the right tips to ensure a carefree day with plenty of delicious, unspoiled snacks. A lot of cooler-packing know-how is actually just prep work. A little effort on the front end ensures you can relax later knowing no, your fruit salad isn't getting seasoned with thawing hot dogs. A few steps to take before, during, and after a cooler-toting excursion:

Pre-chill the cooler.

Sacrifice some time and ice ahead of time. At least 12 hours before the trip, wash out the cooler and fill it with ice and water you don't mind dumping out before re-packing. (Repurpose idea: use this to water your plants before leaving town—don't forget!)

Freeze a few bottles of water.

While you're pre-chilling your cooler, go ahead and throw some water bottles in the freezer in advance. Be sure to empty about ¼ of the water, though, so the container has room to expand. These will double as backup water supply as they thaw. In the meantime, they will suffice as makeshift freezer packs to line the bottom of the cooler.

Prep food.

Remove excess packaging and transfer to reusable, leak-proof containers (assume anything in your cooler will get wet). Make sure anything like meat is packed tightly, and chop fruits and vegetables in advance.

Make bags your friend.

For some items, you can swap out the plastic containers for a zip-top plastic bag that can flexibly fit into smaller spaces in the cooler. If you're taking eggs (maybe on a camping trip), you can crack them into pre-portioned little bags (just get the good kind!).

Pack in layers.

Spread some ice between each "layer" of packed items. The ice cubes will melt faster than freezer packs and water bottles, but they fill in small spaces well. Start at the bottom with the frozen bottles. Then spread out some ice, and then layer on canned beverages, items in reusable containers, boxed foods, or frozen, tightly-wrapped meats. Layer eggs, snacks, fruits, and vegetables on top.

OR Pack side-by-side.

This cuts down on time spent digging around, particularly if you're packing for a longer outing. For example, pack snacks and drinks on one side, and breakfast and dinner on the other. That way, you know exactly what you're looking for and where you're digging when you open the cooler. Alternately, if you're with a big group and it'd make sense to have two coolers, pack the two thoughtfully. Pack snacks and drinks in one which will be opened more frequently, and meal ingredients in another, which will stay closed and therefore cooler, longer.

Keep it closed.

Pack the cooler in your car very last, and then open it as little as possible during the trip. Keep it in the shade if possible, or even use deflectors to keep the sun off it. Consider investing in a food thermometer to meticulously keep track of items inside. Just remember: a full, closed cooler stays cold longer.