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What is the Best Way to Pack a Cooler for a Road Trip or Tailgating?

When you’re driving for a prolonged amount of time with frozen foods, a cooler that you’ve filled with ice (preferably near the top) is an easy way of keeping frozen foods frozen—or cold enough for safe eating later at least. When food temperatures rise over 40 degrees Fahrenheit, the food’s good for roughly two hours, and then bacteria will start to multiply to risky levels. Fortunately, frozen foods can transport well for several hours when packed well in a cooler and placed immediately into a freezer upon your arrival at your final destination. However, though it sounds like a basic task, packing a cooler full of frozen food needs to be done properly to ensure the food will be safe to eat after traveling. Here’s what you need to do:

Pick a Good Cooler

For a shorter trip, you can hardly go wrong with one of those cheap foam chests to keep your food cold, but, for camping or extended road trips, rigid coolers made from plastic or fiberglass are the sturdier option. If you’re planning to take lots of food on this trip, two small to medium-sized coolers may be better to handle than one jumbo-sized cooler, especially since a cooler needs to be packed full to maximize its cooling efficiency, which can make it heavy very fast.

Load Up with Ice

Prior to loading your cooler up with the food you plan on taking, throw some ice in and shut the lid for about one hour, as this prevents the frozen foods from expending energy to cool the container down. Gel-packs and ice blocks last longer, but ice cubes inside a tightly-sealed plastic bag work as well when you add water and freeze the plastic bag, which forms a makeshift ice block. After you’re packed the food, check to be sure you’ve filled up all the empty spaces inside the cooler with ice.

Pack Tight

Packages with raw meat should be at the bottom of your cooler with some type of divider between this and the other food to be sure they don’t drip on other foods, which could contaminate them (a layer of cardboard will suffice). If you’re bringing just one cooler, the foods you’re planning to use most often should be up top. If you’re using several coolers, pack one of them with items you plan to access regularly, such as drinks and condiments. You should also pack the food in sealable plastic bags and storage containers to keep everything dry. Place ice around your food and at the bottom of your cooler but save most of the ice for the very top of your cooler, which will maintain consistent cool temperatures.

Wrap and Stow

To keep your cooler better insulated, wrap it with some thick blankets or towels and keep it in your car’s main compartment with the air conditioning (avoid the trunk, as it heats up fast in there). If you’re going camping, keep your cooler in a shaded area and covered when it’s not being used and try to open it as little as possible. Another little trick that will keep the ice present longer is to add some newspaper to the top of the cooler AFTER the ice has been put in.

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Photo Courtesy of Alvaro Galve via Creative Commons License