If you’re like most people the thought that there’s a right way and a wrong way to pack the ice chest has probably never crossed your mind. It’s an ice chest! You put some food inside, toss some ice on top of it, throw in some beers, some more ice and put the top on. Done! Right? Well, we hate to be the ones to burst bubbles but there’s actually a bit more than that to packing the cooler correctly in order to make sure everything stays cold and no one has to be airlifted from your campsite to the nearest hospital to be treated for food poisoning.
Preparing the Ice Chest
Use the Right Ice Chest – The first and perhaps the most important factor when it comes to keeping your food safe in the ice chest is the ice chest itself. If you aspire to having a memorable barbeque at the shore or in the woods under the stars, the cooler you transport your meat and other perishables in will be crucial to success. Thick-walled, heavy duty coolers with plenty of robust insulation are best at keeping things cold. Whereas thin-walled plastic coolers with mediocre insulation can be breeding grounds for bacteria. Ideally you want to choose a cooler that is capable of keeping ice in its solid form for at least several days, not a discount ice chest that turns into a colorful bucket of water with food floating in it after a couple of hours.
Wash Prior to Packing – If your current cooler meets the above requirements make sure you wash it thoroughly before packing it. Most people think that taking a hose to the cooler after returning from the beach and then storing it away is sufficient. It’s not. Bacteria are hardy little buggers and a quick rinse isn’t going to get all of them. So before you put anything into the ice chest wash it out using a sponge and some warm, soapy water. Get into all the corners and all the cracks and crevices. Rinse it out. Clean and rinse again and then let it dry before you put anything in it. Make
sure to wash the lid as well.
Pre-cool the Ice Chest – Several hours before you plan to start packing the ice chest put a bag of ice into it to cool it down. This ‘pre-cooling’ will make it easier for the ice you add later to do its job. You don’t have to fill the ice chest, just put a 5 pound bag inside to bring the interior temperature down a bit so you’re not putting ice and meat into a hot cooler later.
Packing the Ice Chest
Prepare the Raw Meat Ahead of Time – Raw meat is the breeding ground for the bacteria that causes most cases of food poisoning on camping trips. As such you should take special care in packing raw meat and not simply put it in a zip lock bag and toss it in on top of everything else. Instead, a couple of days before you’re scheduled to go away put any meat you plan to take in the freezer. Also make sure to refrigerate any beverages you plan to take at the same time that you freeze the meat. This way everything you put into the cooler at packing time will be cold.
Pack the Meat Carefully – When it comes time to pack the now pre-cooled ice chest put the frozen cuts of meat in leak-proof plastic containers and place them at the bottom of the ice chest. Then put a generous layer of ice over these containers and continue packing. The meat will stay frozen longer, will only thaw very slowly and any melt water from the ice won’t mingle with the meat
and create a bacteria stew in your ice chest.
Layer the Remaining Foods – Once you have that generous layer of ice over your meat containers place the cold beverages from the fridge along with other things like mustard, ketchup and the like in the cooler. Pack them in layers. Cover the bottom layer of ice with drinks etc. Add another layer of ice. Then more drinks and food containers (potato salad, macaroni salad etc also chilled, also in leak proof containers), more ice and, well, you get the picture.
Remember a full ice chest is a cold ice chest. If you use a large cooler and only fill it half way you’re leaving plenty of room for air which will melt the ice and create a nice bacteria soup in the chest. Choose an appropriate sized cooler and fill it to the top.
Store the ice chest in that part of your car that is the coldest. Yes, that likely means putting it in the passenger compartment if at all possible. Someone may have to sit with their feet up but everyone will have a tastier, safer food experience. Also cover the ice chest with an insulated blanket to help keep the cold in and the heat out.
Once you arrive at your destination don’t leave the cooler in the car or store it in your huge tent. Both the car and the tent can get incredibly hot during the day. Instead put the cooler in the shade or if you’re at the beach make sure you bring a beach umbrella and keep the cooler under it.
Always make sure the lid is tightly sealed lest you let in warm air and undermine all your other good work. If you or anyone needs to get into the cooler make sure they get in and get out quickly and then seal the lid tightly after themselves.
If you’re using a cooler with less than ideal insulation and the ice has melted, don’t wait. Remove everything, drain the cooler and repack it in the same way you did before you left the house. Don’t dawdle when it comes to this step. Get the old water out and the ice chest re-packed as quickly as possible.
If you’re taking lots of chicken, beef etc consider having a second cooler dedicated strictly to frozen meat and cooled with a layer of dry ice – you don’t want to have to fill your tactical backpack with poultry! You’ll also need to make sure the cooler is able to withstand dry ice (check with the manufacturer) and make sure you put a layer of stout cardboard between the frozen meats and the dry ice. Also make sure you always wear heavy rubber gloves when handling dry ice.
Take all these tips to heart and you’ll have a legendary camping barbeque that’s legendary for all the right reasons. Enjoy!