Storage Tips

How to Pack a Cooler Like the Tetris Master That You Are

May 25, 2018

Driving from point A to point B isn’t always easy. You have to plan for traffic, strategize bathroom breaks, and arrange suitcases and pillows so the driver can see. Add ham sandwiches, containers of hummus, and ice-cold root beer? It’s almost worth calling it a day and enduring the McDonald’s drive-thru.

But packing a cooler doesn’t have to make you sweat. Whether you’re lugging a week’s worth of groceries to the lake house or simply taking a long weekend trip to the beach, we've thought of the best ways to transport your provisions, keeping your lettuce fresh and sandwiches un-squished.

Step 1: The Cooler

To keep things chill longer, check your insulation. Rotomolded coolers are durable and amazingly efficient at controlling temperature, but also expensive. If you don’t want such a heavy-duty cooler, consider packing two: one for food that will stay shut and another for drinks and snacks you’ll eat en route.

Before your trip, clean and pre-chill the cooler’s inside with cold hose water or ice. Remember, the cooler the core temperature, the better.

Step 2: Layering

Ice blocks or packs are best for coolers because they don’t melt as quickly as cubes. Build a foundation on the cooler’s bottom, then layer with a sheet of cardboard so food stays dry.

Next, strategically organize your frozen and cold foods. If you’re planning on eating something later in the week (like steaks or lasagna), freeze it before packing and put it at the bottom of the cooler. Another great bottom addition? Frozen bottles you won't drink until later. Make sure to add a layer of ice to ensure cubes fit in all the little crevices.

Food you’re eating immediately or that doesn’t need much refrigeration (like some fruits and vegetables) goes on top. It’s also a good idea to prep food, like cutting fruit and making marinades, beforehand so items take up less space. Finally, pay close attention to packing liquids in sealed containers and vertically—you don’t want leakage.

Step 3: Topping Off

A full cooler keeps cool longer. Air pockets accelerate ice melt, so keep air out by filling open spaces with cubes as you layer. Then top everything with more ice blocks or packs and seal everything up to keep temperatures low. Another way to fill up your cooler? Stuff (clean!) towels into empty spaces.

Step 4: Close and Bon Voyage

Your cooler should be the last thing in the car (before you). If possible, keep it out of the trunk, which can get warm. And that extra melt water? For short trips, it keeps items cooler, so don’t drain. But water does make ice melt faster, so dump it out if you’re on a cross-country journey.

And a lil' something to cook when you get there

Are you road-tripping this summer? What are your best packing strategies?

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Katie is a food writer and editor who loves cheesy puns and cheesy cheese.