After using a $50 Coleman cooler as my “fridge” for the past year of van life, I’ve learned how to keep my cooler chilled for as long as possible. Coolers are a solid alternative to pricier portable fridges, but they can require more maintenance.
Check out my review of the YETI vs Coleman cooler for van life
I’ve gambled too many times on food items in my cooler that may have spoiled. Because food poisoning is no joke–especially if you’re in the middle of nowhere alone. (Check out which foods are safest for non-refrigeration).
I spend up to twenty dollars per month on ice for my cooler. Ouch! Ice typically lasts 3-4 days and costs $2-3 per bag. So what have I learned to keep this cost as low as possible while keeping my food safe? Read on!
10 Tips to Keep Ice From Melting in a Cooler
1. Use block ice AND cubed ice
Block ice melts slower because it has less surface area exposed to air flow and warmer temperatures. But cubed ice is great for getting into every nook and cranny. The ultimate setup is using block ice on the bottom of your cooler, as your base, then adding food, then spreading cubed ice over your food.
If cubed ice is your only option, keep it in the bag to help minimize its exposure to air. Place a bag on the bottom of your cooler, put food on top of that, then another bag on top of your food.
2. Pull ice bags from the middle of the pile and the back of the freezer
They’re more likely to be colder than ice exposed to the constant opening of the freezer doors. Ice that’s colder than the freezing point of 32 degrees Fahrenheit will last longer than ice that’s just hitting that freezing point. Avoid ice that’s dripping or “sweating”.
3. Keep your cooler in the shade
I used to keep my cooler between my driver and passenger seats because it fit perfectly there. However, it had much more exposure to the sun so I now keep it underneath my van benches.
4. Keep ice water
After some ice has melted, don’t drain the water because this helps insulate the remaining ice. But keep exposed foods out of the water as the water could contain unsafe bacteria.
5. Minimize empty cooler space
Try to pack your cooler as full as possible, whether with food or ice. Ice will try to cool the surrounding area before it cools food, so give it less area.
6. Limit cooler access
Every time you open the cooler, chilled air escapes and triggers the ice to start melting to re-cool the air.
7. Consider using two smaller coolers
For example, have a drink cooler and food cooler. Grab cold drinks throughout the day while keeping your perishables untouched until meal time. Every time you open the cooler, chilled air is released and the ice has to work again to re-chill the air, thus melting the ice.
8. Sprinkle rock salt over cooler ice
Salt actually lowers the freezing point of water. (See for yourself–stick your finger in a glass of water, then add salt and stir. Stick your finger in again and the water will be cooler.) In this way, salt can help slow the melting of ice.
9. Organize items in your cooler
Keep dinner items on one side and breakfast items on the other. Keep drinks on the top if you’ll be pulling them out throughout the day. You’ll avoid rummaging through the cooler every time you need something, therefore decreasing the need to recool items.
10. Remove excess packaging from food items
Excess packaging is just more “stuff” for ice to have to cool. Especially if it’s cardboard packaging, it will just get soggy quickly anyways. If you need cooking directions on certain foods’ packaging, simply take a picture before throwing away the wrapper.
11. Upgrade your cooler
Upgrade your cooler to a high-quality brand such as Yeti, Orion or Pelican. While I can’t vouch for them quite yet because I haven’t invested in one myself, I’ve had many vanlife friends share their love of those brand coolers. With insulation up to 2” thick and a rotomolded frame, an expensive cooler could be a good long-term investment.
7 Cooler Hacks for Keeping Food Fresh
I’ve gone to the school of hard knocks so you don’t have to! From wasting food because it got waterlogged, or still trying to attempt to eat it–here’s what I’ve learned:
1. Once not in use, dump cooler water
Dump out cooler water ASAP once your cooler is not in use. The water may look “clean”, but bacteria will grow if water gets stagnant and warm.
***PRO TIP: if the water is still cold and fairly fresh, I’ve poured it straight into my solar shower bag! It’s a great re-use of water when you’re in the hot desert looking to freshen up but don’t want to waste precious water supply.
2. Refresh cooler in the sun
Air out your cooler in the sun. Sometimes I’ll leave mine out all day, letting the sun naturally kill bacteria and freshen it up.
3. Use a disinfectant
4. Invest in tupperware
5. Prep food only once
For example, if you’re cutting up an onion but only need half of it right away, still cut up the other half and store in tupperware. I have found this helps reduce the number of times I need to open up my cooler and makes meal prep more efficient.
6. Be intentional with food placement
Store critical items like meat and dairy products at the bottom of the cooler. Fruits and vegetables can be kept with lighter refrigeration, so they can go on the top.
7. Try a cooler thermometer
If you’re full-timing in a van with a cooler, it can take a while to develop a routine for rotating cooler food and ice. But once you nail it down, you can enjoy any perishable or non-perishable foods from the road! If you enjoyed my tips on how to keep a cooler cold the longest, check out my three favorite, healthy van life recipes for under twenty bucks!