Having a cooler in your rig can really up your mealtime game. With a cooler to store your perishable food, you no longer have to eat out for every meal, live exclusively on canned and other packaged foods, shop for groceries each day, or some combination of these techniques. Having a cooler allows you to have fresh food on hand whether you’re stealth parking in the city or boondocking on public land.
(If you need tips on preparing meals while in your van or other rig without an indoor kitchen, check out my posts How I Cook on the Road, Ideas for Quick and Easy Meals to Cook on the Road, How to Eat Healthy on the Road (When You Don’t Have Time to Cook), and What to Eat When You Can’t (or Don’t Want to) Cook.)
Let’s face it though: maintaining a cooler can be a huge pain in the neck. The ice melts so fast, turning your cooler into some sort of human engineered lake for your food items to bob around in. Well, you’re lucky if your food items are bobbing. Too many times I’ve had food items in the cooler lake sink and become waterlogged, only to go into the garbage can the next time I cleaned out the ice chest.
Also, depending on where you are, ice can be really expensive. Up in the mountains of California, I’ve paid $4 for a seven pound sack of ice. Recently in Alamosa, CO I couldn’t even find ice at the first several places I looked. When I finally found a 7 pound sack at a liquor store, the bag cost over $2. Ice is a valuable commodity, so you want it to last as long as possible.
I’ve tried several different techniques to keep the contents of my cooler from becoming a waterlogged mess.
First I tried filling gallon-size, freezer-weight zipper bag with ice. The bags are easy to find at a variety of stores. Unfortunately, it seemed like no matter how careful I was, the ice quickly poked holes in the bags. As soon as the bags sprung a leak (or five!), my cooler was flooded again. I did not like the economic or environmental repercussions of having to replace those bags way too often.
My next step was to fill several reusable plastic containers with ice. I used Nalgene bottles, plastic ice cream containers, and large reusable food storage containers filled with ice and placed in the cooler. This technique was the least messy because there was no leaking and no spilling when I removed the containers. The drawbacks were the amount of time it took to pour ice from a bag into a bunch of containers and the amount of room the containers took up. Sometimes there seemed to be more containers full of ice than food in my cooler.
Wanting to stop wasting space for ice containers, I tried using a dishpan in the bottom of the cooler. The bag of ice went into the dishpan which caught the water as the ice melted This idea was great in theory, but inevitably there was eventually more water than the dishpan could hold. If I didn’t pour out the water in time, the dishpan overflowed and I ended up with at least a couple inches of water in the bottom of my cooler. The second problem arose when I tried to lift a dishpan full of water our of the cooler and out of my van without splashing and spilling all over myself and the inside of my rig.
At one time I used a Styrofoam cooler inside my plastic ice chest. The food went into the Styrofoam cooler and the ice went between the Styrofoam and the plastic cooler. The system left less space for food, but I was willing to make that trade-off in order to keep my food out of the melt water.
Obviously, there were problems with all of these techniques, and none left me feeling as if I had solved the problem. When I moved into my travel trailer, one of the biggest perks was having a refrigerator and freezer that worked. I’m still grateful for them every day.
Not everyone has the money to buy or room in their rig to install a refrigerator. As a part timer in a minivan, I certainly want to keep my traveling life as simple and inexpensive as possible. Luckily, The Man figured out the best way to get ice to last as long as possible in a cooler and to keep it from turning the ice chest into a lake as it melts.
Solving the Cooler Problems
First, buy a high quality cooler. I did a lot of research on the best coolers on the market. Of course, your budget is gong to play a role in what you buy. If you have a few hundred bucks to spend on a cooler, get yourself a roto-molded Yeti, Orca, or Engel. According to the GearLab article “Best Cooler of 2021” by Maggie Brandenburg, Senior Review Editor, those are the top three brands of ice chests available. If you have about a hundred dollars to spend on a cooler, go to Walmart and get a Lifetime brand cooler.
According to Lifetime Coolers FAQ on the Hunting Waterfalls website, these ice chests are
NOT roto-moulded…Instead they are blow moulded…a different manufacturing process…Roto-moulded coolers are much thicker and stronger than blow moulded coolers.
The roto-moulding is why Yeti, Orca, and Engel are better than Lifetime. However, the blow moulding is why Lifetime coolers are better than all the lesser priced coolers on the market.
If you are concerned with the country of origin of the products you buy, according to the same FAQ, Lifetime coolers are made in the U.S.A.
From what I’ve read and from what I’ve experienced, the Lifetime coolers are a lot better at keeping your ice frozen and your food items cold than regular coolers are. If you have the money to spend on a Lifetime, I recommend you go for one of these.
A word on size: Before you purchase a Lifetime or any other roto-mouldled or blow moulded cooler, open it up and take a look inside. If you’ve never used one of these modern coolers before, you might be unpleasantly surprised by how much room there is (or more accurately, isn’t) on the inside. The insulation that’s going to keep your food cold takes up some of the interior space. I think it’s a worthwhile compromise. You’ll have to make your own decision.
The Man bought a 28 quart Lifetime cooler. He soon found that once he got a 7 or 10 pound sack of ice into his cooler, there wasn’t a lot of room for food. If you just need to keep your half and half, a pack of cold cuts, some American cheese slices, and a dozen eggs cold, buy all means, get a smaller cooler. If, however, you are like me and want to keep a gallon of milk, two pounds of cheese, a couple dozen eggs, and some fresh produce on hand for the next several weeks, get a bigger cooler. Learning from The Man’s experience, I bought a bigger (55 quart) Lifetime cooler, and I have never regretted it.
What if You Can’t Afford a Lifetime Cooler?
I know that not everyone can afford a fancy new cooler. There was certainly a time in my traveling life when I would have laughed joylessly if you had suggested I spend $100 on an ice chest. (I was only able to do so last spring thanks to money I received related to the death of my father.) If you’re shopping for a cooler at a thrift store or gratefully accepting one a family member or friend doesn’t use anymore, I see you, and I’ll give you some tips for keeping your ice solid for as long as possible.
Buy block ice. I don’t often see ice in blocks, but if you do, it’s your best bet for lasting a while. If you have to buy cubed ice, keep it all together If you separate the ice, it will melt faster.
Don’t use a cooler bigger than you need. If you have a choice, don’t get a big cooler if a small one will do. The less space ice has to cool, the longer it will last.
Keep your cooler off the floor of your rig and off the ground. Both the ground and the floor of your rig will heat the cooler and melt your ice. In my last conversion van, I got The Man to build a low shelf for my cooler to sit on. Unfortunately, there’s not room for such a shelf in my minivan. If you’re boondocking, keep your cooler in its place in your rig, or if you must keep it outside, on the picnic table, on a stump, or even on a large rock.
Keep your cooler out of the sun. Put it in the shade, or cover it with a blanket. You want to keep it as cool as possible so the ice inside of it doesn’t melt.
Speaking of blankets, wrap your cooler in blankets, even if the sun isn’t hitting it. I keep my Lifetime cooler covered in a couple of blankets. The added insolation helps the ice last longer Also, it’s a great place to store extra blankets when space is at a premium in your rig.
Open the cooler as little as possible. Think about what you need from the cooler before you open it. Things heat up in there while you’re rummaging around. If you like cold drinks throughout the day, reserve a smaller cooler just for beverages so you don’t have to open your main ice chest every time you’re thirsty.
Don’t put hot things into your cooler. Whether it’s leftovers or beverages that have been sitting in the hot rig all day, putting even warm items directly into your cooler is going to melt your ice. Let things cool off before you put then in the cooler. Try putting beverages in your ice chest in the morning when the liquid is at its coolest.
Ice Is Gonna Melt
Of course, the ice in your cooler is going to melt no matter how careful you are. That’s the nature of ice. What about all the water that melting ice produces? How can you keep it from making a complete mess in the cooler? Don’t worry, The Man figured that out too.
Get a dry bag. Walmart sells them. I bet most camping supply stores do too, but The Man and I both got ours at Walmart because that’s what was available in the little desert town we were in. Get a big one. You want 7 to 10 pounds of ice to fit in it. Ours are the 20 liter size. That’s not the biggest one available, but it’s been plenty big for my needs. At the time of writing this post, the 20 liter dry bag runs just under $7 at Walmart.
Once you put your ice in the dry bag, roll down the top and cinch it Put the bag full of ice in your cooler. Position the top of the bag so none of the water from the melted ice leaks from the top. Close the cooler. There, you’re done, until it’s time to dump the water from the dry bag and add more ice. If you can, leave the cold water in the dry bag until you’re ready to add more ice. The cold water will help keep your food cool.
I’ve never had the dry bag leak. The seams are sealed to keep water out, so they also keep the water in. Sometimes there is water from condensation on the bottom of the cooler, but that’s easy to wipe out.
I believe one time The Man put the dry bag full of ice flat on the bottom of the cooler and the bag leaked from the top. I don’t know if it leaked because it was flat or because the top wasn’t rolled down enough. Maybe the top wasn’t cinched adequately. I keep the top of the bag upright within the cooler, and I’ve never had a problem with leakage.
At only about $7 for the 20 liter size dry bag, most of us can afford this upgrade. Even if you can’t afford the best cooler on the market, you can probably afford a dry bag to cut down on ice chest lake aggravation and food waste.
I hope these tips help you solve your cooler problems. Do you have other tips to help folks deal with coolers and melting ice? Do you have other ideas for keeping your ice solid for longer? Please share your tips and ideas in the comments below.
I took all the photos in this post.
Love the dry bag idea! I had been using a square plastic container (originally meant for storing flour) to hold the bag of ice (or ideally a block as it was the perfect size) to keep food/water separate. Going to grab one next time I’m in civilization.