Smelly Cooler? How to Clean Your Cooler or Ice Chest

Does your cooler smell like something died in it? And, what is that black stuff growing in it in your ice box? Does your cooler make you turn up your nose at those awful odors permeating from your last camping trip? If you think that regular dishwashing soap will get rid of that nasty stench and what’s causing those pungent odors in your cooler, think again!

So, what is the best way to get rid of that nasty science experiment and stinky odor that’s permeated your picnic cooler? 

Let’s take a look at how to remove or eliminate those foul smells from your ice chest so you can fill it up with the good stuff to take on your next camping trip or tailgating event!

Clean and Deodorize Your Cooler

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How to Clean and Deodorize Your Cooler or Ice Chest

What causes your cooler to stink?

Clean and Deodorize Your Cooler - Smelly Foods

For a moment, let’s talk a minute about the foods you store in your cooler each time you go camping or tailgating. Are they any of these or any dishes that contain these smelly ingredients?

      • Onions and scallions
      • Garlic
      • Dairy Products
      • Cheese
      • Cabbage
      • Fish and seafood
      • Beer or wine

Food items such as broccoli, cabbage, brussel sprouts, onions and garlic can really stink up a cooler. Foods that ferment emit hydrogen sulfide, also known as sulfur, gives them that horrific gagging odor.

We all know cheese comes with its’ own smelly odors. That cheesy smell comes from the broken down protein, also called rind, that releases stinky gases.

So, even if you store food containing those ingredients in sealed containers or plastic bags, your ice chest will still absorb odors.

Though you may not pack them as ingredients, they still can emit foul odors in prepared dishes such as broccoli salad, coleslaw, shrimp cocktails, meat and cheese trays, and marinaded meats and fish, etc.

Since cooler are typically plastic, they’re prone to absorbing anything packed or stored in them. And, while you’re trying to tackle those smelly odors left behind from your last camping trip, you may also end up mold and mildew as well. They become big Petri dishes.

So, let’s see how you clean your cooler so it’s ready for your next camping trip!

Clean and Deodorize Your Cooler - Ice Chest with Food

How to stop odors before they start

First, your picnic cooler needs to be cleaned thoroughly before and after each use. Just like washing your dishes, you should clean your cooler because it contains food or food products.

Even though you may be using it just as a beverage cooler this time, some odors caused by food contamination will linger if you don’t clean it. And who wants to grab ice out of it to make a cocktail?

The best way to eliminate odors is to prevent those nasty smells before they have a chance to permeate the plastic lining in your cooler.

I highly recommend lining your cooler with a unscented plastic bag prior to dumping your ice in or putting in your beverages or food. Even if your food is in airtight containers, they can still leak a little odor if they come open.

I also will put my food containers and raw meats in a plastic zipper bag before placing them in our cooler. This way, if any food leakage happens, it’s inside the plastic bag instead of leaking in the bottom of our cooler.

Another suggestion is before storing foods in  storage containers, I pour them into a plastic disposable zipper bag, seal and then place the bag of contents into my container.

This is two-fold; the container stays clean which helps conserve water when we’re boondocking. But also, my containers stack better in the cooler.

Read more: How to Maximize Efficiency of Your RV Refrigerator

Another odor prevention tip is to keep your food containers and cooler out of the sun while using them.

Because we all know, anything that bakes in the sun will stick around.

So, set your cooler in the shade or cover your ice chest with a light colored tarp or blanket. This helps to insulate your cooler; keeping food inside cold longer.

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How to Clean and Deodorize Your Cooler or Ice Chest

Sun and Air

Decades ago, our parents put certain items out in the sun and and air them out. The sun naturally kills the bacteria causing those odors. The sun’s UV rays is said to be the best of disinfectants. The sun’s exposure reduces fungal contamination.

So, immediately upon returning home from your camping trip, empty your cooler completely. Give it a good clean wash and rinse. And set it in the sun to beam its’ antibacterial super powers.


Should the bottom of the cooler have lingering odors, try filling the bottom about 3″ of cold water and a 32 oz. bottle of white vinegar.

Allow the solution to sit for an overnight or two.

Then wash with hot soapy water, rinse, and dry. Make certain your cooler is completely dry before stowing it away. 

Baking Soda Cleaning Method

How to Clean a Smelly Cooler - Baking Soda

I learned the baking soda cleaning trick when I worked for Tupperware.

Tupperware is a long-time household brand known for their plastic containers and food storage. Considering Tupperware isn’t cheap, I’d get asked how to keep the plastic containers from staining and odor-free.

The baking soda cleaning method is easy. Just make a paste using plain baking soda and a tiny bit of water. With a soft cloth, work the paste into the container; bottom, sides and even the lids.

After, allow the baking soda paste to remain for awhile and then rinse. If the stains or smelly odors remain, repeat this process.

You can clean your cooler with baking soda as well.

Another great way to keep your cooler odor-free is after cleaning and airing it out, simply sprinkle dry baking soda in the bottom of your cooler before closing it up for storage.

RV Pro Tip: For more tips, check out Baking Soda: Over 500 Fabulous, Fun, and Frugal Uses You’ve Probably Never Thought Of

Lemon (or Lime) Cleaning Method

How to Clean a Smelly Cooler - Lemons and Baking Soda

Lemons and Limes aren’t just for margaritas!

Did you know that lemon also has natural antibacterial properties?

Lemons are a great natural method to removing odors from food contaminated items. The citric acid in lemons and limes is a powerful compound that will not only curb smelly odors left behind.

But also, the juice from lemons make a great disinfectant. If you don’t have lemons lying around, you can use pure lemon juice.

But, if you wish to go the straight lemon cleaning method, just slice them into 1/2″ slices.

Then, take each lemon slice and scrub the inside of your cooler.

After, put about an inch or two of water in the bottom of your cooler along with all the used slices and allow it to sit in the sun (open).

The combination of the heat from sun and UV rays along with the lemon solution will help get rid of those odors once and for all. Dump out the water and dry thoroughly.

Cleaning with Bleach

How to Clean a Smelly Cooler - Bleach

While not my number one remedy in getting rid of stubborn odors out of coolers, it is a great disinfectant due to its’ caustic chemical makeup.

However, you need to be cautious of which containers you use bleach. Bleach is known to weaken the properties; especially plastic and fabric fibers.

Also be aware it could lighten or cause bleach spots on dyed or colored components on your  cooler or ice chest.

Most importantly, never combine bleach with any other chemical or product.

Never use this bleach around small children or pets.

And of course, you’ll want to wear old clothes in case you splash bleach or even diluted bleach onto them.

How to Store Your Cooler after it’s been cleaned and deodorized

Clean and Deodorize Your Cooler - Lifetime High Performance Cooler


If you plan on storing your cooler or even plastic-lined lunch bags, clean and allow them to dry thoroughly.

After, just stuff a few sheets of crumpled up newspaper in your cooler before closing it up.

Coffee Beans

Clean and Deodorize Your Cooler - Coffee Beans

Wake up and smell the coffee!

Try laying a handful or two of coffee beans in a mesh bag or two in the bottom of your cooler before putting it into storage.

Coffee is known to neutralize and absorb odors because it contains nitrogen. 

If you don’t have coffee beans on hand, a simple small container of coffee grounds are just as effective and a natural alternative to baking soda or even lemons.


How to Clean a Smelly Cooler - Charcoal

Charcoal is a great effective way to mitigate moisture while eliminating odors from your ice chest or cooler.

Activated charcoal is much safer than chemicals as it can absorb up to 50% of it’s own weight in toxic and nasty odors.

It can be as simple as putting a few plain charcoal briquettes inside your ice chest.

Or, if you prefer, get charcoal bags so you don’t have to worry about cleaning up charcoal messes later.


Desiccant Packs

How to Clean a Smelly Cooler - Desiccant Silica Gel

Desiccant packs, also known as desi packs, are one of our favorite RV hacks as they help minimize or even eliminate moisture or condensation in our RV.

But, because of their chemical composition of calcium aluminosilicate clay or bentonite clay, desi packs can absorb over a quarter of its weight in water vapor at 77°F and 80% relative humidity.

So, throw a couple desi packs inside of your cooler or ice chest before putting it in storage. By keeping your cooler’s interior totally dry, you mitigate risk of mold and mildew which could lead to nasty odors.

And, if you’re not going to use your cooler or ice chest for a year or so, don’t worry because most desiccant bags last up to 3 years in moderate humidity and climates. And, they can be recharged!

These are our favorite desiccant packets that come in different sizes. You can check out:

RV Pro Tip:How to Stop Condensation in Your RV

Baking Soda

As I mentioned earlier, you could use baking soda to clean your cooler.

But also, you can use baking soda absorbers to deodorize and absorb odors in your cooler while it’s being stored.


Your takeaway on how to clean your stinky cooler!

Clean and Deodorize Your Cooler - Little Girl in Cooler

As you can see, you don’t have to throw away your cooler just because it picked up some lingering pungent odors.

These simple cleaning tips will preserve your cooler so will last for many more camping trips and tailgating parties!

Clean and Deodorize Your Cooler

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