Does your cooler smell like something died in it? And, what is that black mold growing in it anyway? Does your ice chest 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!
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How to Clean and Deodorize Your Cooler or Ice Chest
What causes your cooler or ice chest to stink?
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
- Dairy Products
- Fish and seafood
- Beer or wine
Food items such as broccoli, cabbage, brussel sprouts, onions and garlic can really stink up whatever they’re stored in. Foods that ferment will emit hydrogen sulfide, also known as sulfur, which gives them that horrific yucky odor.
Oh, and we all know cheese comes with its’ own smelly odors that can be hard to wash out as well. That cheesy smell comes from the broken down protein, also called rind, that releases stinky gases. So, even if you store your cheese in a plastic container or sealed plastic bag, your ice chest will still absorb those gassy odors.
Though you may not pack those food items in your cooler individually, 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.
So, while you’re trying to tackle those smelly odors left behind from your last camping trip, you may end up contending with mold and mildew as well. Since cooler inserts are typically plastic, they’re prone to absorbing anything packed or stored in them.
So, let’s jump right in here to see how and what you clean and deodorize your cooler with so it’s ready for your next exciting camping trip!
How to stop odors before they start
First, your picnic cooler needs to be cleaned thoroughly before and after each use. In other words, 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 and food contamination can linger. Can you imagine someone grabbing ice out of it to make a cocktail? YUCK!
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. But here’s the thing. Food isn’t the only thing that makes the inside of your picnic cooler smell bad.
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 in a plastic zipper bag before placing in our cooler. This way, if any food leakage happens, it’s contained inside the plastic bag instead of lying in the bottom of your cooler. There’s nothing more nauseating than old chicken blood juice that lingers.
For example, before storing foods in my plastic food storage containers, I will 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 by conserving water while we may be boondocking but also, my containers stack better in the cooler.
And, one of our biggest odor prevention tips 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, cover your ice chest with a light colored tarp or blanket. This will help insulate your cooler as well; keeping the contents inside cold longer.
How to Clean and Deodorize Your Cooler or Ice Chest
Sun and Air
Decades ago, our parents would put certain items out in the sun and and air them out. The sun will naturally kill some of the bacteria causing odors and disinfect items via its’ ultraviolet rays.
So, when you get home from your camping trip or tailgating weekend, empty your cooler completely. Give it a good clean wash and rinse. And then just set it outside to allow the sun to beam its’ antibacterial 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.
I learned the baking soda trick when I worked for Tupperware when I was a young adult. Tupperware is famous for their long-lasting plastic kitchen food storage. So, product owners would ask how to keep their plastic kitchenware free of odors and stains.
I would recommend making a paste using plain baking soda and water. With a soft wash cloth, work the paste into the container; bottom, sides and even the lids. After scrubbing, allow the baking soda paste to remain for awhile and then rinse. If the stains or smelly odors remain, repeat this process.
One of my other tricks is after scrubbing with the baking soda paste, I would sprinkle about a half inch of baking soda into the bottom of the container, seal it and allow it to sit overnight. Most times, the baking soda would do its’ job removing those odors.
For more tips, check out one of our favorites, Baking Soda: Over 500 Fabulous, Fun, and Frugal Uses You’ve Probably Never Thought Of
Lemons or Lemon Juice
Lemons aren’t just for margaritas! Did you know that lemon also has natural antibacterial properties? It’s also a fantastic natural way to removing odors from food contaminated items. The citric acid in lemons is a powerful compound that will not only curb the smelly stuff left behind but also offers a bit of disinfectant. You can also use straight pure lemon juice.
So, get a couple lemons and 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.
While not my number one remedy in getting rid of stubborn odors from my cooler, it is a last resort option for cleaning and disinfecting because of its’ caustic chemical makeup.
You need to be cautious of which containers you use bleach as it can weaken the properties of the product itself. As well, it could lighten or spot parts of your cooler or ice chest that you may not want it to.
Never combine bleach with any other chemical or product. But most of all, do not use this method around small children or pets. 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
If you plan on storing your cooler, plastic containers or even plastic lined lunch bags that don’t get used often, you’ll need to make certain they are clean and thoroughly dry first. After using any of the cleaning methods above and allowing your cooler or ice chest to air dry. And then, stuff a few sheets of crumpled up newspaper in it before closing it up.
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.
Charcoal is a great effective way to mitigate moisture while eliminating odors from your ice chest or cooler. 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.
Activated charcoal is much safer than chemicals as it can absorb up to 50% of it’s own weight in toxic and nasty odors.
Our favorite odor absorbing charcoal products:
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:
Read More: How to Stop Condensation in Your RV
While I mentioned you could use refrigerator baking soda absorbers to clean and deodorize your cooler, you can also use it to keep in your cooler during storage to absorb any existing odors.
Your takeaway on how to clean and deodorize your cooler or ice chest!
As you can see, you don’t have to throw away your cooler just because it picked up some lingering pungent odors. We hope these simple tips on cleaning and storing your cooler will serve you with many years to decades of use.