9 Common Cooler Mistakes that Cause Food to Spoil

Whether you go camping, on a fun road trip, or tailgating event, the cooler is the most important camping essential that you’ll take with you. However, nothing fun about getting to your destination only to find your food is not cold and is starting to spoil! However, these common cooler mistakes are easily correctible.

From buying, picking out the color to packing an ice chest and even the kind of ice you use all hinders whether or not your food will spoil. We’ll show you what NOT to do with your cooler.

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9 Common Cooler Mistakes that Cause Food to Spoil

Why Your Ice Chest Fails to Keep Your Perishables COLD!

Buying a Name Brand Cooler Because it’s Fashionable

One of the most common cooler mistakes is buying the wrong type of cooler.

Cheaply made coolers lose their effectiveness simply because they lack thick insulation in their lids and and bottom. That alone reduces your cooler’s duty in keeping your food at a safe temperature.

That said, many outdoorsy types, including experienced campers, believe that a good cooler should be costly. There’s that whole ‘you get what you pay for’ scenario.

Well, to a certain extent, that’s entirely not true. While yes, you could buy a well-known brand name cooler that claims to have all the bells and whistles that lives up to the standard.

However, it really goes a bit beyond the brand name when it gets down to insulating factors. It’s actually all about the RV-value thickness of insulation that makes it a top brand cooler; not some clever name or logo.

What makes a cooler a good buy?

Look for premium hard-sided coolers hat are injected with 2 to 3 inches of commercial grade polyurethane foam in the lid and walls giving an R-value of 7 inches of thickness. This is amongst the best insulation properties in the cooler manufacturing industry.

The denser the foam, the less bubbles and air pockets that allow introduction of warm air to pass through the ice chest to your food.

So, if you’re buying a cooler, lean towards one that has a higher R-value of thicker and denser insulation.

✰ RELATED   10 Top Rated Best Coolers for Camping

Buying the Wrong Color of Cooler

We’ve all seen those popular brand name coolers that come in an array of different colors. Perhaps they think it makes camping or your tailgating event look cooler (see what I did there?) or easily identifiable.

But really, you need to heed my advice about the color of the cooler you’re going to buy.

If you’re using your cooler outdoors you know there’s great chance it’s going to be exposed to the sun. Therefore, we highly recommend going with a white or even a pastel color.

Why? Because dark colors such as black, navy blue or brown absorb more UV rays than lighter shades. Even bright colors like reds, purples and blues can absorb the heat of the sun quicker making the contents inside lose their necessary refrigeration.

This will cause your cooler to not work optimally in keeping your refrigerated food from spoiling.

Buying the Wrong Size Cooler

It’s a common misconception that you should buy the biggest, most badass cooler on the market. In reality, that will end up being a huge cooler fail and here’s why..

While that may allow you a crap ton of space to pack in the steaks, bacon, eggs, cheese, butter, milk and beer, therein lies a huge elephant-in-the-room problem. Ya gotta be able to lift it! 

But, on the other hand, buying a cooler that’s too small for your intent isn’t going to work either.

Now, I will offer this piece of advice, having been RVers, campers and boaters for decades, don’t set out on just ‘one’ ice chest.

As you read further, it will explain our reasoning why you should have one to keep your food cold and another as your beverage cooler.

Not Prepping Your Cooler for Optimal Usage

Now, once you get your cooler, the first thing you should do, like all smart consumers, is read the manufacturers instructions. While we may think that all coolers are the same, some do have features and recommendations others may not.

Secondly, you should prep your cooler with a good washing. After all, you’re going to be putting food in it. Cleaning it will eliminate that chemical new cooler smell. Which, do you really want those odors leaching into your perishable foods?

The last thing to prep your cooler is to get the inside of the cooler below 40°F (4.44°C) before putting any food in. You may want to keep a refrigerator thermometer (I actually use that one) inside for accurate temperature reading.

To do that, you’re going to put in a bag or two of expendable ice the night before and seal it up. Again though, do not add food during this process. Then, in the morning, once you know the inside of your cooler is of optimal cold temperature, it’s time to load it with your food.

Now, if you’re headed somewhere that’s really hot, you may want to stick a piece of reflectix inside the bottom of your cooler as well as under the lid for added insulating value.

But heck, if you want to really cheap out, just cut to size a car windshield sunshade to get the same effect.

✰ RELATED ✰ How to Clean a Smelly Cooler or Ice Chest

Improperly Packing Your Cooler

Another of the most common cooler mistakes is improper packing. Most people will overpack their cooler leaving very little room for even a bag of ice.

The important thing to remember when packing your cooler, regardless if it’s to store food and/or beverages is the 2:1 ratio of ice to food.

What does that mean? The 2:1 ratio is 2 parts ice to 1 part food. It’s important NOT to overpack your cooler with ‘just’ food. You need your food containers to be surrounded by ice or the ice water it produces.

So, keeping a simple measure, your cooler should really be a third food (in or out of containers) to two thirds ice. Now, that doesn’t mean that two-thirds has to be just ice. It can be food containers that are pre-frozen (such as pre-made spaghetti sauce, soups, pasta dishes, etc.).

Or, when freezing food examples above, place them in zipper bags and flatten them before putting them in the freezer. This helps keep them compact making packing your cooler easier.

When you pack your food cooler, you want to layer it like lasagna. Line the bottom of the cooler with ice blocks to create that most important insulating barrier.

Then, stack your perishables that you’ll be using last on the bottom. Then build your stack accordingly leaving what you’ll be using first towards the top.

It’s important to alternate layers of food, then ice cubes, more food, more ice cubes, etc. But, make certain ice and water is able to surround your food and containers.

Finally, your top layer should be a thinner layer of ice blocks to cover all of your food. 

A super cool tip that I learned from another camper is to place a wet over the top layer before closing the lid. This helps to create a thermal barrier that provides an evaporative cooling effect.

Using the Wrong Ice

Cans With Ice in Cooler - Always On Liberty Photo

Ice comes in two forms; cube ice or block ice. Bags of ice cubes or block ice are accessible at most fuel station convenience stores or grocery stores.

But here’s a thing you may not be aware of. That commercially-made ice is considered soft ice. Commercial ice is frozen at or just below actual freezing point.

Therefore, I highly recommend, taking any ice you buy at a store and throwing it in  the freezer overnight. This will bring it to optimal frozen temp that is perfect for packing into your cooler.

To keep optimal frosty cold temperatures inside your cooler, you’ll want to actually incorporate using block ice in the very bottom and top of your cooler.

However, those big ice blocks you get at the convenient store aren’t very convenient to use. It’s because they are what they are; one big huge block of ice. On a good note, you can actually make your own ice blocks at home.

In fact, a few days prior to our planned outings, we fill gallon size freezer bags with either our 2-stage filtered water or our Berkey water. Then, we will place the bag inside a flat plastic container and stack inside our freezer. This allows the water to freeze into solid ice blocks.

You can also make your own ice in advance either through your refrigerator ice maker which is usually filtered. Or, you can make your own ice cubes.

Now, since we don’t have an ice maker in our RV refrigerator or even room for a portable ice maker, we make ice in our silicone ice cube traysWe then, put about 10 ice cubes in quart size freezer zipper bags to wedge in between foods to keep them cold.

By the way, you can also buy 1-cup silicone molds to make small ice blocks that will melt slower than those smaller cubes. 

The reason we use our filtered water is after the ice has melted, we can also use it for drinking and/or cooking. Because seriously, we don’t really know how sanitary commercially made ice cubes or ice blocks are.

✰ RELATED ✰ Why Every RVer Needs a Berkey in Your RV

Opening Your Cooler Unnecessarily

Keeping this one short and to the point, the less you open and close your cooler, the less you chance food spoilage. Each time you open your cooler, you continually introduce warm air which melts the ice faster thus, losing the effectiveness of the cooling.

This is why I mentioned above that you may want to buy two separate coolers; one for your food and perhaps a smaller beverage cooler for your brewskis, wine, soda and the kid’s juice boxes.

Because if you’ve not figured out by now, fetching beverages from your cooler is the #1 reason for opening and closing your cooler so frequently.

Draining Water from Your Cooler

This cooler mistake is actually two-fold.

First, draining all of the water from the melted ice is a big no no because that water is already ice cold. It’s been surrounding the rest of your food keeping the contents at a safe consumable temperature. 

That said, when when you do need to add new ice, dump out just enough water into a separate bucket to accommodate the capacity of the new ice. 

But, don’t just lay the new ice on top. Make certain to work in the ice cubes between your food and containers. 

Oh, and that water in the bucket can be used for dishwashing, dousing campfires or even making new ice cubes in your RV.

Putting Your Cooler in a Hot Car or Truck Bed

One cooler mistake we all make is packing an ice chest full of food in a hot car or truck bed.

Though your food and beverages contents are cold inside the cooler, you’re still exposing the cooler to hot air. Thus, making the cooler ice work harder. So, before putting your cooler in the back seat, start up your vehicle’s air conditioner first and run it for a few minutes.

If you’re going to store your cooler in your trunk, open it up to allow the hot air to escape before packing it in. It’s smart to throw a thick blanket over to add an insulating barrier to your ice chest.

Now, if you will be transporting a cooler in your truck bed or hitch cargo rack, be aware that your color will be exposed to the hot sun.

Therefore, we recommend covering it with a thick military wool blanket to add another layer of insulation. You can double or even triple layer it by folding it according to the size of your ice chest to add even more thickness of insulation. Or, a waterproof thermal tarp will work too.

Then wrap with a bungee net to keep the blanket or tarp from flying off. Don’t forget to secure your cooler using good quality ratchet straps so it doesn’t slide around or fall off the rack.

Wrapping Up

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Your coolers will be the most widely-used essential this side of earth. Whether it’s to hold food and perishables for camping, your road trip, tailgate party, backyard BBQ, or even the beach, it’s a much needed accessory.

By avoiding these common cooler mistakes, your brews will be ice cold, your food won’t spoil and you won’t have to worry about getting sick on food that’s exposed to unsafe temperatures!

Let’s plan your camping trip!

Speaking of camping, if you’re planning on taking your RV on your next camping adventure, it’s important to plan ahead so your experience will be less stressful. You surely don’t want to end up on the wrong road with low overheads or roads that aren’t safe for RVs.

Trust me, through our 10 years on the road as full-time RVers, we’ve been there! So, we use RV LIFE Trip Wizard to get us to our favorite camping spots and campgrounds utilizing RV-friendly routes specific to our camper and travel preferences.

Learn more and sign up for the FREE 7-Day Trial.

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