Choosing -- and properly using -- a cooler

It may seem as simple as opening and closing a lid, but if a cooler isn't packed and used properly, it won't do the job it should. To get the most chill out of your cooler, follow these tips:

  • Fill the cooler with cold packs or frozen water bottles, not loose ice. Ice cubes or blocks of ice may be convenient and cheap, but their weight and irregular shape can deform the interior of the cooler. Cold packs or bottles filled with frozen water pack more compactly and eliminate the need to drain water from the cooler.
  • Pre-chill your food and drinks. While some coolers have the ability to actually chill food and drinks, most aren't designed to do so. Typically, coolers won't chill room-temperature items by more than a few degrees.
  • Pack food and drinks tightly. A half-filled cooler won't stay cold as long as a fully packed one. Unfilled space allows pockets of warmer air to circulate inside, which in turn elevates the cooler's interior temperature.
  • Shade your cooler. No matter how well the cooler is sealed, leaving it out in the sun causes ice to melt and cold packs to warm up more quickly. Find some shade or cover your cooler with a light-colored towel or tarp.
  • Stow it in the back seat. Extremely high trunk temperatures can affect interior cooler temperatures and speed ice melt, so transport your cooler in the back seat instead.
  • Open and close the lid as little as possible. The longer and more frequently the lid is open, the more warm air is introduced inside the cooler, which warms up interior temperatures.
  • Keep your cooler out of the freezer. This may cause it to crack.
  • Place foods you plan to use first at the top. You'll eliminate the need to rummage through the cooler to locate items, and your food and drinks will stay cooler longer. The exception is meat, which should be placed at the bottom of the cooler where it's coldest.
  • Drain water only to make room for ice. Cold water keeps ice chests cold, so draining it without replacing it with new ice will make your cooler heat up faster.
  • Add ice packs last. Chilled air sinks, so food and beverages at the bottom of the cooler will still be cooled from ice packs at the top.
  • Consider buying separate coolers for food and drinks. Drink coolers are opened more often than food coolers, causing ice packs to melt more quickly.
  • Allow the cooler to dry thoroughly before storing it. This will prevent the growth of mildew inside.
  • Disinfect your cooler after each use. Spray the inside of the cooler with a solution of one part bleach to 10 parts water and wipe with paper towels. If stains persist, scrub with a paste of equal parts baking soda and water.
  • Use as many ice packs as you can fit. The more pockets of air circulating inside the cooler, the faster the ice packs will melt.
  • Forget storing leftovers in your cooler. If foods containing eggs, mayonnaise, meats and other perishable ingredients have been exposed to heat for more than one hour, throw them out.
  • Understand your cooler's limitations. Don't expect your cooler to act as a refrigerator. Except for certain models, coolers aren't very good at cooling down room-temperature items, nor can they keep things cool indefinitely. If you've purchased a five-day cooler for a long trip and you're not sure if it can live up to its promise, test it at home first using techniques similar to those of our sources.

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