How to Keep Food Cold While Backpacking

When backpacking especially if you intend to be out on the trail or road for more than a couple of days-the biggest challenge is keeping your perishable foods cool and fresh. Whenever you leave the comfort of your home and go out into the wild for a backpacking adventure, you will need to pack enough food to keep you fed and your energy levels up.

The problem is that food tends to go bad or if you are backpacking in summer, it tends to get warm or hot thus making it horrendous to eat in some cases.

So, what can you do to keep your food and drinks cold when backpacking?

There are quite a number of tricks to help you keep your food cool and fresh when you are out backpacking. Some of the tricks mentioned here will require a bit of ingenuity while others will add to your backpacking load which means you might be carrying around a bit more weight at first. With that being said, here are some ways to keep your food cool when backpacking:

Trick One: Carry a Cooler

cooler filled with food

This is the simplest and most obvious way to keep things cool whenever you are on the road. Most people dismiss it because it involves carrying a cooler, which might prove to be a little cumbersome. However, if you choose the right cooler-something small and compact, then you shouldn’t have that big of a problem strapping it to the top of your backpack.

Trick Two: Carry a Soft-Cooler

If a regular cooler seems too cumbersome a proposition, then maybe you can adjust that to a “soft-cooler.” A soft-cooler is very much like a regular cooler only it doesn’t have a hard outer shell that makes it rigid. Soft-coolers are like little fanny packs that keep your food and drinks cool when you are out backpacking. These are essentially insulated bags that keep your food cool.

soft cooler with bottles

If you are going to carry a cooler or a soft-cooler, you should consider using dry ice. While it’s true that putting your food in direct contact with dry ice will make it go bad, there is a pretty simple way around this problem. Simply put the dry ice at the bottom of the cooler and then cover it up with regular ice. This should insulate your food from the dry ice.

The big advantage of doing this is that dry ice will ensure that the insides of your cooler remain frozen for much longer which in turn will give you more backpacking hours with cool food.

Trick Three: Use Cold Streams

Now, this is probably the oldest trick in the book. If you are going to be backpacking through the backcountry, then there is a good chance that you will come across some streams or lakes. Depending on the time of year and your elevation, these streams and lakes will be quite cool. You can use the water temperature to cool your food as you catch your breath from the long hard hike.

The trick is to walk around with zip-lock bags that you can attach to a piece of string. Once you come across the ideal stream or lake, test the water temperature using your hand to see if it is cold enough. If it is, then find an ideal location (usually where the water pools in a calm, gentle manner), but if you can find a pond, then you can look for an area where the water isn’t exactly forming rapids as it flows on its way.

Put the food you want to be cooled in the zip-lock back and attach that to a string. Deep that zip-lock bag into the water and either hold on to the string or tie it to a rock or a tree. Give it some time in the water. You can use that time to catch your breath, take a dip in the pond or stream yourself or use the water to freshen up some as you wait for your second wind. After about 10 to 15 minutes your food or drink should be cool enough for you to enjoy.

Trick Four: Use a Wet Piece of Cloth

Now, this trick won’t exactly give you ice cold drinks or food, but it will keep them at a nice low temperature for you. The idea is to put your food in a zip-lock bag and wrap that bag up with a wet cloth. Here is what you need to do:

  • Put your food in a zip-lock bag
  • Take a piece of cloth like a towel and dip it in cold water (the colder, the better)
  • You can swing that cloth around in the air to allow the process of evaporation to make it even colder
  • Wrap the piece of cloth around your zip-locked food

The wet piece of cloth acts as insulated clothing that will keep the temperatures low and keep your zip-locked food cool. The main disadvantage of this method is that it will require you to repeat the process every so often. Whenever you come across a cold stream or creek, just dip your insulating cloth in and swing it around for evaporation to make it cooler and then wrap your food in it again.

Note: If you intend to take several days out backpacking then you might want to strongly consider carrying a cooler with you. There are solar coolers in the market today that do not require you to keep stopping for additional ice. This is necessary because perishable foods are supposed to be kept at below 4°C. Anything above that and you risk bacteria growth which could lead to food poisoning.

To make things easier, you could ensure that all your food and drinks are pre-chilled. It sounds simple enough, but many people forget this trick. Pre-chilled foods and drinks remain cold for much longer. You can ensure that they keep cold for even longer by wrapping them in a wet piece of cloth as an insulator.

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