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Cooler Etiquette - Taking Care Of Your Ice

Posted in How To on February 5, 2014
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Photographers: Fred Williams

You should have a cooler full of beverages along with you on any trail ride, but if the ride is more than a couple of days it can be difficult to keep said beverages cold. We are not going to deny our fondness for electric coolers like the Fridge Freezers by ARB, but we know that a $760 cooler is a big-budget item, and not everyone is on a big budget.

We sat down with a barn buggy builder and budget minded Jeeper friend (whom we’ll refer to by the name Jeff Mello to protect the innocent), and he began spouting off on the ways and means to Cooler Enlightenment (aka keeping cold stuff cold longer). Cooler etiquette, if followed properly, will ensure that you’ll always have chilled cans in your cooler.

Mello said, “The concept of cooler etiquette was derived from years of sharing beers sodas on the trail with buddies from whoever’s cooler was the closest. I always hated when my nice cold beers cans were gone and I reached into their coolers for a lukewarm beer drink on the third day of the trip. If everyone would follow cooler etiquette then everyone will have cool drinks to share for a weeklong trip.”

Rule 1: The Right Cooler
The cooler should be two cans tall inside. This allows for a solid base of ice and a layer of cans on top. It should be well insulated, like the Colman, Yeti, or Grizzly brands. The Grizzly and Yeti coolers are thicker and last longer, but are also more expensive; the Coleman can work just fine if packed well.

One big cooler is better than two small ones of the same overall space. But if you separate food and beverages the food doesn’t need to stay as cool to last so you can use less ice in the food cooler. The max size you want is a size that is liftable by one guy when full.

Strong hinges and handles for tying down are a plus, but it must have a drain.

Rule 2: The Right Ice
Block ice is the best thing to start with. The more ice around the food the better. Make your own block ice days prior in a pretested size Tupperware that fits the cooler you have. Tupperware is tapered at the bottom like the inside of your cooler, so it will fit better than store-bought blocks.

Real crushed ice, not cubes, is what you want for around the cans and food. You need to spread it around to make sure all the voids are full. Steer clear of hollow and homemade ice cubes. Home icemakers make crescent shapes that don’t fit down in the gaps between cans, so you lose a lot of cooling power.

PhotosView Slideshow

Rule 3: Prepacking & Packing
Precool your cooler the day before with something out of the freezer like ice, frozen veggies, or ice packs, just to get it down to temp before you even start to load anything that goes on the trip with you. At the same time, start refrigerating your drinks and food in your home fridge a few days prior to leaving, as the drinks at the grocery store are rarely cold enough.

Make sure all your meat is frozen when packed, then take it out early to thaw and eat. Also put the meat in good zip-lock bags so they don’t get soggy.

Put the block ice in the cooler first. This may require a few blocks if you made them at home. You want to fit one or two layers of cans on top of the ice. Pack the cans upright, not on their side, so all the voids can be filled by working crushed ice down around them. You want the least air space.

Use canned beverages instead of bottles; bottles can break, and then you have glass in your ice—not good if you’re putting ice in drinks. Also, bottle tops can leak when you’re bouncing down the trail. We’ve seen it happen. If you insist on packing bottles, throw a wet beach towel in the cooler over all the bottles to keep them from bouncing around.

When you top off your cooler with crushed ice, don’t overfill it and then force the lid down because that could screw up the hinges and the seal around the top. Instead, shake the cooler and the ice will fall into the voids and fit under the top. If you have too much ice, clear it out and put it in a friend’s cooler or a collapsible cooler that you can refill your hard cooler with later.

Leave the drain open! Ice is what keeps your cans cool, not water. Water melts ice. It is true that icy water can cool your beer drinks down faster because of the contact area of the water against the can, but water is by definition warmer than ice so it melts the ice. And remember the goal here is ice longevity, not fast cooling. Sloshing speeds up the melting, so if you want cold beer drinks for a longer time, keep the drain open.

Rule 4: On the Trail
These tips fall under common sense, which is why most people these days don’t get it.

    Load the cooler last, and top it off with crushed ice from the last roadside stop you make before you leave civilization.
  • Keep it out of the sun! Yes, it’s easy to reach if it’s sliding around the bed of your Jeep or truck, but remember the goal is ice longevity. A shaded cooler is a cooler cooler.
  • Close the lid all the way so it seals. Don’t just drop it and walk away, or you’ll have someone yelling “Cooler etiquette!” from across camp.
  • Feel free to yell “Cooler etiquette!” at anyone not taking care of their ice. Remember, we’re all friends here and friends share drinks and friends make sure friends’ ice lasts all week.
  • Don’t get into the cooler more than you need to. If you need to add something to your cooler in the middle of the trip, do so in the morning when the item is cool or soak it in a stream first to get it cool.

Other Tricks
When the plastic hinges fail on your $50 cooler, spend $3 on some steel hinges and screw them in place with sheetmetal screws laced in silicone.

A trick to keeping your beer yours (if you’re camping with folks who don’t follow cooler etiquette) is to get to know the sound of your cooler’s hinge squeak, also known as your cooler alarm. Each cooler has its own sound, so you can catch those guys stealing your cold ones. Of course, after you change to steel hinges you lose this option, so add a little bell to the latch.

And finally, write “Live Bait” on the cooler. Even if they know there is beer soda in the cooler now, most people won’t grab a beer soda from a cooler they think had smelly fish in it previously.

PhotosView Slideshow


Grizzly Coolers
Yeti Coolers

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