How to Pack a Refrigerator or Ice Cooler

by Josh Noesser, California Crew

 

Over the last 20 years of off-roading, I have learned some tricks and techniques to extend the cooler’s effectiveness over a long/multi-day expedition trip, now called overlanding.  Back in the day, onboard 12-volt fridges were rare, except perhaps in motorhomes and RVs.   Now, with the proliferation of fridges (along with their reduced size and cost, and increased durability and efficiency) I have been able to apply my ice chest skills to this technology.   Here are some effective tips and techniques accumulated over the years:

Ice Chest:

  • Put a bag of ice in the ice chest one day before packing, in order to “pre-cool” the inside of the ice chest.
  • Freeze some water bottles and place them on the bottom of the ice chest.
  • Freeze any items you can that won’t go bad when they thaw (including hard liquor).
  • Place all food in your home refrigerator for at least one day before the trip (Including water and beverages).
  • Freeze a 1-gallon jug of drinking water, and place it in the center of ice chest (provides a divider between food and beverages).
  • Prepare all food ahead of time (or at least prep as much as you can without taking up valuable cold space).
  • Never put dry food in ice chest, save space for items that must be cold.
  • Buy a food preserver (vacuum sealer) to seal food in bags:
    • Prepare your food and use this tool to take up the least amount of space as possible
    • The bags are strong, and most importantly–airtight (water-proof).
  • Drink room temp water (Only drink cold water when you need it, keep your water in a shaded spot in your vehicle and drink that water as you need it.)
  • Plan meals for each day, don’t deviate. In other words, the last meal planned for this trip should be on the very bottom, the first meal you plan on eating should be on the top.
  • Limit how many times you open your ice chest.
  • Cover the ice chest with a towel to insulate from the sun.

Prepared to roll out on a multi-day adventure in the High Sierra

Staging at Anza Borrego on a four-day extended weekend

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fridge:

There are numerous advantages to a fridge.  First obviously, you can pack a lot more food in the same dimensional space of an ice chest/cooler.  You can also cool items as you need them, such as water bottles and other beverages. The most cited reason to use a fridge, perhaps, is “no more soggy mess”.

  • Turn your fridge on one day before packing.
  • Place all food in your home fridge for one day before packing the portable fridge.
  • Buy an RV fridge fan for your cooler (runs on D-cell batteries) to circulate the air and cool items faster (trust me, this works well).
  • Never put frozen items in a fridge (well, almost never–your fridge is very effective, frozen items may not thaw).
  • Prepare all food ahead of time (or at least prep as much as you can without taking up valuable cold space).
  • Buy a food preserver (vacuum sealer) to seal food in bags:
    • Prepare your food and use this tool to take up the least amount of space as possible
    • The bags are strong, and you don’t have to worry about them ripping. They also take up far less space than the packages your food comes in.
  • Plan meals for each day, don’t deviate. In other words, the last meal planned for this trip should be on the very bottom, the first meal you plan on eating should be on the top.
  • Limit how many times you open the fridge.
    • The cooling system is a lot less powerful than the fridge at home. Thus, you need to give it extra time to work.
  • Cover the fridge with a towel to insulate from the sun if it’s hot out.  Don’t cover the radiator and fan.
  • Put one day’s worth of drinking water in the fridge and enough beverages for that evening. Store the rest in the vehicle and add as you go.
    • Have a system, work from one side towards another. Add warm beverages before you start a long voyage to give them time to cool down.  Such as before you head-out in the morning, after lunch, or before you go to bed at night.

A vacuum sealer ensures your food is airtight.

A fan such as this D-Cell battery powered unit increases efficiency.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you follow these steps, you should be able to do a 5-7 day overland trip on one ice chest or fridge.  I have used this method over a dozen times now and it has worked every time.  When using an ice chest I still have ice in the bottom, and when using a fridge I can take extra food and drinks and have options when on the trail.