Why the Best Cooler For Car Camping Might Be No Cooler At All

I have been car camping with and without a cooler for a while now, using either a Prius or a Hybrid Rav4 with a bed platform. And honestly, I have come to realize that I really don’t need a cooler. Maybe my opinion would change if I was traveling full time, but for now, my mind is made up. Here is why for minimalist car camping setups, you really don’t need a cooler, even if you love meat or are trying to eat healthy. 

large picnic cooler and a small drink cooler

Problems with using a traditional ice cooler

Traditional coolers, such as your average Coleman cooler, use a combination of water ice or dry ice and insulation to keep food cold. This means that you will have to buy ice for each camping trip, and you might need to refill during your trip to make sure food stays at a safe temperature. While ice isn’t particularly expensive, it is an expense that should be kept in mind if you are working with a tight budget. A second problem with ice coolers is that water ice will melt into water, which has to be removed from the cooler every time you fill it, which can be messy and a hassle. The third major issue with traditional coolers is that they take up more space than dry storage alone. That’s a big problem in car camping, since most of us are working with very limited space. 

Problems with electric coolers for cars

If you don’t want constant refilling ice coolers, you might consider a small, electric 12 volt cooler. While I haven’t used one of these before, I have intentionally not bought one, for a few reasons. First, while you won’t have to stop for ice with an electric cooler, you will still need a power source - namely, your car. However, that means that your cooler will only run while the car is running - which usually means no power at night. If you are just keeping drinks or maybe salad greens cool, this is perfectly fine. However, that won’t work for keeping many foods safe to eat. At this point, you might consider pairing your electric cooler with a power station. However, power stations are an expensive piece of equipment, and might not be best for people who won’t use it every day. Furthermore, a cooler plus a powerstation takes up twice as much space as one small ice cooler. 

The best minimalist car camping cooler is no cooler

For me, space is at a premium in my camping rig. I can’t really afford the space for a power station, and I don’t like spending money on ice. I have a lot of great recipes for camp cooking that don’t require refrigerated items. There are also examples of people who travel full time without coolers, and a ton of actually healthy recipes are available online. (try these from Amanda Outside or try my detailed guide to making the best “hiker trash pad thai”. Or see my 24 hour no fridge meal plan. )


But how do I keep my drinks cold without a cooler?

There are two possible options to answer this question. Personally, I don’t mind room temperature drinks, especially if they are flavored. However, I totally understand if that isn’t something you want to do! In that case, I would simply recommend freezing a portion of your water and putting a pix of frozen and unfrozen beverages into a small drink cooler, without any additional ice. The frozen drinks will cool the non-frozen drinks, and then thaw overnight, perfectly cold for the next day of adventure. You can use this same trick by freezing steaks, ground beef, cheese, salami, soups, and much more. You might also find that most veggies hold up pretty well without refrigeration. Zucchini, apples, oranges, squash, tomato, onion, potato, broccoli and cabbage are great examples of produce that don’t need to be refrigerated until they are cut. 

Final thoughts about why the best cooler for car camping is no cooler

Forgoing ice and electric coolers works for me, but it might not work for everybody, and that's okay! How do you keep food cool while camping? What are your favorite no-refrigeration camping recipes? Comment below!


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