Coolboxes, coolbags and fridges for camping
See also: Choosing the right gear
One of the best things about camping holidays is enjoying local produce from the area you are visiting.
A camping trip can mean picking up fresh seafood from a harbour fishmonger or a visit to a farm shop to stock up on locally-produced sausages, bacon or cheese.
Even a basic supermarket shop will involve buying fresh food and drink that needs to be kept refrigerated or it will quickly go off, like milk, butter and ham.
And there’s nothing more refreshing on a hot summer’s day than a cold beer, a chilled glass of wine or a cool soft drink as you sit on the campsite soaking up the sun’s rays
But how do you keep food fresh and drinks cold in the height of summer when you are camping? There are a number of options available, including basic coolbags, passive and electric coolboxes and electric fridges and our guide will explain them all so you can decide what is the best option for you.
A coolbag is ideal if you want to keep food and drink cool for a few hours. Soft insulated coolbags are relatively cheap and are a lighter and less bulky option than a coolbox.
Coolbags rely on insulation to keep their contents cold, and the soft sides allow you to squash them flat so they take up very little space while not in use.
They can be used with a variety of freezer blocks or ice packs to help keep food fresh and drinks cool.
Most campsites have a freezer for campers to refreeze their ice packs, although some make a small charge. Write your name on your freezer pack using a permanent marker. Having two sets – one in use, one in the freezer – makes tent life easier.
Pre-chilling drinks and freezing food helps to lower the temperature in the coolbag for longer.
The waterproof inners are easy to wipe down and some coolbags come with a removable hard plastic lining to give them more rigidity.
They come in a variety of sizes, from small bags that will hold a couple of cans of drinks and a sandwich up to 30-litre coolbags that will hold a full picnic.
Coolbags are best suited for picnics, walks in the hills or for keeping items cool until you reach somewhere with a proper fridge. They are handy, too, at home for carrying frozen foods back from the supermarket.
You can also buy coolbags that are, to all other purposes, coolboxes – with electric supply, cooling fans etc.
For a one-night camping trip, you could probably get away with using a coolbag to keep your milk and bacon cool overnight.
But for longer holidays you might want to look at something more substantial.
Insulated coolboxes (non-electric)
With far more capacity, solid sides and superior insulation qualities, a coolbox is generally a better performer than a coolbag.
An insulated coolbox, sometimes called a passive coolbox, is a non-electric version, which is usually made out of heavy-duty plastic, with thick insulated walls and lid and a carry handle to make it portable.
The largest models have wheels and a telescopic handle to let you pull it along behind you.
A good-sized coolbox will store a good selection of chilled food and drink – with some big enough to take a two-litre drink bottle and is a good option for longer camping trips.
The insulation works along with freezer blocks and ice packs to keep the contents cool, with some promising to work for up to 48 hours. You will need to regularly refreeze your blocks if you are camping for more than a couple of days.
The ambient temperature will have an impact on the ability of the box to keep produce chilled so they are best suited for camping in the UK or northern Europe, rather than in the hottest destinations.
Keeping it in the shade will help extend its cooling function.
The sturdiest coolboxes have the added bonus that you can also use them as makeshift seating around the tent.
Generally the cheaper the product the less you can expect from it in terms of performance – although, of course, size does come into it, too.
The downside is that coolboxes tend to be bulky, and you can’t compress them. Their shape and bulkiness can also them harder to carry (hence wheels can be a good idea).
Inflatable coolboxes combine the better insulation and larger capacity of solid boxes, with the easier packing of a coolbag.
A step up from insulated coolboxes are ones that work with thermoelectric technology. Most will run off either the 12v connection in your car or leisure battery or via mains electric on-site.
These are more effective at keeping your food cool as they allow you to control the temperature settings via the electric fan that draws air into the unit through metal plates.
They won’t keep the contents as cold as your fridge at home, but they are more effective than a passive coolbox.
You should still use freezer packs to help keep the temperature in the box cooler for longer.
They can be quite noisy and again, they work better when the outside temperature is lower, especially if the insulation is not up to scratch.
The hotter the ambient temperature, the harder the fan has to work to keep the contents cool.
Electric fridges are the most effective option for storing fresh food in a tent. But they are also the most expensive to buy and will cost more to power if you have to pay for the electric hook-up.
Their size means they can store more but that also makes them more tricky to transport.
A three-way camping fridge runs off 12V, mains or gas, and is designed to be used by campers.
They work very effectively and are fairly quiet but must be well ventilated if you are using them with gas.
A camping fridge with a compressor can be even more effective, and can even work as a freezer. Adjustable digital displays allow you to set and monitor the temperature.
The fridge plugs into your car or standard mains sockets. These are especially good for camping abroad in very hot temperatures.
Alternatively you can go all the way up to full-size, full-function mains-operated leisure fridge, which should definitely be a consideration if there’s a lot of you and you’re staying in one place for a long period.
Top tips for keeping food cool in a tent
- For best efficiency, put pre-cooled products in your coolbox, rather than relying on it to cool stuff down. It saves energy and efficiency.
- Open the lid as little as possible. The more you open the lid, the more the all-important cool air escapes and the less effective it is.
- Gel ice packs are a great idea because you can pack them around things. Try to put ice packs towards the top as hot air rises.
- Be careful how you pack. Keep fresh and pre-cooked products (especially meats or fish) apart. Make sure any glass has padding around it for travel.
- Keep the door/lid of your coolbox slightly ajar when it is being stored, to prevent bad odours, or even mould, developing.
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