How to pack a cooler for every summer scenario

Summer is coming to an end, but there’s still plenty of time for outdoor fun. We spoke to some of the area’s cool pack pros about what Mainers should be stocking in their coolers for late summer get togethers. They recommended a variety of outstanding foods and beverages, many from Maine or New England, to ensure memorable beach and camping trips, campfires, and boat trips.

The packing principles for each of these trips are essentially the same. You want to keep your food and drinks below 40 degrees for long periods of time to prevent bacterial growth and spoilage. You should also keep them dry and organized enough so you don’t have to spend 10 minutes digging around to find the bacon.

Here are some basic cooler packing tips to keep your cooler and its contents properly chilled:

Use a separate cool box for drinks. The beverage cooler sees a lot more action than a food-only cooler. If you keep your drinks in the same cooler as the food, the lid will pop open every time someone grabs a can or bottle, melting the ice and raising the temperature faster.

If possible, cool the radiators first. Before you pack anything in, put your cooler in the coldest spot you can find, whether it’s down in the basement or in a room in a chest freezer. If you cool the container first, everything stays cold longer.

Freeze what you can. Food needed later in the trip should be frozen before packing to maintain cool box temperatures. The colder your food is when it is packed, the less it will spoil.

Use block ice on the ground. Blocks of ice melt slower than cubes and form an excellent cold base for the cool box. Fill casserole or loaf pans with water and freeze, then place the ice blocks on the bottom of the cooler. Top with a layer of cardboard or a thin piece of wood for insulation. Freezer packs work instead of block ice for short trips or small cool boxes.

Add plenty of ice cubes. Most experts recommend a ratio of 2/3 ice to 1/3 food in the cooler. But it’s not enough to just put the food in the cooler and then pour the ice on it. How you arrange the food and ice cream makes a big difference, so…

Pack in layers. Use the bottom layer for food you will eat later on in the journey or for the most perishable items. Cover with a layer of ice, being careful not to leave large air pockets that will melt the ice faster. Another layer of food, then more ice cream, repeat if necessary.

Look at the layout. If possible, create zones when packing many different types of food and drink for longer trips or larger gatherings. For example, place meat and fish on the right and dairy on the left, with fruits and vegetables and beverages in the top tiers. However you organize yourself, the idea is that when the time comes, you can easily find what you need.

Fill the radiator completely. Or as close as possible – the less air between the top layer and the lid of the cooler, the better for keeping it cold. Place a damp towel or reusable freezer wrap over the top layer of ice for extra insulation.

Prepare the ingredients. If you plan to cook, prepare ingredients like chopped onions and garlic, sliced ​​vegetables, or skewered meat ahead of time and store them in airtight, watertight containers.

Drain melted ice regularly. For longer trips (3-7 days), drain water about twice a day to keep ice cream frozen for as long as possible and avoid soaking unwrapped food. Top up with fresh ice as often as needed (or possible if camping remotely).

Now that you know how to pack the cooler, let’s get to the fun part – the goodies inside. Here we fill your cooler with ideal local and regional food and drink for three different outings – a day trip to the beach, a camping trip and a portable cocktail party.

Customers order food from the counter at Higgins Beach Market in August. The market is an excellent place to stop to buy items to fill your cooler with. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer


Joanne Chessie, manager of Higgins Beach Market in Scarborough, has been helping countless customers stock their beach coolers this season. A popular approach: package cheese and cold cuts for an ad hoc charcuterie board.

Higgins Beach Market carries three styles of salami from Short Creek Farm in New Hampshire and soppressata and prosciutto from Daniele of Rhode Island. The shop also sells homemade mustard and bread-and-butter pickles.

“We’re a beachfront market that gives you food that you would expect anywhere else,” Chessie said, explaining that the market was bought last year by Big Tree Hospitality, the restaurant group that owns Hugo’s, The Honey Paw and Eventide Oyster Co .in include Portland.

At Rosemont Market and Bakery, operations manager Erin Lynch agreed that the easy snack meat and cheese formula is a winner for beach coolers. She recommended spreading goat cheese from Fredrikson Farm on one of Rosemont’s homemade baguettes. Lynch said some of Rosemont’s packaged foods, like the Sesame Pasta Salad ($8.49/16 ounces) — a vegetarian meal in a waterproof container — are ideal for beach trips.

At Scarborough’s Beach House Market and Deli, owner Chris Bailey said the 6-ounce Boar’s Head Charcuterie Trio ($13) is a hit with beachgoers. “It’s on the cheap side and it’s good quality,” Bailey said. Beach House also makes a Dill Pickle Pasta Salad ($6.95/lb) with dill and horseradish pickles in a sour cream and dill dressing, which he says is popular with his customers.

Steffan Margagliotta, 8, chooses a drink for the beach at the Higgins Beach Market. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

For drinks, Chessie recommended Maine Craft Distilling’s Maine Mules with proprietary rum and ginger beer, and Ginger Cleanse Kombucha from Root Wild in Portland.

Keep little kids happy with plenty of juice boxes in the cooler and panino or hummus snack boxes, Chessie said. Lynch recommended Paipo Pops, a Portland popsicle company that uses as much local ingredients as possible to bring joy to kids and everyone else when it’s time for a sweet treat.


Packing a cooler for a camping trip requires a little more planning since you may be going for several days without easy access to fresh ice. If you bring ready meals like chili or stew, freeze them first. Zack Lockhart, an employee of the camping department at Maine Sport Outfitters in Rockport, said he likes to bring fresh ingredients like sliced ​​scallions or chopped fresh herbs — tightly sealed in plastic bags and wrapped at the top so they don’t get crushed — for easy lending liveliness to meals around the campfire.

For a simple but special camp dinner, cooked in a cast-iron skillet over an open flame, Lynch suggested a 12-ounce Ribeye ($22.99) from Scarborough’s Highland Farm. Even easier: Gluten-free beef sausages from Pearl in Massachusetts ($8.99/six-pack). “The first ingredient is beef. They’re some of the best I’ve tasted,” Lynch said. Stuff the fire-roasted sausages into Rosemont’s Homemade Hot Dog Buns ($6.99/six).

Fresh summer fruit like peaches or wild blueberries keep well in a cooler when kept in sealed containers at the top so they don’t get crushed or bruised, and make quick, easy snacks for both kids and adults.

For drinks, Chessie suggested Nonesuch River Brewing’s Mojito IPA (5.2 percent ABV): “They’re a little lower in alcohol, so you can have a few while camping and not get caught in the fire.”


The adult beverage cooler is a crucial component at summer gatherings. To keep people happy, make sure you have enough stocked for at least one drink per hour per person. To keep them hydrated, also have plenty of bottled water in the cooler.

Adrian Stratton, general manager of Old Port Spirits and Cigars on Commercial Street, said his shop packs coolers on request for company outings and other customers.

Stratton proposes a mix of Maine-made adult beverages, including beers, wines and hard seltzer, available in cans that are easier to carry than bottles and also shatterproof. Stratton also advised choosing screw-top wine bottles if you’re not using canned wine, so you don’t have to pack a wine opener either.

In general, Stratton said it’s wise to drink plenty of lower-alcohol or “session” beers (below about 5 percent alcohol), especially at outdoor gatherings where heat is a factor. With less strong drinks, guests can drink freely for longer without becoming intoxicated or dehydrated. His selection:

Allagash Brewing Company, River Trip Pale Ale, in 12- and 16-ounce cans, 4.8 percent ABV. A Belgian-style drinkable ale made with coriander, with hints of citrus and melon.

Bissell Brothers Brewing, The Substance Ale IPA, available in 16-ounce cans, 6.6 percent ABV. “Just a great all-around drink, one of our favorites,” said Stratton.

Bunker Brewing Co., Czech-style “machine” mushroom beer, available in 16-ounce cans, 5.2 percent ABV. “Light and fresh, this is our best-selling lager in the store,” Stratton said.

Blue Lobster Wine Company, blueberry infusiona red wine blend infused with wild Maine blueberries and available in four-pack 12-ounce cans.

Blue Lobster Wine Company, rosé wine, available in packs of four containing 355 milliliter cans. A blend of three varietals with notes of citrus, strawberries and watermelon and a crisp, tart finish.

Dasch Seltzer, blueberry, in 12-ounce cans, 6.3 percent ABV. Made from cane sugar with a refreshing, slightly sour taste.

Wild Maine Hard Seltzer, Lemonade, 16-ounce cans, 5 percent ABV. Made from six times distilled vodka, gluten free.

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