How To Pack A Cooler For The Perfect Day At The Beach

There you are, standing in the kitchen in your OBX vacation rental, trying to decide how much of what needs to go into the cooler for your upcoming day in the sand. Looking at the spread before you, one question keeps circling your mind: How on Earth are you going to get everything that everyone wants jammed into one measly box AND keep it functional throughout the day ahead?

Believe it or not, there is an art to packing your cooler if you want to have a hassle-free experience at the beach. After all, the last thing that you want to have to deal with during your amazing trip to the gorgeous North Carolina coast are soggy sandwiches or warm drinks!

Fortunately, the staff members here at Great Escapes know a thing or two about packing the perfect beach cooler. Keep reading here for our tips and suggestions that you can use to ensure that your cooler is fully stocked with all you need to have a perfect day at the beach!

Tip #1: Chill Cooler and Cold Items Before Packing the Cooler

The very first cooler packing strategy is all about making sure that your equipment is primed and ready to go.

While it’s not “wrong” to pack your cooler with food supplies the night before and then throw in some ice on top of everything while you’re on the drive to the beach, trust us when we tell you that you will get much better results if you plan ahead by even just an hour or two.

In addition to keeping any refrigerated items chilled until it’s time to add them into the cooler, you should also throw water bottles, soda cans, and drink pouches into the fridge for at least a couple of hours before adding them into the cooler. Pre-cooling food items before packing them will result in everything staying cooler for longer after you’ve arrived at your destination.

You should also go ahead and add some ice to the empty cooler. This will decrease the internal temperature of the box, which will keep any ice intended to be used at the beach intact for longer during the hours that it’s needed most. Don’t forget to dump out any water from ice that melts during this stage before packing the cooler to take to the beach.

We also recommend freezing a few bottles of water to include in the packed cooler. These frozen bottles can assist the loose ice in keeping items cold and can be consumed later in the day, once they’ve thawed out.

How to Pack a Cooler infographic | Great Escapes OBX

infographic by meijer


Tip #2: It’s All About the Layers

Much like this crowd-pleasing taco dip, your perfectly-packed cooler will require deliberate layering of ingredients.

Before packing any food into the cooler, be sure to have a bedding of ice on the very bottom. Then add items according to weight/size/durability standards. The basic principle to follow is to put heavier, more sturdily packaged items like drinks on the bottom, followed by mid-weight, fairly durable items in the middle, and lighter, easily crushed items on top.

Including ice between each layer will help keep items chilled longer, as will ensure that you don’t have a lot of extra air space left open once the cooler is completely packed and ready to roll.


Tip #3: Run A Zone Defense

One of the toughest parts of beach cooler management is making sure that the system doesn’t devolve into chaos five minutes after hitting the sand. To help combat this, we offer a couple of suggestions.

First, consider packing bento box style packages for each member of your beach party. The idea behind these Japanese-inspired packets is to include everything that a person would need to each for the day within one container. Your beach bento doesn’t have to be fancy. Grab a gallon-sized zip top baggie and fill with items that are specific to each person and/or use harder plastic containers to protect softer items like sandwiches. Write their name on their package in permanent marker to eliminate ownership squabbles. Then when your beach babes need a snack, they can grab their own bag without having to dig out each individual item from the cooler.

If this idea doesn’t appeal or pertain to you, you might instead consider packing the cooler in functional area zones. For instance, rather than just throwing all the sodas and waters on the bottom level, split them so that waters are on one side and sodas are on the other. Keep fruits with fruits, deli meats with deli meats, and so on. Knowing exactly where to dig for what you want will reduce the amount of time that the cooler lid stays open, thereby reducing the amount of cool air that escapes.

Tip #4: Unexpected Add-Ons

In addition to the basics, consider including the following items to your cooler:

  • Aloe vera ice cubes: These cubes are perfect for cooling off skin that may have gotten just a little too much sun. Be sure to clearly label the bag that they’re in to avoid accidental ingestion!
  • Vinegar: Vinegar can be used to soothe itchy insect bites and help tend to jellyfish stings. Mosquitoes in NC are the real deal, y’all!
  • Frozen grapes: Fruit is a must-have on the beach, but frozen grapes are in a class all their own! Freeze them the night before on some wax paper (to avoid them all sticking together).
  • Frozen yogurt tubes: Although these treats aren’t the standard FroYo fare, they are definitely a great beach-worthy alternative. Pack them together tightly in the middle level of the cooler and they should stay firm for hours.


frozen grapes | Great Escapes OBX

These tips will absolutely help ensure that your cooler is packed and primed to help you have a perfect day at the beach. And don’t forget to also check out our post Surprising Items That You Need In Your Beach Bag.

Do you have a cooler packing tip that we’ve forgotten to include? Please share it with us in the comments below!