Howdy, Courtney here!
I spent the last decade guiding rivers in the summer, most recently working multiday trips on the Middle Fork of the Salmon and Rogue.
While not the most glamorous part of the job, cooler management is crucial, especially on long or hot weather trips. People usually don’t appreciate it when a cooler is managed well, but they do notice it when they only have spoiled creamer for their coffee. Here are some tips and tricks I’ve learned to help preserve that precious river trip ice.
Pack it Full
You want your cooler to be as full as possible at the trip’s start. If you have a cooler that is only packed halfway, half of the volume of the cooler is cold air. Then when you open it, all the cold air is exchanged for air at the outside temperature, and the ice has to work harder to bring that new air back to the cold equilibrium for the cooler.
Don’t have that much stuff to bring in the cooler?
Frozen water bottles are a great way to take up space. Also, you can use canned beverages you’ll drink on the trip. Just ensure they are as cold as possible when loading them in the cooler, or you will start the journey with ice already melting.
Once you are a few days in or halfway through the trip, consider consolidating your coolers to help reduce dead air space. This way, the new cooler also has double the ice.
If you have food that can be frozen, stick it in the freezer for a few days before the trip’s start date. This works particularly well for meats you’re not using on the first day. If you have time and space, get your cooler nice and cold before packing it. Maybe get some sacrificial ice that goes in a day or two before you do the actual packing.
To drain or not to drain?
That is the question.
This is such a polarizing topic in the rafting community, with most people firmly in one camp or the other. I will not waste my words trying to convince you to change your mind. I will add this thought to the equation, though; if your food is going to go bad and you can’t eat it because it’s sitting in a pool of water, what’s the point? Go ahead and drain the cooler if things are getting soggy in there.
Canyon's Prospector and Navigator coolers are the best for this. The coolers have a drain plug in the middle of the cooler at the lowest point, so you don’t have to do the dreaded cooler dance to reach the side plug blocked by the raft tube.
Designate one person from the kitchen crew to do the “shopping” from the coolers and ensure they have a good list. This way, the coolers don’t have to be opened multiple times. A good shopping bag to fit all the items can help reduce trips back to the cooler. The bag can also serve as an excellent collection zone for unused ingredients to return to the coolers at the end of the meal.
Be smart about the timing of opening your coolers. If it is a particularly hot trip, pre-shop all the foods needed for lunch into a bag and put that in one cooler. That way, you only have to open up one cooler briefly in the heat of the day.
Protect the Ice
Don’t put hot leftovers in the cooler! If you want to keep leftovers, cool them down first. If they are in a waterproof container or bag, submerge them in a bucket of river water until they are as cold as possible.
If you are on a trip with plenty of food and are just keeping leftover food out of habit to eat after the trip, think twice about how old it will be at the end of the trip. Fish from dinner night one will probably not be edible after a 4-day trip. Save yourself the hassle and put it in the trash or compost instead of back in the cooler.
Just make sure you cook the fish first. Uncooked fish in the trash from day one is a different problem that I can tell you from experience and should be avoided at all costs.
Keep the outside cool too
This is a no-brainer, but I’ll say it anyway, protect your cooler from the sun! If it’s on the boat, one great way is to use a sleeping pad to keep it covered. Bonus points if you have a burlap sack that you can get wet with cool river water to layer between the cooler and the sleeping pad. This helps keep the outside cooler by using evaporative cooling, which I think is very cool.
Another fun way to keep your cooler cool from the outside is to hit it with cold river water occasionally. The Stream Machine water guns are an excellent tool for this. You can also get the sand off your boat and cool down your buddies while you’re at it.
Communicate the plan
Last but not least, ensure everyone on the trip is on the same page with the cooler management plan. That way, you don’t have to micromanage people all day, reminding them to wet down their boat’s cooler or scolding them for opening the cooler needlessly. A good time for this is at the pre-trip meeting.
I hope these tips have been helpful, and your cooler(s) on your next trip stay optimized to a great temperature!