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Do you bring an ice chest or cooler?

Glenn MacGrady

Staff member
Oct 24, 2012
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I recently heard an ancient Canadian myth that some superman once carried 50 cans of beer on a two kilometer portage, which made me wonder how he kept that beer cold. Who wants to drink warm beer!

I also know that many folks here like to bring and cook fresh meats, vegetables and fruits on trips, which makes me wonder what kind of ice chest or cooler is used. And how heavy or clumsy is it to carry in a canoe or on portages. On the other hand, maybe an ice chest is useful as a table or stool. Or for fishing or hunting from a canoe, which I don't do.

In fact, I've never taken any sort of ice chest or cooler in a canoe. I just drink my 100° F (38° C) water when paddling in the Southern heat, even on day trips.

Oh, when I've traveled seriatim to aqueous base camps all around North America in my full size canoe van (the Magic Bus), I do have an ice chest in my van wherein various foods and drinks are stored.

How and why and what kinds of coolers to you use on canoe trips?
I typically bring a small, soft sided cooler on warm weather trips if going out overnight. I will freeze water in old juice containers for my ice and then drink it as it melts during the trip. Saves on treating water and keeps my food cool as I consume it. I'll also freeze a good steak for dinner on the second night as it will be thawed out by then. Seems to work for me but I'm sure others have better ideas; which I look forward to hearing about.

That's all for now. Take care and until next time...be well.

I almost always bring a soft-sided cooler, it fits nicely behind my seat in the gap between the seat and the rear thwart.

It's a multi-purpose thing, when I leave home it has a 2L jug of frozen water to keep my first (fresh) meal (maybe two) cold. It is also the repository for fruit (apples, oranges etc.) and cheese (lots of cheese). As the contents gets consumed it transforms into a trash container.

The jug of water is of course no longer frozen but the water cools off at night and helps keep the fruit/cheese from being baked during the day. The other advantage to a cloth cooler is the ability to use evaporative cooling by dousing it with a bit of water every few hours.

My current tripping partners on the other hand bring giant hard sided coolers filled with dry ice to keep frozen stuff frozen and ice cubes from melting so that evening cocktails are (apparently) more enjoyable even after 2+ weeks!
On those non-portage flatwater trips I will even bring two. I got the knock off Yeti 20 for a $100 delivered. Works very well. I keep them in the shade and cover with a wet towel. When Chick and I get a trip in summer, I throw beverages in a 16 qt Stanley Expedition, and just feed the ice into the Stanley from the Arctic. The Arctic only has ice in it. Ice for DAYS this way, with everything just floating in ice water. Only open the Arctic twice a day. I'll do a portage like the one from Little Tupper to Rock Pond - 80 yards? - but anything longer and that and I'll pack lighter.
Yes. On group trips each year our menu is intentionally decadent. We'll bring two Yeti 65s full of food and ice. The 65s nicely fit athwartships in a tandem canoe. Food is segregated according to the menu plan, so that the second cooler goes unopened until the latter portion of the trip. All the food is vacuum sealed, so that it can float in the melting ice water, with neither the food nor the ice being fouled, which allows us to use it for cocktails. We long ago gave up on carrying beer but always manage cocktail ice into day 6 at least. These trips never last much longer than a week, so there's no long-term downside of a bulky cooler. A fully loaded 65 is murder to portage, but goes ok with either a tump-strap or two guys working together.
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Who needs a cooler?!
If you don't like your beer at room temperature then it's a sign you're drinking the wrong beer.
Likewise, never ever corrupt uisge beatha with ice. Maybe a dram of water on the side.
But if you really need to cool down your drink you're only surrounded by a natural source, just don't drop it in the deep end. Mesh bags work.
During the first run of the Yukon River 1000 mile canoe race, the ridiculous rule of the race required fully 20kg of food per paddler be in the canoe from the start, including for my voyageur team of 7 paddlers. Plus it all had to be in certified bear resistant containers. The only reasonable choice that was sufficient was a lockable 120 liter lockable Yeti cooler that happened to nicely fit in our 34' long canoe. No need to keep the dehydrated food cold, only to be certified grizzly bear resistant strong and lockable.
On a group trip I was once assigned to manage the gin & tonics, and that time I brought a small cooler with a smaller cooler inside for secure ice. I don't really like gin, but the tonic allegedly protects bug bitten trippers from malaria (n.b., not health advice). Also, fresh lime is unexpectedly good in the bush.

On trips I plan I never bring a cooler, even on short ones where it wouldn't be too hard. I guess I don't want to get used to decadent things that I wouldn't be able to do on a longer trip. I find whiskey and chocolate more than enough.
My erudite American friends have obviously never had the pleasure of drinking Labatt 50, a suds that is only consumed by old fellas who leave it sitting beside the furnace, even in the summer. Beer is often consumed at room temperatures by those in the know.

However, on the party trips with neophytes where no ports are involved, and the object of the trip is to howl at the moon, we simply distribute all of the gear from one couple into the other canoes, and fill the canoe entirely with ice and beer. The occupants sometimes complain about having cold feet, but that's the price you have to pay for an unlimited supply of cold suds.
We don't portage big western rivers sometimes lining boats. A smaller cooler is a normal part of a trip with fresh food. Only longer trips we can often find a store somewhere and buy ice. A lot of rivers are in the 50-60 degree range and if the ice gives out, we just chill things in the water.
Never had the desire to do so on a canoe trip.

I used to bring along a cooler on road trips but gave that up as well. Regular ice made a mess of the food as it thawed and it was nearly impossible to find a place along the road to re-freeze my water jugs.

As others have mentioned - soft-sided coolers sometimes come along.

In the past, on some paddle-in base camping trips we used large Coleman coolers, mostly when kids came along, to keep their drinks cool. On those trips I would use wine bags from box wine. Fill them with water and freeze - the ice block lasts longer than cubes, plus you can drink the ice water as it melts.

And drinking warm beer is not as bad as it seems. Many who have served in the military probably learned to tolerate, if not enjoy, warm beer.
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I am always carrying drinking water when running silty desert rivers, I.e. the Green, Colorado, Yampa, etc. anyway, so I now freeze Plastic 1.5 liter orange juice bottles and carry them in softside coolers and/or my Yeti 50 hardside cooler. I transfer the water to my hydroflask as it melts and really enjoy drinking ice cold water throughout the hot day, rather than choking down warm water from a plastic bike water bottle just to stay alive. The frozen drinking water keeps fresh vegetables, meat, fruit, yogurt cool for a couple of days. The coolers fit fine in my solo and tandem canoes.
Traveling in my truck to a put in for a canoe journey I rarely bring any kind of cooler , but on occaion have a used a little one to keep sandwiches cool. I traveled with a guy who took a cooler with dry ice to keep his post trip beverages cold. When the trip was over he could enjoy a celebratory cold beverage or two.

That said, once in a while on layover days after particularly long slogs, I have been known to take a rock filled anchor bag … with a rum or whiskey filled Nalgene … and lower it into the deep and cold lake bottom, tied off to a brigh colored dry bag full of air floating on the surface. After a leisurely day of camp chores I enjoy a big dinner (perhaps with warm bannock) and small camp fire … and a couple cool pulls of my favorite back country elixir. I enjoy listening to the night sounds waking up, the snap of my low fire and the change of light from the sun going to bed.

That kind of decadence for me really helps to soothe the aches of the trail.

I covered one of my bear vaults in foam, only added a couple of pounds and I put some frozen bacon and such in the bottom - keeps for a few days depending on the temp.
I once carried two full sized coolers full of ice, beer, raw meat etc. on a packframe over the carry from Attean Pond to Holeb Pond on the Moose-Bow Trip. And they weren't even mine! I bring coolers on beer-drinking excursions or when it's a family trip. A Coleman Extreme will keep food frozen for at least 5 days as long as you don't let people open it and stare at the contents.

On serious trips it's dried food and rum, no cooler.
I have brought a little red wagon with an ice chest in it for an easy backpacking trip. We tied a rope to the rear axle to hoist it over rocks. Ice, beer and fresh food. We camped by a favorite lake with no one there. The next year I did the same thing with a big steel wheel barrow. Cute girls, cold beer, fresh food and swimming. Lots of swimming and a little fishing. Those were the days. Now I camp with old men and dogs.