Keeping your cooler cool at Burning Man

frozen fruit

There is much written on camping, fishing and other sites about how to keep your cooler cool. The first and most obvious tip is that you have to have a quality cooler. While I plodded along my first few years with a cheap cooler (about $40) the first few years, I eventually concluded that the extra work involved in managing my cooler (remember, tasks often take two, three, four times as long to complete at Black Rock City than they do in the default world) simply wasn’t worth it. I splurged and got a better (though not yet Yeti quality) cooler.

I check my cooler on the airplane as one of my bags when I fly out, having previously stuffed it with items I need for my first day or so on playa. When I get to Reno, I pull these items out and put them in an extra backpack I packed, then I go to town provisioning for perishable food and packing my cooler to take to Burning Man.

Where to place your cooler at Burning Man

Where possible, and if it’s convenient, I think the best place to store your cooler is under a truck or large vehicle. Watch the sun’s movement and make sure to place your cooler in a location where it’ll never receive direct sunlight. When I camped with More Carrot in our first year of running a farmers market, we kept all of the produce the camp gifted in coolers under our camp’s truck with mylar blankets on top of the coolers. It worked okay.

If the under-a-truck option isn’t possible, then your next best bet for storing your cooler is probably inside your tent’s vestibule. If your tent is well-shaded and not an oven during the day, then you can put your cooler inside your tent. In general, do whatever you can to keep your cooler in a cool place and out of direct sun.

Use blocks to raise up your cooler off the ground

I got this tip from HP Logsdon who sent this tip after seeing my Surviving Burning Man: A Personal Care Packing List for First-Timers spreadsheet, “I would suggest adding a couple 2×4 blocks (e.g., common wall studs) to your list. Wood is a great insulator, and it can have a number of other uses in different situations. If one goes to Lowes or Home Depot, a typical 8-ft long 2×4 should only cost a few dollars, and they are more than willing to cut them down to length in store.”

Raise your cooler to provide airflow underneath it so it isn’t baking on the desert floor.

A cooler for dry ice and ice-making?

I keep thinking I’ll have a dedicated dry-ice cooler one day, though I’ve yet to get to it. My vision is to have two coolers: one for my food and one with dry ice. In the latter, I’ll  freeze water bottles that then get used in my cooler where I’m keeping my perishable food.

I’d get some empty plastic bottles, fill them partially with water and put them in a cooler with dry ice but no food. Once these bottles are frozen, I could then place them in my food cooler, then rotate the now-melted bottles of ice back into the dry-ice cooler to refreeze them. Lather, rinse, repeat. It sounds like a great idea. One of these days I’ll do it.

Regarding dry ice for freezing food, there’s a lot to it and it impacts food quality and flavor. Read up about it before activating this option.

And note: If, by chance, you’ve got an early arrival pass (I think they now call them “work passes” to underscore the reason you have one is to work and build your camp, not to party longer), be aware Arctica isn’t open for ice sales until later in the week. Depending on the day you’re arriving, ice may or may not yet be for sale.

Here’s another source for information of Burning Man cooler management and dry ice, a piece on playa cooler management on Reddit, some cooler tips found on Tribe, and great tips on “greening” your cooler found on the Burning Man Journal.

Getting your ice back to camp: a wagon works great

Most likely, if you’re going to take the time to go to Arctica, wait in line, purchase your ice and trek back to camp, you’re probably getting ice for others, as well. If you’re with a camp of any size, there will probably be a cart or wagon or doing ice runs. That’s cool.

However, you may be out and about and decide to get a bag or two of ice for yourself. How are you going to get this ice back to your camp? Carrying ice by hand is tough! (Not fun to have that much ice against your skin for that long.) One option is to use a large bath towel to wrap a couple/few bags to protect your skin. For most people, a bike basket is what they use in such cases. They sometimes kinda sorta work for this function, though it can be very challenging to keep your ice in your bike basket while riding on the oft-bumpy playa.

A wagon or cart is best. If you own a cart and can pack it easily, I encourage you to bring it, even if your camp has a cart or two. Extra carts are nice to have around. Label that puppy in way that incontrovertibly identifies it as yours. Wagons and carts move, roll and often don’t make it back to you immediately. Put your name and your camp name on your cart.

Berry photo by Devin Rajaram on Unsplash


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