I started writing this article on the topic of how to keep food cold without a fridge in the middle of November. My mind was in the hunting space while visiting family there, and I wanted to write this article with that focus. The initial bones of this piece were outlined back then, and I intended to wrap this story toward the end of the month. As luck would have it, I couldn’t log into my computer when I returned home and revisited this because the power in North Carolina went out for five days. This electrical inconvenience changed the way I wanted to lay out this article.
I doubt there is a single person reading this who doesn’t have a refrigerator in their home. Some of you may even have a freezer/fridge combination and a standing freezer chest to store what you eat daily and the food you’ve set aside months in advance. The cooler temperatures a good refrigerator and freezer provide are the universal standard for food storage, and we have a comfortable expectation we will be able to keep food in cold storage until we are ready to eat it. There may come a time when you don’t have the luxury of a refrigerator, or you have one, but the power goes out. What will you do to keep your food from spoiling?
Far from home, you won’t have the luxury of electricity to keep your food cold with a fridge. Depending on the season, you may experience extreme difficulty keeping it from spoiling, and eventually, regardless of your efforts, it will. To keep your food cool, you will have to get creative and utilize your resources. You can seek cool and or avoid heat. The combination of both will give you the best results.
To avoid heat, your main concern will be sunlight. By moving your food to the shade, you can find temperatures 15-20 degrees cooler. Sunlight strength varies from location to location, and the amount of shade you can find will differ too. Look for it under trees, rocks, vehicles, and makeshift covers made with a tarp. In the desert, the best shade is created by having multiple layers of fabric layered to allow for hot-air space between the ground and the top layer. Shade protects from the sun’s radiating heat, but heat can be fought in even more effective ways.
Food can be cooled by submerging it in water. It can be cooled by cold water circulating around it. This method is the opposite of the popular sous vide cooking style that uses warm water circulation. This technique requires you to keep your food in water-tight bags or containers. If you’ve ever tried to cool beer rapidly in a cooler, you know the best way is with ice water. The same is true of your food.
If you cannot cool your food with water, other elements can help. On big game hunts, it isn’t uncommon to use cool air to cool down cuts of meat. Air can cool or it can warm, depending on the temperature. Just like the convection action of your oven, hanging food in the air can work if the conditions are right. These conditions might be present at night when temperatures dip, depending on where you are. Another method of keeping food cool in the wild is burying it. The earth you dig into will likely be much cooler than the surface ground. Of course, if you have snow, use it.
There must be countless times you’ve walked by your refrigerator and didn’t think about the power supplied to it that keeps the motor running. A simple power outage is all it will take to consider it and what you will do with all the food inside. On average, you can keep a full freezer of food for about 48 hours if it is opened infrequently. The best freezers for trapping in the cold are freezer chests, which are top feeding instead of side-feeding.
All the cold stays in the bottom of the box when you open the lid. Your refrigerator will only last for a short time, and you should consume that food first if you are considering what to do with it before it spoils. Unexpected power outages can catch you with your pants down, but if you predict one during a storm, you can stage your home for success to keep food cool without a fridge.
When your power goes out, you can utilize good coolers to help keep your food cold, much like an unpowered fridge. If those coolers are wrapped in towels (like when trying to trap heat in as meat rests), you can improve how well they keep food cool inside. On a much smaller scale, the same insulated bottles that you use to keep beverages warm on cold days can keep cold drinks cool on warm ones. These can be used for dairy products. If you have ice, you can fill your bathtub (assuming you have one) with water and ice. If you have time to freeze plastic bottles, do it. Block ice will last longer than cubed.
If your refrigerator goes out for some reason, but you still have power elsewhere, you can keep your food cool with creativity. Your basement should be cooler than the upper levels of your home. Like burying food in the great outdoors, store it downstairs and against the foundation if you can. Keep in mind food spoils when there are temperature changes, light exposure, and excess moisture. You may find moisture forming depending on how you have your food packaged. If you predict this as a problem, desiccant packs can be added to trap it.
One more option you have is falling back on your neighbors. They may have room in their ice box, coolers, or freezers, and they can keep your food cool too. Seek out their help sooner rather than later and if you can’t keep food cool, consider cooking it and inviting them over. You never know what kind of favors a good meal can get you if your emergency worsens.
The ultimate flex in an emergency is to forgo refrigeration altogether. Canned foods need heating. Freeze-dried foods need water. If you have a healthy supply of each, you won’t need to worry about food spoiling when the lights go out. In the most recent power outage in Moore County, North Carolina, some families panicked with food spoiling quickly. Some lost hundreds of dollars worth of groceries as they could not save their refrigerated goods.
Others fell back on “indoor camping” and used propane stoves and camp food to keep them going anywhere from 2 to 5 days without power. Of course, if you forgo refrigeration, you must ensure you have plenty of fuel and water. Like your other preparations, you should have options for primary, alternate, contingency, and emergency (P.A.C.E. planning). You don’t have to eliminate your refrigerator, but rest assured, if the power goes out, you can find ways to keep your food cold without one.