Tips for Repairing and Packing Coolers for Camping

Most of us probably have an old cooler lying around somewhere. It’s likely been collecting dust and maybe we’ve invested in a new one. There are many inexpensive cooler options available, but they don’t last very long, and they don’t keep things cold quite as well either. Then, if you get a more expensive cooler, what happens when it leaks or cracks? Can you repair it?

Like any piece of outdoor equipment, it helps to invest in a durable option. Still, materials wear down over time, and high wear areas like handles are bound to break. Finding companies with repair policies and warranties is an excellent way to avoid repairing the cooler yourself. Luckily, most cooler repairs aren’t too intensive or time-consuming. Even those who aren’t necessarily considered “handy” can do them.

To get the most out of your cooler, we compiled a few of the most common cooler repairs needed and how to do them at home. Lastly, we overview how to pack your cooler correctly. While this may seem trivial (because can’t you just toss some ice and drinks in there and be done?), there are ways to optimize the space to help keep your drinks and food colder for longer. 

Common Cooler Repairs

Hopefully, you won’t need to repair all four things simultaneously but use the information below for common cooler repair needs. 

Handle Repair

If your cooler handles are broken, we recommend replacing them completely. You have a few choices here. You can purchase a replacement online that fits the cooler brand or the style. Most replacement handles you buy will be plastic and may break again. 

You can also make a DIY handle of some kind out of rope. 

For most coolers, even the rolling ones, the handles are held in place with some kind of pin. To replace the handles, remove the pins to expose the holes. If you purchased a replacement handle, follow the directions provided to replace the handle. Replacements should also come with replacement pins, but save yours just in case they don’t. 

A far more popular replacement option is to use some type of nylon rope. Rope handles work well on coolers that have handles that stick out slightly from the side. If you put your cooler in the back of your truck, where it has a chance to bang around, it is easy to see how a plastic handle could break. Rope handles tend to be more durable and can be more comfortable to carry at times. 

Find a rope that will fit through the pin holes. Once you do that, string it through and find a length you like. Leave some room on the outside of the pins so you can tie a knot and secure the rope. Once the handles are tied off, cut off the excess and burn any fraying. 

Fixing Hinges

The classic Coleman or Igloo coolers often come standard with flimsy plastic hinges. These are one of the first things to break on these coolers (other than the handles). There are several replacement options online, much like the handles, but they might also be plastic if they are cooler-specific. Avoid replacing the broken plastic ones with new plastic ones prone to breaking with a few uses as well. 

Other options include using stainless steel hinges or even canvas cloth hinges. To replace the plastic hinges with stainless steel ones, all you need to do is:

Unscrew the old plastic ones and screw the new ones in their place.

Make sure the part of the hinge with an embossed dot is on the bottom half of the cooler and not attached to the lid.

Avoid over-tightening the screws, so we don’t recommend using an electric drill of any kind for this. A classic screwdriver is more than sufficient for this project.

Before tightening the hinges down, check how the lid opens and closes to ensure it is the right size for your cooler. 

To use a canvas cloth, the easiest method is to cut up an old canvas rope belt. You can fashion as many of these as you want or think that you need. Line up the pieces of cloth and screw them into place. These will not hold the cooler lid up as well, and they may not be as strong, but it is an easy and cheap way to replace the hinges and repurpose an old item. To help the cooler lid stay open, you can install an interior cooler lid strap using any excess belt. Attach the appropriate length of the belt to the interior of the lid and then the inside of the cooler. This will help hold the lid in place when it is open. 

Drain Plug Leaks

The most likely place a cooler will leak is the drain plug or spigot. To replace the cooler drain plug, purchase the correct brand, but at the very least, identify the required size before buying one. 

To replace a cooler drain plug:

Remove the old drain plug.

Unscrew the drain cap

Push out the spout and grommet. This is the easiest to do from the outside. 

Install the new drain plug

Install a new grommet onto the spout with the flange facing the long portion of the spout.

From the inside, install the grommet with the spout in the cooler. 

Hand tighten the nut and cap onto the spout onto the outside. 

Replacement drain plugs and spouts should all come with instructions on installation. Follow instructions provided by the manufacturer for the best results. The instructions above are a simplified version that applies in most situations but not all. 

Cooler Cracks

If your cooler is leaking and isn’t coming from the drain spout, you may have a cooler crack. Cracks in the lid or on the bottom of a cooler are the most common. The most common methods are heat welding or plugging the gap to fix a crack in a cooler. 

How to heat weld a cooler crack: 

Heat welding should be done outside to avoid inhaling toxic fumes from the plastic. 

To prep, use a degreaser and clean the surface of the cracked area to remove any dirt or oils. 

Then, sand the edges of the crack with fine-grit sandpaper. 

Using heat-resistant gloves, hold a metal rod over a heat source such as a gas stove or grill (something with a flame). 

While the rod is hot, using parchment paper as a barrier between the metal and the cooler, hold the hot rod against the crack.

Repeat until the crack is no longer visible, and reheat the rod as needed. 

How to fill the cooler crack: 

Clean cracked area with mild detergent and dry thoroughly. 

Sand the edges of the crack with fine-grit sandpaper until smooth. Continue to sand about ¼ inch out from the crack to rough up the material some.  

You can use a plastic repair kit or two-part epoxy putty to fill the crack.

Mix to make a paste for the plastic repair powder or use the manufacturer’s instructions for other kits. 

For the putty, knead it with your hands until it molds easily. 

For either application, we recommend wearing gloves. 

Apply your choice of filler into the crack area. Extend it slightly out from the crack area, and when using putting, it should be higher than the cooler surface. 

Let the putty dry or the paste cure according to manufacturer instructions. 

Once completely dry, you can choose to sand the area smooth using fine-grit sandpaper. 

Small cracks can be fixed temporarily using duct tape, but we recommend one of the methods above when you are home for a longer-lasting fix. 

Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

Cooler Cooling Tips

How you pack your cooler matters. Even if you have the highest-end, fanciest cooler on the market, you can optimize your space and keep your cooler colder with a few packing tips. 

First, you need to prep your cooler. Make sure it is cleaned out and ready to store your food and drinks. You can pre-chill the cooler by rinsing it with cold water or letting ice sit in it overnight before your trip. This is not necessary, but some people think it helps. Running cold water over the cooler or rinsing it out might be most helpful if the cooler is stored in a warm environment. 

Then, prep your food and drinks. Remove any excess packaging. Move all food into watertight containers, and freeze what you can. If you are bringing water bottles, freeze a few water bottles. If you can’t freeze the food or the drinks, keep them in the fridge overnight, chilling them before going into the cooler. 

Next, prep your ice. There are many options for ice, and we recommend using some type of reusable option. As mentioned, freezing water bottles is a great place to start. Reusable freezer packs or blocks are a personal favorite, but if you don’t want to use those, you can also make your ice blocks to put in the bottom of the cooler. To do this, grab one of those aluminum casserole dishes, fill it with water, and put it in the freezer. If you want something that contains the melted ice better, you can also freeze water in gallon Ziploc bags. 

If you want loose ice to put in drinks, keep ice cubes in a resealable bag to keep it clean and access it easily. 

Another ice tip: If you know anyone who uses any meal delivery service, snag a few of their delivery ice packs. These are big and reusable options that you can easily line the bottom of a cooler. 

Although you likely want to optimize your cooler space to help keep contents cold for longer, the best ice to food/drink ratio is 2:1. That means that you should aim to have twice as much ice as there is food or drinks in the cooler. 

How to Pack a Cooler

Now, we can get packing. Start with your block ice on the bottom. You can use the reusable ice blocks, homemade ones, or the ones mentioned from food delivery services. Line the entire bottom of the cooler with ice either way. 

Add in a layer of food or drinks as you desire. Remember that we want to eliminate as much air as possible when packing, so hone your Tetris skills here. You can add some loose ice to fill in any gaps with each layer of food. We still recommend packing ice you want to use for drinks separately in bags to keep it clean. Pack in a few of your frozen water bottles here too. 

For the top, reusable ice sheets work the best. That way, they will lay flat and make it easier to access contents or close the lid. If you do not have ice sheets, you can use reusable ice packs or water frozen in gallon Ziploc bags. 

Another option is to fill in layers with food and ice as described and then cut a piece of Reflectix bubble foil insulation to fit the top of the cooler. This will help trap the cold air from the rest of the ice and prevent as much from escaping when you open the lid. A damp towel can work for this as well. 

A lot of cold air escapes when the cooler is open. So, make sure that you pack your food and drinks in a way that makes sense. Things you access often should be near the top. You can even make a cooler map if you are with a large group to minimize the length of time the cooler is left open because items are easy to find. 


Q: What can I use to plug a cooler hole?

If the cooler plug leaks or breaks when you are camping, it is hard to replace it unless you have a backup on hand. A quick fix for a cooler plug is using some floral foam or putty inside a plastic bag. If you don’t have those things, you can also use a piece of cloth in a plastic bag to plug up the hole as tight as you can. 

If it is still leaking some, try not to use loose ice. Keeping ice in bags or using reusable ice blocks can prevent water accumulation as the ice thaws. 

Q: Why is my cooler leaking?

One of the most common areas for a cooler leak is the spigot or the drain plug. Other areas can leak if there is a crack or a break somewhere in the cooler. We recommend you check the spigot first, and if that is not the culprit, look for other areas. You should be able to see where the leak is if the cooler is packed and leaking, but if you are having an issue finding the leak, you can submerge the cooler to see where air escapes or fill the cooler with water to identify the leak. 

Q: Can you fix a cracked cooler?

Yes, in most cases, you can fix a cracked cooler. It may be too hard to fix if the crack is too big, but most smaller crackers can be fixed using a heat welding technique or filling the gap. Follow the instructions detailed above for more information on fixing a cracked cooler. 

Q: How do you remove rust from a metal cooler?

To remove rust from a metal cooler, you can find non-toxic home cleaners designed to remove rust, or you can make a homemade rust removal paste at home. To make the paste, use one part lime juice with two parts salt. Use this ratio and make as much as you think you might need. Lemon juice will also work. Mix the paste in a bowl and then apply it to the rusted areas using a towel. Let the paste rest for at least two to three hours, then wipe off. This paste shouldn’t leave any residue, but you may need to use a wet rag or sponge to remove any remaining salt.

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