How to keep ice COLD in the desert.

Tips on how to keep your cooler cold, your ice from melting too fast and your food fresh when traveling in the desert.
by Lynn Bremner of

One of the challenges of camping in the desert is keeping your ice cold and thus keeping your food and beverages cold and edible. How can you preserve your ice so it doesn’t melt so quickly? How can you keep your food from getting soggy from the melted ice? How can you keep a cooler cold for 5 to 10 days if ice is not available for purchase nearby? These are some of the most common questions asked by campers.

What type of cooler should you use?

There are many types of coolers to choose from, including metal, plastic, Styrofoam, soft-sided nylon and hard-sided plastic. The soft-sided nylon coolers and Styrofoam coolers are suitable for day trips. If you are camping overnight or going on a longer trip, it is very important to get a durable cooler that can keep your food and beverages cold over a period of time. Metal coolers hold heat longer when left in the sun, so plastic coolers are the most popular choice for campers.

One brand of plastic cooler mentioned numerous times in reviews, in blogs, and in articles, is the Coleman Xtreme Cooler. The Xtreme can keep ice frozen for up to five days in 90 degree F heat. It’s available in a variety of sizes including 52-, 62-, 70-, and 100-quart, and can be purchased with or without wheels. Another thermal-efficient cooler is the Max Cool Series made by Igloo.

When selecting a plastic or hard-sided cooler, make sure to choose a cooler that has an insulated lid with a tight seal. Wheels and big handles for easier management are also beneficial features. Make sure your cooler has a plug on the bottom for water drainage.


Pre-chill your drinks and food before placing the items in the cooler. You’ll extend the life of your ice by pre-chilling all items. You can also pre-chill your cooler by filling it with ice to chill the interior, prior to packing it with food and beverages.

Freeze plastic bottles of water or canned drinks that are not carbonated, such as Hansen’s fruit juices. The frozen drinks will act as ice and will keep the other items in your cooler colder. You can also freeze water or other non-carbonated beverages in gallon milk or juice jugs. They can be consumed when the liquid inside melts.

Freeze meat, and any other food that can be frozen, to help keep the food cold and fresh. Freeze bread and other food items that don’t require refrigeration, and store these items in a dry cooler without ice to keep food fresh and dry.

reflectixLine your cooler with Reflectix (aluminized bubble wrap). You can find it at most home improvement stores. It was invented to insulate homes and buildings. Smart campers came up with the idea to use Reflectix to keep the heat out and the cold air in coolers. Cut the Reflectix into pieces that fit, lining the inside of your cooler, including the top/lid. You can even throw a sheet of Reflectix over the outside of your cooler to further insulate it.

Packing your cooler

Pack items in your cooler in chronological order based on when you plan to use or consume the items. Put the items you will use last on the bottom of the cooler, and those you will need access to first, on top. Cold air travels down, so pack the items in the cooler first and then pack either crushed ice or block ice on top. Make sure you pack your cooler tight as air pockets can increase the temperature inside.

Pack perishables such as meat or dairy products directly on the ice. Put food in zip-lock plastic bags or in plastic containers to keep it dry as the ice melts.

For longer trips it’s a good idea to keep your beverages in a separate cooler that can be opened more frequently. Put all of your food in another cooler and open it less often.

The Ice

What type of ice should you use? Crushed ice cools items faster, but ice blocks last longer. Block ice is recommended for trips that are more than one or two days. Dry ice will last the longest and keep your food dry, but requires some special handling.

You can freeze water in quart-sized zip-lock bags. They will work just like ice packs, but won’t leak water as they melt. In addition, the bags of water, once melted, can be refrozen and used again. As noted above, frozen water bottles, milk or juice jugs filled with water or juice can be used in place of, or with ice cubes or blocks. Frozen blue ice packs also work well in place of ice.

If you are going on a trip where you will not be able to purchase ice or where you need your cooler to stay cold for several days or weeks, consider dry ice. Dry ice comes in blocks wrapped in paper. Keep the paper on the dry ice or wrap it in newspaper or craft paper. Don’t pick up the dry ice with your bare hands. Use gloves or some sort of barrier between your skin and the dry ice as it will burn your skin.

Dry ice will crack a plastic cooler if it is sitting directly on the bottom of the cooler or touching the sides. The dry ice needs to be wrapped in paper (NOT plastic), and placed on a rack or barrier so it doesn’t crack your cooler. You can cut down a cheap Styrofoam cooler, place the dry ice in the bottom of the cut down portion, and then place that inside of the plastic cooler. This creates a barrier between the dry ice and the plastic sides and bottom of the cooler. You might also try putting a stainless steel dish rack with legs in the bottom of the cooler and then placing the dry ice on the rack. Stainless steel dish racks can be found in most stores that sell kitchenware.

Anything stored right next to dry ice will freeze. Keep this in mind when packing fruit, dairy products or other items that you don’t want to freeze. Dry ice does not melt, it sublimates and keeps items cold or frozen, and dry.

Another idea is to pack the dry ice in a separate cooler and surround it with frozen blue ice packs. Don’t put any food or beverages in this cooler, just the dry ice with frozen blue ice packs. Once the blue ice packs in your food or beverage cooler are used up, switch the blue ice packs with fresh ones out of the dry ice cooler. It’s a great way to refreeze your blue ice packs and avoid damage to your food by freezing it too much with dry ice.

Does Salt Keep Your Ice Colder?

Fact or fiction . . . does salt keep your ice colder? Well, kind of. Salt melts ice. When salt is mixed with water and ice together, it can bring the freezing temperature of the water to a lower degree, making the water colder without freezing it. What this means is that the combination of salt, ice and water creates really cold water. The down side is that salt also causes the ice to melt, and the goal of keeping your ice cold for a long period of time is to keep the ice from melting.

The ice/water/salt combo is s a great trick if you are having a party, run out of cold drinks and need to chill something quickly. Put some water in a big bucket or pot, put the canned beverages or bottled beverages into the container, add ice and salt to the water and stir the mixture. Put the container with the salt water mixture and the drinks in the freezer and those beverages will be chilled in a matter of minutes. Or keep the mixture out and spin the drinks in the fluid – that will also speed up the chilling process. If you don’t spin the beverages or put the mixture in the freezer it will still chill the drinks faster than ice alone or your refrigerator would without the ice/water/salt mixture.

During your trip . . .

Once you arrive at your camping location be sure to keep your coolers in the shade and out of the sun. You can put an old sleeping bag over them for further insulation. You can also use a tarp or Reflectix to keep the sun off the cooler. Ice will last twice as long when your cooler is placed in the shade.

Only open your coolers when necessary and when you do open the cooler, close it right away. Don’t drain the cold water from freshly melted ice out of the cooler, as the cold water helps keeps the items in the cooler cold. Drain the water only when necessary to create more space in the cooler or when adding more ice.

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Desert Survival Tips

Desert Tips Series
How To Survive In The Desert
by L. Bremner of DesertRoadTRIPPIN

After years of desert travel I’ve picked up some great tips along the way.   My Dad always had big 5 gallon tanks of water and extra gas when we went on long trips.  He had spare batteries, fan belts, tools to fix a car break down and flares.  A basic first aid kit was always handy.  I can say that after 30 years plus of desert road trips we’ve never had a break down or major emergency.

In the earlier years we used to travel with a gold prospecting club and there would be a few cars that would get stuck.  One of us always had a winch on our jeep or 4×4 truck, so we were able to pull out the car that got stuck in the sand.  It is not a bad idea to travel in groups of several vehicles when traveling to more remote areas of the desert. [Read more…]


A Hike Towards Heaven

Delicate Arch Hike – Arches National Park, UT

By Lynn Bremner

One hundred yards to go along the Delicate Arch Trail — I leaned into the rock wall behind me to take in the scenery and to photograph the breathtaking view.  It was overcast and a brilliant slice of rainbow peeked through the gray clouds. It was August and I was hiking with a friend.  Our goal was to see the Arch at sunset.

The last 200 yards of the trail is along a rock ledge with steep drop offs.
Author taking photos of the rainbow before reaching Delicate Arch. Photo by Abbie Archer.

The wind picked up as we continued along the ledge.  The gusts kept us cool, but also kept us reaching for our hats as they threatened to sail off!  The last leg of the trail to the arch is cut into a rock wall with a steep drop off along the left side.   It was fairly wide, but my fear of heights kept me on the right side leaning into the wall.  I asked another hiker how much farther we had to go to arrive at the arch.  Recognizing the look on my face he said, “Don’t worry.  It’s not that bad and only a short distance ahead. I’m afraid of heights too.”   Encouraged, I continued on and worked my way around the corner.  When the arch came into view I stopped in my tracks.  It was breathtaking.

Delicate Arch.  Photo by Lynn Bremner.
Delicate Arch. Photo by Lynn Bremner.

Poised on the far side of a natural amphitheatre, Delicate Arch is a grand sight to see.  Maybe it was the stormy sky or the rainbow in the distance, but it felt like I was on top of the world and somehow closer to heaven.  My eyes scanned the landscape as I took in the scene in front of me.   As time slowly ticked by I became lost in the moment.  It was so peaceful there.  It was a place where you could detach from the noise around you and just be still.

Side view of Delicate Arch. Photo by Abbie Archer.

I set up my tripod across from the arch and took a few photos.  My hiking partner Abbie decided to explore the amphitheater. She got some great photos of the arch from the side.  Behind the arch there is a steep drop off and from the side you can see how delicate it really is.  It’s incredible to imagine how time and the elements have shaped this natural phenomenon.

Quite a few people were spread out along the top portion of the amphitheater.  At first glace the natural bowl seemed quite steep, but as I moved to a different angle I could see that it was easy to navigate and safe enough for families with kids to sit in, and take in the views. Hikers lined up to have their photos taken under the arch.

Delicate Arch in the distance  and the natural amphitheater. Author in the foreground photographing the Arch.  Photo by Abbie Archer.
Delicate Arch in the distance and the natural amphitheater. Author in the foreground photographing the Arch. Photo by Abbie Archer.

The sky never cleared for a sunset shot, but we were satisfied with the photos we were able to capture.  After spending about 30 minutes photographing the arch, we packed up the equipment and started back towards the trail.  We both turned around one last time to look at it.  What an amazing place. As I engraved the image into my memory, I turned back towards the trail.  Maybe my mind was on the arch and the experience of seeing it in person, because I hardly noticed the steep drop offs along the rock ledge on the return route.

The arch itself is amazing, but I think it was the combined experience of the hike, the natural amphitheater, and views from all directions that made Delicate Arch an unforgettable experience for me.  The hike was strenuous at times and there are steep drop offs, but only for a short portion along the trail.  The effort is well worth it if you are physically able to make the journey to the top.  It was one of the highlights of my trip.


Facts about Delicate Arch …

Formed of Entrada sandstone, the fin was gradually worn down through the process of erosion, and Delicate Arch was created.  Its distinct shape sets it apart from other arches in the park. The arch is 65-feet high and free-standing, which makes it the most widely-recognized landmark in Arches National Park according to Wikipedia.  It is depicted on Utah license plates and was featured on a commemorative stamp in 1996.

If you go …

Be sure to take plenty of water and to allow enough time to hike up and back.  It took me at least 45 minutes and I was moving at a fast pace.  Plan on two to three hours for a round trip hike.  It’s up hill for a majority of the trail to the Arch.   You’ll get a good workout on the ascent. There were a lot of families up there with older kids who were able to make the hike.  I would not recommend it for families with young kids due to the strenuous nature of the hike and the steep drop offs without railings.   There are restrooms at the trailhead and parking is hard to find, so you may have to park down the road if the lot is full.   It is recommended that you hike the trail in the cooler hours of the early morning or late in the day during the summer months due to high temperatures.

Delicate Arch

Starting Point: Wolfe Ranch parking area

Length: 3 miles (4.8 km) round trip

Time: 2 to 3 hours

Elevation change: 480 feet (146 meters)

Take at least 1 quart (1 liter) of water per person! There is no shade. Open slickrock with some exposure to heights. The first half-mile is a wide, well-defined trail. Upon reaching the slickrock, follow the rock cairns. The trail climbs gradually and levels out toward the top of this rock face. Just before you get to Delicate Arch, the trail goes along a rock ledge for about 200 yards.



Chasing the Light

Upper Antelope Canyon Photo Tour
Photos and text by Lynn Bremner

A photo taken with an iphone by Abbie Archer.  It shows one of the main chambers as a several tour groups pass through it.
A photo taken with an iPhone by Abbie Archer. It shows one of the main chambers as a several tour groups pass through it.

The phone rang as I was packing for my vacation.  It was my dad calling to tell me that a major flash flood had ripped through Page, AZ and Antelope Canyon that afternoon.  It was Friday, Aug. 2nd, 2013 and the next morning I was leaving for Page, AZ and Lake Powell.

“Be sure to check the weather before you head into Antelope Canyon,” he warned.  As I continued to fill my suitcase, I wondered if the weather would clear up by the time I arrived in Page. On Monday, Aug. 5th, I was scheduled for a photo tour of Upper Antelope Canyon.  It was one of several tours I had booked in advance due to limited space and availability.

Located on Navajo land, Antelope Canyon is one of the most beautiful slot canyons in the American Southwest.  Photographers from all over the world visit this canyon to capture images of the elusive light beams and mesmerizing colors and lines that shape its twisting sandstone walls.  The canyon is divided into two sections, the Lower Antelope, and the Upper Antelope, called Tsé bighánílíní, “the place where water runs through rocks” by the Navajo. It is the most photographed and most visited slot canyon in the American Southwest according to Wikipedia.

The walls of the canyon often look like they are glowing embers or on fire.
The walls of the canyon often look like they are glowing embers or on fire.

The overcast sky delivered light rain the night before the tour.  When I checked the weather on Monday morning there were no flash flood warnings and the tour was still on schedule for 10:15 am.  The light beams typically appear around midday during the summer months so the 10:15 or 12:15 tours are the most popular.

Most of the tour companies only offer the extended photo tours to photographers with a tripod and DSLR equipment, as the lighting in the slot canyon requires that you use a remote shutter release for best results.  My tour was booked through Adventurous Antelope Canyon Photo Tours, who usually take only seven photographers into the canyon at a time.  There were 11 photographers in my tour. Unfortunately another canyon was closed due to flooding, and the tour company had to move a few people into our group.


Our guide’s name was Joshua. He loaded us into a tour truck and we were on our way to the canyon.  The drive was short, but there was an abundant amount of sand whipping up at us en route.  Most of the group had their equipment in a backpack, but a few scrambled to cover their cameras up.

As we unloaded from the truck Joshua explained that we were going to head directly to the back of the canyon and work our way forward.  He asked us not to stop to take pictures until we were at our first destination.  “We are chasing the light,” he said.  He looked up at the gray sky and pointed in the distance.  “The sun is coming through over there, so we may get some light beams today.”

As we entered Upper Antelope Canyon I was awestruck by the natural beauty of the place.  The colors and patterns were unique and amazing.  It was hard to keep track of Joshua as he navigated through the crowded canyon.  Some areas were so narrow we could only pass through in single file.   He finally stopped and pointed up and said, “This is the Wall of Fire”.  We were squeezed up against the sandstone wall as other groups passed by us.  It was a challenge to set up our tripods and to get our cameras out of our packs.  It took a few shots to adapt to the darkness of the canyon and the shooting environment but Joshua made sure we all had time in a good position to get the shots we wanted.

A view looking up towards the top of the slot canyon.
A view looking up towards the top of the slot canyon.

Our group continued to move through the canyon, stopping to set up shots at locations that our guide pointed out to us.  After about an hour, there was chatter that a light beam had appeared in the first chamber. Joshua urged us to move quickly all the way to the front of the canyon. We were the second photo group to arrive, and we had to wait our turn to capture the beam.  The guides held the other photo groups back for approximately 10 minutes.  That didn’t leave much time to work with, and there were over 20 photographers trying to capture the light beam.  The guides swiftly asked some of us to lower our tripods while the others standing behind them set up their shots.   One of the guides threw fine white sand into the air above the beam, and it spilled down, slowly filling the beam with dust and becoming visible.  Timing was of the essence.  If you took the shot too quickly, the beam was not completely visible.  As sand slowly dropped to the bottom, you had only seconds to capture the beam fully lit up. Then the beam was gone, as the last of the sand hit the ground.

A single beam lights up the chamber.
A single beam lights up the chamber.



Several chambers had light beams, so we were able to get a lot of photo opportunities.  Joshua always made sure everyone in the group rotated through the best positions for each location.  The last shoot was the most difficult. Three chambers were back to back with light beams in each one. Three guides had to coordinate throwing sand at the same time and then jump out of the way.

We were told we had three chances to get this shot, and then my iphone froze up.  I had been using the wireless network in my Canon 6D to connect to the EOS Remote app in my iphone. The app allowed me to control the camera settings and shutter release remotely from my iphone. I restarted my iphone and began to reconnect as Joshua hastily helped me set up the shot. I didn’t see the other two beams in the background, so he rapidly repositioned my camera to capture the full scene. In the process he increased my exposure manually from 0 to 3, since my iphone was slow to restart.  It brightened up the image, but blew out the beams.  Once my connection was back online, I was glad to be able to take a few more pictures of the triple beams.

Since I was shooting in RAW and JPG simultaneously, I had left my exposure on most shots at 0.  In RAW I was able to go back and adjust the exposure as needed.  Fortunately I took several shots without the beams and was able to merge two photos together to get a decent shot of the three beams lit up.
Since I was shooting in RAW and JPG simultaneously, I had left my exposure on most shots at 0. In RAW I was able to go back and adjust the exposure as needed. Fortunately I took several shots without the beams and was able to merge two photos together to get a decent shot of the three beams lit up.

After the triple beam photo shoot, we were all exhausted.  Joshua said we had eight more minutes to shoot whatever we wanted.  Most of us just took in the magical views of the slot canyon.  We were so busy during the tour that we didn’t really get much time to simply enjoy what we were seeing.

It was a fantastic experience and one of the highlights of my trip.  One day I plan to go back to Page, AZ to photograph Lower Antelope Canyon, Canyon X and a few of the other canyons.  I may even visit Upper Antelope Canyon again.  It was that amazing!

This beam looks like a wedding vail cascading to the floor of the chamber.
This beam looks like a wedding vail cascading to the floor of the chamber.

Photo tips:

Entrance to Upper Antelope Canyon.
Entrance to Upper Antelope Canyon.

You will need a DSLR camera, a tripod and a remote shutter release for best results.  If you want to use a tripod and capture the beams you really need to go on a special photo tour for photographers. It is longer and slightly more expensive, but well worth it. The Adventurous Antelope Canyon Photo Tours charge $86 per person and only allow photographers with proper equipment (DSLR, Tripod, etc.) on the photo tour. It is 2.5 hours long. The guide really helps you to set up the shots and gives you photo tips. A friend of mine, who was travelling with me, took the regular tour. It was 1.5 hours long and cost $46.

Upper Antelope Canyon: 

Upper Antelope Canyon is about 100 yards long and is flat.  It’s an easy walk.  The tours are busy and there are usually quite a few people in the canyon at the same time.  It is crowded!  If you want to avoid the big crowds, go at early or later times when the light beams are not showing.   The most popular tour times are 10:15 and 12:15.

FLASH FLOODS:  Always check the weather before you explore the beautiful desert slot canyons and flood zones.  The tour companies are usually notified in advance of  flash flood warnings.  One of the guides said  the most recent flash flood moved so much sand through Antelope Canyon that the floor of the canyon dropped 3 to 6 feet in some areas.

Below is video taken by a photographer who was in the area during the flash flood ripped through Antelope Canyon and Page, AZ a few days before my trip.



Where to find wildflowers in Joshua Tree National Park

 Cottonwood Visitor’s Center
Joshua Tree National Park
California Desert Wildflowers
April 9th, 2012

If you enter the Joshua Tree National Park from the south entrance off of the I-10 heading towards the Cottonwood Visitor’s Center, there is a nice stretch of desert on the right side of the road that usually has good wildflower displays.

Apricot globe mallow next to the red chuparosa.

Every year I visit this area in April to see what is blooming.   I parked along the side of the road and walked through fields of chia towards the hills.  It is along the rocky slopes that you will find the beavertail cactus.  They were in bloom and I found a few that were a short climb up from the wash.

Beavertail cactus were blooming with more buds ready to open.

The ocotillo were blooming and the red tips stood out in the desert landscape.  An abundance  of red, orange and white spotted the wash in clusters.  The apricot globe mallow was in full bloom and when viewed next to a blooming chuparosa it was an explosion of color.  The silvery-white petals of the Sand Blazing Star glistened in the sunlight and made a nice contrast to the other blooming plants.

There were a few barrel cactus in full bloom and other native plants.  View the gallery below to see a variety of what you will encounter if you go.  The season is just peaking in this area, so I suggest that you go within the next 5 days to see the best wildflower displays.

Sand Blazing Star