Overland media (Instagram, YouTube, Magazines — you name it) may have convinced you that you need a powered cooler (i.e. refrigerator) in order to properly overland. That’s just not true.
Although fridges can be veritable life savers, especially when traveling for long periods in hot climates, they’re not absolutely necessary. There are many seasoned overlanders — in both the 4×4 and adventure moto camps — who travel without a fridge. In this article, I’ll explain the best ways to take on an overland journey without a fridge while still keeping food fresh and plentiful.
That said, I’m going to preface the following article with two caveats:
None of the statements or suggestions below have been evaluated by the FDA.
Should you choose to give any of the suggestions below a chance, you are doing so at your own gastrointestinal risk.
When you travel overland, whether it’s by two or four wheels, you can count on hearing the same three questions anytime you stop for gas, pull-up at a scenic overlook or catch the odd family reunion:
Where do you sleep?
How do you afford this type of trip?
And what do you eat?
As a self-ascribed foodie, the last question is my favorite one to tackle. This is probably because my primary diet when I began overlanding was comprised of variations of peanut butter and jam sandwiches: PB&J on bread; PB&J on tortillas; PB&J on saltines … you get the picture.
Fortunately, I’ve come a long way since then.
As I continued traveling, I became more adventurous; in part driven by boredom, but largely because I learned from fellow overlanders I met along the way. Regardless of how much I learned and how varied my personal catalog of overland-friendly recipes became, the one limiting factor has always been refrigeration. Or rather, lack thereof. Given that I primarily travel via motorcycle, this is simply a luxury from home that has to be traded for the freedom of the open road.
However, there are plenty of ways to work around that and enjoy a balanced, nutritious and delicious diet. And even a cold beer or glass of wine, from time to time.
Let’s discuss the most obvious refrigerator workaround: the wide array of coolers that seem to become more high-tech and bomb-proof every day.
Cooler technology has come a long way since the red and white coolers I grew up digging through melted ice to the bottom of for a cold can of Coke. Companies like Canyon Cooler now use pressure-injected foam insulation to ensure cooler contents stay cold, utilize straight-wall design to avoid any waste of space, and can accommodate catering trays to ensure that once your ice does start to melt, your head of lettuce won’t be swimming at the bottom of the cooler.
Speaking of melting ice: Canyon Cooler Founder and CEO, Jason Costello says, “We conducted ice retention tests in the heat of the Arizona desert, and opened coolers that still had ice in them nine days after the test started.” (Naturally, results vary by cooler and climate.)
If you’re on a motorcycle, a 65-quart cooler probably isn’t what you’re looking for, but the Nomad 20 would sit nicely on your passenger seat and retains ice for three to five days depending on the climate you’re riding in.
If you only need a cooler for weekend jaunts, the Nelson Rigg Mountable Cooler Bag is another option that can be strapped to your bike without too much fuss.
One of the things that is seldom spoken about is how often we overlanders frequent towns. With ample grocery shopping opportunities. If your kit includes a cooler that can keep ice frozen for a matter of days, unless you are planning to be off the grid for more than a week, you may not even notice the absence of a refrigerator from your camp cooking setup. Moreover, a hard-sided cooler can be removed from your rig and double as a cutting board, table or extra seating.
But what if you don’t want to carry a cooler or run out of ice?
When living in a static location, I usually efficiently shop once a week, perhaps making a quick mid-week market stop to pick up a forgotten item or something for a new recipe I want to try. However, while traveling overland, I tend to visit a market every other day, if not every day.
I am an anthropologist by education, and frequenting markets around the world has become one of my favorite ways to get to glimpse into the unique culture of any given town. What types of foods are stocked, highlighted, and in-demand?
Who is working at the grocery store? And who does the shopping in this society? It’s fascinating if you take the time to notice the minor differences in food procurement and consumption that differentiate each town from the next, ever so slightly, until you cross a border and you’re in an entirely different country and you may encounter even more drastic changes in market life.
Even with frequent stops, when traveling in hot and humid conditions, a traveler without a refrigerator or large capacity cooler has to take into consideration the best food options to take on the road bearing in mind shelf life, pack-ability and high nutritious content.
Linda Tyler is a functional nutritionist who specializes in optimizing digestive function and incorporating nutrient-dense meal planning into the outdoor- and overland-centric lifestyles of her clients.
When asked what she recommends her clients stock in their pantries with, Linda says, “I tell people they can easily supercharge the nutrient-density of lunches or dinners with canned oysters, mussels, and other shellfish. Not only do these little delicacies travel well, they also offer a clean source of omega-three-rich protein with the greatest concentration of zinc on the planet.”
For herself, Linda tops sliced cucumber, watermelon radish, sweet peppers, turnips, or cabbage leaves with canned shellfish for a snack, or adds them to soups, pasta or rice dishes, salads, or other dishes for a complete meal.
(If shellfish isn’t your thing, Linda shared a great vegetarian, no-refrigeration-friendly recipe with me that is included at the end of this article.)
I’ll expand upon Linda’s recommendation with a few of the things I’ve learned along the way about overlanding without a refrigerator and what I’ll shop for and carry with me.
Of course, the standard options of canned or dried/dehydrated fruits are good fallback alternatives to fresh fruits. One of my favorite road breakfasts is Pina Colada Oatmeal (recipe below), with canned pineapple being a primary ingredient.
When you go to a grocery store you have to remember that you don’t pull apples or a carton of raspberries out of a cooler … so fresh items like this can last for a few days as long as you keep them out of direct sunlight and protected from being crushed.
The same goes with vegetables, particularly those that are canned, and there are some fresh ones that fare better out of the refrigerator for longer than others. Lettuce … not so much. But red peppers, squash, carrots, onions, and garlic are all typically good to go for a few days on the trail.
Canned tuna and salmon can generally be found in the bottom of my pannier, stashed away as emergency meals. But smoked salmon or trout will be towards the top as I find them to be fantastic additions with which to jazz up a jar of Alfredo sauce (which, unopened, also doesn’t need to be refrigerated).
This is one of the trickier food groups to pack for a refrigerator-less journey and where the caveat in the beginning of the article comes into play. Most Americans are taught that all fresh meat products need to remain in a climate-controlled box, but several of my friends routinely pack frozen steaks in their panniers and enjoy them a day or two into their journey.
Jerky and other cured meats, eggs that have not been refrigerated, and canned sausages are safer bets, for sure. But the longer you travel and the more open-air markets you walk through almost anywhere outside of the U.S., the wider variety of products you’ll see that you’re used to pulling out of a refrigerator in the U.S.
Evaporated milk is a great way to lighten your morning coffee or add creaminess to oatmeal, but make sure you double bag it and ensure it endures minimal vibration wherever you store it: cleaning up an exploded bag of powdered milk is not a fun way to spend multiple days. And I know many travelers who carry hard cheeses, but my go-to is the little packets of parmesan you can get from a pizzeria.
Prepackaged, dehydrated meals from the likes of Nutrient Survival and Mountain House are great to have on hand, especially for those evenings when you arrive at camp late and just want a fast, hearty meal. Or for the days when you’ve stretched the limit of the fresh foods you’ve brought along with you, just a bit too far. Nutrient Survival makes a great scramble and has a 13-vitamin instant coffee to pair with it that’s pretty tasty. Mountain House’s Turkey Dinner is fun to have stashed in your kitchen pantry for when you want to be able to share a bit of Americana with new friends you meet along the way.
I promised to tell you how to enjoy a cold beverage without a refrigerator. That seems like the perfect way to wrap up this article. Now, this may require a bit of creativity and/or reliance on the kindness of strangers. In moderate regions, making sure to set up camp next to a stream, river or even at the edge of a bay is the best. Secure your beverage of choice in a manner that guarantees it will not float away while chilling, and it should be delightfully refreshing by the time you are finished setting up camp and cooking dinner.
My other go-to beverage-cooling hack (which really only works while in the U.S. where ice is a cultural norm), is to swing past a fast-food restaurant and explain that you are planning to camp that evening and need a cup of ice. I’ve found that people usually feel so bad for you that I generally receive more ice than I know what to do with, and my beers are cold by the time I reach camp. You just have to make sure the road you rode to get to camp wasn’t too bumpy — otherwise you’ll lose more beer to your shirt and the thirsty soil beneath your boots than you’ll drink.
The Nourishing Nomad’s Miso Soup for Two
Portion the following ingredients into two cups while boiling about 20 ounces of water:
1 tbsp dried sea vegetables, such as arame, wakame, and/or dulse
1 tsp dried mushroom powder (lion’s mane, reishi, cordyceps, etc.) and/or broken dried mushrooms (shiitake, cremini, morel, portobello, etc.)
Powdered or pressed garlic to taste
Powdered or fresh onion / scallion to taste
Powdered or fresh ginger root to taste
1 tbsp miso paste
1 tbsp bone broth concentrate (optional)
Add canned or pouched salmon, rice, plus whatever vegetables are on hand for a complete meal
Note: miso paste and bone broth concentrate travel well without refrigeration for several days in temperate climates and much longer in colder climates. Store them in a cool, dark place if possible.
My Ticket To Ride’s Piña Colada Oatmeal
Half Cup Oatmeal or Steel Cut Oats
2tbsp Evaporated Milk
1 Can of sliced or crushed coconut (use juice for cooking oats in addition to water)
Top with 2 tbsp Dried Coconut Flakes (lightly toasted in a hot pan)
Adjust portions to audience/hunger
Header Image: JBS Photography