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Ice Chest Epiphanies


Baja trailer load of ice chests and fishing gear.

About halfway through the evolutionary ice chest shedding process, this Baja load still includes three large ice chests plus other gear.


May 15, 2003, by Gene Kira, as published in Western Outdoors Magazine:

Back in my “Olde Tyme Baja Fish Camping” days, I used to drive down Mex 1 with two, 140-quart ice chests. One of these coffin-size behemoths was filled solid with block ice, bought at the Union Ice Company in downtown San Diego, and the other was packed completely full of dry ice from the same source.

That was just for fish.

Food and drinks were packed in three smaller chests, and the whole caboodle weighed so much and took up so much room, I had to build a 15-foot utility trailer to haul it all.

Once I arrived at the beach, of course, all that ice would start to melt at a frightening rate in the 110-degree sun, so I resorted to all kinds of desperate measures in an effort to stretch things out long enough for the ride home (remember, this was way back when ice was hard to find in Baja. All you young ‘uns out there will just have to go along with it.)

Somewhere, I read that you could simply bury ice chests in beach sand, and the natural insulation would make your ice last twice as long. I tried it and quickly discovered that there’s something horridly sweaty, gritty and just plain unnatural about digging holes--like a grave-robber from a Frankenstein movie--on a sunny Baja beach. Probably, the worst thing was trying to get a pair of loaded 140-quart ice chests back out of the grave without a forklift. Forget it!

After many unsuccessful experiments, the best system I came up with was to place the ice chests inside their own sleeping bags, seal them up tight, and set them on their own foam rubber camping mattresses. Of course, this required that I take five extra sleeping bags and five extra mattresses, but I figured the extra fifteen minutes it gave you was well worth the trouble. After all, we were in Baja to CATCH FISH, right?

In those early days, we hauled a lot of fish home from every trip and--human evolution being the tragically glacial process that it is--it took a long time to slowly realize two simple things that, in retrospect, you’d think would have been pretty obvious from the get-go:

1. Under this system, once the freezer was completely full, I couldn’t go to Baja any more.

2. By the time we got around to eating it, about 99% of my fish would turn into low-quality mush, worse than you got at the supermarket.

The now-painfully apparent stoopidity of this system hit me like a lightning bolt one night as I was packing about 100 pounds of corvina fillets into the freezer.

To make enough room, I pulled the oldest fish out and started to thaw it for that evening’s dinner. At one point, I glanced at the label and realized that the fish we were going to eat that night was almost a year old. The beautiful, fresh corvina fillets I had just brought home wouldn’t be touched for another twelve months!

Well, even the Great Kee-Rah can smell old fish if it’s old enough, and there’s enough of it. After that epiphany at the freezer door, I gradually started eliminating ice chests and bringing less and less fish home on every trip.

But old habits die hard, and it took a few decades to complete the process. The first chests to go were the big 140-quarters. I still have one of these sofa-sized relics, but today it sits out on the side porch and holds gardening tools.

During the early 1990s, huge ice chests wrapped in sleeping bags became outmoded anyway, as good quality ice gradually became more available in Baja. With ammonia-free ice reliably (and very cheaply) bought in such locations as San Quintin, San Ignacio, Santa Rosalia, Mulege, Loreto, and Ciudad Insurgentes, it was no longer necessary to haul enormous quantities of “hard American ice” from the border. Ditto with the expensive dry ice carefully wrapped in newspapers that was used to “stretch” your American ice.

Psychologically, it was a lot harder to get rid of the smaller, 80-quart ice chests, because they contained such vital male necessities as beer and packages of string cheese that we called “food.” But gradually, familiarity with Baja’s growing infrastructure revealed that you could get much colder and much cheaper beer at the “depositos” that were popping up everywhere, and--about every twenty minutes along Mex 1--there was a new taco stand where you could eat much better and cheaper and not have to squat and wash dishes afterwards.

Out went the 80-quarters.

Somewhere during the late-1990s, I also completely eliminated camp stoves, can openers, matches, pots and pans, and all that stuff. For non-remote trips, “camping” in Baja became a matter of knowing where the nearest taco stand was, and putting up with occasional periods of brief deprivation in between. For emergencies, you always kept some chips and nuts on the back seat. For enjoying fresh-cooked seafood, you took along a few cans of Spam, which was traded to pangueros in exchange for eating with them. (In forty years, I have never met a panguero who was not also an excellent seafood cook, or at least, good enough for me).

With the reduction in ice chests, naturally, there has been a concomitant reduction in the amount of fish that can be brought home from any given trip. Strangely enough, though, I seem bring home just as much total fish today, maybe more in fact, because almost immediately after every trip, I’ve got the perfect excuse to make another joyful run down Mex 1:

“Oh no! Look! We’re completely out of fish!!!”

“Well, dear, I guess you’d better plan a trip right away.”

(Heh, heh...)

Today, I usually take a single 60-quart ice chest along, and it stays completely empty until the last day or so, when it gets packed with some good tasting fillets and two bags of ice cubes, easily bought almost anywhere in Baja.

This has been part of a slowly-evolving system that has gradually shed about 2,000 pounds of gear over the past four decades--as supplies have become so much more easily obtained in Baja, and as times and sensibilities have changed.

The 25-foot, twin-outboard muscle boat gradually morphs into a 25-pound kayak; the big tent becomes a cot and a bottle of insect repellant; the heavy tackle boxes shrink down to a couple of Tupperware sandwich containers.

Move quickly and easily, see more, learn faster, have more fun...that’s the program nowadays...and it sure beats burying ice chests!

(Related Baja California, Mexico, articles and reports may be found at's main Baja California information page. See weekly fishing news, photos, and reports from the major sportfishing vacation areas of Mexico including the Baja California area in "Mexico Fishing News.")