I learned this stuff over time, and got my start at my first burn back in '96 by bugging those who had been there before for info. back then, there was no ice concession (oh, the horror!!!) I was so proud to make it to the end of the event with ice still in our coolers on my very first year!
in no particular order, here ya go:
- KEEP YOUR COOLERS OUT OF THE SUN!!! this is rule #1. it makes a huge difference. ideally, they won't be kept inside a tent or dome, as it gets warmer in there unless they are extremely well ventialted. a space blanket or car windshield shade is the absolute minimum. plan to shift them a couple times a day as the sun moves!
- keep your coolers elevated off the ground! you can use those styrofoam sheets with silver foil for extra cool-reflection (tape around the edges to avoid a styro mess) but anything will do... I've seen folks use wood pallets etc. the ground will suck the cool right out of your coolers when it heats up each day! I have also used one of those plastic sheving units from the homo depot. those have great air circulation, but you want to make sure you have all-day shade as you can't really move the whole shelf. this is that physics concept of "things want to equalize" in action! and actually, a lot of cooler maintenance deals with this concept. I think of burning man not as "raver hippie disneyland" as has been said, but more like "art freak physics summercamp"! ;-)
- insulate: you can use a space blanket if that's what you've got, but the best is that stuff that looks like silver bubblewrap, cut and duct taped to fit. overall, shade is more important.
- block ice lasts a lot longer than chip ice. also, do not drain the water until you have to - water cools more efficiently than air (and you're just going to wind up with more water anyway!)
- maintain coolers when it's near dusk or dawn - not at noon! at the very least, take a moment before bed to check them and see what needs to be shifted. likewise, buy ice early or late (the ice places usually are open from 9 am until 9pm and any time after 7pm is my favorite time to go - shorter lines, and less melting on the way back.) also, ice makes a great contribution to your favorite playa bar!
- if possible, having (at least) three coolers is ideal: one that is only for sealed beverages (to be opened repeatedly during the day - and you can let the beverages float in water up to the top - as well as dump excess water right on the playa - because there's nothing in it but playa dust anyway.) your next cooler is your food cooler - this one must be strategically packed (unless you have vacumm sealed food, then it's just like the bevvy cooler!) otherwise, be conscious of keeping stuff out of the drink unless it is impervious to waterlogging. stack things carefully, and place ice strategically (I like to freeze the individual odwalla juices to use as edible block ice and also a handy way to elevate stuff that needs to stay above the water line.) you can also freeze bottles of water - but of course you don't want to freeze ALL your water, since you won't want ice water at night! the third cooler is the 'ice cooler" - ice and frozen stuff - longer term storage. do NOT open this one in the heat of the day unless you really really REALLY have to! if you get dry ice, only put it in the ice cooler - you can actually freeze things onsite (given enough dry ice.) the downside of dry ice is that as it melts it carbonates stuff - and fizzy edamame are just nasty. so if you have food in with dry ice, make sure it is well sealed and try to avoid keeping it in there too long. some folks have a "frozen storage" cooler and a separate cooler just for dry ice and water they re re-freezing.
oh yeah - and mark your coolers on the outside "food" "beverages" "ice - KEEP OUT!" ;-)
- how to maintain your coolers: when the temp is more moderate, check the beverage and food coolers to see what they need... shift water/ice and restock. same with ice cooler. chill the stuff you'll want chilled for the next day, move things out of the ice cooler that you want thawed soon. if you do this daily, you should have a pretty good handle on what you'll need anyway. taking care of this once or twice a day is easy - and it makes a HUGE difference!
- also, if one of your campmates stands there with the cooler hanging open in the heat of the day trying to decide what they want, go "shut the cooler! shut the cooler! shut the cooler!" until they shut the freaking cooler! when it's hot out, decide what you want, then open the cooler. you know what you have, so don't stand there like an idiot while your ice melts - and don't let anyone else do that either. it's just dumb!