No Refrigeration? No Problem!

by Barbara Theisen

Life without refrigeration. Why would you even consider such a thing?
• Well, sometimes it isn't so much a choice, like when your reefer dies and you're in the middle of paradise - very warm paradise. You may suddenly find you need to survive without the fridge for several weeks while waiting for parts or waiting for someone who can service your system. Don't let lack of refrigeration ruin your cruise.
• Maybe you happily cruise with a well-running fridge but you've realized that you can fit only so much food in your refrigerator - and it isn't enough to last you between your provisioning stops. You need ideas that will extend your provisions for several weeks or months without refrigeration.
• Or perhaps you've chosen to live without refrigeration because of the time and money involved in having a system aboard. To have refrigeration you will need:
• money for a good refrigeration system
• money and time to build and insulate a box or at the very least reinsulate your existing box.
• money for an energy source to run the refrigeration
• money or the expertise to keep it running.

I believe that you don't need to have it ALL before you go cruising. Not everyone will be willing to give up the reefer but if you're on a tight budget and believe - as I do - that it's much better to go cruising NOW than wait until that elusive day when you can afford to have it all - then you might be one of many cruisers who say, "No refrigeration? No problem."
Here are some tips for living without refrigeration.


Most cruisers find they need to cut down on the amount of meat that they eat. This isn't such a bad deal. You'll find that if you replace your meat with protein sources such as freshly caught fish and dry legumes, you will save significantly on your food bill and you'll eat a healthier diet.
Here are some ways to cut back on meat:
• Simply remove the meat from some of your recipes such as in spaghetti sauce, lasagna, soups, casseroles, etc. Add extra vegetables if needed. Canned mushrooms for example can add "bulk" to your spaghetti sauce and are a good source of protein.
• Add beans in place of meat. Beans are a great source of protein, are inexpensive and easy to store. They also taste great. If you are new to eating beans, add them gradually to your diet and let your digestive system get accustomed to them. Try a variety of beans - black, pinto, kidney, adzuki, refried - in place of meat in Mexican dishes such as tacos, taco salads, burritos, etc. and as a main ingredient in dishes such as Cajun beans and rice or bean soup. I buy both dried beans and canned beans and use the canned beans when we're on tight water rations.
• Eat freshly caught fish and seafood. But unless you have ice - don't catch more than you can eat in the next meal or two. Catching fish - either by trolling behind the boat or by spearfishing can be lots of fun and can actually provide you with a good supply of food in certain cruising areas. I've actually had my kids say, "not lobster again, mom!" You may also be able to trade for fresh fish and seafood.
• Provision with canned meats. You might want to learn how to can your own meat or you can buy canned meat. Good sources to buy canned meat are????? Most grocery stores in the states carry canned chicken. A little six-ounce can of cooked chicken can go a long way towards zipping up a meal such as fajitas or a stir-fry.
• Eggs are an inexpensive source of protein and can be stored without refrigeration. Start with fresh eggs that have never been refrigerated. Outside the US this is easy. In the US, try finding a farm that sells fresh eggs. Do not clean the shells, as there is already a protective seal on the eggs that you don't want to wash off. The easiest way to keep eggs for a month or two without refrigeration is to simply turn the egg cartons over twice a week. Powdered eggs are also available and are a great substitution for any baking that calls for eggs in the recipe.
• Try using lentils occasionally in place of ground beef or ground turkey in dishes such as sloppy joes. No, they don't taste like meat but they are good and the strong flavor of a sloppy joe sauce WILL make them taste sloppy joe-ish.
• Nuts are another great source of protein and they store well on a boat. Add nuts to stir fries or salads or use peanut butter or almond butter to make sandwiches. Nuts make a great snack as well.
• Tofu is yet another source of protein. It is available packaged in aseptic containers that need no refrigeration. Tofu has very little flavor of its own but instead absorbs the flavor of the ingredients that it is cooked with. Adding tofu to your meal is a great way to include the benefits of soy in your diet.
• Be creative with your cooking. I grew up eating meat as the main ingredient at dinner. Vegetables, breads, rice or potatoes were just the "extras." But you can build a meal around a vegetable or a rice dish. Potatoes can be the center of attention. You just have to change your traditional way of thinking.
• When you have access to a market where meat is available and you're in need of a carnivorous fix, plan on a meat based meal on shopping day.
• If you enjoy sampling the local cuisine while cruising, go out to eat occasionally and order a meat dish.


Most fresh dairy products will spoil quickly without refrigeration although an icebox will extend their life. But many products are available in forms that need no refrigeration.


• Powdered milk is the least expensive of the non-refrigerated milk products. It stores well and is widely available. Most cruisers are able to make the change from fresh milk to dry if it is done gradually (drink a mixture of half fresh milk to half reconstituted powdered for a few days then gradually increase the ratio of powdered). You may want to try adding a bit of sugar and a drop of vanilla. Some people however, only find the milk palatable if chilled first. That can be a problem if you have no refrigeration to cool the reconstituted milk and you just can't stand it at room temperature. Here's a tip to cool down any beverage (milk, beer, etc.). Take a wet towel and wrap it around the can or bottle for a few minutes. Evaporation will help to cool the bottle a few degrees. Even if you don't like to drink the powdered milk, keep a good supply on hand for baking. Remember to mix only what you will need. If you or your kids need a calcium boost but don't like drinking the powdered milk straight, try it in hot chocolate. Yes, my kids drink hot chocolate even in the tropics. Or add some powdered chocolate milk mix, such as Nestle Kwik or Ovaltine.
• Long-life milk is milk that has been sterilized using Ultra High Temperature (UHT) pasteurization and sealed inside a box, so it does not spoil even at room temperature. It needs no refrigeration until opened. Even at room temperature you probably won't mind the taste of this on cereal. If we plan on having cereal and milk for breakfast and open a long life milk but have no ice in the ice box, I just plan on using some in my baking that morning - I usually bake in the AM when its cooler anyway.
• Canned milk such as evaporated milk or sweetened condensed milk is widely available. Or you can make your own.
Sweetened Condensed Milk: Combine 1-cup instant nonfat dry milk, 2/3-cup sugar, 1/3 cup boiling water and 3 Tablespoons of melted margarine in either a blender or a bowl. Blend or mix with electric mixer until smooth. Makes about 1Ό cups.
Evaporated milk: Use dry milk reconstituted with only ½ the amount of water called for.


Canned Cream such as the Nestlι's brand is available in many ports around the world, although you are less likely to come across it in the states.

Sour cream

To make your own sour cream, mix a six-ounce can of Nestlι's Cream with 2 teaspoons of vinegar. Stir and let stand for an hour or two.


Remember that the harder the cheese, the longer its storage life. Parmesan cheese and cheddar cheese are hard cheeses, whereas mozzarella and Farmer's cheese are softer. Buy cheese sealed in a heavy wax coating, if possible. As an alternative you can dip a piece of cheesecloth in vinegar, wrap the cheese in this and store in the coolest part of your boat. Velveeta brand cheese and other American cheese products need no refrigeration.


• You can buy delicious canned butter that needs no refrigeration. Great bets are canned butter from New Zealand or Ireland. You'll find canned butter available in many ports around the world although it is difficult to find in the US.
• You can also save money by preserving your own butter. Sterilize jars with screw on lids. Cool on a clean surface. Next, boil one-quart water and four tablespoons of salt. Let cool. Place 2 sticks of butter (1/2 cup) in the sterilized jar. Fill jars with cooled water/salt mixture and screw on the tops of the jar. Your butter will keep for months.
• Whipped margarine in plastic tubs will stay fresh for several months if left unopened. Butter flavored Crisco works great for many baking recipes and needs no refrigeration.


It's easy to make homemade yogurt using a thermos. Heat one quart of reconstituted nonfat dry milk (add an additional 1/3 cup of dry milk - no extra water - if you like thick, custard style yogurt) over medium heat just until milk comes to a boil, stirring occasionally. Remove milk from heat. While the milk is heating, boil a kettle of water and pour the boiling water into the thermos to sterilize and "preheat" the thermos. Cool milk until it reaches a temperature between 100-120 degrees Fahrenheit. Put 2 Tablespoons of "starter" yogurt (either from your last batch of yogurt, store bought plain yogurt that has "live" or "active" cultures, or dry culture mix available from Lehman's Non -Electric Catalog or 1-888-438-5346)) in a small bowl and add a small amount of the cooled milk. Stir until yogurt is dissolved. Add the dissolved yogurt to the remaining cooled milk and stir. Empty thermos of hot water (use for washing dishes) and pour yogurt/milk culture into empty thermos and cap. Let incubate for 6-12 hours. The longer the incubation time, the "tarter" the yogurt. Eat warm or wait until it has cooled and flavor with vanilla extract, honey or fresh fruit.

Fruits and Veggies

• Fresh
Many fresh fruits and vegetable store well without refrigeration for weeks or even months. Potatoes, sweet potatoes, cabbage, onions, carrots, winter squash, turnips, apples, oranges, limes and lemons are good bets.
• Canned
There are a variety of fruits and vegetables that are excellent when canned. It's a matter of personal taste as to what canned vegetables and fruits you should provision with. I find canned tomato products, canned corn and canned mushrooms to be excellent choices. I'm not a big fan of canned peas, although I love them fresh and frozen. We also enjoy canned fruits such as peaches, pears, pineapples and applesauce.
• Dehydration is an excellent way to preserve many foods, including fruits and vegetables. You're probably familiar with many dried or dehydrated foods such as dehydrated potatoes in a box, instant rice, powdered milk or dried meats such as beef jerky. When it comes to dried fruits you probably think of raisins and prunes. But many more fruits are excellent when dehydrated. Dried cherries, strawberries, peaches, apples, cranberries (called craisins) etc. make an excellent snack or they can be reconstituted to be used in pies, or to be served over pancakes, waffles or in hot cereals. You can buy many of these dried fruits and vegetables at a large grocery store or from a natural foods store or use either an electric dehydrator or a solar dryer to dry your own. However, solar dryers may not work well in humid climates.
• Fresh Produce Markets. Take advantage of the great prices and fresh taste of local produce wherever you sail. We've bought delicious pineapples for less than a nickel each in Guatemala. A stalk of around 100 small green bananas cost us less than a dollar. When bringing fresh produce aboard, make sure that it harbors no insects. We tied our stalk of bananas to a line and hung them overboard to get rid of any hiding spiders. Next we rinsed them and divided the stalk into several smaller bunches. We put some below out of the sunlight (the sun speeds up the ripening) and hung some up on deck. That way we had bananas ripening at different times.

Other Items

Many food items that you may have refrigerated back home don't actually need to be refrigerated. Soy sauce, hot sauce, peanut butter, mustards, pancake syrup, molasses, pickles, etc. need no refrigeration. Many cruisers keep opened mayonnaise without refrigeration. The trick is to never, ever introduce any other food into the mayonnaise jar. I recommend buying small jars of mayonnaise and tossing it if you are at all suspicious about its quality.
Find recipes to make your own fresh salad dressings and make just what you need at the time.
Our family of four lived aboard for nearly ten years without refrigeration. Although we now happily cruise with a Kollman built fridge and freezer unit (see sidebar resources for more information), we wouldn't have missed a moment of our cruising fun for lack of a reefer.

Barbara Theisen has spent the past twelve years living aboard Out of Bounds with her husband Tom and daughters, Kate and Kenna. The Theisens are currently cruising the Northwest Caribbean. For more information on living the cruising life, visit the Theisens’ Website at

Kate Theisen with her freshly caught mackerel.

Tom and Kenna Theisen take advantage of the great prices and fresh taste of local produce at a market in the Bahamas.

“Fast food” delivery is available in surprising places. Mayan women in Guatemala sold us delicious empanadas (a fried turnover that was stuffed with potatoes) from their cayuco, which is a traditional dugout canoe

Kate Theisen holds up a stalk of bananas
that were freshly cut from the surrounding
rainforest in the Rio Dulce of Guatemala.

Chilling Out - To What Degree?

• Needs no electricity
• Extends the life of dairy products, produce, meat, fresh fish, and leftovers by several days to a week.
• Keeps drinks cold.
• Ice is getting more expensive and more difficult to find in many places. Best bets for finding ice?
• Since fishing vessels need ice, your best bet for finding large blocks of ice are in fishing towns.
• An icebox works better in temperate climates. In the heat of the tropics, ice will not last long, is expensive and in some places, difficult to impossible to find.
• You must start with great insulation - see resources below.
• Blocks of ice are best - the bigger the better.
• You will need a drain in your icebox, as you don't want food sitting in melted ice water.
• Extends the life of dairy products by a week or more.
• Extends the life of meat, fresh fish, and leftovers by several days.
• Keeps drinks cold.
• Needs a good supply of electricity
• Needs maintenance to keep it running
• You must start with great insulation
• Choose the type of refrigeration that meets your needs by going to
• If you have no freezer, buy frozen meat or have the grocery store freeze your meat, thereby extending the life of your fresh meat for several days.
• You can keep a supply of meats, fish, cheese, frozen fruits and vegetables, etc. for many months (as long as your freezer keeps running).
• Needs a good supply of electricity.
• If it breaks down you may lose a lot of food.
• Read "Do-It-Yourself Boat Refrigeration" by Richard Kollmann.
No icebox
• Uses no electricity.
• Uses no ice.
• There is absolutely no cost or maintenance involved.
• You have no way to extend the life of fresh caught fish or leftovers so food may go to waste.
•This is the low cost, low maintenance way to go but you will probably need to make some changes from the way you've lived on land. Many successful sailors have happily cruised this way for many years. Others would never even consider it!
Anyone who is considering installing an icebox or a refrigeration and/or freezer on their boat or who wants to maintain their present system needs only one resource, and his name is Richard Kollmann. Mr. Kollmann is the guru of marine refrigeration. Check out his website at where you will find information on solving your marine refrigeration problems, installing a new system, evaluating boat refrigeration claims and more. You can also purchase the sailor's bible on marine refrigeration, "Do-It-Yourself Boat Refrigeration."