Making ice last longer in a cooler requires a bit of pre-planning and following some best practices while you’re on the road. Here’s a simple guide for how to get the most out of your ice cooler.
The basic underlying principle
The basic concept behind making ice last as long as possible is this: limit the warmer things it comes into contact with. Basically, every tip below is intended to serve this one goal. For instance, the more warm outside air the ice comes into contact with, the faster the ice will melt trying to cool that air, and the sooner you’ll be buying more ice. By focusing your attention to reducing the things that the ice needs to cool off, you’ll make the ice last that much longer.
Preparing for a trip
This one is pretty easy and has the most immediate impact on your ice. Don’t start with a warm cooler or with room temperature drinks or you’ll immediately be starting from a deficit. It can take up to 2.5 pounds of ice just to cool two six packs kept at room temperature. Since I keep my coolers in the hot garage here in Phoenix, that means bringing the coolers inside the night before a trip and adding a small refreezable ice block to pre-chill the cooler itself. I also make sure all of the items that will be going into the coolers are properly cold too. That way, when I finally load everything in the morning, my ice won’t be wasted cooling everything down to a cold starting temp.
Use separate coolers
For longer trips, always bring separate coolers for your food items and for your beverages (and any other items you more regularly need to access). By doing so, you’ll ensure that the items that need to stay cool the most—the food items–aren’t accessed as frequently and stay colder.
For example, on long weekend trips, I usually use a 70qt cooler for our main food items, supplemented by a 28qt cooler for drinks. The 28qt cooler goes in the backseat so that we can snag a soda refill while we’re on the road, whereas the larger food cooler lives in the back of the vehicle. We also sometimes add a “stash” of additional beverages in the large cooler for replenishing later in the trip. Having a separate drink cooler is especially useful at camp, where you might have it closer to the action than your large food cooler. If you’re planning on having some adult beverages by the campfire, it’s especially useful to limit access to just this cooler alone.
If you’re bringing food for what seems like a small army, you can also divide your food coolers into various days of the trip. That way, you’re only opening the “Day 6/7 cooler” on days 6 and 7, which will help ensure that those items stay cold longer.
Keep it organized
It pays to stay organized when filling your coolers. That’s because the more time you spend with the cooler lid open, searching for that bottle of mayo or that pack of hot dogs, is more time that you’re replacing cold air with warmer outside air that the remaining ice will have to cool.
I suggest a few practice runs playing around with the layout of your cooler and the items you commonly bring on trips. Having a standard way of organizing the cooler means that you—and hopefully those you usually travel with—will always know where things are. If you want to be extra organized, you can even tape a layout map to the top of the cooler. You might get teased a bit by your campmates, but you’ll have the last laugh when your ice survives the whole trip.
Give priority to perishables
Put the items that are the most perishable, like meats and dairy, closest to the ice. Items that need to stay cool the least, such as vegetables, go near the top. This seems like a no brainer, but I’m amazed at how many people fail to do this.
Use a lid barrier
I’m a big fan of using a lid barrier in a cooler. I use a cut-out of reflectix (a sort of aluminum-lined bubble wrap that is used as insulation) to cover the contents of every cooler I use—even the flimsy soft-sided ones. As the ice melts and I consume items from the cooler, the lid helps insulate the ice and food from the resulting warmer dead air above it. In fact, I also line the sides of my primary food cooler with reflectix, too, which seems to add quite a bit to its performance. It’s a great deal in my book, as you’ll recoup the cost of an entire roll in just a few trips. If you can’t go the reflectix route, you can also trim something like a cheap foam camping pad or even the lid of a styrofoam cooler. Even a plain old towel is better than nothing.
Adding the ice
Cooler manufacturers recommend about .75 pounds of ice per quart. That means roughly 50 pounds of ice for a 70qt cooler! By following the steps outlined in this guide, however, I routinely get away with about half that. For long weekend trips of 3-4 days, I typically use one 10lb block of ice in my food cooler, and then split a 20lb bag of cubed ice between my food and drink coolers. Occasionally, I’ll split another 10lb bag between the two coolers late in the trip, especially if I’ve added more beverages or food.
Block ice vs cubed ice
Don’t fall for the “block ice vs cube ice” debate.
Cubed ice is best for more effectively chilling items, while block ice will last much longer. For most uses, a combination of both works the best. Start with one or two blocks of ice, fill the remaining space with the items you want to keep cold, and then add the cubed ice at the end. The blocks form a central core of solid ice, while the cubed ice falls between the gaps. You get the best of both worlds.
Keeping your food dry
Ice melts, so be sure that everything that you want to keep dry is wrapped in a ziplock bag or waterproof container. Yet somehow, icy water seems to make its way into some of those bags and containers over time. As a result, I use a cheap $2 plastic bin inside the cooler that I load all of my food items in. The bin sits on top of the ice and also helps keep everything organized and accessible. It’s easy to remove all of the food with one hand, or hold it up while I toss in some more ice.
Use frozen water bottles
My favorite trick for helping to keep ice longer is to freeze several liter water bottles for use as additional ice blocks. I often toss these into the food bin mentioned above to ensure that things stay cold (you can see a couple in the photo above, too). Once these frozen bottles melt, they conveniently transform into cold water bottles. Sometimes, I’ll do the same with more rugged nalgene-style water bottles. It’s great to have icy cold water for that mid-trip hike.
I also freeze one or more larger 2-quart bottles I’ve filled with water. Because they’re larger blocks of ice, they last longer and help supplement the ice I otherwise need to buy. The best part of this is that you can just toss these bottles back into the freezer after the trip and they’re ready for next time. You’ll occasionally need to replace these after they’ve been thawed and re-frozen several times. When I’m using a small cooler for a daytrip, I’ll often skip buying any ice and just use these frozen bottles instead.
Fill it up & reduce dead air
A full cooler will stay colder longer than one with a lot of dead air. So first, make sure to choose an appropriately-sized cooler for your adventure. Then, be sure to fill it with enough ice for the trip. Still have space? Maybe it’s time to add a few more frozen water bottles. If you still have extra space left in the cooler, consider filling it with a towel or other insulator, like foam pads or additional sheets of reflectix. The goal here is to leave as little space as possible for warmer outside air to settle inside the cooler when it’s opened.
Use dry ice to keep things frozen
Dry ice will help keep your food cold—even frozen—for much longer than normal ice, but it requires some special planning and safe handling. For instance, you’ll need to wear gloves to handle it, and it must be wrapped in paper, not plastic. Because it’s the solid form of carbon dioxide, it doesn’t melt into water the way ice does. It’s not sold at just any ol’ gas station like regular ice, so you’ll need to do a bit of research first, too.
If you use dry ice, you’ll need to give some special considerations to how you’ll organize your cooler. Most importantly, it can cause damage if it comes into contact with the sides of your cooler. There are a few ways to deal with this, but the easiest seems to be buying a styrofoam cooler and cutting it down to create a sort of “tray with sides” that the dry ice can sit on. Beyond that, you’ll also want to keep in mind that because it’s so cold, anything touching it will freeze. That makes it great for keeping frozen things frozen, but it can also wreak havoc on items that you don’t want to freeze.
One technique for using dry ice involves using it in a dedicated cooler to refreeze some reusable “blue ice” packs. Basically, you use blue ice blocks in your normal cooler, with a spare set lined around a dry ice block in another cooler. When the blue ice blocks in your normal cooler warm up, you simply swap them out with the ones in the dry cooler. Depending on your situation, you’ll likely have to do this swapping several times during a trip.
While you’re on the road
Keep sun and heat off the cooler
Always keep your cooler covered from the sun, whether it’s in your vehicle or at the campground. The hot sun can make cooler ice melt twice as fast as one in the shade. I always cover my food cooler with a blanket or pillow and my drink cooler with a fleece or down jacket. You could also make a cover using reflectix, but I recommend putting something over it to reduce the insane sun glare you’d get. Having system like will ensure that your coolers remain protected from the harsh rays of the sun. It’s also important not to leave your cooler on hot asphalt or other warm surfaces, like metal picnic tables that have in the sun all day long. Again, a piece of reflectix might be a perfect solution for reducing the heat transfer when the cooler is on a hot surface.
Similarly, it’s best to keep the cooler inside the air conditioned vehicle as you’re driving, rather than on a roof or hitch carrier. If it’s appropriate, don’t keep your cooler in a parked vehicle that’s baking in the sun. As any desert dweller can personally attest, vehicle cabins can get extremely hot just sitting in the sun. Keep in mind that if bears or other food-snatching animals are present in the area, you may not have a choice but to store your food in a hot car or a metal bear box in the sun. In that case, do your best to keep it as cool as possible; I sometimes employ towels or my sleeping bag to help insulate.
Keep the lid shut
Don’t leave the lid open longer than necessary. Consider what you’re getting from the cooler before you open it. This is pretty simple advice that goes a long way towards extending the life of your ice. Keep it shut.
Put food back quickly
It’s easy to grab all of the food items you’ll need for a meal and let them sit out while you cook, prepare, and eat. However, your ice will have to work less hard to cool foods that are still cool and haven’t warmed up to ambient air temperature. So when you have what you need for your meal, return the remaining items to the cooler promptly.
Don’t drain cold water
Just because your cooler touted a water drain on its label doesn’t mean you need to use it. Recently melted ice is still helping to keep your food cold, so you don’t need to drain your cooler just because you hear some sloshing. Melted ice water preserves frozen ice better than empty air space. The only time you need to drain water from your cooler is when you’ve purchased more ice and you need the physical space in the cooler.
Adding more ice
If you’ve followed these strategies, you won’t need to add more ice nearly as often as you otherwise would. That said, I often adhere to the “better safe than sorry” philosophy when it comes to food items, so I might add an additional 10lb bag of ice while gassing up my vehicle during a road trip. There are many factors that come into play here, so it’s hard to provide a useful recommendation for when you should consider adding more ice. If you’re in doubt, you might as well spend the extra $2-3 bucks and buy an extra bag.
When you’re at the store buying ice, try to grab ice from the back of the cooler where the refrigeration unit is usually located. While all of the ice in the cooler is below 32° F, the ice in the back is usually several degrees colder, as it doesn’t come into regular contact with the warmer outside air when the door is opened. You might get an annoyed look from the convenience store clerk who faced all the ice to the front, but they aren’t the ones paying for the ice so grab the coldest one you can find.
Use a smart thermometer
If you constantly find yourself wondering if the food in the cooler is, indeed, still cold enough, then it’s time to invest in a thermometer. There are several inexpensive models (like this one) that will not just tell you the current temperature in your cooler, but will keep track of both the high and low temp readings. Keep it in your food bin in the cooler and you’ll be able to keep close track of how your food is doing. Press a simple reset button to clear the recorded values as you place it back in and close the cooler lid.
Which cooler to buy
There are quite a few outdoor blogs with reviews and comparison demos of various cooler models out there if you’re interested. But keep the following points in mind as you read through them and consider what to buy.
Maybe you don’t need that Yeti…
For all of the swooning over high-end premium coolers like Yeti, I’m skeptical that there is a large market of people who actually need the added performance that they provide. I’m not picking on Yeti specifically here; to be fair, that’s usually true of any high-end piece of outdoor gear. The top-of-the-line stuff performs marginally better, but almost always at many times the cost.
Does it make sense to spend an additional $350 to get that extra 10-15% of performance? Maybe it does if you’re off on a two-week wilderness rafting trip. But for someone like me, who uses mine almost exclusively during weekend camping trips, or during occasional long road trips where I’m passing countless gas stations and grocery stores? Nah. I’d rather use that money for more travel, personally.
But skip the low end stuff, too
But that doesn’t mean that you should just grab the cheapest cooler you can find. If you spend any significant time using a cooler, I’d recommend getting a good one. You just don’t need to get the very best one you can find. Think about what features are actually going to be useful for you, and what sizes are most appropriate. Do you need a certified bear-proof cooler when you always keep your cooler in the car at night anyway? Take some measurements and be sure that the cooler will fit where you need it to in your vehicle. Things like that may end up mattering far more than whether it can keep ice for 5 days versus 6, especially if you’re usually only out for the weekend.
The coolers I use
I recently upgraded my main food cooler from this Igloo MaxCold 70qt rolling cooler to this lovely Coleman Xtreme 70qt cooler. I’m pretty damn happy with the change, even though both claim to keep ice for 5 days and have identical capacities. Why?
Well, the awkward cube-shape of the Igloo made it difficult to fit into my Subaru Outback without partially obscuring the view out the rear window. Also because of its height, I couldn’t open the lid enough to grab anything while it was in the vehicle. I never used the wheels, since I rarely camp anywhere with paved campsite walkways. I also hated that its lid was easily removable, as it would routinely topple off when I didn’t want it to. Most importantly, it didn’t work well for how I like to lay out my cooler—it was too tall and not long enough. Don’t get me wrong, this cooler is perfectly good and I’m keeping it for those times when it would be a great solution, like tailgating at college football games in the fall.
But for road trips, the more horizontal Coleman model works far better for me. The food bin I use fits perfectly on top of a standard ice block, while still providing easy access to water bottles or drinks along the two sides. It fits very well in the car, which is makes packing and unpacking everything else a breeze. I can even open it while it’s packed away to snag a quick item. And it’s unexpectedly handy to use as a quick seat. It sounds silly, but my overall experience is far better with the new cooler than the old one.
The main point here is that there are a number of considerations you should take into account when choosing a cooler. Don’t be afraid to make a selection based on criteria other than its raw insulating capability.
Have any additional tips?
Let me know in the comments if you have additional tips or tricks for extending the life of your cooler ice.
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