Cooler bags are more lightweight than hard sided coolers making them perfect for adventures of all sorts. But do they need ice in them to keep things cold or can they work just fine ever without ice?
Yes, cooler bags need ice to work properly. Although ice is not mandatory to keep your food or beverages cold adding ice or ice bricks to your cooler bag will keep your items colder for longer.
Usually I recommend ice bricks in your cooler bag as opposed to loose ice because loose ice in a cooler bag can cause leaks.
Most of the time I'll use my cooler bags with ice or at least ice packs but on occasion I do use them without ice and they work just fine. The key is knowing when to use ice and when you can get away without using ice.
A number of factors will determine whether or not you need to use ice in your cooler bag:
- Quality of the cooler bag
- External temperatures
- How often you open your cooler
- How long you need to keep things cold
- How cold you want things to be
- How cold items start out
With these factors in mind, you can increase the time your cooler bag stays chilled, and know whether or not you need to use ice.
Quality of Your Cooler Bag
The first factor that will add or subtract the time your items in your cooler bag stay cool is the quality and thickness of the product.
Cheap cooler bags like this Coleman 9-Can Cooler bag won't keep things cold for very long unless you use A LOT of ice, like I did in the video below:
Thicker cooler bags with higher-quality materials will keep your things nice and cold, while thinner bags with little insulation will not do much against the elements.
For example the Engel HD30 can keep ice a whopping 4+ days which means it'll also keep things colder longer even without ice. Check out my list of the absolutely best soft sided coolers for ice retention.
These thinner cooler bags will more than likely need additional ice to keep your items cold, while you can probably get away with not adding ice to the higher-quality bags.
Of course, your personal plans, including how long you need your things cold, affects whether or not your bag needs ice.
The good news is that many high-quality cooler bags are on the market for a reasonable price. Depending on your situation, these bags might not need ice to keep your things cold.
Another factor to consider before deciding whether to add ice to your cooler bag is the external temperatures.
If it's going to be extremely hot on your outing, ice is probably the way to go.
Remember, cooler bags only slow the transfer of heat from the outside to the inside of your cooler. They don't stop it completely.
So if it's hot outside then eventually that heat is going to find it's way into your cooler bag.
On a cold winter's day I can load up my cooler bag with my drinks and food from the fridge and it'll stay cold long enough to get me through to lunchtime without any additional ice.
If I do the same thing in the summer heat everything warms up within just an hour or 2 and so ice is absolutely necesssary.
How Often You Open Your Cooler
The more you open your cooler, the more cool air seeps out and the more the bag heats up.
If you limit the number of times you open your cooler, you can extend the time it stays chilled.
Opening your cooler lets in air that is warmer than the air within the bag. You can add to the cold life of your cooler bag by limiting how often you open your cooler, as well as by following other tips.
One of these tips is to line the inside of your cooler with aluminum foil, which will reflect the sunlight and keep extra heat out of your cooler. More tips on how to insulate a cooler to keep things cold longer.
How Long You Need To Keep Things Cold
A big consideration as to whether or not you use ice in your cooler bag is how long you need your items to stay cool.
Recently I took a trip down to south coast and took a bunch of cold stuff with me.
However the drive was only 2-3 hours in the cooler afternoon and we were driving to a cabin that had a fridge.
So the items only really needed to stay cold for 2 to 3 hours until they would be back in the fridge.
In this case I really didn't need to use ice in my cooler bag and instead I just had everything pre-chilled, threw it in the cooler bag and it stayed cold just fine without ice.
How Cold You Want Things To Be
Another big consideration is how cold you want your items to be in your cooler bag.
If you're taking perishable items with you like yogurt, milk or anything with meats and you need it to stay extremely cold so it doesn't go bad then ice in your cooler bag is a must.
However, if you're taking items that don't need to be as cold (eg. sandwiches and drinking water) then you may not need to use ice as your cooler bag will keep them cold enough.
Sometimes you don't want things to be excessively cold and so avoiding using ice is the best option. Tips on how to stop things freezing in your cooler.
How Cold Your Things Start Out
If things start out pre-chilled or frozen then you may not need to use ice in your cooler bag.
For example, frozen water bottles are a great way to both keep everything in your cooler bag cold but also allow you to have drinkable water as it melts.
For my trip down the coast I mentioned earlier I had a bunch of frozen food and refrigerated food. Everything started out super cold.
I packed my cooler in such a way that the frozen stuff worked to keep the perishable fridge items cold and so I didn't need to add ice.
However, if you're starting out with room temperature items that you need to keep cold then ice is definitely going to be an absolute must.
Ultimately whether or not you need to use ice in your cooler bag depends on your situation.
A variety of factors including the quality of your cooler, the temperature outside, as well as how cold items are to begin with and how cold you need them to stay or play a major role in deciding whether or not to use ice in your cooler.
If you're at all concerned then I would simply advise to use ice where possible. Rather than using regular loose ice I would suggest getting a couple of good quality ice packs that you can reuse over and over again.
Are use and really like the Yeti Ice Bricks as they work great with all of the yeti coolers that I have. But any ice pack will do just fine.