Whether your going camping or hunting, are on a road trip or just want to store some frozen food in your cooler for whatever reason you might be wondering how long you can keep food completely frozen in your cooler.
The good news is with the right cooler and a couple of simple techniques you can actually keep food completely rock hard frozen for quite a long time.
Frozen food can stay frozen for 48 hours, on average. However, the outside temperature, the quality of your cooler, how you’ve prepped your food, and the type of ice packs you’re using make a huge difference.
You also need to consider the safety of keeping frozen food in your cooler as coolers don't keep food quite as cold as an at home freezer would. While red meat could stay frozen for 5+ days in a high-quality cooler, fish or poultry may only be safely frozen for 2 days.
When prepping your food to stay frozen, there are a number of steps you can take. Keep reading to learn more about how long frozen food will stay frozen in a cooler and how you can keep it frozen (and safe to eat) for longer.
The Secret To Keeping Food Frozen In Your Cooler
You'd be forgiven for thinking that if you throw frozen food in a cooler with ice then that food is going to stay frozen for as long as the ice lasts in your cooler. That's around 1-2 days for a cheap cooler and around 3-7 days for a high end cooler like Yeti.
However, this is not the case!
It's important that you understand the secret to keeping food frozen in your cooler so you can keep it frozen for longer.
Your freezer at home has a temperature of around 0ºF (-18ºC). This is quite a bit below the freezing temperature of water which is 32ºF (0ºC).
When you take frozen items out of the freezer they will start at 0ºF (-18ºC) and they will slowly begin to warm up the longer they are in your cooler.
If you place ice from the freezer into your cooler it too will start at 0ºF (-18ºC) and then will slowly begin to warm up until it begins melting. Once your ice starts melting your entire cooler is likely hovering around the 32ºF (0ºC) mark – A FULL 32ºF or 18ºC WARMER THAN YOUR FREEZER AT HOME.
The key to keeping food frozen in your cooler for longer is to slow the warming process as much as possible as well as use ice packs that are specifically designed to stay colder than regular ice would.
The better you can do this the longer your food will stay frozen in your cooler.
How Long Will Different Foods Stay Frozen?
Different foods thaw at different speeds, no matter how well you’ve prepped your cooler. Different foods are also safe in a cooler for different periods of time.
Of course, whether or not you use ice or ice packs, the outside temperature and how tightly packed your cooler is can impact how long your foods will stay frozen and safe.
Here’s a good rule of thumb for keeping yourself and your food safely frozen in a cooler:
- Fish, poultry, ground meat, berries: 2-3 days max
- Red meat, lunch meat, dairy goods like eggs, cheese, and yogurt: 3-5 days
It’s important to note that this is how long these foods will stay safe to eat as long as your cooler is kept at a temperature 40ºF (4ºC) or lower.
However, if you don’t properly prep your food, it’s unlikely to stay completely frozen the entire time and it'll be more like keeping food in the fridge than keeping it in the freezer.
Why Don't Coolers Keep Food Frozen For Long?
Coolers are designed to slow the warming up of food, drinks and ice as much as possible. However, they don't actively keep your food and drinks frozen or cold.
To keep food frozen at the ideal temperature you want these items to be around 0ºF (-18ºC), which is the internal temperature of your freezer at home.
However, because your frozen food and your ice comes out of the freezer it starts at 0ºF (-18ºC) and once placed in the cooler it will immediately begin to warm up to 1ºF (-17ºC) and then 2ºF or 3ºF (-16ºC) and so on.
While water started to melt at 32ºF (0ºC) a lot of food items will thaw well before this and regular ice will only keep your cooler as cold as 32ºF (0ºC). This leads to food only staying frozen for 1-2 days in a cooler before it warms up too much and thaws out.
Unless you use dry ice or ice packs specifically designed to stay colder than regular ice it's very difficult to keep food frozen in a cooler for long.
Do Coolers Keep Food Frozen Without Ice?
Even with the best prep work, your cooler will NOT keep your food frozen for long without ice.
If you don't use ice in your cooler you can expect items to stay frozen for a matter of hours – not days. The exception to this is if you have a very large cooler and it is COMPLETELY FULL with frozen food (eg. meat). The large quantities of frozen food will keep each other cold and you can keep food frozen for days using this method.
It is important to note though that the food on the outsides and near the top of the cooler will thaw first and food towards the center and bottom of the cooler will thaw last.
If you want to keep your food frozen while traveling, you need to do more than simply throw it in the cooler.
For example, pre-frozen meat in a pre-chilled cooler that’s really high quality will stay frozen for 24 hours and at a safe temperature for up to 48. Using ice can extend that safe period by 1-3 days!
Preparing Your Food To Stay Frozen
One of the best things to ensure your food will stay frozen for the maximum time we’ve indicated above is to pre-freeze everything ahead of time and keep it as cold as possible. If you put unfrozen meat or other items into your cooler, they will not freeze and will likely become unsafe.
Don’t think that saltwater or dry ice will keep you safe!
While these are really good at keeping foods frozen, even dry ice won’t be able to fully freeze your food if it hasn’t been pre-frozen beforehand.
How To Keep Food Frozen In A Cooler
The prep work is very similar whether you’re traveling with a large cooler or trying to keep items completely frozen in your insulated lunch box.
Pre-freezing your food and pre-chilling your cooler are two of the biggest and most important steps to keep your food frozen for the maximum amount of time.
Some other steps you can take include:
- Using ice packs designed to stay below freezing temperature
- Using a high-quality cooler
- Packing your cooler tightly
- Insulating your food
Will Regular Ice Keep Your Food Frozen In A Cooler?
Yes and no.
Regular ice warms up fairly quickly, and once it begins to melt your cooler will stay at around 32ºF (0ºC) which actually isn't cold enough to keep most food frozen.
Regular ice may be all you need if you only require your food to stay frozen for 24-48 hours but if you want to keep food frozen for longer then you'll need to use specialty ice packs or dry ice.
If you’re planning an extended camping trip and you really need to keep things frozen then it’s better to use dry ice, saltwater ice packs, or large blocks of ice to help keep food frozen for longer.
Is Dry Ice Good For Keeping Foods Frozen?
Dry ice is amazing for keeping foods frozen and for extending the life of normal ice in your cooler.
If you use dry ice correctly in your cooler, you’ll be able to keep food frozen for 5-7 days or even longer.
This is because dry ice is frozen carbon dioxide and it has a stable temperature of -109.2ºF (-78.5ºC) which is MUCH MUCH colder than your freezer at home and definitely cold enough to keep food frozen.
In fact, usually you'll want to separate your dry ice from your food using cardboard, foam or towels to prevent freezer burn.
With dry ice the main considerations you need to have are safety when it comes to handling it (it's so cold it can burn you) as well as good ventilation as dry ice lets off lots of carbon dioxide as it sublimates.
How Long Will Ice Cream Stay Frozen in A Cooler?
Ice cream is one of the best treats you can have during the summer. And there’s nothing more disappointing than opening your cooler and finding out that your ice cream has turned into soup.
You can’t just put ice cream into your cooler with regular ice and expect it to stay frozen, though! Since it’s designed to have a lower melting point than ice, it will turn soggy long before your ice does.
However, it’s possible to keep your ice cream frozen in your cooler for 1-2 days and sometimes even longer if you follow the tips we discussed in this article!
Packing your ice cream in a thermal cooker and keeping it at the bottom of your cooler with the frozen meat can keep it frozen for several days in a high-quality cooler.
How Can I Keep My Meat Frozen?
Like we’ve touched on elsewhere in this article, it’s essential to learn how to keep meat frozen if you plan to travel with it. Failing to pre-freeze your meat and pre-prep your cooler can result in spoiled meat that’s unsafe to eat.
Make sure to fill any empty space in your cooler with ice, ice packs, or other insulation to keep air from circulating. Add dry ice and keep your cooler closed until you want to get the meat out.
If you don't have access to dry ice then create salt water ice packs using PVC pipe or even water bottles or purchase ice packs designed to stay colder than regular ice. See my list of the 20 best ice packs for coolers.
Following these steps can help your red meat stay frozen for up to 7 days. If you’re traveling with poultry or ground meat, however, you’ll want to make sure you get it into an actual freezer within 3 days.
How long your food stays frozen in your cooler depends on what type of food you’re storing, how you store it, and how much prep work you do. The conditions outside your cooler, like the external temperature and how often you open your cooler, will also play a factor.
If you take the time to pre-freeze your food, pre-chill your cooler, and insulate everything correctly, your frozen meat can stay frozen for up to 3-5 days. Your non-milk dairy products can also stay frozen for up to 3-5 days.
Poultry, ground meat, and fish should be put in a freezer within 1-3 days.
If your food has thawed, make sure that it has stayed below 40ºF (4ºC). Otherwise, it may no longer be safe to eat!