It can be difficult to know how much ice you should put in your cooler. Not enough ice and your items won't stay cold, too much ice and you can't fit anything in your cooler.
How much ice do you need for a cooler and what is the perfect amount of ice to put in a cooler?
A 2:1 ice-to-contents ratio in your cooler is recommended but I have found this to be impractical. A 1:1 ice-to-contents ratio allows for more food and drink but is still keeps everything cold for a long period of time. Small amounts of ice will melt too quickly so use as much as you can fit. The more ice you use the longer your cooler will be cold.
The size of the cooler, what you are trying to keep cold and for how long as well as the quality of the cooler plays a large role in how much ice you'll want to put in your cooler.
Obviously you don't want to put too much ice in as it's a waste of space and money, but you also don't want too little ice. If you don't use enough ice then your ice will melt super quickly and everything will get warm fast.
1:1 or 2:1 Ratio Is “Recommended” But Really It Depends
If you go to any cooler company's website they'll recommend a 2:1 ice-to-contents ratio as a blanket statement “this is what you should do”.
But honestly, how much ice you should use in your cooler varies so much based on how you're using your cooler, how long you need to keep things cool for and how good your cooler is.
I used to living in a campervan with my partner and 3 children and we used our Yeti 45 as our primary cooler/fridge.
For us a 2:1 ice-to-contents ratio was completely impractical because it wouldn't leave enough room for all our food.
It also made it extremely difficult to access food at the bottom of the cooler because the ice was in the way. Plus it made all our vegetables completely freeze over which ruined them.
So while a 2:1 or 1:1 ice-to-contents ratio is recommended you need to adjust it based off your situation.
Below we'll look at some of the factors to consider and give some recommendations for common situations.
How Much Ice For Common Situations
|Drinks at a BBQ/Party||2:1 or 1:1|
|Keeping Food Frozen||2:1|
|Storing Fruit/Vegetables||1:1 or 1:2|
|Keeping Lunch Cold In |
Small Cooler or Lunch Bag
|1:2 to 1:4|
|Cooler Filled With Frozen Meat||1:1 to 1:10|
Factors To Consider When Choosing How Much Ice To Put In Your Cooler
As you can see from the table above how much ice you should put in your cooler really depends on a variety of factors.
How Long Do You Need Your Cooler To Stay Cold For?
How long you hoping to keep your items code for will play a part in how much ice do you need to put in your cooler.
If you're only trying to keep things cold for a few hours then you don't need much ice to achieve this. However, if you're trying to keep things cold for days at a time then you need more ice in order to achieve this.
I did a Yeti cooler ice test where I was able to keep ice for 10+ days, but the cooler was COMPLETELY filled with ice.
However, when we lived in the van and used this cooler as our everyday fridge and only filled it about 50% of the way with ice we would only get about 3-4 days of ice retention from the cooler.
This also has to do with how often we were using the cooler as well as putting in room temperature items, but it still goes to show that more ice will keep your cooler colder for longer.
If you're trying to do an off grid adventure and still want to have ice on day 10 then you're going to need a lot more ice than someone who's just keep things cold for a short road trip.
How Good Is Your Cooler
The quality of your cooler is also going to affect how much ice you need in order to keep things cold.
One of the perks of having a high-quality cooler that holds ice for a long period of time is that you need less ice to keep everything cool.
A Yeti that is only 1/3 full of ice can sometimes hold ice longer than a cheap cooler that is 100% full of ice. This saves you money and gives you more room for storing things.
How Cold Do You Want Your Cooler To Be?
This may seem like a strange question to ask and a strange thing to consider but depending on what you're trying to store in your cooler can affect how cold you want your cooler to me.
The more ice you're putting in your cooler the colder it is going to be overall.
If you're just storing cold drinks for a party of BBQ then this isn't an issue. However, if you're storing frozen goods you want to keep frozen or have foods you don't want to get frozen then this will affect how much ice you use.
If you are storing frozen foods in your cooler you need to keep frozen then you'll want at least a 1:1 ice-to-contents ratio (or more) with the ice covering the frozen food. If you're storing food you DON'T want to freeze then you'll want to use less ice and raise up that food away from the ice.
Like I mentioned earlier, when we living in the van if we put too much ice in our cooler then our vegetables would freeze and become ruined. Using a 1:1 or even 1:2 ice-contents-ratio allowed us to keep drinks and fridge items cold under the ice and fruit and vegetables cold, but not frozen, raised up above the ice.
How Much Of Your Contents and Pre-Frozen To Begin With?
If you're filling your cooler with items that are already pre-frozen then they will act like ice and keep your cooler cold so less ice overall will be needed.
For example, if you're using a cooler for hunting and storing processed and pre-frozen meat then often you only need enough ice to fill any air space in the cooler. The frozen meat will act as the ice to keep itself cold.
If you've got frozen water bottles, frozen drinks or other frozen food then these also act as ice bricks and so less ice overall is needed.
Are You Using Ice To Cool Down Food or Drinks?
Are you using the ice in your cooler to actively cool down food and drinks?
For example, are you taking room temperature drinks or food and placing them in your cooler allowing the ice to cool them down?
If you're doing this then you're going to add a fair amount of heat energy into your cooler and much of your ice will be used up bringing your contents down to temperature.
If you're doing this then you'll want to have more ice in your cooler than if your items are pre-chilled and you're just using the ice to keep them cold.
What Type of Ice Should You Use In Your Cooler?
How much ice you should use in your cooler is one thing to consider but you should also think about what type of ice you should use in your cooler.
Loose ice is the most common ice to use in a cooler. It is cheap, easy to get and fills in all spaces keeping things cold. Larger blocks of ice stay frozen longer and ice bricks are great to keep your ice frozen for longer or to be used instead of ice as they won't make everything wet as they melt.
The type of ice you use will again depend on how long you're trying to keep thing cold, how good your cooler is and what sort of things you're storing in your cooler.
Larger blocks of ice or frozen milk bottles or soda bottles can stay frozen longer than loose ice. However, because they are large and bulky they can sometimes take up too much space as they don't get in all the gaps.
For me when I'm going on a trip usually I'll want to use a combination of big blocks of ice, some ice packs or frozen water bottles and then I'll use loose ice to fill in any extra spaces.
This works to keep everything cold while also maximizing ice retention. Learn how to keep ice longer in your cooler.
Make Sure To Pre-Chill Your Cooler
If you want to use less ice in your cooler or if you want to keep your cooler cold for longer then you'll want to pre-chill your cooler before loading it up with ice and food or drinks.
If you're cooler is sitting in a warm room then the insulation will warm up and contain a lot of heat energy. Putting ice into a warm cooler will melt the ice quite quickly.
By pre-chilling your cooler you can bring the temperature of the insulation down and this will help your cooler to hold ice much longer.
Here's how to pre-chill a cooler:
Place a sacrificial bag of ice or a few frozen water bottles in your cooler and leave in a cool room overnight. This will bring down the temperature of your insulation.
Before loading your cooler remove the old ice or frozen bottles and replace with fresh ice.
How Much Ice Do You Need In Your Cooler For a Long Trip?
If you're going on a long road trip and want to keep things cold for an extended period of time then you'll want to use a decent amount of ice.
For a long road trip you'll want to fill your cooler at least half to two thirds full with ice and pre-chill everything before you leave.
If you have extra ice left over it can be used to cool down food you get from service stations or it can be used to cool down drinks you've stored in your car but weren't able to fit in the cooler when you left.
When on a long car trip it can also be a good idea to tip out the water as the ice melts so it's not sloshing around everywhere as you drive. You can always top up with fresh ice during your trip to keep things cold even longer.
How Much Ice Do You Need in an Insulated Lunch Bag?
When your trying to keep some lunch and a water bottle cold from the morning until lunch time how much ice do you need in your insulated lunch bag?
Don't use ice in an insulated lunch bag as it'll melt and make everything wet. Use 1-2 decent sized ice bricks in a lunch bag to keep things cold until you're ready to eat them.
If you've got certain items you need to keep colder than others (eg. A yoghurt vs a sandwich) then make sure to have the items you need to keep cold touching the ice packs.
In a little lunch bag often not everything will stay super cold so you need to prioritize things.
How Much Dry Ice Do You Need For a Cooler?
Dry ice is different to regular ice and you don't want to use as much dry ice in your cooler or it'll absolutely freeze everything completely solid.
When using dry ice in a cooler a few pounds of dry ice is usually enough to keep things cold/frozen for 3-6 hours. To keep things frozen for multiple days you'll want to fill your cooler a third to a half full with dry ice.
Make sure to protect your food from direct contact with the dry ice by wrapping the dry ice in towel or paper or by placing cardboard on top of the dry ice. Here are some instructions on how to use dry ice in a cooler and you can also learn how to make dry ice last longer in a cooler.