Whether you don't have access to ice or prefer not to use it there are times where you need to keep a cooler (and your food and drinks inside) cold without ice.
Keeping things cold in a cooler without ice isn't easy and things obviously won't stay as cold. But by using a few techniques you can keep your food or drinks cold in a cooler using no ice at all.
Can You Use A Cooler Without Ice?
Can you even use a cooler without ice or does a cooler need ice to work?
While coolers are usually used with ice to keep things cold you can use a cooler without ice. If you pre-chill your food and drink the cooler insulation will stop them warming up as quickly.
A cooler doesn't need ice to work, ice just helps to keep your items colder for longer.
How To Keep a Cooler Cold Without Ice
If you want to keep your cooler cold without ice for a long as possible then you need to do some prep work and take some steps to ensure your items stay as cold as possible.
Because you don't have ice to help you if you don't prep and pack your cooler correctly you'll find that everything gets warm pretty quickly.
Here are my best tips for keeping food and drinks cold in a cooler without using any ice.
Pre-Chill or Freeze Your Food/Drink
Despite it's name a cooler doesn't actually cool anything, it just helps to maintain the temperature of items you put in there.
It just stops heat getting in or out. You can even use a cooler to keep things hot.
So it's vital that you pre-chill or freeze your items before putting them in your cooler.
If you put in items that are room temperature then the cooler will keep them at room temperature and won't cool them down.
So you want things to be as cold as possible before you put them in your cooler.
Freeze your drinks, meat and other food where possible otherwise place everything in the fridge the day before to cool it down before you load it in your cooler.
Pre-Chill Your Cooler
If you've got an expensive cooler like a Yeti or something similar then you'll want to try and pre-chill your cooler before loading it.
When your cooler is left empty it can actually build up heat in the insulation. If you put cold items into a warm cooler then the heat in the insulation will warm up your items and your cooler won't work properly.
I've done a full article on how to pre-chill a cooler but it's pretty easy. Just put some ice or frozen water bottles in there overnight before you plan on using your cooler.
This will cool down the insulation and so when you put items in your cooler the insulation won't warm it up but will work to keep it cold.
Use Ice Packs or Frozen Water Bottles
For those who just want to avoid using loose ice but still have the chance it's a good idea to freeze some ice packs or water bottles and use them in your cooler.
These are great because they work just like ice to keep things cold but as they melt they don't make your cooler and all your food extremely wet. Read more about ice packs vs regular ice.
Frozen water bottles are great because they are cheap, reusable and as the ice in them melts you can drink the water.
There are a lot of great ice brick options out there. Check out my Yeti Ice review for more details.
Place Towels On Top Of Food/Drinks – Remove Air Space
When you don't have ice to help keep things cold in your cooler then you want to avoid your food and drinks being exposed to the air inside your cooler as much as possible.
Empty air space in your cooler is the enemy of keeping things cold. I discovered this when doing my research for the best coolers for ice retention.
The more air space in a cooler the faster things warm up
Wrapping your drinks or food in towels will insulate it further from the free air space in your cooler and using extra towels to fill in whatever air space is left in your cooler also helps.
You'd be surprised how much longer this can help your items stay cold when you're not using ice.
Keep The Cooler In The Shade and Out of The Heat
You want to avoid your cooler being exposed to heat as much as possible.
Coolers aren't perfect and some heat still gets through so you want to keep your cooler in a cool shady spot and out of direct sunlight as much as possible.
If this isn't possible then placing a towel on top of your cooler can insulate it a bit against the heat of the sun and help your cooler stay cold for longer.
Bury Your Cooler in The Ground
If you're at the beach or camping and have the luxury of digging a hole then placing your cooler partially in the ground can keep it cold for a lot longer.
The ground itself acts as an insulator and the further down you dig the cooler it is.
This is why in places like Coober Pedy in Australia people actually build their houses underground or partially underground.
Partially burying your cooler in the ground will keep it colder for longer.
Keep The Lid Closed As Much as Possible
Every time you open and close the lid of your cooler you're letting in warm air from the outside and losing the cold air from inside your cooler.
So leave your cooler lid closed as much as possible and only open it when you absolutely need to grab something.
When you open it grab what you need quickly and then shut it. Don't leave it open for extended periods of time.
Line Your Cooler With Aluminum
While aluminum is usually something I suggest in order to keep food hot on the go a lot of people don't realize it also works to keep food cold.
While coolers are great a keeping out heat through convection and conduction they aren't designed to keep out heat radiation. Heat radiation can get through the walls of your cooler and heat up your stuff.
Aluminum is great at reflecting heat radiation. It reflects about 96-98% of heat radiation. So adding a layer or two of aluminum to the inside of your cooler will reflect more heat and keep your cooler cold for longer. More on aluminum as a great insulator.
Combine These Tips To Keep Food and Drink Cold In a Cooler Without Ice
If you don't have ice it isn't the end of the world. You can still use your cooler to keep your food and drink cold without ice, you just need to take a few extra steps to make sure it doesn't heat up too quickly.
Combine the tips in this article for the best results and to keep your food and drink cold for as long as possible.
- Pre-chill or freeze your food and drink
- Pre-chill your cooler
- Wrap items in a towel
- Fill empty air space in your cooler with towels
- Keep your cooler in the shade
- Bury your cooler in the ground if possible
- Line your cooler with aluminum foil
- Use frozen water bottles or ice packs if you can
Combine these tips and you should easily be able to keep your food cold in your cooler without the help of ice.