Whether you’re going camping, planning a long trip or you just want to keep your lunch cold during the day, you might be wondering if it’s best to use ice or ice packs for your cooler. Both have their pros and cons and what you choose depends on your situation and budget.
Ice packs are usually a better choice than regular ice if you can afford it. They are reusable, stay colder than regular ice (helping to keep things frozen) and don't make a mess as they melt. The downside is they are more expensive than regular ice and regular ice is better at filling up all the empty spaces in your cooler.
If you don't use enough ice packs then they will melt quickly and items in your cooler will end up warm and getting spoiled.
A combination of ice packs and ice is usually what most people will go for.
Regular ice is generally a lot more cost effective for large coolers and can completely cover and keep everything cold, whereas ice packs can lead to some items being too warm in your cooler if they aren't directly touching the ice pack.
But there’s more to unpack here and which options is best is a little nuanced. So, I’ve pitted ice and ice packs against each other to showcase why ice packs are the superior choice for keeping your contents cool.
Pros Of Using Ice Packs
1. Stays Colder Than Regular Ice
The first major benefit to using ice packs rather than ice in your cooler box is, they actually stay colder than regular ice does.
The liquid inside an ice pack freezes/melts at a lower temperature than water and this means that as it melts it'll stay colder than regular ice.
While regular ice will hover around 32-34ºF (0-1ºC) as it begins to melt ice packs can stay as low as 20ºF (-7ºC). This can help food stay completely frozen in your cooler for longer so if you have meat, ice cream or other products you want to keep fully frozen using ice packs designed to stay super cold are going to be your best option.
Having said that, you still need to ensure you’re storing ice packs correctly to achieve optimal cooling performance.
Wrapping them in a tea towel or getting a good quality cooler are great ways to make your ice packs last longer.
2. Ice Packs Don't Make a Mess As They Melt
Another major benefits of ice packs over regular ice is that as ice packs melt they don't form pools of water in your cooler and your items are less likely to get wet.
This is especially important in soft coolers and lunch boxes where you can't use regular ice cubes because the water will leak out of the soft cooler.
But even in waterproof coolers the fact that ice packs keep the water contained can be a huge benefit. This means your food won't get soggy in your cooler as your ice melts and everything is a lot easier to manage.
Another major benefit of ice packs is that they are reusable. Whereas ice cubes melt and then you discard the water ice packs can be thrown back in the freezer for next time.
Last year I was traveling in my van for a few days a week. Whenever I'd get home I'd throw my ice packs back in the freezer and in 1-2 days they would all be completely frozen and ready to go again.
I never had to worry about buying ice because I could just reuse my ice packs.
Different ice packs have different durability. Ice packs like Yeti Ice are made from extremely durable plastic and should last you 3-5+ years. This means you can get A LOT of use out of them over the long term.
Cons Of Using Ice Packs
1. More Expensive
The biggest con with ice packs is that they are more expensive to buy compared with ice.
A large bag of ice might only set you back a couple of dollars. But to buy the same quantity of ice packs would likely cost you hundreds of dollars, especially if you buy a good brand.
At the time of writing a 20 lb bag of ice from Walmart cost less than $4 ($0.20/lb). To make this up in Yeti Ice Packs you'd need to buy 5 x 4 lb ice bricks. This would set you back around $150 ($7.50/lb).
That's a huge difference!
However, the savings come when you reuse your ice pack over and over again as you don't need to keep buying ice.
You'll need to use your Yeti Ice Pack around 40 times before it works out to be cheaper than ice, and many people just can't afford the upfront cost of ice packs.
There are a variety of cheaper ice packs and larger ones which can save you money (see my list of the best ice packs for coolers), but even the cheapest ice packs will still cost more than a bag of ice.
These larger Cooler Shock ice packs for coolers (at Amazon) are cheaper than the Yeti Ice Packs and will only set you back around $10 for each 4 lb ice pack. You only need to use these 13 times before they have paid for themselves and you're saving money.
The perfect ice packs for lunch bags or coolers. These ice packs stay at a chilly 18ºF (-8ºC) allowing you to keep food completely frozen in your cooler. Made from durable and strong materials and reinforced with Nylon these will last you years. Shipped to you empty, simply fill with water and freeze.
2. Bulky In The Freezer
For many people, storage space in the home freezer is at a premium, especially if you're like me and have 3 hungry kids and need to store a lot of food in the freezer.
So it can be unworkable to continually find space in the ice box for your bulky ice packs. This means that you'll either need to invest into a large chest freezer or you'll end up buying ice from the store anyway.
Pros Of Using Ice
1. Space Filling
One of the great things about small ice cubes is that it can fit in all the little spaces of your cooler.
Whereas ice packs are large and bulky and can be difficult to arrange regular ice can just be poured on top of your items and can find it's way into little nooks and crannies.
The less empty air space you have in your cooler the longer everything will stay cold and this makes ice cubes a great option in a lot of circumstances.
2. Cheap To Make or Buy
Regular ice is extremely cheap to make at home. If you've got a bunch of ice cube trays you can make a lot of ice fairly quickly and at little to no cost compared to ice packs or store bought ice.
There are even ways you can make blocks of ice for your cooler which will last longer than small ice cubes.
Plus even if you need to buy ice it really isn't that expensive. 20 lbs (10 kg) or ice will usually set you back around $2-$5 and sometimes 1-2 bags is all you need.
If you’ve got an abundance of trays at home and don’t mind filling them up from the tap ahead of time before each trip then you’ll always come out on top financially.
3. Cools Things Faster
Because regular ice cubes can completely surround all your food and drink it can bring things down to temperature quicker than ice packs would.
So if you buy things and they are warm or room temperature then throwing them in a cooler filled with ice will chill them super quickly.
Drinks will get cold in about 10-12 minutes in a cooler filled with ice. But unless you have a lot of ice packs it'll take a lot longer to chill all your drinks using ice packs.
4. No Prep-Required
One of the great things about buying ice is there is no prep or pre-thought required.
One the day of your trip or when you need to fill your cooler you can simply go to your local store or gas station and get as many bags of ice as you need.
No needing to think ahead and freeze all your ice packs ahead of time.
5. Buying Ice Doesn't Take Up Space In Your Freezer
Another major benefit of buying ice is that you won't lose any space in your freezer to ice packs.
When I used to travel in my van the ice packs I used would take up more than half of my freezer at home, leaving little to no space for food.
If you simply buy ice you gain back all that freezer space.
Cons Of Using Ice
The major downside of using regular ice instead of ice packs is the fact that as they melt they create a pool of water that everything in your cooler ends up swimming in.
I still remember buying a block of chocolate and putting it on top of the ice in the my cooler only to come back and it's sunk to the bottom of the cooler (which was now full of water) and all the chocolate was completely soaked and ruined.
Don't even get me started on sandwiches!
While there are ways to keep food dry in your cooler even when using regular ice it can be annoying that regular ice creates so much ice melt and water.
Draining your cooler will cause the remaining ice to last longer, but you really need to keep topping up your cooler with ice if you want everything to stay cold.
2. Less Selective About Where To Put Ice
With an ice pack you can be more selective about where you place your ice packs in your cooler to get optimum performance.
You can keep some items frozen while allowing other items to stay warmer and by stacking ice packs together you can get them to last longer than if they were spread out.
However, there isn’t as much science involved with ice, as it refuses to stay in the same spot for long periods – especially when you’re on the move.
3. Won't Keep Items Frozen
Another downside of ice when compared to ice packs is that ice isn't actually able to keep things frozen.
If you want to keep items frozen in your cooler then ice won't do the job.
This is because as ice melts is hovers around 32-34ºF (0-1ºC) and other areas of your cooler will be even warmer at around 40ºF (4ºC). It just isn't cold enough to keep things completely frozen.
Ice packs on the other hand can stay as low as 18ºF (-8ºC) and this can keep meat frozen in your cooler or ice cream or a variety of other food items.
Which Is Better?
Generally speaking, if you can afford it the ice packs are going to be better than regular ice as they are reuseable, make less mess and stay colder than regular ice allowing you to keep things frozen.
However, regular ice can be a better option in many circumstances as it's a lot cheaper, you can purchase it when you need it so it doesn't take up room in your freezer and it can completely fill all areas of your cooler leading to less wasted space.