If you're going to investing in a high-end cooler worth hundreds of dollars it's worth learning how to make ice last longer in a cooler.
Take your awesome cooler and give it the right conditions and ice can last for up to 10 days or more. Take the exact same cooler and put it in the wrong conditions and you might only get 4-5 days of ice out of it.
PLEASE NOTE: While these tips will work for all sorts of coolers there is only so much you can do with a $30 plastic cooler that has no rubber gasket and very thin insulation. For best results get a high-end roto-moulded cooler like the Yeti (but cheaper).
So here are my 15 ways to make ice last longer in a cooler. Ideally do as many of these 15 tips as possible to get the maximum ice retention and to keep your food and drink chilled for longer.
1. Chill With Ice Before Adding Products
Insulation works both way. Take a cold cooler and it will keep things cold, take a hot cooler that has been out in the sun on in a garage and it won't keep ice as long.
If possible before filling your cooler up with stuff add some ice to your cooler first and let it sit for a couple of hours in a cool place. This will cool down the cooler itself which in turn will help keep your stuff cooler.
2. Prechill Products Before Putting Them In Your Cooler
This is especially true for electric coolers but will also help ice retention in regular coolers.
For an extreme example let's say you took a 6-pack of beers and put boiling water in each of the beer bottles and then put them in your cooler. The boiling water is instantly going to transfer through the glass beer bottles melting the ice in your cooler.
Eventually, the cooler will win out, making your beers ice cold, but you would have sacrificed a lot of ice.
The same is true (though not as extreme) for food and beverages at room temperature. You lose some ice in the cooling down process.
By prechilling your items you can avoid this and your ice will last longer. While this isn't always practical it's a good thing to keep in mind.
3. Put As Much Ice In Your Cooler As Possible
Fill your cooler up with as much ice as it can possibly take. Doing this does two things
A) The mass of the ice helps to keep the entire cooler and its content colder for longer.
B) By filling up your cooler with ice you are minimising the amount of warm air in the cooler. Warm air melts ice, so the less warm air in your cooler the better.
4. Don't Have A Small Ice to Product Ratio
Don't stock your cooler so full of beer and soda that there is no room for ice, this isn't going to help your cause.
Ideally, the more ice the better but try to aim for at least a 2-1 ratio of ice to product and make sure there is enough space for the ice to fit in between each beverage.
5. Keep Your Cooler Out Of The Sun
The sun is hot and if your cooler is sitting in the heat of the sun all day it isn't going to work all well. Keep your cooler in the shade as much as possible if you want your ice to last a long time.
Sometimes this might mean moving your cooler a couple of times a day, but it will be well worth it.
6. Keep Your Cooler In A Cool AreaThe Pelican ProGear Elite is one of the best coolers at retaining ice but you can see in this video that when the cooler is kept on a back porch in over 90 degree heat it doesn't retain ice for as long as it possibly could.
He also drained the cooler which is a bad idea too (which we will get to in a second).
By keeping your cooler in a cool area (shady, breezy areas) you are going to get the best results.
Keeping it in the trunk of your car that is sitting in the sun or inside a tent with all the windows closed is a sure way to lose 2-3 days worth of ice retention.
7. Get Airflow Under Your Cooler
A lot of the high-end coolers like Yeti have non-slip rubber feet that raises them off the ground allowing airflow underneath.
The goal here is to minimise your cooler's exposure to the hot ground. If you don't have feet that raise your cooler up then consider using things like wooden blocks to raise your cooler slightly.
8. Don't Drain Your Cooler
Air between ice is worse than cold water between ice.
Every time you open your cooler the cold air escapes and warm outside air goes in. If you drain your cooler then this air is able to get between each piece of ice and works to warm that ice up.
By keeping the cold water in your cooler as the ice melts, the air can't get between your ice. Thus the cold water will keep your cooler cold for longer.
Only drain the ice when necessary or to replace the space with fresh ice (See tip #13)
9. Only Open Your Cooler When Necessary
As mentioned above every time you open your cooler the cold air from the inside of your cooler escapes, replaced by the warmer outside air.
Do this a lot and your ice is going to melt a lot faster. So try to only open your cooler as your need to and not extremely often.
10. Cover Your Cooler In A Wet Towel
You know when you're hot and you wet your hair how much cooler you feel? Or when you get your clothes wet and the cool breeze hits you and make you even colder?
By applying the same idea to your cooler (with the use of wet towels) you can help stop your cooler from warming up in the outside air. For best results keep the towel wet.
11. Use Larger Blocks Of Ice
Larger blocks of ice will last longer than those bags with small pieces of ice you buy from the local 7-11.
Fill up old ice cream tubs with water or fill up paper milk cartons (then rip off the paper once frozen) to make your own ice blocks at home.
The big blocks of ice have A LOT less surface area and so melt a lot slower as they aren't as exposed to the warm air.
I personally like to have a few big blocks of ice mixed with the smaller ice. I get the benefits of the big blocks of ice staying cold for a long time with the ease of use of the smaller pieces of ice.
12. Bury Your Cooler In The Ground
If you're camping or at the beach sometimes burying your cooler in the ground can help keep it cold longer. The top level of the ground can often get hot in the sun, but dig a little deeper and you will find the ground is quite cool as you get lower down.
For best results also soak the ground around your cooler. Be careful not to bury your cooler too deep or it may fill up with dirt and sand when you open it.
13. Add Extra Ice As Your Ice Melts
If it's practical add extra ice as your ice melts rather than waiting until you have no ice left.
The new ice will help keep the existing ice frozen and will help keep the existing water cold. It also limits the amount of space for warm air each time you open your cooler.
Remember, don't drain the water when you put fresh ice in unless you absolutely have to.
14. Use Frozen Salt Water
Pouring salt into already cold water and saying it keeps it cooler for longer is actually a bit of a misunderstanding. What you should be doing is actually freezing salt water.
See salt has a lower freezing point than water. So salty ice will actually be colder than regular ice. It will melt sooner than regular ice however the water it creates will be sub-freezing temperatures.
For best results freeze sea water rather than creating your own salt water. Also you'll need to use A LOT of salt to make this work.
15. Buy A Good Cooler
If you don't already have one the high-end roto-moulded coolers keep ice days longer than a standard cooler.
Even amongst the roto-moulded coolers some coolers perform better than others.
I recommend the brands Pelican, Canyon, Siberian, Engel and Orca coolers. For the full write-up check out my article on the coolers that outperformed Yeti.
Now You Know How To Make Ice Last Longer In A Cooler
I hope this article has helped show you how to make ice last longer in a cooler.
Remember for best results you should employ multiple strategies. For example, use large frozen blocks of salted ice, bury your cooler in the ground in a shady area and put a wet towel on top of it.
Mix and match to do as many of the recommended tips as is practical for you and you should easily get an extra 1-3 days of ice retention out of your cooler.