Cooler bags are a more lightweight and portable option of keeping drinks and food cold instead of bigger hard sided coolers.
Can you put loose ice in a cooler bag in a cooler bag to keep things cold or should you only use ice packs?
You should only put loose ice in a cheaper cooler bag if you plan to keep it upright and not jostle it around too much. The zippers usually aren't leakproof so water will leak out of them as the ice melts if you aren't careful. Expensive soft sided coolers like Yeti are leak proof and so loose ice is fine.
Really most cooler bags can take loose ice and most often the main compartment of the cooler bag is leak proof. But only in more expensive cooler bags is the zipper also leak proof.
So any time you use loose ice you're risking the melted ice water spilling out through the lid/zipper and you move around and carry it with you.
Can You Put Loose Ice in a Cooler Bag?
Coolers can keep food and drinks cold that are already chilled but only for a short time. Most times choose to add some ice to chill them down swiftly and keep them cold for longer.
Can you do the same thing with a cooler bag? Of course you can, but should you?
Although you definitely can put loose ice in a cooler, I generally prefer not to and advise against it. Here are some of the reasons why:
Ice Can Cause Your Cooler To Leak
This is the biggest issue with using loose ice in a cooler bag.
Most low end cooler bags don't have leak proof zippers or lid seals. This means water can pour out of the top of the cooler when it's tipped on it's side or when you're walking about and water is sloshing around.
This can completely soak you if you aren't careful and is why I generally prefer ice bricks or frozen gel ice packs as they don't release water as they melt.
The exception to this is expensive cooler bags. Brands like Yeti, Pelican and Engel (and many other brands) have released cooler bags that are 100% leak proof, even through the zipper.
If you use these cooler bags then you can safely use loose ice without ever having to worry about water leaking as you walk or if the cooler bag falls onto it's side.
Cooler Bags Don't Have Drain Plugs
Firstly, loose ice produces water as it melts. Cooler bags don’t have a removable plug to drain water like traditional coolers do.
You have to manually drain the water by opening the cooler and dumping the water out.
This can be really annoying, and you could risk spilling the water in places where water shouldn’t go such as the interior of your car.
Water Can Ruin Your Food
Water can also get into your foods if they’re not sealed properly. This can put a really damper on your picnic.
I've done a full article on how to keep things dry in your cooler and this can be applied to a cooler bag but really using ice bricks leaves no water when it melts and is going to be a better option for cooler bags.
Mold Can Form In Your Cooler
Cooler bags generally have stitching and a lot of fold where it's easy for water/moisture to become trapped and mold to grow.
By using loose ice in your cooler you're going to get water into all of these spots.
For just a couple of uses this isn't a big deal but overtime it can be hard to clean and this moisture can allow mold to build up in your cooler.
What Should You Use in a Cooler Bag Instead of Loose Ice?
The best thing to place in your cooler bag to keep your drinks cold is an ice pack.
Ice packs can contain gel or a blue liquid. The gel packs are flexible, but they often thaw out quickly. The bigger ice bricks last longer.
The best thing about ice packs is that as they melt the water stays contained within the pack and doesn't wet all your food and your cooler bag with it. They can also be reused and refrozen for future use which is something you can't do with loose ice.
Utilizing bags for your loose ice will also make for easier cleanup of your cooler bag. When you’ve come to the end of your night, and you’re done with your cooler bag, just toss the bags.
You won’t have to dump your cooler bag over into the sink to get rid of the melted ice water.
When you’re in a pinch, you can put loose ice in your cooler bag. Doing so every once in a while won’t completely wreck your cooler, but it will cause damage over time.
How to Put Ice in Your Cooler Bag
When I pack my cooler bag I like to place my drinks standing up then fill in the gaps with ice and place food that I want to keep dry (and not frozen) on top.
As cold air radiates from the ice, it will sink to the bottom of the bag. This cold air circulation will keep your items cool for much longer.
If you placed the ice below your drinks or snacks, the cool air would stay on the bottom. This would result in only the areas touching the ice to stay cool. This is sometimes ideal if you have some food you don't need to stay cold but you do need to stay dry.
If you don't want to ice to make things wet as it melts you can put the ice into sealable bags. This will keep the water contained as your ice melts and it won't end up all through your cooler.
Sealing the ice in bags will also cut down on the excess moisture in your cooler. This will keep water from collecting in the bottom of your cooler bag and making sandwiches soggy.
When the ice has melted inside of the bag, you can pour the water out and throw the bag away or you can refreeze the bag for later use. Click here to learn how to make your own gel ice packs for coolers.
Better yet fill up a water bottle and place that in your freezer. This will create a makeshift ice pack that you can drink as it melts.
You can use this bottle of ice to cool down other things in your cooler as well.