While food coolers are amazing and keep everything cool in the bag, people often pose the question of where is the most efficient spot to put the ice packs.
There are different opinions out there about where to put ice packs in a cooler bag and depending on your situation and what you're trying to keep cold there are a few different options.
Ice packs are best put on the bottom or center of your cooler bag as they will last longer and keep everything cold longer. Ice packs should be placed at the top of the cooler bag if absolutely everything needs to remain very cold. But this will make the ice packs melt faster.
Ideally, you would have enough ice packs to coat the entire bottom of your cooler. To maximize cooling efficiency you can also add regular ice in between the items because they are smaller and more compact and can fill in any air spaces.
The 3 Main Ways To Pack Your Cooler Bag With Ice Packs
There really aren't that many ways to arrange the ice packs in your cooler bag. Let's have a look at the 3 key places to put your ice packs and the pros and cons of each.
On The Bottom
Placing the ice pack on the bottom of the cooler will ensure that it lasts much longer and melts slower.
It is ideal for longer trips where you need to keep your food from spoiling for a long time.
The food and drinks on the top of the ice will actually insulate it and protect it from the outside air every time you open your cooler. Putting them at the bottom extends the life of the ice pack.
The downside of this method the items at the top of your bag won’t be as cold as the ones on the bottom or directly on top of the ice packs
However, with proper packing you can make this work. When I pack my cooler bag with ice packs on the bottom I like to put items that can spoil easily (like dairy products) directly on or under the ice pack. Then drinks on top them items that are ok being a bit warmer (like sandwiches and fruits) on the very top.
In Between Products
This is usually my go to choice. Cooler bag's don't have as thick insulation as regular coolers and thus your ice packs often don't keep the cooler bag uniformly cold.
If you place them on the bottom the top can get hot. If you place them in the center the outside can get hot etc.
Placing the ice packs in between the products will ensure that each product is equally chilled because it's in direct contact (or close proximity to) the ice packs.
However, this can mean your ice packs won’t last as long as if you put them all on the bottom of the cooler.
Still it's a good option if you need to keep everything in your cooler bag equally cold.
On The Top
Placing the ice packs on the top is the best way to try and keep everything in your cooler cold at the same time.
Cold air sinks so the ice pack being on the top will allow the cold to sink down over all your items, keeping everything cold.
Being right near the top opening of the cooler will mean these ice packs are exposed to more warm air when the cooler is opened and so they'll melt faster than if you kept them on the bottom.
Good for short trips but not ideal for longer trips where you need to maximize your ice retention. Click here to learn how to keep ice longer in your cooler bag.
How Many Ice Packs Should You Use?
How many ice packs you should use will entirely depend on the amount of time you are planning on spending on your trip.
If you are going for a short trip, one or two ice packs would do the trick.
In general, two ice packs will lose their cool in about 4-8 hours, depending on how warm the weather is, how big your cooler is and how many items it's trying to keep cold.
For longer trips it's advised you fill your cooler half full or 2/3 full of ice or ice packs. But in a small cooler bag this often isn't feasible as that doesn't leave enough room for food and drinks. More on how much ice should you put in a cooler.
My advice is to pack as many ice packs and you can feasibly fit in your cooler bag. The more you pack the longer everything will stay cold.
Why You Should Use Ice Packs Instead of Regular Ice in Cooler Bags
The choice between using ice packs and regular ice in a cooler bag can be a tricky one. But in most cases ice packs are going to be the better option.
The two main reasons you should use ice packs over regular ice are the ease of use and reusability of them as well as the absence of watery mess once they melt.
Convenience and Reusability
When it comes to large coolers like my Yeti 45 I generally need to use regular ice from a gas station because I don't have enough ice packs to fit in it.
Even if I did my freezer isn't big enough to store that many ice packs.
However, I always have 3-4 smaller ice packs in my freezer at any point in time ready to go. With a smaller cooler bag this is enough ice to last until lunchtime.
No Watery Mess
Once your ice packs eventually melt they will not spread everywhere and flood everything which is the case with regular ice.
The ice packs are reusable and the substance stays inside when it melts down so you won’t have to worry about your entire food being submerged in water.
Also most cooler bags aren't completely leak proof so this could lead to water leaking all through your bag, through your car or even onto your clothes.
When you get home just throw them back in the freezer so it's ready to go again for next time.
The only real benefit of using regular ice in your cooler bag is that ice cubes are smaller and can be placed in tighter spots which means that you will be able to cover more areas in between the food and drinks in your bag.
Cooler Bag Packing Tips
Aside from knowing where to place the ice packs in a cooler bag, there are some things that you can only learn from experience or from someone else’s experience.
Here are a few tips that will make packing your cooler bag much easier and ensure your food stays cold for much longer.
Prepare the Cooler Bag
Preparing your cooler bag is a huge part of packing it properly. You want your cooler to be in a cool place instead of a hot attic or garage.
Try to bring the temperature of the cooler as low as possible before putting anything inside.
You can even put the cooler bag into the freezer to bring its core temperature down before your trip.
You should also clean it up before using it again so you don’t end up packing all your food inside a dirty cooler bag.
Prepare The Food and Drinks
Preparing your food is essential if you want to have space for everything inside your cooler bag.
Removing the food from its original packaging can save you some space.
Another thing you need to do before you place the food in the cooler bag is freeze or refrigerate it.
Freezing the food will ensure that it stays cold for much longer so if you are planning a long trip you definitely need to freeze some of the food and refrigerate the rest.
Packing The Cooler Bag
It should be the last thing you start packing in order for it to stay cold for longer.
Once you put the frozen ice packs on the bottom, the first food item you should place afterward is the one you intend to eat/drink last or the food/drink you want to keep the coldest.
Then you pack your way up till the food you plan on eating first is at the top.
Even though you put ice packs on the bottom you should also consider placing ice cubes in between items so that there is less air inside the cooler bag because it accelerates the time in which the ice will melt.
I only advise this if your bag is waterproof and isn't going to leak everywhere
Make sure everything is facing up even if you used air-tight containers and plastic bags. It’s better to be safe than have to deal with a mess made from food and drinks inside your cooler bag.
Organize your food so you can quickly access everything you need without holding the cooler bag open for a long time. That way your ice packs and ice will last much longer.
Finally, make sure the cooler bag is the last thing you put in the car before you leave to maximize the time you have before all the ice and ice packs melt.