Planning an outdoor event or a camping trip? How will you keep your food cold (and safe)? How long does ice last in a cooler? Here are 4 types compared, with water and dry ice time frames. Plus five tips for extending how long ice lasts.
Ice in a cooler will last from 12 hours to 7 days. Premium hard coolers will last the longest at up to 7 days (or more). Some soft and styrofoam coolers will keep ice for less than 24 hours. Ice will keep in most hard coolers for 2 to 6 days. How long ice lasts depends on 6 factors.
What type of cooler will you be using? And how long will these refreshments be required to stay cold? Lastly, what will the temperature be where the cooler will be stored?
How Long Will Ice Last in a Cooler?
Here’s how the four types of coolers compare. And how long each will keep ice from melting.
Styrofoam Coolers: 12 to 30 Hours
Styrofoam coolers are the cheapest option available for storing ice and cold items. They are often white but also come in light blue and grey.
If not left outside in the heat and sun, regular ice will stay frozen in typical styrofoam ice chests for an overnight trip.
- Water Ice: 12-24 hours
- Dry ice: 18-30 hours
Using dry ice is a great way to make your ice last longer.
One traveler used this Ice Age Thermo Chill styrofoam cooler for shipping frozen milk from Florida to Europe. She used under 1lb of dry ice. And when it arrived in Europe 17 hours later, the milk was still completely frozen.
She likely could have gotten another 12 hours from the ice.
Because of how long ice lasts in them, styrofoam coolers are ideal for:
- Road trips
- Picnics and tailgating
- One-night camping trips
- Transporting food to the cottage
Not all styrofoam coolers are made equally. Some are premium shipping coolers and others are cheaper, single-use type coolers.
The size and quality of the cooler will also determine the length of time it will keep ice frozen. If you only need to keep items frozen for a day or less, styrofoam is a very practical choice and budget friendly as well.
Soft Cooler: 12 to 18 Hours
Quality soft coolers can be expected to keep ice frozen for less than 24 hours. They are more expensive than styrofoam options but are much more durable.
- Water Ice: 12-24 hours
- Dry ice: I was unable to find any data on using dry ice in a soft cooler. I think they are primarily used for same-day events.
If you are going to buy dry ice, you’ll probably invest in a better type of cooler than this.
Can soft coolers keep ice for 3 days? I’ve read some claims of soft coolers keeping ice for three days. This has not been my experience. The conditions would have to be perfect to even dream of ice not being completely gone by the end of day two.
Even the marketing of this premium soft cooler by Lifewit happily shows their ice half melted after 12 hours. The expectation is low for most soft-sided coolers.
Because of how quickly ice melts in them, soft coolers are ideal for:
- Packing a lunch
- Picnics and tailgating
- Transporting food to the cottage, if nearby
Ideally, soft-sided coolers are best for same-day use.
I wouldn’t take a soft-sided cooler camping unless the food and ice were all frozen solid and filled the full capacity. Or if I could access more ice for day two.
Soft coolers try to compensate for thin walls by adding reflective material. This does help, but they are still inadequate for keeping ice longer than a day.
Hard Cooler: 2 to 6 Days
A decent hard cooler can keep ice frozen for 2 to 6 days. One of the key benefits of bringing a hard cooler is its durability.
Here’s an estimation of ice lift in a decent quality hard cooler.
- Water Ice: 4 days
- Dry ice: 5 days
The reason for the wide range of ice life is that the quality of the cooler is highly variable. A $10 cooler just won’t insulate the same as an $80 one.
We bought a Coleman cooler with a projected life of 7 days. On day 6 of the trip, we still had ice left – and we returned home on day 7. This was in the middle of summer, with it being opened numerous times each day.
We bought it years ago – and haven’t seen that one recently. This newer model by Coleman states a life of 5 days at temperatures up to 90°F (32°C).
Premium Hard Coolers: 5 to 7 Days
In the last several years, premium hard coolers are becoming more and more popular. Of course, these options are much more expensive than their counterparts, but the difference in quality is undeniable.
- Water Ice: 5 to 7 days
- Dry ice: Similar to water ice, but longer. I was unable to find data showing the difference between dry and water ice in these coolers.
The Yeti Tundra 160 is famous for how long it keeps ice. Many travelers have stated that after 7 days there is still ice in the cooler. While you get a week on one load of ice, it’s good to know just how big this thing is. I’ve seen photos of a full-grown adult sitting in it.
It is 45″ long x 12.5″ wide x 21.5″ high. And it holds 159 lbs of ice. It weighs 54 lbs.
The Pelican Elite 80 Quart cooler has 2″ thick walls for improved ice retention. While most users are getting just under a week with this cooler, some are getting longer. Much longer. One user had ice last 2 weeks in a cooler time of year, where daytime temps were just 60°F (16°C).
And Pelican coolers come with a lifetime warranty. I have a number of Pelican cases and boxes and I love their quality.
If you are the type who uses ice coolers frequently and for long periods, an investment in a premium hard cooler could be ideal. In the right circumstances and kept in the shade, ice could stay frozen for close to a week in a quality premium hard cooler.
6 Factors Affecting How Long Ice Lasts
How long ice will last depends on these 6 factors:
- Type of ice: Choose either water or dry ice. Dry ice will last longer but isn’t as available. And dry ice will cost more because you can’t make it at home.
- Volume of ice: The goal is to eliminate air space inside the cooler. Whatever isn’t part of the contents should be filled with ice. If you only put a small bag, it won’t last as long as adding 3 large bags.
- Outside temperature: If it’s a 104°F (40°C) day and the cooler is left in direct sun, the ice will melt exponentially faster than an overcast 64°F (18°C) day.
- Temperature of contents: For the longest ice life, it’s good to chill – even freeze – the contents before putting them in the cooler.
- Volume of contents: Similiar to ice volume, avoid using a cooler that’s too large and has lots of empty air space. Try to fill the space of your cooler – either with food and drink or bags of ice.
- Type of cooler: This can correct many of the other factors. Choose a long life cooler and your ice will outlast any other cooler type.
For the longest life, consider all 6 factors above along with the following 5 tips.
How Do I Make My Ice Last Longer? 5 Tips
No matter what type of ice cooler you are using, there are methods to extend how long ice lasts in a cooler.
1. Aluminum Foil
One of the easiest ways to keep your ice cooler longer is by lining the inside with aluminum foil. This acts as an insulator and reflects light away from the ice. You can also substitute foil with bubble wrap to keep hot air away from the ice.
2. Pre-Chill Your Cooler
There are several ways to accomplish this task. If you have the space in a freezer or refrigerator, storing your ice chest inside is a great way to extend the length of time ice will stay frozen.
You could also add ice a few hours before use to lower the temperature inside before beginning your activity. Another great tip would be to freeze water bottles and place them inside. Not only do they act as an additional layer of ice, but when they begin to melt, they are a satisfyingly cool beverage.
Finally, you should pre-chill any items you plan on putting inside your cooler. Whether it’s food or beverages, it goes without saying that the items will stay cooler longer if they start cold already.
3. Using Larger Blocks of Ice Instead of Cubes
With larger blocks of ice, less surface area can be exposed to heat. With the interior of the block of ice kept far away from any heat source, the ice lasts much longer than smaller cubes of ice that begin melting more quickly.
A popular hack for creating your block of ice is to fill a milk or water jug with water and freeze it the night before. Cut the plastic jug away from the now frozen block of ice and place it in the cooler.
4. Use Dry Ice With Regular Ice
How long will dry ice last in a cooler? Well, dry ice is much colder than regular ice, 109.3 below zero compared to 32 degrees. Simply put the dry ice on the bottom of the cooler with regular ice on top. The dry ice will keep the regular ice colder for much longer.
5. Don’t Empty Water as the Ice Melts
Chilled water will help keep your ice cold. If you remove the excess water as it melts, the ice that remains intact will stay colder that much longer.
Once your cooler is in use, DO NOT empty the cold water. The water helps to insulate the remaining ice. However, exposed food and meat should be kept out of the water.Yeti.com
Want to up your camping skills? Here are 18 ways to keep food cold while camping
If you’ll be camping longer than your ice will last, you might consider a few of these hacks from packing eggs for camping. Some require no refridgeration at all. Might be a good way to end off your trip.
How has your experience been with how long ice lasts in your coolers? I would love to hear what brand and methods are working for you.
- About the Author
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Bryan Haines is a co-founder and blogger on GudGear – and is working to make it the best resource for outdoor gear and guides.
He is a travel blogger at Storyteller Travel and blogs about photography at Storyteller Tech. He is also co-founder of Storyteller Media, a company he started with his wife, Dena.