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Coolers won't keep your food chilled by themselves. They need the cooling power of ice to help preserve perishables and keep drinks nice and cold. However, if you just throw in ice cubes, they'll just melt and make a watery mess. Thankfully, we have ice packs you can easily keep in your freezer.
Most reusable ice packs are now gel-based since that provides better cooling power than frozen water. When paired with a suitable cooler, ice packs can keep the contents cold for days. Being able to freeze them for thousands of uses can also save you money in the long run.
But there are a lot to choose from, so we picked six for our home tester to put through their paces, based on reviews and product information across a variety of brands. Our tester made sure to note the following: how easy each ice pack was to store in her freezer, how long it took to fully freeze, how well it fit in her cooler and/or lunchbox, and most importantly, how long it kept her food and drinks cold.
Here, the best ice packs for coolers, based on our research and testing, to help you keep your food and drinks cold without the hassle of ice cubes.
Best Overall: Arctic Ice Chillin' Brew Series Reusable Ice Pack
What We Love: Thinness helps with storing and using, keeps things cold for as long as advertised, easy to clean
What We Don't Love: May be too large to fit in small freezers or those containing lots of other items
The Arctic Ice Chillin’ Brew Series ice pack ranks as our best overall due to its reliability and design. It claims to keep drinks 50 percent longer than using ice alone and take about six to eight hours to freeze fully. It also reaches a freezing point of 28 degrees Fahrenheit, making it the ideal ice pack to keep your beverages cold at a tailgate or a day at the beach.
After leaving a cooler containing the ice pack in her car on an 80-degree day, our tester was pleased that it performed as advertised: Her bottle of apple cider and various vegetables stayed cold for four hours, and they stayed in great condition for about seven hours.
The ice packs come in four sizes, ranging from small to extra large, and are designed with leakproof caps and UV-stabilized color containers for long-lasting use. Our tester, who was sent the large 2.5-pound ice pack, found it slightly large for her home freezer: She would have been able to squeeze a second one in, but it would have been tight if she wanted to put more items in it. The large ice pack also took a good amount of space in the bottom of her 12 x 9-inch cooler, with just enough room for her food and drinks.
All in all, we recommend the Arctic Ice, with the only downside being the tested size, which made it less versatile; that wasn't a deal-breaker for our tester, however.
Freezing Point: 28 degrees | Time to Freeze: 6 to 8 hours | Sizes: 0.75, 1.5, 2.5, 5, and 10 pounds | Dishwasher-Safe? Yes (top-rack)
Best Compact: Cooler Shock Reusable Ice Pack, 5-Pack Lunch Bag
What We Love: Small enough to fit in a cramped freezer, chills as long as advertised
What We Don't Love: You'd need multiple ice packs to keep a large cooler cold
If you’re looking for a compact ice pack that still packs a cold punch, Cooler Shock Reusable Ice Packs are what you need. These ice packs are available in several sizes, but the five-pack lunch box size we tested (each with a 1.5-cup capacity), is ideal for small coolers. These slim ice packs freeze at 18 degrees Fahrenheit, and in our testing they took about 12 hours to freeze.
They feature three layers of nylon foil for insulation, and our tester was pleased to find that they kept the items in her lunchbox chilled for about eight hours. I like that these packs are versatile: Because of their size and long-lasting freeze (they'll work for variously sized coolers), she thinks that in a pinch these ice packs could even be useful for icing an injury.
These ice packs do require some assembly before use, unlike many others. Each package contains a cooling gel mixture that forms into a liquid gel once water is added and mixed. We were nervous about filling the packs up herself at first, but the directions were easy to follow and the ice packs did not leak once sealed properly. Once assembled, they're reusable without needing to be emptied or refilled again. Our tester plans to use these in the future.
Freezing Point: 18 degrees | Time to Freeze: 12 to 48 hours | Sizes: 1.5, 3.5, and 7 cups | Dishwasher-Safe? No
Best Soft: FlexiFreeze Reusable Ice Sheet
What We Love: Can be shaped to fit any space, sheets can be cut to fit into smaller containers
What We Don't Love: Does not keep things as cold as gel-based packs
Sometimes a solid, rectangular ice pack won’t work for your needs; luckily, FlexiFreeze Reusable Ice Sheets are versatile ice packs you can shape and mold to fit in almost any space. These sheets are essentially reusable ice cubes that you can refreeze over and over again. Our tester, who received the four-pack of 44 cubes each, simply had to place the sheets in her freezer overnight, and by morning they were ready to use.
Because they are filled with water, these ice sheets do not have the same long-lasting cooling capabilities as gel-based ice packs—but, they're advertised as being able to keep items cold for six or more hours. Our tester used these ice sheets to keep frozen treats and refrigerated snacks cool in the car on a 60-degree day for around three hours; everything was still cold and intact by the time she got home. "I let the sheets sit out on my counter for a few more hours just to see how long they would last, and after about eight hours out of the freezer, many of the ice sheets had melted but it was still cool," she says.
We think these are perfect for keeping beverages and foods cool for an afternoon picnic or beach outing. Even better, you can cut the ice sheets to better fit into any sized container, making them convenient for weekly grocery store or farmers market trips.
"It works better for keeping refrigerated items cold for longer (estimated max of eight hours), but items would be cool, not cold, at the end of the time." — Kelsey Graham, Writer and Product Tester
Freezing Point: 32 degrees | Time to Freeze: 6 to 8 hours | Sizes: 4-pack (44 cubes each), 3-pack (88 cubes each) | Dimensions (LxW): 19 x 8 inches (4-pack), 19 x 15 inches
Best Slim: Fit & Fresh XL Cool Coolers Freezer Slim Ice Pack for Lunch Box
What We Love: Doesn't take up a lot of space, affordable
What We Don't Love: Doesn't stay frozen as long as thicker ice packs, not ideal for larger containers
Finding a reliable slim ice pack that keeps perishables chilled in a lunchbox or small cooler while at work or school can feel impossible, but Fit & Fresh's XL Cool Coolers Freezer Slim Ice Packs are up for the task. Due to their slim profile (each is only half an inch thick), they're easy to fit and store in small spaces, like inside an average-sized lunch box, according to our tester.
"After about nine hours in my daughter's lunchbox, when I removed the ice pack, the middle was still frozen and could still keep items cold," she notes. However, while she would trust these packs for keeping things like a packed lunch or snack cold for a shorter amount of time, "I wouldn't use it if I needed items cold for longer than 10-plus hours or in larger containers (unless I used multiple ice packs)," she adds.
Holistic chef Niki Connor also vouches for the power of the Fit & Fresh XL in compact spaces. "These packs stay cooler for longer and can fit easily into most [small] cooler bags, if you don't have as much space to keep your meal cool," she says.
Indeed, while their small size is great for not taking up freezer or lunchbox real estate, they do not stay frozen as long as thicker ice packs. Using several at once, however, helps extend their longevity. These ice packs come in packs of four and are made with BPA-free plastic. If they become dirty, make sure only to hand-wash with soap and water before they're ready for action again.
Freezing Point: 32 degrees | Time to Freeze: 6 to 8 hours | Dimensions (LxWxH): 7 x 0.5 x 4.5 inches | Dishwasher-Safe? No
Related: The Best Bento Boxes
Best Gel: Igloo Maxcold Ice Extra Large Freeze Block
What We Love: Works well for larger-sized coolers, kept our tester's drinks cold overnight
What We Don't Love: Took some rearranging to fit into our tester's freezer, doesn't work for most small- or medium-sized coolers
Igloo's MaxCold Ice Extra-Large Freeze Block is the bulkiest of all the ice packs our tester tried out, but despite its heft (it weighs about 5 pounds), our tester would trust it to keep the items in a larger-sized cooler cold for 12 or more hours, even on a hot day. Furthermore, despite its size, the ice block is easy to hold even when frozen due to the ridges on its surface.
She used a medium-sized lined cooler bag to keep drinks cold for a game night and found that the Igloo did a great job keeping drinks cold, "even colder than they were in the refrigerator," she says. Plus, "it kept drinks cold overnight and was still cold and frozen in the morning."
Our tester had to dock points, however, because the size of the block made it challenging to fit inside her freezer without extensive rearranging, nor did it fit in her small cooler. "This would need to be used in larger containers," she says, "but, I would trust it with both hard and soft cooler cases to keep items cold in both cold and hot temperatures."
Since its outer shell is made from plastic, simply use soap and water to clean its surface before placing it back in the freezer. Overall, we think this is a reliable and superb option that can take the heat and will beverages and foods stay icy cold for a weekend camping trip or all-day tailgate.
Freezing Point: 32 degrees | Time to Freeze: 12 to 24 hours | Dimensions: 12 x 1.75 x 10.5 inches | Dishwasher-Safe? No
Best Long-Lasting: YETI 2-Pound Ice Pack
What We Love: Comes in a range of sizes, flat shape convenient for storing
What We Don't Love: Pricey
Yeti has made a name for itself as the go-to for making long-lasting cups and coolers that can withstand the coldest and warmest temperatures, and its ice packs are no exception. Though the ice packs are on the pricier side, they come in three sizes (1-, 2-, and 4-pound), making them an excellent choice for both small and large coolers. Plus, it has a rectangular and flat shape that makes it easy to store in your freezer without taking up too much space.
Each ice pack features a durable, break-resistant outer shell with a center hole designed to reduce freezing time. Our tester's 2-pound Yeti Ice took about five to seven hours to freeze fully—close to the six to eight hours advertised by the brand. It's also supposed to keep foods chilled for over 24 hours, and while our tester didn't wait that long, she was so impressed by how it performed in her testing "experiment" that she still feels comfortable recommending it for an all-day trip to keep items cold.
She prepared her RITC cooler with the Yeti ice pack about 3 to 4 hours before she needed to use it. "I was worried this would cause an issue with melting when I needed the cooler, but it kept the [dog and human] ice cream products I put in it perfectly cold," she says. "I stored them in the cooler for about an hour in 75-degree weather in my car, and when I got home they were perfectly intact, not frozen.
Freezing Point: 28 degrees | Time to Freeze: 5 to 7 hours | Sizes: 1, 2, and 4 pounds | Dimensions (LxWxH): 8 x 5.4 x 1.6 inches (2-pound) | Dishwasher-Safe? No
Related: The Best Ice Cube Trays
Whether it's a quick overnight camping trip or a full day in the hot sun, the Arctic Ice Chillin' Brew Series (view at Amazon) will keep everything in your cooler nice and cold. The Cooler Shock Lunch Bag size ice pack (view at Amazon) is perfect for keeping both your lunch and your snacks cool all day.
What to Look For When Choosing an Ice Pack
Ice packs are not one size fits all, so it’s important to have a good idea of what you want to use them for primarily—for example in a large cooler or a small lunchbox. Once you know what you want to use it for, check the measurements of the ice pack before purchasing to make sure it will fit in your cooler or container. You’ll also want to make sure the ice pack fits in your freezer space without too much hassle and reorganizing.
Many ice packs are designed for a specific purpose in mind, whether that’s being thin enough to easily fit in your lunchbox or having the ability to freeze quickly for an extended period of time. Make sure to read the product description on ice packs to ensure they will work for your requirements. Keep in mind that some ice packs only guarantee to keep items frozen for four to six hours, while others can help keep items frozen for over 24 hours.
Ice Pack to Cooler Size Ratio
It may seem sensible that the size of a cooler would determine the number of ice packs you need to keep its contents cold, but the more important ratio is the one between the ice packs and the food or beverages themselves. Specifically, regardless of the cooler size, you’ll want twice the amount of ice packs as the amount of food or drink. Measuring the food and ice packs by weight and adding them to the cooler according to the 2:1 ratio is a surefire way to keep everything perfectly chilled.
Cleaning & Storage
Most ice packs are designed for easy cleanup. If you notice food residue or other staining on the exterior of the pack, just give it a wipe with a soft, damp dishcloth or washcloth until the stains disappear. A larger cleaning concern may occur if your ice pack springs a leak, especially if it’s a gel pack. In that case, you could attempt a DIY repair technique (YouTube has plenty of videos on that subject), but the majority of ice pack manufacturers recommend discarding and replacing the leaky pack.
In terms of storage, ice packs can be kept in a cabinet at room temperature, as long as you place them in the freezer to chill well before you need to use them (chilling them overnight is advisable). However, storing the packs in the freezer will keep you from having to think about the chilling process, and most packs on the market are designed for freezer storage. Put the packs in an open plastic bag or plastic bin (which will keep them contained and prevent any mess if leakage should occur) and store the bag or bin in your freezer until the packs are needed.
Why should you use an ice pack instead of regular ice?
Ice packs and regular ice function very similarly when placed in a cooler. However, many ice packs, especially ice packs that contain gel, will freeze to a colder temperature than water-based ice. Also, ice packs keep their frozen elements (whether water or gel) contained, so you won’t have to deal with melted ice and your food and drink sitting in a cool (but not cold) water bath. That said, loose ice cubes can more effectively surround items in a cooler than larger (and more rigid) ice packs, so cubes have an advantage where distribution is concerned.
What’s the best way to pack a cooler?
The first step to packing a cooler that will stay cool involves pre-chilling the cooler. If you have a large fridge or chest freezer that will fit your cooler, place it inside for a few hours before packing. If you don’t have access to a fridge or freezer that’s big enough for the cooler, store the cooler in a cool, dark room prior to packing. The goal is to drop the temperature of the cooler itself below room temperature, which will keep the ice packs cold for a longer period of time.
Do ice packs go on the top or bottom of my cooler?
There doesn’t seem to be a firm consensus on whether ice packs should be placed on the top or bottom of a cooler. Some recommend putting your ice pack on the top of a cooler because cold air sinks, so having the ice pack on top of your food and beverages keeps them colder longer. On the other hand, many outdoor and hiking websites recommend creating a layering system within your cooler that starts with an ice pack on the bottom, food and beverages in the middle, and top it all off with ice cubes. If you’re looking for convenience, go with putting the ice pack on the bottom of your cooler to avoid having to move it every time you need to get an item out.
Why Trust Simply Recipes?
Debbie Wolfe is a freelance writer and online shopping expert who spends hours researching and comparing household items, so you don't have to. She is the proud owner of several ice packs and can help you choose the right one to fit your cooler the best.
This piece was updated by Kelsey Graham, a freelance writer specializing in food, kitchen, and restaurant topics. As a mom, she's always looking for tools to make outings and trips with her family go more smoothly—including keeping food and drinks in the cooler colder for longer. Some of the products listed in this roundup are ones she'd gladly add to her packing list.
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