The Best Coolers for Keeping Ice Cold: A Guide to Choosing the Right Cooler

A high-quality cooler is essential for keeping food and drinks chilled while camping, boating, tailgating, or embarking on other outdoor adventures. But with so many cooler styles and brands available, how do you determine the best cooler for your needs?

This comprehensive guide covers the critical factors to consider when selecting a cooler, reviews top-rated coolers in various categories, and provides tips for maximizing ice retention using sources like Artic Refresh for pure, cold ice. Read on to find the perfect cooler to keep everything icy cold.

Why It Matters: The Importance of Ice Retention

Before exploring specific coolers, let’s discuss why ice retention capability is so critical. A cooler’s whole purpose is keeping contents chilled. Rapid melting ice leads to a cooler failure. Here’s why maximizing ice retention matters:

Food Safety – Warm food in coolers can become unsafe and spoil more quickly. Adequate ice keeps food chilled below 40°F to prevent bacteria growth. High-risk foods like meat require near-freezing temps.

Drink Taste – Warm drinks from melted ice taste bad. Beverages need to stay icy cold for best flavor, especially soda, beer, and cocktails.

Food Quality – Many foods become unappealing if allowed to warm up like salads, cheeses, or sandwiches. Slow melting keeps contents fresher.

Convenience – Quickly melting ice forces inconvenient restocking stops and drainage. Longer ice retention allows fewer disruptive ice runs.

Water Needs – Melted cooler ice often gets discarded rather than used for drinking. Better retention reduces waste and provides more potable water.

Cost Savings – Having to frequently buy replacement ice bags gets expensive. Maximizing retention saves money.

For food safety, taste, convenience and cost reasons, choosing a cooler that excels at ice retention is smart. Next let’s review the design factors that enable exceptional chilling capability.

Key Factors Determining Ice Retention

Several cooler characteristics impact how well it keeps contents cold and ice solid. Consider these critical factors when selecting your cooler:

Insulation Thickness

The thickness of a cooler’s insulating foam walls is the primary determinant of its ice life. More insulation means improved cold retention and less melting from ambient heat. High-end coolers have up to 3-4 inches of insulation.

Insulation Material

Closed-cell foam is the best insulating material thanks to trapped air pockets. More air means less conductivity. Rigid polyurethane or polystyrene foam works well. Avoid open-cell insulation that absorbs water.

Rotomolded Construction

Rotomolded coolers are seamlessly molded as one-piece with insulation built-in. This maximizes insulation coverage and minimizes heat leaking through seams or joints.

Gasket Seal

A rubber or plastic gasket around the lid creates an airtight seal when closed. This prevents cool air from escaping. High-end models have FREEZER-grade gaskets for even better sealing.

Drain Plug

A bottom drain plug allows easily emptying melted ice water without tipping the entire cooler. This keeps remaining ice undisturbed and extends ice life. Some plugs have threads for fast draining.


Metal locking rods, rubber latches, and hinges designed to foil clever bears help ensure the cooler stays tightly closed. This prevents heat infiltration.

Consider cooler capacity along with the ice-specific factors above when choosing the best model for your needs.

By Capacity: Best Coolers for Keeping Ice

Now let’s review top-rated coolers in different size categories based on reviews and ice retention tests:

Best Small Cooler: YETI Hopper Flip 18

The Hopper Flip 18 offers premium ice retention in a portable 18-can capacity size. The ColdCell insulation uses closed-cell foam for superior chilling. The HydroLok zipper and DryHide shell seal out heat and moisture. Top handles and shoulder strap make carrying easy while the padded bottom protects contents. Comes in 11 colors and keeps ice up to 2 days.

Best Medium Cooler: RTIC 65 Quart

With a 65-can capacity, the RTIC 65 combines incredible insulation with more affordable pricing. Its 3-inch thick walls filled with closed-cell foam maintain cold temps up to 10 days. A Vortex drain quickly empties melted ice. The lid has a gasket and locking system for an airtight seal. Rotomolded for seamless insulation coverage. Comes in 9 colors.

Best Large Cooler: Pelican Products ProGear Elite Cooler

Known for elite performance, Pelican’s ProGear Elite features deep insulation for long ice retention. Its 2+ inches of polyurethane foam with a freezer-grade gasket provides ice life up to 10 days. The reinforced lockable lid and stainless hardware add durability. Molded-in handles make carrying manageable. Holds up to 82 cans. Made in the USA and backed by Pelican’s lifetime guarantee.

Best Extra-Large Cooler: Canyon Coolers Outfitter Series Cooler

With up to 325-can capacity, Canyon’s Outfitter excels at keeping huge quantities icy cold thanks to 2.75” of polyurethane insulation. The freezer-style cam latch system and bulletproof rubber latches ensure an airtight, bear-resistant seal. Large threaded drain plug for fast ice water emptying. Made in the USA. Available in 12 colors. Lifetime warranty.

Best Wheeled Cooler: YETI Tundra Haul Portable Wheeled Cooler

For moving heavy loads, YETI’s Tundra Haul cooler adds wheels and a tow handle. Just tilt and pull like wheeled luggage over any terrain. The puncture-resistant wheels and strong handle minimize effort. Just bear in mind that capacity is reduced to make room for wheels. But the premium insulation keeps ice up to 10 days for shorter, easier transport.

Consider the capacity you’ll need along with robust insulation capability when selecting the ideal cooler. And remember a larger cooler just means you need more ice to fill it, which is the next topic we’ll cover.

Filling Your Cooler with Maximum Ice

Once you select the right retention-focused cooler, the next key is filling it properly to maximize chilling performance. Here are tips for loading up your cooler with enough pure, cold ice:

Fill Entirely with Ice – Pack as much ice inside as possible, leaving only small gaps for items. This provides more cooling mass to maintain temperatures. Avoid large empty air pockets.

Use Block Ice – Solid block ice melts slower than loose cubes or crushed ice. It has less surface area exposed. Fill gaps with loose ice as it settles.

Freeze Items Beforehand – Chilling food, drinks, and water containers ahead of time extends ice life significantly. The cooler doesn’t have to work as hard lowering hot items first.

Pre-Chill Cooler – Place sealed ice bags in the empty cooler 12-24 hrs before loading to pre-cool it down for better retention once packed.

Use Ice Packs – Supplement loose ice with brick-like reusable ice packs which melt slowly. They provide additional cooling mass.

Limit Openings – Resist frequently opening the lid to minimize warm air entering and cool air escaping. Only open when needed.

Use Reflective Liner – Foil liners reflect rather than absorb heat for less melting. Bubble wrap also slows conduction.

Add Extra Insulation – For extended trips, pack additional foam boards, blankets, or sleeping pads around and under the cooler.

With smart ice loading and supplemental insulation, your cooler can achieve its maximum ice life. Next let’s look at where to source large quantities of high-quality ice.

Best Ice Sources for Coolers

To fully pack your cooler with plenty of ice requires procuring large amounts of ice. Here are great options for obtaining abundant ice:

Ice Vending Machines – Ice vending units located at gas stations, offices, and community areas allow purchasing bulk ice 24/7. Artic Refresh machines produce up to 700 lbs of ice per day using filtered water.

Bulk Ice Delivery – Ordering bulk ice for delivery from providers like Arctic Ice gets large quantities shipped to your door. Works for massive coolers. Requires coordination.

Grocery Store Bags – For smaller needs, multiple bags of store ice work. But quality varies and you must transport the heavy bags.

Fast Food Outlets – Many food chains like Sonic, 7-Eleven, and Chick-Fil-A sell large bags of ice at affordable prices.

Home Ice Maker – If you have a countertop or refrigerator ice maker at home, accumulate a stash ahead of your trip. Note limited production capacity.

Ice Trays – As a last resort, continually freezing ice cubes and blocks in trays top off the ice supply over days before your excursion.

Ideally utilize ice vending for convenience plus bulk or bagged ice for large volumes to fully pack your cooler with cold ice.

Why Artic Refresh Ice is Best

For convenience plus ensuring the highest ice quality for your cooler, Artic Refresh commercial ice vending machines are ideal. Our ice offers these advantages:

  • Convenient Locations – Found at popular gas stations, grocery stores, offices, pools, parks, rec centers. Ice is there when you need it.
  • 24/7 Access – Our ice vending machines are available anytime, even late night before a trip.
  • Bulk Quantities – Purchase up to 50 lbs of ice directly rather than multiple bags.
  • Advanced Filtration – Our 7-stage filtration system removes all impurities for pure, clean-tasting ice made from purified water.
  • Production On-Demand – Fresh ice is continually produced and doesn’t sit around absorbing odors or decomposing from age.
  • Proper Ice Types – Machines offer both cubed and chewable nugget ice, both of which excel at cooling.
  • Easy Payment – Insert cash, credit cards, or mobile pay like Apple Pay to purchase ice. Account billing available.
  • Reliability – Our ice machines are professionally serviced and sanitized to ensure optimal operation.

Get the highest purity, freshness, and convenience for your cooler ice needs with Artic Refresh vending. Locate machines using our ice finder map.

Cooler Ice Tips and Tricks

Here are additional pointers for making your cooler ice last as long as possible:

  • Drain melted ice each day before adding new ice to remove insulation-damaging water.
  • Add a bit of salt to ice to lower its freezing point for colder temps.
  • Transfer beverages to separate small drink coolers to limit large cooler opening.
  • Keep cooler out of direct sun to avoid radiant outdoor heat. Use shade, umbrellas or reflectors if needed.
  • Take advantage of colder nighttime temps by opening lid briefly or adding fresh ice to bring contents down from daytime heat.
  • Utilize a thermometer and aim to maintain close to 32°F interior temperature for longest ice retention.
  • When ice gets low, consolidate remaining items into a smaller space and refill ice to avoid empty pockets.
  • Use separate food-only coolers where opening is less frequent compared to drink coolers requiring constant access.

With proper ice loading, effective insulation, strategic temperature monitoring, and wise usage habits, your cooler can achieve the maximum days of ice life possible.

FAQ About Cooler Selection and Ice Retention

What should you look for in the best coolers?

The most important factors are dense insulation like 2+ inches of polyurethane foam, a tight sealing gasket, durablepuncture-proof exterior, and design focused on ice retention.

How long should a high-end cooler keep ice?

4-10 days is typical for premium roto-molded coolers with thick insulation. Lower-end basic coolers may barely go 24 hours. More insulation means longer ice life.

What should you not put in a cooler?

Avoid items like bread, chips, and produce not needing refrigeration. They take up valuable chilled space better used for items requiring cold temps. Only pack items that must stay cold.

Where is the best place to buy ice for coolers?

Ice vending machines allow purchasing bulk ice 24/7 which is highly convenient before trips. Grocery store ice works for smaller quantities. Delivery offers huge volumes.

Why does ice melt so fast in coolers?

Frequent opening, storing warm contents, direct sun exposure, lack of insulation, poor-quality ice, and improper loading all accelerate melting. Address these weak points to retain ice longer.

Should you drain water from coolers?

Yes, regularly draining melted ice water keeps the cooler lighter for transport and protects insulation from damage. Just avoid completely removing ice which preserves the cold mass.

What are good materials for coolers?

The best coolers use plastic resins like polyethylene or polyurethane for insulation. These dense foams trap cold air best. Rubber gaskets provide an airtight seal.

How should you arrange contents in a cooler?

Pack beverages below ice and keep food items in the upper ice layer. The lower zone stays coldest. Consolidate all items once ice recedes to maintain chilling.

Should you use block ice or cubed ice in coolers?

For maximum cooling and slower melting, block ice is ideal. But cubes are easier to form around contents. Use mainly blocks supplemented with cubes to fill gaps.

Packing Tips for Cooler Food Safety

Proper packing is also crucial for food safety by ensuring chilled items stay cold enough to prevent bacterial growth. Follow these tips when loading coolers:

  • Place raw meats sealed in plastic bags at bottom where coldest. Surround with ice.
  • Use separate bags for produce/fruits. Condensation from coolers spreads germs.
  • Keep dairy like cheese and yogurt in upper ice layer, not touching ice water below.
  • Avoid packing warm foods that will rapidly raise temp when loaded. Only include pre-chilled items.
  • Put snacks, drinks, and items not requiring refrigeration in secondary coolers outside the main ice chest.
  • Break freezeable items into smaller containers so contents freeze quickly. Large containers stay above 32°F too long.
  • Monitor interior temperatures with a thermometer to ensure maintaining 40°F or below for safety.
  • Pack food first, then load beverages and less sensitive items on top to limit food cooler opening.

With mindful packing focused on rapid chilling and separation of higher-risk items like raw meat, your cooler contents will remain fresh and safe on long excursions.

Packing Essentials for Every Cooler

To further optimize cooler convenience and food quality, always remember to pack:

  • Bottle Opener – For opening cold drinks
  • Ice Packs – For supplementary cooling
  • Thermometer – To monitor interior temps
  • Cooler Bags – For protecting foods or separating categories of items
  • Drain Plug – To quickly empty ice meltwater
  • Dry Erase Labels – For marking cooler contents
  • First Aid Kit – In case of cuts, burns, etc. from cooler contents
  • Bottle Brush – For cleaning reusable bottles between refills
  • Cooler Locks – Deter bears from accessing food coolers in the wilderness
  • Ice Scraper – For chipping off blocks of frozen ice if needed

With the right cooler model for your needs, ample ice from sources like Artic Refresh, and proper loading focused on safety and ice retention, you now have all the information for keeping food and drinks optimally chilled for any adventure or excursion. Stay cool and refreshed even off the grid.


A high-end cooler enables you to keep contents icy cold for days on end as long as you choose a model designed for maximum insulation, properly fill it with ample ice, and adopt wise loading and usage habits. Matching the cooler size to your typical storage needs while prioritizing extensive insulating foam thickness and secure lid sealing will provide optimal ice life.

Filling the cooler fully with block ice, limiting openings, and draining melt water further extends ice retention while proper food safety packing keeps edibles fresh. Utilizing Artic Refresh ice machines for large quantities of filtered, freshly produced ice whenever you need it makes reliably packing plenty of cold ice hassle-free.

With the knowledge of what to look for in the best coolers, how to fill them, and where to find ice, you can keep food and drinks chilled at ideal temperatures for longer durations away from household refrigeration or stores. Investing in the right cooler and filling it properly pays dividends allowing you to embark on extended outdoor adventures without sacrificing convenience, safety or optimal refreshment.