If you want to help your cooler do its job, you’ll need some decent ice packs.
I’m definitely a minimal camper, so I avoid buying things I don’t really need. But I learned my lesson this summer when I chucked a couple of plastic bags of ice into my cooler instead of getting proper ice packs.
As it melted, the water pooled in the bottom of the cooler, leaving me with soggy sandwiches, swollen vegetables, and a pretty yucky smell that I could have done without.
A lot of my food was wrecked, so I had to throw it away. (And I hate wasting food, so I was furious at myself!)
With that in mind, this article will recommend 6 of the best ice packs for your cooler in 2021. There’s something for every budget!
Best Ice Packs for Coolers Review
Cooler Shock Reusable Ice Pack
I use Cooler Shock reusable ice packs on my camping adventures. They come in different sizes, but I recommend that you get the largest ones if you’ll be camping in hot weather.
I like these ice packs because you fill them up with water before freezing, then empty them when they’re not in use.
This makes them much more compact for storage than rigid ice packs. It also means that I know the liquid inside the ice pack isn’t toxic, and it takes less plastic to make a flexible ice pack.
Pretty much everything we buy will end up in the trash one day (even if it’s in 100 years!). So, I want to know that I’m minimizing the chemicals and plastics in the things I buy.
Depending on the ambient temperature, Cooler Shock ice packs can last for up to 48 hours. The lining materials make them colder than ice, and they really aren’t expensive.
To avoid spillage, make sure to screw the cap on properly (though I haven’t had a problem with this so far). I also use these for injuries like ankle sprains. Just wrap them in a towel to protect your bare skin, and you can apply them as a medical cool pack.
Topoko Lunch Box Ice Packs
There are some even cheaper options than Topoko Lunch Bag Ice Packs but I think these offer the best value for the money because they stay cold long enough to be useful when camping.
They’re designed for lunch boxes, but there’s no reason why you can’t pop them in a cooler instead!
Some of the cheaper, thinner ice packs last only a few hours. That would be okay for a picnic but not ideal for an overnight trip.
With this option, you get a set of six icepacks. Depending on how much food you have, you might want to leave a couple at home.
But the great thing about these ice packs is that they don’t have a hole in the middle for you to grab onto.
It might seem like a good idea to have that feature, but it wastes space in your cool box. You probably aren’t going to fit any food into that gap, so there’s less cooling power for no real benefit.
Topoko Ice Packs are made of strong, leak-proof plastic that is 100% BPA food grade.
The only drawback is that they bulge a bit in the middle when they are frozen and the liquid expands.
This means they take up a bit more space than they necessary, but it’s not a deal-breaker.
Tundra Series Ice Packs by Arctic Ice
Tundra Series Ice Packs by Arctic Ice are of great quality. They are rigid rather than flexible, which means they are more robust, and you don’t have to worry about them tearing over time.
Arctic Ice says that these icepacks are reusable up to 100,000 times. While I trust that this is a very durable brand, some users did say that the packs lost effectiveness over time.
So, bear in mind that the ice packs won’t be as good as new after that many uses.
However, compared to standard ice packs, these will last a lot longer.
Tundra Series Ice Packs are leak-proof, and they get colder than ice, so they will keep your food cooler for longer.
I was really surprised to see that this product is made with non-toxic materials derived from vegetable oils.
The brand doesn’t state exactly which materials are non-toxic, though, so it’s hard to know whether this is completely true.
For the price, the quality, and the environmental impact, these ice packs are the best overall choice.
Bottle and Can Coolers
These coolers are perfect for keeping cans cool. Pop them in the middle of a small cooler or bag, and you slot cans into the molds to get the best ice coverage possible.
I wouldn’t use these in your main cool box, as they can make it hard to effectively stack the rest of your food and drinks.
But if you’re bringing along some cans or small bottles of milk for babies, this is an excellent system to use.
Depending on how many cans or bottles you’re bringing on your trip, you can buy some more of these ice packs and stack them together.
They’re nice and thick, so they stay cool for hours, and they don’t bulge or deform when the gel inside freezes.
Yet again, the company hasn’t stated what gel it uses inside the cooler. That really bugs me because it makes it harder to shop responsibly.
But the icepacks are leak-free and food-safe, so you don’t have to worry about your own safety.
Yeti Ice Pack
Yeti cooler packs are solid and robust. They were designed to go through some pretty rough use, so they are great for overland car camping trips.
When it comes to actual coldness, they don’t significantly outperform the budget options. They are cooler than the extremely cheap and thin packs, but they aren’t substantially better than a similar model without the Yeti branding.
That is inevitable when it comes to Yeti gear. Although a lot of Yeti’s equipment is good, people buy it because of the brand image more than the actual performance.
That means you’re paying a premium for appearance’s sake, which is worth bearing in mind.
Overall, these ice packs are pretty good. I’d prefer that they didn’t have hand holes in the middle because I don’t think they’re useful.
But Yeti Cool Packs are strong, and they will serve you well. They’re just not that different from many cheaper models on the market.
Note: I couldn’t determine whether the Yeti Cool Packs contain refrigeration gel or if you’re supposed to put water in them. So, I contacted the Yeti team, which said that the packs are filled with a “food grade liquid” that should not be removed. Make of that what you will!
Coleman Chillers are low-budget reusable ice packs. They are pretty small, which is why I didn’t recommend them as the best value option. If you have a large cooler, you’d have to buy quite a few of them, so they wouldn’t actually be the cheapest option.
But for smaller coolers, these gel ice packs would work fine. Users say they last a long time, and they are surprisingly effective for the price.
Some people say that the stickers transferred ink inside their coolers. They are pretty hard to peel off, so you might want to pop the cold packs into a thin plastic bag, just to be on the safe side.
What to Look for When Buying Ice Packs for Your Cooler
You might think that all ice packs must work the same. And to be honest, you’d be mostly right.
But there are some design differences to look out for. These will influence how effectively your ice packs work.
The thicker your ice pack, the longer it will stay cool. Imagine putting out an ice cube on a hot day. Then imagine placing another ice cube next to it that’s five times bigger. The bigger ice cube will take longer to melt, just like the thicker ice pack will stay cooler for longer.
I don’t recommend the “ultrathin” ice packs that you can find online. They might not take up much space in your cooler, but they aren’t going to do a decent job.
Rigid vs. Flexible
Flexible icepacks can be better in some situations. They are easier to store when you aren’t using them, and they use less plastic.
But rigid icepacks will typically last quite a lot longer. They are more robust than the flexible ones and are less likely to tear or burst under pressure.
If you’re putting your equipment through rough use, a rigid ice pack would probably be the better choice.
Gel vs. Water
I prefer ice packs that you can fill with water because water has the lowest environmental impact. There is a misconception that frozen refrigerator gel stays colder for much longer than frozen water.
But that is only when compared to regular ice cubes, which naturally melt faster because they are smaller than one big frozen block.
While it’s true that gel has a lower freezing point and therefore takes longer to melt, the difference isn’t as significant as the industry makes it out to be.
So, you can go for gel if you want to keep things extra cold, but rest assured that water-based ice packs work well, too.
You want to get an icepack that is durable, so you don’t waste your money buying the same thing over and over again.
The best way to check this is to look at the user reviews and see which brands have problems with leaking or cracking after use.
Just bear in mind that pretty much every single ice pack will claim to be leak-proof. It doesn’t guarantee that the product won’t have a manufacturing flaw.
So, once again, refer to those user reviews for help.
These days, most ice packs are made from non-toxic materials, so you don’t have to worry too much.
Just double-check that the outer casting is food-safe.
BPA-free is another label to check for. BPA is an industrial chemical used in the production of some plastics. It shouldn’t be used for any plastic you will eat or drink from, but it frequently is!
So, BPA-free is always a better choice for ice packs that might come into contact with food, especially if little ones will be on your camping trip.
Be careful about greenwashing. A lot of companies describe materials in their ice packs as biodegradable.
However, biodegradable just means that something will break down into smaller pieces.
So, a plastic bag is technically biodegradable, but those microplastics aren’t good for the environment.
If you want to buy something that’s safe as it breaks down, look for the word “compostable.” I haven’t ever found a compostable ice pack, but that doesn’t mean we should outlaw cold packs for good.
Of course, we shouldn’t deprive ourselves of anything that doesn’t compost; just be aware that companies will manipulate you with green-seeming labels!
Reusable Packs vs. Regular Ice
The main reason that you want to use reusable freezer packs over regular ice is to prevent leaking. As the ice melts in your cooler, it can wreck your food and make a smelly mess.
But reusable packs will also save you money in the long run compared to buying bags of ice for every camping trip.
However, if you make ice at home on an ice tray, you probably won’t save money with the reusable cool packs.
The upside of regular ice is that you can just go to the store and buy more when you need to top up.
After all, if you’re on a longer camping trip, your reusable packs might get warm after a day or two.
You could always start with reusable packs and then top up with regular ice if and when necessary.
Homemade Ice Packs
If you’re on a budget, you can make ice packs. Sometimes I fill a plastic bottle with water and then pop it in the freezer. I then use this as an ice pack in my cooler. I can even drink the water once it has melted.
You can do the same for other liquids, like juices. (This way, it’s serving as a refreshment and a cool pack!) Just bear in mind that once the liquid freezes, it will expand.
So, don’t fill your bottle to the top, or else it will explode in the freezer.
Make sure the lid is on nice and tight to prevent leaking. You could also try this trick on a hot summer hike when you want to keep your drinks cooler for longer.
Your water will still be icy fresh even after you get to the end of a hot trail.
Troubleshooting Ice Packs
Why isn’t my ice pack working?
If your ice pack doesn’t seem to be working, it probably has more to do with the cooler you’re using.
Ice packs alone can’t keep your food cold. You need a well-insulated cooler that’s up to the climate you’ll be camping in.
Ice pack companies often overestimate how many hours the products will stay cool. Sure, the pack might stay cold for 48 hours in the winter but that’s probably not when you’ll be using it.
The higher the ambient temperature, the quicker your ice pack will get warm.
What if my ice pack bursts?
If your ice pack bursts and you get some gel on your skin, it’s usually not a problem. The gel inside most icepacks isn’t dangerous, and it’s made from substances commonly found in cosmetics.
The exact substance will depend on the brand, though. If you get any skin irritation after contact, ask for professional medical advice.
You can prevent softer packs from leaking by popping them into a zip-lock bag for an extra layer of security.
My favorite ice packs for camping are the Cooler Shock reusable ice packs. They are affordable and effective, and I love that you just fill them up with water. No weird refrigeration chemicals that I can’t pronounce!
Just remember that your cooler is more important than your ice pack. If you’ll be spending a lot of time and money on something, the cooler is what you should focus on.
I hope you found this article helpful, and I wish you many happy camping adventures!
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Rachel is a freelance adventure writer and founder of Highly Sensitive Nomad. When she isn’t writing, she can be found wild camping in the mountains and swimming in the lakes of Europe.