A little science can save your ice cubes from melting quickly—and it’s easier than you think.

By Maki Yazawa
July 01, 2020
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Before you get ready to pack your cooler for your next camping trip or day at the park, there are some steps you can take to ensure your ice—and ultimately, your food—stay as cold as possible for as long as possible.

One of the biggest challenges when it comes to using a cooler is preventing the ice from melting quickly, which makes your food soggy (not to mention unsafe) and your drinks hot. And what's worse than warm beer? Luckily, all you need are a couple of household items and some genius packing hacks to prolong your cooling capacity.

The most important way to keep your cooler cold is to keep the heat out. A great way to do so is by lining the inside of your cooler with aluminum foil that helps reflect heat and light that will quickly melt your ice. You can also use thermal bubble wrap to help keep the hot air out and cool air in or you can even throw a layer on top of your cooler to help reflect away any additional UV rays.

Take into consideration the type of activity you will be embarking on before choosing which cooler to use. Soft nylon and polystyrene foam coolers provide a moderate amount of insulation and are more suitable for shorter, day trips. However, if you’re planning on camping overnight or going on a longer trip, you may want to invest in a more durable plastic or other hard-sided cooler that will stay cold for much longer. You also should avoid metal coolers as they tend to absorb heat more easily.

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One of the best ways to keep your ice colder for longer is by chilling your cooler before you place the fresh ice in it. You can do so by adding ice a couple hours prior or even the day before, and allowing the cooler to chill as much as possible. This will help prolong the life of the fresh ice once you're ready to go. You can also freeze water bottles or non-carbonated drinks that will act as additional cooling items to help preserve your ice. Also, make sure all of the items you're going to place in the cooler are also well-chilled in advance. Instead of placing hot or room temperature drinks or food into the cooler, freeze or chill as much as possible beforehand. 

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An advantage of using large ice blocks is that they have less surface area exposed to warmer outside air than smaller ice cubes. Thus, larger ice blocks melt at a much slower rate than cubed ice. You can easily make your own DIY ice blocks by using an empty clean milk carton as a mold. Fill the carton with water (make sure to leave room for it to expand) and freeze. Once frozen, remove the carton and place in your cooler. Though they are bulky, they will last much longer and work more effectively.

Use a light-colored wet towel to wrap the cooler and keep it under the shade. As wind passes over the towel, the water will begin to evaporate. As the water turns to vapor, it will make the towel colder. This will help keep the cooler’s temperature down and making your ice last even longer.

As you open and close the lid to your cooler, warm air will enter, melting the ice quicker. Organize your cooler with items that you will more frequently need to one side in order to lessen the amount of time the lid remains open. Instead of having to dig around to find what you need, strategically organize your cooler to make each opening as efficient as possible.

Dry ice, the solid form of carbon dioxide, has a much lower temperature than ordinary water ice (-109.3°F versus 32°F). Place thedry iceat the bottom of your cooler and then layer with regular ice overtop. The dry ice will help cool down the regular ice and will turn into gas as it melts, leaving no unwanted messes or excess water to clean up after.

If you’re camping for a few days, you may want to consider burying your cooler in the ground. As unconventional as this may sound, the cool soil will help maintain the temperature for a longer period of time. Simply make sure you bury it only three-quarters of the way and choose a shady spot.

Despite what you may think, keeping the water in the cooler is actually counterintuitive. Water is much more likely to transfer heat via convection and will encourage the ice to melt further. By removing the water as it accumulates, your ice will melt at a slower rate.