What's the best resuable ice pack for a cooler?
June 29, 2015 1:21 PM   Subscribe

What's the best ice pack to use in a cooler when car camping? Has anyone done scientific reviews of the various kinds? Is there any difference between the various brands of refreezable ice packs? I'm asking about these sorts of things.

Presume I know about efficient packing, bags of ice, blocks of ice, dry ice, using multiple coolers, keeping beer cool in the stream, etc.
posted by The corpse in the library to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (13 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
As far as the chemistry goes, most of the consumer freezer packs are made more or less from the same base mixture of a glycol and alcohol (ethanol or methanol).

Freeze a gallon jug in your freezer and then you can also drink it when it melts. Cheap and easy.

For a bit of science, not only is a jug a cheap and easy (and reusable) refrigerant, as well as a source of clean water, heat exchange is a measure of surface area and a big cube of ice has less surface area than a freezer pack and will melt more slowly.

Freezer packs offer more packing efficiency, but they expose more surface area and will therefore warm up faster, i.e., not last as long.
posted by a lungful of dragon at 2:17 PM on June 29, 2015 [2 favorites]

I think I can help, at least anecdotally. My mother is, like, obsessed with ice packs (as a natural extension of being obsessed with packing enough food to feed an army any time we travel). I'm pretty sure I've used every kind of commercial consumer-grade ice pack available and I have OPINIONS.

The kind you linked? That kind sucks. It's enormous and unwieldy and you get an uneven distribution of cooling throughout your cooler.

Also bad are the liquidy gel packs. Personally I use the little tiny pack ice blankets, but that's because I only need cooling for short distances in small things like lunch bags. The gel packs are the most accommodating for cooler space purposes but melt really fast. They're just totally impractical for needing something to stay cool longer than 2 hours.

The best kind, in my lifetime of ice pack usage, are the small hard brick ones. The ones that are just a shade taller than a can of coke and about two decks of cards thick. Stick several of those around your cooler and you get an even distribution of cooling thoroughout. It's great.

Now, among those of course are a ton of different brands. That bright blue Freez-Pak brand is cheap as shit and sucks. We've had one of those explode on us after just a few months of use. The rest just got leaky. Whatever you use do not use those. Also lousy are the packs that were designed with a specific purpose, like shaped to fit cans or skinny with cutouts to fit special lunch boxes. The plastic on those is cheap and flimsy and will bow after heavy use.

As far as good kinds, there are basically two. There's a kind (not sure what brand it is) that has stylized ice drips moulded into the plastic. Looks like this. We have a few of those in the freezer back home that honest to god I think may predate my even being born. They seem to stay frozen longer than any other type we have. But, as a downside, they have curved faces, which make them less ideal for packing a tight cooler.

The best packs my mom has have served our family well since I was in elementary school, and she and my dad are still using them today. They've been all over the country with us. We were on a trip once, had our minivan irreparably break down on us, and had to abandon it and fly home. The ice packs flew home with us in our luggage, that's how beloved they are. Those ice packs are Rubbermaid brand Blue Ice in a rugged case. I've been looking on google images here and it appears there are a few factions of Blue Ice. It's crucial you get the right kind. Liquidy gel (run), something I'll call "lunchbox quality", and rugged. Rugged is what you want. I seem to recall we had one or two of the lunchbox quality and they just didn't measure up at all. The super hard sided housing on the rugged ones keeps them better insulated and they can snap together like legos if that's what you're into. (We always just left them free so we could shove them wherever in the cooler as needed.) These things are indestructible. Here is a place where you can buy them.

I never realized I had so much to say about ice packs but there you go. Stay chilly, my friend.
posted by phunniemee at 2:23 PM on June 29, 2015 [18 favorites]

I always freeze water in large containers (gallon jugs, plastic food storage containers) to use on camping trips. To me, ice packs are extra weight with only one limited purpose, and they don't last as long as plain old ice.
posted by caryatid at 2:28 PM on June 29, 2015

N-thing the suggestion for large container of just water.

If you are looking for portable, or longest lasting, the answer might be different. But honestly, if you aren't going in and out of the container all the time, pack it tightly, frozen water bottles will serve you great. You can start pre-cooling your container before you leave, and then put in a fresh supply of frozen bottles just before you set off.
Last camping trip, we froze almost all drinks, and then things that didn't like being frozen (veggies, etc), we put in insulated bags in the larger container with the frozen stuff. Over the long weekend, everything held up beautifully).

For multiday trips, it can be worth having two coolers, for the two halves of the trip. That way, the latter one can retain its cold for as long as possible.
posted by troytroy at 2:46 PM on June 29, 2015

I really only want to know about the plastic packs. Presume I know about efficient packing, bags of ice, blocks of ice, dry ice, using multiple coolers, keeping beer cool in the stream, etc.
posted by The corpse in the library at 3:00 PM on June 29, 2015 [4 favorites]

Remember that long lasting means less cooling. A short-lasting ice pack will keep your food cooler though for a shorter time.

Some plastic bottles will break is frozen full of water, so experiment ahead of time.
posted by SemiSalt at 3:34 PM on June 29, 2015

Like this. This kind of thing. This is the sort of thing I'm wondering about.
posted by The corpse in the library at 4:47 PM on June 29, 2015 [2 favorites]

Has anyone done scientific reviews of the various kinds?

Yes! At least, some people at Michigan State University's School of Packaging wrote up a study. They are mostly concerned with shipping, but products tested include the sort of things you are talking about, like Re-Freez-R-Brix.

Is there any difference between the various brands of refreezable ice packs?

If I am reading this paper correctly, what matters most in evaluating different brands is not so much the ingredients as the shape and volume -- at least, when comparing those gel packs that are mostly water. There are also packs that use other kinds of phase change materials (PCMs): those tested have similar latent heat to the watery type, but can have very different melting points.

From what I can tell, the non-watery PCMs are mostly used for shipping things that require a narrow temperature range, such as vaccines or chocolates. But some can be found on Amazon, e.g. this ThermoSafe product, which claims to "provide 15% longer protection than standard gel packs". Reviews of similar products depict them as the sleeper gel pack of the future, and also mention that, unlike standard gel packs, they hold their rectilinear shape persistently.
posted by feral_goldfish at 8:35 PM on June 29, 2015

> These things are indestructible. Here is a place where you can buy them.

You convinced me and I ordered them from that company, after e-mailing them to check that they were the snap-together kind... and they sent me different ones. These are rare, valuable ice packs. Tell your parents to guard them.
posted by The corpse in the library at 11:45 AM on July 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

Oh no! I hope the imposter packs are ok.
posted by phunniemee at 11:52 AM on July 3, 2015

No! They're the lunchbox quality ones you mentioned. Not acceptable.
posted by The corpse in the library at 12:05 PM on July 3, 2015

Did you ever find any that were acceptable?
posted by wenestvedt at 6:22 AM on January 5, 2016

No. I make do with the imposters.
posted by The corpse in the library at 8:59 AM on January 5, 2016

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