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June/July 2017

Ice Packs

Ice is cheap and effective, but it can leave a sloshy mess in your cooler. Is there a better solution for keeping the contents of your cooler cold?

How We Tested

Ice packs promise to keep your cooler cold without the hassle and mess of dealing with cubed ice. Most of the packs are filled with nontoxic chemicals, some of which are supposed to stay cold for a prolonged period of time.

To find the best ice pack, we selected eight models priced from $3.49 to $29.99. If a manufacturer offered multiple sizes of a product, we chose the largest available. Most of the packs were hard-sided, but we also included two soft-sided ice “blankets” meant to line the bottom of a cooler. Only one product is filled with plain water; the rest use proprietary nontoxic liquids or gels. We froze the packs for 24 hours before each test.

To get a preliminary read on their ability to stay cold, we started by removing the ice packs from the freezer, affixing a thermometer to each, and tracking how long they took to warm from a baseline of about 32 degrees to 50 degrees. With the exception of the two ice blankets, which were both completely thawed in less than 7 hours, all the ice packs stayed below 50 degrees for at least 12 hours. We did find that ice packs that weighed 2 pounds or less called it quits sooner than larger 4- and 5-pound packs.

We saw the same trend when we placed the packs in identical pools of 75-degree water and tracked the temperature of the water as it chilled and ultimately started to warm up again: The smallest ice packs had minimal cooling power, and the ice blankets weren’t much better, but large ice packs worked well, keeping the water cold nearly twice as long (as much as 7 hours) as the others.

So far only the obvious was clear—larger ice packs stay colder longer. So couldn’t you just use more of the small ice packs to achieve the same result? To find out, we lined the bottom of identical large, 38-quart rolling coolers with as many packs of each model as would fit without overlapping—between one and three packs for each model. We filled another cooler with 5 pounds of loose ice (the smallest amount we could buy at the grocery store) to see how plain ice would compare. We loaded 24 cans of 40-degree seltzer and soda into each cooler so that they were all about half full and tracked the air temperature inside each cooler. Every hour we removed a can from the same spot in each cooler, opened it, and recorded the temperature. Our goal was for the cans to stay under 50 degrees, which we found to be a nice drinkable temperature.

The good news: With size accounted for, every ice pack kept the contents below 50 degrees for more than 8 hours, a reasonable length for a party or tailgate. But we didn’t stop there. The cans in the two coolers with ice blankets warmed up to an unpalatable 60 degrees within 24 hours. All of the coolers with hard-sided packs kept cans around 50 degrees for 36 hours, which is when we finally stopped tracking them. While these results were impressive, we were astounded to find that the clear winner was the plain bagged ice, which brought the drinks down to a frosty 33 degrees and consistently kept them 10 degrees colder than any ice pack over the course of 36 hours—even after a day and a half, sodas in the cooler with plain ice hadn’t even climbed to 40 degrees.

While none of the manufacturers would tell us exactly what materials they used in their ice packs, our science editor explained that common ice pack contents such as hydroxyethyl cellulose, sodium polyacrylate, and silica gel (all nontoxic materials used in other household items from cosmetics to cat litter) perform similarly to water, but they can also prevent bacteria growth. While some also have a thicker, gel-like consistency, which moves slower than water and can prolong thawing a bit, he suggested that the amount of liquid in each pack matters far more than the type.

There was only one way to find out exactly what and how much was inside each pack, so we sliced into each one and emptied the contents. The best-performing ice packs contained more than 45 ounces of cooling medium, about double the amount in smaller packs and up to four times as much as was in the lowest-performing ice blanket. The cooling mediums themselves were all different, ranging from colored watery liquids to clear, thick gels.

To see if any of the cooling mediums were objectively better at chilling than the rest, we weighed out 75 grams of each, put them in identical containers, and froze them. We also included an equal amount of frozen water as a control. The next day, we took the containers out of the freezer and tracked their temperatures as they thawed to room temperature. The result? The liquids stayed pretty close in temperature as they thawed. While we noticed that gels consistently stayed a few degrees colder than liquids, it wasn’t enough to make a marked difference in overall performance. It also came with a trade-off: air bubbles were often trapped in the slower-moving gels, which formed bulges in the plastic as they froze. Packs with large bumps were unsteady in coolers—no good if you’re transporting something delicate—say, a pie or a tray of deviled eggs.

Ultimately, if you don’t mind the cleanup and have time to go to the store, plain ice will do a good job of keeping the contents of your cooler cold (loose ice cubes can snugly surround the contents of a cooler the way rigid ice packs can’t). But if you’re looking for a reusable option that won’t leave your cooler dripping wet, go for a hard-sided ice pack. Though we preferred larger products, all the hard-sided ice packs performed nearly equally once we compensated for size. Since none of the ice packs proved to have superpowered liquids worthy of a splurge, we heavily considered price in our rankings by computing the cost per ounce of liquid for each product. The best ice packs give you more liquid for less money.

Our favorite was the Arctic Ice Alaskan Series, X-Large ($20.99), a hard-sided 5-pound ice pack that held the most liquid in our lineup. While its $0.33 per ounce of liquid is a far cry from the $0.04 per ounce of plain ice, this ice pack kept a 38-quart cooler chilly for 14 hours, didn’t form bulges as it froze, had a convenient handle, and can be reused over and over to maximize savings.

Methodology

We tested eight ice packs priced from $3.49 to $29.99. If a manufacturer offered multiple sizes, we purchased the largest ice pack available. We used temperature-tracking software to conduct three different temperature tests. First, we attached thermocouples directly to the ice pack as it thawed from frozen to room temperature. Next, we tracked how well each pack could chill room-temperature water. Finally, we lined the bottom of identical 38-quart coolers with each model (using one, two, or three packs depending on their size), loaded the coolers with 24 cans of chilled soda, and tracked the temperatures of both the cooler and the sodas over 48 hours. Before each test we froze the ice packs for 24 hours. We also disassembled each pack to examine its contents and froze an equal weight of each to compare its melting properties with those of ice. We rated the products on their cooling ability, materials, size, and value. Prices shown were paid online, and products appear in order of preference.

COOLING: We tracked the temperatures of the ice packs over three temperature tests; two of the tests used individual packs, while the third used however many packs it took to line a standard cooler. Our favorite products stayed below room temperature for more than 18 hours and kept water and soda chilled at a palatable 50 degrees for more than 6 hours.

MATERIALS: Our favorite products were made from hard plastic. Lower-ranked products had thin plastic housings that punctured easily. We also docked a few points from products that formed bulges in the plastic as they froze.

SIZE: We preferred larger ice packs that could line a chest cooler using only one pack, which meant we had to buy, store, and maintain fewer ice packs for the same cooling results. Lower-ranked products took as many as three packs to line the cooler. We also docked points from products that concealed a small amount of liquid with a lot of bulky packaging, which made adding another ice pack for better cooling results impractical.

VALUE: We weighed the liquid in each ice pack and calculated the price paid per ounce of liquid. Products were awarded points if their cost per ounce of liquid was $0.25 or less. We awarded fewer points to products that were more expensive.

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The Results

Note: Cook's Country continuously updates our equipment reviews and taste tests. The written content below is the most up-to-date information available and may not match what appears in the video segment.

Key:
Good
Fair
Poor
Winner
Recommended

Arctic Ice Alaskan Series, X-Large

Buy For $24
Purchased for $20.99 at time of testing

Arctic Ice Alaskan Series, X-Large

Though this hard-sided ice pack was one of the more expensive in the bunch, it contained a large amount of liquid, had a convenient handle for easy transporting, and never formed bulges as it froze. We needed only one of these packs to line a cooler and keep soda chilled for more than a day, and the pack stayed cold for almost 14 hours when we let it sit out at room temperature.

More Details
Size
Value
Cooling
Materials
Purchased for $20.99 at time of testing
Best Buy
Recommended

Freez Pak, Extra Large

Buy For $9
Purchased for $11.38 at time of testing

Freez Pak, Extra Large

Large and hard-sided, this ice pack consistently aced our cooling tests, keeping water chilly for 6 hours and soda in a cooler under 50 degrees for 36 hours. It also took a whopping 19 hours to thaw when left at room temperature. It’s large and inexpensive, easily filled the bottom of our 38-quart cooler, and stored compactly in the freezer. One downside: It often had small bumps in the plastic after freezing.

More Details
Size
Value
Cooling
Materials
Purchased for $11.38 at time of testing
Recommended

Rubbermaid Blue Ice Weekender Pack

$10.99 for 2

Rubbermaid Blue Ice Weekender Pack

Though one of these packs couldn’t chill water to below 60 degrees, two were enough to keep our cooler contents at an average of 48 degrees over 36 hours. The blue cooling gel never formed bulges in the thick plastic shell, and we liked that this product is conveniently sold in packs of two—the perfect number for lining a medium cooler.

More Details
Size
Value
Cooling
Materials
$10.99 for 2
Recommended with Reservations

Yeti Ice, 4 lbs.

$29.99

Yeti Ice, 4 lbs.

While this large ice pack was definitely durable—it took a meat cleaver and a mallet to cut through the thick, tough plastic—the cooling was inconsistent. It froze deeper than any other pack, emerging from the freezer at around 17 degrees, but then accelerated to room temperature before other products, fully thawing about 2 hours ahead of top-performing ice packs. For its high price tag, we expected better.

More Details
Size
Value
Cooling
Materials
$29.99

Coleman Chillers Ice Substitute, Large

$3.49

Coleman Chillers Ice Substitute, Large

This hard-shelled ice pack may bill itself as “large,” but it was actually the most petite of the bunch, at just under 7 inches tall. It contained only about a third as much liquid as top-ranked models. A single one of these small ice packs couldn’t stay cold nearly as long as larger packs, but once we compensated for its size by using three to line the cooler, they easily held cans below 50 degrees for nearly 5 hours.

More Details
Size
Value
Cooling
Materials
$3.49

Igloo Ice Block, Large

$8.99

Igloo Ice Block, Large

Despite its small size, this hard-sided ice pack stayed frozen for 12 hours at room temperature and kept water chilled for 4 1/2 hours. When we used two in a cooler, results were identical to those of top-performing packs. However the plastic casing was a bit flimsy and pulled apart easily at the seams. It took only a tiny bit of pressure to knock the plug at the top of pack off its spout, and the gel often formed a thick ridge in the plastic as it froze.

More Details
Size
Value
Cooling
Materials
$8.99
Not Recommended

Igloo Natural Ice, 88 Cubes

$5.99

Igloo Natural Ice, 88 Cubes

This large ice blanket—which looks like a sheet of bubble wrap filled with water—easily lined the bottom of a cooler and even climbed up the sides, but it was one of the first products to reach room temperature during every test. Lots of plastic packaging between pockets of trapped water and air meant this ice pack took up a lot of space for a small amount of liquid, and adding another bulky pack for better cooling was impractical. Its thin plastic packaging was also easily punctured.

More Details
Size
Value
Cooling
Materials
$5.99

Rubbermaid Blue Ice Reusable Ice Blanket

$14.69 for 2

Rubbermaid Blue Ice Reusable Ice Blanket

Though this large sheet perfectly blanketed the bottom of our cooler, it contained a paltry 14 ounces of liquid—about half as much as even the smallest hard-sided packs. It was no wonder this product was consistently the first to lose its cool: We would need at least four of these blankets to produce the same amount of cooling as our top-ranked packs. Its thin plastic shell easily tore when we poked it with a knife, sending blue goo everywhere.

More Details
Size
Value
Cooling
Materials
$14.69 for 2

Watch The Full Episode

Hosts Bridget Lancaster and Julia Collin Davison are making fried chicken wings—on the grill! Next, equipment expert Adam Ried reviews ice packs. Then, tasting expert Jack Bishop challenges Brid...