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How To Make Your Ice Last Longer.

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Like most vandwellers I used an ice-chest as a cooler for the first seven years I lived in a vehicle. And like most vandwellers I got really tired of buying ice and having my food swim around in ice-melt. Three years ago I bought a Dometic 12-volt compressor refrigerator/freezer, so I no longer have those problems. But, since it is a hot August, and most of you still use ice chests, I want to show you some ways to make that situation better. If you follow these suggestions, your ice should last much longer.

1) Add extra insulation 2) Keep your cooler full

In this first picture you can see two important ideas. 1) Add extra insulation. This can be very simple. I took pieces of left-over Styrofoam insulation and cut them to fit around the walls of the cooler. To hold them on I just took some bungee cords and wrapped them around. It couldn’t be any simpler. If you prefer you can use Gorilla Glue and glue the Styrofoam on. If possible you want to use pink or blue Styrofoam since it is much tougher than the white. I believe most of your cold is lost through the floor, so be sure to put insulation underneath the cooler. Styrofoam works really well, but you can go to a Walmart and buy a blue backpacker foam sleeping pad for about $9 and cut it to fit, then glue it to the bottom and top of the cooler. 2) Keep the cooler full. As the cooler runs low, I add

Add blankets or pillows to the top of the cooler

extra pops to fill it. At the top I place the bags filled with gel that are intended to be frozen and placed in coolers. They are flexible and fit in nooks and crannies and they hold cold very well.
In this picture you can see how I cover the cooler with extra blankets. In the winter I need more blankets but in the summer they just take up valuable space. So I fold them and store them on top of the cooler. It works perfect, in winter the ice lasts a long time so the cooler doesn’t need the extra blankets, and then in the summer it gives me a place to store the blankets and keeps the ice from melting as fast. I also have extra pillows and throw them over the top of the blankets. Every little bit helps! The cooler in these pictures is my Dometic 12 volt fridge. It has a compressor that gets pretty hot so you must be very careful to not block the vents on its sides. If you do the compressor will overheat and burn up. Mine is now three years old and still working like a champ!

The Reflectix “Cozy” has two parts, the Walls and the Lid.

In these pictures you see how to make a reflectix “cozy” for your cooler. I think this is one of the best things you can do. With most coolers the seal around the lid is one of the worst leaking areas, and the Reflectix cover really helps to keep the cold from escaping. It is just as simple as wrapping a long piece of Reflectix around the outside of the cooler and taping it together.
 Making the lid is a little more complicated. The best way I can describe it is to imagine the Reflectix is Christmas wrap and you are wrapping the cooler like a Christmas present. That describes how you must fold the corners to make it a square. Then just tape it together with a good tape like duct tape. The longer the lid goes down the sides of the cooler, the better. If you have any leftover Reflectix, you can cut some pieces to fit snuggly inside the cooler and then lay them on the inside top of the cooler. Some people even cover the inside bottom and sides with Reflectix, but I worry about mold and bacteria growing on it so I never have. But you may want to try it for yourself. If you do, let me know how it works for you.
Finally, here is something I used to do but don’t have any pictures of it. I had a big

Reflectix walls are folded for height, wrapped around the cooler, then cut and taped.

cooler, so I found a big Kitty Litter tub that would fit inside it and still let the lid close. I didn’t put the ice in the ice chest; I put it in the Kitty Litter tub. That way when the ice melted, the water stayed in the tub and my food always stayed dry. More importantly, the ice water was never in direct contact with the walls of the cooler, and much less of it was in contact with the floor. So the air around the tub acted like an extra layer of insulation and the ice lasted much longer that way. I highly recommend this to you.
So there you have it, some ideas of how to make your cooler keep ice longer in the summer heat. Bob

To make the lid, you fold it like you it were gift wrapping paper, and you were wrapping a Christmas gift.


  1. Michelle(She)

    These are great tips Bob I plan to use most if not all your ideas here.

    • Bob

      Thanks Michelle, every little bit helps to keep the ice longer. These tips aren’t a miracle cure, but they are so easy and cheap that I’m sure they pay for themselves right away in savings in ice. Bob

  2. Offroad

    Can you comment on how long the ice will last in an average cooler, with proper insulation added?
    1) In 90 plus heat
    2) In 70 nice temperatures
    3) In a cool 50 degrees

    • Bob

      Hi Offroad, I’m afraid I have never been very scientific in my search for longer lasting ice. I haven’t kept any records to see how much good it really did. Another thing is i haven’t had an ice chest in three years, so I don’t really remember how long it lasted. The one thing I would say is to not get your hopes up too high. I am sure there is an improvement with the tricks I showed you, but it may not be a huge improvement.
      When I was using ice, I estimated I averaged a little over 2 bags of ice a week (more in the summer, say 3 bags, less in the winter, say one bag). That’s about 110 bags a year. I figure it averages about $2.50 a bag because I spend most of my time boondocking and I buy it where it is most expensive. So I was spending $275 a year on ice, plus I made many trips into town just for ice, so I need to add the cost of gas for those trips. Plus, the tip of putting ice into a Kitty Litter bucket kept my food out of the ice water. Over the years that saved me a lot of money from not having food ruined. My compressor fridge cost me $400, so it paid for itself in less than 1 1/2 years.
      If my tricks and tips for your cooler cuts your ice from melting by 20% (which I think is fair) you will save $50-75 a year on ice and gas. Pretty good return on a very small investment. And it lasts a long time. I used the same cooler for 7 years and the 2 inch thick pieces of styrofoam I glued to the bottom and walls was still in very good shape (it was the blue, not the white styrofoam). Hope this helps, Bob

  3. Calvin R

    Food preservation comes up again and again on these lists, and it’s always inconclusive. Given that I like deserts and warm climates, I think I’d best research those compressor fridges. Depending on the money, I might find a cooler necessary for a while, but I’ll be focusing on fridges. Buying ice two or three times a week just doesn’t appeal to me.

    • Bob

      Hi Calvin, everyone’s situation is different, when I lived in a city it was easy to buy ice but now as a boondocker it became a giant pain in the butt! Some people do away with refrigeration altogether, but that would just be too difficult for me. The compressor fridge easily runs off my solar panels so it is the ideal solution for me. It’s a lot of money up-front but it will quickly pay for itself. Bob

      • Herb

        I was thinking of adding a 12 volt refrig/cooler to my 6×12 cargo trailer how much watts or size solar panel would you need to run one say like your system

        • Bob

          Herb, I have 190 watts and it is plenty. You could start with 100 watts and see if that is enough. The problem is extended periods of rain and clouds, for that the more the better. Also, in the winter with the short days a low sun you will probably struggle. If possible have 200 watts, but if your budget is tight start with a single 100 watt panel and you can always add a second later.
          Amazon has a good deal on a 100 watt Renogy kit, check it out.

  4. Steve

    i use a Coleman extreme 60qt. which perfectly takes 2 blocks of ice… Block ice last longer than crushed and it costs less… I have reflective insulation under the cooler, on top of the cooler and inside on top of the cooler… we just went though close to 90deg. weather and i had to change out my ice every 5-6 days with no loss of any food stuff… But I want a good Dometic, but as in life money is hard to come by to justify the cost…



    • Bob

      Hi Gary, good to hear from you! We wondered why you weren’t at Summer RTR. Sorry for the breakdown. I know several people going to Baja this winter, maybe a caravan would be a good idea. I’m not a water guy so I don’t think I will be going. I really like the desert. See you in January!! Bob

    • Cedric

      Hi Gary
      I am wondering where baja is and where you park for free? Is this on the beach? thanks

  6. Cedric

    Hi Bob
    I have found myself constantly thinking of boon-docking in a van. I don’t really like heat so I doubt I would survive in the desert. I am curious how much amp hrs the frig you have draws from your batteries in one day. thanks cedric

    • Bob

      Hi Cedric, I’m just like you, after living in Alaska all my life, I can’t tolerate the heat. So I am a snowbird; I live in the desert in the winter and in National Forests in the summer. This summer i was in the Sierra NF but winter is coming so sometime in October I will move down to the desert.
      The fridge is incredibly efficient. It draws 3 amps an hour but it doesn’t come on much. In the winter it is probably on only 2-3 hours a day, so that is 6-10 amps per day. In the summer it comes on more, i would guess 3-5 hours a day so that’s 10-15 amps per day. But because i am a snowbird it is rarely over 90 degrees. If I had to live where it was truly hot (over 100 degrees) it would come on much more. Bob

  7. Don

    Ha Bob, we use to long weekends on our small houseboat or dry camping. We would go to the meat department at our local grocery store and get a 5lb. block of dry ice. (they never charged me for it as they meats came packed in it) This would allow a 10lb bag of ice to last 4-5 days in the Florida summers.

    • Bob

      Good tip Don. Have to see if any others do that. I worked in a grocery store all my life and our meat all came in on refrigerated trucks–no dry ice. But there may still be some that do. It would be worth looking into. Bob

  8. Kate

    These are great ideas. Thanks for suggesting them. You could probably make and sell that cozy.
    I put my ice in large freezer bags in the cooler and when it melts it doesn’t make everything soggy.
    I wonder about using dry ice, have you ever tried it.

    • Bob

      The freezer bags are a very good idea Kate. Soggy food is a real bummer! In the 7 years I used an ice chest as a vandweller I bet I threw away hundreds of dollars worth of water-logged food. I’m sorry, I never used dry ice, but I would be curious to know more about it if anyone has.
      Thanks for the freezer bag tip! Bob

  9. Varmint

    Bob, I used to buy dry ice from ice cream shops for storage purposes. It sold by the pound, and I haven’t bought any for over ten years. Unfortunately, I never used it as a cooling agent, but it is way colder than regular ice.
    I used to put a chunk about 2″x2″ in size in the bottom of a five-gallon bucket and pour grain in to fill the bucket up. Then I’d leave the lid on loosely for a few hours while the dry ice forced all the free air out. Slam the lid shut, and your grain will keep for many years (inert gas). You could also store a lot of things in plastic tubs like this as long as you intend to leave it alone while stored. It will kill critters that try to get in.
    As for cheap coolers, I wonder if anyone ever tried a “bush cooler” or some variation thereof? Just a thought.

    • Bob

      Hi Varmint, that is a good tip about the dry ice. I’ve never tried a bush cooler though. Thanks

  10. RH

    Hello, just popping in and wanted to add…
    Dry ice is an option as long as you have leather gloves and no little kids that want to lift the lid and peruse through the food…
    There IS a way to make your own dry ice if you can’t find it. Buy a CO2 fire extinguisher, secure a pillow case around the horn with a rubber band, depress the handle so that it shoots into the pillow case and there you go–dry ice.
    The only drawback? Those fire extinguishers cost around $150+ and I have no idea how much ice a 5lb-20lb produces. It’s probably best for emergency cooling.

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