Small coolers are great to have when you are paddling. They are easy to carry, don’t take up much space and will keep your favorite beverage cold on a hot day. Years ago, the only options for small coolers were either hard side models that were bulky and cumbersome and soft side models that didn’t keep things cold for very long.
Now days when you go to your local sporting goods store or big box retailer, the shelves are stocked with either expensive “High Performance” soft side coolers that can keep ice for many days or the same old inexpensive “low performance” models that we’ve all got used to using that are only good for a few hours. I already had a “High Performance” soft cooler made by Polar Bear and have been very pleased with it, but I needed more cooling space for my kayak camping trips and didn’t want to spend another $80 – $200 dollars for a larger model. I needed something small but with excellent ice retention and I wanted it cheap.
I decided to do an experiment with a $4.97 cooler I purchased at Wal-mart.
This was your typical lightly insulated “lunch box” style soft cooler with removable hardliner. To test it’s performance, I filled it with 4 lbs. of ice and let it sit in my garage where the temperature started at 71 degrees in the morning and climbed to 85 during the heat of the day. Within 8 hours, all the ice had melted and I was left with nothing but water.
Next, I modified the cooler by increasing the insulation to see what effect it would have on another 4 lbs. of ice.
I had some formed shipping styrofoam that came as packing material in the box of a portable air conditioner. I sliced it in sheets about 1/4 inch thick. I cut them to shape the out side walls of the removable liner, then attached them to the outside walls with duct tape. I also taped a piece of styrofoam into the storage compartment in the flip lid to give it more insulation.
After all the pieces were attached, I wrapped the outside in duct tape covering all the exposed styrofoam. Then put the liner back into the insulated cooler sleeve. It was a tight fit, but it did fit.
As a comparison, I used my Polar Bear High Performance Nylon 6 can cooler. Polar Bear advertises it will keep ice for 24 hours in 100 degree heat. (Ozark Trail does not give theirs an ice retention rating)
I filled both of them with 4 lbs of ice, closed them and put them in my garage. The room temperature varied from 85 degrees during the day to 70 degrees at night.
4 lbs. of ice in each cooler:
24 hours : About half the ice had melted in both of them.
36 hours : 1/4 of the ice remains. Most still clumped together
48 hours : A few individual pieces of loose ice in each. The Polar Bear had more ice in it, but not much more.
The Ozark Trail cooler with modifications performed as well as the Polar Bear in these conditions.
Total cost of Ozark Trail Cooler plus modifications:
$4.97 plus tax – Cooler
50 cents worth of duct tape
Styrofoam- no cost, it came as shipping material with something else.
30 minutes of time
Conclusion: The Polar Bear cooler is a very good cooler. It holds cold and is easy to carry. Though I have never tested the 100 degree claim, I’m sure it will do it. It is durable with some great features like a built in bottle opener but it costs 8 – 9 times as much as the Ozark.
With a little modification, the Ozark Trail seems to perform just as well and saved me a lot of money. I plan to take my “new and improved” Ozark cooler on a camping trip next week, I will update this article to let you know how it performs.
2 thoughts on “How I Turned My Cheap Soft Cooler into a High Performance Ice Box”
So, my question is what will it hold? I find that most times my small coolers will not even hold a bottle of water. How do you think it would perform with one of the blue cooler elements verses ice? Thanks for this great idea. I think maybe I need to do some testing too.
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It will hold six 12 oz. cans, but you don’t have much room for ice. I use the blue cooler elements often in my other cooler and as long as my drinks were cold before I put them in the cooler, things stayed cold. I haven’t tested this one with the “Blue ice” yet, but it should be OK. Since the zipper is not water tight or leak proof, when I am kayak camping, I plan to use dry ice in it when storing food to keep things frozen and not have to worry about water leakage.