Is it Better to Drain Water From a Cooler? My Verdict


A few days ago a friend of mine had asked me the question: “is it better to drain water from a cooler? Should I maybe leave the ice melting?” Well, I was a little embarrassed since I write about camping quite a lot; however, I didn’t know the answer to this one. I had a few pros and cons in mind, although the right answer was still a mystery to me. That was when I began to search the topic a little deeper and write down this article.

It is better to keep the water in your cooler since the water cools more surface area than ice and has a lower thermal conductivity. For that, it would maintain the rest of the ice frozen and your food fresh for a more extended period.

Still, remember that keeping the water in might compromise hygiene and could get your food soggy. Also, it might touch the inner parts of the cooler (which are relatively warm) and heat your supply.

Water Keeping Pros

  • The Food is Entirely Surrounded
  • Water Preserves Ice Better Than Air
  • Lower Thermal Conductivity
  • The ‘Coolers On Sale’ Experiment

Water Keeping Cons

  • Food Might Become Soggy
  • Water Touches The Cooler Inner Parts
  • Less Hygiene
  • Heavy Carry

The Food is Entirely Surrounded

I’ve decided to begin with that factor since it is the most apparent one, although it is hard to understand it. The term I would like to use here is called ‘surface area,’ which is the total area the surface of the object occupies.

Let’s say we are talking about beer cans – their surface area is relatively hard to calculate, although if you had to paint it with a brush – that would be the entire area you would have painted.

Water molecules, in opposed to ice, can surround the whole surface area of your food and maintain its thermal insulation. 

When your cooler contains mostly ice, there is quite a lot of air in between the cubes and around your supply, which doesn’t insulate as much as good – I will also explain the reason for that later on in this article.

Water Preserves Ice Better Than Air

We all know that ice is colder than water since it has to warm up to melt. From this logic, we understand that the longer we can keep this ice on its form, the colder our food would be.

I’ve written above that air is a poor insulator when compared to water. If that statement is right, that means water would protect the ice better from melting and getting warmer than air. 

To prove that point one has to perform an experiment in which he checks the amount of time it takes for ice to melt in two scenarios, although I found it hard to find one over the internet.

For now, let’s rely on logic and see later on when understanding the term ‘thermal conductivity’, why that might be right.

The ‘Coolers On Sale’ Experiment

When I was researching the topic a little deeper, I came across a Youtube channel named ‘Coolers On Sale.’

Those guys conducted an experiment in which they took two coolers filled with ice; however, they drained the water from only one of them.

In the next six days, they kept draining the same cooler and measured the temperature from the outside. In the end, they saw that the container which wasn’t drained had held the cans inside cooler. 

Frankly, I’ve found the persistence quite impressive, although I have seen a few flaws in the experiment. First, when the experimenter was draining the water out – he opened the lid a little; that probably got warm air in and elevated the temperatures.

Also, they haven’t measured the inner temperature all days long – there is a possibility in which the food was colder in the drained cooler, yet, the results flipped at the end of the study.

Nevertheless, if those flaws had no severe impact on the results, there is a good chance you shouldn’t drain the water out.

Lower Thermal Conductivity

In the previous two pros, I’ve based my assumptions on the fact that water has a lower thermal conductivity than air. So how does it help us and what does it have to do with coolers drainage?

Well, thermal conductivity describes in numbers how easy a material could transfer heat through it. In other words – if the number is high, the object wouldn’t transfer heat as much as good as the other one with the lower number.

 

As you can see from the graph, air conducts heat better than water – that means heat could transfer to your food from the outside better through the air rather than through water.

The conclusion here is that the more your food is surrounded by water, the better it would insulate heat from the outside environment. 

As I’ve shown, in the previous two paragraphs – that is the case when the ice is melting, and you do not drain out the water.

Another excellent example of thermal conductivity is how cars get much colder than tents during nighttime. If that topic interest you, I recommend that you read my article regarding the question – is it warmer to sleep in a tent or a car?

Food Might Become Soggy

If you’ve only got drinks to cool down during camping – you that con would probably not be an issue. Nevertheless, that is usually not the case; if we are camping for a few days, we would also like to keep our sandwiches fresh.

Unfortunately, the melted ice might get your food soggy if you don’t drain it on time. Even when you are using sealed boxes and plastic bags – when kept under wet conditions for an extended period – things would eventually get wet. 

Even when you drain the water, things could get damp overnight, and for that reason, I suggest that you seal your food with two plastic bags instead of one.

Water Touches The Cooler Inner Parts

Remember when I was talking about how well water surrounds our food and keeps it insulated? Well, in some way, you can see it as a con.

Water tends to move freely, and it is not as fixated as ice. For that reason, there is the scenario in which the molecules touch the inner parts of the container, get warm and then move back to your food. 

It doesn’t matter how high quality your container is – in high temperatures its inner part would get hot, and the currents inside it wouldn’t be on your favor.

This theory could also compromise the previous one, in which I said that water would keep the ice in its form longer.

What has a more significant impact? It’s hard to tell, although I assume it mostly depends on how high the temperature outside the container is.

Less Hygiene

Imagine the following scenario – you chose not to drain your cooler since you saw the sense in my previous statements. In the first day, everything is fine – the ice is still there, and the food is quite cold.

Nevertheless, your journey doesn’t end here, and you are camping for a few more days. As days pass by, the water inside continues to accumulate and now, when you take food out – you dip your hands inside it. 

That wouldn’t be a big deal if you are camping on your own, however, when you are camping with a bunch of other people – the water will get dirty and filled with bacteria over time.

You should also take into account that the conditions are different when camping, and you wash your hands much less frequently (not to mention the dirt and mud you touch so often).

Heavy Carry

I’ve kept this one for last since it isn’t relevant for most of you. Nevertheless, there are scenarios in which you will have to move your cooler from one place to another.

Let’s say you are camping next to a lake – tide would come at some point, and you wouldn’t like your container to get soaked with water.

Besides that – your campsite will frequently change; you might need a new spot for your tent, campfire or tarp. If you don’t drain the water out of your cooler – it will continue to be heavy as long as you don’t consume the food and drinks inside it.

What’s My Verdict?

After all this, the question I’ve opened my article with remains. In my opinion, draining your cooler or not mainly depends on the way you are going to use it.

If you are camping with your entire family for an extended period – I would be more focused on keeping the food clean rather than cold and would, therefore, drain the water. 

On the other hand, if you are camping for just a few days and probably won’t be dealing with your cooler than much – perhaps keeping the water in the container would be a better choice.

Concerning temperatures solely, I believe that the food will remain colder when the water is still in. I am more convinced by thermal conduction and area surface arguments rather than anything else. 

I also rely on the experiment I presented earlier later which showed a lower temperature without drainage – although, you should consider that the differences between the two weren’t that apparent.

When is it Better to Drain my Cooler?

After reading the advantages and disadvantages in draining water out of the cooler – you are probably now confused. Well, there are some cases in which there is no question – it is better to drain the water.

The first scenario is when you are adding more ice to the cooler – although water occupies a smaller volume – if you don’t pour it before adding more ice – you may cause a flood. 

The second scenario is when you are preparing for a meal with a large group (your family, for instance), and you have to remove a lot of content from your cooler. 

Fishing the supply would be unpleasant, to say the least, not to mention that your hands would contaminate the food for the rest of the group.

What Really Counts?

Countless times I’ve encountered the same assumption – you should drain your cooler since ice is relatively colder than water and the last would heat your supply.

In my opinion, that is the wrong way to think since what counts is the temperature of your food – not its surroundings. It is true that ice is colder than water, there is no doubt about it.

Although – if fluid keeps your FOOD colder for a more extended period – that what counts. How is it possible to know the food temperature? Well, it’s hard, and frankly – you shouldn’t get obsessed about it. 

If you take your drinks out and they aren’t cold enough, try switching to a different technique and see what happens.

What Features Should a Good Cooler Have?

We all know that coolers are meant to keep the food fresh, although the exact characteristics to accomplish that might be obscure. Here I will list you a few components which I find crucial that your cooler features.

First of all, it has to be on the right size. 

If you are planning on camping for 2-3 days with one or two partners – perhaps you will do fine with a 54-quart cooler – otherwise, you’ll need something more substantial.

The second would be the material which the container is made of. 

If you are planning on day hikes, you don’t have to get too professional and might do fine with fabric coolers. On long-lasting adventures I suggest that you go with plastic or even steel containers – they will be much more durable and absorb shocks.

The last feature is insulation – which is usually described briefly by the manufacturer. 

What you should look for is how many days would ice stay in it without melting. I recommend that you take a little gap and buy a better cooler than you need – it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Should I Add Some Salt?

Well, you could enjoy the benefit of adding salt, although you should do it right.

When you pour salt over existing ice cubes – you don’t do much besides of melting it quicker. That trick may serve in cleaning icy roads, although it wouldn’t do much in keeping your food colder. 

The thing is that salt lowers the freezing point of water; the easiest way to understand it is with an example. Let’s say you are making ice at home before taking off, using your refrigerator.

Although, before putting it inside to freeze, you add a few spoons of salt to one of the piles. The salty one, according to thermodynamics, would freeze sooner than the regular one.

In other words, when freezing the two for the same period under the same conditions – the salty one would be COLDER than the other. 

Still, you should remember that it would also melt sooner. For that reason, if you are camping in hot conditions – I wouldn’t recommend using salted ice.

Conclusions

Draining the cooler or not is an ongoing debate among hikers and campers.

Some would say that you shouldn’t do so since the melted water might touch the inner part of the container and get warmer.

In my opinion, the more crucial factors in the equation are thermal conductivity and surface area, which favor in keeping the water in.

Of course, you should be aware of the downsides in holding the water as it is – your hands might contaminate the water, and your food might get soaked.

Taking all into considerations, I believe that the best way to decide is by testing both ways and seeing what works best for you.

I hope my article helped you in making a better decision. If you have any lingering questions or new insights – let me know all about them by leaving a comment below!

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