Having cool drinks and fresh tucker makes life nice in the bush, but choosing an icebox is not an open and shut case.
Not everyone has a portable fridge and those who do sometimes need additional cooler capacity. That’s why the portable icebox still has a place. We tested six of them in summer heat.
Cold beer is essential. So is fresh, crisp lettuce, cheese that doesn’t smell like Uncle Arthur’s feet (unless it’s the fancy blue-vein stuff, of course) and milk that isn’t yet yoghurt. How do you achieve this while out bush? One way is with a 12V or gas powered portable refrigerator, but that’s covered elsewhere on this site, so in this story we’re taking a look at iceboxes.
It’s more than 50 years since the supermarket was a new concept in shopping. The first supermarket in Australia was apparently at the town of Sue City, a now-gone Snowy Scheme town, where people needed a way of carrying frozen food home from the supermarket deep-freezers to their new Frigidaires, so the portable ice box was born.
Picnics were also made a lot more enjoyable with an ‘Esky’ in the back of the Holden Special Station Wagon and soon the brand became part of Aussie
These days, an icebox is an essential part of a 4WD trekker’s stack of equipment. The original Esky was manufactured from steel, but these days several
types of plastic or fibreglass are the preferred construction materials for iceboxes.
Sure, in concept, an icebox is little more than an insulated box with a lid, but there’s plenty to look for when shopping and choosing. Sizes and
features vary, but something all iceboxes need to be competent at is keeping your food cold for a day or more.
The type of insulation used in most is something of a closely guarded trade secret – fair enough – but some are better than others. How much better
is hard to say, but we’ve tested a few here and they all did the job with varying degrees of competence.
No matter what brand or type, keeping your icebox out of the sun is essential for making the most of its performance. Siting your box on cool grass
under a gumtree is better than on warm dirt. If you must park your vehicle in the sun with an icebox on board, do your best to cover the icebox and give it plenty of ventilation.
Our tests showed that regardless of exterior colour or construction material, the surface temperatures of every icebox here approached 50C on a 33C
day and that is extra workload the icebox and the ice within it can do without. Opening the lid more often than required will also shorten the life of your ice, so teach your kids to decide what they’re reaching for, before they dive in.
There have been plenty of campsite arguments about drain plug in versus drain plug out, but any loss of ‘coolth’ – cold energy (like heat, but opposite)
– from the icebox will decrease its performance. Cold water draining out is replaced by warmer air, so keep that drain plug tight!
You may not have any choice when you buy it, but ice quality varies, too. Where it’s available, block ice lasts longer than bagged ice as with less surface area, it doesn’t give up its cold as quickly. Dry ice – frozen carbon dioxide – is the king of cool, but not often available at your local liquor store…
Few things suck the life from ice quicker than warm contents. Whenever possible, buy your food and bevvies cold and load them into your icebox immediately.
Carrying meat and other fresh food over ice can be challenging; but hanging baskets, cryo-bagged meat and sealed plastic containers will keep food from falling into the slush.
Ice bricks or cold packs don’t release water, but can’t be replaced ‘on the road’ like bagged ice can.
For shorter treks, such as a weekender, make your own ice bricks by filling plastic PET bottles with tap water and freezing them for several
days in a deep freeze. This a cheap and effective way of keeping things cool and you can drink the water, too.
How it packs into your vehicle is important, so your icebox should be chosen with an eye to its size. If you’re carrying lots of bevvies, a bigger
box has a better volume-to-surface area ratio than two smaller ones, so will be more efficient, but may not easily fit into a smaller vehicle. On the
flipside, a 100-litre box with almost nothing in it will quickly kill its ice due to the relatively larger volume of air and surface area the ice is exposed to.
No matter what its size, an icebox full of cold food and ice will do a better job of keeping its contents cool than a half-empty one.
The rough and tumble of off-road driving means an icebox needs to be tough. It will be thrown around unless it’s tied down, to prevent damage to it,
to people or the vehicle.
Most family-sized iceboxes have handles that double as tie-downs. Some handles are welded into place while others are screwed or rivetted to the cabinet
and have varying levels of strength. There’s no need to winch-down an icebox too hard: j-u-s-t taut enough to prevent being pushed sideways should be adequate.
Larger iceboxes and those intended for commercial use often have dedicated tie-downs and reinforced corners that reduce chipping or cracking. Some boxes have skids on the underside that are more durable in rough conditions (such as being dragged over the sides of a boat or ute) than rubber feet.
Most icebox lids are strong enough to sit on and that means one less chair that has to be carried. As well, the icebox can safely have other gear stacked on it during transit.
A captive drain plug is a terrific feature as it means the plug can’t be dropped over the side of a boat or accidentally left at home before a big trek. If water must be drained (for instance, to keep fresh fish from being inundated in a deck-mounted icebox) then drain holes that accept standard hose hardware can be handy.
Lastly, as with any other cherished equipment, make sure your icebox is cleaned and dried at the end of each trek and stored with the lid ajar. The
manufacturer may have a recommendation for cleaning but a good hose-out and a wipe over with general-purpose kitchen cleaner should do the trick.
The icebox test
Factors influencing an icebox’s ability are ‘heat soak’ of the shell or case and the efficiency/ability of the insulation in resisting the transfer of energy – heat – across it. The colour of the product affects its ability to reflect heat and the lid seal quality and the number of times the unit is opened are influences, too.
After equalising each box’s ‘start’ temperature with two hours sitting on a concrete floor in shade, a 3.5kg bag of ice (bought from the local bottlo) was loaded into each icebox and the boxes placed in full sun on a 33 degree day. The boxes were moved into permanent shade after six hours of direct sun, with ambient temperatures of up to 30C. Inspections were carried out at 6pm on day one, and at 10am and 6pm on day two. Each box was checked for the ability to accept 750mL beer, plus 1.25L and 2L PET bottles standing up.
Ice remaining (approx)
6pm Day 1
10am Day 2
6pm Day 2
Aussie manufacturer Evakool is highly respected for its tough iceboxes and fridges. The cabinet was manufactured from fibreglass and the 40mm walls
were injected with foam insulation that laminated the inner and outer walls for extra strength. The ‘breakaway’ lid design prevented accidental decapitation
and it was tough enough to sit on. Corners were reinforced to prevent chipping. The Evakool accepted beer and two-litre PET bottles standing
Thumbs up: Top quality, strong performance. Captive drain plug.
Thumbs down: Not much, really…
Coleman 55L Ultimate Xtreme Cooler (Top performer)
This was a traditional injection moulded unit that obviously had some very effective insulation packed in the 50mm between its inner and outer walls,
as it kept the ice the longest during this test. Coleman claims up to six days at 32C and we’re not going to argue. Other features included can holders
in the lid and no latches to break. It took all three bottles standing up.
Thumbs up: Best performer on test. No latches to break, good price
Thumbs down: Ummm… the embossed ‘fish measurer’ is in inches…?
For more than half a century, the Esky brand name has been mainstream language for ’icebox’ or ‘chilly-bin’. Cheap and cheerful, it’s Aussie-made
from injection moulded poly. It was the poorest performer on test, but with two bags of ice and treated with respect, it’d do the job for a weekend.
There were no fancy latches to break and it accepted all three bottle types standing up. However, don’t sit on it.
Thumbs up: Light and does a fair job for a fair price
Thumbs down: Performance not up to the standard of the ‘pros’ and the push-in bung leaked
After more than 20 years on sale, these bright orange Tropicals are a familiar sight in campsites and on boats. The thick walls and the ‘railed’ top
edge/lid design took up a fair wedge of space with a few inches wasted around the sides when packed against a wall or side of ute, but the handles
are protected. Terrific simple tonneau-style elastic latches. Can be sat on, no worries. Took all three bottle types.
Thumbs upU: Strong and tough. Captive drain plug
Thumbs down: Getting ‘up there’ with bulk and weight
Xtracool Plus Long 70L (Top All-Rounder)
This bright blue 70L ice box was constructed from polypropylene, with solid integral hinges and screwed-on over-centre stainless steel latches. They
were attached to a body with a wide collar around the top edge and lid. The rounded corners lessened possible gouging and damage against vehicle interiors.
It was strong enough to sit on and generally treat like a tool of trade. It was tall enough to cop 750mL beer bottles, but not the kids’ 1.25 or 2L
Thumbs up: Durable skids on underside, great ‘bang for the buck’
Thumbs down: Accepts longnecks, but not a 1.25L PET bottle standing up
Waeco Cool Ice 68L
Waeco’s Cool Ice was a smart-looking unit and with its hidden hinges and square-rigged walls, this roto-moulded unit made efficient use of space.
It easily swallowed our three bottles and performed well on test (it kept the ice going for more than 36 hours) but later blotted its result by breaking
the finger-hooks for both elastic over-centre latches when the lid fell on them (they remained functional).
Thumbs Up: Compact dimensions, strong performance
Thumbs Down: Delicate latches
The Esky Turns 60
‘Esky’ is as much a household name as the ‘Hills Hoist’, ‘Victa’ and ‘Vegemite’ and has turned 60 years of age, but the brand goes back much further than most people think.
The first ice box sold under the trade mark Eskimo (Esky) was manufactured by Francis Malley’s household products company in1884, but it wasn’t a portable unit.
Back then, houses had ice chests for refrigeration and the ‘ice man cameth’ with block-ice every day in a horse-drawn cart. (I can remember as a kid growing up in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, in the 1950s, jumping onto the back of the ice truck and sucking ice splinters while old mate did his house deliveries, carrying the ice blocks with scissor-shaped grapples.)
In 1952 Malleys launched a portable cooler, branded ‘Esky Auto Ice Box’. It was formed from sheet metal and had a wire handle that doubled as a lid clamp.
The first portable Esky used cork sheeting for insulation, had room for six pint bottles and included a removable three-tray food rack. (I can remember my old man questioning the salesman closely about how many bottles of Resch’s Dinner Ale it could hold.)
Aimed at motorists, the Esky was advertised in motoring publications with the claim that the product was: ‘just as essential in the boot as the jack’. The smiling Eskimo who became the familiar Esky brand character for the next 30 years made his first appearance near the end of 1959, with the catch-cry: “Cool, man, cool”.
Over the years the Esky cooler took on a new shape and new colours. By 1960, it was claimed that ‘500,000 happy picnickers’ were relying on their Eskys, but it took Malleys until 1961 to register the trade name ‘Esky’ for the portable food and drink container.
Although Australia views the portable Esky as a local invention this is a contentious claim, because of a 1951 American patent application that was formally granted in 1953. American leisure goods company Coleman produced its first US-market, portable cooler box in 1954.
Plastics manufacturer Nylex took over production of the Esky product range from Malleys in 1984 and in 1989 signed a licensing agreement with Coleman. Under the terms of this agreement Nylex manufactured Coleman coolers and Coleman sold the Esky brand to camping stores.
Unsurprisingly, after Nylex went into receivership in 2009, the Esky brand was acquired by Coleman.