How to keep drinks cool without a cooler – 3 inexpensive, foolproof methods

My tried and tested methods for keeping drinks cool when grilling and dining outdoors, all for under $50

Drinks bottles in a metal bucket with ice
(Image credit: Getty Images / artisteer)

There's nothing like a cold drink on a summer's day. An ice-cold beer or chilled soda is the perfect accompaniment to a garden party and when cooking and grilling outdoors.

However, drink coolers can be surprisingly expensive. Big brand names like Yeti and Igloo often sell coolers for around $100, and that's money that can be saved.

I've uncovered three foolproof methods to keep drinks cool without a cooler, including one I use every summer.

1. The ice bucket method

Wine in a plastic wine bucket

(Image credit: Getty Images / Maria Korneeva)

This is easily my favorite method. People avoid it because they worry the ice will melt too fast, but it's surprisingly effective with a couple of small tips and tricks I have used over the years. While there are lots of beautiful buckets out there that look great on your tablescape, these aren't always effective. In fact, my advice from personal experience is to get as big and as cheap a bucket as you can.

I recommend using a plastic or rubber bucket because a metal bucket conducts heat more effectively, meaning ice melts faster. It's not pretty, but a big animal feed bucket like this from Tractor Supply is perfect. My family's cookouts tend to be pretty small, so I use a smaller flexible bucket like this from Amazon. In a pinch, you could even do this in a bathtub, but if you're hosting a cookout you may not want your guests trekking in and out of your home for a drink.

To keep your drinks cool for hours, fill the bucket with ice water. It's important you add water because otherwise, it won't work. A bucket of ice is hard to push drinks into, and a mistake most people make is to place their bottles and cans directly on top of the ice. This chills the bottom of the drinks, but not the entire container. What often happens is that some of the drink is cool, but not the entirety, so the resulting drink is surprisingly warm. Ice water, however, is almost as cold and can surround the whole container, chilling the whole thing.

It's an obvious point but make sure you put your bucket in the shade; it's best if it's under a wall or a porch. It's an obvious point, but easy to forget, and can make your bucket last a few hours more.

The next tip is to add a little salt, around a cup for every gallon of water. Salt reduces ice's melting point, which means the temperature of the water can become even colder than usual. It makes your drinks much colder. The only downside is that it can make your drinks a little salty around the rim, but the excess can be wiped off pretty easily.

2. The wet towel method

Another method if you don't have a cooler is to use a wet paper towel. It's as straightforward as it sounds. Wet a towel and wrap it around whatever drink you want to chill, then put it in the freezer.

However, while it works, it's not as effective as the ice bucket method. What's more, it's a lot of prep if you've got a lot of drinks to freeze, which defeats the point - at that stage you might as well just put all your drinks in the freezer ahead of time. If you want your cold drinks on hand while you hang out in the backyard, you'll find this method a little frustrating.

3. The pool method

A backyard pool and two chaises longues

(Image credit: Getty Images / Martina Birnbaum)

Head of Gardens Rachel Bull says 'If you don't have any ice or refrigeration on hand, your next best bet is to dunk your drinks in cold water. If you have one, you can float your drinks in a pool, a hot tub with the heater off, or in a creek.' Just make sure you wipe your drinks off before you drink them, as you could get a chlorine taste from a pool.

There are a couple of ways to do this. The most obvious is to buy a pool drinks float like this from Amazon.

The problem with these is that they need ice to keep cool, which you may not have on hand. In that case, you can use a mesh laundry bag like this from Amazon to dunk the drinks in the pool. It's not pretty, but it keeps them all together and submerged, and colder than they'd be if you left them on the side, but to be fair, it won't be by much.

Rachel Bull
Rachel Bull

Rachel is a gardening editor, flower grower and floral designer. Her journalism career began on Country Living magazine, sparking a love of container gardening and wild planting. After more than a decade writing for and editing a range of consumer, business and special interest titles, Rachel became editor of floral art magazine The Flower Arranger. She then trained and worked as a floral designer and stylist in London for six years, before joining the Homes & Gardens team. 

Cooler FAQ

Why isn't my electric cooler working?

Problems with an electric cooler are usually caused by a broken or dusty fan, or an issue with the power supply.

For more help with keeping cool, take a look at our patio shade ideas

Alex David
Head of eCommerce

As Head of eCommerce, Alex makes sure our readers find the right information to help them make the best purchase. After graduating from Cambridge University, Alex got his start in reviewing at the iconic Good Housekeeping Institute, testing a wide range of household products and appliances. He then moved to BBC Gardeners’ World Magazine, assessing gardening tools, machinery, and wildlife products. Helping people find true quality and genuine value is a real passion.