Dipping yourself into frigid waters and sitting there might not sound like the most therapeutic practice, but in reality, cold immersion therapy can do a lot more for your body than simply dropping your internal temperature. Better moods and mental clarity; a heightened immune system; well-recovered muscles — Just a few of the benefits that can be had through this intense discipline.
Of course, to take part in cold immersion therapy, you need access to sub-50º Fahrenheit water. In a perfect world, we'd all have a cold spring, frozen lake or frigid shore within paces of our doorstep (if you do, I envy you) — but for the majority of athletes, other means are necessary, which explains the existence of at-home cold plunge tubs. These large vessels are designed to keep waters chilled as you submerge your frame on a routine basis, allowing you to take part in the therapeutic practice without the need for a pre-planned road trip into the mountains.
There's a number of cold plunge tubs on the market today, showcasing the discipline's rising popularity amongst athletes everywhere. One such profile that's probably popped up on your social media feed is the Ice Barrel. Resembling an old wooden barrel that's ready to take a plunge over Niagara Falls, this ice bath is exactly as the name states — a barrel filled with ice. The entire setup is kept nice and compact thanks to its upright design, and the more approachable sub-$1,250 price tag makes this a far more approachable cold plunge tub for beginners.
But still...is this sleek and intuitive recovery tool a worthwhile investment? Are there any flaws to using an Ice Barrel as your dedicated cold plunge tub?
To answer these questions and more, I took part in cold immersion therapy for multiple weeks, plunging myself in the icy waters every other day at 8–10 minutes per session. I also made note of how easy the Ice Barrel was to maintain and service, as there's no pump or chiller unit to keep water continuously clean and cold. Here's how my experience with the Ice Barrel went, and what you can expect if you decide to add one to your backyard landscape.
Ice Barrel: What We Think
If you’re looking to hop into cold immersion therapy, this is a solid package to start with. The Ice Barrel is surprisingly efficient at maintaining sub-50º F temperatures, and the space-saving design can keep your patio, deck or driveway far less crowded. Sure, there’s no chiller unit to eliminate routine trips to the gas station or grocery store for ice, but after a while, these become a routine step in the process.
The only thing I would absolutely change about the Ice Barrel setup would be to add a third step to the included entry stool. This would put you higher over the top to start, making entry a far more seamless endeavor that didn’t require a little shimmy around the brim. Otherwise, this is a great, affordable tub that should be considered by any interested athlete, even if you have the space for a larger, more feature-rich unit.
Ice Barrel: Testing Notes
The upright design saves plenty of space.
It’s no secret that cold plunge tubs are rather awkward pieces of fitness equipment, which may leave some more hesitant to consider an at-home setup. Admittedly, I fell into this crowd, too…before getting hands-on with the Ice Barrel.
After a simple freight delivery, I found the entire box and setup easy to maneuver. The barrel, when empty, weighs just 55 pounds, so you’re plenty capable of moving it into position without the need of a crew. Once in my desired spot, the silhouette was fairly compact, with space to walk around it without too much annoyance.
In use, I found no issue with the upright design, as I was still able to reach a comfortable seat when submerged for my bi-daily 10-minute plunges. Other cold plunge tubs keep you in a more elongated pose, which means the tub will eat up more of a footprint. This makes the Ice Barrel a great solution for those with less available space. It seems the brand knows this, too, as there are some design elements that cater to use in more restricted environments.
For one, the lightweight step stool used for entry and exit is compact enough to be stowed away when not in use. I kept mine, for example, near the doorway leading to my tub without any rearranging necessary. Additionally, the drain plug at the bottom of the barrel is threaded, which allows you to fit a hose to it for guided drainage when it comes time to clean and refill the tub. This is a very welcome perk, as the 80–100 gallons needed for effective use could spell plenty of trouble to your landscape or patio without a way to direct it to a drain.
The Ice Barrel does a fine job of keeping water cold for multiple days.
Naturally, because of its lack of an external chiller unit, I expected water temperatures to fluctuate with the Ice Barrel on a given basis. After all, we’re talking about a black, plastic vessel that sits in sunlight more often than not. (Ice Barrel does offer a Desert Tan profile, as well.)
Given this, I suspected I’d need to routinely replenish ice levels before getting into the tub for a session. To my surprise, though, the Ice Barrel kept the water below 50º F for multiple days, only needing ice on occasion to hit my desired temps. Yes, the ice cubes themselves would melt, but the water would still routinely read anywhere from 36–44º F, plenty chilled for effective plunging.
Of course, I know that mother nature has a lot to do with this feature, and my Midwest climate here in Pittsburgh is far more temperate than others. As we get further into the dog days of summer, I predict more ice refills will be needed, as well as the opposite when winter grips hold of the area. I’m just happy that the Ice Barrel is capable of holding degrees for some time without having to keep ice on stock for daily refills. Speaking of…
Ice purchases will become a routine expense.
Unless you have an ice machine in your home, expect to make a few weekly trips to the gas station or convenience store for bags of ice. This is a necessary step with the Ice Barrel, because despite its impressive thermal retention, eventually the water will reach above 50º F, and there’s no external chiller to help this from stopping.
In a week of testing, I needed to purchase between 40–60 pounds of ice twice to help maintain my desired plunge readings. Now, this wasn’t too much of a hassle for me, as I have quick access to a nearby convenience store — but for others, it may take a little bit of planning, whether through stocking up on ice and keeping the bags in a deep freezer or planning ahead for purchases pre-plunge.
To keep myself from viewing these refills as a burden, I viewed each ice trip as part of the program — an “active recovery” step, if you will. I would refill my Ice Barrel with excess ice the night before a plunge, and take my sessions early morning the following day. This allowed me to stay diligent in cold immersion therapy with little room for excuses to skip a session or forgo an evening purchase. Plus, I know there will be less trips in the winter, as I can let nature do the cooling for me.
Getting into the tub is a dance in itself, especially for taller athletes.
The final point of note regarding my experience with the Ice Barrel goes back to its upright profile. Yes, I applaud its ability to save space, but getting into a standing vessel is much more difficult than plopping yourself in a lower, more horizontal tank. Ice Barrel does include an aforementioned step stool, but I found the height of it to still give me a few issues. It was hard to press my frame over the opening and swing my legs into position, which called for a re-evaluation after my first soak. You do find your own routine after a while, but it could be an easier endeavor from the start.
I think Ice Barrel could make entry a little easier by using a three-step stool rather than a two-step profile. This would put your frame higher over the opening with less barrel to get in the way of your knees as you press up and into the tank. It’s not impossible to get into by any means, but you’re already exposing your body to temperatures you’d not normally sign up for; the least thing you could ask for is a more comfortable pre-plunge entrance.