The Best Cooler and Ice Chest Review
What is the best cooler? To find out we took eight of the most popular large coolers and put them through the wringer with a series of exhaustive tests. We had them sweat it out in not one but two exacting insulation tests that considered both food safety and ideal liquid refreshment. Our testers hauled them over sand, up hills, and lifted them onto picnic tables and into cars to assess how easy they are to carry. We poked and prodded every aspect of every model, constantly monkeying around with the latches, hinges, lids, and drain plugs, to see how each would perform in day to day use. To better standardize our testing we focused on products in the 70 quart size range, but most of the models we tested are available in other sizes, and the majority of our findings can be extrapolated to these other sizes as well.
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Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
This is a category where there is a large discrepancy between our Editors' Choice Award winner and the Best Buy winner, both in terms of performance and price, with a number of other models falling in between. In such circumstances we will often award a second Editors' Choice honor. However, while the ORCA was the clear frontrunner in our review, the first three runners up performed almost identically in the critical insulation test. So while there is no clear standalone candidate for a second Editors' Choice Award, we would feel remiss if we didn't highlight the models below. All three of them performed admirably in our tests, and maintained safe food temperatures for just about 24 hours less than the ORCA.
First Runner Up
Pelican ProGear Elite 65qt
Pelican ProGear Elite 65. It has the ruggedized look one would expect from a model meant to last a lifetime and thwart off hungry grizzly bears. We particularly liked its ruggedized handles, which we found to be the most comfortable in our carry test. We also felt it was the easiest high-end model to drain. Overall the Pelican scored a 77 in our testing, putting it just one point behind the ORCA.
Second Runner Up
Engel Deep Blue
Engel Deep Blue has a simple design with an austere body and streamlined, no nonsense latches. At first glance you may not even notice that it's a high-end model. But hiding in that unassuming body is some great insulating capacity, solid durability, and an easy to use drain. The Engel is also hiding something underneath its minimalistic latches. The small metal hooks that the latches secure to double as bottle openers, a feature that is perfect for days at the beach or post summit victory drinks. The Engel also took home an overall score of 77 from our testing, placing it just slightly behind the ORCA.
Third Runner Up
Yeti Tundra 65
Yeti Tundra 65, scored an overall 71 in our testing. While this puts it a bit farther behind the ORCA than the other runners up, it was still able to match their insulating capacity in our test. The Yeti lost a few points due to some draining difficulties and what we felt were slightly uncomfortable handles, but it is still a great product that can be of service to even the most demanding users.
Analysis and Test Results
Buying a cooler used to be an easy decision. You could walk into any store, find just a few models available that were almost identical in appearance, performance, and price, choose a size that fit your needs, and be on your way. Now buying a cooler means being inundated with a myriad of varying options, price points, and marketing claims. Suddenly instead of making a quick $50 purchase you're considering shelling out upwards of $400 for a fancy foam box that might become an heirloom for your grandkids.
Our purpose is to make this process less confusing. To that end we ran 8 of the most highly regarded models through the most rigorous set of tests we could imagine. We then considered our testing results in the context of how various different people would use them in the real world, in order to give you a better sense of what model will work best for your needs. For a more in depth discussion on how to choose the right model check out our Buying Advice article.
Types of coolers
Traditional models are the classic designs that most of us probably remember pulling drippy ice pops out of during family camping trips as a kid. They usually consist of foam insulation with pieces of plastic glued or epoxied onto the exterior. Handles and hinges tend to be screwed on to the main body. Lids generally secure via a tight fit and friction or have an internal latch that clicks closed. These models represent the lower end of the price spectrum, generally listing for less than $100.
In this review the traditional models that we tested include:
High-end models are a fairly recent addition to the marketplace, with the first model appearing in 2006. High-end models take the concepts of traditional designs and attempt to stretch them to the limit. They often feature thicker walls with foam injected insulation and lids with rubber gaskets that maintain a tight seal via large external latches. These models are constructed using a roto-molding technique, a process that essentially puts melted plastic into an industrial tilt-a-whirl. This method produces a hollow plastic shell without seams. It also allows the hinges and handle attachment point to be built into the body. This generally leads to increased durability. High-end models are at the upper end of the price range, usually listing in the neighborhood of $400.
In this review the high-end models we reviewed include:
For the purposes of this review we mainly focused on the needs of people looking to enjoy extended small group or family camping trips and thus tested the more common hard cooler designs in the 70 quart size range. However, there is wide range of possible applications that have led to the creation of multiple specialty designs. The most common are most likely soft coolers, which offer a higher degree of portability. Electric models have also recently entered the market, serving travelers with reliable access to electricity.
The biggest advantage with soft models is their portability. They tend to be smaller than hard models and, depending on the model, can be carried in an over the shoulder or backpack fashion.They excel for shorter excursions where you'll want to be able to move around, such as picnics or days at the beach. If you think a soft model might fit your needs check out our Soft Cooler Review .
Electric models feature an internal powered cooling mechanism. This allows you to keep items cool without having to purchase ice or deal with the associated moisture issues, with the obvious drawback that you must have consistent access to power. Most models can plug into both a wall outlet and a car cigarette lighter, making these models ideal for long road trips where you'll have access to an outlet at night.
Criteria for Evaluation
We identified five criteria related to performance that we evaluated in our tests. In the following section we explain each criteria, which models performed best within each one, and briefly explain how we tested them. For a more in depth discussion of the abuse we put these products through see our How We Test article.
The main purpose of a cooler is, obviously, to keep things cold. Accordingly, insulation is far and away the most important performance metric. Insulation performance can be split into two categories; maintaining safe food temperatures and ice retention. The Food and Drug Administration considers 40˚F the maximum temperature at which perishable food can safely be stored, so the longer temperatures below this threshold can be maintained the longer food is kept safe to eat. More specifically, a temperature of 40˚F or below must be maintained in the air space above the ice where food is commonly stored. Ice retention is fairly self-explanatory, it is the amount of time ice can be reatined. Since drinks can be stored down in the icy slush, ice retention is closely correlated with how long drinks can be kept cold. In our testing we put all the models in the same room and filled each with an identical amount of ice. Every day we drained the meltwater and noted how much ice was left in each model. We also monitored internal temperature via temperature sensors placed above the ice, right where perishable food would be stored. Check out our How We Test article for a more in depth description of our rigorous testing procedure.
The Graph above displays the temperatures of the various models throughout our test, when they broke the all-important 40˚F mark, and by extension how long they would be able to safely store food under our testing conditions. As you can see, the ORCA 58 Quart was the only model that was able to maintain safe food temperatures for 6 full days, crossing the 40˚F threshold midway through day 7. Accordingly, it received our highest marks for insulation performance with a score of 9. Following the ORCA in a tightly packed group were the Pelican ProGear Elite, Yeti Tundra, and the Engel Deep Blue, respectively. All three of these models exceeded 40˚F within a few hours of each other midway through day 6, just about 24 hours before the ORCA, and they all received an insulation performance score of 8. Falling behind these first two groups of leaders was the Igloo Yukon, which warmed to 40˚F during the early afternoon of day 5, earning it an insulation performance score of 6.
The middle of day 4 saw the Grizzly, Coleman Xtreme, and Igloo Max Cold break the 40˚ barrier almost concurrently. We awarded the Grizzly and the Coleman insulation performance scores of 4 and the Max Cold a 3, because the Max Cold held ice for one fewer day than the other two models. With an insulation performance score of 2, the worst performer in our food safety test was the Rubbermaid Extreme. It briefly breached 40˚F midway through day 2, and warmed up for good midway through day 3.
Our testing showed ice retention to be closely correlated with maintaining safe food temperatures. All of the models warmed to above 40˚F within 1-2 days before losing their last bit of ice. The ORCA, Pelican, and Yeti all led the pack retaining ice for 7 days, though the ORCA was able to stay below 40˚ for one more day than the others. The Engel and Igloo Yukon rounded out the true high-end performers, each holding ice for 6 days. The Engel earned a slightly better score as it outperformed the Yukon by a day on maintaining safe food temperatures. The Grizzly again fell in with the traditional crowd, performing just as well as the Coleman Xtreme with 5 days of ice retention. The Igloo Max Cold and Rubbermaid Extreme brought up the rear, both retaining ice for 4 days. As we mentioned before, ice retention is a good indicator of insulation quality and correlates to how long beverages can be kept cold. Since drinking a slightly warm beer is both less traumatic and less dangerous than eating spoiled meat, most people will want to pay more attention to the results of the food safety test rather than the ice retention test.
Our testing revealed a wide spread in insulation performance. The best performing model, the ORCA, held safe food temperatures nearly three times as long as the worst performing model, the Rubbermaid Extreme. With the exception of the Grizzly the high-end models did perform significantly better than the traditional models. Looking at it from a functional perspective, the Editors' Choice Award winning ORCA supplied 6 full days of safe food temperatures in our test, and the Best Buy Award winning Coleman Xtreme supplied 3 full days. That means the best high-end model provided double the performance of the best traditional model. It should be noted that the added performance comes at more than quadruple the price. While it is common to have to pay more per unit of performance for higher end products you'll have to seriously consider whether that extra performance is worth the price premium for your intended use. The added longevity and factor of safety you get from the ORCA or a similarly performing high-end model would certainly be worth the extra cost if you plan to be totally off the grid for more than three days. However, if most of your trips are contained within a weekend, with a few longer trips sprinkled in that allow for buying more ice midway through, a more inexpensive model like the Coleman may serve you just fine. For more detailed advice on finding the model that is right for you check out our buying advice article.
A Note About '5-Day' and Other Claims
Most of the models we tested have some sort of duration claim, purporting to be a '5-day model' or something similar. All three of the traditional models we tested carry a 5-day claim. The high end models that do make claims are careful to add in some plausible deniability into their language. The Engel, ORCA, and Pelican ProGear all advertise an 'up to 10-day' claim. The Igloo Yukon uses a similar technique, but somewhat tempers expectations with a 'up to 7-day' claim. The Grizzly and Yeti forgo making such claims.
All of these claims should be taken with a huge grain of salt. Most of these claims carry fine print stipulations that don't match the realities and practicalities of real world use, such as never draining meltwater, pre-chilling before use, rarely opening the lid, and a consistent external temperature. Although they often do not explicitly say so, these claims commonly refer to ice retention. Our testing shows that temperatures rise above the critical 40˚F mark before the last of the ice has melted, meaning even if the 5-day claim is technically accurate you could have spoiled food before the 5 days are up.
When comparing claims to the more important food safety standard, none of the traditional models we tested lived up to their 5-day claim. The Coleman Xtreme and Igloo Max Cold came the closest, both hitting 40˚F most of the way through day 4. Most of the High end models broke this 5-day mark. Only the Igloo Yukon, which cracked midway through day 5, and the Grizzly, which warmed up midway through day 4. No model was able to match even the more conservative 'up to 7-day' high-end claim, though the Pelican came close, lasting 6.5 days. This, however, was still well short of its 'up to 10-day' claim.
These products will most likely be put through some abuse, at the very least bouncing around in a tightly packed car as it rambles down a bumpy road. Increased durability naturally means a longer useful life, and a lower likelihood of mid-trip creative duct tape repairs. Durability is a difficult thing to quantify. Our durability scores are based on our testers' impressions after extensively using each one of the products first hand, and data mining online user reviews to identify any salient durability issues.
Unlike insulation performance, which had a fairly wide spread, our durability testing resulted in two tight-knit camps: the extremely durable high-end models and the less durable traditional models. After fiddling with drain plugs, pushing on walls and lids, and yanking on hinges, we awarded all of the high-end models durability scores of either 7 or 8. The Pelican ProGear Elite and the Yeti Tundra 65 were the lower scorers due to some minor flaws. Both models leaked some water out of the lid during our slosh test. We felt this indicated slightly lesser structural integrity, and thus slightly lesser durability, than the other high-end models. The ProGear also had somewhat of a flimsy drain plug leash, which was showing some signs of wear by the end of our testing. Our testers couldn't imagine having any durability issues with the lids, latches, or hinges of any of the high-end models, and this opinion was corroborated by reading over 1000 online user reviews.
The traditional models felt significantly less durable, and it was easy to find user reviews complaining of broken hinges and handles. Additionally, some give can be felt when pushing against their walls and lids, while pushing against those of high-end models feels like pushing against a rock. The Coleman Xtreme received a durability score of 4 from our testing, while both the Igloo Max Cold and Rubbermaid Extreme received a score of 3. While The Best Buy Award winning Coleman was able to outperform its fellow traditional models, due to its slightly beefier hinges, it only received half the durability score that the Editor's Choice Award Winning ORCA did.
This clear split in durability may be the sole justification some need to opt for a high-end model, as increased durability translates to greater longevity and many more camping trips before you will need to buy a replacement. It also means fewer worries when its bouncing around in a boat on rough seas or falling off the back of an ATV. For more information on how to consider durability in your purchase decision check out our Buying Advice article.
Ease of Use
We feel that ease of use boils down to two major things that you will have to deal with almost every day that you use your cooler: opening the lid and draining meltwater. Lid opening difficulty is mostly determined by the latches that secure it. Lids that have a propensity to snap shut on a whim add a degree of difficulty to normal camp cooking. Some drain plugs create water park worthy jets of water while draining, or tend to drip water onto the underside of the body, all of which can make a mess if you're trying to drain from inside the trunk of your car.
Our testing did not reveal a huge range in relative ease of use between the models we considered, with all scores falling between 5 and 8, but there were factors that made some a bit better than others. The highest performing models were the Pelican ProGear Elite, Engel Deep Blue and Igloo Yukon, all earning a score of 8. Our testers felt that these models all had secure yet simple to operate latches, easy to open lids and drain plugs, and could all be drained with minimal hassle and tilting. The Best Buy Award winning Coleman Xtreme followed the lead pack with a score of 7. We found the internal latching mechanism on its lid finicky to open, often requiring two hands pry loose. However, it made up for this in draining ease; it's drain plug pops open in a snap and it is one of the few models that drained completely with little to no tilting.
The Grizzly, Yeti Tundra, and Rubbermaid Extreme all received scores of 6. In general they all lost points because of annoyances during the draining process. The Grizzly's drain plug tended to get stuck during our testing, requiring some embarrassing grunting to get it free. It also splashed quite a bit when the plug finally came off. The Yeti's drain plug had similar splashing issues, especially when it was first opened. Also, the Yeti's handle sits right at the level of the drain plug, always swinging in the way like an annoying gnat. The Rubbermaid was by far our least favorite model to drain. In order to accommodate its wheels the drain plug is almost halfway up the body, requiring you to tip it completely on its side to get it to completely drain.
The lowest score of 5 was earned by the Igloo Max Cold and, surprisingly, the Editors' Choice Award winning ORCA 58 Quart. This is the only category where the ORCA didn't excel, and this was almost solely due to its lid. While its latches were simple and lid easy to open, it tended to snap shut unexpectedly in a very hungry hungry hippos-esque manner, requiring an extra bit of caution when fishing for food. The Max Cold lost points due to difficulty draining. It drained very very slowly, and required a good amount of tipping to empty completely, though not quite as much as the Rubbermaid. It also lost points because its lid has no internal latching mechanism. While this makes it very easy to open, it also means extra attention must be paid to make sure it stays closed when it needs to.
Ease of use is a category where the results did not clearly split between high-end and traditional models. Case in point, the Best Buy Award winning Coleman Xtreme was one of the higher scorers, and was actually the least fussy model when it came to draining.
When fully packed these behemoths are heavy. For example, when we loaded them up with water for our carry test the Yeti Tundra and Coleman Xtreme weighed 137 lbs and 147 lbs, respectively. That's heavy enough that a one-person carry is near impossible and a two-person carry will certainly get the blood moving. They can be so heavy, in fact, that many people decide to plan all of their logistics around keeping their cooler in the car and not moving it for the entire trip. Ease of portability is almost completely determined by handle comfort. Poorly designed handles can leave your hands looking like a raw slab of meat, while nice handles can make moving a heavy load borderline pleasant (maybe 'pleasant' is a bit of an overstatement, they will at least make it less painful). We also considered external size, as smaller or more packable dimensions means you can stuff more toys into your adventure bound car.
Here again, we did not see a big range in scores following our testing, all falling between 4 and 7, but there were subtle differences that will be meaningful to some users. In general the high scorers were the models that were easy to carry. The ORCA 58 Quart and Pelican ProGear Elite, both of which took home the top score of 7, were also our favorite models to carry when heavily loaded. Our testers found the rigid plastic handles of the Pelican to be the most comfortable, but the Pelican lost some packability points due to its hefty exterior size. While the ORCA's handles weren't quite as comfortable, they were still clearly better than the rest of the models, and its more cubic shape made it more packable.
Most of the models we tested fell into the mid range of portability performance, with 5 models exiting our testing with a score of 6. This group, which includes the Coleman, Engel, Yukon, Max Cold, and Rubbermaid, all received average handle comfort scores from our testers. If you often find yourself lugging around a heavy cooler you'll want to consider one of our top scorers. However, if you're a pack it up in the car and never move it kind of person, one of these models may suit your needs.
The lowest scorers in our portability testing were the Yeti Tundra, which scored a 5, and the Grizzly, which scored a 4. We felt that both models somewhat missed the mark in handle design. The Yeti combined a rigid handle with a rope attachment, which resulted in odd distributions of the load in our testers' ' hands. The Grizzly opted for an all soft handle, which caused a lot of pinching during our carry tests.
Features is our lowest weighted scoring criteria at just 5%.This is because insulation is far and away the most important thing to consider for these products, so much so that that any additional features are just tangential to their primary function. However, there are a number of features available on some models: rulers, cupholders, even emergency bottle openers. High-end models also include more durable construction features, such as pin style hinges and external latches. The feature we like the most is a drain plug leash, but while convenient it certainly isn't necessary.
The Pelican ProGear Elite topped the features category with a score of 7, due it its drain plug leash, built in lid ruler, and all of the accoutrements that come with high-end construction. Most of the other high-end models scored in the mid to high range due to their construction features. The Engel, which scored a 5, also includes a built in emergency bottle opener. The Igloo Yukon, which scored a 4, has burly drain plug leash that is long enough to stow the drain plug out of the way while draining. The Igloo Max Cold was the lowest scorer in this category, receiving a 3, but still featured a drain plug leash.
One of the complications in buying a cooler is figuring out how much cooler performance do you really need to buy? The very best models are robust, and will last a very long time, offering outstanding insulation for multi-day outings. But, the top of the line products are also expensive. If you don't need to keep things cold for very long then a lower cost cooler is going to be a better investment for your needs. We hope that our testing and ratings have helped you narrow down to one or two products that seem just right for your needs. If you are still not sure what to get, take a look at our Buying Advice article, which provides some guidelines for narrowing down selection that may be helpful.
— OutdoorGearLab Review Team
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