Do You Even Need a Cooler?
Unless you need to keep perishable food and drinks cold for more than a day, a cooler is just a waste of space. Shorter excursions with perishable items can easily be handled by a soft cooler, which takes up less space, is much easier to carry, and has plenty of capacity for a day at the beach or a scenic picnic.
Coolers really shine in large groups situations, where you need more capacity, or multi-day excursions where you need to store food or drinks for a longer period of time.
Food Safety and Coolers
If you are planning to use a cooler for a multi-day trip, it is wise to consider the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) food safety guidelines. Perishable food, such as meats, cheeses, milk, and eggs, should be stored below 40˚F. Such foods are considered unsafe to eat if they have been at room temperature for just 2 hours, or 1 hour if the ambient temperature is above 90˚F. Often it can be difficult to tell if food is spoiled, as the pathogenic bacteria that will make you sick can often grow before the spoilage bacteria that actually makes food smell bad.
As you will most likely be farther from medical attention, and utilizing precious days off from work, a camping trip is a particularly inconvenient time to get sick. So you will want be sure your food is being stored at a safe temperature. It is important to consider that your food will be stored above ice level, towards the top of the cooler, where it will naturally be a bit warmer than the slushy iciness at the bottom. To mimic this in our testing we used a thermometer sandwich. Literally, we sandwiched a temperature sensor between two slices of bread, put that in a tupperware container, and sat that on top of the ice. This gave us temperature readings from the exact location where food would be stored.The graph below shows how the models we tested fared in this cold sandwich cage match.
At this point we'd like to note that we actually ran two separate insulation tests. The first was run at ambient room temperature, but upon seeing our results we didn't think that was brutal enough. So we ran the test all over again using a centrally located space heater to better mimic sweltering summer temperatures. In this article we'll be referring to the later, more punishing test.
Keeping your Beer Cold
For many, enjoying a beer around the fire after a day of adventuring is a quintessential part of the camping experience. Choosing the right cooler can ensure this memory will remain untainted by thoughts of a warm, stale brew.
Different beers have varying ideal serving temperatures. Some higher quality beers taste best at slightly warmer temperatures, but the lagers and light beers that are likely to be touted along on a camping trip excel in the 35˚ to 40˚ range. The good news about beer is bottles and cans can easily be stored down towards the bottom mixed in with the ice, where things are going to stay a bit colder. Therefore, you can assume that if there is still ice in your cooler your beer will beer will be cold enough to drink. To corroborate this assumption in our testing we utilized the well known Coors Light Cold Activated Cans™, which have white mountains that turn blue when the beer is cold enough to drink. The exact temperature at which this occurs is a closely guarded secret, but Coors has conceded that its somewhere just above 40˚. So it's safe to say that if the mountains are blue you can imbibe without reservation. The graph below shows how each of the models we tested did in our ice retention/frosty brewski challenge.
Types of Coolers
This category includes the many familiar designs that can be seen lining the aisles of any grocery or hardware store. Generally, these models feature pieces of foam insulation sandwiched between plastic shells that are glued or epoxied together. Most lids in this category are attached with screw-on hinges and either snap shut with an internal mechanism or rely on a tight fit and friction to stay closed. Products in this category tend to have a lower price point (the ones we tested list from $80 to $90) and designs focus on obtaining the highest ratio of insulating performance to cost.
Traditional models are most likely the correct and economical choice for the majority of people. In our tests these models reliably kept food safe for 5 days. In terms of structural integrity and durability these models generally held up in our testing, the only casualty being a broken drain plug leash on the Rubbermaid Extreme 5-Day 75qt. Unless you will be looking to keep food below 40˚ for longer than 6 days, or you think you'll be abusing your cooler and requiring greater durability, a traditional model will serve you well.
Traditional models that we tested in this review include the Coleman Xtreme 5-day 70qt and the Rubbermaid Extreme 5-day 75qt.
In 2006 Yeti changed the game by introducing a price-is-no-object design focused on maximizing insulating capacity and durability. In the intervening years a number of manufacturers followed suit. Competitive designs are now offered by Pelican, ORCA, Engel, and Grizzly, to name a few. These models use a roto molding process that produces a single piece plastic shell, which is then injected with insulating foam. This single piece construction, along with external latches and pin style hinges that are built into the lid, tend to make these high-end models significantly more durable than traditional designs. Additionally, these models utilize thicker walls and rubber gasket sealed lids to increase insulative performance. It should be noted that thicker, more insulative walls often come at the expense of interior space, resulting in a capacity that is somewhat smaller than advertised. Check out the main review to see how our measured internal capacities compared to the manufacturers' advertised size. All of these improvements come with much higher price points (the ones we tested list from $375 to $474), but these models are designed to last a lifetime and stand up to the most rugged abuse.
High-end models shine if you are looking for increased insulation performance or better durability. All of the high end models we tested outlasted the traditional models in our insulation test, to varying degrees, with the exception of the high-end Grizzly which was surpassed by the traditional Coleman Xtreme 5-Day (see the food safety graph above). Upon inspection, all of the high-end models we tested appear to be more durably built than their traditional counterparts, and this is corroborated by a number of user reviews. Generally high-end models work best for those looking to keep food cold beyond 6 days, or whose normal day to day use will require a higher degree of ruggedness.
The high-end models that we tested in this review include the Yeti Tundra 65, Igloo Yukon Cold Locker, Pelican Elite Cooler 70, Engel Deep Blue, ORCA 58 Quart, and the Grizzly Hunting or Tailgating.
This review focusses on the more well known and widely used hard cooler design. There are a number of specialty designs available as well, each serving a different niche. The most common are electric coolers and soft coolers.
There are a few models available, such as the Igloo Iceless 28, that utilize electric cooling mechanisms. Most of these models can be plugged into a wall socket or a car cigarette lighter. They don't require ice and offer almost indefinite cooling capacity, as long as you have access to electricity. These models are perfect for extended road trips where you will be staying in hotel rooms and want to pack your own food and drink.
Soft models take up much less space than hard ones and are generally easier to carry. Most offer an over the shoulder or backpack style carrying method. They are perfect for a day at the beach or a picnic. They also excel at carrying cans. In fact, many manufacturers advertise the size of these models as the number of cans that can fit inside. If you're mainly looking to pack some frosty cans to a scenic vista, you might want to check out our best soft cooler review.
How to Choose a Cooler
The number and variety of coolers available has increased almost exponentially in recent years, making selecting the right model a much more daunting process. We've broken it down into a step-by-step process that will help you find the right model for your next adventure.
Step 1: Consider the Demands of Your Intended Use - Do You Need a High-End Cooler?
The first step in your purchase decision is to determine whether you really need an expensive high-end model, or if a low end model will leave you satisfied (and with a thicker wallet to boot). There are two metrics that generally separate high-end and traditional models; insulation performance and durability. Your needs in one or both of these metrics will determine if you should be a high-end roller or a classy traditionalist.
The primary purpose of a cooler is to keep things cold, so insulation performance is one of the most important factors to consider. In our tests the high-end models were generally able to eek out a few more days of safe food temperatures than the traditional models, again with the exception of the Grizzly being outstripped by the Coleman Xtreme 5-Day (see the temperature chart above). If your planned trips will require these extra days of insulating capacity a high-end model is a worthwhile investment. Hunters and fishermen that will pack large amounts of fresh meat or fish put additional demands on the insulation performance of these products. Generally fresh caught fish or meat will be much warmer than the inside of your cooler, so a portion of the ice you packed will be melted in bringing the fish and meat down to a cold temperature. These situations will often warrant the extra cost of a high-end model, even if your average hunting or fishing trip only lasts a few days.
The traditional models we tested were able to reliably hold ice and stay below 40˚F for 2-3 days, so if your intended use is mostly long weekend camping trips one of these models will meet your insulation needs. These models can also keep food fresh much longer than 2-3 days if they are frequently loaded with new ice. So if you occasionally go on longer trips where it is possible to buy new ice, and you don't want to spend the extra cash on a high-end model, this technique could work for you. Similarly, if you mainly want to keep a bunch of drinks cold for a big group excursion to the beach a traditional cooler will suit your needs just fine while a high-end cooler would be overkill, unless you want to ensure that it lasts a lifetime. Though their robust exteriors and imposing logos may impress your fellow beachgoers.
If you are looking to push insulation ability to the extreme in extended 10+ day camping trips or cooling and keeping large amounts of fresh meat for multiple days, you will want to consider using dry ice. Dry ice's temperature of -109.3°F can, for a period of time, essentially create a portable freezer. That extremely low temperature can also create a fair amount of thermal stress on its container, so if you are planning on using dry ice you will want to go with one of the more durable high-end models. All of the high-end coolers we reviewed are approved for use with dry ice.
In our research we ran across a number of claims that high-end models pay for themselves by holding ice longer and thus saving you money on ice. It is our opinion that this argument is only economically viable for the most frequent users, such as those that live on the road for months at a time. So, unless your bed is often in the back of your car, this probably isn't a valid justification to shell out the extra cash for a high-end model.
Considering how much abuse your cooler will be subjected to, and thus how durable it needs to be, can also help you decide between a high-end or traditional model. High-end models are much more ruggedly built with pin style hinges, lids and walls that are incredibly rigid, beefy external latching mechanisms, large handles, screw in drain plugs with rubber o-ring seals, and UV-resistant plastic. Most traditional models lack this type of long lasting construction. All of the traditional models we tested utilize screw on plastic hinges, smaller plastic handles, and pop on and off drain plugs. The lids and walls of the traditional models are also less rigid than their high-end counterparts. While pushing on the wall or lid of a high-end model feels like pushing against a rock, you can feel just a bit of give in the walls and lids of the traditional models. This is particularly true for the lid of the Rubbermaid Extreme 5-Day. Its split lid design, while convenient, made it feel like the most bendable lid we tested, and thus the one we would be least likely to use as a seat.
In a similar vein to insulation performance, if you only plan on using these products occasionally and in less demanding circumstances you are probably better off with a traditional model. While clearly less durable, the traditional models we tested would certainly stand up to few weekend camping trips a year and serving as a beverage container at the beach. However, even if your normal endeavors won't require the additional insulating capacity of most of the high-end models, but you will be using it frequently or in harsh conditions, the increased durability of a high-end model may be worth the investment. High end coolers tend to cost between 4 to 5 times the amount of a comparable traditional model. So, if you go camping 10+ weekends a year and could see yourself burning through 5 traditional coolers in the next ten years, or have already burned through a few, the longer life of a high-end model would certainly be worth the extra cost. Also, if your cooler will frequently be bouncing around on a boat or in the bed of a pickup, might be used as a casting platform or stepladder, or be put through any other devious abuse that you cook up, the increased durability of a high-end model is a worthwhile investment.
The increased ruggedness of all the high-end models we tested have gained them bear resistant certifications from the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC). This certification complies with food storage regulations for National Forest grizzly bear habitat. Regulations can vary quite a bit across publicly managed lands, so if you're looking for a model that can serve as a de facto bear box be sure to research the specific regulations in areas you plan to visit.
Step 2: How Big of a Cooler do You Need?
Once you've decided whether you want a high-end or traditional model, the next thing to consider is what size to buy. The size you choose will mainly be determined by how much storage capacity you need, but size will affect portability and insulation performance as well. In our review we focused on coolers in the neighborhood of 70 quarts, with advertised sizes ranging from 58 to 75 quarts. This size range is the most popular and versatile. Models this size are large enough to serve a family over multiple days or a hunter looking to transport a large amount of meat, but are small enough to be moved by two people people when fully loaded. Standardizing the sizes we tested also let us design a fair and rigorous insulation test. Most of the models we tested are also available in a range of other sizes.
The size of your cooler, which is measured in quarts, dictates how much you can fit inside, and thus how long of a trip or how big of a group you can pack for. Models that are 25 quarts and smaller are suitable for carrying drinks for a few people, or food for a single person on an overnight excursion. Sizes in the 40 quart range will serve a single person for multiple nights, or a couple for a weekend. Sizes in the 70 quart range can accommodate long weekend family camping trips, or longer trips for individuals and couples. Larger coolers can hold even more, but tend to be difficult to move and are mostly used for specialty purposes such as hunting expeditions or long rafting trips.
In addition to internal capacity some people will want to pay attention to external dimensions. If you don't have the luxury of a spacious station wagon or pickup truck you'll want to make sure the model you choose will be able to fit in your loaded, adventure bound car. If you frequent National Parks that require the use of bear boxes you'll also want to make sure the model you choose is a compatible size. For example, some of the bear boxes at Yosemite National Park are 18 inches high, which is a bit too short to fit a larger model like the Pelican Elite Cooler 70. Some of the high-end coolers we tested are approved as bear boxes in some situations. For more information on this see the durability section under step 1.
On most camping trips your fully loaded cooler will be the single heaviest item you'll have to move, therefore portability is a factor to consider. Obviously the smaller the cooler the easier it will be to lug around, so you will want to get the smallest model that can fit your storage capacity needs.
If your storage needs warrant a larger model (such as the ~70 quart models we tested) you will want to seriously consider how easy it will be to carry. This is almost exclusively determined by handle design. All but one of the high-end models we tested have two sets of handles; one set built in close to the body for single person carry and another longer set for two person carry. The Igloo Yukon has two large molded handles that can function for one or two person carry. All of the traditional models we tested have one set of handles that can be used one or two person carry as well, with the Rubbermaid Extreme 5-Day Wheeled featuring an additional longer handle on one side to better utilize its rolling ability. When fully loaded these models are so heavy they really only lend themselves to a two person carry. If you happen to be an olympic weight lifter you could probably lift one of these fully loaded models with ease, but for mere mortals it would require a herculean effort and/or the chugging of multiple protein shakes beforehand. In our carry test our testers preferred handles that didn't pinch their hands or cause any uncomfortable pressure points. If you think you'll be doing a lot of heavy carries we recommend the Pelican Elite Cooler 70 or the Orca 58 Quart as our testers found those to be the most comfortable.
Wheels, when circumstances allow their use, add a level of portability to any cooler design. The one wheeled model we tested is the Rubbermaid Extreme 5-Day. Our testers were not specifically impressed with the Rubbermaid's wheels. It seemed the other slick bottom traditional models slid just as easily on flat surfaces, even sans wheels. However, this would still be our preferred model for a long trek from the car to the beach and back again, as you can slide the cooler along without scratching up the bottom.
It should be noted that, once committed to the 70 quart size, many users decide to avoid heavy lifting and plan their trip around not moving the cooler at all. There are a number of reviews online where people mention putting an empty cooler in the car, loading it up there, and not moving it until it is empty again at the end of the trip. If this method can work for you it certainly can save a lot hassle, but does bring up some additional considerations about draining. We further discuss this point in step 3.
Size and Insulation Performance
You will want to keep in mind that the size of a cooler will also have a direct effect on its insulation performance. As a rule of thumb, when similarly packed a smaller design will not hold ice as long as its larger sibling. This is evidenced by our comparison of the Yeti Tundra 65 and Tundra 20. Also, coolers are much more efficient when they are fully loaded and don't have to contend with cooling a bunch of empty airspace. So a fully loaded smaller model will usually hold ice longer than a half empty larger model. Therefore you will want to choose a size that you will most commonly fully load at the beginning of your trip to maximize insulating efficiency.
Step 3: Consider Ease-of-Use
In terms of mid trip cooler logistics there are two things you will be doing; opening the lid and rummaging for food and draining the melt water. When choosing a model you will want to consider how easy these normal tasks will be to perform.
Draining can either be a quick and easy process or a frustratingly messy one. Models that allow complete drainage without having to elevate one end reduce draining aggravation and effort. Models with lower drain holes and recessed channels leading to the drain excel at this, while models with higher drains, such as the the Rubbermaid Extreme 5-Day, require more manual effort. Larger drain holes make draining faster, but can sometime cause issues. The Grizzly and Igloo Yukon both have huge drain holes that empty in a flash, but are so big that it is easy to lose ice cubes while draining. However, holding your hand in a freezing stream of water to prevent ice loss is a viable wake up method if you've run out of coffee.
If you are draining a lot of melted ice, some drain plugs create fountain worthy jets of water when unscrewing the plug. While beautiful, these aquatic fireworks can get things wet that you would rather keep dry. Likewise, when down to that last trickle some drain designs tend to funnel water along the lip of the drain and let it trickle along the underside of the cooler. This can be problematic as whatever the cooler is resting in or on will invariably get wet. We had this problem with the Yeti Tundra 65 and the ORCA 58 Quart. Lanyards conveniently prevent you from losing the drain plug, but if the lanyard holds the plug in the stream of draining water it can create collateral splashing. All of this splashing won't really matter if you plan on draining your cooler outside, but if you want to drain from the trunk of your car it is a consideration. This would be particularly true for a single person using a 70 quart model, as singlehandedly moving such a behemoth in and out of a car frequently would range from tiresome to borderline impossible. The Pelican ProGear has a garden hose compatible drain to avoid these types of issues. Just be aware that you will need to attach the hose before there is water in the cooler, and clamp the hose shut in some way to avoid melt water draining at unwanted times.
All of the high-end models we tested feature lids that seal with rubber gaskets. These seals can create a vacuum when draining a lot of water, thus will slow down the draining process quite a bit. Once the vacuum is created it will be difficult to open the lid until the all the waters has drained, which can take quite a while in these circumstances. This situation can be avoided by opening the lid slightly before you start draining.
Ease-of-Access/Opening the Lid
Latch design is the main determining factor in how easy a lid will be to open. Most of the traditional models we tested use an internal latching mechanism. This was our least favorite latch type, particularly when opening an empty cooler as there is no weight to pull against. All of the high-end models we tested have some sort of external latch. While these latches come in varying designs our testers did not have a particular favorite. The use of each design quickly became second nature. Unless you have a strong preference against a certain type of latch, draining convenience is a much more important thing to consider in terms of ease-of-use.
Step 4: Consider Other Features You Might Like
If you've made it through steps 1 to 3 and still have a couple of contenders that you can't choose between, there are a few peripheral bells and whistles to consider that may slightly tip the scale one way or the other. This is a bit like making your final decision on what college to attend based on which one has the better climbing wall (a situation that none of our testers have first hand experience in, we promise).
The models we tested have a variety of other features that don't really impact general performance. Some include built in rulers on the lid to settle any "who caught the biggest fish" arguments. Other lids have built in cup holders to keep your beverages in order. The Yeti Tundra 65 comes with a wire basket to keep important items out of the melt water. It should be noted that a little bit of internet searching will yield suggestions for cheap trays that can work in a similar capacity for most of the other models. The accessory that our testers value the most is a drain plug lanyard, as a lost drain plug can add needless complications and frustrations to a relaxing camping getaway.
Is There One Cooler that Can Work for Everything?
The answer to this question, unfortunately, is no. No single cooler is going to be able to function well in every capacity. A large model with the insulating capacity to handle a 7 day camping trip is going to be too heavy and cumbersome to haul to the beach. More mobile models are generally not going to have the insulative oomf to get through a longer trip. No hard model is going match a soft cooler for short excursions that demand increased portability. However, we believe we've laid out a decision guide that will allow you to choose the best model for your needs, and will ensure every cooler purchase you make is the correct one.