In our testing, we did not set out to prove or disprove these manufacturer claims because, really, there is no reason to. Most of these claims come with fine print that just doesn't translate to real-world use. For example, most of these claims come with the stipulation that the slow to warm melt water is never drained. This will certainly keep things colder, but also means your bacon could get soggy. Many of these claims also require that the lid only be opened minimally. This requires the sort of strict planning and scheduling that just isn't conducive to big adventurous days outside. After a long, hot hike try telling your friend they can't grab a beer because the cooler can't be opened until dinner time. We doubt that will end well. So we didn't design our tests to mimic the cushy conditions of the manufacturer claim fine print, we designed them to mimic what we feel is realistic use and abuse.
Now we know there are people out there who know the four laws of thermodynamics by heart, will pre-chill their cooler in a freezer, load it up with dry ice, and see if they can still have some edible ice cream left on Day 14 of a rafting trip. We didn't design our tests for those people (since they've probably already designed and run their own tests). We designed our tests for what we feel are the majority of people out there: someone who goes on a few long weekend camping trips a year, occasionally at the spur of the moment without much pre-planning, may do a few more extended trips as well, and doesn't want cooler tending to be a major camp chore.
Obviously the most important aspect of performance is keeping things cold, so we focused our testing on insulation capacity. We realize that the size of a cooler, and not just its construction, has a huge impact on how long it will stay cold, and tested the bulk of our coolers at around the same capacity to accommodate this. We opted for models in the 70-quart range as they are the most versatile, easily handling family camping trips, extended trips for a couple, or a day's worth of drinks for a large group at the beach. However, not everyone is on the lookout for the same sized ice chest, and so we also included several models that are both larger and smaller than that 70-quart midline and adjusted their insulation values accordingly.
We also considered other less obvious but still important facets of cooler use. Some of the high-end models we looked at list for north of $400. You'll want to make sure a purchase of that magnitude will last more than a season, so we tested durability. Carrying 70 quarts of food, drink, and ice can feel like running a marathon while breathing through a straw, so our testers also scrutinized portability. It should be easy to load, drain, and open and close a cooler, making it especially frustrating when one of those tasks proves to be difficult. To save you those frustrations we tested ease of use. Finally, some models come with snazzy features, so we included that in our testing as well.
For each round of testing the large coolers, we looked at two metrics; ice retention and safe food storage temperatures. We felt it safe to combine the results of ice retention and temperature testing for the personal-sized coolers, as within their 20-25 quart capacities these results are basically identical. That said, the FDA mandates that perishable food must be stored at 40˚F or below. Most people will store their food on top of the ice rather than mixed in amongst the cubes. This is great as it keeps all that precious meat, cheese, and produce nice and dry, but it will naturally be a bit warmer than the ice bath down at the bottom. To ensure this reality was accurately represented in our testing we whipped up some thermometer sandwiches. We placed temperature sensors in between two slices of bread, put the bread in tupperware containers, and then sat the tupperware on top of the ice in each cooler. This temperature sensor trojan horse ensured we were taking temperature readings from right where some perishable meat and cheese would be stored. These sensors took a temperature reading at least every 30 minutes throughout our tests.
Testing ice retention was a simpler matter, we just checked if there was ice left in the models that are 50 quarts are larger at the end of each day. Also, since cans and bottles can be stored in with the ice without fear of soakage, we assumed that ice retention would directly correlate to how long each model could keep beverages chilled. We tested this assumption using Coors Cold Activated Cans, which have mountains that turn from white to blue when the beer inside is cold. We placed one in each model we tested and monitored when the mountains turned from blue back to white. While Coors is tight lipped about the exact temperature at which this happens, they did let slip that it is just above 40˚F. All the cans in our tests stayed blue until after all the ice had melted. So we feel safe in saying that ice retention is a direct indicator of how long each model will serve up frosty beverages.
We initially did the first round of testing that included a pre-cooling phase and a few other details that we discovered just weren't quite replicative of "normal" usage. So in our second round of testing, we ditched the pre-cooling phase. We felt this would make the test harder and would tailor to those adventurous souls who, after far too many hours sitting at a desk, decide at 3 pm on Friday that they're going camping that weekend. We also rearranged all the coolers into a semicircle so that we could place a space heater equidistant from all of them. We're sure that these plastic campers, huddled around their electric campfire, told some ghost stories when we weren't looking. We then ran a real-life simulation test. We put a sacrificial 20-pound bag of ice in each of the large coolers (nine pounds in the personal-sized coolers) and cranked the heat up to around 90 degrees Fahrenheit during daylight hours. This temperature is a much better representation of summer camping, and these are the results that we reference in the rest of this review. The ORCA came out on top, with an impressive ice retention of seven days.
We put the same amount of ice into each of the 50+ quart coolers. This left the larger 100+ quart coolers at a disadvantage, as they had more air space to keep cool. We thus gave them a slight bump up in the final insulation score as a handicap. Additionally, as the nine pounds of ice in the personal-sized coolers provide a higher ice-to-space ratio, we adjusted their final test scores when we included them in the final Insulation metric score.
Adding New Coolers
When we add a new cooler to the review, we run into a problem. We can't exactly recreate the exact atmospheric conditions of our original insulation test. To get around this we use the very same YETI Tundra 65 that we used in our first ever cooler test as a control cooler, and run it alongside any new coolers we are adding to the review. That way we can get a direct performance comparison, and can even adjust its performance metrics to be comparable with all of our other coolers (when we adjust one of these measurements, we always make a note of it).
Many of the high-end models we tested feature videos on their websites of lions and bears (no tigers yet) trying and failing to get into the cooler. We don't have an official bear, yet, so we had to settle for human testers. We inspected all the hinges, latches, and gaskets, pushed on lids and walls, and yanked on handles to assess how durable they felt. To top it off we filled each model with water, sloshed them around, and observed if any water leaked out of the lids. This allowed us to assess the structural integrity of the lid seals. We also scoured the internet to find user reviews that complained of durability issues, effectively increasing the sample size of units we considered in our durability testing.
Ease of Use
For coolers ease of use essentially boils down to draining and opening/closing the lid. To test draining we filled each model with water, propped them on a block to tilt them at a slight angle, and opened the drains (and created some geology textbook worthy sand ravines in the process). This gave us an idea of how messy draining would be under the heaviest load possible. It also showed us how much each model would drain with just a slight tilt. We also observed less intense draining scenarios as we drained the melt water from each model during each day of our insulation test. And we noted if a model has no drainage plug at all.
Throughout our testing we were constantly undoing latches, opening lids, closing lids, and securing latches. This allowed all of our testers to thoroughly assess how easy each model was to open and close. Additionally, we took note of any icebox with a particularly hungry lid that has a tendency to snap closed on an unsuspecting user's hand whilst being loaded — ouch!
We also looked at how easy each model was to pack. Packing around wheel wells or loading a cooler that fits a strange configuration of cans was noted. And we, of course, made sure to take photos so you could see how each model looks all loaded up for a well-fed adventure.
When fully loaded, many of the 50+ quart models we tested can feel like anvils, so portability can be a differentiating factor. As you would expect, smaller coolers tended to score better in this category than larger ones, though wheels obviously are a game-changer. In general, though, we found that portability is largely determined by handle design and comfort.
We tested portability by, again, filling each model with water to make it as heavy as possible (we brought water in buckets from the lake and then dumped it all back into the lake to be as sustainable as possible). Our testers then performed a two-person carry on each model, carrying them across a sandy beach about 30 yards, up an approximately 15-foot sandhill, and heaved them up onto a standard park bench, all so you can know which handles won't hurt your hands. The personal-sized coolers were tested by single users, carrying them — fully loaded — back and forth from the car to the beach and back.
There are a variety of extra features available on different models. We tallied and scored all of the features that came standard on the models we tested. We gave lower scores to features we thought were nice to have but didn't add too much, like cupholders, and scored features we thought really improved user experience more highly, like drain plug leashes and the ability to hold dry ice.