When it comes time to upgrade you cooler, you will find that it is more complicated than ever before. Today’s coolers do more than store food and drinks for a few hours. Now you can buy coolers that hold large volumes, include special features for a wide range of outdoor enthusiasts, and keep ice fresh for days, not hours.
Our researchers have found and reviewed the best of the best and are ready to share their results with you.
Whether spending the day at the beach or a week at the cabin, summer is about getting outdoors and having your favorite snacks and drinks close at hand. Of course, having a drink is no where near as refreshing as having a cold drink nearby.
There was a time when cold drinks were reserved for the early hours of the trip. By the end of the day you were more likely to be pulling slightly cooled drinks from the water of a once ice-filled cooler. A lot more is expected from today’s high performance coolers.
Modern coolers are expected to keep ice cold and free from melting all day or longer, and many of the premium models are capable of doing so for several days or more.
New materials, designs, and construction methods have raised the bar and manufacturers are constantly being challenged. What once passed for a top-of-the-line cooler would hardly be worth consideration as a lunch tote today.
The 8 Top Rated Coolers Compared: Outdoor Empire Reviews
- Best Cheap #1: Rubbermaid 34 Quart Ice Chest
- Best Cheap #2: Coleman Steel-Belted Portable Cooler, 54 QT
- Best for the Money #1: Coleman Coastal Xtreme Series 120 Quart
- Best for the Money #2: Igloo Marine Ultra Square Cooler
- Best on the Market #1: YETI Tundra
- Best on the Market #2: ORCA Extra Heavy Duty
- Best Small Cooler for Camping: Engel Coolers High-Performance ENG65
- Best with Wheels: RovR RollR 45
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|Best on the market
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|Up to 6 days
|Up to 10 days
1. Best Cheap Cooler #1: Rubbermaid 34 Quart Ice Chest
Buying an inexpensive cooler can be a gamble, but the Rubbermaid 34 Quart is both inexpensive and trusted. Built by a leader in food storage, you know that this cooler is backed by years of trusted manufacturing experience.
Although the basic plastic molded design does not offer any of the groundbreaking technology seen in many of the more expensive models, it does offer two important features—it works well and costs a fraction of what others do.
While its ability to keep ice will be measured in hours, not days, it will be the perfect options when you need a cheap cooler to take to the beach or out on the boat when your more expensive model is not available.
- Economical option for short-term storage
- Time-tested design
- Made by a trusted name in food storage
- Limited ability to keep ice (measured in hours)
- Not as durable as most competitors
- Molded design with integrated handles makes it less adaptable than other designs
2. Best Cheap Cooler #2: Coleman Steel-Belted Portable Cooler, 54 QT
One of the problems with coolers today is that high-end, high-price models have taken over the market. While it may nice to have a cooler that is capable of keeping ice for a week, the $400 price tag is prohibitive.
That may not sound like much if you hunt, fish, or camp for a living (or test outdoor gear), but for the average sportsman, that money could be a new bow, used rifle, or several rods and reels. Enter the Coleman Steel-Belted Portable Cooler.
This retro style cooler offers what the average buyer is looking for—a reliable cooler capable of keeping ice and food cold for a reasonable period and at a reasonable price.
Depending on how it is used this cooler can keep ice for up to four days at temperatures as high as 90°F. It also provides a 54 quart (or 85 can) capacity, so there is plenty of room for a weekend’s worth of food and ice. Plus, the retro design lets you relive those family trips of your youth.
- Large capacity in easy-to-load cube shape (can store 2-liter bottle upright)
- Rust resistant stainless-steel hardware
- Popular retro design popular
- What you see is what you get—a cooler and nothing else
- No cup holders installed or available
3. Best Cooler for the Money #1: Coleman Coastal Xtreme Series 120 Quart
This is a huge cooler with a surprisingly small price tag. At 120 quarts, the Xtreme will hold everything you need for a weekend. The sturdy handles make transporting a cooler of this size much easier than you’d expect.
The lid includes four molded cup holders, and the cooler is capable of holding up to 250 pounds, allowing you to use it as a table or chair when tailgating or around the campfire.
While not a premium cooler that can keep ice cold for extended periods, this cooler does include an impressive level of insulation. With that in mind, you could expect this cooler to keep your food cool for two or three days if you are careful of how often the lid is opened.
- Large cooler at a bargain price
- Sturdy construction capable of holding up to 250 pounds if used as a seat
- Molded cup holders
- Will retain ice for surprising period, depending on how often it is opened.
- Big and heavy, so transport can be difficult
- Hinges are the cheapest part of entire construction and are prone to breaking
4. Best Cooler for the Money #2: Igloo Marine Ultra Square Cooler
One of the first rules of buying a cooler is picking the right one for the task at hand.
If that task involves a day on the boat, whether cruising with friends and family or fishing your favorite spot, then you need to seriously consider the Igloo Marine Ultra. This soft-side cooler is designed to withstand the harsh marine environment while providing easy access to your food and drink.
First, it is available in three sizes—24 can, 36 can or backpack. Second, it is constructed of non-corrosive components to prevent damage even when exposed to saltwater. The thick, extruded closed-cell foam keeps ice for up to two days, and the PEVA liner is antimicrobial, mildew resistant and easy to clean.
The Velcro-secured center access hatch allows you to retrieve a sandwich or drink without opening the full top.
- Specifically designed for use in the marine environment
- Lightweight, compact design to save space on the boat
- Easy-to-clean, leak-free design
- Large capacity, but not suited for heavy items
- Limited insulation not suitable for more than day trips
- White color tough to keep clean over time
5. Best High End Cooler #1: YETI Tundra
YETI has established itself as the premier maker of high-end, heavy-duty coolers. Once marketed to the hardcore fishing community, they have now become a favorite among a wide range of sportsmen and the benchmark by which other coolers are measured.
The Tundra offers all the features YETI in known for—thick polyurethane walls, all-around brim seal, heavy-duty rubber latches, and dual interlocking hinges.
The Tundra is guaranteed to provide days of cold ice and years of faithful service. The rugged design can withstand anything you can throw at it in camp, on the boat, or bouncing around the back of the truck. This cooler was built to be your best outdoor partner.
- Superior insulation and brim seal for maximum cold retention
- Heavy duty construction for years of hassle-free use
- Now available in a variety of colors and sizes
- No cup holders available
6. Best High End Cooler #2: ORCA Extra Heavy Duty
OCRA is quickly becoming one of the leading names in roto-molded coolers, and this cooler is one of the reasons. It offers the perfect combination of strength, durability, insulating ability and ease of use. Once you have it, you will want to take it on every adventure.
The single-piece, molded design makes this cooler nearly indestructible. With easy-to-use whale-tale latches and ergonomic handles, it is perfect for the user who wants and engineered cooler but don’t want to be an engineer to use it.
The advanced insulation technology and gasket lid seal will retain ice for up to 10 days. It is available in a variety of sizes, so there is sure to be one that meets your needs and budget.
- Extremely durable roto-molded construction, with few parts that can break or malfunction
- Designed for maximum ice retention and minimal pre-use prep
- Available in a variety of sizes and prices
- Made in the USA with a lifetime warranty
- Very thick walls mean less-than-ideal storage space versus overall size
- Does not include many of the accessories available with other models
7. Best Small Cooler for Camping: Engel Coolers High-Performance ENG65
Engel is not yet a widely recognized name in coolers, but it is only a matter of time. If you are a serious camper, you owe it to yourself to pick one up before they become so popular they are hard to find and difficult to afford.
While they are making a name for themselves is a perfect time to get a cooler with many of the features you are looking for at a fraction of the price.
The ENG65T offers 65 quarts of storage in a single-piece, roto-molded design with two inches of high-density, closed-cell polyurethane insulation. Thanks to the airtight silicone gasket and adjustable marine-grade compression latches, you receive not only the highest overall performance but also a bear-resistant unit.
It is also dry ice compatible and backed by a 10-year warranty.
- Lightest cooler in its class, weighing only 11.38 pounds
- With thin, one-inch walls, it offers greater storage space versus overall size
- Bear resistant, IGBC certified
- Does not come with any accessories
- Does not have molded cup holders
8. Best Cooler with Wheels: RovR RollR 45
The idea of being able to wheel your cooler to the boat or across the beach is an attractive one. The problem is that few manufacturers have delivered a wheeled cooler that actually works.
Yes, they zip up and down the store isles or across the driveway with ease, but the first time they encounter rocks, sand or even high grass, everything stands still. Before you know it, you are carrying it like everyone else.
The RovR RollR45 is different. The large, inflatable wheels are unlike those used on any other cooler and more closely resemble those found on a bike or utility cart. This allows it to roll over rough terrain with ease. The designers even offer a unique handle extension that attaches directly to a bike for convenient towing.
Other accessories include a large detachable dry box, non-skid feet and six secure tie-down points. This is not a cooler masked as a wagon. It is a wagon that doubles as a top-notch cooler.
- The most durable wheels on the market
- Rugged, durable design
- Some of the most innovative accessories available
- Insulation is good, but not the best available
- Latches are awkward and difficult to use
- One of the heaviest coolers in its class
Why Do I Need a Quality Cooler?
The reasons for having a cooler are obvious—the ability to transport and store food and drinks when you are without electricity or a standard refrigerator or freezer. But it goes beyond that. A quality cooler will not only store and protect your food and drinks, it will also maintain a consistent temperature at or below 40°F.
This is the temperature at which food-borne pathogenic bacteria starts to thrive, so a cooler that keeps food and drink below this mark helps to protect you from illness.
While any cooler, or even the galvanized bucket on your back deck, can keep food cool with enough ice, they can not do so without constant attention over periods of time. A quality cooler will often allow the user to fill with ice and food stuff on day one and do its job with little or not attention for three, four, or even a whopping six days!
A quality cooler will also offer features or accessories that make it easier to use. Some are even specifically designed to accommodate specific tasks, such as boating, camping, or fishing.
How to Choose Your Next Cooler
What are the important considerations to take into account when choosing your next cooler?
Even the best cooler will do you no good if you try to use it in an application for which it was not designed. When many of us were growing up, we lugged the same cooler on every adventure.
It was stacked in the back of Dad’s station wagon when you went to the beach, lugged by you and your brother for camping trips, and left behind when you went hiking as it was simply too big to take on the trail. Not any longer. Today there are coolers specifically designed for each of those activities, and dozens more as well.
Because coolers are now designed for so many specific applications, it is important that you understand how and where you will be using your cooler before shopping. If you will be fishing or taking it on the boat, look for those that will float and can be used as an additional seat.
Those hitting the local trails will want a model that is lightweight, can be easily carried, and has straps like those found on a backpack. If you are camping, it is important that you select a design that is lightweight, includes handles that make it easier to carry, and has been certified to withstand bear attacks.
The bottom line is that there are dozens of brand-name manufacturers and even more models available. Many, if not most, are top-of-the-line coolers, but not all of them are suitable for every situation.
If you are a serious outdoorsman involved in multiple sports, you may even need to invest in more than one type or size of cooler.
The most important feature a cooler can offer is its ability to keep food cold. This is, after all, why you buy a cooler to begin with. Many modern coolers express the quality of their insulation by stating how long it will keep ice fresh, although this has resulted in some pretty unbelievable claims.
It is important to understand that when a cooler is touted to keep ice for five days or food frozen for six days, this is usually only possible when you do some unrealistic preparation. This could include pre-chilling the cooler, the food, or both.
Maybe you need to freeze the food beforehand or fill the cooler with more ice than food. What you need to consider is the cooler’s ability to keep food below 40°F and drinks below 50°F, the temperatures necessary to prevent spoiling and at which drinks taste best.
No cooler relies solely on insulation to achieve temperature control. This requires a combination of insulation, seals, locks, and construction materials. It is important to consider each of the aspects both individually and when working together if you wish to get a true understanding of the cooler’s ability to do its job.
There are two factors to consider when it comes to the size of your cooler: the amount of storage available (interior size) and the overall size of the cooler.
Storage space is usually advertised in terms of gallons, liters, or quarts, although it is now becoming more common to refer to storage space in terms of the number of 12-ounce cans it can carry. There are three important points to remember when referring to storage space.
First, this is a measurement of the entire available space—the interior and exterior, and the insulated and uninsulated parts. Second, the shape of the cooler versus shape of the items you are attempting to store will determine how much space is usable. Third, some of the space will be lost to ice or cold packs.
Overall size is important because you will need to store, transport, and at some point, move the cooler. Too small, and you will be unable to store everything necessary for your trip. Too large, and the cooler will be unwieldy, too heavy, or might not fit into your car, tent, etc.
There is an ever-expanding list of options when it comes to what cooler materials, and scientists are constantly looking for the next lighter, more efficient material. However, for the purpose of this article, we will simplify matters and look at plastic, fabric, and metal coolers.
This is the most common material used and the nearly exclusive choice for hard-sided coolers. However, there is one important aspect to remember—not all plastics are created equal. Both the very expensive and extremely inexpensive use plastic in their construction, and it all comes down to the manufacturing process used.
Various fabrics have always been the choice when it comes to construction of cheaper, soft-sided lunch tote style cooler. Now, new stronger materials are being utilized to develop high-end brands as well. As new materials are developed or adapted their use in cooler will undoubtedly increase.
There was a time when metal, usually lined with an insulating material or consisting of two vacuum sealed layers, was the material of choice for cooler. Today, it is the exception. Although metal does allow for a very durable, long-lasting design, it is heavy and has been largely replaced by plastic.
If you are shopping for your first cooler you probably think that portability comes down to three simple features—smaller size, wheels, and large, easy-to-use handles. However, making a decision based on those criteria alone will likely lead you to be disappointed.
A small, lightweight cooler is of little use if it has such a small capacity that it barely holds lunch, never mind a weekend’s worth of steaks, corn on the cob, and beer.
Likewise, how likely is it that those tiny, hard plastic wheels that allowed you to speed across the driveway will perform even half as well in the sand or mud?
Next, you need to consider how uncomfortable or difficult it may be to actually use. Is it too bulky to load into and unload from the car? Are the handles placed to allow for a good grip when carrying it alone?
Ease of Use
It is hard to believe that ease of use would even be a concern when it comes to a cooler, but advancements have resulted in coolers with a wide array of features never before available, and each added feature means a higher degree of difficulty for the user.
The first order of business when reviewing ease of use are the general features available on any cooler—size, shape, handles, and wheels (if included).
Can you load it easily and efficiently? Does the size allow for loading common items, and is it easy to carry? Are the handles adjustable? If so, how hard is it to adjust them? Do the wheels provide a smooth, easy-to-pull platform?
All these things you should wonder when buying any cooler. But then things get a little more complex as you dig a bit deeper.
Improved seals and latches are required for multiple days of ice-cold temperatures. There are a variety of latch designs in use, including large rubber models that are stretched into place, push-button locks, and even slide latches. Eventually every cooler loses its cool and ice melts, so there has to be a drain available.
Some of these drains are simple plugs—pull them out and let the water run. Others involve multiple discs that need to be turned, lined up, etc. Each manufacturer is convinced their design is best, but some are far more difficult to use.
With all the advanced features available in today’s cooler, it is almost mind-blowing to think that there is the possibility of even more optional accessories. But there are plenty of options to upgrade the “best cooler” and make it even better.
So, if you are the type of person who is always looking to make improvements, it is important to consider what upgrades may be available. Examples include dry trays to keep items off the ice, interior/exterior storage compartments, cup holders, bottle openers, and even measuring tapes (once a common feature on the lid of any cooler).
Some wheeled models offer upgraded wheels for use off-road or on the sand. There are even models that offer a handle replacement that allows the cooler to be towed behind a bicycle.
Although not features that usually distinguish a specific brand, there are some features that can be a tie-breaker when two models are up for consideration. What colors are available? Does it include a warranty? If so, what are the terms of it?
Top Cooler Brands
Founded in 2006, YETI has a single mission: “to create the cooler we’d use every day if it existed.” They wanted to develop an unbreakable cooler that sportsmen could count on for every trip, whether that was to the local pier or remote Alaska.
Today YETI manufacturers some of the most widely recognized premium coolers, drinkware, and bags on the market known for their ability to maintain temperature for extreme periods.
The Outdoor Recreation Company of America was founded in 2012 with the goal of creating an American-made, roto-molded cooler better than all the rest. Today ORCA offers not only top-of-the-line roto-molded coolers but also a wide range of drinkware, apparel, and bags.
Aside from their quality, one of ORCA’s claims to fame is the ability to produce their products in bright colors and patterns rather than the typical white, tan, or green common to other manufacturers.
Most outdoorsmen are familiar with the name Pelican, not because of their coolers, but because of their dry boxes. Now they have taken the same technology used to produce some of the strongest and lightest crushproof and dustproof dry boxes to produce superior-quality, American-made coolers backed by a lifetime guarantee.
With a wide range of hard- and soft-sided models available in a variety of sizes, colors, and designs, Pelican coolers will deliver no matter the adventure.
When W.C. Coleman sold his first gasoline lamp, his company’s name became synonymous with the outdoors. Today they offer a wide range of outdoor-related products, including tents, sleeping bags, camp furniture, cooking gear, lanterns, and lights as well as coolers and drinkware.
Coleman offers a wide range of hard, soft, and collapsible coolers which tend to be on the more economical side of the market and has recently added roto-molded models to the line.
For over 70 years, Igloo has been the leader in developing innovative means of storing and transporting beverages to work or campsite.
From the original beverage cooler to today’s line of coolers, beverage containers, and drinkware, Igloo offers a variety of options for transporting, storing, and keeping cold whatever you need in the field or on the job.
Largely known for providing economical, dependable products, Igloo as also entered the budget roto-molded market as well.
Frequently Asked Questions
Will ice melt in a cooler?
Yes, eventually the ice in your cooler will melt. When this occurs depends on an assortment of factors, including your cooler’s level of insulation, how much ice you start with, exterior temperature, and how many times the cooler is opened.
Do I need additional external storage?
That depends on what you will be using your cooler for and what you will be storing in it. If you will be carrying items that you wish to access quickly, especially if those items do not need cooling, exterior storage will come in handy.
It also allows you to conserve the interior temperature-controlled space for the items that truly need it.
Are coolers waterproof?
Surprisingly, not all coolers are waterproof. Many soft-sided coolers are constructed of materials that are not waterproof and require a plastic or rubber liner to be installed to prevent leakage.
Other designs have limited ability to keep water out/in due to seals, zippers, and drains used in the construction.