Coolers are an essential component of any barbecue or camping trip. Our experts tested multiple brands to bring you the best cooler to fit your needs.
Updated July 22, 2023 5:15 a.m. PT
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Steve ConawayLabs Manager / Senior Technical Project Manager
I am the Labs Manager for CNET's Home Division based in Louisville, KY. My interest in technology began in the early '90s, and soon after I began my double major in computer science and computer engineering. I've worked in many areas, including computer hardware, software, technology, networking, graphic design, instruction, construction, music and even ballroom dancing!
65% Ron Swanson, 25% Ben Wyatt, 10% Andy Dwyer.
ExpertiseI've been an outdoor enthusiast my entire life. I also renovate, flip and build houses in my 'spare' time. Paired with our test lab facilities, I write about lots of outdoor related things - portable power stations, tools, etc.
Originally hailing from Troy, Ohio, Ry Crist is a writer, a text-based adventure connoisseur, a lover of terrible movies and an enthusiastic yet mediocre cook. A CNET editor since 2013, Ry's beats include smart home tech, lighting, appliances, broadband and home networking.
ExpertiseSmart home technology and wireless connectivityCredentials
10 years product testing experience with the CNET Home team
A reliable cooler is great to have on hand, and borderline essential for backyard get-togethers, camping trips, tailgating events and other summertime staples. Whatever outdoor activity you decide on, having a cold place to stash drinks is key for you and your guests to stay cool, hydrated and happy.
That said, finding the best cooler for your needs is complicated by a crowded field, with a list of options that's grown steadily in recent years. Chief among them are a rising number of heavy-duty, roto-molded coolers that deliver thick, dense insulation superior to traditional coolers (and which perform leaps-and-bounds better than a soft cooler or cooler bag).
The last time I tested coolers for this list, I had Cabela's 60-quart version of this cooler listed as the best large cooler. That title is now held by a Magellan Outdoors model. But in the big picture, if you want stuff to stay cold, you literally cannot beat Cabela's Polar Cap option. Its lowest internal temperature during testing was the coldest, but the real treat was the fact that it held that low level temp for around 20% longer than the next best contender.
The prices range from $300 to $400 for the 60-, 80- and 100-quart models, and what you're paying for is undoubtedly performance. There aren't many crazy features on this unit, but it does have bottle openers built into the rubber latches, a pressure relief valve to help open the cooler when the interior pressure rises, and rubber padded feet to elevate the cooler and help reduce direct heat transfer. Oh, and it's certified bear-resistant.
The performance of Magellan's largest offering was very close to Cabela's Polar Cap Equalizer. The lowest temperature recorded between the two in our cooling tests was less than a degree apart (44.6 vs. 45.5 degrees Fahrenheit). If your main use is for keeping things cold, then the question is whether or not that extra 0.9 degrees is worth paying another hundred bucks for.
I say keep the cash and use it to stock your cooler -- especially since these hard-sided Magellan Outdoors coolers boast one of my favorite cooler features of all time: the double-sided hinge latches. The hinges themselves are the latches, and they're featured on both sides of the cooler, so no more walking around to "the other side," reaching over the lid or asking someone to grab your drink. This model also sports wheels, which is great when you're loaded down, as well as metal bottle opener inserts on either side of the cooler.
Yeah, I know. Another Magellan cooler. Listen. I didn't plan it this way. I run tests. I look at the data. The results usually speak for themselves. As in this case. Just scroll down a bit and look at the graphed-out data for yourself. The performance wasn't close enough for me to pretend like I could name another victor even if I wanted to.
You could tell before the tests were run that this cooler was going to be the better performer. The competitors sport very thin walls, and that's just not going to do much for your insulative capabilities. However, the others are much cheaper and a couple come in backpack format, if that's your thing.
But, to be fair, my personal opinion is that all soft-sided coolers are bad choices. None of them get that cold, and they don't hold their median temp for long at all. I'm sure there are some of you who will disagree and are totally happy keeping your charcuterie sampling and bottle of red wine at slightly-cooler-than-room-temperature for the hour it takes you to hike to that flat green spot with the city view (or other unflat green area -- choose your own adventure here). Moving on…
Yeti is already a name people tend to associate with better performance (if not higher prices), and at least with coolers, for good reason. Yeti coolers consistently perform at the top of the pack. The Tundra Haul is no different. Although Yeti didn't hit the lowest overall temp of the bunch, it did hold its lowest temperature for much longer than its competitors. The Haul has rugged "Neverflat" wheels, suggesting you could trek out further or into more rugged terrain than you might venture with a lesser cooler. It will transport more easily than most, and you can be sure you'll be getting maximum cool duration for your time about.
The previous title holder for this category was one of the cheapest coolers we've tested to date, the Coleman Stacker. But the best value doesn't have to mean the least amount of money. This RTIC unit tested with impressively low temperatures. It gave the lowest temperatures in the midsize cooler category, and low enough to play ball with the largest of coolers we tested.
As a matter of fact, at under $200, this cooler is currently the cheapest of any cooler in either our midsize or large cooler category, with the exception of the Igloo BMX 52qt Cooler, which happened to be the poorest performer of the aforementioned categories. So, if you want great performance with a friendlier price tag than its competitors, you can feel safe picking up this RTIC.
The performance data on this little cooler is excellent, with the lowest temperature reached and the lowest average temperature of the bunch. Its clever design makes it both good-looking and highly effective. It's relatively shallow, so you can easily find your food.
A diversion groove at the bottom of the cooler keeps the ice and water separated, which slows melting. The pull handle is ergonomic so it's more comfortable to cart around. The drain hole at the bottom is angled so that you don't have to tilt the cooler in order to drain out the water. The lid supports up to 400 pounds, so it doubles as a stool for sitting or standing.
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How we tested the coolers
If we're going to talk about performance, we should talk about capacity first. Though some ice chest sizes are more popular than others (50-quart, for instance), there really isn't much uniformity among coolers as far as size and shape are concerned. Apart from determining how many cans of beer or soda each one will hold, size and shape will obviously have an impact on performance, too. After all, with the quantity of ice being equal, a 75-quart cooler like the Frosted Frog has a bigger job on its hands than the 45-quart RTIC.
I did my best to account for those size differences as I evaluated each cooler's relative performance, but first, I needed to be sure that I had accurate measurements. That meant putting those manufacturer capacity claims to the test, and I wanted a better, more universal metric than just counting how many cans I could cram into each one.
To that end, I carefully filled each cooler with water to the point that closing the lid would cause some water overflow. Then I measured out the exact number of quarts each cooler could hold -- important information to have when you're dealing with large quantities of melted ice. If anything, the smaller, cheaper models were mostly conservative in their estimates, with ones like the Coleman Xtreme and Igloo Latitude wheeled coolers coming in several quarts more sizable than advertised.
The expensive guys? Not quite so much. Rovr pegs the capacity of its $400 Rollr wheeled cooler at 60 quarts, but I could only fit 52.8 quarts of water inside when I measured for myself. The $219 RTIC wasn't as spacious as expected, either, holding just 39.6 quarts of water before overflowing with the lid closed. That's several quarts less than the 45 quarts they spec.
Meanwhile, for almost half the price, the 55-quart Lifetime High Performance Cooler came in well above spec at 62.4 quarts measured -- and while it didn't hold its ice as long as the RTIC did, it still finished an excellent performer. Yeti's Hopper Backflip 24, a soft-sided backpack cooler, had the most understated volume of all coolers we've tested so far. Claiming space for 20 12-ounce cans at a 2:1 ice-to-can ratio for a total of 22.5 quarts, I found the internal volume of the soft-sided cooler to actually be 26.42 quarts, which is 117 percent of the stated volume (about one extra six-pack compared to other 20-quart coolers). The worst offender, offering only 65 percent of its claimed 30-quart capacity, was the Tourit Backpack Cooler.
Just want the biggest cooler we've tested? You're in luck -- that'd be our current top pick, the 80-quart Cabela's Polar Cap Equalizer Cooler. Its actual, measured capacity came in at 76.2 quarts, which is higher than anything else we've tested. Same goes for our 2:1 ice-to-can capacity test, where we calculate how many cans the thing could hold if you packed them in with twice as much ice, by volume. With Cabela's cooler, that number is approximately 67 cans, which is as strong a result as you'll see before going big with something like an ultra-king-size, 100-quart cooler.
The big differentiator that you'll hear a lot about as you shop for a cooler is ice retention -- specifically, how long a cooler can keep a full load of ice frozen (melted ice, a.k.a. water, isn't as good at keeping drinks cold). The new, expensive options all hang their hat on this test, with roto-molded coolers specifically designed to ace it (and in doing so, to justify their price tags).
That's all well and good, but I worried that a standard ice retention test on its own wouldn't tell us the whole story. Sure, some coolers would probably keep the ice frozen for a lot longer than others, but using the melting point as your metric seems to disregard everything that comes before. I wanted to get a good sense of performance not just days in, but hours in, before any of the ice had even melted at all.
To do that, I started with a modified version of the ice retention test. Instead of a full load of ice in each cooler, I went with an amount of ice equivalent to 10% of each cooler's total volume. (I already have a precise measurement of each cooler's total volume from the earlier described capacity test.) Less ice meant more of a challenge for the coolers, which would hopefully give us a more granular look at how well they perform relative to one another.
Specifically, I wanted to track the ambient temperature in each cooler, so I spread the ice in each one I tested beneath an elevated jar of propylene glycol solution (watered-down antifreeze) with a temperature probe in it. Why elevated? The temperature down in the ice would have been roughly the same in all of the coolers, leaving retention as the only real variable. Tracking the ambient temperature up above it was much more telling, and it gave us some additional variables to consider.
Oh, and I did all of this in one of our appliance lab's climate-controlled test chambers, and I made sure to let each cooler sit open in the room for several hours beforehand to ensure that they all started at room temperature (about 80 degrees Fahrenheit to emulate a good outdoor summertime temp).
In the end, it turned out to be a fruitful test. After 48 hours (72 hours for the largest coolers), I had a nifty graph showing me the temperature inside each cooler on a minute-by-minute basis -- and the difference from cooler to cooler was striking. To help put this data in perspective, I broke down the coolers into separate size categories after peeling soft-sided coolers into their own category. That left me with small coolers (less than 40 quarts), midsize coolers (40-59 quarts) and large coolers (60 quarts or more). You can find the graphed data for each of those categories below, as well as our performance data on soft coolers (again, you shouldn't expect a whole lot from coolers like those).
Mobility and durability
I also took each cooler's design and features into consideration as I tested and kept an eye out for durability concerns. I wasn't impressed with the lid on the Igloo Latitude wheeled cooler, for instance. It doesn't lock shut and the plastic nub hinges are a total joke. Give it a modest yank and the whole lid comes right off -- and the cheap plastic wheels didn't leave me impressed, either. Not great if you're looking for a camping cooler.
The Rovr Rollr wheeled cooler fared much better, thanks to a rugged design that features heavy-duty wheels, a sturdy steel handlebar and an optional $50 accessory that lets you tow it behind your bike. I also liked that the interior comes with a divider that makes it easy to keep items you don't want getting wet separate from the ice and that you can customize it with different interior liner designs. My only qualm -- that T-shaped handlebar includes comfy rubber grips on the sides, but not in the middle, the spot you'll actually want to hold as you lug it around one-handed.
On the topic of wheeled coolers, the Igloo Journey Trailmate 70qt All-Terrain cooler also came with a dizzying amount of extras and features. Overall, it wasn't quite as durable as the Rovr, but I think they're mostly designed for different purposes. If I'm trekking into the woods for a weekend with a couple of pals, I'm going to take the Rovr, no question. But if I'm headed to the beach with the family for a day, I'm probably going to opt for the Igloo.
Oh, and if you'll be spending lots of time camping in a place where bears are a concern, then you'll probably want to invest in a bear-resistant cooler. The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee keeps a running list of certified options, which includes a number of coolers from this rundown. Several models I've tested from Cabela's, Orca, Rovr, Magellan Outdoors and Yeti all make the cut.
It's also worth considering whether or not your cooler is sturdy enough to sit on, something that comes in handy when you're out camping. Most of the coolers that I tested were, but some took things even further. For instance, the Bison Gen 2 Cooler goes so far as to advertise itself as an ideal casting platform to stand on during your next fishing trip and even sells nonslip traction mats for the lid in a variety of designs.
Between the hinges, the lid, the drain plug and the lid latches, the Bison cooler felt the most like a premium product to the touch -- but it didn't hold cold air as well or as long as other roto-molded models and it costs about $150 more than our most affordable roto-molded pick, the Xspec 60qt High Performance cooler.
Latches and lids
Let's take a pause to dive into hinges and latches a bit more. Some are good, some are bad and some are just nonexistent. Coolers with removable lids tend to be cheaper coolers that aren't going to perform in the top percentile -- with one exception I've found so far. Magellan Outdoors has a double-latching, double-hinged removable lid and happens to have won our picks for best small and large cooler. The easy-to-use, double-latched design means you can open the cooler from either side and, if you'd prefer, you can disengage the latches on both sides to remove the lid altogether.
Now let's compare that to most of the newer cooler designs on models like Yeti, RTIC, Orca, Cabela's or Frosted Frog that have rubber T-shaped handles you have to stretch to secure the lid. They're difficult to pull down, even as a full-grown adult. I asked three other adults to secure these handles and out of the four of us, two were successful, one unsuccessful and the last successful only after an excessive amount of struggling. Performance is important, but design matters, too -- and sometimes, it's a deal-breaker.
I get that a rubber bungee-style latching mechanism is probably very efficient from a cost and maintenance perspective for the manufacturers. Less moving parts and its rubber, so… it just kind of bends around. But there is a latching mechanism I've seen that is probably a great middle ground between the rubber latches and ones like you'll find on Magellan Outdoors products. I've seen this on products like the Xspec 60qt cooler, Amazon's Commercial 20qt cooler and the Lifetime 55qt high performance cooler. These latches have rubber straps to secure the lid, but at the end of each strap lies a plastic handle which you can leverage against the mounting point to easily achieve the tensioned fit. That's a lot better than the rubber T handles, but make no mistake, Magellan Outdoors still gets my vote for best latching mechanism.
The Yeti Hopper Backflip 24 was the first backpack-style cooler that we've tested, and although its overall performance wasn't stellar, there were things I did like. First off, it is a backpack. I do like that. Whether you are trekking gear to the beachfront or headed out for a hiking day, having free hands is always a bonus. The backpack has lots of straps and hitching points, too -- I imagine the target demographic is more hiking-oriented than day-at-the-beach, but in either case, you'll be able to secure extra stuff.
There are no latches since this is a soft-sided cooler, just a zipper. The zipper boasts claims of being both water- and leakproof. We put that to the test during our capacity evaluations, where the entire cooler is filled to the top with water, then closed. In its closed state, full of water, I sloshed it around without spilling a drop, so it's safe to assume that leaks won't be an issue. Our recent Magellan Outdoors soft-sided cooler (title holder for Best Soft-Sided Cooler) has the same zipper setup.
Surprisingly, or not, brands matter. Everyone expects a Yeti cooler to perform well. But they also expect them to cost more than their competitors. I recommend keeping an eye on other brands we've come to respect that have a more palatable price tag. Magellan Outdoors, Frosted Frog, RTIC and even the Amazon Commercial coolers are worth a look pretty much across their product offerings based on what I've seen.
The only other thing I'll say here is that I'm still surprised not to see more of the high-end options try to separate themselves from the pack with clever bonus features like a built-in battery for charging your devices while you camp outdoors (or better yet, a solar panel).
It's all more than enough for me to recommend the healthiest possible dose of skepticism if you ever find yourself tempted to back a campaign like that with your cold hard cash. I mean, come on -- the literal last thing you want from your cooler is to get burned by it. Stick with an old-fashioned cooler like the ones I recommend above.
The full list of coolers we've tested
These coolers are currently commercially available from the dozens we've tested over the last few years. Here's a linked list with brief insights:
Lifewit Collapsible Cooler Bag 24L (25 quarts): A handle-carry soft sided cooler. It's popular on Amazon, but as expected soft sides didn't perform well in terms of keeping things cool during our testing.
Tourit Cooler Backpack (20 quarts): Another popular Amazon find. In our testing, these backpacks weren't great for cooling, but at least this one is stylish and has a connected metal bottle opener.
OlarHike Cooler Backpack (23 quarts): Pretty similar to the Tourit. It's not as attractive, but you may be able to load a bit more into it.
Amazon Commercial Rotomolded Cooler, 20qt (20 quarts): Amazon has a line of roto-molded coolers that perform better than most (but not all, keeping it out of the winner's circle), and have one of the best cooler latching designs. (Update: Temporarily out of stock.)
Camp Zero 20L Premium Cooler (21 quarts): Very middle-of-the-road performance. It offers neat color options and four lid molded-in cup holders, which is great unless, you know, you need to open the cooler.
Frosted Frog 20qt Rotomolded Ice Chest (20 quarts): This was a brand requested to be reviewed by multiple CNET readers, and we've grown to love it too. We saw excellent performance, just not the best.
Klein Tools Work Cooler (17 quarts): Sturdy, but not great performance as a traditional cooler, but would maybe keep your lunch cool.
Frosted Frog 75QT Cooler (75 quarts): Like the other Frosted Frog model we tested, we found it to have reasonable pricing for excellent performance.
Bison Gen 2 Cooler (50 quarts): The higher price tag will get you the coldest temp in its category, but inability to maintain that temp keeps this cooler from the winner's circle. (Update: Currently unavailable.)
Gosun Chillest (48 quarts): No need for ice, this is basically a portable fridge and freezer. Set the temperature in two different zones with a range from -4 degrees F to 68 F with electricity from 12-volt, AC or solar. We tested both the fridge and freezer sections in our Gosun Chillest review.
Laka 20 (20 quarts): This adorable oval-shaped cooler comes in dozens of cool colors. It's both lightweight and tough.
East Oak (45 quarts): The larger version of our favorite small cooler, you can't go wrong with this effective and good-looking cooler. It doubles as a stool or table when closed.
Brumate BrüTank (55 quarts): Go clamping with this trendy and stylish cooler chock full of features, like a foam seat top, all-terrain wheels, built-in bottle opener, and more.
AirSkirts Inflatable Cooler (58 quarts): Don't have a lot of space to store a cooler when not in use? This inflatable cooler conveniently packs down into a small bag you can store in the tightest spaces. However, its performance doesn't compare with traditional coolers.
Yeti V-Series (60 quarts): This sleek, upscale stainless steel cooler is tall enough to chill wine bottles inside. It'll set you back a pretty penny, though.
Coleman Convoy (65 quarts): This is a solid cooler, but surprisingly it had the worst performance of the large coolers we tested.
Ice Mule R-Jaunt (20 quarts): The backpack style is convenient to carry, but it doesn't perform as well as some of the other soft-sided coolers.
Ice Mule Clear Jaunt (15 quarts): A clear backpack cooler looks pretty neat, but it had the worst performance of all the soft-sided coolers we tested.
Ice Mule Boss (23 quarts): Another Ice Mule backpack, but this one performed better than the other two, putting in the middle of the soft-sided cooler pack.
Iron Flask (13 quarts): A portable cooler with cup holders on top and middle-of-the-road performance among the soft-sided coolers we tested.
Orca Wanderer (23 quarts): A better than average performer, this soft-sided cooler is tall and narrow so it can hold taller bottles.
Lifewit Collapsible Cooler Bag (25 quarts): While its performance amongst the soft-sided coolers we tested was middling, the price makes it an appealing option.