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.
Even though summer is over, it's never too early or too late to grab a reliable cooler. Coolers are essential for backyard get-togethers, camping trips and tailgating events. 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 -- which is especially important during big events like Labor Day.
That said, finding the best cooler for your needs is complicated by a crowded field. The list of options has 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 better by leaps and bounds than a soft cooler or cooler bag).
Keep shopping and you'll find coolers on wheels, thermoelectric coolers, coolers with power and even a cooler backpack or two -- truly coolers as far as the eye can see. If that sounds a little daunting, never fear. The entire point of this list is to make finding the best cooler a little easier. And now is the perfect time to look for a new cooler. You can find holiday deals going on now.
Over the past several years, we've tested dozens of coolers, 40 of which are still commercially available as of this writing. I've broken them down into four main categories:
Is a bigger ice chest always better? Are the more expensive coolers actually worth their asking prices? And can any of the cheaper models keep up? Are ice life, insulation and versatility more significant?
That's what I wanted to know, so I grabbed the usual suspects -- Magellan Outdoors, Coleman, Orca, Igloo, Frosted Frog, Yeti, Pelican, RTIC, Cabela's and more -- and lugged their most popular models into the CNET test lab. My mission? Find the best coolers of the bunch based on size, features and, most importantly, how cold they stay over time, and then categorize them in a way that will make it easy for you to find the best cooler for your needs. Whether it is a soft-sided cooler, a hard-sided cooler, one that has foam insulation or a removable liner, I've considered all these and more to come up with the list of best coolers for you.
After several weeks of hands-on testing and countless ambient temperature readings, I've separated the winners from the also-rans. (Bonuses like a cup holder or a bottle opener are important, but the most critical thing a quality cooler does is keep your cold drinks cold.) Here's everything I learned, starting with the coolers I think you should rush out and buy before your next camping trip or big family gathering. I update this list periodically.
Also, don't forget to check out our handy dandy video buying guide for coolers with Andrew Gebhart. We'll show the testing processes, and Andrew and I have a poolside chat about cooler features.
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 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.
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.
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 look at the graphs. 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…
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 $220, 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 between this ice chest newcomer and the previous titleholder, the Yeti Tundra 45 Cooler, was nearly identical. The Yeti got a little colder, and the Magellan held its temp a little longer. The real deciding factor here is the price. At $120, the Magellan Outdoors unit is less than half the cost of the Yeti.
Aside from performance, this Magellan cooler offers plenty of other extras, including quite possibly my favorite lid design: dual-side latches that can double as hinges, allowing you to open the cooler from either side. Genius. While you're at it, Magellan tosses in a couple of bottle openers, a metal reinforced lock area and a drain plug.
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:
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.
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).
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.
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).
If that's what you're hoping for, your best bet might be to turn to Kickstarter and Indiegogo, where expensive, gadgety mega-coolers like the Coolest Cooler and the Infinite Cooler live in infamy. I say infamy because both of those cash-grabs have a history of production delays and decidedly unhappy customers. Go on, read through the comments on the Infinite Cooler's Indiegogo campaign, which blew through a March 2019 ship date with nothing to show for it. It ain't pretty.
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.