Coolers keep drinks and food chilled for enjoyment during beach trips, hikes, long drives, sports events, and other times you’re away from home. RV owners can also benefit from a trusty, travel-friendly ice box, as some of the best coolers can maintain ideal temperatures for up to a week if packed correctly. But coolers can also come in handy at home, keeping food fresh when throwing a gathering, for instance. And should your refrigerator or freezer unexpectedly fail, or if you live in a storm zone where the electricity occasionally goes out, a cooler can be a lifesaver.
Coolers have come a long way since the clunky, heavy models of previous years, but with such a large array of sizes and styles available these days, choosing the best ones for your needs can be challenging. So we put a host of popular models through their paces, testing them in real-world conditions to see how well they function. Ahead, learn important factors and features to keep in mind when shopping, then read on for the results of our cooler contest and see why the following top-of-the-line models made the cut.
- BEST OVERALL: Yeti Tundra 45 Hard Cooler
- RUNNER-UP: Coleman Reunion 54-Quart Steel Belted Cooler
- BEST BANG FOR THE BUCK: Igloo BMX 52-Quart Cooler
- BEST BUDGET WITH WHEELS: Coleman 50-Quart Xtreme Wheeled Cooler
- UPGRADE PICK: BrüMate BrüTank 55-Quart Rolling Cooler
- BEST BACKPACK COOLER: AO Coolers 18-Pack Backpack Cooler
- BEST WATERPROOF BACKPACK: HydroFlask 20 L Day Escape Soft Cooler
- BEST HARD SHELL: ORCA 40-Quart Hard Side Cooler
- BEST SOFT SHELL: RTIC Soft Pack Cooler
- BEST SMALL SIZE: Arctic Zone Titan Deep Freeze Cooler
What to Consider When Choosing the Best Cooler
The only defining element of a cooler is that it keeps food and beverages chilled. Otherwise, size, features, and price are as varied as those of refrigerators. Before purchasing a cooler, ask yourself:
- How much food and drink should the cooler hold?
- Do you want to keep food cold for a few hours or several days?
- Should the cooler be strong enough to keep out wildlife—including bears?
- Will you be carrying the cooler from place to place often, or will it be more stationary?
Beyond these starter questions, consider the following to narrow the field to the best cooler for you.
Material and Insulation
One of the more fundamental choices is between hard-sided and soft-sided coolers, each of which suit different lifestyle preferences and practices.
Hard-sided coolers tend to be best for folks who regularly go camping, travel in an RV, or prefer to keep a cooler outside. They’re the more durable option, as they are often constructed with double-walled plastic and foam insulation between the inner and outer walls and the top lid, which should be airtight. Some heavy-duty models retain visible ice for 4 to 5 days and cold temperatures for up to a week. Many such models are manufactured via rotomolding (short for rotational molding), a manufacturing process that spins the mold as the plastic is poured, making for a more uniform and better-insulated cooler. This high-performance technique typically means a higher price tag.
Soft-sided coolers are ideal for many short-term jaunts, such as picnics, day hikes, commuting to work, and beach outings. These coolers will generally keep food cold for up to 1 day, though some may stay cool even longer because of high-density foam insulation, locking lids, and efficient zippers. Most soft-sided models are lined with easy-to-clean, food-safe insulating nylon. Soft-sided coolers are generally smaller and lighter than hard-sided models, and some fold for easy storage.
Cooler capacity determines how much can be packed inside. Capacity is usually measured in quarts and can range from 5 quarts (popular among commuters) to 150 quarts for weeklong storage, such as when camping or on an RV trip.
For day trips, tailgating, and similar events serving two or three people, a 25-quart model is spacious enough for most needs without sacrificing portability. When two or three people take a weekend trip, a 45- to 60-quart cooler should suffice. A small group planning to be off the grid for an extended time might consider a cooler in the 100- to 150-quart range.
When thinking about size, it’s important to note that a cooler is more efficient when packed tightly, so don’t choose a model that you likely won’t fill. If you have changing needs, you may want to invest in both a small cooler and a larger unit.
If a cooler will often travel with you, portability is critical, so when thinking about how far you’ll need to carry it, remember that there’s a wide range of sizes and weights available. Hard-shelled versions are the heaviest, sometimes weighing up to 50 pounds, but these models are often on wheels and have an extended handle for easier portability. Puncture-resistant, all-terrain tires on the most heavy-duty models allow for passage on rugged surfaces. Soft-sided coolers are lighter weight and can commonly be toted on your shoulder or in your hand. Backpack versions are especially popular with hikers and beach-goers.
Every time a cooler is opened to the air, its contents are somewhat compromised, so the easier it is to quickly grab what you want rather than hunt around, the better. So while some models simply have one large compartment that gets filled with ice and the items to be chilled, others feature dividers that keep food and drinks organized. Dry bins or bags are also convenient, as they’re designed to keep such items as sandwiches apart from the ice so they stay dry. There are even coolers with shelves that enable you to divide hard and soft items, such as canned goods and fruits, so that your soda won’t crush your peaches. Also convenient are exterior pockets for the likes of utensils, hand wipes, paper products, and other items that needn’t be chilled.
Coolers may come with a variety of bells and whistles, including cupholders, can openers, and even lights. Some marine coolers have fish scales and rulers for use on watercraft. Some party-friendly models have a separate drink compartment nestled in the ice with a built-in tap, so you can pack punch or lemonade and serve it directly from the cooler. Serious campers should consider a wilderness-worthy cooler that features a bear-resistant locking system. Features that support convenience and cleanliness, like drain plugs and washable linings, are a plus. And padded shoulder straps on soft versions are a bonus for comfort.
Cooler prices vary widely, with premium models potentially costing triple that of lower-end competitors’ offerings. The best way to figure out how much to invest is to consider your lifestyle requirements. If you need to keep food and drinks cold for a picnic or beach day, a low- to midrange choice with one compartment may suit your needs. If you plan to rely on the cooler for a week or more, consider a durable, premium cooler with multiple compartments.
Our Top Picks
The best coolers win high ratings for durability and efficiency. We tested the following popular models—during sizzling Miami heat—and found them all to be excellent quality. Depending on your needs, you’re likely to find a great cooler in this roundup.
This premium Yeti cooler won big in our test for its refrigerator replacement potential. It boasts rotomolded construction and 3 inches of pressure-injected commercial-grade polyurethane foam in the walls, making it virtually indestructible. It can also be filled with dry ice, which has about three times the chilling power of regular ice.
When using ordinary ice, however, users should take care to pack ice in exact ratios without space around it for maximum efficiency. Fortunately, the cooler measures 25.75 by 16.125 by 15.375 inches—large enough to fit 28 cans with a recommended 2:1 ice-to-contents ratio. In our testing during Miami heat, however, regular ice turned to water after only 2 days
The cooler is designed for a variety of travel and lifestyle preferences, with a dry goods basket to ensure that sandwiches and snacks won’t get soggy, bear-resistant construction with two spots for padlocks (not included), and tie-down slots for mounting on a boat or truck. For convenience, there’s a screw-in gasket drain plug and comfortable haul handles. We especially appreciated that the dual T-Rex Lid Latches were easy to pull open and closed but stayed firmly in place during movement. We also loved the bright colors available, making the cooler easy to spot and not trip over.
- Weight: 23 pounds
- Size: 25.75 by 16.125 by 15.375 inches
- Difficulty level: Easy
- Dry ice compatibility
- T-Rex Lid Latches easy to open and close
- Drain plug
- Regular ice melts faster than advertised
- Some customers reported leaks
Get the Yeti cooler on Amazon or at Ace Hardware.
Don’t be fooled by the classic 1950s vintage vibe! Modern features abound on the Coleman Reunion Steel-Belted Cooler. The painted steel body houses an environmentally friendly, low-CO2 insulated interior with a 4-day ice retention capability, even when temperatures soar to 90 degrees. When we put it to our Miami ice challenge, it held up great: We found solid ice inside 4 days later, and 5 five days the water was still cold.
Measuring 26 by 18 by 17 inches, this Coleman is roomy enough to hold eighty-five 12-ounce cans, stand 2-liter bottles upright, or hold enough sandwiches for a crowd. A leak-resistant channel drain means the cooler needn’t be tipped over to empty out melted ice. We totally appreciated that the rugged cooler boasts a Have-A-Seat Lid (helpful when chairs are scarce), comfort grip handles, and a bottle opener permanently attached to the front—all great features for the likes of beach parties and tailgating events. Our only real issue was finding that the rust-resistant stainless steel lid hatch can be tricky unless it’s completely vertical, with the tip pointing down at 180 degrees. Plus, while lighter colors are available, the matte black paint made the unit pretty hot in the sun
- Weight: 18.38 pounds
- Size: 24.375 by 16.25 by 16.125 inches
- Difficulty level: Easy
- Keeps ice frozen as long as advertised
- Attractive retro design and detailing
- Have-A-Seat Lid
- Bottle opener attached to the front
- Latch sometimes slips
- Lacks wheels
- Matte black version gets hot in the sun
Get the Coleman Reunion cooler at Amazon, Wayfair, Bass Pro Shops, or Dick’s Sporting Goods.
The Igloo BMX 52-Quart Cooler with Cool Riser Technology has plenty of top-of-the-line features at an affordable price. Its ultra insulated lid and body promise 5 days of ice retention, which lived up to our Miami ice challenge. We also liked how its elevated, molded base made with Cool Riser Technology lifts it off hot surfaces. The large cooler measures 25.5 by 15.25 by 17.38 inches, and it can hold 83 cans. At just over 16 pounds, it’s lighter than some others in this size range, but it lacks wheels, so it’s not all that easy to carry around when loaded with ice and items. While reinforced swing-up handles might make lifting the full cooler doable for one strong individual, we needed two people to get it where we wanted it.
T-grip latches keep the lid from swinging open, and built-in tie-down loops help secure it. Folks who fish are likely to appreciate that this seaworthy cooler is coated in UV protection and has a ruler on top for measuring catches. The drain plug is compatible with garden hoses for spray washing the whole interior, which made cleanup a breeze for us. And overall, we were surprised and impressed by how sturdy this Igloo is, given its inexpensive price point.
- Weight: 16.33 pounds
- Size: 25.5 by 15.25 by 17.38 inches
- Difficulty level: Easy
- Raised bottom keeps interior away from hot surfaces
- Roomy interior
- Fade-proof UV protection
- Ruler for measuring fish
- No wheels
- Heavy when filled
- Difficult to move by oneself
Get the Igloo cooler at Amazon, Target, or The Home Depot.
Moving a full cooler to a cabin, campground, or BBQ pit over bumpy terrain is no picnic without a set of rugged wheels. Fortunately, the nicely priced Coleman Rolling Cooler has heavy-duty tires that roll smoothly over almost any surface. A locking, telescoping handle makes pulling even easier and then slides out of the way when not in use. Theoretically, that is—we found the handle somewhat wobbly and the telescoping action less than smooth in our tests.
This cooler measures 23 by 18 by 18 inches and can be filled with up to eighty-four 12-ounce cans. An insulated lid and extra wall insulation is rated for 5 days of ice retention at temperatures up to 90 degrees Fahrenheit. However, we found that loose ice melted quickly, within a day or two, even when packed properly; this cooler does better with ice packs. Nifty features include cupholders molded into the lid, a Have-A-Seat top that supports up to 250 pounds, and a smooth EZ-Clean lid. Overall, we think this is a great one for an overnight camping trip, but longer stays might require ice refills.
- Weight: 12.7 pounds
- Size: 23 by 18 by 18 inches
- Difficulty level: Easy
- Rugged wheels
- Have-A-Seat lid
- Easy to clean
- Customers complain of handle malfunctions
- Loose ice does not keep as long as advertised
- Cooler attracts dust and dirt
Get the Coleman Extreme cooler on Amazon or at The Home Depot.
The manufacturer calls this model “adventure proof,” and we have to agree with that description based on its smart design, rugged materials, and overall performance in our tests. The BrüTank boasts puncture-resistant wheels that can slog through sand, glide over gravel, rest on hot pavement, and bump over roots that present obstacles on a trail. Its rotomolded exterior and rubber latches are designed to defend against crafty animals trying to get inside. A long and wide latticed handle makes for easy pulling by one or two people, then drops down in plumb position when not in use, so users needn’t worry about telescoping hinges freezing or breaking.
The BrüTank promises 7-plus days of ice retention, and it did stand up to our Miami ice challenge for 5 days without anything else in the 55-quart interior. (A “black ice” accessory that helps meltwater refreeze keeps the cooler cold for even longer.) Properly packed with 48 cans or 12 wine bottles plus 40 pounds of ice, we could see that 7-day promise holding true.
The BrüTank features some neat accessories, too, including a dry rack for sandwiches and a 2.8-gallon drink tank with a built-in tap—although we found the tap way too low to the ground to use comfortably. We did like the EVA-foam bench top that keeps cool in the sun and is big enough to seat two adults. We also appreciated the drain plug with cover and the attached bottle opener that can’t get lost. This costly cooler is an investment, but it’s likely to satisfy chilling needs through all kinds of adventures.
- Weight: 45 pounds
- Size: 32.65 by 19.5 by 19.5 inches
- Difficulty level: Easy
- Puncture-resistant wheels
- Foam bench top works as a seat
- Sleek styling
- Great accessories (though some cost extra)
- Drink tap too low to the ground
- Heavy empty, way heavier when full
Get the BrüMate cooler at BrüMate or Dick’s Sporting Goods.
Lightweight and versatile, this backpack makes a quality traveling companion for warm items as well as cold. It’s rated airplane-safe, perfect for those who want to enjoy a hot meal in the air, and it’s large enough for 18 beverage cans and about 8 pounds of ice. It touts a leakproof liner and twice the amount of insulation as other soft-sided coolers. Extra-thick padded back straps are comfortable—an asset whether for running uphill on a trail or racing to the gate to make a flight—and the removable shoulder strap with clip-down ends, as well as the chest clip, lend carrying versatility. Two side pockets and a larger front pocket are convenient for toting extras.
But in practice, this AO model had its flaws. The bag promises to keep ice for 24 hours in 120-degree heat, which is a stretch; in our Miami tests, ice stayed solid only for about 12 hours; indeed, we discovered that it works better and stays colder longer with reusable ice packs. And while the exterior canvas is sweat-proof, we found that melted ice can drip out of the top if users forget to fold the corners inward to clip it, then pull the flap over to protect the zipper. That said, we deem this a reliable cooler for travel and daylong events, as well as a useful bag to keep in the car trunk for impromptu grocery runs, bike rides, and parties on the fly.
- Weight: 2.2 pounds
- Size: 15 by 6 by 16 inches
- Difficulty level: Easy
- Versatile for hot or cold food
- Various carrying options
- Airplane rated
- Doesn’t keep ice as long as advertised
- Will leak from the zipper if improperly closed
- Some customers reported poor-quality insulation
Get the AO Coolers cooler on Amazon or at AO Coolers.
With a watertight TRU Zip zipper and what the manufacturer calls “welded seams,” no moisture is getting in or out of this HydroFlask 20 L Day Escape Soft Cooler. We know it’s true, having both dropped it into a swimming pool when empty (yes, it floats) and taken it on the road packed with ice and cans. Made from a 600D polyester shell and an FDA food-grade, BPA-free liner, this brilliant backpack keeps items cold for up to 36 hours. The company doesn’t claim that ice will stay solid for 36 hours, because it doesn’t. Though ice melted steadily in our tests, we found that the interior does stay cold enough, even when left out on hot sand and pavement, thanks to extra insulation on the bottom.
With laser-cut, welded gear attachment loops for dry storage accessories, a side pocket for a water bottle, and a “self-healing” (no teeth) silent zipper that realigns itself, this is one of the most rugged backpack coolers on the market. Rely on it for the hardest hikes and the toughest bike rides—the padded straps are comfortable, and the back panel prevents the pack from sticking to one’s shirt. It does get heavy when fully loaded with 36 beverage cans, but don’t feel obligated to carry it very far: We discovered it works just fine as a portable poolside ice chest for bottles of wine.
- Weight: 3 pounds
- Size: 17.7 by 13 by 7.8 inches
- Difficulty level: Easy
- Easy to clean
- Zipper realigns itself
- Lightweight when empty
- Heavy to wear when filled
- Accessories cost extra
Get the HydroFlask cooler at Amazon, Hydro Flask, Dick’s Sporting Goods, or Backcountry.
The ORCA 40 Cooler offers some features that some of its hard-shell competitors don’t. For one thing, if users follow pre-chilling directions, it claims to keep ice solid for up to 10 days—and in our Miami environment, this proved true for our 4-day test. The cooler boasts rotomolded construction with a single-piece lid gasket for increased strength and certified bear-proof protection.
However, we did find it challenging for a human being to open! The rubberized T-grip latches that keep the lid on are extremely difficult to pull open and then back down to secure. While this would make us feel protected camping in the woods, it was an annoying inconvenience during a backyard barbecue.
The ORCA, which weighs 30 pounds when empty, holds up to 48 cans. A cargo net on the back stores additional objects, and extended flex-grip handles are convenient for carrying solo or in tandem. A convenient drain spout works quickly to remove melted walter.
Accessories include cooler locks, SubSafe containers for sandwiches, slip-resistant pads for boats, and different sizes of dry goods baskets. The company also makes an ice box to use instead of loose cubes, as well as a branded cleaner and deodorizer. However, these all cost extra. Nevertheless, for campers, hunters, and those who live in areas that undergo dramatic weather events that take out power, this cooler could be a wise investment to keep perishables fresh for more than a week, especially when adhering to prep instructions and adding some accessories.
- Weight: 30 pounds
- Size: 26.5 by 18 by 24 inches
- Difficulty level: Intermediate
- Lifetime warranty
- Certified bear-proof
- Made in Tennessee
- Lives up to advertising
- Heavy even when empty
- Hard for humans to open, let alone bears
- All accessories are extra
Get the ORCA 40 Cooler on Amazon or at ORCA.
RTIC calls its Insulated Soft Cooler Bag the strongest soft-sided cooler out there, largely thanks to its 100 percent waterproof shell made from a puncture- and tear-resistant heavy-duty StayDry nylon. The cooler’s Closed-Cell Insulation––2 inches on the top and 1 inch on the sides––maintains cold temps for up to twenty 12-ounce cans, plus ice and snacks.
It boasts a no-leak zipper (which requires the occasional application of an included lubricant to stay in working order). An exterior pocket holds dry items such as utensils, napkins, and even a phone, and the No-Sweat shell keeps the cooler nice and dry on the outside. The antimicrobial liner resists mildew, which we consider another plus since this model can be stored in a garage or basement without the user worrying about mildew growth.
On the downside, this model cannot be placed directly on a hot surface, like the deck of a boat or the back of a truck, without negatively affecting performance. We discovered that keeping the cooler in the direct sun makes ice melt much faster than the advertised 5 days and can ultimately harm the material—clearly problematic if heading for a location without shade. But we love the fact that this model floats, so we would certainly take it on a kayak or rafting adventure, or even on a forest hike.
- Weight: 5 pounds
- Size: 13.5 by 9.5 by 13.75 inches
- Difficulty level: Intermediate
- Easy to clean
- Cannot sit in direct sun
- Cannot sit on hot surfaces
- Zipper requires occasional lubrication to remain airtight
Get the RTIC cooler on Amazon.
For maximal performance in a minimal size, consider this Arctic Zone cooler. Measuring a diminutive 12.25 by 8 by 12.25 inches, it boasts high-performance insulation with a radiant heat barrier that keeps the interior cold. An FDA-compliant leakproof HardBody liner keeps melting water from escaping, and the liner, which resembles a rectangular bucket, can be removed to create more space. A “flip-open” zipperless lid provides quick access to items inside.
Other nifty features include a removable shelf that keeps soft foods safe from cans, bottles, and other hard surfaces. An insulated front pocket, another smaller front pocket, and cargo netting on the sides create storage for a phone, utensils, bottle opener, and other items. The padded shoulder strap is adjustable for comfortable carrying.
The material overall is water- and stain-resistant, two facts we discovered after spilling picnic items all over it! The cooler may hold only 16 cans, but its versatility and convenience had us turning to it more than the other soft-sided models we tested, making it our clear favorite.
- Weight: 2.3 pounds
- Size: 12.25 by 8 by 12.25 inches
- Difficulty level: Easy
- Leakproof zipperless lid
- Removable hard-shell liner
- Easy-to-clean, puncture-resistant shell
- Some users reported that ice melts faster than advertised
- Some users reported that the shoulder strap isn’t functional
Get the Arctic Zone cooler on Amazon or at Target.
The Yeti cooler is a versatile, practically indestructible cooler that’s certified for dry ice and has tie-down slots, a screw-in gasket drain plug to drain water, and haul handles. For ultimate performance, pack it in a 2:1 ice-to-items ratio. We also highly recommend the retro-styled Coleman Reunion cooler for its ice retention, roominess, and permanently attached bottle opener.
How We Tested the Best Coolers
The Miami heat made the ideal testing ground for coolers. We tested each model by filling it halfway with ice and leaving it outside from noon to noon in (mostly) sunny weather—about 85 to 90 degrees daily, with an average humidity of 75. We then took the temperature inside the cooler to make sure it could keep meat safe for at least 2 hours. We also noted and compared the ice melt and considered how easy each cooler was to drain, clean, dry, and store.
For the large, hard-sided coolers, we did a second real-world Miami heat test: We filled them halfway with ice, leaving the rest of the space empty, closed them, and kept them outside on our screened-in, shaded porch to see how long they’d retain the ice until it melted completely.
Then we road-tested all coolers at parties and tailgate events, hikes and bike rides, beach days, pool time, and on long car rides with kids and furry friends. We took the smaller soft-sided and backpack-style models on weekend trips, pulled wheeled versions up and down beach sand and hiking trails, and dropped hard-shelled options from truck beds to test for sturdiness. We spilled beverages and food items inside and on the exteriors to determine if the materials were stain-proof, and we turned them upside down to see if they leaked.
Wondering how a cooler works or how to pack it correctly? Curious about how long it will keep food cold? Let’s address some common questions that may come up while shopping for the best coolers.
Q. How do you pack your cooler correctly?
As a general rule, the proper ratio is 2:1 ice-to-food/beverage. A cooler is more efficient when packed tightly, so try to eliminate air pockets—air is the enemy of ice. Start with one layer of food or drink at the bottom (items you will want last), followed by a layer of ice, and then keep alternating layers. Ice should be the final layer, with whatever food and drink you require first right under it.
Q. How long does food stay cold in a cooler?
The heaviest-duty hard-shelled coolers can keep food cold for up to a week or in some cases 10 days, while soft versions typically keep ice frozen for a day or two at the most. To keep the food at its coldest, pre-chill a cooler by prepping it with ice beforehand, then throw that ice away before packing with fresh ice and items. The smallest models can be prepped right in the refrigerator. Always chill or freeze food and beverages so that they stay colder as well. Sprinkling rock salt on top of the ice can make it last longer. Finally, do not remove the water from the ice as it melts since the melted water helps keep the remaining ice insulated.
Q. How does a food cooler work?
Coolers keep your food and drinks cold with ice, thanks to the foam insulation between the inner and outer walls and along the top lid.
Q. What is a rotomolded cooler?
Rotomolding, which is short for rotational molding, is a manufacturing method that spins the mold as the plastic is poured in to make a more uniform, durable, and better-insulated cooler.