Invest in a cooler to make sure you always have a way to keep food and beverages fresh and chilled when you’re on the go or at home.
BobVila.com and its partners may earn a commission if you purchase a product through one of our links.
Coolers keep drinks and foods chilled for enjoyment during beach trips, hikes, long drives, sports games, and other times you’re away from home. Some of the best coolers can even chill items for up to a week if you pack them correctly. People who have had a refrigerator fail, need extra cooling space for a gathering, or want to keep foods cold during RV travel, could all benefit from a trusty, travel-friendly ice box.
Searching for the right one involves considering an array of sizes and styles. Consider these top-of-the-line recommendations when choosing the best cooler for you.
- BEST OVERALL: Yeti Tundra 45 Cooler
- BEST RUNNER UP: Coleman Cooler, Steel-Belted
- BEST BANG FOR THE BUCK: Igloo 50 Qt MaxCold Cooler
- BEST WITH WHEELS: Coleman Rolling Cooler, 50 Quart, Xtreme
- BEST COOLER BACKPACK: TOURIT Cooler Backpack
- BEST HARD SHELL: Igloo BMX Family with Cool Riser Technology
- BEST SOFT SHELL: RTIC Insulated Soft Cooler Bag
- BEST SMALL SIZE: Arctic Zone Titan Deep Freeze Zipperless Cooler
What to Consider When Buying a Cooler
The only defining element of a cooler is that it keeps food and beverages chilled. Otherwise, their sizes, features, and price points are as varied as those of refrigerators. Before you purchase a cooler, think about how you would use it and what you want it to do for you.
Questions to ask yourself might include the following:
- Do you want it to keep food cold for days or hours?
- Should the cooler be strong enough to keep wildlife, even bears, out?
- Do you need to carry it every day or just to and from one location?
- How much food and drink should the cooler hold?
- Where will you use it?
These are just some of the many subjective factors that you want to consider when you shop for a cooler. Beyond these starter questions, consider some of the features below to narrow in on the best cooler.
Material and Insulation
One of the more fundamental cooler choices is between hard-sided and soft-sided coolers, both of which suit different purposes.
If you regularly go on camping trips, travel in an RV, or keep your cooler outside, a hard-sided cooler option is probably the better choice. It’s more durable and is usually constructed with double-walled plastic and foam insulation between the inner and outer walls and the top lid. Those features, and an airtight lid, keep food and beverages cold when you expose the cooler to sun and wind. As soon as warm air enters your cooler, it loses some of its capabilities.
Some of the heavy-duty, hard-sided models retain cold temperatures for up to a week. Many such coolers are manufactured with a process called roto-molding, which is short for rotational molding. The manufacturing method spins the cooler mold as the plastic is poured, making for a more uniform, durable, and better-insulated cooler. This higher-performance technique boasts better efficiency, but also comes with a higher price tag.
Soft-sided coolers are ideal for many short-term jaunts, including picnics, day hikes, lunches to work, or beach outings. These coolers will generally keep your food cold for up to one day. Some may stay cool even longer due to newer technologies that use high-density foam insulation and efficient zippers. Most soft-sided models are lined with easy-to-clean, food-safe insulating nylon. The soft-sided coolers are generally smaller and lighter than hard-sided models and fold down for easy storage.
Cooler capacity is usually measured in quarts and can range from 5 quarts, (the choice for many people who want to pack a meal to enjoy at work), to 150 quarts for week-long storage, such as when camping or on an RV trip.
For day trips, tailgating, or other events with two to three people, a 25-quart model is spacious enough for most needs and won’t sacrifice portability. When two to three people take a weekend trip, a 45- to 60-quart cooler should suffice. If you and a small group plan to be off the grid for an extended time, consider a large capacity cooler in the 100- to 150-quart range.
When you consider sizes, 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 large cooler.
If a cooler will often travel with you, portability is critical. Think about how you plan to use your cooler and how far you have to carry it. You will find a wide range of sizes and weights. Hard-shelled versions are the heaviest, sometimes weighing up to 50 pounds, but those larger models often come with wheels and an extended handle for easier portability. You’ll find puncture-resistant, all-terrain tires for the most heavy-duty models so you can wheel them across nearly any type of surface.
Soft-sided coolers are lighter weight, and you can commonly carry one on your shoulder or in your hand. A backpack version offers a hands-free option, which is especially prized by hikers.
You are probably familiar with coolers that have one large compartment under the lid. You fill that compartment with ice and the items you want chilled, sometimes soft drinks and other canned beverages. Some coolers have dividers and dry bins or bags. Those allow you to keep some items, such as sandwiches, dry, and free of ice. Other coolers have shelves that will enable you to divide hard and soft items, such as canned goods and fruits. You can also opt for coolers with exterior pockets to keep items such as utensils, hand wipes, and paper products safe.
Coolers come with a variety of bells and whistles. Options include cup holders, can openers, and even lights. Some marine coolers have fish scales and rulers for use on watercraft. There are even coolers that are made for the wilderness and feature bear-resistant locking systems.
You also want to look for features that support convenience and cleanliness, like drain plugs and washable linings. Padded shoulder straps on soft versions are a bonus for comfort.
Cooler prices vary widely. You can invest a significant amount of money in premium coolers, sometimes triple the lower-end competitors’ price. The best way to buy a cooler that suits your lifestyle is to consider your needs before you make a purchase. If you need to keep food and drinks cold for a picnic or beach day, a low- to mid-range 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. Consider some of the following top choices to find a cooler that will work best for you.
This Yeti is a premium cooler with rotomolded construction and is pressure-injected with three inches of commercial-grade polyurethane foam in the walls. This type of construction keeps the contents ice cold for days. The cooler is designed to handle significantly lower temperatures. You can also fill it with dry ice, which has about three times the cooling power of regular ice, to increase the cooling longevity. This cooler measures 25¾ by 16⅛ by 15⅜ inches, which is large enough to fit 26 cans with a recommended one-ice-to-contents ratio. There’s also a dry goods basket to make sure your sandwiches and other dry goods don’t get soggy. Other features include bear-resistant construction with two spots for padlocks (not included), tie-down slots so you can mount the cooler on your boat or truck, a screw-in gasket drain plug to drain water, and haul handles.
Retro styling is excellent, but so are coolers with modern features. Among the best coolers available is the Coleman Steel-Belted with the classic red style of a 1950s cooler, with modern conveniences. The cooler measures 26 by 18 by 17 inches, so it’s roomy enough to hold 85 12-ounce cans, stand 2-liter bottles upright, or hold enough sandwiches for a large group. The painted steel body houses an environmentally friendly low CO2 insulated interior that boasts a four-day ice retention capability, even when temperatures soar to 90 degrees. A leak-resistant channel drain means you don’t need to tip the cooler to allow water to flow. The cooler also boasts a Have-A-Seat Lid, handy when chairs are scarce, and comfort grip handles. A rust-resistant stainless steel lid hatch and hardware prolongs the longevity of this built-to-last Coleman.
The Igloo 50 Qt. MaxCold Cooler has plenty of top-of-the-line features at an affordable price. You won’t have trouble fitting in drinks, snacks, sandwiches, and other food items into this large cooler that measures 25.50 by 15.25 by 17.38 inches. It’s ultratherm insulated lid and body is rated for five days of ice retention. Whether you want to park this on your deck or take it on your travels, you’ll find the durable wheels and tow handles make moving it easy. The cooler also has reinforced swing-up handles to help you lift the full cooler into the house or onto a vehicle. One word of caution: This cooler does not have a drain plug.
Moving a full cooler to a cabin, campground, BBQ pit, or other areas––especially when you must take it down bumpy terrain––is no picnic. You can make those trips easier with the Coleman Rolling Cooler. Its heavy-duty wheels roll smoothly over almost any terrain. A locking, telescoping handle makes it easier for you to pull and slips out of the way when you’re done. This cooler measures 23 by 18 by 18 inches so you can fill it with up to 84 12 oz cans and ensure they’ll stay cold. An insulated lid and its extra wall insulation are rated for five days of ice retention at temperatures up to 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Features include cup holders molded into the lid, a Have-a-Seat lid that supports up to 250 pounds, and a smooth, EZ-Clean lid.
The Tourit Cooler Backpack looks like a typical adult backpack but keeps up to 30 12-ounce cans cold in its main storage compartment. The backpack measures 15.8 by 13 by 7.5 inches, which allows you to pack ice packs over loose ice to keep your bounty cold. The backpack is made of waterproof, durable fabric to take a beating on buses, subways, trails, and elsewhere and still look good. Its leak-proof liner keeps your clothes dry. Multiple pockets provide easy storage for utensils, a phone, keys, cash, identification, and more. The ventilated back, and adjustable padded straps make this backpack comfortable enough to wear on even the hottest days.
There is an array of hard-shell coolers on the market, but Igloo BMX Cooler offers some features that aren’t available in many of its competitors. Like many of its competitors, it is rated for four to five days of ice retention and has a blow-molded construction with a reinforced base for increased strength and protection. What makes this cooler a stand out is all the little extras that you don’t know you need until they are missing. Those include rust-resistant, stainless-steel hinge rods, rubberized T-grip latches that keep the lid secure, and a threaded drain plug that is garden hose compatible and features a non-slip, easy-grip stainless steel tethered cap. The 26.57 by 16.93 by 16.93-inch cooler has UV inhibitors that protect it from sun damage. This Igloo holds up to 83 12-ounce cans.
RTIC calls its Insulated Soft Cooler Bag the strongest soft-sided cooler out there. One reason RTIC––and this cooler’s many fans––make this claim is that it crafts this cooler bag out of a 100 percent waterproof shell made out of a puncture and tear-resistant heavy-duty nylon shell. Plus, it is built with a no-leak zipper and an antimicrobial liner that resists mildew. Plus the cooler’s closed-cell insulation––two inches on the top and one inch on the sides––keeps your items cold while an exterior pocket comes in handy for dry items such as utensils and napkins or even your phone. This cooler holds up to 30 12-ounce cans plus ice or snacks. Another bonus is that the cooler’s shell prevents it from sweating so you won’t be left with a dripping cooler.
This Arctic Zone cooler proves that minimal size doesn’t mean minimal performance. It measures a diminutive 2.25 by 8 by 12.25 inches but is crafted with high-performance insulation with a radiant heat barrier. Other features include a removable shelf that keeps soft foods safe from cans, bottles, and other hard surfaces. Plus an insulated front pocket keeps your phone, utensils, and other items dry. It’s also water and stain-resistant, boasts an abrasion and puncture-resistant shell, and has an adjustable padded shoulder strap. Plus, the interior is leak-proof and easy to clean while the “flip-open”, zipperless lid gives you quick access to everything inside.
FAQs About Your New Cooler
Are you wondering how your cooler works or how to pack it correctly? Curious about how long it will keep your 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?
A cooler is more efficient when packed tightly so try to eliminate any air pockets. Start with ice at the bottom and pack what you need first at the top and vice versa.
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, while soft versions typically keep ice frozen for a day or two at the most.
Q. How does a food cooler work?
Coolers work to keep your food and drinks cold with ice, and also through 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.