News flash: a basic $79 cooler isn't particularly well insulated or constructed. The reason both RTIC and Yeti, whose coolers cost hundreds of dollars, even have a reasonable business model is that if you're going anyplace where buying ice will be impossible (a river trip; an off-road adventure; out in the ocean for a few days of sailing) a craptastic cooler is a surefire recipe for warm beer and spoiled grub. Because when warm air can penetrate the walls of that cheap box, what's inside is going to seek equilibrium with the outside climate.
To prevent that possibility, Yeti pioneered "rotomolding" by using a manufacturing process first seen in the automotive industry to form a seamless plastic shell with the insulation fused inside. It walls off all of the air permeability and adds a thick blanket that prevents heat from penetrating, maintaining the cold ecosystem inside the cooler, no matter what's happening beyond its walls.
RTIC came along a bit later (and got sued by Yeti for copying its process a bit too closely), but both brands are working along similar, scientifically proven lines.
Which Brand Makes the Better Cooler?
We've tested both brands' wares in the past and know that each makes a quality product. But here we wanted to compare like with like, to see which is better, once and for all.
We'll get into all the details below, including a head to head test of each brand's ability to keep your stuff cool over an extended period. Both coolers performed impressively and are worth your cash, but the cold truth is, for ease of use, comfort of carry and temperature retention, we've gotta give the nod to Yeti.
How We Tested
We didn't have a sailboat or raft and, unfortunately, no trans-desert overlanding trips on the schedule. However, we did have the ability to make the race fair by parking two of the brands' similar coolers — Yeti's Tundra 45 and RTIC's RTIC 45 — on a hot patio during a heatwave.
The average daily temperatures hovered around 90 degrees, and where the sun was relentlessly overhead for about six hours, from 10 am to 4 pm. Tree shading offered some cooling in the early morning and late afternoon.
Now, ideally, you find a way to shade your cooler (and we have a lot more tips to follow, no matter which tool you use for the job). Still, we wanted a setup that was pretty much worst-case: You're out on that boat in the ocean or parked at a National Park campground, and there's strong, consistent solar exposure.
Incidentally, the first week that we ran our test, we had relentlessly cool temperatures in the 50s and low 60s. Packed as detailed below, both models held steady at just above freezing. That's awesome; it means that if you've got a power failure at home when it's not hot, you could rely on either model to prevent food rot.
Yeti lists a comprehensive game plan for packing its coolers. RTIC, less so. For our 72-hour test, we followed Yeti's approach, with a few mods. First, we put both coolers into storage in a basement where the ambient temperature was about 60 degrees. Then, as Yeti recommends, we added a "sacrificial" ten-pound bag of ice to each cooler and waited.
To monitor the temperature of each unit, we used a ThermoWorks sensor, with readouts from the front, inside wall of each cooler. Within a few hours, each was reading about 34 degrees; nice and chilly.
We then dumped out that first load of ice, and as Yeti suggests, lined the floor of each with chemical ice packs. Nope, we didn't spring for either Yeti or RTIC's flavors (both sell their own recipe of pack) but instead went with Rubbermaid's Blue Ice since we didn't want to bias either cooler product (and the additional packs from each brand are pretty expensive).
On top of that, we added a layer of loose ice, followed by 21 beers and non-boozy soda in the Yeti, and 24 in the RTIC, with a mixture of tallboys and 12-ouncers. Yes, this part required a bit of eye-balling to get a fair battle (since the RTIC holds more than the Yeti), but the goal was a two-can mid-layer of liquid refreshment in each cooler.
Also, for a wild card, we pre-chilled all but six of the cans in each. Why? Because there's always that person in your crew who piles into the car last and comes with a room temperature sixer just purchased from the minimart. (That person might even proceed to drink one on the ride, even though it's 5:30 am). So, yeah, invariably something you add, whether it's food or refreshment, won't be pre-chilled. Life is tepid.
Lastly, we filled each cooler to the very top with yet more loose ice.
Yeti makes clear that the enemy of a cold cooler is air, so proper packing demands that any gap at the top of the interior space has to be filled. Ideally with ice, but even as that melts, they suggest adding towels or anything to eliminate that layer. We didn't follow that towel formula for the test, mainly because we wanted to see which cooler performed best under a decent amount of duress and, let's be real, because not everyone is bringing spare towels for the cooler on weekend camping trips.
We packed the coolers at 8 pm on a Friday (0:00) and monitored the internal temperatures of each for the next three days and nights until 8 pm Monday (72:00). At that point, nearly all the ice had melted to water. Meanwhile, outside, each day blazed above 90.
Every four hours (save in the middle of the night), we opened the lids of each cooler and pulled out a can or two, always taking the same number from each cooler and rapidly closing the lids — rooting around in a cooler and leaving it open introduces a lot more warm air. (One way to avoid that is to make a map of the content locations and duct tape it to the lid of the cooler; that way, you can open, grab, and shut.)
The Yeti got the absolute coldest at the start (0:00), down to 29 degrees Fahrenheit, while the RTIC hit 32.9 degrees, but by Saturday morning (12:00), they'd evened out within a half degree. By Saturday afternoon (20:00), they were dead even, at a still frigid 34.5 degrees each, and by Monday afternoon (64:23), when it was a scorching 97 degrees on the stone patio, they'd each climbed to 43.9 degrees for the Yeti, and 44.5 for the RTIC.
By the time the cubes were entirely gone on Monday night, with outdoor temps falling into the mid-70s, the air temperature in each had risen to the low 40-degree range: 42.4 for the Yeti and 44.8 for the RTIC.
There are pros and cons to each of these coolers, even though their feature sets are almost perfect twins of each other. Both have tight-sealing, double-gasket lids, rope handles that make them easier to carry (relatively speaking), and pre-formed slots for strapping them down to the deck of a boat or the bed of a truck.
Most importantly, they're formed using the same rotomolding process that creates a seamless structure, with forced-in insulation that shields the contents from the outside world. They're also lockable for security (since there's a bling factor to a rotomolded cooler) and for preventing critters like bears from getting into your precious provisions.
They work darn well and nearly identically, with the Yeti staying slightly colder. But they're both bulky and heavy. You may find that you'd prefer a wheeled cooler, which is one reason we dig Yeti's Tundra Haul ($400) since it makes getting to your campsite, put-in, etc., a lot easier. Remember that even if they start at just shy of 25 pounds, they become an awkward 60 pounds or more to heft when full.
We like that RTIC's cooler is just a hair larger inside. That said, it's also just a bit larger outside. Got a big pickup truck? That's a rounding error. But if you're cramming folks onto a sailboat or a raft, every extra inch counts. We also love RTIC's price, which is a hundred dollars less than Yeti's, a not inconsiderable amount.
Still, as we said up top, Yeti ultimately wins out, thanks to its superior temperature retention, plus the brand's trademark user-friendliness and the fact that its carry handles are super comfortable. You pay more for these features (and, let's be honest, the cache of the brand name), but over the long haul, it's worth it.
Whichever rotomolded route you take, we strongly advise using the cooler-packing techniques — particularly lining the bottom with chemical ice packs, which are colder and more space-efficient than loose ice — to get the best cold retention possible. It'll make a more significant difference than the brand name on the front.
Yeti Tundra 45 Details
The Yeti Tundra 45 comes in five colors and is made of rotomolded plastic with injected polyurethane foam insulation infused into extra-thick, three-inch walls. Yeti says it can hold up to 28 cans of refreshing malt beverage.
Yeti's Tundra, like the RTIC, comes with roped straps, and we like their hard plastic, fluted grips that allow a better purchase, especially with wet or sweaty hands. This matters. Remember that both of these are bulky to begin with. Once filled with 30 pounds of ice and a bunch of liquid refreshments, they'll easily crest 60 pounds. You'll need two people to move them more than a few feet, so the roped straps are smart because they let two people hold the cooler away from their bodies as they walk one of these beasts onto the beach from a raft put-in, or out of the bed of a pickup.
In addition, the Tundra's front is pre-drilled for padlocks at both of those corners, for security and bear-proofing, and rubber feet that are non-marring if you need to drag the sucker to a new location in the bed of your pickup. The lid also accommodates ratchet straps, which, if you're going 4x4'ing, is a must — your contents might be shaken, but they'll stay inside the cooler and inside your rig.
A double-sealed gasket at the lid wall works a lot like the one on your fridge. You know that exhale-like "gasp" that a fridge makes when you open it? These operate in the same fashion, this being that secret bit of sauce preventing air leakage that will cause premature thawing.
Weight: 23.5 pounds
Inside dimensions: 9 3/8" × 10 5/8" × 18 3/8"
Exterior dimensions: 16 1/8" × 15 3/8" × 25 3/4"
RTIC 45 Quart Cooler Details
The RTIC 45 Quart Cooler is slightly larger than the Yeti. Larger can be good. RTIC says that means it can swallow 36 cans of beer vs. Yeti's 28. It comes in five colors and is made of rotomolded plastic with injected polyurethane foam insulation infused into extra-thick, three-inch walls. But that bigger footprint takes up more space, and it weighs just a pound and a half more, too.
The RTIC has drains at either end, while the Yeti only has one drain plug. However, even though the RTIC has similar rope handles, which we like, the grip material is less tactile than what Yeti uses, so the pro/con ledger basically balances out.
Like the Tundra, the RTIC gets padlock points at the front corners and non-slip, soft rubber feet for non-marring surface grip. It also has indents to accept cross-lashing of ratchet or other strapping, too.
And, just like the Yeti (is there an echo in here?), RTIC's cooler is fitted with a double-lid gasket. It works so well that at times you have to heave hard to get the suction to release (What'd'ya gotta do for a beer around here?!). Then again, that's suction working to keep those suds cold, so, yep, flex those biceps!
Weight: 25 pounds
Inside dimensions: 10 1/2” x 11 3/4” x19 3/8”
Exterior dimensions: 15 1/2” × 15 7/8” × 26 1/2”