It's Damn Hot, So Here's What You Need to Know About Coolers

Before you buy or pack one, check out these helpful FAQs.

young couple carrying cooler on beach, low section
Jim ArbogastGetty Images

We're smack dab in the middle of July, which means you're either shopping for a new cooler or already daydreaming about all the goodies going into the one you have for your next big trip to the beach or the woods. Either way, it pays to know your stuff when it comes to cooler design, cooler size and prepping and packing your cooler properly.

So before you shop our buying guide or start stocking up on the finest meats and cheeses — and beer, of course — check out these quick and handy FAQs.

What Is a Rotomolded Cooler?

There’s a reason so many of the coolers created today are tougher, heavier and more expensive than the Igloo Playmate you may have carried around in years past. The update is primarily due to a manufacturing process called rotational molding, or more commonly, rotomolding.

In rotomolding, a heated mold is filled with powdered plastic material. The mold rotates on two axes as it heats the plastic until it is completely melted and fills every cavity within the hollow mold. The constant rotation helps the plastic resin spread evenly and consistently throughout. The result is a single-piece plastic cast of the desired shape that’s free of any imperfections. Rotomolding contributes to all of the traits that represent the current level of quality in today’s coolers, most importantly rugged durability and superior ice retention.

How Do I Pick the Right Cooler Size?

Hmm… 20-, 30-, 40-quart — knowing what each size cooler can hold can be tricky. Some brands (ahem, Yeti) don't provide specific volume specs either, choosing instead to measure space by how many cans you can stash inside.

While the shape makes a difference, especially with soft-sided coolers, here’s what we tended to see when testing coolers for our buying guide. A 70-quart size tends to be the most family-friendly, and the smaller soft-sided coolers are perhaps better for a tailgate or drinks for a group. Keep in mind: the larger the cooler, the heavier it will be, especially when filled with food and drink — so a partner in hefting, ideally one of similar height, never hurts. Here’s what we gathered as general guidelines after our research. Most of the brands measure the capacity at a two-to-one ratio, meaning two parts ice, one part can, but some don’t. So take measurements with a grain of salt.

20 Quart: holds roughly 16 cans or 20 pounds of ice
35 Quart: holds roughly 21 cans or 26 pounds of ice
50 Quart: holds roughly 35 cans or 43 pounds of ice; ideal for two people for a few days
75 Quart: holds roughly 57 cans or 70 pounds of ice; ideal for two people for a weeklong trip, or a family weekend trip.

How Do I Get the Most Out of My Cooler?

To max out of your cooler's capabilities, make sure to pre-chill it for 24 hours before you pack it up and head out. Pre-chilling involves adding ice to your cooler to bring the internal temperature of the cooler down. When you’re ready to pack the cooler the following day, dump the ice you added for pre-chill and add new ice to the cooler. The new ice will stay frozen longer and provide extended performance in the realm of cold retention.

What's the Best Way to Pack My Cooler?

The truth is, you can pack the coolers in our guide in all kinds of configurations and get far better results than you can with an old-school cooler. But to get the best ice retention possible — with any cooler — keep the following tips and tricks in mind.

Line the bottom of your cooler with ice. Putting a layer of ice on the bottom of your cooler will keep the ice colder longer and also keeps it away from the least-insulated part of the cooler, the lid.

Fill your cooler with solid blocks of ice if possible. Because they have less overall surface area, solid blocks of ice stay frozen longer than ice cubes do.

Fill the gaps with ice cubes. Pour a bag’s worth of ice cubes on top of your ice blocks to fill any gaps or holes.

Add your food, beer or both. Lay out your supplies in a manner that makes sense. In other words, don’t just toss everything in. Keep your morning meals on one side and your evening meals on the other side. This will ensure that you spend minimal time with the cooler open (which allows hot air inside and reduces ice retention).

Fill the rest of the cooler with ice cubes or ice packs. Top off with some additional ice and you’re good to go. To keep it chilled as long as possible, only open the cooler when absolutely necessary.

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