Outdoor coolers have the same adventurous spirit as those who carry them. They’re designed to be dropped, beaten, submerged and even attacked by wild animals, all while keeping their contents intact and cold for days.
Whether you’re planning on taking one deep-sea fishing, big game hunting, paddling down some Class-5 rapids or simply going to a tailgate, one of these coolers is worthy of the adventure. This definitive guide provides information on the best coolers available for cookouts, camping, hunting, fishing and any other activity that calls for a portable ice chest. We break down and compare each model's key features — ice retention, volume, durability, weight and additional features — to help you pick the one that suits your needs.
The Different Types of Coolers
Coolers come in multiple varieties — that which you choose will depend largely on what you plan to use it for. The easiest way to categorize coolers is by their material and size: a small, soft-shell cooler will be the best for daily lunches, quick trips to the beach with kids and casual outings. The best soft coolers are made with nylon, cotton-twill, heavy-duty vinyl or canvas, and are collapsible, easy to clean and last for many years with proper care. When shopping a soft-sided cooler, look for leak-resistant construction and stain-resistant material.
Large, hard-sided coolers or chests, on the other hand, will be ideal for hunting, camping and extended trips. Many hard-side chests are rotomolded - made from one continuous piece of plastic, rather than individual parts joined together, so they're also waterproof and leakproof (think, Yeti). These coolers come with a heavier weight but are less likely to break or crack due to high use.
Backpack coolers are similar to soft-shelled coolers in their construction, with heavier padded straps and sometimes, dry storage compartments. Cooler backpacks are ideal for day trips, and offer convenience and insulation on the go. Remember, even if your backpack cooler has a drain plug, it never hurts to turn it upside down and let it fully drain out, to avoid bacteria and mildew growth.
How to Use Your Cooler
Have you ever opened your cooler on the second day of your camping trip, or a few hours into your beach day, only to notice with dismay that half your ice is melted? If you just dropped a couple hundred bucks on the thing, this can even more insult to injury. If you don't follow the proper procedure when packing a cooler, you're bound to run into this situation again, and again.
The first step in cooler prep is to chill the cooler before use, especially if it's rotomolded and has a thicker construction. Stuff your cooler full of ice the day before your trip, keep it in a cool and shaded place, and let the ice sit overnight. Replace with fresh ice in the morning, and pack your items. If embarking on a multi-day trip, you should also consider freezing the food you plan to use on the third or fourth day - they'll thaw over time, and help maintain the temp of the cooler in the meantime.
Additional tips include using ice blocks instead of cubes, packing in layers, and keeping the lid closed and latched as much as possible. If a cooler says it can keep ice for five days, that's because it didn't get left open during testing. Keeping these tips in mind when packing for a trip will preserve your ice, and your sanity.