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 prepping 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.
- Made in the USA
- Tons of customization
- May be over-engineered for casual users
Does tech protection translate into making coolers? As it turns out, it does. OtterBox integrated rugged injection-molding and high-grade cooling technologies into its first cooler and brought the Venture straight to the front of the pack. The Venture comes in 25-, 45- and 65-quart sizes and is rated to hold ice for up to two weeks. More minute details include anti-slip rubber feet and a bottom that’s slanted just enough to make draining easier. Plus, as you’d expect from OtterBox, this thing has been dropped from every angle and on every side to ensure that it can’t be damaged, empty or full.
The Venture separates itself from the rest with an array of customizable, modular attachments. Its front has two clips that can hold a bottle opener, cup holder or one of those dry boxes mentioned earlier. Inside, the cooler can be arranged with separators to create compartments for wet and dry goods, and it can also take on a cutting board and side table. There's also a wheel attachment.
This system sets up the Venture for future success by allowing OtterBox to continue to release components that will increase its utility. The Venture may be slightly less sleek than some of the other hard coolers on this list, but it stands up to all the standards of rugged durability and, of course, keeping things cold.
- Widely available
- Wheels add convenience
There's a reason Yeti hard-sided coolers sparked enough love to build an entire brand upon: they work. They stay colder for longer than other hard-sided coolers and they're as durable as can be. It's hard to argue with their sleek form and a palette of colors that changes annually, too.
These traits are available in every cooler in the Tundra line (additional sizes are linked below), but if we had to pick a favorite, it'd be the Tundra Haul. Yeti carefully considered how wheels and a handle would integrate into the design — the handle won’t slam against the hard plastic when you drop it, and the all-terrain wheels roll so quietly and smoothly that you might wonder if the sizable cooler is actually floating behind you instead of rolling. What's more, Yeti incorporated the wheels while retaining space on the interior of the cooler without too many awkward bumps. Other wheeled coolers on the market fail to do this as sleekly.
- Doesn't maintain cold as well as other options
Don’t have stacks of cash to shell out for a rotomolded ice chest? That’s understandable, and you can still get a great cooler for a lot less, like this 70-quart model from Igloo’s MaxCold series. The sacrifices you’ll make in choosing this cooler are mostly in durability and cold retention, and there’s no latch to keep the lid locked down, but it is much lighter and offers plenty of interior space. If you don’t anticipate putting your cooler through the wringer and only need it to remain icy for a day or two, this is the perfect option.
- Best cooler on list according to reviews
- Made in USA
- Very heavy
The cooler with the cult following, Kong has made a name for itself in the category by producing coolers that just don't quit. One reviewer put it best: "Kong is king."
The Kong 110 is the ideal cooler for extended trips overlanding, or larger groups that need to keep more food and drink cold. This behemoth can carry 82 twelve-ounce cans, and 42 pounds of ice. Kong coolers are made in the USA, and feature easy-to-manipulate, durable latches as well as comfortable and supportive handles (a must when you're moving around this much weight). You can customize your cooler with an array of useful accessories, including a divider, bottle opener, attachable tray, traction pad and handle kit, among other items.
Be aware — Kong calls this the "Big Daddy" of coolers, and at 48-pounds empty, it's easy to make the connection.
- Great price for the quality
- Multiple colors to choose from
- On the heavy side
While many rotomolded coolers are similar in construction, ice retention, sizing and even looks, there isn’t much to differentiate between them beyond price. RTIC knows that and has staked its place as the go-to brand for saving some cash without sacrificing quality. Compared to Yeti’s Tundra hard coolers, RTIC’s run roughly $100 cheaper in similar sizes. While they don’t retain temperature quite as well, they’re perfectly capable of keeping their cool, and taking a beating when necessary (these might not be differences you’ll notice, especially with the extra dollars in your pocket).
- Most innovative
- Great for festivals, day trips, those with low storage
- Not weatherproof
At $10, Igloo’s Recool is by far the cheapest cooler on our list. Its 16-quart capacity is small — ideal for a day trip but probably not an overnight — too. Also, while every other cooler here is nigh indestructible, the Recool is markedly destructible; it’s made of molded pulp that’s biodegradable.
The Recool doesn’t aim to replace Yetis or OtterBoxes anyway; it replaces those cheap styrofoam coolers you buy last minute at a gas station or grocery store before heading to the beach or a music festival. Igloo claims the Recool is strong enough to carry 75 pounds (I flipped ours over to stand on it, and it didn’t buckle) and that it’ll keep ice frozen for up to 12 hours and hold water without leaking for five days.
Our tests confirmed these claims (although the bottom did leak very slightly after roughly 20 hours), and even after leaving water in it for over a week, we were still able to dry it out and use it again.
- Redesign adds new colors to choose from
- Easy to open on the go
Yeti recently redesigned its shoulder-carry soft cooler, and the improvements are enough to propel it to the top of this category. The M30 has the same wide-mouth opening, but the company ditched the zipper in favor of a feature it calls Magshield. The tech consists of super-strong magnetic strips that seal it against leaks and make it waterproof from the exterior too. It’s also ridiculously easy to open — especially compared to the old zipper — making obtaining a beverage from inside as efficient as possible. For when you’re on the move, Yeti included two quick-release buckles that provide extra security.
- Uses innovative materials
- American made
- A little small
Clearly the aforementioned Recool deserves some points when it comes to the environment, but what Taiga is doing in the non-disposable space is laudable as well. Launched last fall, the Terra cooler is the first high-performance cooler to incorporate an FDA-approved hemp-filled polypropylene material rather than fossil fuel-based polymers.
The move cuts down on harmful petroleum plastics but not at the expense of keeping your drinks and food cold — two inches of foam insulation plus a three-inch lid add up to at least week's worth of ice retention, not unlike Taiga's Original cooler line. The American-made unit also features a leak-proof lid gasket, heavy-duty rubber latches, tie-down slots, an oversized drain plug and a lid lock hole for extra protection against beer theft.
- Cool color options
- Highly customizable
- Heavy compared to similarly-sized competitors
When RovR brought its RollR coolers to Kickstarter, it optimistically promised: “the most feature-packed cooler ever!” That upbeat attitude worked because 580 backers funded the project to more than $100k beyond its asking goal.
While many of the other hard coolers on this list seem to be emulating Yeti (there’s a reason we keep mentioning the brand), the RollR is unique. Its shape is boxier, its finish is shinier and its interior is wholly novel. The inside is stepped to accommodate the axle supporting its built-in wheels, but RovR has worked that potential flaw into the design, using the cavity to create a slot for its removable dry storage container. It claims to keep ice frozen for ten days, a duration that has become industry standard, with the rotomolded construction.
The RollR earns its rank due to its potential for customization. The dry storage is a great organization feature that makes packing for a multi-day camping trip compact and organized. The RollR also can hold a prep board, cup holder and other small accessories. One unique add-on is a collapsible bin that sits on top of the cooler when closed, which can hold things like beach towels, clothing or any other supplies that are easier rolled than carried. The RollR also can rig up behind a bicycle with an extra attachment.
Those looking for specific use options will probably opt for less customization, more space and a lighter package; the RollR is comparatively heavy. But it’s also a great cooler that opts for fun instead of intensity, and stands up to the rest of this list all the same.
- Great-looking design
- Stretchy mesh pocket adds usefulness
- Hard to reach items at the bottom
Hydro Flask’s success in creating insulated water bottles that look great and work to keep beverages cold (or hot) for extended periods of time signals that the brand has a particular knack for insulation. Getting into the cooler category was a logical next step, and the company recently revamped its line of soft-sided coolers and renamed it Day Escape.
Like its predecessor, Hydro Flask’s 20L Day Escape Soft Cooler Pack is easily the prettiest of the group that we tested. It’s sleek, with an exterior stretchy mesh pocket for things like keys or a wallet that don’t impede its design or add unneeded bulk (there are also attachment points for modular dry storage pouches too). The cooler is also watertight, thanks in part to a new Tru Zip zipper that has a toothless design and is a lot easier to pull open than that of Hydro Flask's previous cooler pack, as well as others we tested.
Inside, there's an FDA-approved, food-grade liner and enough soft insulation to keep food, drink and ice cool for roughly two days. Our one minor gripe is that the top zipper placement can make it hard to see down into the cooler, but it's a small enough container we haven't found it much of an issue — and we feel that the zipper upgrade is worth that trade.
Because it’s a backpack, the Day Escape Soft Cooler Pack also has to be comfortable enough to wear, especially fully loaded. We found that it is, and handles on each top corner make it easy to carry between two people as an alternative.
- High-performing insulation stands up to heat
- Great for day use
- Heavy for all-day carry
Weighing in at 7.5 pounds, this cooler is disguised as a backpack, with plenty of storage to go with it. The cooler performs surprisingly well thanks to a three-centimeter closed-cell PolarLayer XT insulation foam. The suspension system used to carry it makes it a comfortable carry whether you’re hiking into the perfect camp spot or just going from the house to your car.
Reviewers love the waterproof pockets and the near-unlimited amount of food this backpack can handle. It is more expensive than Hydro Flask's and Yeti’s soft side cooler backpacks, but it comes with lots of extra pockets to make carrying the rest of your gear more feasible.
- Tough as nails
- Self-draining cup holders keep things clean
- Not for multi-day trips
Need something quick and handy for day trips? Pelican's rep for tough, dependable cases extends to coolers, including this easily transportable injection-molded offering. The Elite 20 packs a number of handy traits, including self-draining cup holders, locking latches, tie-down slots and an integrated bottle opener. While it lacks a drain plug and its ice retention is not extraordinary (a couple of days), the small size and intended use (a day at the beach or the lake or the park or the job site) don't necessitate such features. It can stand out in a crowd, too, via seven tri-toned colorways.
- Great for those who work outdoors
- Multiple sizes address multiple use cases
- Lacks the insulating powers of a similarly-sized hard cooler
Yeti is the king of rugged coolers, and when the brand launched the Hopper Flip 8 in 2016, it brought that title to a new category: lunch boxes. Now the company makes actual lunch boxes, but the Hopper still fills a need to carry and keep small amounts of food and beverages icy. The Hopper 8 is the smallest in the series, but there are also medium, large and backpack sizes. (The backpack is great for jaunts that might include a hike.) Between the group of them, there’s definitely a Goldilocks-approved size for whatever your needs are.