When you think of a cooler, what comes to mind? The styrofoam boxes you can get at any gas station? A sleek, stylish, high-tech box with built-in speakers? A blue and white plastic chest full of ice and cans? There are lots of different types of coolers out there, and knowing the right kind to get can make packing one so much easier.
What Makes A Great Cooler?
The obvious thing that makes a great cooler is its ability to keep things cold! If your cooler can’t keep your food and drinks at a safe temperature, it’s not worth keeping. But there are other considerations when you’re shopping for a cooler, too, including:
- Cooler Capacity: How big of a cooler do you need? Consider how many people you’ll be serving, how much food or how many cans or bottles of drinks you want to bring, and how long you want to keep things cool.
- Insulation: Look for coolers with good insulation, typically achieved through thick walls and high-quality insulation materials. Better insulation helps maintain lower temperatures for longer periods. Along those lines, consider the cooler’s ability to retain ice. Some coolers can keep ice frozen for several days or even weeks, depending on the model and conditions.
- Portability: Choose a cooler that is easy to transport. Look for features like durable handles, comfortable grips, and the option of wheels if you’ll be moving it frequently. Keep in mind that larger coolers can be heavy, especially when fully loaded. Choose a size that you can handle comfortably.
- Material: Coolers are made from various materials. Common options include plastic, metal, fabric, and rotomolded plastic. Rotomolded coolers are known for their durability and better insulation.
- Drainage: Ensure the cooler has a reliable drainage system to remove melted ice water. A leak-resistant, rust-proof drain is ideal.
- Sealing Mechanism: Look for coolers with a tight-sealing lid or gasket to prevent warm air from entering and cold air from escaping.
- Size and Shape: Consider the shape of the cooler. Some are designed to fit better in certain spaces, like the trunk of a car or a kayak.
Some coolers will have additional features, like built-in cupholders, bottle openers, and more. While these features are great, don’t let the bells and whistles distract you from what you really need in a cooler.
Choosing a Cooler
This section is our Too Long Don’t Read section that can help you make a quick decision on the type of cooler that best fits your needs:
So what kind of cooler is best for you? The answer to this question depends on what you need the cooler for.
- If you’re planning on using the cooler to keep things cold for a large number of people, you need a big, hard-shell cooler.
- If you’re planning on using the cooler for just you and one or two other people, you can get away with a small hard-shell cooler or soft-sided cooler.
- If you want a cooler for beach days or difficult terrain, choose a backpack cooler if you can deal with a small capacity or a heavy-duty wheeled cooler if you need more capacity.
- If you want a cooler for road trip food, look for a hard-shell cooler that plugs into your car or a rotomolded plastic cooler that will keep food cold for an extended period. A regular hard shelled cooler is also a good option for weekend trips.
- If you want a small cooler to use to transport your lunch, a small vinyl or neoprene cooler will be lightweight, affordable, and effective.
- If you want a cooler to keep drinks cold during a fishing trip, look for a lightweight hard-shell cooler that won’t go sliding around in the boat.
- If you want a cooler for camping, you may be obligated to buy a bear-proof hard-shell cooler, or else have a way to keep your food safe from animals at night. This could include suspending your food somehow, so you might just find it easier to buy a bear-proof cooler.
Coolers come in many different materials. The material your cooler is made from helps determine how well-insulated it is and has a huge impact on the price and durability of the cooler.
Some soft-sided coolers are made of canvas. While canvas coolers look cool, without an insulated lining they won’t maintain the temperature of your food and drinks. Keep that in mind if you see a canvas cooler touting itself as eco-friendly; it will still have a plastinated or foam lining for insulation.
Metal coolers are heavy and expensive, but provide excellent insulation capabilities. Some metal coolers use the same double-walled vacuum technology that high-end water bottles use, which lets them keep ice frozen for days if closed properly.
Neoprene foam is a flexible synthetic rubbery fabric that provides great insulation. Soft-sided neoprene coolers are lightweight and easily foldable or roll-able when empty, making them easy to pack.
Nylon is a tough, durable material that is popular for soft-sided coolers. Nylon coolers are lightweight and often have extra insulating material sandwiched between two layers of fabric.
Polypropylene is a highly adaptable thermoplastic that has a wide variety of applications. Polypropylene coolers are lightweight and durable. They are a good option if you want a lightweight hard-sided cooler and don’t have the budget for rotomolded plastic.
Rotomolded plastic coolers are created from one continuous piece of plastic instead of multiple components, which makes them completely waterproof and leak-proof. The one-piece construction significantly reduces the risk of cracks or breakage. Depending on the brand, these rotomolded coolers can keep your ice frozen for days, even up to a whole week. They’re built tough, with heavy-duty latches and hinges that can handle rough use and even deter curious critters. Some of them even use UV-treated plastic, so they can keep things chilly even when they’re soaking up the sun.
Styrofoam coolers are cheap and are often considered disposable. You can get styrofoam coolers at any gas station, grocery store, or bait shop. These coolers are lightweight, but not the most durable. Some coolers will use styrofoam as an insulation layer, adding insulation without too much extra weight.
Another fabric option, vinyl is easy to clean and very lightweight. It doesn’t insulate on its own; vinyl coolers will have other materials lining them to keep your food and drinks cold.
Not all coolers keep your food and drinks cold the same way. Depending on your access to electricity, you may be able to cut down on the ice you need to keep the inside of your cooler cold.
When you think of a cooler, this is probably the cooler you think of. A passive cooler is just an insulated box. You will need to use ice packs, cooler blocks, or loose ice with this type of cooler. Passive coolers come in many sizes and are typically lightweight. However, keep in mind that a good deal of space in this type of cooler is taken up by the ice needed to keep things cold. These coolers can be hard-sided or soft-sided.
Vacuum Sealed Coolers
The latest technology in coolers is just like your Yeti Rambler or other thermal cups and mugs. They use vacuum sealed technology to create highly insulated products. These are “Passive Coolers” that use vacuum sealing technology to create great thermal properties. Yeti blew up on this technology with their hard coolers, and dozens of brands, like Frosted frog, DAM, Pelican, Bison produce hard-shell coolers with this technology. Most of these are plastic, but there are a couple brands developing metal versions like Oyster. This is the best technology to keep your food and drink warm without needing electricity or added energy.
Ideal for car camping or van life, powered coolers have fans on top that circulate air. The idea is that heat rises out of the cooler and is dissipated by the fan. These coolers usually can plug into the wall, a power station, or your car’s outlet; larger models may require an inverter to use in the car. Some of the larger, more expensive models actually use compression, like your refrigerator. These coolers are basically fridges for your car, and can even freeze things. They’re powerful and heavy– you wouldn’t take them hiking, for sure. But if you’re on a road trip, a powered car cooler is your food’s best friend.
Not so much a technology that keeps things cool, some coolers have built-in speakers that connect to your phone. This enables you to keep the party going without having to bring external speakers. These coolers are great for backyard barbecues and other places where a fun, party atmosphere is desired. You can also often charge your phone from these coolers, and some have waterproof compartments to safely stash your electronics.
There are several styles of cooler available. Choose based on the performance you need out of your cooler. If you’re only packing lunch for a nature walk, you don’t need a 50-quart hard shell cooler, and if you’re going on a weekend fishing trip, you need more than a backpack cooler.
A backpack cooler is a portable cooler that is designed to be carried on your back, much like a traditional backpack. It combines the functionality of a cooler with the convenience of a backpack, making it an excellent choice for outdoor activities like hiking, picnicking, camping, and trips to the beach. Of course, if you’re carrying a backpack cooler, you can’t carry your backpack– so these aren’t ideal for longer hiking trips.
However, for a picnic in the woods or a day at the beach, the comfortable design of a backpack cooler might be just what you need. In addition to the insulated cooler compartment, backpack coolers often include extra pockets and compartments for storing utensils, water bottles, and other essentials. These coolers come in various sizes, ranging from small personal coolers that can hold a few cans to larger models capable of carrying a substantial amount of food and drinks. The hands-free design is convenient, and the zippered or roll-top closures these coolers usually feature make it easy to access the interior compartments.
Backpack coolers are an excellent choice for individuals or groups who want to enjoy cold beverages and fresh food while on the move. They provide convenience, mobility, and insulation, making outdoor experiences more enjoyable. However, they do have some downsides– compared to hard-shell coolers, they won’t keep your food and drinks cold for as long.
Bear-proof coolers are hard-sided coolers that have been tested by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee… or rather, by their bears. If a cooler displays the IGBC’s logo, it’s a guarantee that the cooler has been tested by a demanding panel of grizzly bears to ensure that it can’t easily be breached by a hungry bear. Bear-proof coolers are some of the best to take into the backcountry, even if there are no bears in the area. (Just think: if a grizzly bear can’t get into your cooler, smaller wildlife like raccoons and coyotes have zero chance.)
Hard-shell coolers feature a rigid, solid outer shell, typically made of durable materials like plastic or metal. These coolers are designed to provide excellent insulation and protection for your food, beverages, or other items that need to be kept cold. They are built to withstand tough conditions. They are often designed to be impact-resistant, which means they can endure rough handling without breaking or cracking– making them great for camping.
The rigid shell of a hard-shell cooler is usually filled with insulation material, such as foam, to maintain cold temperatures for an extended period. This insulation helps keep ice frozen and items cold for longer durations compared to soft-sided coolers. Their superior insulation is also helped by the solid, hinged lid that seals tightly when closed. This tight seal helps to keep cold air in and warm air out, enhancing the cooler’s overall performance.
Hard-shell coolers are popular choices for outdoor activities such as camping, fishing, boating, and tailgating because of their ability to keep items cold for an extended period and their rugged construction that can withstand the demands of outdoor adventures. However, they tend to be bulkier and heavier than soft-sided coolers, which is something to consider depending on your specific needs and preferences.
One thing to keep in mind is that these coolers can be a bit on the heavy side. Once they’re loaded up, you might need to grab a friend to help you carry them, whether it’s onto a boat or into the back of your truck.
Roller coolers come equipped with built-in wheels and a telescopic handle for easy transportation. They make it simpler to move heavy loads of food and beverage over various terrain types. The wheels on a roller cooler are often rugged and designed to handle different surfaces, including grass, gravel, and pavement. Some have larger wheels designed to easily roll over sand, making it easy to bring the cooler to the beach. This type of cooler typically has a retractable or telescopic handle that can be extended to move the cooler. The handle allows for easy maneuverability, and many are designed with ergonomic grips for added comfort.
Roller coolers come in various sizes and capacities, ranging from small models suitable for picnics to large coolers capable of holding enough supplies for a day at the beach or a camping trip. They are always hard-shell coolers and are designed to seal tightly to maintain the internal temperature and prevent warm air from entering. Some models may have multiple lid options, such as split lids for easier access to contents.
Roller coolers are versatile and suitable for a wide range of outdoor activities, including picnics, barbecues, tailgating, camping, and trips to the beach. They are also useful for grocery shopping, as they can keep perishable items cold during transport. Roller coolers are a convenient solution for those who need to transport heavy or bulky loads while keeping items cold or hot. They are especially handy for situations where you need to cover longer distances or navigate challenging terrain with your cooler in tow.
A soft-sided cooler is a portable cooler designed with flexible, fabric-based materials instead of the rigid, hard-shell construction typical of traditional coolers. These coolers are lightweight and versatile, making them well-suited for various outdoor activities, picnics, camping trips, and more. They are generally small, holding food and drinks for a limited number of people.
Soft-sided coolers are typically made of durable and water-resistant materials such as nylon, neoprene, or vinyl. The outer fabric often has an insulating layer to help maintain the temperature inside. While not as effective in the long-term as hard-sided coolers, soft-sided coolers do have insulation to keep contents cold or hot. The level of insulation can vary, with some models offering better temperature retention than others.
Soft-sided coolers come in various designs, including tote bags, backpacks, shoulder bags, and duffle-style bags. The choice of design depends on your preference and the intended use. One of the main advantages of soft-sided coolers is their portability. They are lightweight and easy to carry, often featuring comfortable padded handles or shoulder straps. Some models also have backpack-style straps for hands-free carrying.
These coolers usually have a zippered closure to keep the contents secure and maintain the internal temperature. Some models have additional Velcro or snap closures for added security. Many soft-sided coolers feature extra pockets and compartments for storing utensils, condiments, and other small items, helping you stay organized. Some soft-sided coolers are designed to be collapsible when not in use, which makes storage more convenient. Soft-sided coolers typically use ice packs, gel packs, or ice to keep items cold. Some models have removable or replaceable liners for easier cleaning.
Soft-sided coolers are versatile and suitable for a wide range of activities, including picnics, beach trips, hiking, and sporting events. While soft-sided coolers may not provide the same level of insulation and durability as hard-sided coolers, they are valued for their lightweight and portable design, making them a popular choice for people who need a cooler that is easy to carry and versatile for a variety of outdoor activities.
The Best Cooler Brands
Brand reputation goes a long way when shopping for coolers. Here are our notes on the top brands, including what types of coolers they make and the most popular products. This is by no means a complete list, and just because a brand isn’t listed here, doesn’t mean they don’t make quality products.
|Hard-shell, hard/soft hybrid
|Polar Cap Equalizer (various sizes), Coldsnap Latch Cooler
|Sold only at Cabela’s, their house brand is known for durable design at budget-friendly price points
|Large hard-shell coolers, soft-sided cooler bags, and non-portable ice chests
|316 series, Coleman Steel-Belted Cooler, Coleman Chiller series
|A camping mainstay, Coleman offers a variety of cooler sizes that are known for theri affordability and versatility.
|Hard-shell, soft-sided cooler bags, backpack coolers
|UC Leakproof series, HD soft-sided series, BP 25 backpack cooler
|Engel is renowned for producing durable coolers favored by outdoor adventurers and fishing enthusiasts for their reliability and ice retention.
|Hard-shell, soft-sided cooler bags, rolling coolers
|Trailmate, Playmate, BMX series
|Igloo, a long-standing cooler manufacturer, offers a diverse selection of coolers suitable for various purposes, from picnics to camping trips, at accessible price points.
|Hard-shell, rolling coolers, soft-sided cooler bags
|ORCA 20, ORCA 140 Roto-Molded, ORCA Walker
|ORCA is known for its combination of performance and value, producing coolers appreciated by outdoor enthusiasts for their quality and ice retention. The 140 can hold ice for ten days!
|Hard-shell, soft-sided cooler bags, backpack coolers, roller coolers
|Pelican Elite wheeled coolers, Pelican Cooler Sling, Pelican Sport backpack cooler
|Pelican makes some of the largest coolers available and are highly regarded for their rugged construction and durability. They are known for their hard-shell coolers and for their backpack and sling coolers, which are known to fit well in kayaks.
|Hard-shell, soft-sided cooler bags, backpack coolers, roller coolers
|RTIC 52 Ultralight Wheeled Cooler, RTIC 45 Hard Cooler, RTIC Backpack Cooler
|Online-only company RTIC provides coolers that are frequently compared favorably to premium brands, offering excellent insulation and durability at competitive prices thanks to the low overhead from no brick-and-mortar presence.
|Hard-shell coolers, roller coolers, soft-sided coolers, vacuum coolers
|Roadie series, Hopper, Tundra series
|One of the most popular cooler brands on the market, Yeti can be a bit expensive– but many find that their rotomolded coolers are worth it for their light weight, durability, and ice retention. They are also known for their V series cooler, the first vacuum-insulated cooler.
There are a lot of really great coolers out there, and we hope that this post makes it easier to find the right type of cooler for your needs!
Max DesMarais is the founder of hikingandfishing.com. He has a passion for the outdoors and making outdoor education and adventure more accessible. Max is a published author for various outdoor adventure, travel, and marketing websites. He is an experienced hiker, backpacker, fly fisherman, trail runner, and spends his free time in the outdoors. These adventures allow him to test gear, learn new skills, and experience new places so that he can educate others. Max grew up hiking all around New Hampshire and New England. He became obsessed with the New Hampshire mountains, and the NH 48, where he guided hikes and trail runs in the White Mountains. Since moving out west, Max has continued his frequent adventures in the mountains, always testing gear, learning skills, gaining experience, and building his endurance for outdoor sports. You can read more about his experience here: hikingandfishing/about