The Complete Guide to Choosing the Best Cooler: Wirecutter's Recommendations and Expert Tips
Are you tired of sweltering summer days and sleepless nights? Well, fret no more! We've scoured the market for the best cooling solutions, from smart thermostats to portable air conditioners, and even the elusive best cooler wirecutter. Whether you're looking to beat the heat in your bedroom or keep your entire home cool, we've got the tips, tricks, and top products you need to stay chilled all summer long. Stay cool, calm, and collected as we dive into the world of optimal cooling and bring you the ultimate guide.
The Best Smart Thermostat
Updated October 27, 2023 by Roy Furchgott and Jennifer Pattison Tuohy
A smart thermostat, like the Ecobee Smart Thermostat Premium that we recommend, is designed to automate your home's heating and cooling system for maximum comfort and efficiency.
The Best Dehumidifiers
Updated September 21, 2023 by Tim Heffernan
We have discovered dehumidifiers that are both user-friendly and effectively reduce the amount of moisture in your home's environment.
The Best Window Fans
Updated April 3, 2023 by Thom Dunn
Window fans are an excellent choice for improving ventilation and air circulation during mild, dry summer weather.
The Best Ductless Mini Split Air Conditioner
Updated April 25, 2023 by Doug Mahoney and Harry Sawyers
Based on our interviews with installers, manufacturers, and homeowners who have their own systems, we have gathered all the information you need about ductless mini-split heating and cooling systems.
The Best Air Conditioner
Updated August 30, 2023 by Thom Dunn
Through our firsthand tests, we have identified air conditioners that effectively and quietly keep you cool.
The Best Portable Air Conditioner
Updated September 19, 2023 by Thom Dunn
Finding a good portable AC can be challenging, but our recommended options provide year-round climate control that is both quiet and efficient.
Best coolers of 2023
Steve Conaway/CNET In my previous testing for this list, I had chosen Cabela's 60-quart cooler as the best large cooler. However, the title now goes to the Magellan Outdoors model. Nevertheless, in terms of keeping things cold, Cabela's Polar Cap cooler is unbeatable. It achieved the coldest internal temperature during testing and maintained it for around 20% longer than its closest competitor.
The prices for the 60-, 80-, and 100-quart models range from $300 to $400, and they are worth the investment for their exceptional performance. While they may not have many extravagant features, they do offer convenient built-in bottle openers on the rubber latches, a pressure relief valve to facilitate opening the cooler in case of rising interior pressure, and rubber padded feet to elevate the cooler and minimize direct heat transfer. Additionally, they are certified bear-resistant.
Steve Conaway/CNET Magellan's largest cooler performed almost as well as Cabela's Polar Cap Equalizer. The difference in lowest temperature recorded between the two coolers was less than a degree (44.6 vs. 45.5 degrees Fahrenheit). If your main concern is keeping things cold, it's worth considering whether that extra 0.9 degrees is worth the additional cost.
In my opinion, it's more practical to save that extra money and use it to stock up your cooler. One standout feature of Magellan Outdoors coolers is their double-sided hinge latches, which allow easy access from either side of the cooler. They also come equipped with wheels, making transportation easier when the cooler is full. Additionally, they have metal bottle opener inserts on both sides.
Steve Conaway/CNET Yeti is already known for its high performance and reputation, especially when it comes to coolers. The Tundra Haul is no exception. Although it didn't achieve the lowest overall temperature among the coolers tested, it maintained its lowest temperature for a significantly longer duration than its competitors. The Haul also boasts rugged "Neverflat" wheels, suggesting it can handle more difficult terrain compared to other coolers. It is highly portable and delivers maximum cooling time for your outdoor adventures.
Steve Conaway/CNET I know it may seem like another Magellan cooler, but the data speaks for itself. The performance of this cooler exceeded that of its competitors. The graphs clearly show the difference in performance, leaving no doubt as to the winner. The other coolers have thinner walls, resulting in less insulation. However, if price is a deciding factor for you, the cheaper options are still available, with a few even coming in backpack format.
However, in my personal opinion, I do not recommend soft-sided coolers as they do not provide adequate cooling and do not maintain their temperature for long durations. While some may prefer these coolers for specific purposes, such as keeping perishable items slightly cooler than room temperature during short hikes, I find them to be a subpar choice. Moving on...
Steve Conaway/CNET Previously, the Coleman Stacker held the title for the best value in this category as one of the most affordable coolers we tested. However, the RTIC cooler offers impressive performance with its low temperatures, comparable to the largest coolers we tested. Priced at $220, it is currently the most affordable option in the midsize or large cooler category, except for the Igloo BMX 52qt Cooler, which performed poorly. Therefore, if you want excellent performance along with a more budget-friendly price, the RTIC cooler is a reliable choice.
Steve Conaway/CNET The performance of this new cooler and the previous titleholder, the Yeti Tundra 45 Cooler, were almost identical. The Yeti achieved slightly lower temperatures, while the Magellan maintained its temperature slightly longer. The deciding factor here is the price. At $120, the Magellan Outdoors cooler costs less than half as much as the Yeti.
In addition to performance, the Magellan cooler offers several other features. One of my favorites is the dual-sided latches that also function as hinges, allowing access from either side of the cooler. It is a genius design. The cooler also includes bottle openers, a reinforced lock area, and a drain plug.
Read our Magellan Outdoors Dual Open 20qt Cooler review.
Start with a sufficiently large cooler
In our guide to the best coolers, we recommend hard-sided models with a capacity in the 65- to 70-quart range, such as the Coleman 70-Quart Xtreme 5 or the RTIC 65 QT. These sizes are ideal for storing enough cold and frozen food for most trips.
Carolyn Shearlock, the boating enthusiast behind the blog The Boat Galley, who provided insight for our cooler guide, recommends coolers of this size. She states that they are ideal for long weekend trips up to a full week, and she has also managed to store enough food for two people for 10 to 14 days.
Line the bottom of the cooler with block ice
While cubed ice may initially provide colder temperatures, block ice lasts much longer. This is why both Shearlock and Odell suggest using DIY block ice in your cooler.
Shearlock prefers using cut-up plastic milk jugs to create blocks that are around 4 to 5 inches high. On the other hand, Odell freezes water in 64-ounce plastic juice bottles and places the whole container in the cooler. This allows the bottles to serve as drinking or cooking water once they begin to melt during the trip.
Other coolers we have tested
These are the coolers that we have tested over the past few years and are currently available for purchase. Here is a list of them:
- Lifewit Collapsible Cooler Bag 24L (25 quarts): This soft-sided cooler has a handle and is popular on Amazon. However, it did not perform well in keeping things cool during our testing.
- Tourit Cooler Backpack (20 quarts): Another popular cooler on Amazon. While not great for cooling, it has a stylish design and a connected metal bottle opener.
- OlarHike Cooler Backpack (23 quarts): Similar to the Tourit cooler, but with a less attractive design.
- Amazon Commercial Rotomolded Cooler, 20qt (20 quarts): Amazon has a line of rotomolded coolers that perform better than most, but not the best. They also have one of the best cooler latching designs.
- Camp Zero 20L Premium Cooler (21 quarts): This cooler has average performance and offers neat color options and cup holders on the lid.
- Frosted Frog 20qt Rotomolded Ice Chest (20 quarts): This brand was requested by CNET readers and it performed excellently, although not the best.
- Klein Tools Work Cooler (17 quarts): Although not the best traditional cooler, it is sturdy and may keep your lunch cool.
- Igloo Playmate Cooler 4qt (4 quarts): This cooler has a small capacity and low performance, but is also affordable.
- Orca Light Blue 40 Quart Cooler (40 quarts): This cooler has a high price tag but performs average for its category.
- Igloo BMX 52 Quart Cooler (52 quarts): This cooler has a cool design but performed poorly in our tests.
- KENAI 65 Quart Cooler (65 quarts): This cooler has a classic design, good color options, and average performance.
- Frosted Frog 75QT Cooler (75 quarts): Similar to the other Frosted Frog model, it performed excellently for a reasonable price.
- Bison Gen 2 Cooler (50 quarts): This cooler can reach the coldest temperature in its category, but does not maintain it well.
- Cabela's Polar Cap Equalizer Cooler (60 quarts): This cooler is one of the most expensive on the list but has been a title holder for the best large cooler.
- Yeti Tundra 45 Cooler (33 quarts): This small cooler can reach the lowest temperature, but is expensive.
- Rubbermaid Ice Chest Cooler (48 quarts): This midsized cooler performed poorly in temperature tests.
- Coleman Xtreme Marine Cooler (70 quarts): This cooler has a large capacity and is a solid choice for under .
- Coleman Xtreme Wheeled Cooler (50 quarts): This midsized cooler performed poorly but is affordable.
- RTIC 65 Cooler (65 quarts): This cooler performed average and is priced slightly higher than others.
- Igloo Island Breeze Cooler (48 quarts): This cooler is low-cost but performed poorly in tests.
- Igloo Latitude Wheeled Cooler (60 quarts): This large cooler performed the lowest in tests.
- Igloo MaxCold Cooler (50 quarts): This cooler performed well in the midsize category and is affordable.
- Rovr Rollr 60 Wheeled Cooler (60 quarts): This cooler holds its temperature well but is not as cold as other competitors. It is also the most expensive cooler we have tested.
- Lifetime High Performance Cooler (55 quarts): This cooler performs well and is a good deal at just over $100.
- Orca Classic Cooler (58 quarts): Formerly awarded as the best midsized cooler, it has a steep price.
- Pelican Elite Cooler (50 quarts): This cooler can get colder than most but does not hold it as long.
- Yeti Roadie 24 Cooler (20 quarts): This cooler has average performance and holds its temperature well.
- Yeti Hopper Backflip 24 Insulated Backpack Cooler (22 quarts): This backpack cooler does not perform as well as other coolers.
- Coleman Portable Cooler (16 quarts): This is an affordable option, but it does not hold its temperature for very long.
- Pelican 20 Quart Elite Cooler (20 quarts): This cooler performs poorly compared to others.
- Coleman 24-Can Party Stacker Portable Cooler (23 quarts): This cooler gets very cold but does not hold its temperature for long. It is also affordable.
- Rubbermaid 45qt Blue Wheeled Cooler (45 quarts): This cooler performs average and is affordable. It also has wheels for easy transportation.
- Xspec 60 Quart Roto Molded High Performance Cooler (60 quarts): This cooler is one of the best we have tested. It has top-notch features and performance with a higher price tag.
- Igloo Trailmate Journey 70qt All-Terrain Cooler (70 quarts): This cooler has excellent performance and is slightly above average price.
Before discussing performance, it is important to consider the capacity of the coolers. While certain sizes, like the 50-quart, are more popular, coolers vary in size and shape. The size and shape of a cooler can impact its performance, as the volume of ice and storage space differ. For example, a 75-quart cooler has a larger task than a 45-quart cooler when it comes to keeping items cold.
To evaluate performance accurately, it was crucial to have precise measurements of each cooler's capacity. Instead of relying on the manufacturer's claims or counting the number of cans each cooler can hold, I filled each one with water until it reached the point of overflowing when I closed the lid. I then measured the exact number of quarts each cooler could hold. This information is essential when dealing with melted ice in large quantities. The smaller and cheaper models tended to underestimate their capacity, while the larger and more expensive ones fell short of their claims.
For instance, the $400 Rovr Rollr wheeled cooler claimed to have a 60-quart capacity, but I could only fit 52.8 quarts of water inside. On the other hand, the 55-quart Lifetime High Performance Cooler exceeded its claimed capacity by measuring at 62.4 quarts. The Yeti Hopper Backflip 24, a soft-sided backpack cooler, had the most understated volume among the coolers tested. It claimed space for 20 cans but actually had an internal volume of 26.42 quarts. The Tourit Backpack Cooler, on the other hand, offered only 65% of its claimed 30-quart capacity.
Give your fellow campers a cooler tutorial
If you are the one responsible for packing the cooler, chances are you are the only one who knows what is inside and where everything is. This can result in others taking longer to find what they need. To overcome this issue, Odell suggests giving your campmates a brief orientation on the contents of the cooler and the order in which things are packed. This will help everyone quickly find what they are looking for.
Consider using a separate cooler for drinks or not using a cooler at all
According to Odell, you don't need to keep your drinking water cold. Beverages take up a lot of space and quickly get used up, leaving empty space in the cooler.
During Outward Bound trips, campers carry their own 1-liter water bottles and use frozen plastic bottles to keep the water cold as the ice melts. Odell suggests adding flavor to lukewarm water to make it more enjoyable.
Some options for keeping drinks cold include using a soft-sided backpack cooler with cold packs at the bottom. If there is access to cubed ice, it can be added to the backpack since drink containers don't risk cross-contamination. However, it's important to note that there have been some issues with the recommended soft-sided backpack cooler.
Illustration: Dana Davis
Place delicate foods on top with extra padding
Fragile items like easily bruised fruits and vegetables, condiments, and eggs should be placed toward the top of the cooler. Shearlock recommends providing extra cushioning for these items without taking up too much space. This can be done by wrapping tomatoes in bubble wrap or placing avocados in a tube sock.
Use baskets or bins to organize (if space allows)
Having an organized cooler makes it easier to find items quickly. If your cooler doesn't already have a designated basket, Shearlock suggests stacking lightweight, plastic Sterilite baskets on top of shelf risers. These baskets have holes for airflow and solid bottoms to contain spills.
However, Odell mentions that she sometimes goes without baskets if she needs more space in the cooler.
Keep other foods separate from ice using kitchen shelf risers
To prevent delicate foods from floating in melting ice, Shearlock uses shelf risers to create a barrier between the frozen items and everything else. The risers should be slightly taller than the block ice and made of vinyl-coated wire.
Using two or three shelf risers across the bottom of the cooler ensures even distribution of items.
Store frozen foods next to the ice
Frozen foods like hamburgers, hot dogs, and steaks should be placed directly on top of the ice to keep them as cold as possible. Shearlock recommends vacuum-sealing frozen foods for added protection but using foil or the food's original plastic packaging works as well.
These frozen items can be laid on top of the ice or wedged between blocks if there is enough space.
Label and package food in advance
Minimizing the number of times the cooler is opened helps maintain cold temperatures. Odell suggests transferring food from its original packaging into lightweight, sealable containers before placing them in the cooler. Zip-top bags, Stashers, Nalgene wide-mouth bottles, and repurposed Talenti containers are all suitable options. Labeling everything with a Sharpie marker and painter's tape helps with identification and reduces cross-contamination and mess. Cardboard packaging should be avoided as it can get mushy.
Protect your cooler with a cover
Insulation is crucial for any cooler. Shearlock recommends keeping the cooler closed as much as possible and covering it with a heavy blanket when not in use. In a pinch, Odell has used her Therm-a-Rest sleeping pad as extra insulation. It's also important to keep the cooler away from direct sunlight.
This article was edited by Alexander Aciman and Catherine Kast.
In conclusion, when it comes to keeping your food and drinks cool, having the best cooler is essential. From our research and testing, we have identified the top contenders for the title of the best cooler, ensuring that you can make an informed decision. Remember to start with a big-enough cooler and line it with block ice for maximum efficiency. Additionally, consider giving your fellow campers a cooler tutorial to ensure that everyone is on the same page. If you have the space, organizing your cooler with baskets or bins can keep everything neat and easily accessible. And don't forget to label and package your food ahead of time to avoid any mix-ups. Lastly, by covering your cooler between uses, you can maintain its temperature and prolong the longevity of your ice. With these tips and our top recommendations, you'll be well-equipped to keep your supplies cool and enjoy your outdoor adventures to the fullest.
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