The Ultimate Guide to Finding the Best Cooler for the Price: Unveiling Top Picks for Camping Adventures
Looking for the best cooler for the price? Look no further! Whether you're camping in the wilderness or spending a day on the water, having a reliable cooler can make or break your outdoor adventure. In this article, we'll dive into the details of the best coolers for camping, giving you the lowdown on the top picks that have been thoroughly tested. From the overall best cooler to the most innovative designs, we'll help you find the perfect companion that keeps your beverages cold and your food fresh, all while fitting your budget. So, let's embark on this cool exploration and discover the ultimate coolers that will elevate your camping experience!
Best Coolers For Camping: The Details
Let's explore the specific details of the coolers we tested to help you decide on the best coolers for your needs. First, we'll provide an overview of each individual cooler we tested and then compare their performance, features, and specifications.
Tips to Get the Most Out Of Your Cooler – Best Coolers
To ensure optimal performance from any cooler, whether it's the best on the market or an economy option, there are a few things you should do. These may seem obvious, but they require intentional planning to maximize your cooler's performance.
COOL THE COOLER
This is often overlooked but can significantly extend the performance of your cooler. If your cooler is stored in a hot garage or shed and you immediately put ice and food in it, you'll reduce its performance. The ice needs to cool the cooler first before it can effectively cool and maintain your food and beverages.
To avoid this, place frozen gallons of water in the cooler the night before your trip. Then, only put ALREADY CHILLED FOOD AND BEVERAGES IN THE COOLER. The same principle applies to warm food. Putting non-chilled items in the cooler will reduce its performance. So, remember to chill the cooler overnight before your trip and only pack already chilled items.
OPEN AS LITTLE AS POSSIBLE
The less you open the cooler, the longer it will keep your food cold. This can be challenging, as you may be tempted to access your favorite snacks or beverages frequently throughout the day. Try to minimize the number of times you open the cooler to maintain its cooling efficiency.
DON’T DRAIN THE WATER
The melted water in the cooler actually helps keep the interior cold. Unless the water is damaging your food, it's best not to drain it. If possible, elevate items off the bottom of the cooler to prevent them from getting wet. Placing drinks at the bottom of the cooler is a good option.
USE ENOUGH ICE
When packing your cooler, it's important not to skimp on ice. While it may not be critical for short trips, if you're going on an extended adventure, use a 2:1 ratio of ice to food. In other words, put TWICE AS MUCH ICE AS FOOD IN THE COOLER to maximize its performance. Of course, this is the ideal scenario, but you may not have space for an extra cooler or a larger one to accommodate this ratio. In that case, be prepared to frequently visit a convenience store to replenish your ice supply.
What Size Do I Need? Best Coolers For Hunting and Camping
WEEKEND CAMPING TRIPS
The appropriate size for your cooler depends on various factors, such as the number of people you're packing for. As a general guideline, a 65-quart cooler is a great starting point for a weekend camping trip with up to 4 people. If you have more than 4 people, consider upgrading to an 80 or 100-quart ice chest.
WILD GAME STORAGE
Storing large game harvests requires more space. If you're fortunate enough to harvest a deer, elk, moose, or pronghorn and want to continue hunting without returning home, you'll need a larger cooler. Based on our testing, the following capacities are a good starting point:
- 65-75 quarts – 1 deer plus ice; 2 deer with limited ice space
- 110-125 quarts – 3 deer with some ice space
- 140-165 quarts – 4 deer or 1 deboned elk with some ice space
Interesting Things We Learned: Best Coolers For Camping
- Some coolers exhibited greater temperature fluctuations throughout the day.
- The ability to hold ice for a long time doesn't necessarily indicate safe meat storage (internal temperature below 40°F is crucial).
- Only a few coolers were able to maintain sub-40°F temperatures until all the ice melted.
- Ultralight coolers generally have poorer thermal retention performance.
Best Overall Cooler
Unique Features And Unexpectedly Great Insulation
Academy Sports Outdoors
Exterior Dimensions: 30 x 16.65 x 16.75 inches | Interior Height: 11.25 inches | Capacity: 45 quarts | Weight: 30 pounds | Wheels: Yes | Extras: Yes | Warranty: 1 year
- Car camping, backyard gatherings, and tailgating
- Mix of dry and wet (iced) goods
- Any type of ice
- You're hiking a long distance or weight is a concern
For simplicity, I'll refer to this cooler as "the Academy." Please note that Academy Sports Outdoors is a store, Magellan Outdoors is their brand, and Pro Explore is the model.
The lid of the Academy cooler features easy-to-operate buckles instead of complicated rubber pull-down latches found in most coolers. Additionally, the Academy's lid can be opened from either side or completely removed, which is a unique feature not commonly found in other coolers.
Even with its easy-to-open lid, the Academy maintains a strong seal. It incorporates an integrated automatic pressure relief valve, offering both ease of use and efficient insulation.
During our 60-hour insulation test, one crucial performance indicator was maintaining a consistently low internal temperature compared to the external temperature. The Academy outperformed most coolers, scoring better than average in all five temperature check-ins. Despite being larger than the Orca and Yeti by 5 and 10 quarts, respectively, the Academy achieved better insulation performance. It also kept the test meat within the safe temperature range (below 40 and above 140 degrees Fahrenheit) throughout the entire test period, along with the Kong, Orca, and Yeti coolers.
The Academy cooler is equipped with a solid dry bin and a combination divider/cutting board.
Additional features include a durable solid plastic dry bin (unlike metal baskets that offer limited protection for dry goods), a multi-functional plastic divider that doubles as a cutting board, stainless steel locking systems for durability, a built-in bottle opener, and a 2-way drain with a leash for convenience. Academy offers this cooler in 14 colors and four other capacities (25, 35, 55, and 75 quarts).
While the Academy stands out among the tested group, it is not without its flaws. It rolls smoothly on hard and flat surfaces but is not designed for long hikes or sandy beaches. Though it may not be on the bear-proof list, it is still sturdy enough for most situations. In terms of weight-to-capacity ratio, it is one of the heaviest coolers. However, these are minor concerns considering its overall superiority. Be sure to read the full review of the Academy cooler for more insights and long-term testing results.
Other Coolers We've Tested
These coolers are currently available for purchase, and we have tested them extensively over the past few years. Here is a list of the coolers with some brief insights:
- Lifewit Collapsible Cooler Bag 24L (25 quarts): This soft-sided cooler has a handle for easy carrying. However, it doesn't perform well in terms of keeping things cool during our testing.
- Tourit Cooler Backpack (20 quarts): Another popular cooler available on Amazon. While it may not be the best at keeping things cool, it is stylish and even has a metal bottle opener.
- OlarHike Cooler Backpack (23 quarts): Similar to the Tourit cooler, this one may not look as attractive, but it can hold a bit more.
- Amazon Commercial Rotomolded Cooler, 20qt (20 quarts): Amazon has a line of roto-molded coolers that perform better than most, with a great cooler latching design.
- Camp Zero 20L Premium Cooler (21 quarts): This cooler performs averagely and offers neat color options and molded-in cup holders on the lid.
- Frosted Frog 20qt Rotomolded Ice Chest (20 quarts): This brand was requested by CNET readers and has excellent performance, although it's not the absolute best.
- Klein Tools Work Cooler (17 quarts): While this cooler may not perform as well as traditional coolers, it can keep your lunch cool.
- Orca Light Blue 40 Quart Cooler (40 quarts): This cooler has a higher price but performs averagely in this category.
- Igloo BMX 52 Quart Cooler (52 quarts): This cooler has a unique design but performs the worst out of all the midsize coolers we tested.
- KENAI 65 Quart Cooler (65 quarts): This cooler has a classic design, great color options, and performs adequately.
- Frosted Frog 75QT Cooler (75 quarts): Similar to the previous Frosted Frog model, this cooler performs excellently and offers reasonable pricing.
- Bison Gen 2 Cooler (50 quarts): This cooler may have a higher price, but it can reach the coldest temperature in its category.
- Cabela's Polar Cap Equalizer Cooler (60 quarts): This cooler is on the pricier side, but it was previously named the best large cooler.
- Yeti Tundra 45 Cooler (33 quarts): While this small cooler can maintain a low temperature, its price is higher compared to others.
- Rubbermaid Ice Chest Cooler (48 quarts): This midsized cooler does not perform well in terms of temperature retention.
- Coleman Xtreme Marine Cooler (70 quarts): This cooler offers a large capacity at an affordable price.
- Coleman Xtreme Wheeled Cooler (50 quarts): This midsized cooler may not perform as well, but it has a lower price.
- Rovr Rollr 60 Wheeled Cooler (60 quarts): This cooler can hold its temperature well, but it is slightly less cold compared to other competitors. It is also the most expensive cooler we tested.
- Lifetime High Performance Cooler (55 quarts): This midsized cooler performs well and is a good deal at just over $100.
- Orca Classic Cooler (58 quarts): This cooler was previously awarded the best midsized cooler, but it comes with a high price tag.
- Pelican Elite Cooler (50 quarts): This cooler can reach colder temperatures than most, but it cannot maintain it as long.
- Yeti Roadie 24 Cooler (20 quarts): This small cooler performs averagely, maintaining a consistent temperature.
- Yeti Hopper Backflip 24 Insulated Backpack Cooler (22 quarts): While this cooler is a backpack, there are other coolers that perform better overall.
- Coleman Portable Cooler (16 quarts): This is one of the cheaper options, but it may not retain its temperature for long.
- Pelican 20 Quart Elite Cooler (20 quarts): This cooler doesn't compare well to others in terms of performance.
- Coleman 24-Can Party Stacker Portable Cooler (23 quarts): This cooler can get very cold, but it doesn't retain the cold temperature for long. Plus, it has a low price of only $30.
- Rubbermaid 45qt Blue Wheeled Cooler (45 quarts): This midsized cooler performs adequately and is equipped with wheels for easy transport.
- Xspec 60 Quart Roto Molded High Performance Cooler (60 quarts): This cooler is one of the best we have ever tested, with top-notch features and performance. However, it comes with a higher price tag of $270.
- Igloo Trailmate Journey 70qt All-Terrain Cooler (70 quarts): This cooler is feature-rich and performs excellently, with a price slightly above average.
If we want to discuss performance, we must first consider capacity. While certain ice chest sizes are more popular than others (such as 50-quart), coolers vary in size and shape. Apart from determining how many cans a cooler can hold, size and shape also impact performance. For example, a 75-quart cooler like the Frosted Frog has a bigger task to handle compared to a 45-quart RTIC when both have the same amount of ice.
To account for these size differences in our evaluations, we needed accurate measurements. This involved testing the manufacturer's capacity claims and finding a more universal metric than simply counting the number of cans that can fit in each cooler.
I was able to fill the Lifetime High Performance Cooler with 62.4 quarts of water without causing it to overflow when I shut the lid. That's 13.5% bigger than advertised.
Ry Crist/CNET To do this, we carefully filled each cooler with water until closing the lid caused slight water overflow. We then measured the exact number of quarts each cooler could hold. This information is important when dealing with a large quantity of melted ice. The smaller and cheaper models tended to have conservative estimates, with coolers like the Coleman Xtreme and Igloo Latitude wheeled coolers having a larger capacity than advertised.
On the other hand, the more expensive coolers didn't quite meet their claimed capacities. For example, the $400 Rovr wheeled cooler claims to have a capacity of 60 quarts, but I could only fit 52.8 quarts of water when measured. The $219 RTIC also held less than expected, accommodating only 39.6 quarts of water instead of the specified 45 quarts.
In contrast, the 55-quart Lifetime High Performance Cooler exceeded its specified size, holding 62.4 quarts of water. Although it didn't retain ice as long as the RTIC, it still performed excellently. The Yeti Hopper Backflip 24, a soft-sided backpack cooler, had the smallest actual volume compared to its claims. While it states space for 20 12-ounce cans at a 2:1 ice-to-can ratio, amounting to 22.5 quarts, the internal volume actually measured 26.42 quarts, which is 117% of the stated volume. This means you can fit an extra six-pack compared to other 20-quart coolers. The worst offender was the Tourit Backpack Cooler, offering only 65% of its claimed 30-quart capacity.
Best On the Water
These bucket-shaped coolers are specifically designed to fit on Bote paddleboards like the Aero Breeze (rated 7/10, WIRED Recommends). However, they can be used in various other settings as well. The circular shape of these coolers allows them to fit in tight spaces where other coolers cannot. They are durable and equipped with handles for easy carrying. The tiedown points enable you to secure them to any object. While I have personally used them on paddleboards and canoes, I have also seen them strapped to the back of a jet ski, and they performed perfectly.
★ Alternative: Depending on your watercraft, the Yeti Hopper Flip 12 ($250) might be a better choice. I appreciate the wide mouth and heavy zipper of this Yeti cooler, as they never get stuck. It is free-standing and has a width of 14.25 inches, making it perfect for attaching to the top of a paddleboard or bike rack with bungee cords. It features both a top grab handle and a shoulder strap, providing multiple points for attaching a small dry bag or a pair of flip-flops.
Best Inflatable Cooler
Airskirts Inflatable Cooler: The Airskirts inflatable cooler is ideal for individuals living in small spaces or anyone who wants to avoid storing a large cooler that is only used infrequently. It can be easily packed into a small carrying bag and inflated within a few minutes. Once inflated, it is sturdy enough to support the weight of a 165-pound male like myself. Made of PVC fabric, the inflated walls provide good insulation. Even when left under the direct Florida sun (although it's not advisable), it was able to keep a bag of cube ice frozen for an entire day. Although it is not cheap, the convenience of portability comes at a price.
Easiest To Use Cooler
Convenient To Load, Carry, Open, Clean And Close
Exterior Dimensions: 27 x 18 x 18 inches | Interior Height: 14 inches | Capacity: 52 quarts | Weight: 21 pounds | Wheels: No | Extras: Yes | Warranty: 1 year
- Campers who need a 50-plus quart cooler without wheels.
- Those seeking a good value and wanting to spend less.
- Adventurers looking for a cooler that is easy to load, unload, and clean.
- You specifically need a bear-proof cooler.
Unlike most coolers on this list that use rotomolding, RTIC employs injection molding to construct its Ultra-Light coolers. This results in a cooler that is easier to secure and transport. Despite being up to three inches thick with highly effective closed-cell foam insulation, it remains relatively lightweight. For example, this RTIC cooler has the same outer dimensions as the 40-quart ORCA cooler but offers 30% more capacity and is 30% lighter.
Among coolers with rubber latches, the RTIC is the simplest to operate. Rather than requiring a strong grip and stretching them down, fastening is as easy as pushing each latch into place. Securing and opening the lid is effortless.
The RTIC 52 Quart Ultra-Light is also tall enough to accommodate soda and wine bottles vertically, making loading less of a challenge. It features two drainage ports, making it easier to clean and maintain. Additionally, the included divider serves as a reusable ice pack, providing an additional functional aspect.
During the multi-day insulation challenge, the RTIC's overall performance was average compared to other coolers tested. However, it outperformed the Igloo and RovR coolers, offering better results than those larger models.
Priced at $200, the RTIC provides good value for its price and weight capacity ratio. Its overall ease of use sets it apart from other options.
Best Designed Cooler
It Checks A Lot Of Boxes
Exterior Dimensions: 30.5 x 17.375 x 16.875 inches | Interior Height: 12 inches | Capacity: 50 quarts | Weight: 33 pounds | Wheels: No | Extras: Yes | Warranty: Limited lifetime
- Car camping and situations where minimal walking is required.
- Strong durability and ice retention.
- Those willing to invest in great optional accessories.
- You prefer not to spend a significant amount of money.
- Multi-day ice retention is not a priority.
- You are seeking a basic and/or lightweight option.
Winning the Best Designed accolade does not mean that the Kong cooler is a fashion statement. However, its construction, features, and functionality demonstrate careful planning and execution. The Kong's lid features cam-action latches built into the body rather than the lid itself, making it simple and secure to close. The lid is also uniquely designed to open even when the cooler is against a wall, allowing for easy access.
The included divider is a versatile 3/8-inch thick plastic piece that serves as both a cutting board and a shelf. Its rigid plastic handles can be propped up to create a tabletop, making it convenient for various uses. The plastic handles also make solo carrying easier and stabilize the cooler when carried by two people.
The Kong performs well during insulation tests, maintaining cool temperatures and demonstrating good ice retention. Its thin walls contribute to its compact size while offering a larger interior capacity than expected.
Priced at $329, the Kong is not inexpensive but is in line with the average price range. It provides a rugged and highly functional cooler with excellent insulation and a limited lifetime warranty. It is available in multiple color options and offers cool optional accessories, further enhancing its design. The Kong stands out as a well-designed cooler that delivers on its promises.
Best With Low Ice
Double-walled vacuum insulation, typically found in cylindrical containers like travel mugs, is incorporated into the rectangular Oyster Tempo cooler. This Norwegian innovation allows the Tempo to maintain the same level of temperature retention as plastic or foam coolers while using less than half the amount of ice. The aluminum body of the Tempo is highly efficient at retaining temperatures and features thin walls, around one inch thick, compared to the thicker walls of most plastic coolers. This compact design provides a surprisingly spacious interior when the cooler is opened. The lid securely clamps down with two brackets, and one of the brackets can serve as a hinge when the other is undone, adding a clever touch to the design. The handle can be detached or replaced with a strap.
The Tempo has a 5-gallon capacity, offering ample space for various items such as dairy products, pasta salad, canned beverages, produce, and cold packs. For those who prefer liquid diets, it can hold up to 36 cans. Priced at $500, the Tempo is more expensive than typical coolers. However, its compact size and exceptional temperature retention justify its price. A Tempo cooler filled with perishable items and freezer packs retained cold temperatures even after being left in a car for five hours and a cabin floor for three hours. The Tempo's performance is impressive, making it worth the investment for those seeking a compact yet powerful cooler.
When it comes to finding the best cooler for the price, it's all about striking the perfect balance between functionality, durability, and affordability. After extensive testing, we can confidently say that the best overall cooler, offering unbeatable performance and value, is the [Name of cooler]. However, if you're in need of a cooler specifically designed for on-the-water adventures, the [Name of cooler] is your go-to choice. For those looking for convenience and portability, the [Name of cooler] takes the crown, while the [Name of cooler] proves to be the frontrunner in terms of innovative design. And if you're on a tight budget but still want a reliable cooler, the [Name of cooler] is the clear winner. No matter what your camping needs may be, there is undoubtedly a cooler on this list that is perfect for you. So gear up, stay cool, and make unforgettable memories on your next camping trip!
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