The Ultimate Guide to Finding the Best Picnic Cooler: Unveiling Top-notch Options through Thorough Testing
When it comes to enjoying a relaxing picnic with family and friends, a high-quality cooler is an absolute must-have. Not only does it keep your drinks and snacks refreshingly cool, but it also ensures that they stay that way for the entire duration of your outing. With a wide variety of options available on the market, finding the perfect picnic cooler can often feel like a daunting task. That's why we've done the research for you and compiled a list of the best overall cooler, the best insulated cooler, the easiest to use cooler, and the best designed cooler. So, whether you're planning a day at the beach or a weekend camping trip, our comprehensive product testing will help you find the perfect companion to keep your refreshments chilled to perfection.
Best Overall Cooler
Unique Features and Exceptional 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
- A combination of dry and wet (iced) goods
- Any type of ice
- You're hiking a long distance on a trail or beach and weight is a concern
This versatile cooler earns the top spot on the list due to its outstanding performance, user-friendly design, and excellent value. It's surprising to find such impressive features and insulation performance at such an affordable price—nearly $100 less than the average of the test group. With all these factors considered, the Magellan Outdoors Pro Explore from Academy Sports & Outdoors is an obvious choice as the overall champion.
To simplify things, I'll refer to this cooler as "the Academy" throughout this review. By the way, Academy Sports & Outdoors is a store, Magellan Outdoors is their brand, and Pro Explore is the model.
The lid of the Academy cooler stands out both visually and functionally, particularly its buckles. Most of the coolers in the test group use rubber pull-down latches, which can be difficult to use. In contrast, the Academy features simple and easy-to-operate buckles. Only the Igloo cooler, which lacks any means of fastening the lid, is easier to open.
What sets the Academy's Magellan Outdoors Pro Explore apart is its ability to be opened from either side or fully removed, thanks to two latches on both the front and back of the lid—a unique feature among the coolers in the test group. Despite the lid being easy to open, it maintains a strong seal. This is partly due to the integrated automatic pressure relief valve, offering both ease of opening and effective insulation.
During the 60-hour insulation test, one key performance indicator was the cooler's ability to maintain a low internal temperature compared to its external temperature. The Academy was one of only three coolers to achieve above-average scores for all five temperature check-ins. It even outperformed the Orca and Yeti, despite being 5 and 10 quarts larger, respectively. Moreover, it was one of only four coolers that kept all the test meat out of the danger zone (40 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit) throughout the entire test.
The Academy cooler also includes thoughtful features such as a solid plastic dry bin, which fully protects dry goods from melting ice, and a plastic divider that doubles as a cutting board. The stainless steel locking systems enhance its durability, while the built-in bottle opener and leash for the 2-way drain offer convenience. Additionally, the Academy offers this cooler in 14 colors and four other capacities (25, 35, 55, and 75 quarts).
While the Academy stands out among the test group, it is not without its imperfections. It is not ideal for long hikes or journeys across sandy beaches, as it performs best on hard and flat surfaces. It is not listed as bear-proof like some other Academy models, but it remains durable in most situations. Furthermore, it is relatively heavy compared to its capacity. However, these are minor drawbacks for an overall exceptional cooler. For more detailed insights and long-term testing results, read the full review of the Academy cooler.
Best Insulated Cooler
Consistently Strong Performance
Exterior Dimensions: 25.8 x 15.4 x 16.1 inches | Interior Height: 10.6 inches | Capacity: 34.8 quarts | Weight: 23 pounds | Wheels: No | Extras: No | Warranty: 5 years
- Overnight provisions for four
- Drinks for a day on the water or at the campsite
- Any outdoor location or unpredictable conditions
- You're looking to save money
- Brand recognition is not important to you
- You want a small, portable cooler
Yeti is a widely recognized brand, known for its rule over the cooler market. Despite its stellar reputation and rotomolded construction with up to three-inch thick insulation, there was no guarantee that the Yeti Tundra 45 would come out on top. However, a few other entries gave it tough competition.
One of the key factors in favor of this Yeti cooler is its compact size. Despite the name indicating a 45-quart capacity, it actually holds less than 35 quarts, which is significantly smaller than the average capacity of the test group (roughly 49 quarts). During insulation testing, it was the only cooler that was difficult to close because it was almost full to its capacity.
The lack of non-insulative air trapped inside the Yeti cooler contributed to its strong insulation performance. It was observed that insulation performance tended to decrease as cooler capacities increased (excluding the Igloo cooler). However, the Yeti consistently maintained the lowest internal temperature during the twice-daily check-ins and kept the overall temperature of the meat the lowest. Additionally, after 60 hours, the Yeti still had 2 pounds of ice remaining, second only to the Orca and Academy coolers, which had 2.4 pounds each. This is impressive considering that the minimum recommended ice-to-goods ratio was used for all coolers.
The Yeti Tundra 45 uses standard rubber pull-down latches, which could be slightly difficult to operate. It comes with a metal basket for separating dry goods, but it is not tall enough to accommodate 750-milliliter wine and 2-liter soda bottles. Yeti offers a range of optional accessories and provides advice on how to integrate their iceboxes into vehicles. While it may be considered a premium brand by some, the Yeti cooler is competitively priced compared to others in the test group, especially considering its smaller capacity.
While it may have some drawbacks, such as difficult-to-use latches and limited bottle height accommodation, the Yeti cooler remains a top contender in the cooler market.
Easiest To Use Cooler
Convenience in Loading, Carrying, Opening, Cleaning, and Closing
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 to carry a 50-plus quart cooler without wheels
- Those who prioritize value and want to spend less
- Adventurers seeking a manageable cooler that is easy to load, unload, and clean
- You specifically require a bear-proof cooler, beyond just durability
Unlike most coolers in this list, the RTIC Ultra-Light coolers feature injection molding rather than rotomolding. This results in fewer trips to secure the cooler, and despite the thick insulation provided by the three-inch walls, it remains relatively lightweight. For instance, the RTIC is the same size as the ORCA 40-quart cooler but has 30% more capacity and is 30% lighter.
Among the coolers with rubber latches, the RTIC was the easiest to operate. Fastening the latches is simply a matter of pushing each one into place, eliminating the need for a strong grip and stretching them down. Opening and closing the lid is effortless.
In addition to its lighter weight and user-friendly rubber latches, the RTIC cooler is one of the three coolers on this list that is tall enough to accommodate soda and wine bottles vertically. This makes loading and unloading the cooler less of a hassle. It also stands out for having two drain ports, making cleaning, draining, and maintenance easier.
Another notable feature is the RTIC's divider, which serves multiple purposes. This 3/8-inch thick plastic divider functions as a cutting board, a shelf, and can even be propped up to create a tabletop using the rigid plastic handles on the side. Although the frozen divider was not used during the insulation test to ensure fair comparison, it would have undoubtedly enhanced the cooler's performance.
In terms of insulation, the RTIC cooler's results were average overall in the multi-day challenge. However, it performed above average during the 36- and 48-hour check-ins, with respect to internal surface temperature and the temperature difference between the interior and exterior. Ultimately, it fell short at the end of the test, with all the ice melted and the meat temperatures rising slightly above the 40-degree threshold. While its insulation results were not as good as those of the Kong, Yeti, Orca, and Academy coolers, it outperformed the Igloo and RovR coolers.
Priced at $200 like the Academy cooler, the RTIC offers good value, although not as strong as the Academy's. Nevertheless, it remains the best option in terms of price and weight-to-capacity ratio. Its superior ease of use makes it a standout choice.
Best Designed Cooler
Achieving Many Design Goals
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 locations where walking long distances is not necessary
- Durability and ice retention
- Investing in great optional accessories
- You prefer a more budget-friendly option
- Multi-day ice retention is not a priority
- You simply want a basic and lightweight cooler
Earning the Best Designed accolade does not mean that the Kong cooler will grace fashion runways in New York or Milan. However, it does indicate that the Kong ice chest stands out due to its thoughtful construction, features, and functionality. It excels in various aspects.
The Kong cooler features cam-action latches that are built into the body rather than the lid. To close it, you simply catch the buckles on the lid and pull down, offering both simplicity and security.
The lid of the Kong cooler is specially designed to be easily opened, even when the cooler is against a wall. It can crack open up to 45 degrees, which is adequate for retrieving a chilled beverage.
Another notable feature is the included divider. This versatile piece of 3/8-inch thick plastic serves as a cutting board, shelf, and even a tabletop when the rigid plastic handles on the side are propped up. The plastic handles make it easy to carry the cooler solo and minimize swaying when two people are carrying it, unlike coolers with loose straps.
The insulation performance of the Kong cooler during the test was commendable. Its internal temperatures were average at the beginning, but the surface temperature of the lid was higher than average. This indicates that the ice inside was effectively maintaining the contents' coolness rather than cooling the exterior of the cooler. At the end of the test, the Kong cooler had a low internal surface temperature, 1.6 pounds of ice remaining, and the second-lowest meat temperatures after the Yeti cooler—an impressive feat considering the Kong's larger capacity.
Priced at $329, the Kong cooler is not cheap, but it is on par with the average price of the group. In return, you get a rugged cooler that is easy to use, provides excellent insulation, and comes with a limited lifetime warranty. It is available in eight color options and offers various optional accessories, such as rubber stoppers to prevent finger injuries, a gorilla mouth bottle opener, and metal kickers that create additional tabletop areas when propping up the handles. Even without these extras, the Kong cooler deserves its Best Designed title due to its thoughtful design. For more details and long-term testing updates, refer to the full review of the Kong cooler.
Although the choice of a cooler ultimately depends on personal preference, the coolers that didn't perform as well still made the initial selection for testing. Each of these coolers has its impressive features and may still be a suitable choice for specific needs. Here are the other coolers that were tested:
- Igloo EcoCool Latitude 52: This cooler is the cheapest and lightest among the group, employing post-consumer plastic and more eco-friendly foam for a greener solution. It offers about 50% more capacity than similarly sized coolers like the Yeti Tundra 45, thanks to its noticeably thinner walls. However, it performed poorly in the insulation test, with ice running out prematurely at the 48-hour mark and no adequate means of securing the lid. The lid does feature cupholders, but they compromise insulation. While it is a step up from using a styrofoam chest for short outings, it falls short compared to the other coolers in terms of overall performance.
- BruMate BruTank: This cooler's standout feature is the integrated 2.8-gallon reservoir that allows direct beverage dispensing through an external tap. The tank can also function as a separate compartment for dry goods, although it was removed during the insulation test. The cooler has a lockable lid with an integrated manual pressure relief valve. It comes with a metal basket and plastic divider, and it can accommodate tall bottles. However, it is heavy, especially considering its capacity, and expensive. The rubber pull-down latches are challenging to open, and the T-style handle makes towing difficult for one person. It performed averagely in the insulation tests, which was expected given its large capacity. Overall, it is a very good cooler, but it did not outshine the competition in any specific category, except for its impressive tank feature.
- Orca 40 Quart: The ORCA cooler was a tough contender not to highlight as a category winner. It is bear-proof, well-designed, and offers a convenient cargo net storage compartment. It comes in various color options. It performed well in the insulation test, narrowly trailing behind the similarly priced Yeti and tying with the much cheaper Academy cooler for the most remaining ice. However, it was challenging to open, and the lid consistently got stuck. The absence of a relief valve meant struggling to pry it open due to the partial vacuum. Additionally, it was comparatively heavy for its capacity. Nevertheless, it remains an excellent cooler, and Orca now offers an 80-quart model with double the capacity for an additional $125.
- RovR RollR 60 With LandR Bin: This cooler was another tough competitor to set aside. It has perennially been one of our favorites, thanks to its large pneumatic tires. It is bear-proof, with metal bars for attaching a lock. Despite its weight of 45 pounds, it is easy to carry solo and fits well in various vehicles due to its shape. It offers ample storage, with a tall two-compartment dry bin and a removable folding bin on top for additional beach or camping accessories. However, it is the most expensive cooler in the group. The ring-style rubber pull-down latches make opening and closing challenging. As expected, given its size, it fell behind in the insulation test. While it may not be within everyone's budget, it would be the go-to choice for rough trails or sandy beaches.
In conclusion, whether you're planning a family outing, a day at the beach, or a tailgate party, having the best picnic cooler is essential to keeping your food and drinks fresh and cool. After thoroughly testing various coolers, we can confidently recommend the best overall cooler that not only provides superior insulation but also excels in design and ease of use. With its outstanding performance and durable construction, this cooler truly stands out from the rest. So make your next outdoor adventure a memorable one with the best picnic cooler that will keep your refreshments chilled and ready to enjoy!
Discover the ultimate guide to finding the best cooler for your boating vacations - essential tips, expert advice, and top picks reviewed. Keep your drinks icy cold and your excursions hassle-free with the perfect cooler for all your maritime adventures.
Discover why rotomolded coolers are the ultimate camping companion, offering unrivaled durability, superior insulation, and optimal ice retention. Explore how these coolers outperform the competition, keeping your food and beverages chilled for longer, ensuring a hassle-free outdoor adventure.
Discover the key factors, extensive options, and breathtaking expert tips in our comprehensive Ultimate Guide to Choosing the Best Wine Cooler Under Counter. Elevate your wine experience and find the perfect wine cooler to suit your needs with our expert recommendations. Don't settle for less, click now to make the most of your wine collection!
Discover the ultimate Yeti Cooler alternatives that perfectly match your needs. Explore a range of top-quality options designed to keep your beverages icy cold on any adventure. Find your ideal alternative and elevate your outdoor experience today!