The Ultimate Guide to the Best Coolers for Unforgettable Outdoor Celebrations
Are you tired of struggling to keep your drinks and food chilled during outdoor celebrations? Look no further! In this article, we have compiled a list of the best coolers of 2023, specifically designed to make ice retention a breeze. Whether you're planning a backyard BBQ or a beach party, these coolers will ensure that your refreshments stay icy cold for hours on end. Say goodbye to melted ice and hello to the best cooler for outdoor celebrations! Join us as we dive into the top contenders, revealing the secrets to their superior ice retention capabilities.
Ice Retention: The Key Factor
When shopping for a cooler, one important factor that is often emphasized is ice retention. This refers to how long a cooler can keep a full load of ice frozen, which is crucial for keeping drinks cold. Expensive coolers, particularly roto-molded ones, pride themselves on excelling in this test, justifying their high price tags.
However, I had reservations about relying solely on an ice retention test to determine a cooler's performance. While it's true that some coolers can keep ice frozen for longer periods, this approach overlooks other important factors. I wanted to gauge the cooler's performance not just after a few days, but also within the first few hours before any ice had melted.
To achieve this, I modified the ice retention test. Instead of using a full load of ice, I used an amount equivalent to 10% of each cooler's total volume. By using less ice, I aimed to challenge the coolers more and obtain more detailed insights into their performance relative to one another.
In order to track the ambient temperature inside each cooler, I placed the ice in each cooler below an elevated jar filled with a propylene glycol solution (a watered-down antifreeze) containing a temperature probe. Elevating the jar allowed us to capture the ambient temperature, which provided additional variables to consider. The temperature within the ice would have been similar across all the coolers, so tracking the ambient temperature above provided more meaningful data.
I conducted all these tests in one of our appliance lab's climate-controlled test chambers. To ensure consistency, I allowed each cooler to sit open in the room for several hours beforehand, ensuring they all started at room temperature (around 80 degrees Fahrenheit) to simulate a typical outdoor summer temperature.
The results of these tests were illuminating. After 48 hours (72 hours for the largest coolers), I obtained a detailed graph showing the minute-by-minute temperature inside each cooler. The differences between the coolers were remarkable. To make sense of this data, I categorized the coolers into small (less than 40 quarts), midsize (40-59 quarts), and large (60 quarts or more) based on capacity, excluding soft-sided coolers.
Mobility and Durability
In addition to ice retention, I also took into consideration each cooler's design and features, with a particular focus on durability. For example, I found the lid of the Igloo Latitude wheeled cooler to be disappointing due to its inability to lock shut and its flimsy plastic nub hinges. The cheap plastic wheels also left much to be desired, making it unsuitable for camping.
On the other hand, the Rovr Rollr wheeled cooler performed much better in terms of durability. It featured a rugged design with heavy-duty wheels and a sturdy steel handlebar. An additional $50 accessory even allowed it to be towed behind a bike. I appreciated its interior divider, which made it easy to separate items that shouldn't get wet from the ice. The option to customize the interior with different liners was also a nice touch. My only complaint was that the T-shaped handlebar lacked rubber grips in the middle, where a user would typically hold it while carrying it single-handedly.
When it comes to wheeled coolers, another standout option was the Igloo Journey Trailmate 70qt All-Terrain cooler. It came with numerous extras and features, although it wasn't as durable as the Rovr. The choice between the two really depends on the intended use. For a weekend trip into the woods with friends, the Rovr is the clear winner. However, if it's a day at the beach with the family, the Igloo might be the better option.
If bear encounters are a concern during camping trips, investing in a bear-resistant cooler is recommended. The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee maintains a list of certified options, and several models from Cabela's, Orca, Rovr, Magellan Outdoors, and Yeti met the criteria.
Lastly, it's worth considering whether a cooler is sturdy enough to double as a sitting surface, which can be convenient during camping trips. Most of the coolers I tested were capable of this, but some went further. For instance, the Bison Gen 2 Cooler advertised itself as an ideal casting platform for fishing and even offered nonslip traction mats for the lid in various designs. While the Bison cooler felt premium and had excellent build quality, it didn't retain cold air as effectively or as long as other roto-molded models, and it was significantly more expensive than our most affordable roto-molded pick, the Xspec 60qt High Performance cooler.
Latches and Lids
Now, let's discuss hinges and latches in more detail. Some coolers have good hinges and latches, while others are lacking in this area. Coolers with removable lids tend to be cheaper and may not perform as well as those with fixed lids. However, Magellan Outdoors has proven to be an exception with its double-latching, double-hinged removable lid, which won our picks for best small and large coolers. The dual-latch design allows the cooler to be opened from either side, and both latches can be disengaged to remove the lid completely.
In contrast, newer cooler designs from brands like Yeti, RTIC, Orca, Cabela's, and Frosted Frog feature rubber T-shaped handles that need to be stretched to secure the lid. These handles can be difficult to pull down, even for adults. In my tests, only two out of four adults were successful in securing these handles, and one of them struggled excessively. While the performance of the cooler is crucial, design also plays a significant role and can sometimes make or break the overall experience.
Rubber bungee-style latches, while cost-effective and low-maintenance for manufacturers, may not be the most user-friendly option. However, there is a latching mechanism that strikes a good balance between rubber latches and those found on Magellan Outdoors products. This design features rubber straps with plastic handles at the end, allowing for easy tension adjustment. While this is an improvement, Magellan Outdoors still gets my vote for the best latching mechanism.
Let's not forget about soft-sided coolers. While they may not have performed the best overall, they still have their merits, especially for hikers and campers. The Yeti Hopper Backflip 24, for example, is a backpack-style cooler that offers the convenience of hands-free transportation. It features multiple straps and hitching points, making it ideal for hiking. Its zipper is claimed to be water- and leakproof, a feature that proved effective during our capacity evaluations. Another soft-sided cooler, the Magellan Outdoors model, also features a similar zipper setup.
Brands do make a difference when it comes to cooler performance. Yeti is a well-known brand associated with superior performance, albeit at a higher price point. However, I recommend considering other brands that offer comparable performance at more affordable prices. Magellan Outdoors, Frosted Frog, RTIC, and even Amazon Commercial coolers have proven to be worth considering based on their product offerings and performance.
One aspect that surprised me was the lack of high-end coolers differentiating themselves with innovative features, such as built-in batteries for device charging during camping trips or solar panels. For those seeking such features, crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo may be a better bet, although caution is advised due to the history of production delays and customer dissatisfaction associated with some campaign-backed coolers. It's important to exercise skepticism and stick with reliable coolers like the ones I've recommended above.
Best Coolers of 2023
In my testing for the best coolers, the title of the best large cooler previously held by Cabela's 60-quart version has now been claimed by a Magellan Outdoors model. However, in terms of cold retention, Cabela's Polar Cap option reigns supreme. It not only achieved the lowest internal temperature but also maintained it for approximately 20% longer than its closest competitor.
Cabela's Polar Cap coolers range in price from $300 to $400 for the 60-, 80-, and 100-quart models. The higher price tag guarantees exceptional performance. While these coolers may not have many fancy features, they do include built-in bottle openers on the rubber latches, a pressure relief valve for easy opening when internal pressure rises, and rubber padded feet to elevate the cooler and minimize heat transfer. Additionally, they are certified bear-resistant.
Magellan Outdoors offers a large cooler that performs very close to Cabela's Polar Cap Equalizer. The temperature difference between the two was less than one degree Fahrenheit. If your main priority is keeping things cold, you'll need to decide if that 0.9 degrees is worth an extra hundred dollars. Personally, I'd recommend saving the cash and using it to stock your cooler. Not to mention, Magellan's hard-sided coolers include my favorite feature: double-sided hinge latches. This design allows you to open the cooler from either side, eliminating the need for reaching over the lid or asking someone to grab your drink. The model also comes with wheels, making it easier to transport, and metal bottle opener inserts on both sides.
Yeti is a brand that is synonymous with top-tier performance, although it often comes with a higher price tag. The Tundra Haul lives up to the brand's reputation, maintaining its lowest temperature for a significantly longer time than its competitors. The Haul features rugged "Neverflat" wheels, allowing it to be used in more challenging terrains compared to other coolers. It's an easy-to-transport option that guarantees maximum cooling duration.
Once again, Magellan Outdoors proves its capabilities with another impressive cooler. The performance data clearly demonstrates its superiority, and the competitors' thin walls pale in comparison. Although the other options may be cheaper and available in backpack formats, in my opinion, soft-sided coolers are not ideal choices. They struggle to reach and maintain low temperatures for extended periods. However, preferences may vary, and some may find slightly cooler-than-room-temperature suitable for their needs.
For those seeking the best value, price doesn't always equate to quality. The RTIC cooler stands out with its impressive cooling capabilities. It achieved the lowest temperatures among midsize coolers and performed well against larger coolers. Priced at $220, it offers superior performance compared to its competitors in the midsize and large cooler categories. Only the Igloo BMX 52qt Cooler, which performed poorly, has a lower price tag. Therefore, if you prioritize excellent performance without breaking the bank, the RTIC cooler is a reliable choice.
The newcomer in the cooling world, the Magellan Outdoors Dual Open 20qt Cooler, has surpassed the previous titleholder, the Yeti Tundra 45 Cooler, in terms of performance. The Yeti may have achieved slightly lower temperatures, but the Magellan cooler maintained its temperature for longer durations. Furthermore, the Magellan cooler is priced at $120, which is less than half the cost of the Yeti cooler. This cooler also offers additional features, including dual-side latches that act as hinges, effectively allowing access from either side. It even includes bottle openers, a metal reinforced lock area, and a drain plug. My recommendation is clear: the Magellan Outdoors Dual Open 20qt Cooler is the standout choice in this category.
In conclusion, when it comes to outdoor celebrations, having a reliable cooler with excellent ice retention is essential. The best coolers of 2023 have proven themselves in keeping drinks and food icy cold for extended periods, ensuring that your festivities go on without a hitch. Whether it's a summer barbecue, a pool party, or a camping trip, investing in one of these top-of-the-line coolers will guarantee that your beverages stay refreshingly cold, allowing you and your guests to fully enjoy the celebration. So, don't settle for anything less than the best cooler for your outdoor gatherings – make the right choice and keep the good times rolling!
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