Ultimate Guide to the Finest Coolers for BBQs: Unveiling the Secrets to Exceptional Ice Retention and Unparalleled Performance in 2023
When it comes to outdoor gatherings and sizzling BBQs, a reliable cooler is an absolute essential. Whether you're planning a backyard cookout or heading out for a camping adventure, you don't want to settle for just any cooler. That's why we put several top coolers to the test, rigorously examining their ice retention, durability, and overall performance. In this article, we'll dive into the different types of coolers available and reveal the best ones that are guaranteed to keep your beverages icy cold well into the year 2023. So, get ready to elevate your BBQ experience with the ultimate coolers that have passed our rigorous assessments.
Other Coolers We Tested
The Pelican Elite 45-Quart Cooler with Wheels was previously a winner in our tests but was displaced by the Yeti. While it didn't perform as well in terms of ice retention, it did have some notable design choices. We appreciated its grippable, molded handles and its wheels. However, the orientation of the Yeti's wheels behind the cooler made it easier to maneuver. The Pelican cooler has a 45-quart capacity, which is plenty big, but the Roadie 48 was slightly larger and had a shape that better accommodated more items. Nonetheless, the Pelican cooler is still heavy-duty with a freezer-grade gasket. It also has a sloped drain that makes it easy to empty and clean. Additionally, it comes with a lifetime warranty, which justifies its higher price tag. Oh, and it includes a built-in bottle opener for convenience.
Pelican Elite 45-Quart Cooler with Wheels
RTIC 45 Cooler
RTIC offers an affordable option in the market for rotomolded coolers. The RTIC 45, for example, is over $100 less expensive than a similarly sized Yeti. However, despite the cost savings, it sacrifices very little in terms of performance. In fact, it had slightly more ice than the winning Yeti Roadie after sitting out. The rest of its design is quite comparable to a Yeti Tundra, with rope handles and rubber latches that work just fine. However, the latches and wheels on the Roadie give it a slight edge. If you're looking for a sizeable rotomolded cooler under $250, the RTIC 45 is a great choice.
Yeti Tundra 65 Cooler
The Yeti Tundra 65 Cooler is highly regarded for its impeccable build quality. It is designed to withstand anything and is even bear-proof, unlike the Roadie. The cooler features three inches of insulation, which provides excellent temperature retention. With a capacity to hold 42 cans or 52 pounds of ice, it also comes with a dry goods basket. However, it doesn't drain as effectively as expected, requiring it to be tipped over to empty the water. Additionally, it can be quite exhausting to manipulate due to its lack of wheels.
RovR RollR 45 Wheeled Cooler
The RovR Products RollR 45 Cooler comes with wheels, but we found that it still required substantial effort to change directions and navigate over bumps. It also warmed up more quickly than similarly priced models. Furthermore, its taller and narrower design didn't provide ample storage space for our items. Overall, it didn't perform as well as expected.
Igloo Maxcold 50-Quart Cooler
The Igloo Maxcold 50-Quart Cooler is a budget-friendly option that performed slightly worse than the Coleman in terms of capacity, aesthetics, and extra features.
Types of Coolers
Coolers can be categorized based on material and size. Soft-shell coolers are ideal for daily lunches, beach trips, and casual outings. They are made with materials like nylon, cotton-twill, heavy-duty vinyl, or canvas. Look for leak-resistant construction and stain-resistant material when selecting a soft cooler.
On the other hand, hard-sided coolers or chests are suitable for hunting, camping, and extended trips. Many hard-side chests are rotomolded, which makes them waterproof and leakproof. They may be heavier but are more durable. Traditional hard-sided coolers are injection molded and are lighter and more affordable.
Backpack coolers offer convenience and insulation on the go. They are constructed similarly to soft-shelled coolers but have padded straps and sometimes dry storage compartments. Remember to fully drain the cooler to prevent bacteria and mold growth, even if it has a drain plug.
Best Coolers of 2023
We have tested a variety of coolers and identified the top performers in different categories:
- Cabela's Polar Cap cooler offers exceptional performance and holds its low temperature for an extended period, making it the best large cooler.
- Magellan Outdoors cooler provides similar performance to the Cabela's Polar Cap at a lower price point, making it a great value option.
- Yeti Tundra Haul cooler may not have the lowest overall temperature, but it maintains its low temperature for a longer duration. It also features rugged wheels for easy transport.
- Magellan Outdoors cooler delivers outstanding performance at a more affordable price compared to the Yeti Tundra 45 cooler.
- RTIC cooler offers impressive temperature retention and is also budget-friendly, making it a top choice for midsize coolers.
Please note that the Igloo BMX 52qt Cooler performed poorly compared to other models in terms of temperature retention.
One of the main factors to consider when shopping for a cooler is its ice retention capability. This refers to how long the cooler can keep a full load of ice frozen, which is important for keeping drinks cold. Expensive coolers on the market claim to excel in this area, especially roto-molded coolers that are specifically engineered to maintain ice. However, I believed that a standard ice retention test alone wouldn't provide a complete picture. Simply measuring the time it takes for the ice to melt overlooks other important performance aspects. To gain a more comprehensive understanding, I decided to incorporate the ambient temperature inside each cooler, even before any ice had melted.
To conduct this test, I modified the ice retention procedure. Instead of filling each cooler with a full load of ice, I used an amount equal to 10% of the cooler's total volume. I had already accurately measured the total volume of each cooler during a previous capacity test. This adjustment challenged the coolers further, allowing for a more detailed evaluation of their performance relative to one another.
In order to accurately monitor the ambient temperature, I placed the ice in each cooler and positioned a jar of propylene glycol solution (diluted antifreeze) with a temperature probe beneath it. I chose to elevate the jar because the temperature within the ice would be consistent across all coolers, making ice retention the only variable. By monitoring the ambient temperature above the ice, we could gather more meaningful data and consider additional influencing factors.
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Furthermore, this entire test was conducted in one of our climate-controlled test chambers to ensure consistent conditions. Before conducting the test, I allowed each cooler to sit open in the room for several hours to ensure they all started at room temperature (around 80 degrees Fahrenheit), simulating a typical outdoor summer temperature.
The results of this detailed test were quite revealing. After 48 hours (72 hours for the largest coolers), I obtained a comprehensive graph showing the minute-by-minute temperature inside each cooler. The differences between the coolers were striking. To provide a clearer comparison, I categorized the coolers into small, midsize, and large sizes, separate from the soft-sided coolers.
Mobility and durability
While testing the coolers, I also carefully examined their design and features, paying close attention to any durability concerns. For example, I found the lid of the Igloo Latitude wheeled cooler to be underwhelming. It lacks a lock and the plastic nub hinges are flimsy. A simple tug is enough to detach the entire lid, and the cheap plastic wheels didn't leave a good impression either. This cooler may not be the best choice for camping.
On the other hand, the Rovr Rollr wheeled cooler performed much better in terms of durability. It features a rugged design with heavy-duty wheels, a sturdy steel handlebar, and an optional $50 accessory that allows towing behind a bike. I appreciated the interior divider that facilitates separating items that should stay dry from the ice. Additionally, the cooler offers customizable interior liner designs. My only minor gripe is that the T-shaped handlebar lacks rubber grips in the middle, the area where it is most commonly held while carrying the cooler single-handedly.
The Igloo Trailmate's impressive features are difficult to capture in a single photo.
Steve Conaway/CNET When it comes to wheeled coolers, the Igloo Journey Trailmate 70qt All-Terrain cooler stands out with its abundance of additional features. While not as durable overall as the Rovr cooler, the Trailmate is designed for different purposes. If I were embarking on a weekend trip with a couple of friends into the woods, the Rovr would be my clear choice. However, if I were headed to the beach with the family for a day, I would likely opt for the Igloo cooler.
If you plan on camping in areas with bear activity, investing in a bear-resistant cooler is worth considering. The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee maintains a list of certified options, which includes several coolers from the ones I have tested: Cabela's, Orca, Rovr, Magellan Outdoors, and Yeti.
Additionally, it is important to assess whether a cooler is sturdy enough to be used as a seat, particularly for camping trips. Most of the coolers I tested were capable of doubling as a seat, but some went the extra mile. For instance, the Bison Gen 2 Cooler goes as far as advertising itself as an ideal platform for casting while fishing and even offers nonslip traction mats in various designs for its lid.
In terms of build quality, the Bison cooler exuded a premium feel with its hinges, lid, drain plug, and latches. However, it didn't perform as well as other roto-molded models in terms of maintaining cold air and it comes with a $150 higher price tag compared to our most affordable roto-molded pick, the Xspec 60qt High Performance cooler.
Latches and lids
The Magellan Outdoors model features four hinges and two latches on each side, providing the option to open the cooler from either side or remove the lid completely.
Steve Conaway/CNET Now, let's discuss hinges and latches in more detail. Some coolers have good ones, some have bad ones, and some don't have them at all. Coolers with removable lids tend to be more affordable options that may not perform as well as top-tier coolers. However, there is one exception I've discovered so far. The Magellan Outdoors coolers feature a double-latching, double-hinged removable lid and have been awarded as the best small and large coolers. The user-friendly design allows the cooler to be opened from either side, and if desired, the latches on both sides can be disengaged to completely remove the lid.
In contrast, many newer cooler designs from brands like Yeti, RTIC, Orca, Cabela's, and Frosted Frog rely on rubber T-shaped handles that require stretching to secure the lid. Even for adults, these handles can be difficult to manipulate. I asked three other adults to secure these handles, and out of the four of us, only two were successful, one struggled, and the last one succeeded after much effort. While performance is crucial, design also plays a significant role, and this can sometimes be a deal-breaker.
I understand that rubber bungee-style latches are likely cost-effective and low-maintenance for manufacturers since they involve fewer moving parts and flexible rubber. However, I have come across a latching mechanism that strikes a better balance between rubber latches and ones found in Magellan Outdoors products. This mechanism can be seen on models like the Xspec 60qt cooler, Amazon's Commercial 20qt cooler, and the Lifetime 55qt high-performance cooler. These latches feature rubber straps to secure the lid, but at the end of each strap, there is a plastic handle that can be leveraged against the mounting point for easy tensioning. This design surpasses the rubber T handles, although Magellan Outdoors still earns my vote for the best latching mechanism.
Our first soft-sided and backpack cooler didn't perform the best, but it is durable and a great option for hikers and campers alike.
Steve Conaway/CNET The Yeti Hopper Backflip 24 was the first backpack-style cooler we tested. While its overall performance was not outstanding, there were some positive aspects. First and foremost, it functions as a backpack, which is a great convenience when transporting gear to the beach or embarking on a hiking day. The backpack is equipped with numerous straps and attachment points, making it suitable for outdoor activities.
Since it is a soft-sided cooler, it does not feature latches but instead relies on a zipper that claims to be water- and leakproof. We put this claim to the test during our capacity evaluations by filling the cooler to the brim with water and vigorously moving it around without any leaks. Therefore, we can confidently say that leaking should not be a concern. The recent Magellan Outdoors soft-sided cooler, which holds the title for Best Soft-Sided Cooler, also shares the same zipper setup.
Surprisingly, brand reputation does matter. Yeti coolers are expected to perform well but also come with a higher price tag compared to competitors. I recommend keeping an eye on other respected brands that offer more affordable options. Magellan Outdoors, Frosted Frog, RTIC, and even Amazon's Commercial coolers have proven to be worthwhile contenders across their product range based on my observations.
Lastly, I'm surprised that high-end options haven't incorporated more unique features to set themselves apart, such as built-in batteries for device charging during outdoor camping trips or even solar panels. If these features interest you, crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo may be the place to explore, although caution is advised. Mega-coolers with fancy gadgets such as the Coolest Cooler and the Infinite Cooler have garnered infamy due to production delays and dissatisfied customers. Review the comments on the Indiegogo campaign for the Infinite Cooler and you'll see the disappointment. It's essential to approach such campaigns with skepticism and carefully consider where to invest your money. After all, the last thing you want is to be let down by your cooler. Stick with the tried-and-true options I have recommended above.
Other coolers we tested revealed promising features, such as durability, portability, and innovative design elements that cater specifically to BBQ enthusiasts. From electric coolers and soft-sided coolers to high-end rotomolded coolers, the market is brimming with options to suit every individual's needs. Based on our comprehensive research, the best coolers of 2023 go beyond mere ice retention; they offer efficient insulation, convenient features like built-in bottle openers, and even Bluetooth connectivity for music and entertainment. So, whether you're planning a small backyard gathering or an elaborate BBQ feast, investing in a top-quality cooler is a worthy choice for keeping your beverages and food refreshingly chilled throughout the event.
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