Best Coolers

Updated November 2020
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Buying guide for best coolers

Whether you’re an avid camper, like to take road trips, or just enjoy a fun afternoon picnic outdoors, a good cooler is a necessity. How else can you bring your favorite foods and drinks with you – and keep them cold – when you’re on the road or spending time in nature?

With a cooler, you can keep foods fresh no matter how hot it gets. Your cooler protects both prepared foods, like pasta salad, or foods that you plan to cook later for camping, such as steak or burgers. You can also load it up with cans of soda, bottles of water, or your favorite beer, so you always have cold beverages on hand, wherever you go.

But while buying a cooler may seem pretty straightforward, finding the right model can be a little tricky. It’s important to know what size is best for your needs, which model will be most comfortable to carry, and what other features can make a cooler more useful to you and your travel or recreation companions.

Check out our top five recommendations if you’re ready to shop for a cooler. For some general tips on choosing the best cooler to meet your needs, continue reading our shopping guide.

The first portable ice chest or cooler was invented in 1951 by Richard C. Laramy.

Who needs a cooler?

If you travel regularly with perishable food or drinks that you want to keep cool for longer than a day, you need a high-quality cooler. In particular, a cooler is a necessity for anyone who takes camping or road trips frequently.

It can come in especially handy if you travel with a big group, because a cooler with a large capacity will have plenty of room to store food and beverages for multiple people.

However, you may also need a cooler if you regularly take day long excursions to the beach, park, or other outdoor locations where you plan to picnic. In those cases, though, you can usually get away with a smaller cooler.

A cooler also comes in handy if you’re hosting an outdoor party. You can keep soda, beer, water, and other drinks in it so guests can help themselves to cold beverages throughout the event.

Types of coolers

There are typically three main types of coolers: hard, soft, and beverage-style.

A hard cooler is probably what comes to mind when you think of a cooler. It features foam insulation that is coated in hard plastic or some other rigid material. With a chest-like shape, hard coolers are available in a variety of sizes and usually very durable.

A soft cooler is usually made of durable canvas and is smaller in size; you can usually carry it by yourself. They typically aren’t as durable as hard coolers.

The typical beverage cooler is a hard cooler that’s smaller in size. It usually has a capacity equal to a few cans of soda or bottles of water, and maybe a sandwich or two, so it’s best for day trips, such as an afternoon at the beach.

Considerations for selecting a cooler

Latch and lid gasket

Most larger coolers feature a hinged lid, so it’s important to find a model with a strong latch to keep the interior cold and the contents secure.

Check the lid gasket as well. It should provide an airtight seal, so the ice inside the cooler lasts as long as possible and cold air doesn’t escape.

Material and weight

Coolers typically come in three types of material: fabric, plastic, and metal.

Each material has a different weight, and it’s important to keep that in mind because a cooler gets even heavier once you pack it with ice, food, and beverages.

Fabric coolers are usually made of durable canvas and insulated with flexible foam. They are designed to hold only small amounts of food and beverages, and are very lightweight.

Plastic coolers are typically made from molded plastic and foam insulation. They are easy to clean and fairly lightweight, so you have an easier time carting them around.

Metal coolers offer the best insulation, but they can be very heavy. They’re usually more costly, too, and aren’t always the most durable option because they can dent easily.

Cooler handles

You’ll most likely carry your cooler from place to place, so find a model with sturdy, comfortable handles.

Molded handles are usually the most durable, because there’s nothing to break or snap off. Flap handles can still work well on a high-quality cooler, though.

Handles with textured or rubberized grips are usually the most comfortable to hold because they are ergonomically designed to fit your hand.

Drainage

With a large cooler, it helps to have some type of bottom drain. That allows you to remove melted ice without having to lift or tilt the cooler over.

Look for a model with drain plug at the bottom that you can easily pull out to empty the cooler.

Cooler size

The best size for a cooler depends on how you plan to use it. Larger models may always seem like the best option, but lugging around a cooler that’s bigger than you need can be inefficient and frustrating.

If you only need a cooler that can hold some drinks, a 5 to 10 quart model works well. For day or overnight trips, a cooler that holds about 25 quarts is usually sufficient. For a weekend trip, a 40 to 50 quart cooler typically works best.

If you frequently take trips where you need food for three or more days, opt for a cooler that holds 65 to 75 quarts. However, if you’re traveling for a week or longer, you may want a cooler that holds as much as 120 quarts.

Keep the size of your traveling party in mind too. For example, while a 50 quart cooler can hold sufficient food for a weekend trip with two people, you’ll likely want one that holds 75 to 100 quarts for a group of four or five people.

Extra features

Wheels can come in very handy if your cooler holds more than 30 quarts. You can easily wheel the cooler around, and you won’t have to lift it when it’s full of heavy food. Keep in mind that wheels sometimes reduce a cooler’s interior space a bit, though.

When the ice starts to melt in a cooler, an interior ribbed bottom can save you from soggy, waterlogged food. It allows the water to drain beneath the items inside instead of around it, so your food doesn’t wind up sitting in a puddle.

Insert trays can also be a handy feature in a cooler. They typically sit in a ridge at the top of the cooler’s interior, allowing you to separate small items from bulkier items in the bottom.

You may also want to look for a cooler that’s equipped with dividers. Similar to insert trays, dividers provide a method of organizing your food more effectively.

Cooler prices

Coolers are available at a variety of price points, and the cost typically depends on how large they are and what material they’re made of.

In general, you can expect to pay $50 to $400 for a large, hard exterior cooler.

Higher end models with more features will typically cost between $100 and $400.

Smaller, soft exterior coolers usually range in price from $20 to $45.

Very small beverage coolers can cost as little as $15.

Tips and tricks

  • Coolers are designed to retain their temperature, so it’s best to cool yours down before packing it. Dump a spare bag of ice into it two to three hours before you plan to fill it so the temperature has time to come down. Toss that ice and refill the cooler with fresh ice and your food and beverages.

  • Remember cold air flows downwards. So, when packing your cooler, put all the food items in first, then pack it tightly with ice at the top. Layering food and ice is another idea – just make the topmost layer of ice the thickest.

  • It’s best to use ice in large chunks to keep your cooler cold. The larger the ice pieces are, the longer they’ll take to melt.

  • Always wash your cooler thoroughly before packing it. Even if you washed it after its last use, it may have collected dust and debris in the meantime.

  • Don’t drain out melted ice from the cooler unless you can drain the water and pack in more ice. Draining the water allows air to fill its space, and air is the biggest enemy in keeping coolers cold.

In New Zealand, coolers are known as chilly bins.

FAQ

Q. Can you use dry ice in a cooler?

A. You can use dry ice to keep food frozen in most coolers, but some are specifically designed for use with it. It’s best to purchase one of those models if you plan to add dry ice. In a conventional cooler, you may need to add blankets or newspaper to help keep the dry ice cold.

Q. How long will a cooler keep food and beverages cold?

A. How long your cooler keeps its contents cool depends on several factors, such as its quality, the exterior temperature, how often you’re opening it up, and how full it is. A full cooler will typically keep food and beverages cool for about two days, though you can extend the time by adding fresh ice daily.

Q. What’s the best way to clean a cooler?

A. For both hard and soft coolers, a simple mixture of water and mild dish soap is usually the best method. Be sure to rinse the cooler thoroughly after cleaning, though, to remove any soap residue.

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