What are the best parts of camping? Communing with the outdoors, watching the sunset, the fresh air, lukewarm drinks, and ruined food… wait.
Your cooler can make or break your camping trip. Keeping food cold enough that it doesn’t spoil is the bare minimum for your overnight camping trip, and if you’re taking more time, you may need more extreme performance. Coolers aren’t all the same, and there is a wide range of options to suit your budget and your cooling needs.
Before you listen to your friend who tells you that one particular high-end cooler is the only option you should be thinking about, you may want to consider a few things. We’ve put together a list of our top picks for best coolers for camping and answered a few questions you may have about how to choose. Our cooler list can suit a range of needs, so let’s break it all down to find your real best cooler choice.
How Do I Choose A Cooler?
A few things stand out with most coolers. We’d all love to invest in one of those high-end coolers that boasts two weeks of ice retention and enough durability to foil a grizzly, but if you’re mostly car camping overnight with some kids, you may not want or need to drop that kind of cash. Consider these things first.
Be honest. How long are you actually going to be gone? If you say anything less than five to seven days, you could probably avoid the wallet killing high-end coolers. If you take longer trips, especially for hunting or fishing when you need to preserve your game, investing in a high-end cooler could be worth it.
Coolers with the highest rate of retention are often roto-molded plastic which forms a better barrier around the insulation. Insulation is commercial grade and often pressure injected to create a dense layer with no weak spots. This insulation usually makes up two or three inches of the wall and should allow your contents to stay cold anywhere from seven to 14 days with some preparation.
Other elements include the lid, which should be a freezer gasket style lid. This reseals the cooler and prevents air leaks. Latches that close tightly also secure the top from accidental opening and keep the temperature consistent.
Coolers with less ice retention typically have double walls and molded plastic, but there can be weak spots in both the exterior wall and the insulation that allows more coldness to escape. The lids often seal, but with less efficiency than higher end coolers. If there are no latches, that could further reduce ice retention times.
Materials and Manufacturing
Roto-molded coolers are made using a specific process that rotates the mold as the plastic is poured. It has fewer weak spots and is extremely crack resistant. These types of coolers are often rated as bear proof and can withstand UV degradation.
Inside, commercial grade insulation made from polyurethane or other types of durable materials. These expand inside the walls creating complete coverage, especially if pressure injected. More affordable coolers don’t have the same density of insulation and lose some of the ice retention.
Higher end coolers will have reinforced hinges and latches, spots that frequently cause cooler replacement with cheaper models. These are usually the first to show wear and tear and poor design can significantly reduce the life of your cooler.
Coolers range from small, personal coolers to large party bar coolers. Consider a few things with capacity, however, because it isn’t just about the numbers. Pick the wrong thing, and you could end up with an awkward cooler that doesn’t serve you.
Basic capacity is usually measured in quarts. The quart amount also has to consider a two to one ice ratio for sweltering days or a configuration of ice packs, so you can’t just think in terms of the contents themselves.
Bigger isn’t always better, however. The larger your cooler is, the heavier it is. A cooler that weighs 30 pounds by itself could become too difficult for one person to maneuver when full. Yes, you’d love the space for 110 quarts, but can you lift it to the back of your truck or your boat without breaking your arms?
Balance the capacity with the amount of ice you’ll need and the projected weight of the cooler to find the right solution. Water is very heavy, so ice is going to add a lot of weight, as will the contents of drinks. Many cooler companies give a quart amount, but also give you the expected carrying capacity when filled with ice by estimating how many cans might fit for example.
Price is completely up to you. Budget options that are good for overnight camping are perfectly fine, especially if you’d be really sad if your two-year-old drew all over your expensive Yeti with that stolen Sharpie.
Higher end coolers get you better functionality and also more durability. If you tend to go extreme camping or you frequently encounter bears in your preferred camping spot, dropping serious cash to have a cooler safe from those elements may be plenty worth it. You’ll have to balance your budget needs with how often you want to replace the cooler.
You should also check with the retailer or manufacturer. Many of them, especially the higher end cooler companies offer things like military or first responder discounts, or other discounts associated with a job or common discount system.
How Do I Prepare My Cooler For Use?
With budget coolers, there isn’t much preparation needed because the insulation doesn’t hold temperature as tightly as some of the higher end ones. Coolers that have pressure injected, commercial grade foams could benefit from some prepping to make sure you get the most out of your ice retention.
If you keep your cooler in your warm garage for storage, it can absorb that warmth over time. Put ice in, and the ice will melt a lot faster until the insulation has time to come to the temperature of the cold, reducing your overall ice retention time.
To combat this, you should fill your cooler with ice the night before and seal the lid. In the morning, drain the excess water and top off with fresh ice. Your insulation has a head start, and you’ll enjoy far longer cold beverages. This is especially critical on days when the temps are well above scorching.
How Do I Clean And Care For My Cooler?
Coolers should be subjected to harsh chemicals or abrasive cleaners because this can eat away at the food safe lining and scratch your exterior, possibly making it more susceptible to UV damage. Instead, warm water and gentle dish soap is always the best bet for cleaning. Make sure you get that soapy water into the drain spout if you have one and allow it to drain until the water runs clear to prevent any mold buildup.
You should also avoid leaving moisture or old food inside your cooler because mold and mildew can even eat away at the lining. When the coating loses its integrity, it becomes dangerous to consume food that touches it because you don’t know what kind of chemicals are being leached into the food.
Coolers should be dried thoroughly and stored in a place where the temperature remains mostly consistent. You should never store your cooler out in the elements because this can reduce the lifespan. Check your cooler frequently for rusted hardware or other breaks before each use.
The Best Coolers For Camping
Camping coolers need to balance your need for portability with your need to keep things cold. Let’s take a look at our top picks for best cooler plus a few that may work well in certain circumstances. Let’s take a look.
Best Overall – Yeti Tundra 45
Yeti is the name in coolers, and the 45 is their classic size, built for two or three people and able to keep your contents cold for up to nine days with the right preparation. It features a rotomolded exterior with two inches of pressure injected, commercial grade insulation and a bear-resistant latch.
It has reinforced hinges that are molded directly into the body, so they never fail even with consistent use and the molded handles are suitable for tandem or solo carrying (if you’ve got the muscles to manage that).
The styling is simple and smooth with curved edges and a basic, shiny paint coating. It’s guaranteed not to flake or degrade even in a marine environment. It also has molded-in tie downs and non-slip feet to keep it in place even in a wet environment. It doesn’t quite hold 45 quarts, but it should give you plenty of space for supplies two or three people.
- ultra durable exterior
- smooth, rounded styling
- molded tie downs and handles
- no accessories mounts
- quart sizes aren’t true capacities
Runner Up – Pelican Elite Wheeled Cooler 45 Quart
Pelican’s aggressive styling gets a convenient makeover with this wheeled version. It’s Pelican’s same roto-molded design with up to three inches of pressure injected insulation to keep your food cold for up to ten days.
The wheels are large and durable enough to roll over sand or rocky terrain. It holds 45 quarts and has a freezer-style gasket that locks in temperatures and prevents leaks. Pelican’s secure open latches are a lot easier on the fingers than other styles. Plus, they’re less likely to snap with consistent use.
It comes with a fish measuring tool molded to the top, and the handle is located to the side to give you better leverage to push or pull the cooler. The handle could be modified to hold a dry storage tray without collapsing, and it’s suitable to use as an extra seat. Pelican ensures their coolers for life, so if it breaks, you’ll get a new one. No questions.
- lifetime guarantee
- durable wheels and reinforced handle
- holds 45 quarts
- no accessories included
Best Budget Alternative – Igloo BMX 52 Quart Cooler
The BMX uses a molded plastic that’s lighter in weight than roto-molded coolers but features a respectable four to five-day ice retention. It’s designed to be sporty and withstand cracks and scratches. It has a matte finish that cleans easily and has stainless steel rods for hinges.
The base has an extra depth to lift the cooler off the ground and put more space between the hot part of the earth or the back of your truck and the interior of the cooler. This helps keep the interior cooler longer. Latches are reinforced and simple to operate.
UV inhibitors help protect the finish so you can take it out on the boat without worrying. It holds honestly 52 quarts and has built-in tie-down loops to secure it to your trailer or boat without worrying. Plus, there’s a built-in fish measurer located on the top.
- costs less than $100
- lighter than standard roto-molded coolers
- UV protection
- reduced ice retention
- plug is brittle
Best Soft Sided Cooler – Pelican Elite Soft Cooler 48 Can Size
The Pelican Elite also comes in a soft sided cooler that’s built for extreme ice retention while being 55% lighter than standard hard-sided coolers. It uses double coated TPU exterior fabric which is tear resistant and completely waterproof (along with the zipper). The opening is wide, giving you full access to the interior.
Inside, closed cell insulation keeps food and drinks cold for at least three days with a minimal opening, allowing you to get away for the weekend without worrying. It has an external gear pocket for a bit of storage, and a padded shoulder strap that’s comfortable to carry even with the large 48 can size.
It secures through two loop buckle straps, and there’s also plenty of room on the front to attach carabiner storage for your smaller items. It’s not going to last as long as your hard-sided cooler, but it comes with a three-year guarantee from Pelican.
- much lighter than a hard-sided cooler
- carabiner storage on the front
- waterproof zipper
- no backpack straps
- condensation builds easily around the zipper
Best Personal Cooler – Otterbox Venture 25 Quart Cooler
The Otterbox has some of the best ice retention rates around. Their smallest offering keeps ice for up to ten days with proper preparation and has molded handles on the sides to make it easier to carry. If you’re the type of party that brings individual coolers instead of lugging around a giant one, this is a good option.
It has roto-molded sides for durability and features nearly three inches of pressure injected insulation. It has a mounting system molded to the side for all your smaller gear (cell phone, GPS, fish tracker, etc.) and is suitable for an extra seat.
Anti-slip rubber feet keep it in place, and it has a locking mechanism to prevent animals from getting into the contents. It also includes a bottle opener and can hold up to 14 cans with ice. It weighs around 16 pounds completely empty, so even fully loaded, you should be able to carry it by yourself. It’s grizzly proof with the locking system and comes with a limited lifetime warranty.
- perfect for one person
- grizzly proof
- accessories mount on the side
- doesn’t include dry storage tray at this size
Your camping cooler should fit your needs and keep things cold even when you’re out for a few days. Nothing’s worse than waking up in the morning to soggy, ruined food and lukewarm drinks, but you can keep the contents cold without having to run to the store for ice every six hours. These coolers are great for taking out on the lake or remaining in the back of your truck for impromptu trips, and a few shouldn’t even break the bank.
Whatever you choose, make sure that your cooler balances size with capacity, or you’ll be struggling to get it out to your campsite. If you prefer a lighter cooler, you could reduce all that weight by using our soft-sided pick as a personal cooler. There’s even a budget one if money is a concern.
Investing in a cooler frees you from having to buy a cooler every season when the hinges break or the latches crack. Coolers can be an investment, and considering some of ours have a lifetime warranty, consider the money an investment in your outdoor future. Whatever you choose, get back out to the wild where everything is fresher and brighter. Just be sure to bring a few beers along the way and some campfire snacks for the perfect evening. Happy camping!