Few things hit the spot quite like an ice cold beverage on a hot sunny day — and as we continue to work through the ongoing pandemic, camping trip vacations and socially distanced backyard get-togethers have never sounded more appealing. That's why a decent, dependable cooler makes for a worthy summer splurge. But which one should you get?
Chief among your options are a growing number of heavy-duty, "rotomolded" coolers that deliver superior insulation to traditional coolers, but they tend to cost a lot more than you might be used to paying for a cooler — even hundreds of dollars more.
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Are the best coolers actually worth their asking prices? And can any of the cheaper ones keep up?
That's what I wanted to know, so I zeroed in on large, hard-sided coolers and turned to the usual suspects — Rubbermaid, Igloo, Coleman — and lugged their most popular models into the CNET Appliances test lab. There we pitted them against the insulated power of rotomolded coolers from Orca, Rovr, Yeti, Pelican, RTIC, Cabela's and more. Our mission? Find the best coolers of the bunch — you know, the ones that pack a lot of stuff, are easy to carry and are virtually indestructible — and figure out if the insulation offered by rotomolded, hard-sided coolers is worth the cold, hard cash needed to bring them home.
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After several weeks of hands-on testing and countless ambient temperature readings, we were ready to separate the winners from the also-rans. Here's everything I learned, starting with the coolers I think you should rush out and buy before your next camping trip or big family gathering. I'll update this periodically.
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|Best rotomolded cooler||Cabela's Polar Cap Equalizer Cooler||$350 at Cabela's|
|Best value pick||Igloo MaxCold Cooler||$60 on Amazon|
|Best rotomolded value pick||RTIC 65 Cooler||$330 on Amazon|
|Best performance||Yeti Tundra 45||$300 on Amazon|
|Best design||Lifetime High Performance Cooler||$97 at Walmart|
|Best mobility||Rovr Rollr 60 Cooler||$400 at RovrProducts|
|Best cooler for cheapskates||Igloo Recool Biodegradable Cooler||$10 at REI|
Best rotomolded coolers
Cabela's Polar Cap Equalizer Cooler, $350
Orca Classic Cooler, $340
Rotomolding is short for rotational molding, a manufacturing technique that literally spins the mold as the plastic is poured in. The result: plastic that's more durable, more uniform in density and, most importantly in the case of coolers, better at insulation.
Rotomolded coolers don't come cheap, but they're demonstrably better than the competition at keeping things cold. I mean, it's not like we have a portable refrigerator on our hands here, but it keeps cans COLD. The best we've seen from a pure performance standpoint comes from Yeti — but the extra-thick walls of that heavy-duty cooler mean that you're getting seriously shortchanged on inches and capacity (more on that in just a bit).
Out of the rest of the rotomolded field, our top durable performers for insulation were the Orca Classic Cooler and the Cabela's Polar Cap Equalizer Cooler, which are fairly close in price. They essentially tied in my performance tests, so picking between them really comes down to taste. The Cabela's cooler offers slightly more space inside (about 3 quarts' worth), and it includes clever bottle openers built into the rubber latches. Meanwhile, the Orca cooler comes in better-looking colors, and it's a bit more comfortable to carry since it doesn't have rigid molded handles that jut out over top of the roped handles.
Best value picks
Igloo MaxCold Cooler, $60
RTIC 65 Cooler, $330
If you just want a dependable cooler that's not too expensive, put the Igloo MaxCold at the top of your list. Prices vary based on where and when you buy, but I scored mine on sale last year for $45. That makes it the only cooler available for less than $50 that remains in the top five of my performance tests, a list that now includes two years' worth of contenders. In fact, it finished in fourth. Only the Yeti, Cabela's and Orca managed to outperform it — and again, each of those costs $300 or more.
The MaxCold's plasticky build and dated design aren't anything fancy to look at, but it covers the basics by including a drainage spout and a latch for the lid (not every cooler in this price range does). Plus, it's sturdy enough to sit on, which could come in handy during your next camping trip. All of that adds up to a lot of value — enough so that the MaxCold earned an overall score of 8.2 here on CNET, higher than any other cooler I've reviewed.
Looking for a rotomolded value? Check out the RTIC 65. It's a large cooler that'll hold about twice as many cans as the Yeti. The 1-year warranty is shorter than you'll get with most other rotomolded options, but if you just want a rotomolded cooler with the most capacity for the cash, it fits the bill.
Yeti Tundra 45 Cooler, $300
I told you a couple of paragraphs ago that the $300 Yeti Tundra 45 was our top-performing cooler, but I should also add that it really wasn't close. With walls that are about 2.75 inches thick, it's insulated better than any other cooler that I've tested to date, which is key for performance in a portable cooler — and also more insulation than you get from the stainless steel Yeti V Series, which costs a whopping $800.
Lots of insulation means that the Yeti can do more with less. With just 3 pounds of ice — not even enough to fully cover the bottom of the cooler — the Yeti was able to pull its internal ambient temperature down by almost 25 degrees, the second biggest temperature drop of the group. The cooler from Cabela's hit a minimum temperature that was about 1 degree lower, but unlike the Yeti, it wasn't able to hold that minimum for long periods of time. In fact, after 24 hours in a climate-controlled room set to 70 degrees, the Yeti was the only cooler that still had ice in it. After 48 hours, it was the only cooler that still hadn't returned to room temperature.
You'll want to check out my full review of this bear resistant, heavy duty cooler to get a better sense of just how badly it smoked the competition, but a good analogy would be a horse that separates itself from the pack early on and wins its race in a breakaway finish. I wish the Tundra 45 offered more capacity for the price, but if you just want the cooler that'll keep your ice frozen the longest, this is the one.
Lifetime High Performance Cooler, $97
If you want a cooler that feels modern and fancy, but you aren't ready to dish out hundreds of dollars for a rotomolded model, consider the Lifetime High Performance Cooler, which I found on sale at Walmart for $97. It was a top-five performer in my tests, essentially tying the excellent Igloo MaxCold while also offering a significant step up in build quality.
The Lifetime cooler isn't rotomolded, but that's the kind of aesthetic that it offers. Call it a lookalike if you must, but it's a very good one, with elegant roped handles, dual-locking lid latches and even a built-in bottle opener, something you won't get with the Yeti or Orca we tested. It's also bigger than both of those pricier options, coming in at a bigger-than-advertised 62.4 quarts. If you're looking for a top performer that looks the part, Lifetime's design offers the most bang for your buck.
Looking for something eye-catching that'll stand out the next time you're tailgating? Check out Pelican. I wasn't terribly impressed with the performance as compared with other rotomolded coolers, but the brand offers one of the best ranges of color options that you'll find as you shop, and most of the colors don't cost anything extra. I'll add that the Pelican cooler is one of the only models we've tested that comes with a lifetime warranty.
Rovr Rollr 60 Cooler, $399
You've got lots of options if you want a wheeled cooler, but if it were me, I'd save up and plunk down $400 for the Rovr Rollr 60. Though it wasn't quite as strong of a performer as the Yeti or Orca, it still finished our tests with above-average cooling capabilities, and it was, by far, the easiest and most comfortable cooler to transport from point A to point B, as long as we didn't have to carry it for very long. With 9-inch wheels and a frame built from stainless steel and aluminum, the Rollr is quite heavy even before you start loading cans, water bottles and other beverages into it.
On top of that, I like the included removable fabric wagon bin and the plastic dry bin that helps you keep your food and beverages separate from wet ice. If you're willing to pay a little extra, you can customize your cooler with extras like a built-in prep board for campsite cooking, stainless-steel bottle holders or even a $50 "Bikr Kit" that makes it easy to tow the Rollr behind a bike (though, at almost $400 for the cooler, I wish at least one or two of these kits came included).
In fairness, we've only tested a couple of wheeled coolers so far, and the Rollr was the only one that I'd be happy to own. If I find a better value pick in the future I'll update this space, but for now, I think Rovr's wheeled cooler is well worth the money.
Best cooler for cheapskates
Igloo Recool, $10
One last recommendation: Even if you don't want to spend more than $20 on a cooler, you might as well not bother with cheapies like the Igloo Island Breeze and Rubbermaid Ice Chest coolers that I managed to score on sale for as little as $15. The latches and hinges felt flimsy, they both lack a drain, and neither one performed any better than a cheap Styrofoam cooler from the gas station.
Of course, Styrofoam buildup is a big problem in landfills these days, so for an eco-friendly alternative, go with the Igloo Recool. Available at an REI co-op, grocery store, supermarket or gas station near you for about $10, the Recool is a reusable cooler made from recycled tree pulp with environmentally safe additives to help it hold water and keep things cold. It only promises 12 hours of ice retention, and at 18 quarts, it doesn't offer room for much more than six cans or so — but hey, that's still enough for a quick day trip to the beach with a buddy. If a small cooler is all you need, it'll do the job.
The Recool didn't hold the cold quite as well as Styrofoam when I tested it out, but it still performed as promised. Sitting in our 70-degree test lab with a small bag of ice from the gas station in it (roughly 7 pounds), the Recool was able to keep six Diet Cokes down at cold temps for a good 15 hours. Afterward, just dump the water out and let it air dry.
If you need something a little bigger than the Recool's 18 quarts, then you could opt for the Vericool Ohana, another eco-friendly disposable cooler that comes in a 42-quart size for just $8 at 7-11, Whole Foods, Save Mart, Lucky and BevMo!
In addition to being reusable and biodegradable like the Recool, the Ohana is also recyclable (the Recool isn't because of some of the additives it uses for waterproofing). And just like the Recool, the Ohana passed our tests with flying colors.
And hey, while we're talking tests…
Which cooler should you buy this summer? We tested 18 of them
What we tested
Between this year and last year, I've tested a total of 18 hard coolers, aiming always for a mix of low-end, high-end and in between, as well as a mix of wheeled and nonwheeled options. Capacity varied from model to model, but I tried to keep things as close to 50 quarts as I could — big enough for folks who want dozens of cold beers on hand at their next beach party, but not too big if you're just looking for something to feed the family out of at your next picnic.
Here are all of them along with where you'll find them and what they cost:
- Bison Gen 2 Cooler (50 quarts) — $330 at Amazon
- Cabela's Polar Cap Equalizer Cooler (60 quarts) — $350 at Cabela's
- Coleman Rugged A/T Wheeled Cooler (58 quarts) — $65 at Walmart
- Coleman Steel-Belted Cooler (54 quarts) — $93 at Walmart
- Coleman Xtreme Marine Cooler (70 quarts) — $57 at Walmart
- Coleman Xtreme Wheeled Cooler (50 quarts) — $41 at Amazon
- Igloo BMX Cooler (52 quarts) — $100 at Target
- Igloo Island Breeze Cooler (48 quarts) — $35 at Amazon
- Igloo Latitude Wheeled Cooler (60 quarts) — $50 at Amazon
- Igloo MaxCold Cooler (50 quarts) — $57 at Amazon
- Igloo Recool Biodegradable Cooler (18 quarts) — $10 at REI
- Lifetime High Performance Cooler (55 quarts) —$97 at Walmart
- Orca Classic Cooler (58 quarts) — $340 at Amazon
- Pelican Elite Cooler (50 quarts) — $300 at Amazon
- Rovr Rollr 60 Wheeled Cooler (60 quarts) — $400 at Amazon
- RTIC 65 Cooler (65 quarts) — $231 at RTIC
- Rubbermaid Ice Chest Cooler (48 quarts) — $30 at Amazon
- Yeti Tundra 45 Cooler (33 quarts) — $300 at Amazon
That list isn't meant to be exhaustive. We only had the budget and the time to acquire and test so many coolers, so some brands of note like OtterBox and Ozark Hills didn't make the cut. We haven't tested soft coolers yet, either. If there's enough reader interest, I'll test them all out down the road and update this post accordingly.
Last year, you asked to see reviews for coolers from Pelican, RTIC and Cabela's, so we made sure to include them this time around. And while we haven't tested any soft coolers, electric coolers, backpack coolers or other offshoot categories, it's something we might look into in a future update, so let us know in the comments if there are any specific coolers you're interested in, especially soft ones.
How we tested them
The big differentiator that you'll hear a lot about as you shop for a cooler is "ice retention" — specifically, how long a cooler can keep a full load of ice frozen. The new, expensive options all hang their hat on this test, with rotomolded coolers specifically designed to ace it (and in doing so, justify their price tags).
- Yeti Tundra 45 (38 quarts) — $300
- Orca Classic Cooler (58 quarts) — $300
- Cabela's Polar Cap Equalizer Cooler (60 quarts) — $300
- Igloo MaxCold Cooler (50 quarts) — $45
That's all well and good, but I worried that a standard ice retention test on its own wouldn't tell us the whole story. Sure, some coolers would probably keep the ice frozen for a lot longer than others, but using the melting point as your metric seems to disregard everything that comes before. I wanted to get a good sense of performance not just days in, but hours in, before any of the ice had even melted at all.
To do that, I started with a modified version of the ice retention test. Instead of a full load of ice in each cooler, I went with just 3 pounds — not even half of a small bag from the gas station. Less ice meant more of a challenge for the coolers, which would hopefully give us a more granular look at how well they perform relative to one another.
Specifically, I wanted to track the ambient temperature in each cooler, so I spread the ice in each one I tested beneath an elevated jar of propylene glycol solution (watered-down antifreeze) with a temperature probe in it. Why elevated? The temperature down in the ice would have been roughly the same in all of the coolers, leaving retention as the only real variable. Tracking the ambient temperature up above it was much more telling, and it gave us some additional variables to consider.
Oh, and I did all of this in one of our appliance lab's climate-controlled test chambers, and I made sure to let each cooler sit opened in the room for several hours beforehand in order to ensure that they all started within a degree or so of room temperature (about 70 degrees F).
In the end, it turned out to be a fruitful test. After 48 hours, I had a nifty graph showing me the temperature inside each cooler on a minute-by-minute basis — and the difference from cooler to cooler was striking.
Some were able to do more with that measly helping of ice than others — particularly the Yeti cooler, which kept the ambient temperature colder than any other cooler I tested for longer than any other cooler I tested. After 24 hours, the Yeti was the only cooler with any ice left in it at all, and at the end of the test, it was the only model that hadn't returned to room temperature yet.
And the worst? That'd be the Rubbermaid Ice Chest Cooler, which couldn't get the inside of the cooler any colder than 55.7 degrees F. On top of that, its average temperature for the duration of the test was 66.8 degrees F — a warmer average than any other cooler I tested. Even the $4 Styrofoam control cooler did better than that. Not cool, Rubbermaid!
Best capacity for the money
- Lifetime High Performance Cooler (55 quarts claimed, 62.4 quarts measured) — $97
- Coleman Xtreme Marine Cooler (70 quarts claimed, 76.1 quarts measured) — $50
- RTIC 65 Cooler (65 quarts claimed, 72.9 quarts measured) — $231
- Coleman Xtreme Wheeled Cooler (50 quarts claimed, 58.1 quarts measured) — $45
If we're going to talk about performance, we have to talk about capacity, too. Though some sizes are more popular than others (50-quart, for instance), there really isn't much uniformity among coolers as far as size and shape are concerned. Apart from determining how many cans of beer each one will hold, size and shape will obviously have an impact on performance, too. After all, with the quantity of ice being equal, a 70-quart cooler like the Coleman Xtreme Marine Cooler has a bigger job on its hands than the 48-quart Igloo Island Breeze.
I did my best to account for those size differences as I evaluated each cooler's relative performance, but first, I needed to be sure that I had accurate measurements. That meant putting those manufacturer capacity claims to the test, and I wanted a better, more universal metric than just counting how many cans I could cram into each one.
To that end, I carefully filled each cooler with water, measuring out the exact number of quarts each one could hold before I was no longer able to close the lid without spilling. If anything, the cheaper models were mostly conservative in their estimates, with ones like the Coleman Xtreme and Igloo Latitude wheeled coolers coming in several quarts more sizable than advertised.
The expensive guys? Not quite so much. Rovr pegs the capacity of its $400 Rollr wheeled cooler at 60 quarts, but I could only fit 52.8 quarts of water inside when I measured for myself. The $300 Yeti Tundra 45 wasn't as spacious as expected, either, holding just 38 quarts of water before overflowing with the lid closed. That's several quarts less than the 45 quarts implied by the product name (nice try, Yeti).
That might be in part because the Yeti's walls are considerably thicker than the other coolers' — which, in turn, is probably a big reason why the thing performed so well. You're getting a lot of extra insulation, but at the expense of capacity. I think that's a reasonable trade, but I wish Yeti were more transparent about it.
Meanwhile, for the same price the 58-quart Orca Classic Cooler came in right on the money at 58.1 quarts measured, and while it didn't hold its ice as long as the Yeti did, it still finished as one of our top performers. For a little more space than that, you could also consider going with rotomolded coolers from Cabela's and RTIC — the ones I tested were both bigger than advertised at 61.3 quarts and 72.9 quarts, respectively. That RTIC cooler was also one of our top value picks, at least as far as the expensive rotomolded coolers are concerned.
Don't forget design
I also took each cooler's design and features into consideration as I tested, and kept an eye out for durability concerns. I wasn't impressed with the lid on the Igloo Latitude wheeled cooler, for instance. It doesn't lock shut, and the plastic nub hinges are a total joke. Give it a modest yank, and the whole lid comes right off — and the cheap plastic wheels didn't leave me impressed, either.
Best design and build quality
- Rovr Rollr 60 Wheeled Cooler (52.8 quarts) — $400
- Lifetime High Performance Cooler (55 quarts) — $97
- Bison Gen 2 Cooler (50 quarts) — $329
The Rovr Rollr wheeled cooler fared much better, thanks to a rugged design that features heavy-duty wheels, a sturdy steel handlebar and an optional $50 accessory that lets you tow it behind your bike. I also liked that the interior comes with a divider that makes it easy to keep items you don't want getting wet separate from the ice, and that you can customize it with different interior liner designs. My only qualm — that T-shaped handlebar includes comfy rubber grips on the sides, but not in the middle, the spot you'll actually want to hold as you lug it around.
Oh, and if you'll be spending lots of time camping in a place where bears are a concern, then you'll probably want to invest in a bear-resistant cooler. The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee keeps a running list of certified options, which includes a number of coolers from this rundown. The specific models I tested from Cabela's, Orca, and Yeti all make the cut, as does the 80-quart version of Rovr's wheeled cooler.
Something else to think about: whether or not your cooler is sturdy enough to sit on, something that comes in handy when you're out camping. Most of the coolers that I tested were, but some took things even further. For instance, the Bison Gen 2 Cooler goes so far as to advertise itself as an ideal casting platform to stand on during your next fishing trip, and even sells nonslip traction mats for the lid in a variety of designs.
Between the hinges, the lid, the drain plug and the lid latches, the Bison cooler felt the most like a premium product to the touch — but it didn't hold cold air as well or as long as other rotomolded models, and it costs about $100 more than our most affordable rotomolded pick, the RTIC 65.
Let's discuss the $600 mega cooler that just hit crowdfunding
You can find more design quibbles like these in my individual reviews of each cooler. The only other thing I'll say here is that I'm still surprised not to see more of the high-end options try to separate themselves from the pack with clever bonus features like a built-in battery for charging your devices while you camp outdoors (or better yet, a solar panel).
If that's what you're hoping for, your best bet might be to turn to Kickstarter and Indiegogo, where expensive, gadgety mega-coolers like the Coolest Cooler and the Infinite Cooler live in infamy. I say infamy because both of those cash-grabs have a history of production delays and decidedly unhappy customers. Go on, read through the comments on the Infinite Cooler's Indiegogo campaign, which blew through a March ship date with nothing to show for it. It ain't pretty.
It's all more than enough for me to recommend the healthiest possible dose of skepticism if you ever find yourself tempted to back a campaign like that with your cold hard cash. I mean, come on — the literal last thing you want from your cooler is to get burned by it. Stick with an old-fashioned cooler like the ones I recommend above, and that isn't something you'll need to worry about.
Did we miss a cooler that you're interested in? Want us to test out soft-sided coolers? Let us know in the comments!
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