The Best Cooler Buying Guide of 2018
The portable cooler is how we take our convenient refrigerated life on the road with us. Since Richard C. Laramy filed his patent application for the portable cooler on December 22, 1953 these compact pieces of the modern world have been empowering our road trips, making 4th of July an even bigger blast and putting the finishing touches on our campsites. Whether you’re a competitive runner, dedicated RV enthusiast, enjoy tailgating or just love a Sunday picnic, the cooler is the one must-have piece of gear that makes it all possible.
Below we’re going to feature what we believe to be the 10 top coolers on the market today. As always these best cooler reviews represent the consensus of our objective product review staff.
Our Top Picks for The Best Portable Cooler For The Money:
YETI Hopper TWO
We start our tour of our top rated coolers with Yeti’s Hopper Two. It’s an upgrade of their original Hopper design that features enhanced cold air retention, easier handling and improved exterior molding for easier storage and retrieval. The improved Hopper is a breeze to carry about and the new available color schemes will insure your cooler doesn’t get lost. Spend even more time outdoors knowing the meat won’t go bad and the beer won’t get all warm and yucky.
Yeti reached out to those who know airtight best and appropriated the HydroLock zipper from HazMat suits. As such there’s no chance you’ll need to worry about water entering the cooler if you’re outside in the rain or if it gets submerged in that country stream. The ripstop nylon straps are as tough as they come and will simply never fail on you.
With looks to kill and the ability to keep your perishables safer for longer the Yeti Hopper Two makes a worthy entry into our list. Yes it will set you back a few dollars, but in the end it will deliver for you in spectacular fashion time after time. And isn’t that what it’s all about?
YETI Tundra 75 Cooler
The Tundra 75 raises cold retention to an art form. Featuring the company’s PermaFrost insulation throughout and an exterior that’s virtually indestructible, it’s definitely not your parent’s portable cooler. The clean, sleek design is as pleasant to look at as the cooler is easy to carry with its smooth edges and tough as nails polyester rope handles.
While there’s nothing visibly revolutionary about a rectangular box for keeping things cold, the Yeti Tundra 75 revolution is one that goes on behind the scenes. You can take the Tundra 75 on an all-day sojourn to the beach and be confident that the sodas will be as cold at the end of the afternoon as they were at the beginning and that any perishables will still be safe through and through. In the past the end of the day typically meant a bunch of soggy food and warm drinks slopping around in the lukewarm water. Not anymore. Not with the Yeti Tundra 75.
This is the kind of cooler you take with you to the tailgate party or for that long holiday afternoon on the lawn. It’s the kind you can actually look upon as an investment because of all the meat and other perishables you won’t have to throw out. In that regard alone the Tundra 75 could pay for itself in a year or so if you’re an outdoor type.
We can’t say enough about the Yeti Tundra 75 portable cooler. It’s such an enormous step up from the coolers of our childhood that it makes them, as well as today’s discount coolers, seem hopelessly obsolete. We love the non-slip feet, the freezer style cold lock gasket, the molded full length hinge that resists stress related breaks and the fact that it’s bear resistant. You’ll pay a premium for the Tundra 75 but it’s absolutely one of the top coolers on the market.
The Orca TP0580RC portable cooler has some of the most mind-blowing cold retention ability you’ll ever experience. If you leave the lid closed you may be able to leave the cooler for a week without the ice inside melting. That by itself practically justifies the purchase. If you’re an outdoor enthusiast you know the number 1 challenge when it comes to portable coolers is poor cold retention. With the TP0580RC that long worrisome issue is finally a thing of the past.
Beyond its exceptional cold retention powers this Orca is the beneficiary of outstanding design and build quality. Even something as normally forgettable as the drain plug gets careful attention and the proof is that it can drain 5 gallons of water in under 2 minutes. All in all this Tennessee designed and built portable cooler is not just a step up from your parent’s cooler, it’s on a whole ‘nother floor.
The TP0580RC portable cooler from Orca is tough and effective and does what coolers are supposed to do (keep stuff cold) better than almost any other cooler. With insane cold retention, generous interior space and a comfortable, easy to carry design it’s a worthy member of our cooler club. Just a solid cooler that performs its job well and will last for years. What more do you want?
Pelican Products ProGear
The Pelican ProGear Elite is a no-nonsense cooler that performs as advertised. To do that it has taken on a bit of a tank-light aura but it’s all in the service of keeping your perishables both fresh and dry and your sodas or brewskis ice cold. The price is a bit and we’ll assume they saved money on aesthetics.
The more important thing than whether you can parade the ProGear Elite down the catwalk with you is how effective it is at doing its job of keeping things fresh and cold, and it does that as well or better than any other cooler on the market. We’ve heard tales of ice that’s lasted 10 days and more in the ProGear Elite so chances are that when you trot it out to the beach this summer your perishables will still be safe at the end of the day and your drinks will still be frosty and delicious.
If it’s all about looks for you the ProGear Elite 45 quart portable cooler may not be your cup of tea. On the other hand if you want to keep your meats fresh and safe and your drinks cold and refreshing, the ProGear Elite is everything you want in a cooler. And for less than you might imagine.
Coleman 54-Quart Steel-Belted Cooler
Coleman was actually the first large company to engage in portable cooler manufacturing beginning way back in 1954. So it’s safe to say they know a thing or two about how to make a cooler. The Coleman 54 qt is a prime example. Built out of high grade stainless and with a sleek look that’s totally modern while tipping its hat to the past, the Coleman 54 qt cooler has all the bases covered.
While it may only keep ice frozen for 3 days at 100 degrees remember we’re talking about a high quality stainless steel piece of outdoor gear that will only cost you 20% as much as the top rated coolers. As such it’s a tremendous bargain.
The bottom line with the Coleman 54 qt cooler is that it’s a great value product that will do its job wonderfully as long as you’re not on a 3 week trek across the heart of the Sahara on foot. For most of us mortals the 54 qt is great looking, well built, generously proportioned and maybe the best camping cooler around. If what you’re after is a well-built, dependable cooler that will enhance your everyday outdoor activities this one should be at the top of your wish list.
AO Coolers Canvas
Soft coolers are ideal for fishing, hunting, boating, hiking and myriad other outdoor activities. The AO soft cooler allows you to bring along enough perishables to enliven the party without having to schlep a cumbersome traditional freezer along. The AO soft side features 3/4 inch thick closed foam cell insulation that’s as lightweight as it is effective. It will keep your food cold for up to 24 hours even when the thermometer hits the century mark.
As it’s a soft sided cooler you don’t have to reserve half your trunk to take it along and carrying it over the shoulder isn’t a back breaking burden. The AO soft sided cooler is lined with the same material used to line swimming pools and water beds so you don’t have to spend time worrying about leaks. You can also place it confidently on the back seat of the car without worrying that it will tear the upholstery or leak all over the place.
There’s a reason the AO soft-sided portable cooler is on our list of 10 best coolers. Because it’s a definite candidate for best small cooler and it will keep your perishables from perishing for a decent amount of time. And all for less than the price of a single meal at a high end restaurant. Keep in mind too that AO soft-sided coolers are also available that will hold up to 48 cans comfortably.
Igloo Marine Ultra Cooler
The Igloo Marine Ultra Cooler has a throwback profile but that’s where the similarities with the coolers of old ends. The Ultra employs state of the art insulation technology to provide longer than you’d expect refrigeration for such a large piece of gear. The Ultra therm insulation includes UV inhibitors that prevent the sun’s invisible weapon from melting your ice and ruining your day out on the boat.
The handles, hardware, lid and body of the Ultra Cooler are the product of many years of Igloo R&D and will stand up admirably to everyday wear and tear and the worst the sea can throw its way. You won’t see rusted hinges on an Ultra Cooler just like you won’t have to worry about the generous, comfortable handles failing on you when you’re carrying a full load of steaks and brews to the boat.
The Igloo Ultra Cooler has the build quality you’ve come to expect from Igloo. And while it won’t necessarily win any beauty contests (although beauty is in the eye of the beholder) many will find the throwback look appealing. In a pinch the Ultra Cooler will keep your perishables safe for up to a week, which is great when you’re on those long sails around the Caribbean. And just to put the cherry on the cake it’s likely the beer you fill this incredible cooler with will cost more than the unit itself (though don’t drink and sail!).
YETI Hopper TWO
The Yeti Hopper 30 is a variation on the Hopper Two – or is it the other way around? – that compares favorably to its sibling in every meaningful way. It’s made from high density fabric that’s waterproof and mildew resistant and also resists common abrasions and punctures. The cooler is lined with FDA approved material that’s certified safe for food and the closed cell foam insulation provides excellent cold retention.
The HazMat style HydroLok zipper is one of the most welcome additions we’ve seen to these over the shoulder coolers. Even if you’re sloshing your way through serious white water your perishables will stay cold and dry. The Hopper 30 also includes multiple tie down points so that the cooler won’t be lost overboard on that white water adventure.
There are subtle differences between the Yeti Hopper Two and the Yeti Hopper 30 that most won’t notice and which have to do with the length of time each will keep things cold (with the Hopper Two coming out on top by a neck). Other than that, and some equally subtle styling differences between the two models, the Hopper 30 compares favorably to our favorite cooler.
The 16 Can soft cooler is another outstanding product from Coleman and one that’s sure to get the attention of value seekers from sea to sea. Bring the 16 can cooler with you to sporting events, picnics, tailgate parties, barbeques, camping weekends as well as road trips and you’re ready for just about anything. The removable hard liner is FDA approved and provides a lot of structural integrity so that your hamburgers won’t get crushed.
The Coleman 16 also sports dual mini bungee cords on the top for securing items you need but that don’t need refrigeration. The nylon shoulder strap includes a comfortable pad so you’ll be able to tote the cooler long distances without overworking your arms. And the best thing of all about the Coleman 16 Can portable is the price. For about the price of a large pizza you can have this amazing portable cooler that’s sure to become your go to cold storage for outdoor activities for years to come. Now that’s value.
As you may be able to surmise we like the Coleman 16 Can portable cooler. It’s one of those rare combinations of solid workmanship and affordable price. And while you usually have to accept that discount coolers are going to come up a bit short in the looks department that’s not the case with this Coleman cooler.
Coleman 70 Quart
The Coleman 70 Quart Xtreme 5 cooler is just that: extreme. This one’s for the large scale cookouts when the family and half the people from work are meeting you at the campground for some serious summertime fun. Among the great things about the Xtreme 5 is that, in spite of its size, it’s still able to retain cold for prolonged periods of time. That’s a testament to the quality of the build and the quality of the insulation.
The 2 inch thick insulated lid features a formidable gasket seal that keeps the outdoors out and the cold inside where it belongs. That same lid can also be outfitted with mini bungee cords that allow you to strap additional items to the top for transport to the party location. When you fill this bad boy with ice and many dozens of cans you’re going to want someone to take the other handle because it’s going to get heavy. But you knew that when you bought it.
Bungee your lawn chair and towels down to the top of the Xtreme 5 and get ready to party with the crew. The Coleman 70 Quart cooler is a behemoth that acts like one of those high end coolers. It gets everything but the kitchen sink from the car to the campsite and if you pack things just right you might get the kitchen sink in there too. Can for can maybe the best cooler for the money.
Cooler Buying Guide
In this section we’re going to take a look at a couple of common questions that come up when people are thinking about buying a portable cooler.
Yeti Vs Pelican?
Both Yeti and Pelican coolers will offer you an array of attractive options and both companies are well deserving of their outstanding reputations. Just stating categorically that this one is better than that one or vice versa doesn’t really give you an idea of why this one might be better, so we’re going to break things down a bit in the hope of providing you with the information you need to make an informed decision on your next cooler.
Ice Retention Ability – Both of these companies produce coolers that do an admirable job of keeping the cold inside, but is one clearly better than the other? Well the Yeti Tundra can retain ice for a week or possibly a bit longer which is pretty impressive when you think about it. Not to be outdone the Pelican states it can keep ice intact for up to 10 days which means you can load up the cooler with ice before you leave New York City and then drive across the country and when you reach Los Angeles the same ice will still be there inside the cooler keeping things fresh and cold. As user claims pretty consistently back up what the manufacturers have to say on this issue, we feel we have to give the edge in this category to Pelican, although when one is talking about the difference between 7-8 days and 9-10 days does it really matter? So, ice retentions ability: Advantage – Pelican
Design – Both Yeti and Pelican have put a lot of thought into the design of their portable coolers but each has chosen a different design path to focus on.
Yeti are looking for new and engaging ways to remake the classic cooler. Their Tundra model plays things pretty close to the design vest by incorporating subtle tweaks on the classic cooler that make it look a bit, well, cooler than the older model. Where they really excel though is in their Hopper models. These take portable design in an entirely new direction that’s hard to find a comparison for. Maybe the closest would be a high-end book bag but even that comparison falls a bit short. The bottom line is that they’re coolers are the closest thing you’ll find in outdoor gear to a fashion statement, and we mean that in the best possible way.
Pelican on the other hand have looked at the standard cooler and said “How can we get more out of this design without reinventing the wheel?” What they decided to do was take the standard cooler in a more robust direction. They’ve retained the basic boxy rectangle and simple amped up the insulation as well as the quality of the hardware. The result is a design that could easily win “best ice chest.” Still, it serves the overall purpose of providing a higher degree of cold retention so that your perishables can keep longer and you don’t wind up throwing things away.
In the design department we have to give the edge to Yeti, and it’s really not even close.
Durability – When it comes to durability the two companies really run neck and neck. As beautiful as the Yeti Hopper coolers are they’re also tough as nails, while the Pelican coolers are every bit as tough as they look. Both claim to be bear proof, so much so that they claim a full sized bear could sit on them and it wouldn’t do any harm. While we respectfully declined to test them on this claim we have no reason to doubt them. Both companies have solid reputations for designing and building quality products so we’re going to call this one a draw.
Warranty – The two companies also take different paths when it comes to warranties. Yeti with their beautiful state-of-the-art designs offer a 5 year warranty on their products. While Pelican with their more prosaic designs offer a full limited lifetime warranty. If you plan to hold onto your cooler for 10 or 20 years you’ll want to opt for the Pelican. If on the other hand you’re a bit of a fashionista and like to change up your gear to stay up on current design trends then maybe the 5 year warranty of the Yeti will serve you just fine. As we’re partial to comprehensive coverage the majority of our reviewers prefer the Pelican.
The Bottom Line – If you’re looking for a rock solid cooler that looks as good as it works and will keep your perishables fresh for a week consider the Yeti Hopper series of coolers. If on the other hand looks are not so terribly important to you and you’d prefer a cooler you that will keep your food fresh for 10 days and hold up your car while you change a tire the Pelican may be more to your liking. Either way you win.
What’s The Best Cooler for Keeping Ice?
As we say above you’d be hard pressed to find a cooler that will do a better job of ice retention than the Pelican ProGear Elite. With its freezer grade gasket and copious amounts of high-quality insulation you can put your drinks on ice in the ProGear Elite on the first of the month and open the cooler on the 10th of the month and find your drinks still encased in ice; frosty and fresh and ready to be enjoyed.
Things to Consider When Buying a Portable Cooler
While it’s not in the same league as buying a car there are nonetheless a number of things to consider before you decide to plunk down your hard-earned on a cooler. Especially when you consider many of them can run you $400 or more. Below we’ll go over a number of the most common considerations.
Ice retention – Typically the smaller the cooler, the thinner and softer the walls, and the lower the price the shorter the ice retention time. Those wonderful over the shoulder coolers with the rigid walls that pop out are really convenient and affordable but don’t expect to get more than a day or two of ice retention out of them. Maybe that’s all you need. For many people it is. But maybe you hanker for something a little more substantial so be sure to determine exactly what kind of ice retention you need before you decide on a cooler.
Durability – The average portable cooler is made for outdoor activity so they’re not going to be gilded lilies that fall apart if you leave them in the rain for a little while. That said there will be a difference in the amount of abuse the different coolers can take. For instance the Pelican we review above is built like an M1A1 tank and comes with a lifetime warranty on top of it. While the Yeti Hopper series of coolers and the Coleman line of portable coolers are all extremely well built outdoor products. Where you start to see a loss of long term durability is typically in the less expensive coolers simply because quality materials – which are the backbone of long term durability – cost money. That said places like the handles and hardware are where a less well-built cooler will betray itself so keep a sharp eye on them.
Capacity – What do you plan to use your cooler for? If you’re getting it to supply a small horde with cold brews during a tailgate party you’ll want something big like the Coleman 70 quart. If on the other hand you’ll likely just be toting a few cold drinks and hot dogs to the picnic table in the woods for a low key get together with some friends the Coleman 16 can soft sided cooler may be more your speed. This is one case when you’ll really need to think about how you’re likely to use it before deciding on a cooler. Make a mistake here and you could wind up with a virtually empty monster or an overstuffed and overstressed over the shoulder job.
Portability – If you’re young and able this category won’t mean much to you. Even if there’s 48 drinks and several pounds of meat in the cooler you’ll likely be able to handle it. If on the other hand you are not built like a linebacker or you have back problems, you’ll want to think very carefully about how you’re going to get it from the car to the ultimate destination. There are a number of manufacturers today who offer coolers on wheels so you can save your back for other things, like living and working and enjoying yourself.
Draining – Even the best insulated cooler won’t be able to keep the ice intact if the lid is being opened constantly. To get rid of melt water you remove the drain plug and let the water run out. Better designed coolers will have their drain holes located at a low point so that the water drains out quickly and completely. Also, since the drain hole is the weak link in the cooler’s insulation armor you’ll want to make sure it closes tightly and that it’s attached to the cooler so that you don’t lose it.
Price – In the end everything comes back to price in one way or another. You need to balance what you want against what you can afford and then choose the cooler that provides the best combination of those things. Of course if money is no object then money is no object. For most of us though spending $400 on a portable cooler is a bit of a stretch so try to find that happy place where your budget meets your needs.
Get The Most Out Of Your Cooler
There are an infinite number of ways to use your cooler and a bunch of scientific tricks that just make them so much more useful than the package implies. You can utilize your cooler in a multitude of ways that make ice last longer, and you can even use them to keep items hot like a thermos. Put your cooler to the test and see what it can do.
Pre-chilling – It sounds a bit mad, but think of this: if you put ice into a cold drink, it’s going to last longer, right? The same principle applies. If you take your items—beer, sandwiches, the lot of them—and you chill them on ice before loading up your cooler, what’s going to happen? With everything being (roughly) the same temperature, you’re going to have ice for much longer than before. And that’s not the only trick.
Mass X Melting – Don’t fill her up halfway—the more ice, the better. Think about how long one ice cube takes to melt versus an ice ball. It’s about mass, and jam-packing all that ice into a tiny confined space can work in your favor, and deliver the results that you’ve been looking for. Keep your ice for longer, enjoy your cold items for longer, too.
It’s All About Ratio – If you have a 24-pack of bud in a small cooler, you’re only going to do so much to keep it chilled. Don’t jam so many products in there that they have to touch just in order to exist in the cooler. Ice should be thrice the number of your products, just to be on the safe side. When it’s for a camping trip, you’ll be thankful that the beer didn’t run warm with this little trick.
Not Just For Cold Drinks and Food – You can jam hot food in there as well. Crazy, right? It takes a bit of skill, but you can essentially turn your cooler into a Crock-Pot on the warm setting. Firstly, you’re going to want to fill up your cooler with as much hot water as possible. Let it heat the interior wall before you continue. Next, wrap up your food nice and tight in tinfoil. Fold a towel in half two times and load your food up. When it’s time to get going (I hope you have a lot of towels) double-fold another towel to place in the bottom and place the food atop that. Add another towel atop the food-towel, and seal up the cooler right away. Presto—you’ve got a hot holding unit on-the-go.
Locks – It’s not just about animals—it’s about John who won’t stop drinking all the beer. To avoid bears, raccoons, and other intelligent animals who have had their run-ins with camping humans before, lock up your cooler and ensure that it’s good and tight. Now, if you don’t want your evening to be ruined, be certain to give the secondary key to someone you trust. Nobody wants the beer to run out just because you lost the key.
Locks are also good for situations where there are more than one or two campsites nearby. If you’re using a camping ground, and you don’t know the people next to you, the last thing you want is for their teenagers to sneak into your cooler when you aren’t looking, all because they know there’s alcohol within. For your own consumption and safety keep it locked up when not in use.
The best portable coolers today are miles ahead of the best cooler brands from your parent’s day. Today they employ high-performance materials and are designed using computer programs to exacting tolerances. Some company’s also employ highly skilled industrial designers to put a unique twist on an otherwise mundane product. Use the information in these best cooler reviews to help determine which is the right portable cooler for you and we’ll see you at the tailgate party!