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 (melted ice, a.k.a. water, isn’t as good at keeping drinks cold). The new, expensive options all hang their hat on this test, with roto-molded coolers specifically designed to ace it (and in doing so, to justify their price tags).
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 an amount of ice equivalent to 10% of each cooler’s total volume. (I already have a precise measurement of each cooler’s total volume from the earlier described capacity test.) 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 open in the room for several hours beforehand to ensure that they all started at room temperature (about 80 degrees Fahrenheit to emulate a good outdoor summertime temp).
In the end, it turned out to be a fruitful test. After 48 hours (72 hours for the largest coolers), 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. To help put this data in perspective, I broke down the coolers into separate size categories after peeling soft-sided coolers into their own category. That left me with small coolers (less than 40 quarts), midsize coolers (40-59 quarts) and large coolers (60 quarts or more). You can find the graphed data for each of those categories below, as well as our performance data on soft coolers (again, you shouldn’t expect a whole lot from coolers like those).
Mobility and durability
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. Not great if you’re looking for a camping cooler.
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 one-handed.
On the topic of wheeled coolers, the Igloo Journey Trailmate 70qt All-Terrain cooler also came with a dizzying amount of extras and features. Overall, it wasn’t quite as durable as the Rovr, but I think they’re mostly designed for different purposes. If I’m trekking into the woods for a weekend with a couple of pals, I’m going to take the Rovr, no question. But if I’m headed to the beach with the family for a day, I’m probably going to opt for the Igloo.
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. Several models I’ve tested from Cabela’s, Orca, Rovr, Magellan Outdoors and Yeti all make the cut.
It’s also worth considering 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 roto-molded models and it costs about $150 more than our most affordable roto-molded pick, the Xspec 60qt High Performance cooler.
Latches and lids
Let’s take a pause to dive into hinges and latches a bit more. Some are good, some are bad and some are just nonexistent. Coolers with removable lids tend to be cheaper coolers that aren’t going to perform in the top percentile — with one exception I’ve found so far. Magellan Outdoors has a double-latching, double-hinged removable lid and happens to have won our picks for best small and large cooler. The easy-to-use, double-latched design means you can open the cooler from either side and, if you’d prefer, you can disengage the latches on both sides to remove the lid altogether.
Now let’s compare that to most of the newer cooler designs on models like Yeti, RTIC, Orca, Cabela’s or Frosted Frog that have rubber T-shaped handles you have to stretch to secure the lid. They’re difficult to pull down, even as a full-grown adult. I asked three other adults to secure these handles and out of the four of us, two were successful, one unsuccessful and the last successful only after an excessive amount of struggling. Performance is important, but design matters, too — and sometimes, it’s a deal-breaker.
I get that a rubber bungee-style latching mechanism is probably very efficient from a cost and maintenance perspective for the manufacturers. Less moving parts and its rubber, so… it just kind of bends around. But there is a latching mechanism I’ve seen that is probably a great middle ground between the rubber latches and ones like you’ll find on Magellan Outdoors products. I’ve seen this on products like the Xspec 60qt cooler, Amazon’s Commercial 20qt cooler and the Lifetime 55qt high performance cooler. These latches have rubber straps to secure the lid, but at the end of each strap lies a plastic handle which you can leverage against the mounting point to easily achieve the tensioned fit. That’s a lot better than the rubber T handles, but make no mistake, Magellan Outdoors still gets my vote for best latching mechanism.
The Yeti Hopper Backflip 24 was the first backpack-style cooler that we’ve tested, and although its overall performance wasn’t stellar, there were things I did like. First off, it is a backpack. I do like that. Whether you are trekking gear to the beachfront or headed out for a hiking day, having free hands is always a bonus. The backpack has lots of straps and hitching points, too — I imagine the target demographic is more hiking-oriented than day-at-the-beach, but in either case, you’ll be able to secure extra stuff.
There are no latches since this is a soft-sided cooler, just a zipper. The zipper boasts claims of being both water- and leakproof. We put that to the test during our capacity evaluations, where the entire cooler is filled to the top with water, then closed. In its closed state, full of water, I sloshed it around without spilling a drop, so it’s safe to assume that leaks won’t be an issue. Our recent Magellan Outdoors soft-sided cooler (title holder for Best Soft-Sided Cooler) has the same zipper setup.
Surprisingly, or not, brands matter. Everyone expects a Yeti cooler to perform well. But they also expect them to cost more than their competitors. I recommend keeping an eye on other brands we’ve come to respect that have a more palatable price tag. Magellan Outdoors, Frosted Frog, RTIC and even the Amazon Commercial coolers are worth a look pretty much across their product offerings based on what I’ve seen.
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” target=”_blank 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 2019 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.