Whether you are planning a weekend camping trip at the local state park or heading to Black Rock Desert for this year’s Burning Man, you will need a way to keep your food secure and cool. In this article, I go over the five critical attributes of a dependable cooler so that you will be able to choose the best camping cooler for your upcoming trip. Then, I will give you my personal recommendations for the best coolers in 2019.
7 Best Camping Coolers Reviewed
- RovR Wheeled Camping Cooler, 60 quarts
- Coleman Steel Belted Cooler, 54 quarts
- Coleman Wheeled Cooler, 50 quarts
- Yeti Tundra 45 Cooler, 45 quarts
- OlarHike Collapsible Cooler, 32 quarts
- CleverMade Collapsible Cooler, 32 quarts
- Igloo BMX Cooler, 25 quarts
How to Choose the Best Camping Cooler
It doesn’t matter where you are planning to go camping – your food must stay cold and fresh for the length of your trip, or at the very least until you are able to restock with ice and fresh supplies. If your beer gets warm, it could spoil your fun, but if your food spoils, this could seriously affect your health. According to the Food and Drug Administration, your cooler should stay below 40 degrees Fahrenheit to prevent the growth of dangerous bacteria.
Just a brief scan through the names of some coolers and you’ll see that manufacturers tend to round up when estimating the ice retention of their products, and they will recommend in the fine print to chill your items beforehand and fill the cooler with two-thirds ice. For my most recent trip with four of my buddies, we used the cooler for gear on the six-hour drive to Tennessee, then bought beer from a distributor once we found the cabin. Nothing was pre-chilled, and our ratio of beer to ice was probably closer to 60:40…. If you’re anything like me, I wouldn’t plan on getting a cooler that needs pre-cooled supplies to work properly.
You need a cooler that will keep your items cold even if they have not been chilled, and a cooler that will retain cold once the internal temperature reaches an equilibrium.
You should also make sure that your next cooler contains a gasket, which is a rubber ring around the inside of the lid that helps to seal the cooler and prevent leaking. I would think twice about purchasing a hard-shell cooler that does not come with a rubber gasket, as it will almost certainly leak if tipped over, and ice retention will be significantly lower.
Some Cool Engineering
Many of the coolers you might be interested in purchasing will be advertised as “roto molded” coolers. This phrase comes from the manufacturing process, in which the separate parts – the tub and the lid – were made in a mold that is continuously rotated as it is heated and cooled. Rotational molding allows the part to be a hollow piece with no seam. This in turn adds strength to the individual part, which is then filled with pressurized foam for additional strength and insulation.
One problem with roto molded coolers is that the foam tends to retain heat when it has been stored in a hot room, car, or garage. If you know your cooler will be warmer than cool when you go to use it, I’d recommend throwing a bag of ice in it to prep it before packing it full of food and drinks.
But, roto molded coolers really are top of the line for ice retention and durability, and it’s worth spending the extra bucks to get one, in my opinion.
Next to keeping your food fresh and your beverages cold, your cooler should be tough enough to last year after year of camping adventures. How it is made and the material used for the top, bottom and sides is one thing, but you should also consider the hinges, handles, and accessories.
Most hard-shell coolers are made of a plastic shell that is filled with insulation foam. Some models have been covered with an additional layer of steel. While adding steel to the outside may increase the durability of the cooler, it will also add to the weight, and it might not contribute much to the overall life of the cooler.
Soft-shelled coolers contain an outer layer of polyester or nylon and an inner layer of flexible plastic or aluminum, with insulation foam separating the two. For soft-shelled coolers, you want a combination of materials that will not tear or puncture easily and also do not let water seep through.
Hinges & Latches
Hinges and latches are most commonly made of steel or plastic, but occasionally the hinge itself is plastic while the hinge pin is steel. Some coolers use an interlocking design that helps to prevent the pin from breaking, and others employ strings or stops to prevent the lid from overextending.
Ruggedness is key here, and if the hinges and latches on a cooler rust, break, loosen, or fall off, the cooler will become pretty much useless. In the best coolers, the hinges have been built in to the lid and wall, rather than bolted on. The latches should tighten the lid so as to compress the rubber gasket (if there is one), effectively sealing the cooler, while also being easy to release.
For soft-shelled coolers, the zipper is a critical part of the lid. The zipper should be easy to grip and stay free of the lining when zipping. Ideally, you also want the zipper to prevent leakage.
Many coolers are designed with two sets of handles: one set is built in to the sides for individual carry, while the second set is either hinge or rope handles for two person toting. Keep in mind that when fully packed, a cooler will weigh significantly more than it does empty. Additionally, the handles should be incorporated into the shape of the cooler rather than jutting out and creating havoc when trying to pack the trunk.
Certified Bear Resistant
One thing you will notice as you look for a new cooler are that some models are advertised as “IGBC Certified Bear Resistant.” I was skeptical of this label at first, and I wanted to see for myself what “bear resistant” actually means.
The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee was established “to help ensure recovery of viable grizzly bear populations and their habitat in the lower 48 states through interagency coordination of policy, planning, management, and research” . To my surprise, the Committee has set up special testing procedures for commercial products that include testing with live bears.
After an initial visual inspection, the product is filled with an attractant, such as a type of food or smell, and then it is placed in the bear enclosure, where there could be one or more bears present. The bears can then interact with the products however they please. The IGBC defines this “contact time” as “biting, clawing, pounding, rolling, compressing, chewing or scratching….” . If after 60 minutes the bear has not penetrated the cooler or container, the product has passed the live bear test.
Long story short, if you see the IGBC sticker on a cooler, you know that model has been tested by live grizzly bears.
Of course, getting your cooler to the campsite or beach might require more than just backing in with your car. This can create some problems when using larger, heavier coolers, although just because a cooler is small and lightweight does not mean that it will be easy to carry.
Wheels can be helpful sometimes, but the type of wheels a cooler has and the clearance they give make a big difference. For example, if you plan to camp in sandy areas or spend a day at the beach, wide, plastic wheels with little clearance are practically useless: the cooler sinks into the sand, completely negating the wheels, and you end up dragging the cooler the whole way (I speak from experience…).
If you are looking for a cooler with wheels, look for a cooler with a sturdy handle and clearance when rolling. Plastic wheels work well on sidewalks or smooth, trimmed turf, but wheels with rubber tread, or even inflated tires, are best suited for rough, rocky, and sandy terrain.
When examining coolers, I look for wide, comfortable handles with padding or grip material. Soft-shelled coolers often have the advantage of an additional strap for shoulder carry, and I would recommend finding a strap with padding over the shoulder area. Though it might seem unnecessary, a little padding on the handles or strap will help to alleviate the weight when the cooler is fully loaded.
When it comes to accessories, the cooler you choose ultimately depends on personal preference. However, there are some pretty awesome coolers out there with attached cutting boards, built in cup holders, rulers, bottle openers, drains, tie downs, and seats, and bins and trays for organization. While not essential to the function of your cooler, accessories can greatly improve your camping experience, especially when it is as if you brought a small version of your kitchen along.
Finally, one of your chief concerns will be the price tag. If you are shopping with a budget, there are several competitive camping coolers with comparable features and performance. At the same time, many of the high end coolers might not suit your needs any better than some of the low end options. How should you decide, then?
First, consider where you intend to use the cooler: Long trips or short? Far from civilization, or at the town park? Out in the sun in July, or in the woods in October? Do you intend to drive your vehicle up to the campsite, or trek in with your gear a mile or two? Answering these questions will help you determine what kind of ice retention you need, as well as the type of abuse your cooler will receive (and how tough it should be).
Second, ask yourself how you plan to use it: For family camping trips, or at the bonfire on Friday night? Fly fishing by yourself on an isolated river, or tailgating at home games? Answering these questions will help you determine what kind of accessories you will want.
Ultimately, you should try to find a balance between your needs and the cost. At the end of the day, if you still have trouble deciding, always err on the side of value.
7 Best Camping Coolers Reviewed
(Listed from Largest to Smallest Capacity)
If you are looking for an option with wheels, the RovR Wheeled Camping Cooler is one of the best. Unlike most coolers out there, this bad boy comes with inflatable tires on aluminum wheels, giving it plenty of clearance and making it great for rocks, roots, or sand. Also, the wide-gripped handle provides several options for hauling with one hand, and this cooler is also made with indented handles for carrying when necessary.
With 60 quarts storage capacity, there is plenty of space to fit all your food and drinks along with the ice, along with an attachable dry box. If you need colder temperatures for longer, this cooler has a removable dry ice bin. And when you leave your campsite, the lazy river, or the tailgating party, you can easily drain the cooler from the front.
What’s more, you have the option of adding other attachments such as a cutting board or a dual cup holder, and the cooler can be hitched up to a bicycle as well, though unfortunately, these attachments are sold separately.
- Inflatable rubber tires
- Plenty of clearance and comfortable height
- Sturdy design with large storage capacity (60 quarts)
- Multiple internal compartments option
- Comes with dry goods box
- On the heavier side compared to the competition
- Dual cup holder, cutting board, and bike hitch sold separately
Sometimes, you can’t help but go with a classic. The Coleman Steel Belted Cooler possesses a retro look and is built to endure. The cooler is bound with durable stainless steel, and the handles, hinges and latch are made with the same rust-resistant material. It will hold 54 quarts and keep your food and drinks cold for 3-4 days. And when you get home, just pop off the drain and let the water run out. It’s durable design and classic look make this cooler an excellent investment.
- Steel exterior and hardware
- Up to 4 day ice retention
- Leak resistant drain
- Retro look
- Bottle opener and inner tray are available but sold separately
- The lid does not contain a rubber gasket
- No built in cup holders
The Coleman 50-quart Wheeled Cooler provides an excellent option for those campers seeking a large capacity cooler at an affordable price. Overall, users have found this cooler to be very sturdy, but without the weight of the competition. It comes with wheels and a telescoping handle for easy rolling and indented handles for a secure grip when lifting. Furthermore, when it’s parked at the campsite or lakeside, you can set your drink in one of the four cup holders.
People who have purchased this cooler have had some complaints, however. One main concern seems to be the telescoping handle, which many users have said is loose and feels cheaply made. Additionally, while the wheels work great on firm ground or pavement, they do not roll well in mud or sand, and the cooler does not have much clearance for rocks, roots, and bumps. Some users have mentioned that the inside of the cooler has an awkward shape and that the drain does not drain completely without tipping the cooler. Unlike some of the higher end coolers, this one also does not come with a gasket seal or latches on the lid.
- Sturdy design
- Affordable price
- Extendable handle with different levels
- Cup holders on lid
- Large capacity (50 quarts)
- no strap or tie down slots
- No gasket seal
- No lock on the lid
- drain plug is not on the bottom, requiring the cooler to be tipped
- Awkward inner space due to wheels and slanted back
- Extendable handle has a weak locking mechanism
- side handles are smaller and harder to grip
The Yeti Tundra 45 contains the same rotomolded construction that made Yeti a household name. This legend of a cooler will keep your beer colder for longer than almost any other brand out there. Yes, it’s true that they are a bit on the higher end, but users of the Tundra 45 universally swear by them. Their sturdy design makes them ideal for any situation. They have thick polyester rope handles for lugging with a friend, as well as wide, indented handles for carrying by yourself. The latches are made of stiff, durable rubber, and the double-pinned hinges were intended to prevent breaking by over extension. Furthermore, you won’t have any trouble digging through the ice to find your favorite drink at the bottom – the long design keeps everything closer to the top while still providing maximal space. And when the fun is done, pop the plug and drain out the water. Oh, and by the way, it’s IGBC Certified Bear Resistant.
- Sturdy design
- Built-in tie down slots
- Rugged rope handles, plus additional molded handles
- Large capacity (45 quarts) with intelligent internal design
- Drain plug occasionally leaks (string on drain plug?)
- Heavier than some of the competition
If you are looking for a smaller, more portable cooler that stores easily, you should check out the OlarHike Collapsible Cooler. It’s a soft-shelled alternative to those hard-shelled monsters out there, and its efficient design makes it ideally suited to store enough food and drinks for one to two people.
You can take it to the beach, the camp site, or the park; carry it on your shoulder with your tackle box in one hand and fishing pole in the other; pack it with beer and dip or breastmilk and baby food. There’s really no limit to how you could use this cooler, but I would not recommend it for adventures longer than one night.
When you’re not using it, you can pack it easily using the same straps you would carry it with. Unfortunately, because the walls are not stiff, it does not tend to lose its cube-like shape when your carrying it. However, it’s easy to clean, filled with 5mm EPE foam for better ice retention, and made with quick-drying 600D Oxford Fabric. Best of all, OlarHike promises a refund up to two years if you’re not satisfied and a lifetime warranty.
- folds up for storage or hiking back from camp
- comfortable to carry, with multiple handles & shoulder strap
- easy to clean
- lifetime warranty
- shorter ice retention (12 hours)
- walls not stiff under full weight
The CleverMade Collapsible Cooler is another fantastic option for a smaller, flexible cooler with great value. Unlike other soft-shelled coolers, this cooler maintains its shape and rigidity with unique snap-hinged sides, while retaining the ability to fold up and fit in your suitcase for your next trip to Hawaii.
You can pack a heavy load in this lightweight cooler, and the manufacturer added two duffle bag handles to the sides just for this. You can also carry it one-handed if you prefer, using the velcro wrap handle, but unlike the OlarHike, it does not come with a shoulder strap.
You can store your smartphone in the front zipper pocket, safe from sand and water, and your bug spray and sunscreen in the back mesh pocket. It’s easy to clean and easy to fold up for storage using the included elastic band. And as a bonus, they’ve included a bottle opener on the handle.
- Collapsible for easy storage
- Comes with bottle opener attached to strap
- contains a snap feature to keep shape
- no shoulder strap
- retains ice for 8-12 hours
- zipper has been known to leak
Although the smallest of the coolers reviewed here, the Igloo BMX Cooler is the perfect fit for the lone adventurer. This tough little cooler possesses a sturdy, blow-molded design, stainless steel pins, a reinforced base, and added UV protection.
You can tie it down to your kayak, four wheeler, or truck bed using the tie down loops, or leave it in the hot sand and know that the elevated base will help keep your drinks cold. The rubber latches secure the lid but are easy to open when you’re ready for a refreshment. And, you can carry this cooler comfortably with one hand using the three-position handle.
The designers at Igloo added a ruler to the top, too, in case you want to keep your catch, and the thick, insulating sides and lid will help retain ice for several days. On the down side, the lid does not seal tight to prevent water leakage, and this makes it easier for cold to escape. However, if you’re looking for a solid buy that will last from one trip to the next, the BMX is a cooler that never quits.
- Rugged construction
- 3 point handle for one-handed carry
- Ruler built in to the lid
- Rubber latches
- Built in tie down loops
- tends to leak around the lid and hinges
- Heavier than some of the competition
So which one would I use?
Each one of these coolers offers excellent features for a variety of different situations. Personally, I like to read a lot of reviews before making a purchase because frankly, I want to buy something that lasts and that works great the first time, and then keeps on working after that. So which camping would I use?
The truth is, I’m a huge fan of the RovR Wheeled Camping Cooler. It offers significant storage capacity for any kind of trip – whether I’m out in the wilderness alone, or at a Sunday tailgate party. It’s sturdy, mobile, and practical, with several different storage options (including room for my chairs and umbrella), and easy to drain. The indented handles make it easy to lift out of the trunk, and the pull handle is just the right height for walking. And since I usually end up being the cook in my family, the cutting board really comes in handy.
At the end of the day, it retains ice just as well as the rest of them. It’s built tough, even down to the handle and hinges. It’s highly portable, and easy to transport for just about any distance. And you can’t find another cooler with all those accessories. To me, the value makes it worth every penny.
- “Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee Bear-Resistant Products Testing Program.” Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee. 2019. http://igbconline.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/20190320_2019-Testing-Protocol.pdf
- “Refrigerator Thermometers – Cold Facts about Food Safety.” US Food & Drug Administration. October 30, 2017. https://www.fda.gov/food/buy-store-serve-safe-food/refrigerator-thermometers-cold-facts-about-food-safety