We are living in a golden age of keeping things cold. Coolers are better than ever in terms of insulation and the length of time they can keep ice frozen or chilled, but now there are also a lot of different kinds of shapes, sizes and models that go way behind the basic plastic chest and cover a lot more scenarios. Just as frequent travelers use different kinds of luggage for different kinds of trips, the increasingly specialized world of coolers has something to cover pretty much every cooling need you could encounter, from fishing trips to car camping to picnics to food shopping.
It’s hard to believe that is has only been 14 years since YETI started selling its flagship Tundra cooler and changed the market paradigm completely. What set YETI apart was an extra-thick walled-rotomolded plastic cooler that was both far more insulated than most existing models and virtually indestructible. Since that 2008 release the brand has rolled out a full array of hard and soft coolers of different sizes and shapes, backpack coolers, water coolers and a hugely popular and diverse range of equally tough and extremely insulated coffee mugs, water bottles, jugs, beer can cozies and giant beer and soft drink cups. Even YETI’s dog bowls are massively overbuilt – but really cool (I have two dogs and two bowls).
YETI built a passionate cult following that turned into a mainstream following, and has constantly released new products in new arenas (high-end folding chairs, travel backpacks), but the two constants have been excellent quality and high prices. At the end of the day, white water rafting guides and fishermen may need a cooler that can keep ice frozen for a week, but most of us do not. There are a lot of less expensive hard coolers on the market that will easily cover your trip to the beach or backyard dinner cookout.
But there is also a middle ground where you still want high quality. The key factors are whether you need to keep things actually frozen versus just cool, and very few coolers can keep ice cream from getting soft. So when we have party with kids over, I use a YETI cooler for ice cream novelties – and for bringing ice cream home from the supermarket. The other big consideration is the number of days needed. Any of the new generation of high-end rotomolded coolers will keep ice through a weekend. But last week we had an unusual succession of outdoor dinner parties, so I loaded my Tundra with 60 cans of beer and two 15-pound bags of ice on Wednesday and put it out on my patio, in part sun. On Sunday, 100 hours later, there was still ice and (not much) ice cold beer.
Yet for many, no cooler is worth five hundred bucks, which is how much my Tundra 105 runs, and YETI has much larger models that go up to $1500. Fortunately for consumers, its success has spawned a slate of imitators, and there are now several brands making very high quality rotomolded ultra-insulated coolers that are similar in terms of design, appearance and heavy-duty toughness. To be fair, YETI still wins just about every impartial test of cooler insulation, like the recent one by well-regarded gear site OutdoorGearLab.com: “Through numerous rounds of our intensive insulation testing, the Tundra 65 continued to outlast the rest.” Tech-site CNET’s testing found that “Yeti coolers consistently perform at the top of the pack. The Tundra Haul is no different. Although Yeti didn’t hit the lowest overall temp of the bunch, it did hold its lowest temperature for much longer than its competitors.”
For this reason, I divide potential consumers into two categories: those who might need to keep things on ice for 5 or more days and those that don’t. The latter can get away with something less expensive. Interestingly however, some YETI competitors have almost identical pricing, which to me doesn’t make sense. If you are going to spend the money, why not get something widely known to be of excellent quality? Others, like RTIC, whose slogan is “Overbuilt Not Overpriced,” deliver a great combination of high quality and significantly lower prices. In the same test, CNET chose an RTIC hard cooler for its best value model, and so do I. They concluded, “This RTIC unit tested with impressively low temperatures. It gave the lowest temperatures in the midsize cooler category, and low enough to play ball with the largest of coolers we tested. As a matter of fact, at $220, this cooler is currently the cheapest of any cooler in either our midsize or large cooler category, with the exception of the Igloo BMX 52qt Cooler, which happened to be the poorest performer of the aforementioned categories. So, if you want great performance with a friendlier price tag than its competitors, you can feel safe picking up this RTIC.” The 45-quart model is more than $100 less than its YETI peer the same size, a 35% difference that’s pretty constant across all sizes.
Other companies compete on features and shapes rather than sheer cooling power and ultimately the best cooler for you is based on value and your intended use. One vital but easily overlooked feature is keeping the top closed, which makes a significant difference in insulation. Traditional plastic chest coolers used gravity to do this, which meant they could get knocked ajar in your trunk or a slight overfill of ice ruined their effectiveness. Good coolers today use very heavy duty rubber T-handles that go into slots to force the top closed. I use and test a lot of coolers, and these are my picks for your various purposes.
Long & Cold: Hard-sided coolers have the best insulation, and I have not found one that does a better job over a longer time than YETI. That’s true for me personally and all the major tests I’ve read. It’s flagship Tundra series comes in twelve sizes, from 35 quarts ($275) to a monstrous marlin-sized 350 quarts ($1500). All are perfect for decks or boats, but heavy, and bulky for cars or portability. There is only one wheeled version of the Tundra, which is handy because it weighs 37 pounds empty. The wheeled Tundra ($400) is about the same size as the Tundra 65. More recently YETI added two wheeled versions of its more portable Roadie hard sided cooler. The Roadies were designed purposefully to accommodate bottles of wine or liquor standing up, and are more vertical, taller with smaller footprints for the same size. The wheeled ones are more like carry-on roll aboard airport bags, with a vertical telescoping two-shafted handle and to me, they are more suitable for…
Tailgating: YETI’s wheeled Roadie coolers can easily move a long way over hard surfaces, like a parking lot, where I prefer them to off road. They also fit more easily in the trunk or back of an SUV, since they occupy fewer square inches and can take advantage of wasted vertical space. They are very well insulated, far more than enough for even the longest day in the sun. Two sizes (48 and 60, $450 and $500).
Long & Cold Value: I like RTIC almost as much as I like YETI, and for my uses, almost always under 5 days, the more than 30% savings is enough to justify them. CNET found the $220 45 Quart model a bargain, but the 65 quart is a steal at $250 and when you get into the usually very expensive realm of oversized hard coolers (45-65 is the most “normal”), the 145-quart version for $500 is a ton of bang for the buck. RTIC also has a newer ultra-light line that still packs in a whopping three inches of insulation and has the same appearance and rubber T-handle latches, but is far easier to carry, since most good rotomolded coolers are heavy. The Ultra-light is about 30% lighter than the standard editions, and currently comes in just a 52-quart model, a popular middle of the road size ($200), a great choice for camping out of a vehicle.
Rolling Anywhere: ROVR is another high-end cooler company, but its success was built entirely around a laser focus on mobility, and its flagship Rollr is not just a cooler with wheels, it’s an off-road rolling machine. This starts with over-engineered 9-inch rugged tread tires built to roll through mud or sand that are mounted on five spoke car-style aluminum wheels. The very heavy duty dual-sided handle is designed to be equally adept for righties and lefties, with comfy rubberized bicycle handle style grips on both sides. It’s rugged, drains fast, has a commercial style gasket at the closure, and claims 7-10 day ice retention. Meant to be used on the go, accessories include a cutting/serving board that mounts to the outside, and dual cup holders that also mount outside to make it a serving station once you get where you are going, at the campsite or beach. It includes a great removable three-section dry bin so that you can organize food and gear for cooking and keep things that should be dry off the ice. But coolest of all is the Landr Bin, basically a box shaped pop-up shopping bag that mounts flat on top of the cooler then pops up to greatly increase non-insulated storage while rolling for stuff like flashlights, blankets, plates, clothing, and anything you want to pile on and roll with you. The Rollr comes in three sizes (45, 60, 80) each with matching Landr Bin ($440, $495, $550).
Car Camping/Long Road Trips: No amount of insulation can rival the colling power of the Dometic lineup, because these are basically actual portable refrigerators and freezers. A regular cooler is a portable refrigerator that relies on ice rather a compressor, with limited life and little to no temperature control. Dometic’s powered coolers use electricity, not ice, and if you have pretty much any modern SUV, crossover or wagon, it likely has a DC power outlet in the back. That’s for this technological miracle. Dometic is the industry leader in mobile powered cooler/freezers, and they are phenomenal. They make specialty built-in models designed to fit in the armrests or other areas of specific pickup trucks and such, but the CFX3 Series can go anywhere, in any car – or no car at all. They are also ideal for the patio and backyard parties, and you can just plug it into any outlet (very versatile, they can use AC 110-240, DC 12 or 24 Volt or DC solar panel). They are also great for boats and RVs. The largest have two compartments, a true freezer and fridge (or two fridges, you decide) with independent temperature controls via a high-res digital control pad. The freezer goes down to –7 °F while using less power than a 60-watt lightbulb. If you love car camping and ice cream, problem solved. Smaller models are single zone units, and all three have a smartphone app to control and monitor temperature. They are also actual coolers, so if you don’t have a DC outlet in your car, you can still load it up for a long drive and plug it in when you get where you are going. If you are doing a cross country trip car or van camping, or glamping, you can be grilling steaks kept frozen a month after hitting the road. I love the Dometic products, and the only drawback is cost (it’s also heavier than an equivalent sized hard cooler, but still very portable). The 75-liter dual zone cooler is $1,040, the 55 is $880 and 45 is $745.
Supermarket: Soft coolers are easier to toss in the car and carry around but old-style ones with collapsible sides just don’t cut it for insulation. Another YETI innovations was the Hopper Flips, semi-rigid soft coolers with extra-thick thick foam sides that don’t collapse but can keep things cold very well. I have two of these and use them to bring stuff like ice cream home from the supermarket. I have a long drive to buy food, but even in an urban setting you could easily sling one over your shoulder while walking to shop. I also use them to hold food cold outside when I am grilling or smoking, like packs of sausages, cheese or burgers. I recently used one to rest a smoked brisket for the final hour and a half before serving, and people forget that coolers are also keep warmers with hot food and no ice. Hoppers are also great for 1–2-day road trips. I use my soft coolers a lot more than my hard sided ones, they are also easier to clean. I highly recommend the YETI Hopper Flip, light, rugged, with waterproof zipper and up to three days ice retention. (8,12, and 18 quarts, $200-$300).
Farmer’s Market or Picnic: Backpack coolers have a lot of appeal, making it easy to carry loads, and I like to take one to the farmers market and throw anything I impulsively buy that’s cold or frozen into it. These also can’t be beat for a fun outdoor adventure with picnic lunch included. But most backpack coolers I’ve seen just don’t have as much insulation and can’t hold up against better rigid soft versions, let alone hard coolers. As close as I’ve found is RTIC’s Backpack cooler, which basically turns the semi-rigid soft model, a YETI Hopper clone, into a backpack that is more cooler and less backpack comfort. I wouldn’t want to hike the Appalachian Trail with it, but it’s comfortable enough for day trips, and also 100% waterproof and it floats, a big plus for days on the water.
Beverage: When YETI was done reinventing the chest-style cooler, they tackled the spigot beverage model, the kind they have out on golf courses and pour Gatorade over winning coaches’ heads from. Only instead of being round with a screw off or snap on top like most, YETI’s Silo 6G version is rectangular and has the same hinge and rubber clasp system as its other coolers. But the big difference is the thick, ultra-insulated rotomolded construction, the toughness, the great fast flowing and protected spigot and the ease of cleaning – especially since it is white inside. It also holds six liters of beverage (the standard jug models are five). This is probably the least well-known cooler YETI makes, but it’s my favorite that I own, and at every party and cookout we have it out dispensing ice-cold water on demand. You don’t have to keep running in to fill pitchers and guests who are partaking of adult beverage can stay hydrated more easily. Unless, that is, you fill it with rum punch or margaritas or any cocktail, at which it works equally well. Since even YETI fans are surprised when they see it, the 6G also makes a great gift for that person who has everything. I love mine.
Picnic, Boozy Picnic, Brunch: I fell in love with ROVR’s KEEPR the moment I saw it and the first thing I did was plan a bottomless mimosa and Bloody Mary brunch around it. This is not so much a cooler as a portable party, a very heavy duty shopping bag style vessel with slots for bottles and a central round compartment that hold ROVR’s extremely insulated, round, portable screw top ice bucket, the Icer. The Icer is the coolest portable device I’ve seen specifically for transporting ice, and it is included in the KEEPR ($150) or sold separately ($49).