The Best Coolers

Abby Hocking
We tested seven popular coolers to find the best.

Welcome to F&W Gear Guides. Each week on Wednesday, we publish a buyer’s guide to an essential piece of kitchen gear based on real world testing. Missed an installment? Find them all here.

A good cooler can serve many masters, from soccer moms to avid campers to frat boys. But until you actually fill one up with ice and juice boxes, how can you tell what you're going to get? We tried seven models to test the claims of their makers and found that performance varies significantly from cooler to cooler. Read on to see how we arrived at three favorites: a full-featured premium pick, an excellent budget model and a smaller high-end cooler for those who don't need quite as much cooling capacity.

 

In Search of the Best Cooler

Food technology has advanced quite a bit in the last 100 years. We’re using microwaves, induction burners and sous vide circulators for heat. We’re using non-stick pans born of NASA discoveries. We’re using spiralizers, which, had you brought them up a century ago would have provoked some strange looks from the top hat crowd at your armistice party. But, aside from some questionable modern gimmicks, one item that has worked more or less the same way for hundreds of years is the cooler. The actual insulation may have changed, the operation though, has not: Put food in box. Food stays cold. But even though coolers have been around in one form or another for a very long time, the market is flush with cooler companies and price points that run from an affordable $30 or $40 to well over $300.

After consulting sites like Field and Stream, The Sweet Home, Gear Patrol, we tested seven different models to find out what worked, what didn’t and whether ultra-high end models really can outperform their more economical brethren. After several tests, I feel comfortable saying that you do get more keep-cold power if you’re willing to pay a premium. But for the average picnic in the park, there is an economical solution that will do you just fine.

The Coolers

Yeti Tundra Series

Courtesy of Amazon

Austin is regularly cited as one of the coolest places in the America and its hometown cooler company, Yeti, has done its best to earn that “coolest” distinction as well, topping many cooler lists. The Tundra series is Yeti’s one and only hard-walled cooler. And, like pretty much every premium cooler on the market, the Tundra is roto-molded, which means its design is seamless—a feature often cited as beneficial for keeping contents cold. We tested the 35-quart model ($300 on Amazon).

Orca

Courtesy of Amazon

Developed by an avid hunter, Orcas are favored by the camping and hunting crowd and come with a lifetime warranty. Several of the coolers I tested were certified “bear resistant” (a concern for the outdoorsy types that typically buy these coolers, but, really shouldn’t we all be worried about bears?). However, Orca was the only company that provided this excellent proof. We tested the 58-quart model ($393 on Amazon).

Coleman Steel Belted

Courtesy of Amazon

If you’ve ever been camping, you know Coleman. They make everything from sleeping bags to camping stoves, as well as a whole range of coolers. The steel-belted cooler has a retro look and for good reason—it was first developed in 1954. This cooler only comes in a 54-quart size ($99 on Amazon).

Coleman Xtreme

Courtesy of Amazon

Coleman’s entry-level hard-shelled cooler, the Extreme 5, is lightweight for its size. It happened to be the only cooler we tried without any kind of latching mechanism. We tested the 52-quart model. ($39 on Amazon.)

Igloo Super Tough STX

Courtesy of Amazon

The Super Tough STX belongs to Igloo’s hearty, all-purpose camping line, and it’s 40 percent heavier than more casual coolers. It also features Cool Riser technology (essentially four short legs) that lift the bulk of the cooler off the ground (the idea being to keep it separated from warm surfaces). We tested the 54-quart model ($80 on Amazon).

Igloo Sportsman Series

Courtesy of Amazon

Igloo’s high-end hunting and camping cooler is roto-molded and bear resistant. It has a heavy duty 2-inch gasket on the lid to help seal it closed, and an oversized drain plug. It was the easiest to open of all the models we tried. We tested the 20-quart model. ($128 on Amazon.)

Pelican Elite

Courtesy of Amazon

Anyone obsessed with the protection of their A/V equipment definitely knows the Pelican name. It’s the gold standard for transporting audio and video hardware. But they make coolers too. And you won’t mistake them for any other brand. The Pelican Elite looks like a thicker-walled version of their other cases and feels heavy duty enough to drop out of an airplane. That’s probably why it also comes with a lifetime warranty. We tested the 50-quart model. ($315 on Amazon.)

A note on sizing: People’s cooling needs vary, so I tested a range of differently sized coolers to get a feel for how much they can hold and how they handle. That said, unless you have a small military brigade to feed, you'll probably want something between 26 and 54 quarts. Any bigger is quite cumbersome to move (as we discovered with the 58-quart Orca we tried and would likely also be the case with similarly-sized Yeti, Pelican and Igloo models); any smaller and you can barely get a few sandwiches inside.

As for how varying sizes could impact our tests, a real world experiment by some cooler obsessives found no serious difference in ice retention based size alone.

The Tests

Since the thing we demand of our coolers is that they keep our food and drinks cool, we sought to answer two simple questions:

  1. What happens to cold stuff inside a cooler?
  2. What happens to a cooler when it’s subjected to heat?

To that end, I performed two different tests.

Ice Retention

Since ice retention is a point of pride for many high-end cooler makers (most openly flaunt the number of days they claim ice will remain solid right on the label), you might think they would have an advantage over their cheaper counterparts. And for the most part, that turned out to be true. However, not every heavy duty, roto-molded model had ice remaining after three days, and one of the lighter models did manage to keep a few cubes solid. The results:

Yeti Tundra: 3 lbs, 3.7 ounces of ice remaining

Igloo Sportsman: 11.3 ounces of ice remaining

Orca: 6.1 ounces of ice remaining

Coleman Xtreme: 3.1 ounces of ice remaining

Pelican/Coleman Steel Belted/Igloo Super Tough STX: No ice left.

It’s tough to argue with the Yeti here, as it outperformed its nearest competitor by more than 200 percent. But even though it only held on to about 2 percent of its ice, I want to give a shout out to the Coleman Xtreme. It’s the cheapest cooler of the bunch and it outperformed several more expensive models.

Heat Test

First, let me say I didn’t know how hot I would actually be able to get a room of my house, especially since my part of the country just went through an unseasonable cold snap. But thanks to the magical combination of a Nest thermostat, a $30 space heater and towel under the door, I was able to get my own little sauna going. After an hour spent at 92 degrees these were the internal temperatures of the empty coolers, all of which sat open at room temperature for two hours before testing

Igloo Sportsman: 68.3 degrees

Yeti Tundra: 68.4 degrees

Orca: 68.7 degrees

Pelican Elite: 70.1 degrees

Coleman Xtreme 5: 73.4 degrees

Coleman Steel Belted: 74.5 degrees

Igloo Supertough STX: 75.1 degrees

The Best Coolers

Top Performer: Yeti Tundra ($300 on Amazon)

We have to give it up for the Yeti here. Its performance in the ice retention test was off the charts, and it was neck-and-neck with top performers in the heat test. Yeti proved that if you put a premium on performance, this cooler is worth its $300 price tag.

Budget Performer: Coleman Xtreme ($39 on Amazon)

The Coleman Xtreme performed admirably under adverse conditions. It retained some ice, and while it didn’t stay as cool as the thicker, pricier brands in the heat test, it outperformed coolers in a similar class by more than a full degree. Also, as I said above, the Xtreme is also the least expensive of the bunch here. The 52-quart model I tested costs just $39.99, and the smaller 28-quart model is a bit less at $36

Best Premium Small Cooler: Igloo Sportsman ($128 on Amazon)

Compared to other premium coolers in its size class, the Igloo Sportsman is a tremendous deal. For a bit more than half the price of a comparably-sized Orca or Yeti, you get 20 quarts of solid performance. The over-sized drain plug on the Sportsman is also an excellent piece of design work. Of all the coolers tested this is the only one that was actually easy to drain.

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