The classic cooler has come a long way. We grew up on old-school plastic coolers that weighed a ton, sweat a lot, and had terrible ice retention – many of us remember having to pour out a ton of water after just a few hours on a hot day. Times have changed, however, and before you let your family pass down that dinky cooler you took on road trips and beach days, you should familiarize yourself with the new breed of coolers from brands like YETI, Coleman, and Pelican that turn these simple beverage coolers into off-roading, days-long parties.
Today’s best coolers, even ones that look like the ones from you used when you were a kid, are head and shoulders above the simple double-walled plastic coolers of yesteryear. Modern plastics and manufacturing methods like rotational molding (otherwise known as rotomolding) result in super-rugged cooler bodies that offer greatly improved insulation and ice retention that lasts for days rather than mere hours.
Most coolers are pretty rugged, but if you’re the type of outdoorsman who is unusually rough on your things, then the Yeti Tundra might be the ultimate vessel for keeping your drinks (or meat, fish, and whatever else) both ice-cold and protected from the elements. The Tundra’s rotomolded walls are several inches thick and are filled with PermaFrost insulation that provides days’ worth of ice retention, and the lid bolts down with Yeti’s rubber T-Rex latches for a bear-proof, airtight seal.
The 45-quart Yeti Tundra is a bit pricey at $300, but if you’re after the ultimate “buy once, cry once” cooler, this might be it. If 45 quarts doesn’t meet your needs, there’s also a, or you can upgrade to a for easier portability.
Another superb (and potentially cheaper) hardcore cooler is the Pelican Elite. If you’re an outdoorsman or anyone else who relies on rugged cases to protect your equipment, then you’re probably already familiar with this iconic brand. These coolers feature all of that bombproof Pelican build quality along with design touches like a freezer-grade lid gasket, polyurethane insulation for more than a whole week’s worth of ice retention, tie-down slots, and anti-shear hinges.
The Elite coolers are all built in America and include Pelican’s lifetime guarantee, and since these are basically “coolerized” Pelican cases, they could even be used to haul your gear when the drinks are gone and the party’s over. These Pelican Elite cooler comes in 45- andvariants (the 50-quart model is available in a nice array of colors, too) with prices ranging from $240 to $300. There’s also for $380 to $500 depending on size.
If you’re the type to balk at spending $100-plus on a cooler, we get it. Sometimes, you just can’t beat a classic, and the Coleman cooler combines modern materials and three-day ice retention with a no-nonsense design at an unbeatable price point. This model has a 48-quart capacity (which can hold just over 60 cans), the “Goldilocks” zone for a go-to day cooler that’s not too big or too small. It’s also tall enough for 2-liter soda bottles to stand up in.
Another surprising (and very nice) thing to see with a budget option is that this Coleman cooler is made right here in America. For a mere $20, don’t even think about looking elsewhere for a cheap, no-frills cooler.and versions are also available if you want to go smaller, and – you guessed it – there’s also
All of the picks on our roundup are hard-sided, which provide superior insulation but are rather heavy. Even when empty, coolers like the Yeti or Pelican easily weigh in at 20-30-plus pounds. That’s fine if you’re moving them by vehicle to a stationary site, but they’re naturally too cumbersome to lug around. A better option for an “on the move” icebox is the Polar Bear cooler, which is made from one-inch thick insulated nylon that can keep ice frozen for a day or more (and that is quite good for a soft-sided unit).
There are more than a few soft-sided coolers on the market. What sets the Polar Bear apart from the herd (aside from its great design and tough build quality), and why it’s our favorite, is that this cooler is available in a great range of sizes – there’s even a backpack-style variant built for trekking – and it simply performs very well at a very reasonable price point compared to our hard-sided top picks.
Soft-sided coolers are great for camping, picnics, field trips, car rides, and other casual excursions, but for serious outdoor adventures far away from civilization, a hard-sided cooler is always a better option. The 16-quart Stanley Adventure cooler gives you the ruggedness of a hard-sided icebox in a much smaller package than our other picks, with enough room for about 20 cans and insulated double-walled construction that provides two or three days’ worth of ice retention – perfect for keeping drinks and perishables cold during those weekend get-aways.
One feature we really like on the Stanley Adventure cooler is the elastic retention bands on top, which provide a very simple and elegant way to secure things like bottles, thermoses, and other smaller items while keeping them within easy reach. The 16-quart Stanley portable cooler is also very affordable, ringing in at between $50 and $75 depending on color choice.
Most medium-sized to large coolers are in the 40- to 65-quart range, but for serious parties, that almost certainly won’t be enough. For big get-togethers like graduation parties or reunions, this unassuming white titan from Igloo is just the ticket. Along with a huge 120-quart capacity, the Igloo Polar cooler provides excellent insulation and ice retention, a securely locking lid, and an odor-resistant liner – in short, exactly what you need a jumbo-sized cooler to do, with no unnecessary (and expensive) bells and whistles.
Since a huge cooler probably isn’t something most of us are going to use a lot, it doesn’t make sense to pay hundreds for one, and the Igloo Polar cooler is pretty easy on the wallet despite its size: Amazon has it for just under $70.
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