9 Best Coolers WIRED Tested For Every Budget, Any Situation

The first thing to consider when buying a cooler is how you’re going to use it. If you aren’t heading out for days at a time, you probably don’t need an expensive high-end cooler. All the coolers we’ve recommend above are capable of holding things at a safe temperature for a day, provided you keep them in the shade. Similarly, if you aren’t going to be hiking into a campsite, don’t spend the extra money for a backpack cooler. A wheeled cooler, however, is well worth the investment. Your back will thank you.

Hard-sided coolers: These range from the old green Coleman coolers—once a staple of every camping trip—to Yetis, which cost as much as cars did when Coleman started making coolers. You might wonder why the Yetis are so expensive. That I can’t answer, but Yeti did upend the cooler industry by introducing rotational molding, or “rotomolding,” where melted plastic is molded over foam insulation in one piece. Rotomolded coolers offer seamless, uniform density in their walls and lids, which drastically improves a cooler’s performance. In contrast, those ancient, affordable plastic coolers we’ve all used have thinner walls, leaky seams, and less insulated lids. Whether you need the extra insulation depends on what you’re doing and how hot it is when you’re doing it. Want to learn more? Our In-House Know-It-All has a more thorough insulation explanation.

Hard-sided coolers generally have the luxury features you want, like leakproof lids and drain plugs, and some are even bear-resistant (check this list of bear-proof products if you’re headed into grizzly country). The downside is that these coolers are generally huge and heavy.

Soft-sided coolers: Soft-sided coolers include everything from well-padded, impressively insulated sling bags (like the Yeti Hopper Flip above) to roll-down, dry-bag-style coolers perfect for those mild beach days. The best soft coolers are easier to carry, pack away better when not in use, and have a versatility that traditional hard coolers lack. (I have used dry-bag-style coolers as, well, dry bags.) Ice doesn’t last as long, but for short outings where you don’t need a large cooler, these are what we recommend.

Electric coolers: If you’re headed out on longer adventures and have access to power, these are the way to go. You’ll need some kind of power source, but you’ll never have to worry about your ice melting. There are quite a few of these available now, and I am working on a separate guide for them, but for now I’ve included our top picks here.

Other Features to Look For:

  • Drain plug: This greatly simplifies life by making it easy to drain the water out of your cooler. If you’re buying a large cooler, make sure it has one of these.
  • Divider: One of our top tips for long-term cooler use is to have two coolers: one you treat as a fridge and hardly ever open, and another for drinks. If that’s not possible, you can achieve some of the same by getting a cooler with a dividing wall in it. That way you can pack one side tightly with ice to keep that meat at a low temp, and use the other side for chilling beverages with cubed ice.
  • Wheels: Coolers get heavy and wheels are awesome. They won’t always work (good luck wheeling your cooler over tree roots), but when they do, they are completely worth it.

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