Coolers are hallmarks of summer—plopped next to the picnic table, sunk in the grass in your backyard, stuck in the back seat of a beach-bound car—and they’re simple, or at least they used to be: You fill them with ice and a bunch of beverages and you’re ready to party. But nowadays there are a bunch of different cooler designs, and each one claims to be the best, many of them boasting that they'll keep the interior icy cold for days on end.
But do they really? I put eight coolers to the test, measuring how well they maintained their internal temperature, how much ice they lost over time, and how well they kept the beverages they contained chilly. Then, to make sure they were rugged enough to survive an occasional drop, I shoved them off of a table onto concrete several times. Here's what I found.
The Winners, at a Glance
The Best Cooler: Cabela Polar Cap Equalizer
This cooler maintained a markedly lower temperature than the others, and at first I wondered if the low temperature was correct. After swapping thermometer probes, I decided it wasn’t a technical difficulty, and this cooler was indeed…cooler. That low temperature translated to slower ice melt than the others, with ice lasting nearly 13 days. I had issues with the water drain leaking, but since coolers are mostly used outdoors, it wasn't a dealbreaker. Just make sure the plug is nice and tight before you take it on a trip.
The Best Cooler Runner-Up: Yeti Tundra
While the ice in the Yeti didn’t last as long as the cooler from Cabela (10 days total), it sailed through the rest of the tests with no problems.
The Best Affordable Cooler: Igloo Max Cold
This inexpensive cooler was neck-and-neck with the Yeti in the ice melting race. What's more, the wheels and handle made it easy to transport. While it looks small, it accomodated all 30 pounds of ice used during testing.
The Best Lightweight Cooler: Rugged Road Onitis 45
This cooler weighs just nine pounds, so it’s easier to carry than the heavier coolers. Ice lasted a respectable nine days. The cooler lid is completely removable and reversible, although given its light weight, there might be some issues with the lid blowing away on a super-blustery day. This was the only cooler that didn’t have a drain hole. While it'll never leak, if you spill a beer in there, you'll have to dump everything out to clean it.
The Criteria: What We Look for in a Great Cooler
A good cooler should keep food or drinks chilled long enough to last through the party—not just because cold drinks taste better, but for food safety reasons as well. (Remember the temperature danger zone is between 40 and 140°F (5-60°C); if your food sits within that temperature range, bad bacteria can run rampant.) Coolers should also be also rugged enough to take some bumps and bruises because, let’s face it, who hasn’t accidentally dropped a cooler while retrieving it from a trunk or while carrying it to the picnic site? Finally, it should be easy to use. If the lid is difficult to latch, your ice might melt faster than anticipated.
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When filling a cooler, ice matters, so I asked a friendly mixologist what sort of ice he’d choose for a cooler. Solid ice rather than crushed or nugget was suggested, so that’s what I used. For accurate testing, I armed myself with two ThermoWorks remote read thermometers with four ambient temperature probes each, plus a Thermapen to measure soda temperature, and a scale to weigh ice.
Test 1: Temperature
A cooler's primary job is keeping its temperature stable. First, I cleared space in my living room so the coolers were in an environment with a controlled temperature, rather that outside. Then I taped an ambient temperature probe to the inside lid of each cooler, making sure the business end wasn’t actually touching the lid. I filled each cooler with 30 pounds of ice (yes, that’s 240 pound of ice, total) and I checked and recorded the internal temperature every 12 hours until all the ice was gone.
In the first 24 hours of testing, five coolers—the Igloo MaxCold, Cabela's Polar Cap, Rugged Road Onitis, Yeti, and Pelican—remained under 40°F (5°C), with the Cabela Polar Cap reading the lowest at 33.5 degrees after 12 hours. The losers here—the Igloo Legacy, Coleman Portable with Wheels, and Coleman Steel Belted— ended that 24-hour period with temperatures over 40°F, with the Coleman Portable with Wheels at 41 degrees.
Test 2: Ice Melt
Every 12 hours, I weighed the ice, draining the water back into the coolers to mimic "normal conditions," when drinks or food are in a cooler with ice. The Cabela Polar Cap lost just a single ounce in the first 12 hours and the Yeti was a close second with a loss of 2.1 ounces. The first two coolers to have all their ice melt were the Igloo Legacy and the Coleman Portable with Wheels on the seventh day of testing. While that’s an acceptably long time, it’s important to remember that they were indoors and not sitting in summer heat or blazing sunshine.
Test 3: Drink Temperature
For this test, I started with 10 pounds of ice in each cooler, along with 12 cans of sparkling water that were at 62°F (17°C). Every hour, I opened a can in each cooler and tested the temperature. After three hours, the cans in every cooler were at 32-33 degrees—the thermometer read in whole degrees, so they were virtually equal. After that third hour, the temperatures remained stable until I ran out of cans to test, or 9 more hours.
Test 4: Durability
If you're always on the move, durability is important when it comes to buying a cooler. It may fall out of the car; you might drop it; if it's living in your garage, you might accidentally hit it! Since these beasts are expensive, you want to find one that will last. I used a 27-inch-high table for the durability test, pushing each empty cooler off the side of the table onto concrete. Each one was dropped onto its front, back, and one side.
One thing I learned from shoving the coolers rather than carrying them was that the Yeti, Cabela, and Pelican had non-slip feet, which means they’re less likely to get accidentally shoved off of a picnic table or across the deck.
The Igloo Legacy was the only one that sustained actual damage, with one side of the front handle breaking when it was dropped on its front; it also popped open upon impact. The Coleman Steel Belted has the same type of handle and latch, so perhaps it was just luck that it survived and the Igloo didn’t; however, it also popped open when it was dropped on its front.
One or both of the latches on the Pelican popped open with each drop. While nothing broke, it would have been annoying if it had been filled with food and ice. The Coleman Portable with Wheels didn’t break, but the axle for the wheels became dislodged from its bracket. I was able to push it back into place, but had it been full, it wouldn't have been as easy.
How We Chose Our Winners
A cooler's most important job is keeping food and drinks cool, so the coolers that stayed cool with the least melted ice rose to the top of the list of winners. While there aren't a lot of people who need ice to last a week or more for a barbecue, it’s great to know that some of these would keep food safe long-term in case of a power outage.
While most of the coolers did well in the drop test as far as damage was concerned, it was surprising to discover that some of them popped open. That would be very inconvenient if they were filled with food, drinks, and ice. So those that sustained damage went down to the bottom.
User experience also played a part. The Rugged Road Onitis won a few extra points because of its light weight. It was the only one I’d be willing to carry any sort of distance on my own, particularly if it was loaded with food. The Igloo Max Cold was easy to move thanks to its wheels. Both of those consequently rose a little in the standings.
On the other hand, while the Coleman Portable with Wheels was easy to move around, it was very difficult to open. It doesn’t have any latches, so it relies on a snug lid fit. Unfortunately I couldn’t find a good way to grip the top and body to open the lid. Eventually, I left a screwdriver next to the cooler so I could open it without a struggle.
While it’s not the primary use of the coolers, I considered whether any of them would be appropriate for use as a sous vide container without destroying them as a cooler. The Rugged Road was a contender because of its removable lid, which would obviate any risk of slamming the top down on an immersion circulator. Also, the lid could be replaced so it still covered most of the water. However, after checking with the manufacturer, it’s not recommended for temperatures above 140 degrees. That would be sufficient for low temperature sous vide recipes like a medium-rare steak, but not for everything.
For higher temperature cooks, I’d look to the Igloo Legacy or the Coleman Steel Belted for one reason: Both have thin sides at the top, so it’s possible to clamp an immersion circulator onto the cooler. There would be no need to modify the coolers, so they could function both as coolers and as sous vide containers.
The Best Cooler: Cabela's Polar Cap
This cooler aced two important tests: It kept the lowest internal temperature, and the ice melted the slowest. During the drop test, it got a few scrapes and scratches, but it stayed closed, and the non-slip feet are a plus. The one slight issue with this cooler was that the drain leaked. I had to tighten it several time over the testing interval since it loosened on its own. Since this will be used outdoors or perhaps in a garage or on a boat, a few drips shouldn’t be a problem.
The Best Cooler Runner-Up: Yeti Tundra 45
This cooler was almost as good as the Cabela Polar Cap as far as temperature and ice retention, but without the pesky leakage from the drain. If there’s a good chance you'll be using a cooler indoors frequently, this is the one to choose. It has a couple of nice design features that recommend it, too, like the non-slip feet and the small dry goods basket that's included, which nestles on the rim of the cooler to keep foods cool but out of the ice and water. I did want to note, however, that the drain plug on this cooler is completely removable; if someone forgets to replace it, it can easily be lost.
The Best Affordable Cooler: Igloo Max Cold
This relatively inexpensive cooler was a surprise, since it kept up with more expensive coolers with temperature and ice retention. It’s also easy to move thanks to the handle and wheels. This cooler has no latch, but it didn’t open during the drop tests.
The Best Lightweight Cooler: Rugged Road Onitis
This one also did a great job with temperature and ice retention, but its selling point might actually be its light weight. Sure, you can always find a pal to grab one handle of a cooler to carry it to the picnic spot, but this one may be light enough for a single person to carry around, depending on the weight of food, drink, and ice it contains.
Pelican Elite: This cooler did fairly well with temperature and ice melt, but it's wide and heavy enough that it may require two people to lift and carry when it’s full. The latches also popped open during the drop tests. A good cooler, but others performed better.
Coleman Steel Belted: With an old-school look, this cooler did fairly well with the temperature and ice tests, but it didn’t quite keep up. It didn’t sustain any damage during the drop tests, but it did pop open. Since the handle and latch are similar to the Igloo Legacy that did break, I’d consider the handle to be vulnerable. However, if someone is looking for a cooler to use for casual cooling as well as sous vide, this is a good choice.
Igloo Legacy: While this cooler could certainly handle a backyard barbecue with ease, it was one of the first to have completely melted ice, and the handle broke during the drop test. However, like the Coleman Steel Belted, this could be handy for someone with modest cooler requirements who also wants to use it for sous vide cooking.
Coleman Portable with Wheels: While the wheels on this cooler were nice, the axle came dislodged during the drop test. This was one of the least successful with the temperature and ice melt tests. But ultimately the fact that I had to pry it open with a screwdriver every time put it out of contention.