Not all coolers are created equal. In your search for the perfect cooler, you’ll likely read raving reviews of specific brands, sizes, and types. But, that doesn’t mean the most popular cooler is automatically the right choice for your needs.
There are probably more types on the market than you think. From hard to soft, metal to Styrofoam, and everything in between, it can be difficult to figure out what kind you need.
Our cooler buying guide will be your go-to resource for comparing three of the most popular cooler types: soft, hard, and electric. The last thing you want to do is spend hundreds of dollars on a cooler that won’t work for your outdoor adventures. So, skip the reviews and guessing, and instead rely on this handy cooler buying guide.
What to Look for When Buying a Cooler
Some are just better for certain activities than others. While a soft sided cooler tends to provide the best portability, they may not be best for campers who need an ultra-rugged cooler that can keep critters – and even large bears – out. Electric coolers are excellent for those with larger budgets who need a long-term cooling solution but probably aren’t cost-effective for shorter trips.
To help you pinpoint your own needs before you delve into this guide, here are a few things to consider when purchasing a cooler:
- How long are your average trips? A weekend-length trip and a 2-week long trip likely have different needs in terms of insulation and size.
- What will you be storing in the cooler? Food may need more cooling than drinks to stay fresh. Some items may also need more protection from a cooler than others.
- How much will you need to store? Coolers come in all different shapes and sizes to meet the needs of different outdoor enthusiasts and their activities.
- How often will you need to lug around your cooler? Campers setting up tents in one area can usually keep a cooler in one spot. Those with more active activities will benefit from a cooler that’s portable and more lightweight.
- What’s your budget? You don’t want to spend more money on a cooler that you can afford, no matter how perfect you think it is. There are usually more budget-friendly options if a cooler is completely out of your price range.
Soft Sided Coolers
Soft coolers are best known for their portability. A soft sided Cooler typically is much lighter in weight than hard coolers and have handles or shoulder straps that make them particularly easy to carry. Some even come in backpack form for ultimate portability.
Soft sided coolers can be great for carrying cans since cans won’t typically be bothered much if something were to fall on the cooler. The way they’re constructed usually makes them incredibly leak-proof, and their outer materials are often waterproof so no liquid can seep in.
Soft sided coolers usually are sized according to the number of cans they can hold, since that’s what people tend to store in them. These vary greatly in size, from small backpacks that hold six to eight cans, to huge 36-can capacities. As the cooler’s size grows, manufacturers add extra carrying options, like two small handles and a large, comfortable, adjustable shoulder strap for easier carrying.
Even the largest don’t necessarily compare to the size of large, hard-sided coolers, though. Many people prefer to use them for shorter outdoor trips, like a day at the beach or a weekend camping trip.
Soft sided coolers have thinner insulation than most hard-sided coolers, ranging between ½ to 1-inch thick. Still, they usually contain a closed-cell foam insulation with high-density packing to create a strong barrier between the inside and outside of the cooler. A vinyl liner protects the contents from leaking into the insulation and damaging its ability to keep your contents cool.
Most high end soft sided coolers can retain ice for about 24 hours, and sometimes longer if you don’t expose a cooler to too much excessive sun or heat. The ones with the best cooling ability have a tightly-sealed opening that can be difficult to transfer items in and out of until it gets worked in.
Just because a cooler has soft sides, don’t mistake it for being weak. The Yeti Hopper, for example, is made with incredibly durable materials that can withstand large amounts of wear and tear.
Many soft coolers are made of thick, durable canvas or vinyl that not only allows them to resist punctures and tears but also helps them hold their shape over time, so you won’t have to worry about warping. It’s a good idea also to make sure a soft cooler has durable hardware made from stainless steel or strong molded plastic to withstand long-term, regular use.
What the best uses for Soft Coolers?
Soft coolers are your best bet for shorter trips and smaller groups. If you need a cooler to bring with you on a day-long hiking trip or a family visit to the beach, a soft cooler is the most portable one you’ll find, and it should definitely meet your needs for the day.
But, if you’re looking for a cooler that minimizes your need for buying ice, a soft cooler isn’t it. After about a day or so, you’ll need to dump melted ice and replenish the stock. With a soft cooler, it can be a little more tedious to release water, since they don’t come with drainage spouts.
Soft coolers are, in general, the most budget-friendly on this list. They can save you at least $50 to $100 compared to hard or electric coolers of similar sizes. So, they’re good choices for those who need short-term cooling without higher prices of a hard ice chest.
Hard Sided Coolers
Hard coolers are usually a little tougher on the budget than soft coolers, but they provide more long-term cooling solutions for long outdoor trips or larger groups. They can be much heavier than soft coolers, and therefore aren’t the best for portability. However, some larger roto molded coolers come with wheels, or the option to add them, so they can travel easily with you.
Hard sided coolers can help protect your contents by providing a more durable, rugged exterior. The best rotomolded coolers have tight seals and excellent latching mechanisms that can resist accessing attempts by critters, or even bears.
Hard ice chests also come in a wide range of sizes, from smaller, very portable options that hold about 12 to 14 cans, to huge sizes that can hold 80 or more gallons. Larger hard sided coolers are perfect for storing fish or meats, making them excellent choices for fishing and hunting trips. But, they can also provide the size needed for large camping groups to hold enough food and drinks for days.
When it comes to insulation, they have thickness going for them. Many of the best hard coolers have pressure-injected foam insulation that ranges between 2 to 4-inches thick. And, these coolers often have insulation on the lids and bottoms, rather than just the sides, to ensure that no cool air escapes from any part.
The best have freezer-grade gaskets that seal their lids tightly when not in use. This both eliminates air flow between the outside and inside of the cooler and prevents leaks.
Most excel in durability. However, depending on how they’re made, some hard coolers can crack over time and begin to leak. When searching for a hard sided cooler, it’s important to pay attention to its exterior and interior materials and the process used to put the cooler together.
Rotomolded coolers are the best option for durability. The rotomolding process creates one continuous molded plastic piece with a rugged thickness, rather than others that have pieces welded together. This creates a stronger cooler that’s less likely to crack under pressure or excessive temperatures.
What are Hard Sided Coolers Best For?
Large ones can provide fishers and hunters with the perfect way to store their meats properly during their trips. They are also an excellent choice for large camping groups or long outdoor trips where you’ll need your contents to stay cold for longer periods of time.
Smaller ones can also benefit those who have a higher budget and want the added protection and insulation that hard coolers provide. Some small hard coolers can provide ample space for contents and still be lightweight enough to be portable if needed.
Thermoelectric coolers, eliminates the need for pouring ice into a cooler. These operate with thermoelectric technology, by transferring heat between two electric conductors for its cooling effect.
They are made for car trips in mind, commonly including a plug that powers the cooler through a vehicle’s cigarette lighter adapter. You can think of these coolers like a mini refrigerator for your car to keep food and drinks cold on road trips.
But, with their convenience also comes the highest price point of coolers in this guide. Even small ones can be much more expensive than larger soft or rotomoled coolers, so they will not work for lower budgets.
These come in many sizes like soft and hard coolers. A Lower budget electric cooler hold about 20 to 30 cans, and larger a electric cooler can hold as many as 70 to 80 cans. Of course, you’ll need to take the size of your vehicle’s interior into consideration. You may need a large one to hold your needed items, but it may not fit conveniently inside your vehicle.
Most electric options have incredible insulation to help them stay as efficient as possible. Their thick, compacted insulation creates a heavy barrier between the inside and outside of the cooler to prevent temperature loss. Many can continue to stay cool for at least a couple of hours after their power is removed, much like a refrigerator.
Of course, the insulation is only as good as your cooler’s seal. Make sure that an it has a freezer-grade seal that will keep its cold air in and your contents cool for as long as possible.
Electric coolers get constructed in different ways, depending on brand and style. Some are made more like a hard-sided cooler with rotomolded construction. Others look and feel more like a miniature refrigerator or ice chest. Either way, they are typically very durable, with little need to worry about cracks, punctures, leaks, or warping.
With their durable builds, though, comes heavier weights. Larger electric coolers can be difficult, if not almost impossible, to tote around if needed.
What are Thermoelectric Coolers Best For?
They can be the most versatile, so long as you have a consistent electric source to keep it plugged in. It’s not always practical to leave a car running to keep the cooler powered, as you run the risk of killing your battery. Those with RVs or battery packs may benefit the most. There are also some made with recharging batteries that last for a while after getting unplugged, but they tend to sell at higher price points.
Tailgaters, hunters, and fishermen can all benefit from so long as they have a place to plug it in at least every couple of hours. You can also turn some into heaters for food, making them excellent options for campers.
When looking for a backpack cooler, there are several key factors to consider that can enhance your overall experience and ensure that the cooler meets your specific needs. Here are some aspects to look for in a backpack cooler:
Insulation and Ice Retention
A high-quality backpack cooler should have effective insulation for cold beverages to last an extended period. Look for coolers with thick insulation and features like closed-cell foam or high-density insulation materials. Additionally, check for information on the cooler's ice retention capabilities to ensure it can maintain low temperatures for as long as you need and avoid melted ice.
Capacity and Size
Consider the capacity of the backpack cooler based on your intended usage. Think about how much food and drinks you typically need to carry and choose a size that accommodates your needs. Keep in mind that larger capacities may result in a heavier and bulkier cooler, so strike a balance between capacity and portability.
Comfort and Ergonomics
Since it's a backpack cooler, comfort is essential. Look for adjustable shoulder straps and a padded back panel to distribute the weight evenly and reduce strain on your shoulders and back. Consider additional features like a chest or waist strap for added stability and comfort during longer hikes or walks.
Durability and Waterproofing
A backpack cooler should be able to withstand rugged outdoor use. Look for coolers made from durable materials like nylon or polyester, preferably with reinforced stitching. Waterproof or water-resistant features are also desirable to protect your contents from moisture, spills, or sudden downpours.
Pockets and Compartments
Consider the organization and storage options the backpack cooler offers. Multiple pockets and compartments can be handy for keeping your items organized and easily accessible. Look for features like external mesh pockets for holding water bottles or small essentials.
Some backpack coolers come with additional features that can enhance your experience. This could include features like built-in bottle openers, external attachment points for gear or accessories, or even detachable cooler compartments that allow you to use the backpack for other purposes when not carrying chilled items.
Brand Reputation and Reviews
Lastly, consider the brand reputation and customer reviews of the backpack cooler you are considering. Look for feedback from other users to gauge the cooler's performance, reliability, and customer satisfaction.
By considering these factors, you can find a backpack cooler that meets your specific needs, whether it's for hiking, picnicking, or any other outdoor activity where keeping your food and drinks chilled on the go is important.
Best Marine Coolers
The best marine cooler stands out due to a combination of exceptional features and attributes. These coolers are purpose-built to meet the unique requirements and challenges of marine environments. With a focus on practicality, durability, and efficiency, these coolers are carefully engineered to deliver reliable performance.
One crucial aspect of a top-tier marine cooler is its insulation capabilities. Superior insulation ensures that the cooler maintains low temperatures, keeping perishable items fresh for extended periods. By minimizing heat transfer, these coolers prevent ice from melting quickly, allowing users to enjoy cold beverages and preserved food even in the harshest marine conditions.
Durability is another key factor that sets the best marine coolers apart. Constructed using rugged materials, these coolers are designed to withstand the rigors of the marine environment. From saltwater exposure to UV rays and rough handling, these coolers can endure it all, offering longevity and reliability even in demanding situations.
To safeguard against water intrusion and maintain optimal temperature retention, these coolers feature leak-proof and airtight seals. These seals ensure that water stays out while cold air remains trapped inside. This level of protection is crucial when encountering rough seas or unpredictable weather, keeping the cooler's contents safe and preserving their freshness.
Considering the corrosive nature of saltwater, the best marine coolers are crafted with corrosion-resistant materials. This resistance safeguards the cooler's structural integrity, protecting it from deterioration over time. A well-built marine cooler can withstand the corrosive effects of saltwater and other elements, ensuring it remains in optimal condition for prolonged use.
Safety is also a priority, and marine coolers often incorporate non-slip features. These features, such as non-slip feet or textured surfaces, prevent the cooler from sliding or moving on the boat deck or other surfaces. By enhancing stability and reducing the risk of accidents, these non-slip attributes ensure a secure and reliable cooling solution.
Additionally, the best marine coolers offer user-friendly drainage systems for easy water removal. Draining melted ice and water should be a hassle-free process, and well-designed drainage systems simplify this task. Quick and efficient drainage saves time and effort, allowing users to maintain the cooler's cleanliness and performance effortlessly.
Considering space constraints on boats, the size and capacity of a marine cooler are critical factors. Optimal storage capacity is essential to accommodate the needs of marine enthusiasts during their trips. By selecting a cooler that aligns with available space and trip duration, users can ensure they have ample room for food, drinks, and other essentials.
Portability is also a key consideration, as marine coolers must be easy to transport. These coolers often feature handles or straps that facilitate convenient carrying between the boat, car, and other locations. This portability factor ensures that marine enthusiasts can effortlessly move their cooler as needed, making it an indispensable companion for their adventures.
Cooler Buying Guide Conclusion
Soft, hard, and electric coolers are some of the most popular types of coolers because they work so well in different situations. The most important things to consider when choosing the best one for you is your budget, the length of your average outdoor trips, and what outdoor activities you participate in.
Keep in mind that brand names do make a difference in terms of longevity and price. You may need to spend more for a quality brand, but higher-end brands typically pack a lot of long-term value in their coolers. Additionally, quality brands back up your cooler with a warranty that helps secure your purchase.
Rather than focusing strictly on a budget, think of what cooler will work best for your long-term needs. You may want to consider spending a little more for something that lasts longer and may perform better than a different type of cooler for your future needs.