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 of coolers. But, that doesn’t mean the most popular cooler is automatically the right choice for your needs.
There are probably more types of coolers on the market than you think. From hard to soft coolers, metal to Styrofoam coolers, 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 coolers are just better for certain activities than others. While soft coolers tend 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 for coolers 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 coolers are best known for their portability. Soft Coolers typically are 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 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 coolers usually are sized according to the number of cans they can hold, since that’s what people tend to store in them. These coolers 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 soft coolers don’t necessarily compare to the size of large, hard-sided coolers, though. Many people prefer to use soft coolers for shorter outdoor trips, like a day at the beach or a weekend camping trip.
Soft 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 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. Soft coolers 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. Coolers like the Yeti Hopper, for example, are 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 hard 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. Hard coolers can be much heavier than soft coolers, and therefore aren’t the best for portability. However, some larger hard coolers come with wheels, or the option to add them, so they can travel easily with you.
Hard coolers can help protect your contents by providing a more durable, rugged exterior. The best hard coolers have tight seals and excellent latching mechanisms that can resist accessing attempts by critters, or even bears.
Hard coolers 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 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, hard coolers 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 hard coolers 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 hard coolers 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 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 other coolers that have pieces welded together. This creates a stronger cooler that’s less likely to crack under pressure or excessive temperatures.
What are Hard Coolers Best For?
Large hard coolers 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 hard coolers 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.
Electric coolers, also known as thermoelectric coolers, eliminates the need for pouring ice into a cooler. These coolers operate with thermoelectric technology, by transferring heat between two electric conductors for its cooling effect.
Electric coolers 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 hard coolers, so electric coolers will not work for lower budgets.
Electric coolers come in many sizes like soft and hard coolers. Lower-budget electric coolers hold about 20 to 30 cans, and larger electric coolers 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 when choosing an electric cooler. You may need a large one to hold your needed items, but it may not fit conveniently inside your vehicle.
Most electric coolers 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 electric coolers 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 electric cooler 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, electric coolers 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 Electric Coolers Best For?
Electric coolers 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 from an electric cooler. There are also some electric coolers 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 electric coolers, so long as they have a place to plug it in at least every couple of hours. You can also turn some electric coolers into heaters for food, making them excellent options for campers.
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.