From tailgating to summer barbecues, a dependable cooler is an awfully nice thing to have on hand, and these days, you’ve got more options than ever. That’s largely thanks to the rise of “rotomolded” coolers that promise significantly better insulation than traditional coolers, albeit at a much higher price than you’re probably used to paying — typically, hundreds of dollars.
So, are they worth the asking prices? And can any of the cheaper ones keep up? That’s what I wanted to know, so I rounded up all of the usual suspects — CNET Smart Home, where we pitted them against the rotomolded likes of , , , Pelican, RTIC, Cabela’s and more. Our mission? Figure out which ones are worth the cold, hard cash., , — and lugged their most popular models out to the
The results were telling, and in the end, it turned out that there was more separating these coolers than meets the eye. Here’s everything I learned, starting with the ones I think you should rush out and buy before it gets any hotter out.
Disclosure: CNET may get a share of revenue from the sale of the products featured on this page.
Best rotomolded coolers
Cabela’s Polar Cap Equalizer Cooler, $300
Orca Classic Cooler, $300
Rotomolding is short for rotational molding, a manufacturing technique that literally spins the mold as the plastic is poured in. The result: plastic that’s more durable, more uniform in density and, most importantly in the case of coolers, better at insulation.
Rotomolded coolers don’t come cheap, but they’re demonstrably better than the competition at keeping things cold. The best we’ve seen from a pure performance standpoint comes from Yeti — but the extra thick walls with that cooler means that you’re getting seriously shortchanged on capacity (more on that in just a bit).
Among the rest of the rotomolded field, our top performers were the Cabela’s Polar Cap Equalizer Cooler, which each cost $300. They essentially tied in my performance tests, so picking between them really comes down to taste. The Cabela’s cooler offers slightly more space inside (about 3 quarts’ worth), and it includes clever bottle openers built into the latches. Meanwhile, the Orca cooler comes in better-looking colors, and it’s a bit more comfortable to carry since it doesn’t have rigid handles that jut out over top of the roped handles.and the
Best value picks
Igloo MaxCold Cooler, $45
RTIC 65 Cooler, $231
If you just want a dependable cooler that’s not too expensive, put theat the top of your list. Prices vary based on where and when you buy, but I scored mine on sale last year for $45. That makes it the only cooler available for less than $50 that remains in the top five of my performance tests, a list that now includes two years’ worth of contenders. In fact, it finished in fourth. Only the Yeti, Cabela’s and Orca managed to outperform it — and again, each of those costs $300.
The MaxCold’s plasticky build and dated design aren’t anything fancy to look at, but it covers the basics by including a drainage spout and a latch for the lid (not every cooler in this price range does). Plus, it’s sturdy enough to sit on, which could come in handy during your next camping trip. All of that adds up to a lot of value — enough so that the MaxCold earned an overall score of 8.2 here on CNET, higher than any other cooler I’ve reviewed.
Looking for a rotomolded value? Check out the RTIC 65 — it offers almost twice the capacity of Yeti, but currently costs about 25% less.
Yeti Tundra 45 Cooler, $300
I told you a couple of paragraphs ago that the $300was our top-performing cooler, but I should also add that it really wasn’t close. With walls that are about 2.75 inches thick, it offers more insulation than you’ll find with any other cooler that I’ve tested to date, which is key for performance.
Lots of insulation means that the Yeti can do more with less. With just 3 pounds of ice — not even enough to fully cover the bottom of the cooler — the Yeti was able to pull its internal ambient temperature down by almost 25 degrees, the second biggest temperature drop of the group. The cooler from Cabela’s hit a minimum temperature that was about 1 degree lower, but unlike Yeti, it wasn’t able to hold that minimum for very long. In fact, after 24 hours in a climate-controlled room set to 70 degrees, the Yeti was the only cooler that still had ice in it. After 48 hours, it was the only cooler that still hadn’t returned to room temperature.
You’ll want to check out my full review of the Tundra 45 to get a better sense of just how badly it smoked the competition, but a good analogy would be a horse that separates itself from the pack early on and wins its race in a breakaway finish. I wish the Tundra 45 offered more capacity for the price, but if you just want the cooler that’ll keep your ice frozen the longest, this is still the one.
Lifetime High Performance Cooler, $97
If you want a cooler that feels modern and fancy, but you aren’t ready to dish out hundreds of dollars for a rotomolded model, consider the, which I found on sale at Walmart for $97. It was a top-5 performer in my tests, essentially tying the excellent Igloo MaxCold while also offering a significant step up in build quality.
The Lifetime cooler isn’t rotomolded, but that’s the kind of aesthetic that it offers. Call it a lookalike if you must, but it’s a very good one, with elegant roped handles, dual-locking lid latches and even a built-in bottle opener, something you won’t get with Yeti or Orca. It’s also bigger than both of those pricier options, coming in at a bigger-than-advertised 62.4 quarts. If you’re looking for a top performer that looks the part, Lifetime’s design offers the most bang for your buck.
Looking for something eye-catching that’ll stand out the next time you’re tailgating? Check out Pelican. I wasn’t terribly impressed with the performance as compared to other rotomolded coolers, but the brand offers one of the best ranges of color options that you’ll find as you shop, and most of the colors don’t cost anything extra.
Rovr Rollr 60 Cooler, $399
You’ve got lots of options if you want a wheeled cooler, but if it were me, I’d save up and plunk down $400 for the. Though it wasn’t quite as strong of a performer as the Yeti or Orca, it still finished our tests with above-average cooling capabilities, and it was, by far, the easiest and most comfortable cooler to transport from point A to point B, as long as you don’t have to carry it for very long. With 9-inch wheels and a frame built from stainless steel and aluminum, the Rollr is quite heavy even before you start loading drinks into it.
On top of that, I like the included removable fabric wagon bin and a plastic dry bin that helps you keep items separate from wet ice. If you’re willing to pay a little extra, you can customize your cooler with extras like a built-in prep board for campsite cooking, stainless-steel drink holders or even a $50 “Bikr Kit” that makes it easy to tow the Rollr behind a bike (though, at $400, I wish at least one or two of these came included).
In fairness, we’ve only tested a couple of wheeled coolers so far, and the Rollr was the only one that I’d be happy to own. If I find a better value pick in the future I’ll update this space, but for now, I think Rovr’s wheeled cooler is well worth the money.
Best cooler for cheapskates
Igloo Recool, $10
One last recommendation — if you don’t want to spend more than $20 on a cooler, then you might as well not bother with cheapies like the Igloo Island Breeze and Rubbermaid Ice Chest coolers that I managed to score on sale for as little as $15. Neither one performed any better than a cheap Styrofoam cooler from the gas station.
Of course, Styrofoam build-up is a big problem in landfills these days, so for an eco-friendly alternative, go with the Igloo Recool. Available at REI co-ops for $10 each, the Recool is a reusable cooler made from recycled tree pulp with environmentally safe additives to help it hold water and keep things cold. It only promises 12 hours of ice retention, and at 18 quarts, it doesn’t offer room for much more than a six-pack or so — but hey, that’s still enough for a quick day trip to the beach with a buddy.
The Recool didn’t hold the cold quite as well as Styrofoam when I tested it out, but it still performed as promised. Sitting in out 70-degree test lab with a small bag of ice from the gas station in it (roughly 7 pounds), the Recool was able to keep six Diet Cokes down at fridge temps for a good 15 hours. Afterward, just dump the water out and let it air dry.
And hey, while we’re talking tests…
What we tested
Between this year and last year, I’ve tested a total of 18 hard coolers, aiming always for a mix of low-end, high-end and in-between-end, as well as a mix of wheeled and non-wheeled options. Capacity varied from model to model, but I tried to keep things as close to 50 quarts as I could — big enough for folks who want dozens of cold beers on hand at their next beach party, but not too big if you’re just looking for something to feed the family out of at your next picnic.
Here’s all of them along with where you’ll find them and what they currently cost:
That list isn’t meant to be exhaustive. We only had the budget and the time to acquire and test so many coolers, so some brands of note like OtterBox and Ozark Hills didn’t make the cut. We haven’t tested soft coolers yet, either. If there’s enough reader interest, I’ll test them all out down the road and update this post accordingly.
In the meantime, if there are any specific models you’d like me to consider testing, let me know in the comments. Last year, you asked to see reviews for coolers from Pelican, RTIC and Cabela’s, so we made sure to include them this time around.
How we tested them
The big differentiator that you’ll hear a lot about as you shop for a cooler is “ice retention” — specifically, how long a cooler can keep a full load of ice frozen. The new, expensive options all hang their hat on this test, with rotomolded coolers specifically designed to ace it (and in doing so, justify their price tags).
That’s all well and good, but I worried that a standard ice retention test on its own wouldn’t tell us the whole story. Sure, some coolers would probably keep the ice frozen for a lot longer than others, but using the melting point as your metric seems to disregard everything that comes before. I wanted to get a good sense of performance not just seven days in, but seven hours in, before any of the ice had even melted at all.
To do that, I started with a modified version of the ice retention test. Instead of a full load of ice in each cooler, I went with just 3 pounds — not even half of a small bag from the gas station. Less ice meant more of a challenge for the coolers, which would hopefully give us a more granular look at how well they perform relative to one another.
Specifically, I wanted to track the ambient temperature in each cooler, so I spread the ice in each one I tested beneath an elevated jar of propylene gylcol solution (watered-down antifreeze) with a temperature probe in it. Why elevated? The temperature down in the ice would have been roughly the same in all of the coolers, leaving retention as the only real variable. Tracking the ambient temperature up above it was much more telling, and it gave us some additional variables to consider.
Oh, and I did all of this in one of our appliance lab’s climate-controlled test chambers, and I made sure to let each cooler sit opened in the room for several hours beforehand in order to ensure that they all started within a degree or so of room temperature (about 70 degrees F).
In the end, it turned out to be a fruitful test. After 48 hours, I had a nifty graph showing me the temperature inside each cooler on a minute-by-minute basis — and the difference from cooler to cooler was striking.
Some were able to do more with that measly helping of ice than others —, which kept the ambient temperature colder than any other cooler I tested for longer than any other cooler I tested. After 24 hours, the Yeti was the only cooler with any ice left in it at all, and at the end of the test, it was the only model that hadn’t returned to room temperature yet.
And the worst? That’d be the, which couldn’t get the inside of the cooler any colder than 55.7 degrees F. On top of that, its average temperature for the duration of the test was 66.8 degrees F — a warmer average than any other cooler I tested. Even than the $4 Styrofoam control cooler did better than that. Not cool, Rubbermaid.
If we’re going to talk about performance, we have to talk about capacity, too. Though some sizes are more popular than others (50-quart, for instance), there really isn’t much uniformity among coolers as far as size and shape are concerned. That’ll obviously have an impact on performance. After all, with the quantity of ice being equal, a 70-quart cooler like thehas a bigger job on its hands than the 48-quart .
I did my best to account for those size differences as I evaluated each cooler’s relative performance, but first, I needed to be sure that I had accurate measurements. That meant putting those manufacturer capacity claims to the test.
To do so, I carefully filled each cooler with water, measuring out the exact number of quarts each one could hold before I wasn’t able to close the lid without spilling. If anything, the cheaper models were mostly conservative in their estimates, with ones like theand wheeled coolers coming in several quarts more sizable than advertised.
The expensive guys? Not quite so much. Rovr pegs the capacity of its $400at 60 quarts, but I could only fit 52.8 quarts of water inside when I measured for myself. The $300 wasn’t as spacious as expected, either, holding just 38 quarts of water before overflowing with the lid closed. That’s several quarts less than the 45 quarts implied by the product name (nice try, Yeti).
That might be in part because the Yeti’s walls are considerably thicker than the other coolers’ — which, in turn, is probably a big reason why the thing performed so well. You’re getting a lot of extra insulation, but at the expense of capacity. I think that’s a reasonable trade, but I wish Yeti were more transparent about it.
Don’t forget design
I also took each cooler’s design and features into consideration as I tested, and kept an eye out for durability concerns. I wasn’t impressed with the lid on the, for instance. It doesn’t lock shut, and the plastic nub hinges are a total joke. Give it a modest yank, and the whole lid comes right off.
Thefared much better, thanks to a rugged design that features heavy-duty wheels, a sturdy steel handlebar and an optional $50 accessory that lets you tow it behind your bike. I also liked that the interior comes with a divider that makes it easy to keep items you don’t want getting wet separate from the ice, and that you can customize it with different interior liner designs. My only qualm — that handlebar includes comfy rubber grips on the sides, but not in the middle, the spot you’ll actually want to hold as you lug it around.
Something else to think about: whether or not your cooler is sturdy enough to sit on, something that comes in handy when you’re out camping. Most of the coolers that I tested were, but some took things even further. For instance, the nonslip traction mats for the lid in a variety of designs.goes so far as to advertise itself as an ideal casting platform to stand on during your next fishing trip, and even sells
To me, that cooler felt the most like a premium product to the touch — but it was only a middle-of-the-pack performer among rotomolded models, and it costs about $100 more than our most affordable rotomolded pick, the RTIC 65.
You can find more design quibbles like these in my individual reviews of each cooler. The only other thing I’ll say here is that I’m still surprised not to see more of the high-end options try to separate themselves from the pack with clever bonus features like a built-in battery for charging your devices while you camp (or better yet, a solar panel).
If that’s what you’re hoping for, your best bet might be to turn to Kickstarter and Indiegogo, where expensive, gadgety mega-coolers like the the comments on the Infinite Cooler’s Indiegogo campaign, which just blew through a March ship date with nothing to show for it. It ain’t pretty.and the live in infamy. I say infamy because both of those cash-grabs have a history of . Go on, read through
It’s all more than enough for me to recommend the healthiest possible dose of skepticism if you ever find yourself tempted to back a campaign like that with your cold hard cash. I mean, come on — the literal last thing you want from your cooler is to get burned by it. Stick with an old fashioned cooler like the ones I recommend above, and that isn’t something you’ll need to worry about.
Originally published June 31, 2018, and updated regularly.