The Best Camping Cooler 2016 – What to Look for and Our Top Choices

best camping coolers 2016 small

One of the most popular activities to do as temperatures begin to cool in the Fall months is to go camping.  While this is a great way to get away from the city or suburban life, there are preparations that must be made.  One of the biggest factors to a successful camping trip is having a proper camping cooler.  Since this will typically be the primary storage area for your chilled food and drinks it is important to have a cooler that has acceptable ice life and can also hold up to the demands of an outdoor environment.

Before we go into what to look for in a cooler for camping we have listed our top choices for camping coolers.  Each of these will have specific features that should do well in the outdoor environment and also be able to handle the unknowns Mother Nature is known to throw at us.  Later on, we will break down each of these camping coolers into more detail.  So let’s get started!

Best Camping Coolers

 Ice LifeSizesWheels?Price by Volume (Amazon)Link to Our Full Review
Igloo Super Tough STX


igloo super tough stx cooler
Up to 6 Days54, 120, and 150-quartsNo$$Link
Igloo All-Terrain
igloo all terrain cooler thumbnail
Up to 4 Days100 and 110-quartsYes$$Link
Grizzly
grizzly camping cooler thumbnail
Up to 10 Days15, 20, 40, 60, 75, 150, and 400-quartsNo$$$$$Link
Pelican Elite Wheeled
pelican elite wheeled cooler thumbnail
Up to 10 Days45 and 80-quartsYes$$$$$Link
K2
k2 summit camping cooler thumbnail
Up to 8 Days20, 30, 50, 60, 70, 90, and 120-quartsNo$$$$$Link
Engel High-Performance
engel camping cooler thumbnail
Up to 7 Days25, 35, 50, 65, 123, 165, 240, and 320-quartsNo$$$$$Link
Yeti Tundra Series
yeti camping cooler thumbnail
Up to 7 Days34, 45, 50, 65, 75, 105, 110, 125, 210, and 330 quarts (approx.)No$$$$$Link

What to Look for in a Camping Cooler


It may not be obvious at first but not all coolers are suited for camping purposes.  Sure, just about any ice chest will do for an afternoon picnic in the woods but if you are planning on staying out in the wilderness for 2 or more days then you need to be prepared with a proper cooler that is designed for camping.

We have listed a few camping cooler needs that you should consider when shopping for a cooler specifically for your camping purposes.

Long Ice Life

Tough Construction

Adequate Storage Size

Mobility

Camping Cooler Need #1: Long Ice Life


A camping cooler is responsible for keeping all of your chilled items cold for however long you plan to be outdoors.  If all of your ice melts then you could be in for some serious trouble as you risk items spoiling.  Perishable items such as meats and fruits/vegetables are particularly sensitive to this.  However, other things such as medications may also be required to be kept below a certain temperature.

To compound matters, the cooler may be exposed to extreme heat or be in areas that expose it to direct sunlight.  This can further test the ice performance of a camping cooler.

camping cooler ice life graph

Finally, depending on how many people are using the cooler, it may be open regularly in order to grab an item.  When the lid is opened a lot of the cold air has a chance to escape and this can really impact how long your ice actually lasts.

we encourage that people looking for a camping cooler add a 1.5 safety factor to the advertised ice life that they are shopping for

Because of the combination of the importance of making sure there is ice as well as the challenging outdoor conditions and potential open exposure, we encourage that people looking for a camping cooler add a 1.5 safety factor to the advertised ice life that they are shopping for.  In other words, if you plan on being outdoors for 4 days then we think you should look for products that advertise having 6 days or more of ice life.

This added ice life helps to absorb some of the unknown variables and there is nothing wrong with having a bit of ice left over when you finish your trip (it is much better than the other extreme!).

Factors that Play a Part in Long Ice Life

“Long Ice Life” is subjective, and it can sometimes be difficult to find published data on exactly how long a cooler’s ice will stay frozen, particularly when exposed to challenging elements that you experience in camping.  Because of this, we have listed out a few features that you should look for when shopping for a camping cooler.

Rotomolded Construction

This has become a very popular selling point in premium coolers due to its toughness and increased ice life.  Rotomolding is basically when the shell of the cooler is constructed in one piece of material through rotational molding.  This process is more expensive and time-consuming, but the results allow for a thicker and stronger shell that has few weak points and better insulation capabilities.  As such, most of your longest-lasting coolers will be made of rotomolded construction.

Food-grade gasket

camping cooler gasket

The gasket is the key component that forms a seal between the base and the lid of your camping cooler.  The best cooler gaskets will typically be made of a very thick rubber compound that has a lot of squeeze when compressed.  These will be very similar to what you find in many modern-day refrigerators and freezers (in fact, some cooler companies used this very design as inspiration!).

When shopping for a camping cooler, we recommend that you inspect the gasket and ensure that it is utilizing a beefy o-ring or some type of other rubber component.  Lower-end coolers may simply utilize a plastic-to-plastic seal between the lid and body and you should avoid these if you plan on being outside for more than a day or two.

Focusing on using high-quality gaskets is especially important if you are using a camping meat cooler or camping beverage cooler.

Elevated Feet

elevated feet camping cooler

Did you know that there can be a significant amount of heat transfer from the base of your ice chest and the ground?  This is particularly true if you are resting your camping cooler on a very hot surface.  A way to minimize this is to elevate the base off the ground with some “feet”.   This makes it so that only a small amount of the cooler’s surface area is in direct contact with the ground.  This small change can really add up to some extra ice life in certain conditions.

Camping Cooler Need #2: Tough Construction


Some coolers are more at home sitting on a table in an air-conditioned building or comfortably nestled in the back of a pickup truck.  A camping cooler isn’t one of them.  The outdoors can bring a wide range of challenging conditions:

  • Rough terrain such as rocks, tree branches, mud, and everything in betweenigbc bear proof
  • Exposure to sitting water via creek beds, lakes, etc.
  • A wide range of weather conditions including rain, snow, heat, and hail
  • Exposure to wildlife such as bears and coyotes (some coolers are even bear proof!)
  • Elevation changes that require it to rest at an angle or learning on other objects

…and the list goes on

With the unique and demanding tests that a camping cooler can go through, it is vital that it be made of quality materials and superior manufacturing standards so that it can perform and function to the level that you need.

Components that Exist in Tough Coolers

Similar to long ice life, there are common characteristics that typically exist in extra tough coolers.  While some may be overkill for the casual cooler enthusiast, for those needing a cooler for camping all of these features are essential and things you should look for when shopping around.

Rotomolded Construction

Rotomolded construction not only is great for ice life but also doubles for being an effective building approach for making coolers extra tough.  This is due to the fact that this type of manufacturing results in a single piece for the body rather than multiple pieces that are then glued together.

The connection points of the glued pieces can be prone to failure over time and can also be stress risers that can promote cracks forming.  By taking these out of the equation you don’t have to worry as much about the occasional drop or bump causing catastrophic damage to your cooler.

Components are made of Premium Materials

metal hardware camping cooler

We like to see the various screws, hinges, and latches that are on coolers to be made of more resilient materials such as stainless steel rather than aluminum and plastic.  These components are intended to take repeated loads through the carrying and opening/closing of your camping cooler and they need to be able to hold up to continuous use and high impact loads.

Plastic and aluminum, while more affordable, are typically weaker and more prone to cracking and failure.  And when a vital component such as a hinge or handle breaks then your cooler can become essentially worthless.

Heavy Duty, Oversized Hinges, Handles, and Latches

heavy duty latches camping coolers

Not only is using premium metal a factor to consider, but also the size of these components also play a big role in what makes an outdoor-friendly ice chest shine.  Oversized components are able to handle a higher load and for longer periods of time.  And while they may not be the most visually pleasing, they serve an important purpose in that they keep your cooler functional when you need it the most.

Camping Cooler Need #3: Adequate Storage Size


If you are relying on a cooler to be storage for all of your food, beverages, medications, and even any potential fish or wildlife you need to store then it needs to be quite large, particularly if you are going to be out in the woods for multiple days and there is a group of people.

camping cooler storage volumes

 

One common mistake we see people make when shopping for outdoor or camping coolers is that they vastly underestimate how much storage space they will need.  And even in cases where they have enough storage space for their items they totally forget that the ice they are going to fill it with takes up a significant amount of storage volume as well!

Our Cooler Sizing Estimate:
Size of Cooler (in quarts) = # of people * (# of days) * 12.5

We stand by the approach that it is better to have too much space than not enough so we have created this simple formula for determining how big of a cooler you will need.  Before we go into it there are a few considerations that have to be made:

*This formula assumes that you are packing a standard amount of food and drinks that an average person needs.  If you are a big eater or drinker or have a more elaborate diet or recipe you want to try then you might have to modify it.  Variations such as the climate you are in, how often you are opening the cooler, etc. play a role in how much ice you will need and has a direct effect on how much storage space you’ll have.  In other words, use this formula as an initial reference and modify as needed for your specific needs.*

Size of Cooler (in quarts) = # of people * (# of days) * 12.5

For example, if you are a group of 3 people who are planning a 3-day camping trip then you should aim to find a camping cooler that has around 110 quarts of storage volume.  For larger groups or longer time durations you should probably consider bringing multiple smaller coolers.

Camping Cooler Need #4: Mobility


When you think of large, tough coolers full of ice, food, and drinks you don’t typically think of mobility.  You are dealing with a huge object that can weigh several hundred pounds!  However, for any camping site that is off the beaten path of a truck or ATV you are going to have to manually carry the cooler out there.  In addition, you might be carrying these large cooler over rough and elevated terrain.

Because of this, having an ice chest that is able to be as mobile as possible can be very helpful.  But how do you make such a huge object be more mobile?  You would be surprised at the ingenuity that the cooler manufacturers have in dealing with this.

Specialized Handles

camping cooler handles

Many of the larger premium coolers will come with multiple carrying methods.  The most common is to have both side handles that are molded directly into the body of the cooler as well as flexible rope handles with rubber grips that make it easier for a single person or two people walking next to each other to carry a cooler.

Not only do these handles need to be optimally located to be as convenient as possible, but they also have to be constructed of very strong material so that they don’t break under this immense strain.  So when you are browsing a cooler that you are considering purchasing for your next camp trip check out the handles and visualize yourself carrying it.  Is it going to be an easy task or next to impossible?

Wheels

camping coolers with wheels

Some people prefer the convenience of having wheels on their camping cooler.  Wheeled camping coolers are a good choice for those who would prefer or need to have their hands free for other things or that struggle carrying heavy loads.  It is also preferred for those camping trips that require traveling a long distance to get to the camp site.

If you decide to go with a wheeled camping cooler be sure to shop for coolers that have heavy-duty wheels that are capable of going over rough terrain.  These type of wheels will typically be made of heavy duty rubber and also have grips on them similar to tires.  In addition, the wheels will be on the larger side and elevate the cooler higher off of the ground so that it has more clearance from the various rocks and obstacles that you will come across in the great outdoors.

Efficient Shape

A big factor that goes into how mobile an ice chest is related to its shape and size.  Let’s face it: a premium cooler capable of storing enough items for a few days outdoors is probably going to be on the large side.  However, the shape and implementation of this storage volume can vary quite a bit and this can really play a role in how convenient or inconvenient the trip is.  If you plan on camping somewhere that will require going through narrow passages such as canyon trails or thick trees and brush then you might want to look into a cooler that is narrower.  In addition, finding a cooler that is deeper instead of longer might also assist in cutting around tight corners.

Camping Cooler Bonus: Various Camping Accessories


camping cooler accessories

While not an absolute necessity, we think that coolers that come with various helpful accessories that can assist with camping are a nice plus.  When you are outdoors you are in a constant battle to have all of the supplies that you need or would need while still being able to be mobile and not straining from carrying a lot of heavy and bulky items.  Because of this, when you can combine one item into multiple it can help immensely in your camping excursions.

Cooler manufacturers have come up with many unique and handy features on their products that are great for outdoor use.  Examples of these include built-in bottle openers, molded tie-downs, fish scales, and even external lights!  Having these features built into your cooler means one less thing that you have to worry about purchasing and carrying.

Obviously depending on the person and their ideal camping experience some of these items might be essential and some might never be used so we encourage you to make a checklist of various items that you tend to need and see if some of them can be built into your camping cooler.

The Best Camping Coolers


Now that we have gone over what to look for in your next camping cooler, here are our reviews of our best camping coolers for 2016.  All of these products meet most if not all of our requirements listed above and should serve you well on your next camp trip.  Many will also come in various sizes so use our rough size equation above as guidance.

Igloo Super Tough STX Cooler

igloo super tough stx cooler

This is one of Igloo’s toughest coolers and it should be able to handle the extremes that mother nature can throw your way.  To make it last even longer Igloo has included features such as bolt through body handles and stainless steel latches.  The combination of thick insulation and the oversized gasket should give you ice life of up to 6 days which should meet many people’s camping needs.  It also comes in some of the largest sizes available, going all the way up to 150 quarts.  Finally, for the price, it is one of the most affordable coolers that are built to handle outdoor extremes and provide good ice life.

Igloo All-Terrain Cooler

igloo all terrain cooler

We really like the rugged wheels on this cooler and they should provide great assistance when you are trying to cross rugged terrain.  The multiple carrying options are also a welcome feature, which makes this cooler a viable option for carrying by a single person or two people.  All of this comes in a reasonably priced package.  However, we do wish the cooling life was a bit longer (around 4 days max) and that inclusion of higher-quality screws and hinges would be a welcome change as well.

Grizzly Cooler

grizzly camping cooler

This is one of our favorite coolers for just about any application but it particularly shines at handling outdoor environments such as those you would experience while camping.  It uses high-quality parts in all areas, including stainless steel hardware and some innovative BearClaw latches that don’t actually even need hardware (which means one less potential failure point).  They go all the way up to the enormous 400-quart size which should be large enough for even the biggest group, and the ice life is very impressive, lasting up to 10 full days.

Pelican Elite Wheeled Cooler

pelican wheeled cooler

This product combines the established and well-known toughness of the Pelican cooler line and adds some rugged wheels to assist in mobility.  It also comes with an extended pivot handle which makes this product a breeze to carry by yourself.  It is on the pricey side but for those willing to pay they will receive a tough product that can hold ice for up to a week or more.  The sizes are the only minor complaint, with the largest being just 80 quarts.  Because of this, you will want to look for other options if you plan on going camping with a large group or for a long period of time.

K2 Summit Cooler

k2 summit camping cooler

K2 Coolers might not be as well-known as some of these other brands, but their offering is just as tough if not tougher than many.  This is accomplished through their effective rotomolded construction and the implementation of various features such as the ice vault lid gaskets, endure hinge system, and positrac lid latches.  Ice life is also very good, lasting up to 8 days.  There is a nice variety of sizes but they only go up to 120-quart which might not be enough for a group of 4 or more.

Engel High-Performance Cooler

engel camping cooler

Engel has made a name for itself by being the outdoorsman’s choice for coolers, and this product is no exception.  It comes with extremely thick 2” polyurethane that is rotomolded into the visually pleasing product that they sell.  We also appreciate the rope handles which helps in making carrying this beast much easier, be it you or a group of people.  The only weak point is that the lid doesn’t seal as well as others so be sure to keep an eye out for this when opening and closing it.  However, it is still good for up to 10 days of ice life.

Yeti Tundra Series Cooler

yeti camping cooler

Easily the most popular and recognizable brand, Yeti has become the household name for premium coolers.  The performance is on-par with many of these other brands, and this is thanks to the many patented features on Yetis including their unique lid latches and drain system.  However, we don’t see quite as long of ice life, with the max being around a week.  So depending on how long your plan on being out this might not be quite enough.  Also, you will pay an even larger premium for the Yeti name if you decide to go this route.

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