Cooler Buyer’s Guide
Last Updated by Brandon F. on October 10, 2022
When shopping for a cooler, there can be a lot of variables to consider. Depending on a person’s needs they may be looking for a simple daily lunch cooler or a more robust and larger premium plastic cooler. A few hours of decent ice life might be plenty, or they may be looking for something that can keep their items cool for a week or more. Then some topics can easily be overlooked:
Do I need additional external storage?
Do I need an easy–access lid?
Am I going to carry this with a handle, a strap, wheels, or some other method?
Does it need to be waterproof?
And the list can go on. To assist with this and help point you in the right direction, we have compiled a Cooler Buyer’s Guide which will lay out many common and recommended considerations one should make when researching a cooler. Having a better idea of what exactly you are looking for will make the buying experience much simpler since you can automatically filter out a lot of items that don’t meet your search criteria.
The size of the cooler is straightforward enough. However, there are two important size metrics to consider. First, there is the size in relation to the storage size. Second, the overall dimensions that the cooler takes up.
Storage size is simply how much volume can you store. Keep in mind that this volume can come from both insulated and non-insulated storage areas. In other words, just because a cooler is advertised as having 50 quarts of storage volume, it doesn’t necessarily mean it can store 50 quarts of items that need to stay cold.
In smaller, soft-sided coolers it is especially common to have separated cavities for chilled and non-chilled items. This could be a good thing if you have a variety of items you need to carry, some of which need to stay cold and some of which don’t. However, if you are focusing completely on perishable items you could run into some problems.
Another consideration is that the storage volume that does exist might not be shaped in a way to optimize storing your products. For example, if you have a long sandwich that takes up 4 quarts of volume, it may not fit in a 6-quart cooler if the cooler is too short. It is important to consider the TYPES of items you will be carrying and make sure that the ice chest you are looking at will be able to hold them.
Finally, it is important to also weigh in the space that ice or ice packs will take up. Including additional ice is a common and recommended action for many coolers to maximize cooling life, but this ice takes up some of the precious insulated volume.
Because of this, you need to anticipate and plan for that. We always recommend sizing up if you are unsure how much space you need. It might be a bit more inconvenient to lug around a larger cooler, but this is better than not having enough storage space.
The other aspect of size is literally how much room the cooler takes up. Let’s face it: coolers can be quite large, which can make storing and transporting them somewhat laborious. If they become too large there may be space concerns if they aren’t able to fit in your car, boat, tent, etc.
Generally, the more durable coolers with longer ice life have thicker walls, and in some cases, these walls can be 2 inches thick or even more! Because of this, you need to make sure that wherever you plan on storing or transporting the cooler has adequate space.
One benefit of soft-sided coolers is that their dimensions can be easily manipulated so that they take up less space. And in the case that they are empty or near-empty you can push them down to taking up hardly any space at all. Hard plastic coolers, on the other hand, are the size that they come as, whether or not they have items in them.
There are a surprising number of materials that are used in the cooler manufacturing process. However, to simplify things we are simply grouping all of the various plastics, fabrics, and metals into their own categories.
This is probably the most common material used and is the almost unanimous choice for hard-sided coolers. Plastic is tough, relatively lightweight, cheap, water-proof, and does a relatively good job of insulating. This makes it a no-brainer for being the material of choice.
Various manufacturing processes handle plastics, however, and not all are created equal. Many of the premium cooler lines will advertise their rotomolded construction. Essentially this is where the plastic is a single piece rather than multiple pieces that are attached. This results in there being no potential weak points or stress risers where the pieces were connected, making for a stronger and better-performing cooler.
Many of the cheaper coolers will also have plastic hardware and hinges, which can sometimes cause issues as they are not nearly as strong as metals. This needs to be considered when shopping around as you need to decide what kind of cooler life expectancy you are after.
There are a few coolers out there that have metal walls, but they aren’t overly common. The most common usage of metal is in the hardware, hinges, handles, and zippers of the various cooler. While having metal zippers is pretty standard, metal hardware will typically only be found in the higher-end brands since it costs significantly more than plastic. This price increase does come with the benefit of being much longer-lasting and also more aesthetically pleasing.
In most of the soft-sided coolers we have tested, they will be made of various types of fabric on the outside. The strength, waterproofness, insulation ability, and many other factors will vary greatly from example to example. The cheap lunch totes that can be had for just a few dollars will likely have pretty weak fabric that will be prone to break. However, some of the higher-end brands will offer strong fabric that oftentimes has tough components such as nylon intertwined, which can result in a pretty tough wall. Again, it is important to decide what your end goal is with a given ice chest and choose your fabrics accordingly.
Many coolers will implement rubber in their design, although only in strategic areas. Rubber seals may sometimes be used to help form a more air-tight barrier between the lid and box. Other places include rubber handles to assist with gripping, rubber wheels if the cooler has them and rubber gaskets on the drain plug. Generally, the rubber will be considered a side material and won’t comprise a majority of the cooler but it is still an important feature.
A cooler, especially when full, can be quite a challenge to carry. This could be both because of the significant weight the results when you fill up a container with a lot of ice and items and also because of the sheer dimensions of it: some of the larger coolers can be several feet across, meaning that it might be difficult for a person to reach both side handles even if it is empty.
To assist with this, many coolers offer multiple carrying or transportation methods.
Side handles are probably the most common type of carrying tool. They are simply handles that are put on both sides of the cooler to allow one or two people to transport it. On a smaller cooler, it shouldn’t be an issue for one person to grab both handles but on a larger cooler, it might be beneficial to have a person on both sides. These side handles can come via pivoting plastic handles, built-in cavities that are molded into the side, flexible ropes with plastic grips, and various other methods.
A lid handle is a single handle on the lid of the cooler that is meant for a single person to carry. This is helpful in that it allows a person to have one hand free and also not have to carry the cooler in front of them which can sometimes make walking difficult. However, the single handle is not as strong as most other carrying methods, meaning that this will typically only be found on smaller coolers and only recommended on coolers that don’t have extremely high weight requirements.
A shoulder strap allows a person to carry the cooler over their shoulder which allows for both hands to remain free. This is very helpful for someone who needs to carry additional items and doesn’t want to make as many trips. The shoulder is also nice in that you don’t have to worry about your hand getting tired and potentially dropping the cooler. Most of the time the shoulder strap option is only available on smaller, soft-sided products.
Many of the larger hard-sided coolers on the market have optional wheeled configurations. As the name suggests, this allows a person to avoid having to carry all of the weight manually, and they can simply push or pull the cooler. This is a great way to make moving heavy ice chests much easier. However, issues can arise when trying to roll the wheels over rough terrain or up hills.
This one is very important because it relates to how well a cooler does what it is intended to do: keep stuff cold! While everybody wants a cooler that maximizes ice life, for some having a product that can keep ice for a week just isn’t necessary. If you are just looking for something to pack your lunch in every day or to transport frozen items from the grocery store to home then more than a few hours is simply overkill and isn’t worth the likely increase in size and cost.
Someone in the market for an icebox needs to determine how long they need it to perform before it has to be reloaded by ice. To help with this, we have broken down a few common time-lapses:
A few hours: Nearly every reputable product on the market will do this. Many times you won’t even need much, if any, additional ice and can let the insulation do most of the work.
A day: Some of the smaller soft-sided totes and bags will struggle with this, but almost all plastic and larger coolers should handle it.
2 to 3 days: Very few soft-sided coolers can go this long, other than a select handful of larger premium ones. Budget and poorly-constructed plastic coolers will reach their limits here as well.
4 to 5 days: These will almost exclusively be the upper intermediate to premium cooler offerings. Most will be made of higher-quality materials, have rotomolded construction, and implement metal hardware and other better-performing features.
6 days +: Only a select few coolers on the market will reach this point, and most will be quite expensive. Nearly all will be large-sized or bigger.
Let’s face it: we all would like a product that would last forever but that just simply isn’t possible. There are, however, examples that will last for long periods but they come at a price. When shopping for your next purchase you need to consider how long you want this cooler to last. Is this something that you want to be able to throw around and expose to harsh conditions for years on end and expect it to last? Or are you just looking for something you can bring to class for lunch and it just needs to last through the semester?
As expected, these considerations will be directly tied to the materials used and the ultimate cost
Believe it or not, a lot of coolers on the market struggle with water. This can make exposing them to significant amounts of melted ice or unforeseen water from a rain shower recipe for disaster. Will you be taking this cooler outside on camping trips, to the beach, or the lake often? Do you plan on loading it up with ice and needed to empty the water afterward? If so, make sure that the fabric being used can handle it and that it has a rubber or plastic belly if soft-sided. Nearly all hard-sided coolers shouldn’t have an issue with this.
A common issue we see people run into is that they purchase a cooler and then realize that they had quite a few non-chilled items that they wish they could store as well. Things such as sunscreen, potato chips, sunglasses, wallets, car keys, towels, etc. are very common accessories. Simply putting these in the insulated storage areas can be frustrating for several reasons:
- These items take up what could be valuable and limited insulated storage space
- Accessing these items will require opening the lid, which lets out cold air and can impact ice life
- Melted water might affect the functionality or in some cases even damage these items (towels getting wet, phones being damaged, etc.)
- The non-chilled and chilled items can easily be mixed around, making grabbing a particular item much more laborious
Because of these considerations, some people are better off getting a cooler that has additional external or non-insulated compartments that are separate from the insulated ones. This is especially common in soft-sided products but some hard-sided products have these features as well.
This is a very subjective category, but for some having a “cool” looking cooler might come into play. Surprisingly, there are quite a few styles of coolers on the market, some of which are much more progressive than others. Also, many come in a wide variety of colors and patterns, and a lot even have choices in your favorite sports team colors! If you are looking for a cooler for your next tailgate or a fashionable lunch tote that would go well with your business attire then these are considerations you need to make.
There are thousands of specific features that some coolers might have and others might not. So we are simply grouping them all into “other features”. These can include things such as fish scales and rulers on marine coolers, detachable water bottles, built-in cup holders, built-in bottle and can openers, easy-access drain plugs, lights, grooved slots for ice packs, base risers, included silverware, and the list goes on.
If there are particular features that you are after then there is likely something on the market that has them. We try to mention unique features in all of our reviews so we recommend doing a search for that particular thing on our site and seeing if there is a product that meets those specific requirements.
These are a few of the common considerations we recommend a buyer go through before making a purchase. While there are always more metrics out there, we feel that these encompass the most important areas. Once you have a better idea of what you are looking for, it can make the cooler shopping experience much easier. And, as always, we encourage you to read our specific reviews on this site to get a better idea of how well each product does in these areas and many others!