The Ultimate Guide to Coolers

Cooler

Our mission is to get people outdoors, not sell gear. That's why our guide starts with the core function that needs to be addressed, then helps you evaluate your options holistically, since sometimes you may not need any gear & can use what you have at home. We want you to think critically about what you need, which is personal to you with no right answer (some people go venture outside naked without any gear, survive & have a great time).

Core function: Whether to keep perishable foods fresh, drinks ice cold, or even some personal care products from melting in the heat, coolers have you covered!

Is either the core function or the outdoor-specific gear made for it an essential?

Food is essential, but there are many ways to plan food that don't require this (e.g., energy bars or non-perishable foods) .

For rationale, read our 'what you really need' protip

What to use & how to choose

Key factors

Cool zippers, new waterproofing, etc... sometimes it's easy to get lost in all the hype (over-spending happens on features). Our guide focuses on the fundamental factors you should always keep in mind (thus, this short list is similar across all items). Then only at the end do we have some questions to get you thinking about other minor features.

We highly recommend reviewing Type or Style first, where we review what you can use to address the Core function--a regular item you have at home may work! The other factors are secondary & depend strongly on the Type or Style you've picked.

While we encourage you to use regular items wherever possible, as an outdoor gear shop, we only carry outdoor-specific products

Type or Style

We've organized the most commonly used items people use to address the Core function below, with example images, characteristics, features, etc.

Our category name

Single-use

cooler

Standard

cooler

Technical

cooler

Thermoelectric

cooler

Solar

cooler

Example qualities & features Example images Styrfoam cooler Standard cooler Technical cooler electric cooler
What does it need to keep cold? Ice or ice packs Electricity
How long will it keep things cold? Up to 1 day Up to 1 weekend Up to 2 weeks As long as there's "fuel"
Is it durable?

E.g., Styrofoam; really not worth it

Less so if made with fabric, a soft-shell, vs plastic, a hard-shell

Some models are certified bearproof storage devices

All hard-shell

Effect on secondary factors Price <$20 $10-100 $300-600 $100-1000
Capacity Small lunchboxes or Thermos to mini-fridge sized From 26qt (25L) to mini-fridge sized
Rationale Less technical More technical

Why we do/don't carry it

= we rent

= we sell

There may be issues with durability

Standard for most outdoor uses. For rent only because it's not outdoor-specific enough for us to sell

Most people would not need something this technical

Price

One of life's certainties is the trade-off between price & quality. This creates an inherently unfair situation. If you save money today by buying something lower end, you'll end up replacing it more frequently, spending money & time each instance so that at the end, you probably haven't actually saved anything. On the other hand, if you decide to invest in something higher end, you'll need a lot more upfront money, and you need to be able to use the item frequently enough to make it worthwhile.

We developed our rental program to address this unfairness. We don't sell lower end items. But for our higher end items, we offer them for rent at up to 90% off retail price, generally well below the cost of buying even the cheaper option. That's a win-win!

It may seem like the price & quality trade-off is disappearing, because you can find a cheap version of almost anything for tens of dollars that still has good reviews (assuming the reviews are real). Remember 2 things:

  • Many reviews are written after only a trial use, first use, or infrequent use: We've seen entire review videos of gear done at home, which is very different than actually being outdoors!
  • The point of gear is to give you a good experience because you've already spent money to be on vacation from work! Don't let quality issues affect your relaxation

For gear specifically, the quality issues center around performance & durability.

For coolers, performance & durability are linked (a punctured cooler doesn't insulate!). Therefore given the above, we definitely do not recommend single-use coolers.

However, all the other types of coolers fundamentally have to insulate, which means reaching a pretty good minimum level of durability. In fact, for most use cases, a standard cooler is probably sufficient (technical coolers are favored by hunters who need to keep game cool for long periods of time).

Methodology notes on prices shown on this page

Capacity (size)

In most of these gear guides, we have a table with the various possible capacities & general use cases in the outdoors. That's almost impossible to do with coolers, because the use cases are so diverse! We've tried to capture a few below for reference, of course, the bigger the cooler, the more expensive!

  • Picnic lunch: 10 quart (9L) for a nice picnic spread & some drinks
  • Camping: 40-60 (38-57L) quart for a weekend for 2-4 people
  • Drink fridge: Rule of thumb: in a cooler, 1 quart = 0.75 cans = 1 bottle, coolers often have approximate can or bottle capacity written on them as well!
  • Hunting or fishing: Usually at least 60 quart & likely more than 1 depending on size of animal

Additionally, you'll want to think about a cooler fitting in your vehicle or in a stationary bearproof storage (bear box). Some examples:

  • At 40+ quarts (38+L), coolers may be too tall to fit in a bear box or car trunk
  • Although, coolers without wheels are "flatter" in shape & may fit better
  • Even the largest coolers can usually fit in a car's backseat

Minor features that may be important

Here, we give you a list of questions to start thinking about minor features. We hope our approach of savings these features for last gets you to more critically think about what you need & not get caught up in the hype of what's cool and over-spend your budget.

  • Does it have wheels?
  • Does it have locks on the lid for security & to seal in the cold?
  • Are there cup holders (on the lid)?
  • Is there a separate ice tray for drinks?
  • Is there a drainage spigot at the base?
  • Can the lid be used as a seat?

What we carry

General Notes

  • We choose what we carry based on extensive research on what's the best value to our customers (e.g., price given performance & durability features) across all the top brands. We specifically do not carry every brand & model; for details on why we do/don't carry certain items in the How To Choose section
  • Buy prices are MSRP with tax, i.e., what you see is what you pay. Prices may differ in-store due to change in models or discounts, but this is rare. If we don't sell what we rent, we list MSRP value with tax
  • Rent prices are the starting prices; enter trip dates on our Catalog to get exact prices (based on total trip length, not per day!). We also don't charge sales tax, an automatic savings of almost 10%!
Capacity

Standard hard-shell cooler type

40 quart (38L) 60 quart (57L)
Model Igloo MaxCold Igloo Ice Cube
Igloo MaxCold Igloo Ice Cube

Buy

MSRP with tax

$50

value

$45

value

Rent $8+
Size

24X14in & 18in tall

61x36cm & 46cm tall

20in cube

51cm cube

When you rent online, we will pick a model for you. You can change the model if you pick-up in-store, subject to availability. On the Options page of our online order process, you can also select options or write-in any preferences. This section describes the majority of our models & options, but sometimes we carry others. We will only pick something else if it doesn't conflict with your choices indicated on the Options page; moreover, if there's a major functional difference (e.g., capacity), we will attempt to contact you first

Usage tips

Coolers perform at their best when they are pre-chilled. You can do this by filling it up with ice (or putting it in your freezer if it fits) overnight. Then put in fresh ice before your trip starts. Since ice is so bulky, consider using reusable ice packs! If you can't pre-chill, at least try to keep your cooler in a relatively cool place; you don't want to have it be pre-warmed either!

Maintenance tips

Cleaning

It's important to clean between uses. No one wants food pieces to go bad inside! Thoroughly rinse with soap & water after use

Storing

Don't put it away or close any lid(s) until it's fully dry

We have a general protip on how to store & maintain gear that we highly recommend reviewing as well. If you send us video or a good photo series, we may be able to help you evaluate your repair needs.

The exact numbers (e.g., weights, dimensions, prices, etc.) used were updated as of September 2019 . That said, there usually isn't dramatic change; we update & review the market roughly biennially.


Thoughts, ideas, questions? Let us know in the comments below! We're Last Minute Gear, the only outdoor gear shop where you can buy, rent, or borrow gear!