Buying a Cooler? How to Select the Right One for You (video)

News & Tips: Buying a Cooler? How to Select the Right One for You (video)...

Whether to store fish on a boat for days or on a weekend camping trip, finding the right cooler for the job is important. Here is a guide to help you know what to look for to find the best cooler to meet your needs and interests?

The basements and garages of most outdoors enthusiasts hold several coolers of various sizes, shapes and construction types. I know I have at least a dozen coolers in my own collection, which range from beat up ice totes to a six-day cooler. Selecting a new cooler from the extensive line up can become a more time consuming task than expected. Following are several points to ponder while shopping for your next cooler.

SelectingRightCooler 1
Before you can pick the right fishing, camping or hunting cooler; you need to understand cooler differences.

Think Job and Budget When Picking a Cooler

With dozens of cooler styles designs on the market today, simply grabbing one off the shelf without much thought of its capabilities will lead to a bad deal. So what activity do you need this new cooler for? A day hike or an afternoon of fishing? Or maybe a weekend camping trip with the family? Or a weeklong excursion away from ice suppliers? Purchasing a cooler to fit the need helps keep the ice expense in check, as well as keeping extra money in your wallet for other gear. Determine the cooler's actual duty before eyeing the populated cooler display.

Collapsible models made of vinyl or other nylon fabric fold nicely for storage when not in use. When it's game time, the collapsible cooler pops up into action, but don't expect the thinly insulated "bag cooler" to keep ice for more than a few hours. Hard sided plastic and metal coolers, nicknamed "box-style cooler" are the heart of the cooler fleet and offer the most options in design, shape, size and ice-holding abilities. There is a box-style cooler for nearly every outdoor activity that includes a cooler. If managing ice at all fits your plan, then consider a thermoelectric cooler. This cooler requires it be plugged into a vehicle's cigarette lighter socket to gain its cooling power. One of these will handle the cooling duties as long your adventure keeps you close to the vehicle. 

SelectingRightCooler ColemanPowerchill
For campers, a thermoelectric cooler connects to an outlet or a cigarette plug and doesn't need ice.

The old adage "you get what you pay for" holds true with coolers. Everyone likes a bargain, but a cheap cooler leaves the user with a waterlogged mess — and spoiled food — in a hurry. When figuring the recreational budget, don't skimp on the cooler allowance. Instead, watch for sales and other promotional ads to get the most bang for your buck on a cooler made by a reputable manufacturer. Compare coolers of the same size and style to see if one has an extra feature or two, which would make one a better buy over the other.

The Size of Your Cooler Matters

Again, the activity you pursue that requires a cooler will decide what size of a cooler you realistically need. Obviously a small cooler that will fit in a kayak for a days' paddle will not suffice for an overnight car camping trip. It's better to cooler shop in person so you may peer into the cooler and size up what you intend to pack in it and what it realistically can accommodate. A 9-quart cooler holds a 12-pack of beverage cans with a handful of ice thrown in. This size works well for a day trip with food and drinks for two.

igloo 16 can cooler
Igloo Playmate 16 Can Cooler


A 20-quart size cooler basically doubles what a 9-quart can do. In addition to that, most 20-quart coolers are tall. The extra height allows for 2-liter bottles to be chilled while standing upright. A 28-quart cooler handles three 12 packs of cans and ice, or food and drink for a family of four on a one-nighter. Not enough food ingredients to whip up a three-course meal, but a few sandwiches and a couple sodas and/or bottles of water to wash them down.

The target size for a weekend camping trip is a 70-quart model. This size and on up to a 100-quart monster handles plenty of food and drink for several people. When contemplating the correct size, be mindful that during warm weather, ice will consume 25 percent of the volume. To get more time out of your ice supply, consider one cooler for drinks and the other for food. The cooler designated for drinks will be accessed more often so in turn, the ice will melt faster. If the two-cooler system is right for you and your group, the initial cost will be only slightly higher than if one cooler was depended on.

Material, Design and Construction

Focusing on the most popular style, the box-type family of chest coolers, most look similar to the other — boxy, lid and handles. But under a closer inspection, they are far from the same. Starting with the exterior, cooler users want a durable product that can handle bumps and bang arounds as well as keep food and drinks cold. A combination of a tough exterior skin and insulation filled sides and bottom provides the desired durability. Lift a cooler you're considering and if it feels as if the sides are hollow or have very little insulation, avoid it. Tap on the lid to reveal a well-insulated lid or not. A metal exterior gives one the impression that the cooler is strong. In reality, the metal will dent and compress the insulation at the impact point. A plastic cooler with usually absorb the bump and return to its original shape without permanently damaging the insulation.

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Pay close attention to the cooler lid. A cooler that is capable of holding ice successfully, will have a well-insulated lid. Open and shut the prospective cooler to see if the lid is insulated and if the lid closes tightly. Reopen the cooler and inspect the lip or groove to ensure a cold retaining lid and cooler body connection. Next, check the hinges for a sturdy joining of lid and body. Metal hinges are preferred for added strength and longevity. Plastic hinges eventually stretch or wear thin from use, so if your cooler purchase is considered an investment, then select a cooler with substantial hinges and handles.

YETI Coolers - Bear vs. YETI video


yeti soft cooler
Be sure to check how long the cooler is rated to keep ice.

Several manufacturers introduced heavy duty coolers over the last few years that cost hundreds of dollars. Are they worth that amount of investment? Depends on the use. The highlights of these super coolers are the roto-molded, seamless shell, rubber gasket and lid seal, and a couple inches of polyurethane insulation. The super cooler will keep ice for several days. But so will quality built coolers that fall into the "five or six day" cooler class (able to hold ice five or six days). In summary, the thicker the cooler wall, the thicker and more ice-retaining the insulation is. A solid or fully filled insulated lid keeps the cold in and the warm temps out. Well attached handles and sturdy hinges round out the features of a quality cooler. So don't rush your next cooler purchase, instead, take your time and select the model that fits your adventure.

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1 arrow pointCooler Shopping Checklist

  • Correct size to fit the task
  • Can you handle cooler when it's fully loaded?
  • Check thickness of walls, bottom and lid
  • Does lid seal well?
  • Durable hinges
  • Strong handles to transport loaded cooler safely
  • How long does task require ice to last — 1 day /1 week?
  • As high quality build as budget allows
  • Useful options: skid pads on bottom, lid lock, wheels, tie down holes

Tips to Improve Cooler Performance

  • Store cooler out of direct sunlight;
  • Pre-chill items;
  • Most used items packed last — quickest access and shorter lid openings;
  • Pack ice in last, on top; and
  • Ask others if they need anything from cooler before opening.


Shop all Coolers at Bass Pro Shops