As someone who reviews coolers and other outdoor products for a living I've probably put more thought into what makes a good cooler than anyone else in the world…except maybe the team over at Yeti who are constantly inventing new stuff.
If you could have the ultimate cooler of a lifetime with every feature ever desired what exactly would that look like?
A good cooler is one that can keep ice for a long period of time, is durable and long lasting, portable enough for your needs and offers value for money. A good cool balances performance, features and price.
A Great Cooler Always Makes Tradeoffs
There is no such thing as the “perfect cooler” that has all the features you would want because there are always design tradeoffs to be made.
A cooler that holds ice longer will have thicker insulation and thus take up more room and be heavier.
A cooler that is more durable will bulkier and more difficult to transport than a more lightweight, less durable cooler.
And let's not even start on price. The better a cooler gets the more expensive it becomes. But sometimes making a trade off on some elements gives you better overall value for money even if it's not the absolute best cooler ever to be released.
So given there are design trade offs and adding to one feature removes from another what exactly does make a good cooler and what should you look out for.
1. Ice Retention and Performance
A cooler's job is to keep things cold and stop ice from melting. The better a cooler does this the better a cooler is.
Now there are constraints to this. Big thick roto-molded coolers can keep ice for over a week but aren't very portable while a backpack cooler might keep ice 2-3 days max but the portability is worth the trade off.
But whether you're comparing big bulky stationary ice chests to each other or looking for the best soft sided portable cooler how long that cooler holds ice compared to other coolers of similar weight/portability will be a big deciding factor.
When it comes to your traditional standard cooler a cheap cooler from your local hardware store might keep ice 1 day max, whereas a thick roto-molded cooler might keep ice anywhere from 3 days all the way up to 14 days or longer.
The longer a cooler hold ice and keeps things cold the better. It means you don't have to spend as much money on ice, you can stay off grid for longer, food is less likely to spoil and it's just easier to not have to change out the ice in your cooler.
I've done entire in depth articles on the best hard coolers for ice retention as well as the best soft sided coolers for ice retention if you want to see the full results and what coolers hold ice the longest.
Best Cooler For Ice Retention: Kong Coolers
If you're looking for the cooler that excels in this category and holds ice the longest then the Kong Cooler beats out all the current competition holding ice from 10-14 days.
It's absolutely insane how long these coolers hold ice for. They are also made in the USA, backed by a lifetime guarantee and are great quality.
2. Durability and Longevity
When you're looking for a good cooler chances are you want to use it more than once and you don't want it to break from the slightest bump or jostle.
Having a cooler that is durable and can handle being thrown around as well as a cooler that will continue to work for you for years to come.
You'll want a cooler that is impact resistant so it won't break or crack easily, a cooler that is UV resistant so it won't get damaged during it's hours and days in the sun and a cooler that will keep going and going and going.
Cheaper coolers tend to last a few years of moderate use before the plastic hinges start breaking, the handles start to snap off and the plastic becomes sun worn and brittle.
More expensive coolers, like Yeti, are now being made to last an entire lifetime, with many cooler companies offering an entire lifetime warranty on their coolers.
I've personally had my Yeti 45 going on 5 years now. It's officially run out of warranty but it still works just as great as it did the day I bought it. It's been dropped, kicked, stood on and throw around and it still just keeps going.
Coolers need to be portable. Whether you're going camping with the family or going for a hike with your best friend or partner you're likely taking your cooler somewhere.
It needs to be able to be moved easily to wherever you need to take it.
This is where one of the biggest trade offs between ice retention and portability come in.
While big hard sided coolers are portable enough to get into your car and move around the campsite they aren't portable enough to easily take them on a hike. But they keep ice frozen for a long time.
Soft sided coolers on the other hand are much much lighter and often come with shoulder straps or backpack straps making them super easy to carry down to the beach or up a mountain. The downside here is that they use a lighter and less effective insulation so they don't keep ice as long.
They also don't use thick plastic but are made from a vinyl or nylon exterior. While still durable this is nowhere near as durable as a hard plastic cooler and is much more prone to sun damage.
To make a good cooler it needs to be portable enough for where you want to take it and hold ice long enough to be useful.
For the best portable coolers check out my list of the best soft sided coolers on the market.
Best Portable Cooler: Engel HD30
The Engel HD30 has the portability of a soft sided tote style cooler with the performance and ice retention of a similar sized hard sided cooler.
It uses the most durable fabric, is completely waterproof and leak proof and holds ice for 3-4.5+ days. It outperforms all other soft sided coolers on the market.
4. Price and Value For Money
While we can talk all day about the FEATURES that make a good cooler a good cooler you can't ignore price altogether.
The perfect cooler wouldn't be perfect if it cost $1 million, it just wouldn't be worth it. So a balance of performance, durability, features and price is an absolute must.
Some coolers, like Yeti and Kong, are high-quality and cost more money. Other coolers will save you money but you sacrifice a lot of quality so they aren't really worth it.
Then you get those coolers that find the perfect combination of good quality and good price. This makes them a great value for money cooler.
Best Value For Money Coolers.
One the high-end Yeti and Kong Coolers offer great value for money. What you get is amazing and so even though they cost a lot you are getting value for that money.
On the low end the Coleman Xtreme 5-Day Cooler offers amazing value for money. It's cheap and isn't as good as a Yeti but it has great ice retention and is way better that other cheap coolers. At less than $40-$50 for many of it's sizes and holding ice up to 5 days it's great value.
But the absolute BEST value for money cooler in my opinion is the Lifetime cooler. It's got all the features of a high-end cooler like the Yeti with similar performance and durability but has the price of a low end cooler, often under $100.
It's even made in the USA and is completely bear proof. An incredible cooler for an incredible price.
5. Style, Design and Branding
Performance, durability and price aren't the only things that matter when it comes to a cooler. The look, feel, design and branding is also extremely important.
No one wants a cooler that looks like crap and if you're going to be spending good money on a cooler you want it to look great too.
Companies spend lots of money designing coolers to look great…or they just copy Yeti coolers which already look great.
Best Designed Cooler
The Yeti still stands at #1 as the best designed cooler with the best brand.
They have extended beyond being just a cooler brand and are now a cool lifestyle and outdoors brand. Their marketing is on point, their coolers are minimalistic and their attention to detail is better than any other cooler I've seen.
6. Functionality and Ease of Use
When looking for a good cooler you want something that is functional and easy to use.
Luckily most coolers are simply boxes with a hinged lid for accessing your food and drinks but when it comes to soft sided coolers sometimes they aren't easy to use.
The Yeti M30 soft sided cooler has be criticized because the magnetic sealing top won't stay open making it difficult to see what's in your cooler and even more difficult to get it out.
But usually coolers have wide openings making them simple and easy to use.
7. Easy To Clean and Keep Clean
Coolers are full of ice (which turns to moisture), food and drinks and often you're taking them off grid to dirty places so over time your cooler is almost guaranteed to get dirty.
Being able to easily and effectively clean your cooler will stop it from gathering mold and stop it from looking gross and deteriorating over time.
Soft sided coolers with seams can be some of the worst coolers to try and keep clean but hard coolers are generally much easier to clean.
8. Strength To Sit/Stand/Stack
Coolers often double as a seat or a step and so you want to make sure that you cooler is strong enough to handle you sitting or standing on it.
At only 67 kgs (147 lbs) I'm a pretty light buy so I've never really had to worry about breaking a cooler by sitting on it. But if you weigh more than me you make need to consider it.
Standing on a cooler is more likely to break it than sitting on it. This is because your weight is focused into just 1 or 2 feet vs you're entire backside and legs.
Cheaper coolers have no insulation in the lid so you're relying on the strength of the thin plastic to hold your weight. These can often break or dent when you stand on them.
More expensive roto-molded coolers both have stronger plastic shells and insulation in the lid that sets hard adding extra strength to hold your weight.
9. Food Safe Materials
Kids will ALWAYS eat ice out of the cooler and I know as adults we occasionally do it too especially on a hot day.
Or maybe you've got food in your cooler like fruit that isn't wrapped in plastic and is touching the cooler walls.
Regardless you want to make sure your cooler is made from food safe materials. I've done some research into it and pretty much all coolers are. Most coolers are even BPA free.
10. Accessories and Add Ons
A cooler doesn't need accessories to be a good cooler but good accessories can make an average cooler a great cooler.
Whether it be cup holders, bottle openers, extra table/cutting space, fishing rod or umbrella holders or even the crazy Yeti Slickhorns roping dummy that turns your cooler into a practice bull.
The Igloo Trailmate is a great example of a cooler that is packed with accessories and add ons. It's got cups holders, bottle openers, multiple storage compartments, huge wheels and even a butler tray/table and a phone/tablet holder.
The accessories turn it from an average cooler into a good cooler.
So What Makes a Good Cooler
Ultimately what makes a good cooler is a fine balance of everything above.
- High performance ice retention while still maintaining portability
- Durable and long lasting while not being too expensive
- Functional and easy to clean
- Good accessories and features while maintaining good design
You need to find the cooler that best suits you in terms of all of these features. There will be compromises to be made in one area or another.
A good cooler doesn't have to be expensive and it doesn't have to be the best of the best. It just needs to do what you need it to do at a price you can afford.