Choosing the right size cooler for your needs is one of the most difficult decisions when it comes to picking which cooler is going to be right for you. But how do you choose the right size cooler and how do you know which size is right for you?
Go too small and your cooler won’t fit all your items and will run out of ice too quickly, leaving your stuff warm. Go too big and the cooler takes up a lot of wasted space, gets in the way, is difficult to carry and hard to transport.
The goal is to find a cooler that is just right for you. Small enough for days when you don’t need to fill it all the way, but large enough to handle anything you throw at it.
The Different Sizes of Coolers
Coolers come in all shapes and sizes. Everything from an ultra-tiny 0.4-Quart cooler for keeping insulin medicine cold up to the massive 400-Quart Grizzly Cooler big enough for commercial use.
Each size cooler has different pros and cons and different usage cases and then within each size range there are a wide variety of coolers to choose from – from budget cooler to premium brands.
Below are what I see as the major size categories to choose from:
Mini/Personal Coolers – 4-10 Quart
These coolers are small lunchbox coolers, designed to keep items cold from the morning until about lunch time.
Generally speaking you’ll throw your lunch and water bottle in here with an ice brick or two (or maybe a frozen water bottle) and by the end of the day your food will be eaten, water will be drunk and the cooler will be warm.
Go home, empty your cooler, put your ice bricks in the freezer overnight ready for the next day.
These are great to take to work, take in the car or maybe take to a picnic where you only need to take food and drink for yourself (and maybe one other person).
Small Portable Coolers: 10-18 Quart
This size range of coolers is still small and easily carried by 1 person but it is starting to get large enough that you can fit enough items in the cooler for family picnic, family day at the beach or even a weekend away as a cold-camper.
Coolers in this size will likely be soft sided coolers and will have ice retention of around 1-3 days and be portable with carry handles or a shoulder strap.
Something like the Yeti Hopper Flip 18 would be in this category
Medium Sized Cooler: 20-30 Quart
Now we are starting to get into the serious cooler territory where you can get a high performing cooler that can keep ice 3-5 days and have enough room for food and beverages for a weekend away.
In this size range you have a mixture of soft sided coolers like the Yeti Hopper, backpack coolers like the Otterbox Trooper and hard sized coolers like the Yeti Roadie or the Yeti 35 (which has a 28.8-Quart capacity).
These coolers will suit smaller trips for a couple of small family (3-4 members) or longer trips for a single person.
They are small enough that they don’t take up excessive amounts of space and aren’t too heavy to carry, but they are large enough that you get a serious jump in ice retention and performance.
Regular Sized Cooler: 35-55 Quart
This size range of coolers is the most popular and generally a size in this region suits most people’s needs. This size range suits everything for BBQs to family camping trips to boating/fishing as well as most commercial needs.
The smaller size is still doable for a family of 5, but required us to go shopping more often. The larger 50-ish Quart capacity was a much better size and meant we didn’t need to think about space as much.
This size is also good for a case of beer plus some wines at a BBQ and large enough for everything you need for a tailgating party.
Ice retention is anywhere from 1-2 days for a budget cooler to 5-7+ days for an expensive roto-molded cooler.
Large Cooler: 55-80 Quart
Now we are starting to get into the large cooler territory and getting more towards the commercial use side of things.
These size coolers are good for large groups of people or longer trips off grid where you need to store more times and have your ice last longer.
Ice will last 5-10+ days in high-quality cooler of this size.
This size is also used for hunting and fishing for storing their kills/catch.
Giant Coolers: 100+ Quart
These coolers are huge and range from 100-Quart to upwards of 600-Quart and are generally for commercial use.
Way too big and bulky to move for a family camping trip and highly unlikely to fit in the back of your car. See my list of the best giant coolers.
Key Factors When Choosing a Size
When it comes to choosing the right sized cooler there are some key factors you need to consider to make your decision.
Internal space is the #1 consideration for choosing the right sized cooler. How much do you actually need to store in your cooler and for how long?
You also need to account for the fact that ice will take up a lot of the space also. Yeti recommends a 2:1 ratio of ice to consumables in order to get maximum performance out of your cooler.
So at least half of the cooler is going to be filled with ice, only leaving approximately a half to a third of the cooler space for your beverages and drinks.
In smaller coolers you can get away with a couple of ice bricks to last you the day, but in larger coolers you will want a bigger ice to consumables ratio.
How long you need your cooler to keep ice for is also a big consideration. The mini/personal coolers will struggle to keep ice a full day because there just isn’t enough ice to start with.
Generally speaking the more ice you start with (as well as the better the cooler) the longer your ice will last.
If you want to keep ice longer than 3 days then you really need to be getting a medium sized cooler and storing ice for longer than 5-7 days you’ll need a large cooler.
Mixed in with your internal space and ice retention requirements is portability requirements.
Small coolers are great because they are super portable and easy to transport. The larger the cooler gets the harder it becomes to transport.
It becomes heavy and hard to carry as a single person and it also becomes hard to fit in your vehicle if you go too big.
This is where you start to make trade offs between internal space/ice retention and portability. You can’t have everything so you need to find the happy middle ground that suits you.
Along with portability is the external space a cooler takes up.
Premium coolers like Yeti coolers have 2-3 inches of insulation and so externally they take up a lot more space than their internal capacity.
The bigger you go the harder it is to fit your cooler in certain places.
Smaller soft-sided coolers like the Yeti Hopper are thin tote-like bags and can fit almost anywhere. Hard sized coolers take up much more room.
The bigger you go the more room they take up so if you are short on space (which you generally are when camping or doing any sort of trip) then how much space they take up externally should be a consideration.
Again this becomes a time to make compromises. You want to find a cooler that is big enough internally to fit all of your items and have good ice retention, but small enough externally that it can fit where you need it to.
You need to try and find the right size that suits your needs.
Price is also a consideration in what size cooler you buy. Smaller doesn’t always mean cheaper on the smaller side of things (eg. A Yeti Hopper 8 is the same price as a Yeti Roadie which is more than twice as big) but once you get over 30-Quarts it is definitely a case of bigger = more expensive.
A budget conscious shopper may have less options for size than someone with more money to spend.
For example if you want to spend under $100 then you’re limited to smaller sizes of cheaper high-end coolers or this Lifetime cooler. Your options start expanding once you are willing to spend over $200.
But something like a Yeti 110 is nearly $500, whereas a Yeti 45 (my cooler) is around the $300 mark.
The bigger the cooler the heavier the cooler and once you start filling that cooler up it becomes REALLY heavy.
So you may want to pick a size that you feel you are able to carry. For me I can carry the Yeti 45 short distances by myself when it was full which made it perfect for living in the van.
Anything bigger than that and I may have not even been able to move it by myself and that would have been extremely painful.
Features have less of an impact on the size of cooler you choose but they can still influence your decision.
If you require certain features in your cooler then that may restrict the size of the cooler your choose.
Let’s say you MUST have a cooler with wheels. Well there are only certain sizes of wheeled coolers out there and you don’t have as many options to choose from.
Or if you want a roto-molded cooler with cup holders then they only cooler that has that is the Ozark Trail Coolers from Walmart and they only come in 3 sizes.
The 80/20 Rule When It Comes To Coolers
I think a helpful way to decide what size cooler you want is to think about the 80/20 rule.
This rule states that:
80% of the time you will use your cooler for a similar purpose and only 20% of the time will you use it for a different purpose.
For me and my cooler – 80% of the time I am using it camping with my kids. 20% of the time I use it for other uses that are different like a roadtrip by myself or with one other person.
For that 20% of the time my Yeti 45 is actually too big, but for the 80% of the time my Yeti 45 is exactly right.
So try and pick a cooler that suits your 80% perfectly and then just make do for the other 20% of the time, or maybe you need to buy a second cooler.
Do You Need Two Separate Coolers?
For some people out there it might make sense to have 2 separate coolers, each a different size and for a different purpose.
For me I would have my main larger cooler (my Yeti 45) for camping with the kids and then I would purchase a soft sided cooler (likely a backpack cooler) that was smaller for the other times.
The soft sided cooler I could use for short road trips or daytime adventures.
Other people might want an electric cooler for their car and a smaller hard sided cooler for fishing.
Depending on who you are and what you are using your cooler for will determine whether or not you need more than one cooler and what types and sizes of cooler you want to buy.
What Is The Best Sized Cooler For a Single Person?
If you are just looking for a cooler for yourself, or for a friend who is going to use it by themselves then you’re going to want to stick to the smaller coolers.
Depending on what you are using it for I think anything around the 8-20 Quart capacity is a good size.
For a single person I like the flexibility that soft sided coolers offer. You could go with something like the Yeti Hopper Flip which is soft and compact but keeps it’s rectangular shape for easy packing.
They range from 8-30 Quarts in capacity and can keep ice for 2-3 days. There are great for lunches, road trips, beach days and even some longer weekend trips for a single person.
Alternatively if you want a hard sided cooler then something smaller around the 20-Quart size will keep ice for 3-5 days.
This is a great companion for the car and is small enough to fit on a seat or on the floor of your car but big enough to fit a decent amount of beverages and food for a single person.
Yeti have a 20-Quart small cooler but my favorite small hard sided cooler is actually the Sub Z 23-Quart cooler as it is much cheaper (around $120) and it also comes with a padded seat for the lid which I really like.
What Is The Best Sized Cooler For a Couple?
For a couple you’re going to want something larger than a lunchbox cooler but you’re unlikely to need a large cooler. Anything over 45-Quart is likely going to be overkill.
The 18-45 Quart range is probably going to suit most couples.
Again if you’re just looking for something portable for a road trip or day at the beach then a soft sided cooler should do the trick. You could look at Yeti Hopper coolers but I like the freedom and portability that soft sided backpack coolers give me.
If you’re going camping as a couple then that 20-Quart size might be fine for a weekend but any longer period of time and you’ll likely want something a bit bigger.
Around the 35-40 Quart range is a great size for a couple camping for a week or more. It has enough room to hold all your food and drink and should keep ice around 4-6 days so you won’t need to refill it very often.
For the budget conscious check out the Coleman Xtreme 5-Day Cooler or if you want to be like me and get the premium brand then the Yeti 45 is also a great cooler.
What Is The Best Sized Cooler For a Family of 4-5?
Anything under 20-Quart is going to be too small for a family of 4-5 people.
20-Quart is fine for a single day to the beach, or disneyworld or the a BBQ. But at that size you’ll have so much stuff in there and not enough ice you’ll only get a day of ice retention max.
In my opinion it’s better to get something around the 35-60 Quart capacity. But check out these discussions for some extra opinions.
My Yeti 45 is 37-Quart and while we used it as our primary cooler when living in the van we did find it too small and I would have preferred something around the 50-Quart capacity.
So for a single day 25-30 Quart is my recommendation – for that I would recommend the Yeti BackFlip 24 Backpack cooler.
For a weekend trip then 35-45 Quart should do the trick – for that I would recommend the RTIC 45.
For anything longer than a weekend I would recommend around the 45-65 Quart capacity. For the budget conscious shopper I would look at the Lifetime cooler 55-Quart which is under $100, or for someone who wants a premium cooler then the Yeti 65 is approximately 57-Quarts so that would be a good pick.