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The best camping coolers: ensure your food stays fresh and your drinks stay chilled

best camping coolers: cool box in woods
(Image credit: Getty)

Once upon a time, the best camping coolers were cheap, unwieldy, easily breakable plastic affairs that would keep your grub and drinks cool for an afternoon or so at best with, that is, effective packing and enough ice to keep your average polar bear happy. Luckily, times have changed. These days, buyers in the market for the best camping coolers have at their disposal a wealth of options that are far more effective, far more robust, and generally more trail-ready than ever before.

Our list of the best camping coolers out there in 2021 contains something for everyone, from high-capacity hard-sided coolers for car camping trips with all the family all the way through to highly portable soft-sided coolers for camping trips where you pitch your tent deep in the backcountry.

best camping coolers: couple camping with a cool box

If you're car camping, a cool box is an absolute essential (Image credit: Getty)

Wherever you’re headed, rest assured that having one of the best camping coolers in tow is the way to go. Whether you're bringing a host of quality ingredients to cook up on the camping stove or whether you're looking to kick back in your best camping chair to crack open a can of something cool and bubbly to sup on while enjoying the views. We’re pretty sure you’ll come to appreciate the upgrade in luxury the best camping coolers can offer. Here's our roundup of the best available today...

The best camping coolers: hard-sided coolers

best camping coolers: Dometic Patrol 105

(Image credit: Dometic)

Dometic Patrol 105

A big rugged chilly bin that keeps food and drink cold for days

RRP: $350 (US) | Capacity: 81 cans | Volume: 102L | Ice retention: Multiple Days | Dimensions (HxWxD): 48 x 114 x 45.7cm / 19 x 45 x 18in | Weight: 19.75kg / 43.55lb | Construction: Rotomoulded, with PU insulation

One-handed latches
Internal organization
Accessory dock
Expensive compared to some models
Heavy

Freeze-dried camp food doesn’t have to be the only option for a week-long camping trip. The rugged Dometic Patrol uses thick PU insulation, rotomoulded construction and a lid seal that keeps cold air in and can keep frozen food frozen for days. Capacity is 81 cans. Rubber latches secure the lid and allow single-handed operation. Inside the cooler, a basket keeps food items organized and easily accessible. 

A large, leak-proof spout drains melting water from the cooler and helps keep the stored food cold. The performance of the interior gets most of a buyer’s attention but small design details on the exterior add value and convenience. Purchased separately, the accessory dock features a fishing rod holder, cup holder and bottle opener. Dometic supports the durable, high performance Patrol with a 7-year limited warranty. There are other sizes available too.

Best camping coolers: Coleman Cooler 36 QT

(Image credit: Coleman)

Coleman Cooler 36 QT

A well constructed, durable and classy cooler

MSRP: $42.00/£64.99 | Capacity: 46 cans | Ice retention: Up to 3 days | Weight: 7.2 lbs /3.3 kg | Dimensions: 13.8” x 23” x 14.8” | Construction: Polyurethane

Inexpensive
Tall design fits 2-liter bottles upright
No drain plug
Limited ice retention

Whether it’s for picnics, tailgating, or quick overnight camping trips, sometimes a well-constructed, durable, and simply designed cooler is all you need to keep everyone happy. The Coleman 36 QT is just that kinda cooler. This long-term favorite of weekend campers everywhere has a 46-can capacity, is tall enough to fit 2-liter plastic bottles upright, and insulates well enough to keep contents cold for up to three days.

In terms of convenience and added features the Coleman is no slouch, either, boasting a pair of unbreakable molded handles that let you share the load when carrying the cooler from car to campsite, four cup holders molded into the lid to hold your drinks, and a lid that’s tough enough to moonlight as a seat.

All in all, one of the best camping coolers out there for buyers on a budget.

Best camping coolers: Pelican 30 QT Elite Cooler

(Image credit: Pelican)

Pelican 30 QT Elite Cooler

A beast of a cooler that will keep everything fresh

MSRP: $229.99 | Capacity: 23 cans | Volume: 32.95 QTs | Ice retention: Multiple days | Dimensions: 25.30” x 19.00” x 18.50” | Weight: 21.67 lbs / 9.8 kg | Construction: Polypropylene

Lifetime guarantee
Integrated cup holders
Tethered drain plug
Heavy compared to some models

Pelican cases have a well-earned reputation for protecting sophisticated electronics, cameras and scientific instruments, and in recent years the brand has turned its attention to creating equally impressive containers for your ice, drinks, eats, and trophy fish when camping.

One such cooler is the 30 QT Elite. This beast of a cooler is one of the best camping coolers out there for peeps who are serious about the protection of their edibles and drinkables. It’s made with extra-thick polyurethane foam insulation, robust polypropylene walls, and uses a molded-in lock hasp with a stainless steel plate that ensures the contents are kept safe from animals and fellow campers.

But it ain’t all about the insulation and the build. Other endearing features in the Pelican include a built-in bottle opener, integrated cup holders, easy-to-operate and virtually unbreakable press-and-pull latches, and non-skid feet that create a solid, stable platform, even on a boat.

Best camping coolers: Stanley Adventure Cold for Days 30 QT

(Image credit: Stanley)

Stanley Adventure Cold for Days 30 QT

Beafy insulation and a leak proof lid make this cooler even cooler

MSRP: $165.00 | Capacity: 32 cans | Volume: 30 QTs | Ice retention: 4 days | Dimensions: 21.34L x 15.47W x 18.46H in | Weight: 13.6 lbs / 6.15 kg | Construction: Double Coated TPU

Durable construction
Multi-day retention
Tall design accommodates bottles
Lower capacity compared to some models

Cans and coolers go together like matches and a campfire, but if your preference is long-necked bottles of beer or wine, the Stanley Adventure is the right choice. Arriving back at camp after a long day hiking under a hot sun, grabbing an ice-cold bottle of wine from the cooler is a nice reward. And with the Stanley Adventure, the cooler’s narrower but extra-tall design will allow you to do just that.

The Adventure will also keep those bottles cold for as long as 4 days, even when temps are high, thanks to beefy insulation and a leak-proof silicone lid gasket that keeps the cold in and and the ice-melting heat out.

As regards user-friendliness, the Adventure is a bit of a winner too. It has a leak-proof drain plug that’s located low enough in the wall to save you having to lift the cooler up to empty melted water, and its sturdy build allows you to use it as a small table, stool or extra seat around the campfire (see: how to build a campfire). Living up to its long reputation for quality construction, Stanley also offers a highly reassuring lifetime warranty.

Best camping coolers: Yeti Tundra cooler

(Image credit: YETI)

Yeti Tundra 35

A robust and impressive cooler, built for life in the wild

MSRP: $249.99/£249.99 | Capacity: 21 cans | Volume: 19.4 QTs | Ice retention: 4 days | Dimensions: 16 1/8” × 15 3/4” × 21 3/8” | Weight: 20 lbs / 9.1kg | Construction: Rotomolded | Colors: aquifer blue, desert tan, sagebrush green, navy, white

Heavy duty rubber latches
3” of insulation
Tie down points
Heavy compared to some models
Pricey

The Yeti Tundra has long been considered the gold standard in hard-sided camping coolers. And with good reason. More than any other cooler out there, the Tundra is equipped to keep your food and drinks cool on multi-day trips, all while standing up to the rough treatment of life on the road and at camp.

The Yeti is made with three-inch-thick walls of polyurethane foam insulation and uses heavy-duty rubber latches and freezer-quality gaskets to ensure your food and drinks are kept cool for up to six days. The exterior is filled with handy features too. The most impressive and useful of these are a duo of anchor points that let you strap the cooler down to your truck, boat or gear trailer, military grade rope handles, non-slip feet, and interlocking hinges that ensure an ultra-tight seal.

The best camping coolers: soft-sided coolers

best camping coolers: Otterbox Trooper 20

(Image credit: Otterbox)

Otterbox Trooper 20

Keeping essentials cool on the move

RRP: $250 (US) | Capacity: 6 cans | Volume: 19L/20 qt | Ice retention: up to 3 days | Dimensions (LxWxD): 36 x 44.5 x 26cm / 14.30 x 17.50 x 10.25in | Weight: 3kg/6.5lb | Construction: TPU Coated Nylon

Lightweight
TPU coated nylon construction
Padded shoulder straps
Accessory mounting system
Expensive compared to some models

Spend a few hours hiking to a hidden trout stream or paddling down a mirror-flat river and a cool drink is a welcome respite. Since hard-sided coolers work better in base camp situations, cooler brands have launched a new category of soft-sided models. Combining the best attributes of Otterbox hard sided cases with two-inch wide padded shoulder straps, the Trooper allows you to bring thirst-quenching cold drinks, fruit, snacks and food with you.  A heavyduty zipper offers wide, fast access to cold contents. 

The rugged TPU coated nylon exterior is rugged, water resistant and tough enough to endure long days in the woods. Duraflex hardware and an accessory mounting system lets you keep small pieces of gear close at hand and reduce the need for another pack. 

Best camping coolers: Pelican 30 QT Elite Cooler

(Image credit: Pelican)

Pelican Dayventure Backpack Cooler

Comfort is king for this superb soft-sided cooler

MSRP: $249.99 | Capacity: 6 cans | Volume: 19.4 QTs | Dimensions: 12.10 x 7.10 x 21.70 in | Weight: 9.3 lbs / 4.2 kg | Construction: Double Coated TPU

Leak-proof zipper
Dual compartments
Padded shoulder straps
Expensive compared to some models
Slightly heavy

Feature by feature, detail by detail, the Dayventure Backpack Cooler is one of the best camping coolers out there for single-day trips. There’s a long list of reasons to make this your go-to soft-sided cooler when you head into the wild. First, there’s the dual compartment approach. The smaller pocket fits a 6-pack of cans, ice or ice packs. The top, larger compartment offers dry storage, or if needed, more insulated cooler space. The wide roll-top opening offers convenient access and a durable leak-proof zipper keeps wet and dry separate. A compression-molded base also creates a stable, stand-up platform, meaning the pack won’t topple over when placed on the ground.

What we really love about this pack, however, is just how comfortable it is to wear. Pelican uses authentic, backpack style shoulder straps with an adjustable chest strap, making it not entirely dissimilar to many of the best daypacks we’re used to wearing on hikes. Also, anticipating plenty of use in rugged conditions, the outer shell is water-resistant, tearproof and puncture resistant.

Best camping coolers: Orca cooler

(Image credit: Orca)

ORCA Walker Softside 20

A bulletproof, rugged, easy to carry cooler that keeps everything nicely chilled

MSRP: $199.99 | Capacity: 20 cans | Volume: 26 QTs | Ice retention: up to 24 hours | Dimensions: 14.5” x 11” x 13.25” | Weight: 3.6 lbs /1.65 kg | Construction: Rotomoulded, TPU and Meta-Polymer

BPA Free Food grade liner
Waterproof zipper
Padded shoulder straps
Expensive compared to similar models
Single shoulder strap

Perfect for more urban adventures, the Walker Softside is a bulletproof, rugged, easy carry that’s capable of keeping beverages, fruit, snacks and lunches cold all day long. The Walker can be carried using a single padded shoulder strap or an easy-to-open magnetic split handle. It’s constructed with a food-grade, BPA-free and anti-microbial liner and has a waterproof zipper that prevents leakage, even when you’re on the move and jostling through crowds or over rough trails. The man compartment can hold up to twenty cans and a series of nylon webbing straps and a bungie net on the exterior offer extra storage possibilities for your best waterproof jackets or any other essentials you want to bring along for the trip.

The bottom line? It may be pricey, but this is one of the best camping coolers out there for backcountry adventurers.

The Walker Softside comes in grey, slate blue, tan, seafoam green and olive, and also in a variety of sizes.

Best camping coolers: IceMule Classic

(Image credit: IceMule)

IceMule Classic

A superb lightweight, frill-free, sling-style dry bag

MSRP: $69.99 | Capacity: 12 cans | Volume: 15 L | Ice retention: up to 24 hours | Dimensions: 10" x 10" x 16 | Weight: 2.0 lbs / 0.9 kg | Construction: proprietary PolyLayer insulation foam

Waterproof
Floats
Roll-up for storage
Limited ice retention compared to other models

Sometimes, the names brands give to their products feel well wide of the mark. In the case of the IceMule Classic, however, the name-givers are on the nose.

The IceMule Classic is a simple, frill-free, sling-style dry bag that can haul a load of beverages, snacks, food and all the nice you need to keep them chilled in one incredibly lightweight, easy-to-use, and trail-ready carry system.

Using innovative construction materials, proprietary insulation foam, and a sleek, low-profile design, this soft-sided cooler is an excellent option for hikers who want to enjoy chilled eats and drinks at the end of a long, hot day on the trails - without having to spend a fortune for the privilege.

The IceMule features a roll-top closure and welded seams, meaning there are no zippers to snag, break, or leak, and you don’t have to worry about any latches springing open when carting the cooler over bumpy trails. This airtight design also makes the IceMule “floatable” (meaning it will float if dropped in water), which makes it a winner if you intend on using it  for adventures out on the lake or river.

The IceMule also rolls up and takes up far less space in your gear closet than most comparable models, and it’s wide opening makes it very easy to clean.

How to choose the best camping cooler

There's plenty of choice out there in terms of camping coolers. Here we break down the key considerations to help you arrive at the optimum choice...

Hard-sided or soft-sided?

Because of their weight and unwieldy dimensions, hard-sided coolers work best for car camping, base camping, or boating trips (see: how to store food when camping). The main advantages to this type of cooler are that their rugged construction, beefier insulation materials, and accessories like integrated handles, bottle openers, drain plugs and leakproof lids all make them more hard-wearing and more convenient, and also capable of keeping your stuff cooler for far longer than their soft-sided siblings. Most of today’s brands also stand by their coolers with multi-year or lifetime warranties.

If you plan on putting in the miles on the trail before setting up camp, soft-sided coolers are a far better option. Backpack-style padded shoulder straps, chest straps and waist belts, leak-proof zippers, and exterior attachment points all help to turn soft-sided coolers into technical equipment that’s just as sophisticated and trail-worthy as the rest of your camping gear, with plenty of space for your camping utensils too. These coolers typically lack the insulating capacity of hard-sided varieties but are easy to carry, lightweight, and usually much cheaper.

best camping coolers: man sat on hard cooler

One advantage of a hard-sided cooler is that it often doubles up as a camping seat (Image credit: Getty)

Ice retention

Once thought of as generic, low-cost products for tailgating and beach trips only, today’s coolers are sophisticated pieces of equipment that have transformed the scope of outdoor adventures there’s no need to settle for lukewarm drinks, freeze-dried meals or canned foods, after all, when a quality cooler can keep steaks frozen, fish fresh, and bottles and cans icy cold.

But for how long? Two days? Three days? A week? How long will you be out? Heavy-duty hard-sided coolers with advanced insulation can keep food and beverages ice cold for as long as a week, while soft-siders can usually keep your contents chilled for anything from 24 hours to a weekend – at a push. 

When buying, take the quoted ice-retention durations with a pinch of salt – these are often exaggerated and how long a cooler retains ice depends on numerous variables, such as how much ice you use, ambient temperatures, how well you pack the contents, and where you store the cooler at camp. 

Best camping coolers: Couple toasting with beers

A good camping cooler will keep your beers (and other stuff, if that's your thing) cool for days on end (Image credit: Thomas Barwick (Getty))

Volume

After the how long will you be out question, the next is how much will you need to bring? This, of course, entirely depends on the size of your group and the size of their appetites.

Both hard-sided coolers and soft-siders come in a wide range of sizes. From small, one- or two-person coolers for overnight trips all the way through to extra-large units that can keep a family's groceries cold for a week, there are cooler capacities to accommodate every application, group size, and trip duration. The volume of coolers is usually listed in quarts.

For solo camping trips over a weekend, a model in the 16 to 25-quart range will probably do the trick, whereas a 25- to 50- quart cooler will likely be ideal for couples heading on a weekend trip. If you’re camping for more than a weekend, or have a larger group, something in the 50 to 75-quart range will be required.

Take care to select the model that matches your needs. If your cooler’s too small, someone will miss out on a cold drink; if it’s too big and the cooler space isn’t used efficiently, your food won’t stay cold as long as it would inside a more appropriately sized model.

Latches

Coolers work best with quality latches that seal the lid tightly to the main body. Silicone gaskets, and heavy-duty hinges and rubber latches keep cold air in and the warm air that’s the biggest enemy of ice, out.

Organization

Most coolers are a simple empty box, though some brands add storage trays or dividers to keep food, snacks and beverages organized and separate. Because digging through the cooler to locate your stuff exposes your ice to warm air, organizational features like shelves, trays, and dividers are handy features to have, and a compartmentalized design will also let you keep different foodstuffs separate.

Convenience

Keeping food and beverages ice cold is the primary purpose of any cooler. Once that’s accomplished, a few product details that add convenience will keep customers loyal to the brand. Details like integrated handles, bottle openers, drain plug tethers (replacing a lost drain plug can be a hassle), drink holders, and rubber feet to prevent slipping are some features to look for before clicking buy or heading to the checkout.

What to look for when buying soft-sided coolers

Ice retention

Lunch for one, or a twelve pack of beverages for a thirsty crew of climbers? There are soft-sided cooler models for every application. Large models resemble sophisticated backpacks that use advanced insulation to create ice cold compartments. Hard-sided coolers use quarts to measure volume. Smaller soft-sided coolers measure capacity by how many cans will fit inside. Although hard-sided coolers will keep food and beverages colder longer, soft-sided coolers perform very well in 1-2 day adventures.

Zippers

Hard-sided coolers use hinges, silicone gaskets and rubber latches. Soft-sided coolers rely on heavy duty waterproof zippers to seal the cooler compartments. When buying your cooler, be sure to check that the zippers are leak-proof and, for easy access to your eats, opt for a hinge-top model with a zipper that extends all the way around the upper portion of the pack.

Carry straps

As is the case with the best hiking backpacks, the straps used on soft-sided models can make a big difference comfort-wise.  When weighing up the options, look for, nicely padded, adjustable backpack-style shoulder straps that distribute weight and increase comfort. Some soft-sided cooler carry systems also include chest straps and waist belts, both of which increase stability and make carting heavier loads a whole lot easier.

Convenience

A few non-standard add-ons can greatly enhance a soft-sided cooler’s convenience and practicality. The most notable of these are waterproof compartments, carabiner clips, daisy chains and integrated bottle openers.

A journalist specializing in outdoor recreation, Lou has covered product design innovations, participation trends and environmentally sustainable manufacturing for over 20 years. On the other hand, he’s had some less than successful outdoor adventures: once, completely spent after a hard day on the trail, he managed to set a vintage MSR Whisperlite stove ablaze before accidentally kicking the burning contraption into a lake. A published author, his book about invasive fish threatening the Great Lakes watershed will be published in 2021. craftedwords.com