7 reasons you need a camping cooler: from campsite cuisine to keeping bears at bay

Reasons you need a camping cooler: ORCA Hard Side Coolers
The ability to keep food and drink chilled for days on end in the backcountry is the stuff of magic (Image credit: ORCA)

Whether you’re setting up base camp, venturing out on a fishing trip or heading to the campground with your tribe, there are many reasons you need a camping cooler. The ability to keep food and drink chilled for days on end in the backcountry is the stuff of magic.

In the last couple of decades, camping coolers have come on leaps and bounds, thanks to brands like Yeti, Orca, Pelican and Stanley. It was Yeti that really upped the ante in 2006, creating highly effective and durable ice boxes that ushered in a new age of cooler quality. Founders Roy and Ryan Seiders were fed up with cheap coolers that couldn't cope with the demands of their fishing trips and set about doing something about it.

Today, the popularity of coolers is such that many hardcore campers wouldn’t dream of loading their camping tent into the car without it also being joined by a quality ice box. Here, we give our seven reasons you need a camping cooler for various backcountry scenarios.

Meet the expert

Highlander Serenity 450 Mummy Sleeping Bag: wild camp
Alex Foxfield

As a mountain leader, family man, avid camper and craft beer connoisseur, Alex is an expert when it comes to camping gear. He knows the importance of proper food and drink storage on camping trips and always puts his coolers to good use.

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What is a camping cooler?

  • A camping cooler is an insulated container that keeps interior items chilled
  • It has to be filled with ice
  • There are broadly two types: hard sided coolers and soft sided coolers
  • Hard sided coolers keep items chilled for longer and are more durable
  • Soft sided coolers are cheaper and more portable but are not as high performing

Reasons you need a camping cooler: Bottles in an open cooler

A cooler is an insulated container that keeps food and drink chilled when filled with ice (Image credit: Sandrene Zhang on Unsplash)

A camping cooler (also known as a cool box, ice chest or ice box) is an insulated container that keeps food and drink chilled when filled with ice. Unlike your fridge or freezer at home, a cooler doesn’t use a power source to keep the temperature down but instead has highly insulating walls that stop the interior from warming up.

There are broadly two varieties, hard sided coolers and soft-sided coolers. Hard sided coolers are the workhorses of the cooler world and are best for car camping, base camping, fishing and boating. The best hard-sided coolers will retain ice for several days and are extremely durable, though they tend to be more expensive than soft sided coolers. They also usually require at least two people to move them when fully loaded.

Soft sided coolers usually feature backpack style straps and are lighter and much easier to carry than their hard sided brethren. This makes them ideal when you have a bit of a hike to reach your chosen destination, such as a long walk to a beach or a march across the festival grounds from the car to your pitch. The disadvantages of a soft sided cooler are that they tend to be less durable and don’t retain ice for anywhere near as long as the finest hard sided options.

1. No more warm bevvies

  • Hard sided coolers can retain ice for a week or more
  • This allows you to keep drinks chilled for camping trips, beach days and festivals

reasons you need a camping cooler: ice and drinks

No more warm beers (Image credit: Getty Images)

On any given camping trip, you’ve already foregone the comfort of your cozy bed for an inflatable camping mattress. You’ve swapped the sofa for a moderately comfortable camping chair - but let’s face it, even the best camping chair has nothing on a decent couch. You’ve traded the consistent, omnidirectional warmth of your central heating system for the campfire, which is admittedly gloriously warm but only from one direction.

The good news is that, with a quality camping cooler, you don’t have to sacrifice the invigoration of ice-cold bevvies. After a long day on the trail, you’ll be longing for that freezing cola. A crisp, cold glass of sauvignon blanc is just the ticket alongside your chorizo pasta. Plus, nobody wants a warm beer for the campfire singalong.

Today’s hard sided coolers can retain ice for a week or more, becoming a virtual fridge for your adventures in the great outdoors. Of course, all the above are campsite related examples but the same applies for garden parties, beach days and festivals.

2. Keep things fresh

  • You can load your cooler with all the cooking ingredients for a long camping trip

reasons you need a camping cooler: group camping

A decent sized cooler allows you to keep all your food fresh (Image credit: Getty Images)

So, if your hard sided cooler can keep your brewskies satisfyingly ice cold for a week or more, they can also keep your food fresh, which opens up the possibility of long camping trips without the need to be constantly stocking up on fresh produce. This is good news for campsite cooks, event organisers, festival stands, basecamp managers and more besides.

The ability to keep food cold while camping means that you can plan your camping meals in advance of your trip, safe in the knowledge that you’ve got all the ingredients you need to cook up a storm.

3. It's a bear necessity

  • The best way to store food when camping is in a hard sided cooler
  • Many national forests and state parks insist on this
  • Keeping food stored in this way stops bears and other unwanted visitors snooping around camp

reasons you need a camping cooler: Grizzly bear

You don't want this chap nosing around your campsite looking for food (Image credit: Getty Images)

Common consensus used to be that hanging your camp food high from a tree branch was the way forward when it came to avoiding unwanted visitors to the campsite. However, this approach has since fallen out for favor, as it’s been found that bears, or their cubs, are able to climb high enough to pilfer your precious edibles. As well as this, they’ll often return to spots they’ve had success in the past so, if everyone took this approach, campsites would see even more four-legged visitors.

The correct way to store food when camping is in a hard sided cooler. In fact, many national forests and state parks insist on this approach. Sealed away under heavy duty lid latches, the tempting aromas of your ingredients should stay locked away. Coolers like Yeti’s Tundra series come with extra-long shank Master Lock padlocks, which are officially approved by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee.

4. Bring your catch home

  • A cooler allows you to keep your bait, drinks and snacks cool
  • You can also use it to store your catches

reasons you need a camping cooler: fishing

Take your catch home fresh (Image credit: Getty Images)

Spring and summer provide lovely weather for days spent fishing, but the warmth has a knack for spoiling your catch. So, if a spot of fishing is on the cards, a cooler is every bit as essential as your rod, reels, bait and lures. For a start, you can keep your bait fresh, as well as any brewskies or snacks you’re bringing along. Plus, unless you’re planning on smoking your catch, Scandi style, on a plank over a campfire that night, you’re gonna want to take your catch home while keeping it fresh.

5. One for the road

  • A cooler in the trunk allows you to bring all the ingredients and drinks you need for a road trip

reasons you need a camping cooler: North Coast 500

If you're hitting Scotland's North Coast 500, best do it with a cooler in the vehicle (Image credit: Getty Images)

Whether you’re eyeing up the great American road trip or taking on Scotland’s legendary North Coast 500, having a quality cool box in the trunk means cool beers and chilled white wine at night and the ability to cook something up on the camping stove. It gives you the option of going off-grid, staying in a tent rather than motels or guesthouses and will save you money on evening meals. Better still, because you’ll already have all your ingredients, you won’t be taking frequent detours to convenience stores. Instead, you’ll simply be able to enjoy the freedom of the open road.

6. Modern cool boxes will last

  • Modern cool boxes are designed to be extremely hard wearing
  • They should last you for many years

reasons you need a camping cooler: beach

Modern coolers should last you for decades, that's countless camps and beach trips (Image credit: Getty Images)

Yeti moved the goalposts in 2006, when brothers Roy and Ryan Seiders set about creating a durable cooler that could stand up to all the backcountry abuse they could throw at it. This elevated the expectations users had of their camping coolers and, these days, nothing but absolutely bombproof will do.

So, while forking out for a cooler may set you back more than you’d think, particularly if you opt for a Yeti, you should end up with a product that will last for many years.

7. It’s more than a cooler

  • Modern coolers are designed to be weight bearing
  • You can use your cooler as a seat or as a step
  • Many come with integrated bottle openers and have grooves for drinks

reasons you need a camping cooler: man sitting on cooler

A cooler is more than the sum of its parts, it can also be a seat, a platform to stand on, a bottle opener and a table (Image credit: Getty Images)

While keeping things chilled is the primary function of a camping cooler, they’ve got plenty of other uses too. Most are designed to be weight bearing and have grippy non-slip undersides, meaning you can stand on your box to extend your reach or address your acolytes. It also doubles up as a seat – though it’s admittedly perhaps not as cozy as the Kelty Low Loveseat.

As well as this, some coolers are designed with cans and bottles in mind, with integrated bottle openers and grooves shaped to hold a bevvy or two.

Alex Foxfield

Alex is a freelance adventure writer and mountain leader with an insatiable passion for the mountains. A Cumbrian born and bred, his native English Lake District has a special place in his heart, though he is at least equally happy in North Wales, the Scottish Highlands or the European Alps. Through his hiking, mountaineering, climbing and trail running adventures, Alex aims to inspire others to get outdoors. He's the former President of the London Mountaineering Club, is training to become a winter mountain leader, looking to finally finish bagging all the Wainwright fells of the Lake District and is always keen to head to the 4,000-meter peaks of the Alps. www.alexfoxfield.com