Whether you’re camping, tailgating, or hosting a barbecue for friends and family, having a great cooler on hand to keep your food and drinks chilled and fresh for hours is key. Coolers come in a variety of shapes, sizes and shells, and the most popular brands (like Yeti and Rtic) are known for their coolers' ability to retain temperature for long periods of time. That said, temperature retention isn’t the only factor to consider while shopping. Given the differences in construction, capacity and value, the best cooler for you will depend on its intended use.
“Hard coolers are better suited for days on the water (or in the field),” says Jonathan Newar, co-founder and CEO of Captain Experiences, but “there is a case for soft coolers” when you need something small, lightweight and portable.
To learn more about coolers and how to shop for them, we spoke to professionals who frequently insulate food, drinks and game for long periods of time. Below, you’ll find their recommendations as well as their shopping advice for how to pinpoint the best options on the market today.
Our top picks
- Best overall: RTIC 20 Hard Cooler
- Best value: Coleman 316 Series Insulated Portable Cooler
- Best splurge: BrüMate BrüTank Rolling Cooler
- Most portable: Tourit Cygnini Cooler Backpack
How we picked the best coolers
We interviewed a range of experts (chefs, caterers, professional hunters and fisherpeople) who use coolers on a regular basis. They recommend keeping the following criteria in mind when shopping:
Cooler type: You can split coolers into two main categories: hard coolers and soft coolers. We go into greater detail about each one’s benefits below, but as a general rule of thumb, hard coolers offer durability and better insulation, while soft coolers are more portable.
Capacity: This is how much a cooler can hold; it is usually measured in quarts, though brands will also advertise their coolers’ capacity using the number of cans that can fit inside.
Temperature retention: All coolers use some kind of insulation to keep food or drinks chilly. Hard coolers typically retain temperature better than their softer counterparts — and some high-end hard coolers offer insulating features that can keep ice frozen for days.
Portability: Bigger coolers are not always better, especially if you’re on the move. Small, soft options are usually more lightweight and compact. Some designs are even available as backpacks.
Price: While premium coolers are nice to have due to their luxury features, they’re not always necessary, according to our experts. Affordable brands can be just as reliable when it comes to temperature retention.
The best coolers
Below are some of the most popular hard and soft coolers on the market. All of our picks are either direct recommendations from our experts or options that we personally own and are in line with our experts’ advice. We also included highly rated options with an average of four stars or higher from more than 500 reviews.
Best hard coolers
This 20-quart, bear-resistant hard cooler can chill up to 24 cans and keep ice cold for up to 10 days, according to the brand. As a result, it’s a favorite among reviewers who spend a lot of time fishing or camping outside. Still, its compact size, no-sweat exterior and versatile shape also make it an ideal option for more casual outdoor functions, such as picnics, beach trips and sporting events. The stainless steel handle locks upright for easy carrying, while the rope handles and non-slip feet help with stability, according to the brand.
Capacity: 20 quarts (24 cans plus ice) | Empty weight: 19 pounds | Dimensions: 20 x 15 x 17.75 inches
Three of our experts recommend Coleman coolers for their reliability and reasonable pricing. Chelsea Keutmann, co-founder and fisherwoman of Sea to Shore Seafood, uses one to sell frozen fish at farmer’s markets because it’s affordable and has wheels to help transport heavier loads. This 100-quart option holds up to 160 cans and can keep ice frozen for days in temps as high as 90 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the brand. It also has built-in cup holders that can hold 30-ounce tumblers and are molded to the lid to prevent spills. Plus, its 6-inch wheels and handle help make for easy travel, according to Coleman. The durable lid doubles as a seat that can support up to 250 pounds, while the leakproof drain plug and stain-resistant liner help with cleanup, as detailed on the brand’s website.
Capacity: 100 quarts (160 cans) | Empty weight: 21 pounds | Dimensions: 32 x 13.7 x 14.9 inches
While it’s less expensive than competing brands, this Igloo ice chest cooler (which has a 4.6-average star rating from over 12,000 reviews on Amazon) is quite durable, according to reviewers. Its foam-insulated walls and raised body can keep ice frozen for up to four days, and its stainless steel hardware and its reinforced base are designed to boost durability, according to the brand’s website. Plus, it comes with a built-in ruler for fishermen and hunters.
Capacity: 25 quarts (37 cans) | Empty weight: 10.34 pounds | Dimensions: 20.08 x 16.34 x 13.19 inches
Yeti, the company behind one of our favorite tumblers, designed this Roadie cooler with pressure-injected polyurethane walls and a freezer-quality gasket to lock in the cold, according to the brand. This one can hold up to 33 cans or eight wine bottles vertically, so it’s a solid choice for picnics and barbecues — though, it also comes in two other sizes with bigger capacities. Like other options on our list, Yeti’s cooler also has nonslip feet to prevent sliding.
Capacity: ounces undisclosed (33 cans) | Empty weight: 13.1 pounds | Dimensions: 16.6 x 14 x 17.4 inches
Chef Jeremy Critchfield, owner of HuntChef, uses and likes Grizzly coolers. This one has a silicone rubber gasket that traps cool air inside the cooler to help extend your ice’s life, while its durable plastic helps keep food and drinks cold for days. The integrated hinge is interlocked to withstand harsh environments and the bearclaw latches are interchangeable, according to the brand. It also has two carrying options: an adjustable shoulder strap and a stainless steel handle.
Capacity: 15 quarts (15 cans plus ice) | Empty weight: 12 pounds | Dimensions: 18.75 x 11.38 x 14.38 inches
The BrüTank rolling cooler is a personal favorite as it has features I haven’t seen anywhere else: namely an interior 2.8-gallon drink tank that you can fill with your favorite beverage and tap from the outside, a built-in bottle opener and tie-dye color options. While I love that it can hold up to 48 cans of beer at once with its 55-quart capacity, its all-terrain wheels and long handle make transporting a heavy load much easier as well. It can retain ice for more than seven days and comes with an included drying rack, according to the brand’s website.
Capacity: 55 quarts (48 cans) | Empty weight: 45 pounds | Dimensions: 19.5 x 32 x 19.5 inches
Best soft coolers
The RTIC cooler is a solid option if you can’t decide between a hard or soft design. It’s technically a soft cooler, but its nylon shell aims to resist damage while its closed-cell foam insulation keeps drinks cold for up to 24 hours, according to the brand’s website. It even floats on water and is leakproof from both the inside and the outside, according to the brand. You can purchase this cooler in four sizes and 13 color options in solid shades and patterns.
Capacity: 12.68 quarts (12 cans) | Empty weight: 2 pounds | Dimensions: 12 x 10 x 8 inches
Despite this option being one of the most affordable options on this list, this soft cooler still has plenty going for it: It folds flat for easy storage and travel, but its wire frame pops up when needed so you can fill it with up to 50 cans, according to the brand. It’s also leakproof and has a built-in bottle opener, which makes it especially handy when on the beach or at a picnic in the park.
Capacity: 32 quarts (50 cans) | Empty weight: 2.5 pounds | Dimensions: 18.25 x 12.25 x 11.5 inches
This cooler backpack, which has a 4.7-average star rating from over 22,000 reviews, has a 30-can capacity and a leakproof design. Its high-density foam helps keep contents cold (or hot) for up to 16 hours, according to the brand. It weighs just over 1 pound and has padded, adjustable straps, so it’s one of the most portable options on our list.
Capacity: 29.6 quarts (30 cans) | Empty weight: 1.1 pounds | Dimensions: 13 x 7.5 x 15.8 inches
The Yeti Hopper Flip is a favorite among reviewers who need a portable yet effective cooler for hikes and sports. In addition to its rubber-foam insulated body, it also has exterior grid straps where you can attach hiking gear. The shell is made from a puncture- and UV-resistant fabric, and both the exterior and interior are treated to resist mildew, according to the brand. The wide-mouth opening is leakproof and zips almost all the way open for easy access, plus it can fit up to 11 cans, according to Yeti.
Capacity: ounces undisclosed (11 cans) | Empty weight: 2.6 pounds | Dimensions: 12.4 x 8.6 x 10.6 inches
This bucket cooler backpack weighs less than a pound and sits comfortably over your shoulders thanks to its padded straps. The cooler’s tall enough to hold two bottles of wine and eight cans upright and has a food-safe interior liner, according to the brand. The neoprene exterior comes in seven colors and its exterior zippered pocket has the space to hold additional accessories and your personal items while at the beach or on a boat.
Capacity: ounces undisclosed (12 cans) | Empty weight: .8 pounds | Dimensions: 8 x 11 x 14 inches
When traveling with prepared food, Cheyenne Nichols, chef and owner of the catering company Finest Cravings, uses a Cambro food storage box, which is made of foam and has handles on the sides. “I prefer this type of cooler because of the transportability,” says Nichols. “It is lightweight, fits into my car without bulky wheels at the bottom, and the edges inside aren’t rounded, meaning I can fit more inside.” It keeps hot food within 10 degrees of its starting temperature for up to four hours, and it’s wide and deep enough to accommodate trays, according to the brand. It’s also stackable and available in packs of two or four.
Capacity: one 8-inch deep food pan | Empty weight: 3.49 pounds | Dimensions: 25 x 17 x 13 inches
What are the different types of coolers?
Like their name implies, hard coolers are made from rigid plastic materials with thick walls, which makes them sturdier and better insulated for extreme environments than soft coolers, according to our experts. “They also typically have a higher capacity, which is worth the extra weight for space,” says Newar. Some can support up to 250 pounds, so they even double as impromptu seats.
Nichols prefers soft coolers because they’re easier to transport. Since they’re often made from foam and fabric, they’re lightweight and easy to carry over your shoulder or on your back. They’re also usually more affordable than hard coolers, though they’re not as effective when it comes to retaining temperature, according to our experts.
How do coolers retain temperature?
The best hard coolers have "multiple inches of sidewall construction and nearly unbreakable hinges for top-tier insulation,” says Newar. Soft coolers, on the other hand, tend to use insulating fabrics, foam and plastic layers to lock in temperature.
How to shop for coolers
Once you’ve decided on either a soft or hard cooler, consider the following criteria before choosing a brand:
Size and capacity go hand in hand and you should choose your cooler’s capacity based on how you plan to use it. “If it’s too small, you can’t keep all your perishables at safe temperatures,” says Serge Krikorian, executive chef and owner of Vibrant Occasions Catering. If it’s too big however, it’ll be “harder to transport and will need more ice in order to keep the perishables at a proper temperature,” says Krikorian. While brands often advertise their coolers’ capacity using both quarts and the number of 12-ounce cans that can fit inside, keep in mind that only some companies factor ice into that equation.
Your cooler of choice should hold its internal temperature for at least a few hours — but the longer you’ll be outside (and the more extreme your environment), the more insulation you’ll need. When it comes to hard coolers that can retain temperature for days, Critchfield told us that shoppers should look for “roto-molded construction with at least an inch and a half wall thickness.” When plastic is roto-molded, or rotationally molded, it’s melted into a mold so it’s all one piece and the plastic is evenly distributed around all edges. This makes the cooler more durable and the walls uniformly thick, improving insulation.
Some hard coolers make travel easier with wheels, straps and handles, according to our experts. That said, if you’re trying to travel as light as possible, opt for a soft cooler with foam insulation. They often weigh significantly less and you can wear some designs over your shoulder like a backpack for hands-free travel.
“Higher cost does not always mean higher quality,” says Krikorian, who uses a Coleman ice chest that’s several years old. However, superior durability and insulation often do cost more.
Are certain coolers better for certain activities?
Yes, and how you plan to use your cooler should be the primary deciding factor while shopping, according to Krikorian. Our experts recommend large-capacity hard coolers for fishing and hunting, and coolers with wheels when you’re transporting drinks and ingredients in bulk. For picnics, beach days and hiking, our experts recommend opting for a soft cooler, ideally a backpack. Finally, foam storage boxes are best for transporting trays of prepared food, according to our experts.
Meet our experts
At Select, we work with experts who have specialized knowledge and authority based on relevant training and/or experience. We also take steps to ensure all expert advice and recommendations are made independently and without undisclosed financial conflicts of interest.
Jonathan Newar is the co-founder and CEO of Captain Experiences, an online booking platform that partners with over 1,250 fishing guides across the country.
Jeremy Critchfield is a chef and the owner of HuntChef, a resource to help people better prepare the food they gather and hunt.
Chelsea Keutmann is a fisherwoman and the co-founder of Sea to Shore Seafood.
Cheyenne Nichols is a chef and owner of the catering company Finest Cravings.
Serge Krikorian is the executive chef and owner of Vibrant Occasions Catering.
Why trust Select?
Maria Cassano is a writer, editor and consultant who specializes in e-commerce. She has written outdoor and lifestyle content for dozens of publications, including Bustle, CNN, The Daily Beast, RealSimple, Allure and Better Homes & Gardens. For this article, she interviewed five experts and researched highly rated coolers that are in line with expert guidance.