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The best portable coolers for all types of outdoor adventures

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The best portable coolers for all types of outdoor adventures

The first thing you should consider when purchasing a cooler is how you are going to use it. If you’re not going out for days at a time, you probably don’t need an expensive, high-end cooler. All of the coolers we recommended above are capable of keeping things at a safe temperature for a day, as long as you keep them in the shade. Likewise, if you’re not going on a camping trip, don’t spend extra money on a cooler backpack. However, it is worth investing in a cooler with wheels. Your back will thank you.

Rigid refrigerators: These range from old green Coleman coolers, once a staple on every camping trip, to Yetis, which cost as much as cars when Coleman started making coolers. You may be wondering why Yetis are so expensive. I can’t answer that, but Yeti revolutionized the refrigerator industry by introducing rotational molding, or “rotomolding,” where melted plastic is molded over foam insulation in one piece. Rotomolded coolers offer uniform, seamless density across their walls and lids, dramatically improving cooler performance. By contrast, those older, affordable plastic coolers we’ve all used have thinner walls, leaky seams, and less insulated lids. Whether you need additional insulation depends on what you are doing and how hot it is when you do it. Want to learn more? Our inner know-it-all has a more detailed explanation about isolation.

Hardside coolers usually have the luxury features you want, like leak-proof lids and drain plugs, and some are even bear-resistant (check this out bear proof product list if you’re headed to grizzly bear country). The downside is that these refrigerators are generally huge and heavy.

Soft-sided coolers: Soft-sided coolers include everything from well-padded, impressively insulated shoulder bags (like the Yeti Hopper Flip above) to roll-up dry bag coolers, perfect for those balmy days at the beach. The best coolers are easier to transport, store better when not in use, and have versatility that traditional coolers lack. (I have used dry bag coolers as well as dry bags). The ice doesn’t last as long, but for short outings where you don’t need a large cooler, this is what we recommend.

Electric refrigerators: If you’re going on longer adventures and have access to power, this is the way to go. You’ll need some type of power source, but you’ll never have to worry about the ice melting. There are quite a few of these available now and I’m working on a separate guide for them, but for now I’ve included our top picks here.

Other features to look for:

  • Drain plug: This greatly simplifies life by making it easier to drain water from the cooler. If you are buying a large cooler, make sure it has one of these.
  • Divider: One of our best tips for long-term cooler use is to have two coolers: one that you can use as a refrigerator and rarely open, and one for drinks. If that’s not possible, you can achieve some of the same by getting a cooler with a dividing wall. That way you can fill one side with ice to keep meat at a low temperature and use the other side to chill drinks with ice cubes.
  • Wheels: Coolers get heavy and the wheels are awesome. They won’t always work (good luck carrying your cooler over tree roots), but when they do, they’re worth it.

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