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Best coolers of 2021: Cabela, Igloo, Yeti, Coleman and more - CNET

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A dependable cooler is an essential tool whether they're used for barbecuesbackyard get-togethers or even an epic camping trip. But finding the best cooler for your needs is complicated by a crowded field -- the list of options has grown steadily in recent years. Chief among them are a growing number of heavy-duty, roto-molded coolers that deliver thick, dense insulation superior to traditional coolers (and they perform better by leaps and bounds than a soft cooler or cooler bag). 

Keep shopping and you'll find coolers on wheels, thermoelectric coolers, coolers with power, even a cooler backpack or two -- truly coolers as far as the eye can see. If that sounds a little daunting, never fear. The entire point of this list is to make finding a premium cooler easier for you.

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Over the past four years, we've tested dozens of coolers, 24 of which are still commercially available as of this writing. I've broken them down into three size categories. The small or personal sized coolers advertise internal volumes of less than 45 quarts (that's 11.25 gallons or 42.6 liters). Midsize coolers, where most of your top options seem to land, range between 45 and 59 quarts. The largest "party" ice chest coolers boast volumes over 60 quarts (15 gallons or 56.8 liters).

rovr-cooler-2 Chris Monroe/CNET

Is a bigger ice chest always better? Are the more expensive coolers actually worth their asking prices? And can any of the cheaper models keep up? Are ice life, insulation and versatility more significant?

That's what I wanted to know, so I grabbed the usual suspects -- RubbermaidColemanOrcaIglooRovrYetiPelicanRTICCabela's and more -- and lugged their most popular models into the CNET Home test lab. My mission? Find the best coolers of the bunch, and categorize them in a way that will make it easy for you to find the perfect cooler for your needs. Whether it is a soft sided cooler, a hard sided cooler, one that has foam insulation or a removable liner, I've considered all these and more to come up with the list of best coolers for you.

After several weeks of hands-on testing and countless ambient temperature readings (of course things like the inclusion of a cup holder or bottle opener is important, but the most critical thing a quality cooler does is keep your cold drinks cold), I've separated the winners from the also-rans. Here's everything I learned, starting with the coolers I think you should rush out and buy before your next camping trip or big family gathering. I'll update this best coolers list periodically.

Read more: Best charcoal grill for 2021

Steve Conaway/CNET

The performance data between this ice chest newcomer and the previous titleholder, the Yeti Tundra 45 Cooler, was nearly identical. The Yeti got a little colder, and the Magellan held its temp a little longer. The real deciding factor here is the price. At $120, the Magellan Outdoors unit is less than half the cost of the Yeti. 

Aside from performance, this cooler offers plenty of other extras, including quite possibly my favorite lid design: dual-side latches that can double as hinges, allowing you to open the cooler from either side. Genius. While you're at it, Magellan tosses in a couple of bottle openers, a metal reinforced lock area and a drain plug.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Along with the aforementioned Orca, Cabela's Polar Cap Equalizer is another rotomolded winner from previous years that remains on our list of top picks. The Polar Cap roto mold cooler got about a degree colder than the Orca did, it has about 3 quarts more internal volume, and it costs about 50 bucks less at $350. Again, you're going to pay for this level of performance (and the clever built-in bottle openers in the latches), but if top-of-the-line ice chest performance is what you're after, you know where to start.

Steve Conaway/CNET

Let me start by saying this: The sheer amount of features and accessories makes this hard sided cooler feel more like a "friends or family to the lake" cooler than one you're taking on your next extended camping trip. There's no lid latch on this rolling cooler, and all of the extras eat into the interior volume, reducing its claimed 70-quart ice cooler storage by about 15% to 60.3 quarts. 

That being said, here are some of the included goodies: Oversized, never-flat wheels, a metal telescoping locking handle that pulls double duty as a mounting point for the included serving tray, a dry/food basket, padded glove box, two accessory/bottle holders, four cup holders on the lid, and a built-in mobile device stand, two bottle openers, four tie-down points, an outside pocket, and a removable serving tray securely stored on the underside of the lid. Oh, and the drain plug for ice melt, can't forget that. 

The Igloo Trailmate hard cooler didn't perform poorly -- it actually outperformed all of the coolers outside of the other top recommendations listed here such as a Pelican cooler or a Yeti cooler. And that's no small feat for a cooler with no latching or pressurized lid to help contain that cold air. 

Steve Conaway/CNET

It's hard to go wrong with this traditional cooler at this price and when you look at the temperature graph. In fact, the Coleman Party Stacker ice chest finished with the third coldest temperature in its size category. It doesn't hold that temp as long as the other coolers, but if you're planning to load up, get busy and be done within a 12-hour window, you shouldn't have any problems with the Coleman cooler. 

The other unique feature about this line of Colemans is that they have several sizes and shapes of Stacker coolers, and they're all designed to be, well, stackable and interlocking. Whether you're looking for a fishing cooler or a beach cooler, mix and match, stack and go. 

Steve Conaway/CNET

Taking the crown of best cooler overall is the Xspec 60 qt Rotomolded High Performance cooler. Got colder faster than its ice cooler competitors? Check. Coldest temp reached in our lab tests at 43.8 degrees Fahrenheit? Check. Easy to close and open latches? Check. Metal reinforced lock area, nonslip feet, etched rulers, built in compass for when you get lost? All at a $270 price tag? Checkity check check. 

Chart-topping performance with a median price tag on a reasonably sized cooler gets the spotlight. This cooler would also get the nod as best rotomolded value, coming in as the least expensive rotomolded cooler we've tested to date. 

Chris Monroe/CNET

You've got lots of options if you want a wheeled cooler, but if it were me, I'd save up and plunk down $450 for the Rovr Rollr 60. Though it wasn't quite as strong of a performer as Cabela's or Xspec, it still finished our tests with above-average cooling capabilities, and it was, by far, the easiest and most comfortable cooler to transport from point A to point B. That's good, because this cooler would be a pain to carry. With 9-inch wheels and a frame built from stainless steel and aluminum, the Rollr is quite heavy even before you start loading cans, water bottles and other beverages into it. 

On top of that, I like the included removable fabric wagon bin and the plastic dry bin that helps you keep your food and beverages separate from wet ice. If you're willing to pay a little extra, you can customize your cooler with extras like a built-in prep board for campsite cooking, stainless-steel bottle holders or even a $54 Bikr Kit that makes it easy to tow the Rollr behind a bike (though, at $450 for the cooler, I wish at least one or two of these kits came included). 

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Our rotomolded cooler pick from previous years, this Orca cooler is just flat-out tough to beat when it comes to performance. The Bison Gen 2 cooler came close, and even reached a minimum temp that was one tenth of a degree colder than the Orca's low, and a bit sooner than the Orca did, too -- but overall, the Orca roto mold cooler is able to hold those low temperatures for longer with integrated insulation for maximum ice life. 

It does carry a $399 price tag, so it stands as one of the most expensive cooler brand options we've tested to date. But sometimes you do get what you pay for.

What we've tested

These coolers are currently commercially available from the dozens we've tested over the last few years. Here's a linked list with brief insights:

Bison Gen 2 Cooler (50 quarts): The higher price tag will get you the coldest temp in its category, but inability to maintain that temp keeps this ice cooler from the winner's circle. Cabela's Polar Cap Equalizer Cooler (60 quarts): One of the most expensive coolers on the list, but that's the price you pay for "best large cooler."Yeti Tundra 45 Cooler (33 quarts): Lowest temp reached in the small cooler division, but its price tag keeps it from top pick.Rubbermaid Ice Chest Cooler (48 quarts): Lowest temperature performance in midsized coolers.Coleman Xtreme Marine Cooler (70 quarts): Tons of capacity in this cooler, and for less than $60!Coleman Xtreme Wheeled Cooler (50 quarts): Fairly poor stats in the midsized cooler performance tests, but less than $70.RTIC 65 Cooler (65 quarts): Middle of the pack performance with a slightly higher than median price tag. Igloo Island Breeze Cooler (48 quarts): Low cost at $37, but second to lowest performance scores in its division. Igloo Latitude Wheeled Cooler (60 quarts): Large, but lowest performance scores in its division.Igloo MaxCold Cooler (50 quarts): Some of the best scores in the midsize cooler division, and an attractive price tag.Rovr Rollr 60 Wheeled Cooler (60 quarts): Holds temp well, just maybe not as cold as its competitors. Highest price tag we've tested. Lifetime High Performance Cooler (55 quarts): One of the better performing midsized cooler, and a deal at just over $100.Orca Classic Cooler (58 quarts): Best midsized cooler for a reason, but the price to pay is steep.Pelican Elite Cooler (50 quarts): Gets colder than most, but won't hold it as long as others. Yeti Roadie 24 Cooler (20 quarts): Middle of the road performance. Picks a temp and holds it well. Yeti Hopper Backflip 24 Insulated Backpack Cooler (22 quarts): It is a backpack, but most any other cooler will perform better. 
Coleman Portable Cooler (16 quarts): Cheapest option at only $23, but isn't going to hold its temp for very long.Magellan Outdoors IceBox Dual Open Hard Sided 20 qt Cooler (20 quarts): Best small cooler, reasonably priced, excellent features and performance. Pelican 20 Quart Elite Cooler (20 quarts): Not a strong competitor in comparison. 
Coleman 24-Can Party Stacker Portable Cooler (23 quarts): Gets super cold, but doesn't stay that way for long; only $30.
Rubbermaid 45 Qt. Blue Wheeled Cooler (45 quarts): Median performance, but it's only $33, and on wheels!
Xspec 60 Quart Roto Molded High Performance Cooler (60 quarts): Our best overall cooler at $270. Top-notch features and performance.Igloo Trailmate Journey 70 qt. All-Terrain Cooler (70 quarts): Feature-rich and excellent performance. Just above median price tag.Everbilt High-Performance Cooler in Gray with Lockable Lid (73 quarts): Subpar performance in large coolers. 

How we tested them

Ice retention

The big differentiator that you'll hear a lot about as you shop for a cooler is ice retention -- specifically, how long a cooler can keep a full load of ice frozen (melted ice, aka water, isn't as good at keeping drinks cold). The new, expensive options all hang their hat on this test, with rotomolded coolers specifically designed to ace it (and in doing so, justify their price tags).

That's all well and good, but I worried that a standard ice retention test on its own wouldn't tell us the whole story. Sure, some coolers would probably keep the ice frozen for a lot longer than others, but using the melting point as your metric seems to disregard everything that comes before. I wanted to get a good sense of performance not just days in, but hours in, before any of the ice had even melted at all.

To do that, I started with a modified version of the ice retention test. Instead of a full load of ice in each cooler, I went with just 3 pounds -- not even half of a small bag from the gas station. Less ice meant more of a challenge for the coolers, which would hopefully give us a more granular look at how well they perform relative to one another. 

Specifically, I wanted to track the ambient temperature in each cooler, so I spread the ice in each one I tested beneath an elevated jar of propylene glycol solution (watered-down antifreeze) with a temperature probe in it. Why elevated? The temperature down in the ice would have been roughly the same in all of the coolers, leaving retention as the only real variable. Tracking the ambient temperature up above it was much more telling, and it gave us some additional variables to consider.

Oh, and I did all of this in one of our appliance lab's climate-controlled test chambers, and I made sure to let each cooler sit open in the room for several hours beforehand in order to ensure that they all started at room temperature (about 70 degrees F).

In the end, it turned out to be a fruitful test. After 48 hours, I had a nifty graph showing me the temperature inside each cooler on a minute-by-minute basis -- and the difference from cooler to cooler was striking. To help put this data in perspective, I did break down the coolers into separate size categories since the effect of 3 pounds of ice on a 20-quart cooler would look different than on a 70-quart cooler. That left me with small coolers (less than 45 quarts), midsize coolers (45-59 quarts), and large coolers (60 quarts or more). 

Capacity considerations

If we're going to talk about performance, we have to talk about capacity, too. Though some ice chest sizes are more popular than others (50-quart, for instance), there really isn't much uniformity among coolers as far as size and shape are concerned. Apart from determining how many cans of beer each one will hold, size and shape will obviously have an impact on performance, too. After all, with the quantity of ice being equal, a 70-quart cooler like the Coleman Xtreme Marine Cooler has a bigger job on its hands than the 48-quart Igloo Island Breeze.

I did my best to account for those size differences as I evaluated each cooler's relative performance, but first, I needed to be sure that I had accurate measurements. That meant putting those manufacturer capacity claims to the test, and I wanted a better, more universal metric than just counting how many cans I could cram into each one.

lifetime-fill-test

I was able to fill the Lifetime High Performance Cooler with 62.4 quarts of water without causing it to overflow when I shut the lid. That's 13.5 percent bigger than advertised.

Ry Crist/CNET

To that end, I carefully filled each cooler with water, measuring out the exact number of quarts each one could hold before I was no longer able to close the lid without overflowing, important information to have when you're dealing with large quantities of melted ice. If anything, the cheaper models were mostly conservative in their estimates, with ones like the Coleman Xtreme and Igloo Latitude wheeled coolers coming in several quarts more sizable than advertised.

The expensive guys? Not quite so much. Rovr pegs the capacity of its $400 Rollr wheeled cooler at 60 quarts, but I could only fit 52.8 quarts of water inside when I measured for myself. The $300 Yeti Tundra 45 wasn't as spacious as expected, either, holding just 38 quarts of water before overflowing with the lid closed. That's several quarts less than the 45 quarts implied by the product name (nice try, Yeti).

That might be in part because the Yeti's walls are considerably thicker than the other coolers' -- which, in turn, is probably a big reason why the thing performed so well. You're getting thick insulation, but at the expense of capacity. I think that's a reasonable trade in a hard shell cooler, but I wish Yeti were more transparent about it.

Meanwhile, for the same price, the 58-quart Orca Classic Cooler came in right on the money at 58.1 quarts measured -- and while it didn't hold its ice as long as the Yeti did, it still finished as one of our top performers. Yeti's Hopper Backflip 24, a soft-sided backpack cooler, had the most understated volume of all coolers we've tested so far. Claiming space for 20 12-ounce cans at a 2:1 ice-to-can ratio for a total of 22.5 quarts, I found the internal volume of the soft sided cooler to actually be 26.42 quarts, which is 117.4 percent of the stated volume (about one extra six-pack compared to other 20-quart coolers). The worst offender, offering only 86.1 percent of its claimed 70-quart capacity, was the Igloo Journey Trailmate.

Bison offers lots of optional extras for its rotomolded coolers, including nonslip mats for the lid so you can stand on the cooler to cast a fishing line.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Mobility and durability

I also took each cooler's design and features into consideration as I tested, and kept an eye out for durability concerns. I wasn't impressed with the lid on the Igloo Latitude wheeled cooler, for instance. It doesn't lock shut, and the plastic nub hinges are a total joke. Give it a modest yank, and the whole lid comes right off -- and the cheap plastic wheels didn't leave me impressed, either. Not great if you're looking for a camping cooler. 

The Rovr Rollr wheeled cooler fared much better, thanks to a rugged design that features heavy-duty wheels, a sturdy steel handlebar and an optional $50 accessory that lets you tow it behind your bike. I also liked that the interior comes with a divider that makes it easy to keep items you don't want getting wet separate from the ice, and that you can customize it with different interior liner designs. My only qualm -- that T-shaped handlebar includes comfy rubber grips on the sides, but not in the middle, the spot you'll actually want to hold as you lug it around one-handed.

coolers-2021-08

Try as I might, I can't quite catch all of the Igloo Trailmate's snazzy features in one photo. 

Steve Conaway/CNET

On the topic of wheeled coolers, the Igloo Journey Trailmate 70qt All-Terrain cooler also came with a dizzying amount of extras and features (scope the full list above under "Best cooler features"). Overall, it wasn't quite as durable as the Rovr, but I think they're mostly designed for different purposes. If I'm trekking into the woods for a weekend with a couple of pals, I'm going to take the Rovr, no question. But if I'm headed to the beach with the family for a day, I'm probably going to opt for the Igloo. 

Oh, and if you'll be spending lots of time camping in a place where bears are a concern, then you'll probably want to invest in a bear-resistant cooler. The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee keeps a running list of certified options, which includes a number of coolers from this rundown. Several models I've tested from Cabela's, Orca, Rovr, Magellan and Yeti all make the cut.

It's also worth considering whether or not your cooler is sturdy enough to sit on, something that comes in handy when you're out camping. Most of the coolers that I tested were, but some took things even further. For instance, the Bison Gen 2 Cooler goes so far as to advertise itself as an ideal casting platform to stand on during your next fishing trip, and even sells nonslip traction mats for the lid in a variety of designs. 

Between the hinges, the lid, the drain plug and the lid latches, the Bison cooler felt the most like a premium product to the touch -- but it didn't hold cold air as well or as long as other rotomolded models, and it costs about $150 more than our most affordable rotomolded pick, the Xspec 60qt High Performance cooler.

Latches and lids

coolers-2021-04

The Magellan Outdoors model features four hinge latches, two on either side, so you can open the cooler from either side, or remove the lid completely!

Steve Conaway/CNET

Let's take a pause to dive into hinges and latches a bit more. Some are good, some are bad and some are just nonexistent. Coolers with removable lids tend to be cheaper coolers that aren't going to perform in the top percentile -- with one exception I've found so far. Magellan Outdoors has a double-latching, double-hinged removable lid, and happens to have won our pick for best small cooler. The easy-to-use, double-latched design means you can open the cooler from either side, and if you'd prefer, you can disengage the latches on both sides to remove the lid altogether. 

Now let's compare that to, say, the Everbilt 73qt High-Performance cooler. That one has rubber T-shaped handles you have to stretch to seat and secure the lid. They're difficult to pull down, even as a full-grown adult. I asked three other adults to secure these handles and out of the four of us, two were successful, one unsuccessful and the last successful only after an excessive amount of struggling. Performance is important, but design matters, too -- and sometimes, it's a deal breaker.

The Xspec 60qt cooler is a good compromise between those two approaches, and it's my pick for best overall cooler. It has the rubber straps to secure the lid, but at the end of each strap lies a plastic handle which you can leverage against the mounting point to easily achieve the tensioned fit. That's a lot better than Everbilt, but make no mistake, Magellan Outdoors still gets my vote for best latching mechanism.

coolers-2021-01

Our first soft-sided and backpack cooler didn't perform the best, but it is durable and a great option for hikers and campers alike.

Steve Conaway/CNET

The Yeti Hopper Backflip 24 is the first backpack-style cooler that we've tested, and although its overall performance wasn't stellar, there were things I did like. First off, it is a backpack. I do like that. Whether you're trekking gear to the beachfront or headed out for a hiking day, having free hands is always a bonus. The backpack has lots of straps and hitching points, too -- I imagine the target demographic is more hiking-oriented than day-at-the-beach, but in either case, you'll be able to secure extra stuff. 

There are no latches since this is a soft-sided cooler, just a zipper. The zipper boasts claims of being both water- and leakproof. We put that to the test during our capacity evaluations, where the entire cooler is filled to the top with water, then closed. In its closed state, full of water, I sloshed it around without spilling a drop, so it's safe to assume that leaks won't be an issue. 

Final thoughts

The only other thing I'll say here is that I'm still surprised not to see more of the high-end options try to separate themselves from the pack with clever bonus features like a built-in battery for charging your devices while you camp outdoors (or better yet, a solar panel).

If that's what you're hoping for, your best bet might be to turn to Kickstarter and Indiegogo, where expensive, gadgety mega-coolers like the Coolest Cooler and the Infinite Cooler live in infamy. I say infamy because both of those cash-grabs have a history of production delays and decidedly unhappy customers. Go on, read through the comments on the Infinite Cooler's Indiegogo campaign, which blew through a March 2019 ship date with nothing to show for it. It ain't pretty.

It's all more than enough for me to recommend the healthiest possible dose of skepticism if you ever find yourself tempted to back a campaign like that with your cold hard cash. I mean, come on -- the literal last thing you want from your cooler is to get burned by it. Stick with an old-fashioned cooler like the ones I recommend above, and that isn't something you'll need to worry about.

Did we miss a cooler that you're interested in? Want us to test more soft-sided coolers? Let us know in the comments!

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