Technology

Best Cooler of 2023 – CNET


$450 at Yeti

YETI cooler

Yeti Tundra Haul Hard Cooler

Best midsize cooler

A reliable cooler is great to have on hand, and borderline essential for backyard get-togethers, camping trips, tailgating events and other summertime staples. Whatever outdoor activity you decide on, having a cold place to stash drinks is key for you and your guests to stay cool, hydrated and happy. 

That said, finding the best cooler for your needs is complicated by a crowded field, with a list of options that’s grown steadily in recent years. Chief among them are a rising number of heavy-duty, roto-molded coolers that deliver thick, dense insulation superior to traditional coolers (and which perform leaps-and-bounds better than a soft cooler or cooler bag). 

Keep shopping and you’ll find coolers on wheels, thermoelectric coolers, coolers with power and even a cooler backpack or two — truly coolers as far as the eye can see. If that sounds a little daunting, never fear. We make regular work of testing coolers in our climate-controlled lab, with the ultimate goal of making it a little easier to find the best cooler for your buck.

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Watch this: Best Coolers for Barbecues, Camping and More

Over the past several years, we’ve tested dozens of coolers, 40 of which are still commercially available as of this writing. I’ve broken them down into four main categories:

  • Small or personal-sized coolers that advertise internal volumes of less than 40 quarts (that’s less than 10 gallons or 37.85 liters).
  • Midsize coolers, where most of your top options seem to land, ranging from 40 to 59 quarts (10 to 14.75 gallons or 37.85 to 55.83 liters).
  • Large “party” ice chest coolers that boast volumes over 60 quarts (over 15 gallons or 56.78 liters).
  • Soft-sided coolers, which don’t have a specific capacity range, but tend to line up with the same offerings as small or personal-sized coolers.

With a mass of test data in hand showing us just how well these things perform, I’ve gone ahead and separated the winners from the also-rans. (Bonuses like a cup holder or a bottle opener are important, but the most critical thing a quality cooler does is keep your cold drinks cold.) 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 update this list periodically.  

Best coolers of 2023

Cabel's cooler

Steve Conaway/CNET

The last time I tested coolers for this list, I had Cabela’s 60-quart version of this cooler listed as the best large cooler. That title is now held by a Magellan Outdoors model. But in the big picture, if you want stuff to stay cold, you literally cannot beat Cabela’s Polar Cap option. Its lowest internal temperature during testing was the coldest, but the real treat was the fact that it held that low level temp for around 20% longer than the next best contender.

Magellen cooler

Steve Conaway/CNET

The performance of Magellan’s largest offering was very close to Cabela’s Polar Cap Equalizer. The lowest temperature recorded between the two in our cooling tests was less than a degree apart (44.6 vs. 45.5 degrees Fahrenheit). If your main use is for keeping things cold, then the question is whether or not that extra 0.9 degrees is worth paying another hundred bucks for.

Pro cooler

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Yeah, I know. Another Magellan cooler. Listen. I didn’t plan it this way. I run tests. I look at the data. The results usually speak for themselves. As in this case. Just scroll down a bit and look at the graphed-out data for yourself. The performance wasn’t close enough for me to pretend like I could name another victor even if I wanted to.

YETI cooler

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Yeti is already a name people tend to associate with better performance (if not higher prices), and at least with coolers, for good reason. Yeti coolers consistently perform at the top of the pack. The Tundra Haul is no different. Although Yeti didn’t hit the lowest overall temp of the bunch, it did hold its lowest temperature for much longer than its competitors. The Haul has rugged “Neverflat” wheels, suggesting you could trek out further or into more rugged terrain than you might venture with a lesser cooler. It will transport more easily than most, and you can be sure you’ll be getting maximum cool duration for your time about.

RTIC cooler

Steve Conaway/CNET

The previous title holder for this category was one of the cheapest coolers we’ve tested to date, the Coleman Stacker. But the best value doesn’t have to mean the least amount of money. This RTIC unit tested with impressively low temperatures. It gave the lowest temperatures in the midsize cooler category, and low enough to play ball with the largest of coolers we tested.

The 25-quart East Oak cooler sits against a yellow backgound.

East Oak

The performance data on this little cooler is excellent, with the lowest temperature reached and the lowest average temperature of the bunch. Its clever design makes it both good-looking and highly effective. It’s relatively shallow, so you can easily find your food.

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Capacity considerations

If we’re going to talk about performance, we should talk about capacity first. 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 or soda 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 75-quart cooler like the Frosted Frog has a bigger job on its hands than the 45-quart RTIC.

cooler full of water

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% bigger than advertised.

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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.

To that end, I carefully filled each cooler with water to the point that closing the lid would cause some water overflow. Then I measured out the exact number of quarts each cooler could hold — important information to have when you’re dealing with large quantities of melted ice. If anything, the smaller, 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 $219 RTIC wasn’t as spacious as expected, either, holding just 39.6 quarts of water before overflowing with the lid closed. That’s several quarts less than the 45 quarts they spec.

Among all of the large-sized coolers we’ve tested (60 quarts and up), the 80-quart Cabela’s Polar Cap Equalizer cooler offers the greatest capacity with an actual, measured volume of 76.2 quarts. That’s enough to hold 67 cans with a 2:1 ice-to-can ratio.

Steve Conaway/CNET

Meanwhile, for almost half the price, the 55-quart Lifetime High Performance Cooler came in well above spec at 62.4 quarts measured — and while it didn’t hold its ice as long as the RTIC did, it still finished an excellent performer. 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 percent of the stated volume (about one extra six-pack compared to other 20-quart coolers). The worst offender, offering only 65 percent of its claimed 30-quart capacity, was the Tourit Backpack Cooler.

Just want the biggest cooler we’ve tested? You’re in luck — that’d be our current top pick, the 80-quart Cabela’s Polar Cap Equalizer Cooler. Its actual, measured capacity came in at 76.2 quarts, which is higher than anything else we’ve tested. Same goes for our 2:1 ice-to-can capacity test, where we calculate how many cans the thing could hold if you packed them in with twice as much ice, by volume. With Cabela’s cooler, that number is approximately 67 cans, which is as strong a result as you’ll see before going big with something like an ultra-king-size, 100-quart cooler.

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, a.k.a. water, isn’t as good at keeping drinks cold). The new, expensive options all hang their hat on this test, with roto-molded coolers specifically designed to ace it (and in doing so, to 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 an amount of ice equivalent to 10% of each cooler’s total volume. (I already have a precise measurement of each cooler’s total volume from the earlier described capacity test.) 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 to ensure that they all started at room temperature (about 80 degrees Fahrenheit to emulate a good outdoor summertime temp).

In the end, it turned out to be a fruitful test. After 48 hours (72 hours for the largest coolers), 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 broke down the coolers into separate size categories after peeling soft-sided coolers into their own category. That left me with small coolers (less than 40 quarts), midsize coolers (40-59 quarts) and large coolers (60 quarts or more). You can find the graphed data for each of those categories below, as well as our performance data on soft coolers (again, you shouldn’t expect a whole lot from coolers like those).

Steve Conaway/CNET
Steve Conaway/CNET
Steve Conaway/CNET
Steve Conaway/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.

Igloo cooler open

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. 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 Outdoors 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 roto-molded models and it costs about $150 more than our most affordable roto-molded pick, the Xspec 60qt High Performance cooler.

Latches and lids

cooler latch

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 picks for best small and large 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 most of the newer cooler designs on models like Yeti, RTIC, Orca, Cabela’s or Frosted Frog that have rubber T-shaped handles you have to stretch to 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.

I get that a rubber bungee-style latching mechanism is probably very efficient from a cost and maintenance perspective for the manufacturers. Less moving parts and its rubber, so… it just kind of bends around. But there is a latching mechanism I’ve seen that is probably a great middle ground between the rubber latches and ones like you’ll find on Magellan Outdoors products. I’ve seen this on products like the Xspec 60qt cooler, Amazon’s Commercial 20qt cooler and the Lifetime 55qt high performance cooler. These latches have 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 the rubber T handles, but make no mistake, Magellan Outdoors still gets my vote for best latching mechanism.

a blue backpack cooler

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 was 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 are 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. Our recent Magellan Outdoors soft-sided cooler (title holder for Best Soft-Sided Cooler) has the same zipper setup.

Final thoughts

Surprisingly, or not, brands matter. Everyone expects a Yeti cooler to perform well. But they also expect them to cost more than their competitors. I recommend keeping an eye on other brands we’ve come to respect that have a more palatable price tag. Magellan Outdoors, Frosted Frog, RTIC and even the Amazon Commercial coolers are worth a look pretty much across their product offerings based on what I’ve seen.

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.

The full list of coolers 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:

  • Lifewit Collapsible Cooler Bag 24L (25 quarts): A handle-carry soft sided cooler. It’s popular on Amazon, but as expected soft sides didn’t perform well in terms of keeping things cool during our testing.
  • Tourit Cooler Backpack (20 quarts): Another popular Amazon find. In our testing, these backpacks weren’t great for cooling, but at least this one is stylish and has a connected metal bottle opener. 
  • OlarHike Cooler Backpack (23 quarts): Pretty similar to the Tourit. It’s not as attractive, but you may be able to load a bit more into it.
  • Amazon Commercial Rotomolded Cooler, 20qt (20 quarts): Amazon has a line of roto-molded coolers that perform better than most (but not all, keeping it out of the winner’s circle), and have one of the best cooler latching designs. (Update: Temporarily out of stock.)
  • Camp Zero 20L Premium Cooler (21 quarts): Very middle-of-the-road performance. It offers neat color options and four lid molded-in cup holders, which is great unless, you know, you need to open the cooler.
  • Frosted Frog 20qt Rotomolded Ice Chest (20 quarts): This was a brand requested to be reviewed by multiple CNET readers, and we’ve grown to love it too. We saw excellent performance, just not the best. 
  • Klein Tools Work Cooler (17 quarts): Sturdy, but not great performance as a traditional cooler, but would maybe keep your lunch cool. 
  • Igloo Playmate Cooler 4qt (4 quarts): Everything about this is tiny: capacity, level of performance, but also price tag.
  • Orca Light Blue 40 Quart Cooler (40 quarts): A steep price tag for median performance in this category.
  • Igloo BMX 52 Quart Cooler (52 quarts): Looks neat and “BMX-y” and is the lowest-priced midsize cooler we tested — but it also gave the worst performance.
  • KENAI 65 Quart Cooler (65 quarts): Classic design. Great color options. OK performance.
  • Frosted Frog 75QT Cooler (75 quarts): Like the other Frosted Frog model we tested, we found it to have reasonable pricing for excellent performance. 
  • 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 cooler from the winner’s circle. (Update: Currently unavailable.)
  • 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 a former “best large cooler” title holder.
  • 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): One of the worst temperature performance in midsized coolers. (Update: Temporarily out of stock.)
  • Coleman Xtreme Marine Cooler (70 quarts): Tons of capacity in this cooler, and for less than $80, it’s a solid choice.
  • Coleman Xtreme Wheeled Cooler (50 quarts): Fairly poor stats in the midsized cooler performance tests, but less than $50. (Update: Temporarily out stock.)
  • 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 around $35, but second to lowest performance scores in its division.
  • Igloo Latitude Wheeled Cooler (60 quarts): Large, but lowest performance scores in its division. (Update: Temporarily out of stock.)
  • Igloo MaxCold Cooler (50 quarts): Some of the best scores in the midsize cooler division and an attractive price tag. (Update: Currently unavailable.)
  • Rovr Rollr 60 Wheeled Cooler (60 quarts): Holds temp well, just maybe not as cold as its competitors. Highest price tag we’ve tested. (Update: Currently unavailable.)
  • 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): Formerly awarded 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 and 60 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): One of the cheapest options at only $23, but isn’t going to hold its temp for very long. (Update: Temporarily out of stock.)
  • Pelican 20 Quart Elite Cooler (20 quarts): Not a strong competitor in comparison with others. 
  • Coleman 24-Can Party Stacker Portable Cooler (23 quarts): Gets super cold, but doesn’t stay that way for long; only $30. (Update: Currently unavailable.)
  • Rubbermaid 45qt Blue Wheeled Cooler (45 quarts): Median performance, but it’s only $33 and on wheels! (Update: Temporarily out of stock.)
  • Xspec 60 Quart Roto Molded High Performance Cooler (60 quarts): One of the best coolers we’ve ever tested. Formerly named our best overall cooler, priced at $270. Top-notch features and performance.
  • Igloo Trailmate Journey 70qt All-Terrain Cooler (70 quarts): Feature-rich and excellent performance. Just above median price tag. (Update: Currently unavailable.)
  • Gosun Chillest (48 quarts): No need for ice, this is basically a portable fridge and freezer. Set the temperature in two different zones with a range from -4 degrees F to 68 F with electricity from 12-volt, AC or solar. We tested both the fridge and freezer sections in our Gosun Chillest review.
  • Laka 20 (20 quarts): This adorable oval-shaped cooler comes in dozens of cool colors. It’s both lightweight and tough.
  • East Oak (45 quarts): The larger version of our favorite small cooler, you can’t go wrong with this effective and good-looking cooler. It doubles as a stool or table when closed.
  • Brumate BrüTank (55 quarts): Go clamping with this trendy and stylish cooler chock full of features, like a foam seat top, all-terrain wheels, built-in bottle opener, and more. 
  • AirSkirts Inflatable Cooler (58 quarts): Don’t have a lot of space to store a cooler when not in use? This inflatable cooler conveniently packs down into a small bag you can store in the tightest spaces. However, its performance doesn’t compare with traditional coolers.
  • Yeti V-Series (60 quarts): This sleek, upscale stainless steel cooler is tall enough to chill wine bottles inside. It’ll set you back a pretty penny, though.
  • Coleman Convoy (65 quarts): This is a solid cooler, but surprisingly it had the worst performance of the large coolers we tested.
  • Ice Mule R-Jaunt (20 quarts): The backpack style is convenient to carry, but it doesn’t perform as well as some of the other soft-sided coolers.
  • Ice Mule Clear Jaunt (15 quarts): A clear backpack cooler looks pretty neat, but it had the worst performance of all the soft-sided coolers we tested.
  • Ice Mule Boss (23 quarts): Another Ice Mule backpack, but this one performed better than the other two, putting in the middle of the soft-sided cooler pack.
  • Iron Flask (13 quarts): A portable cooler with cup holders on top and middle-of-the-road performance among the soft-sided coolers we tested.
  • Orca Wanderer (23 quarts): A better than average performer, this soft-sided cooler is tall and narrow so it can hold taller bottles.
  • Lifewit Collapsible Cooler Bag (25 quarts): While its performance amongst the soft-sided coolers we tested was middling, the price makes it an appealing option.

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