If you enjoy hanging out with relatives and friends far away from the racket of the city then you either have a cooler or are looking for one. Outdoor coolers are indispensable for multi-day picnics and walking-tours when you need enough fresh food and drinks for a large group of people. The FDA recommends storing such delicate foodstuffs as meats and dairy at surrounding temperatures not higher than 40 °F to avoid their spoilage. Products like this cannot be eaten even after 2 hours of exposure to room temperature because of the probable bacterial infection. Many pathogens manage to spoil the food long before it starts smelling bad. Most foods should also be stored in cool dry places as humidity accelerates the multiplication of bacteria (that is why most of the available coolers come with installed dry foodstuff compartments).
Camping on empty stomach is more a catastrophe than a recreational activity; however, outdoor coolers may be quite handy even for those who prefer staying at home. Firstly, you get a reserve cold storage for your food and drinks, which is always good in case of a sudden hunger attack. Secondly, a cooler may be used to store medicines requiring strict temperature conditions.
So, what features should be taken into account when choosing a new cooler and what model suits you best? Here is a guide that will help you sort these matters out.
Different Types of Coolers
Traditional Outdoor Coolers
Traditional models make for the ideally balanced choice in terms of performance. They contain several layers of foam insulation that are sandwiched between glued plastic shells. Usually, a lid is attached with screw-on hinges and either depends on a tight fit plus a bit of friction to stay closed or snaps shut with the help of internal locking mechanisms. In terms of durability and structural integrity, these coolers are nearly flawless. Traditional models tend to keep food below 40 °F for no longer than five days, which is more than enough for short trips. Together with affordable prices and a variety of sizes and extra features, traditional coolers seem worth looking at for a non-professional traveler.
High-End (Rotomolded) Coolers
The know-how of rotational molding is put to use in the production of items such as kayaks and ruggedized coolers reinforced for applications in environs abundant with physical stress factors. When speaking of ‘high-end’ coolers we primarily mean a premium degree of cooling performance; each rotationally molded ice chest is a one-piece product and performs so well by keeping the heat exchange rate minimized. In total, of course, their insulation ability greatly depends on the quality of lid sealing material. Still, however much bulkier with their increased thickness, those high-end solutions stay streets ahead of competing non-rotomolded containers in terms of cold retention.
By investing in a high-end cooler, you get a model that keeps your victuals chilled for a minimum of five days and may last a lifetime if handled properly. Their price range is correspondingly higher.
Made of laminated fabric and further strengthened with welded seams, soft-sided cooling bags guarantee you two to three days of leak-free ice retention. These models are OK if you plan a short basket picnic because you can fold an empty bag easing up its carrying and freeing your hands. It’s good to have a lightweight and compact soft cooler within reach; still, their being collapsible renders them not very usable in extreme conditions or where protection from animals is a must.
A narrow niche of outdoor coolers is presented by heavy-duty models with increased capacity and thick plastic or stainless steel walls. These coolers guarantee a reliable refrigeration as long as they are connected to a power source. Most coolers can be plugged directly into a standard 12/24V car supply outlet; however, big-sized models are usually 24V, which means that should be connected to the power source via battery adapters.
Since they require no space for ice blocks, electric coolers come in a broad-ranging selection of shapes, including vertically-aligned containers most suitable for economy vehicles and boats. Thermoelectric coolers also have wider working temperature ranges along with user-friendly control of the established temperature.
Other Things Worth Your Attention
The choice between soft- and heavy-duty models boils down to the three main points: environmental conditions, the kind of recreation you enjoy the most and services available at your camping site.
- Soft-sided coolers are less capable of withstanding harsh weather conditions and protecting the contents against humidity and mold. On the other hand, a large heavy cooler noticeably limits the distance of your trips, keeping you within the camping site limits.
- Increased toughness also means better protection against curious wildlife. Many high-end coolers have bear-resistant certifications issued by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC). Those sustainable locks and latches prove useful even for a barbeque in a park because rats and raccoons, though less dangerous than bears are certainly far more widespread.
- If you plan to transport your cooler in a car then you are probably going to use an electric model as it wouldn’t be very practical to stuff the trunk space with ice bags. Before choosing an iceless model, you ought to consider its size and the amount of energy it would drain from the power source. Medium-sized (up to 50 quarts) and small energy-saving (with a nominal cooling capacity of 180-190 Watts) coolers may be powered from a cigarette lighter but you’ll still need to find a reserve battery or a generator at your camping site to plug your cooler in so that it would last longer than several hours.
- As to installing traditional ice chests in your car, you may want to consider dry ice, which is more long-lasting and requires less space to be cluttered up with ice bags. By using a quality high-end cooler loaded with dry ice and hermetically sealed, you can prolong its insulation ability to several extra days. Keep in mind that extremely low temperatures provided by dry ice may damage an ordinary plastic cooler. If you have no regular access to fresh ice at your camping site and plan to cool your supplies with dry ice, consider choosing premium models tolerable to dramatic temperature variations.
Choosing a Cooler for Camping
Insulation and Ice-retention Parameters
High-end models are known to provide 7-14 days of ice retention, then you might want to drain, wash and replenish it. Cooler manufacturers seem to try their best to facilitate this chore for you – there appear the permanently dry materials, fast drain systems, and easy-to-clean components. So far, top coolers get rather very cool at speeding up the fill-drain-recharge cycle. Naturally, it would be an overkill to purchase a large high-end cooler to cool a few cans of beer. On the contrary, if you suspect that you’ll have no access to fresh ice then you have to select among those coolers that hold temperature longer and require less cleaning and refilling.
Your decision of either to choose a super-rugged rotomolded chest or an ordinary plastic cooler should be based on the severity of expected operational conditions. This is where a high-end product would make it with flying colors, with hinges of marine-grade steel, lids supplied with freezer-grade gaskets and high-security locking mechanisms. Wall thickness here ranges from 2 inches for models with a volume of 20/30/40 quarts and as high as 3.5 inches in case of 90-quart chests. Expect the durability this high-ranking to be accompanied with a bigger weight and a bigger cost, as is usual.
As opposed to more advanced models, the majority of traditional ice chests are not as extremely sturdy. Here, hinges’ quality rarely rises above the level of plastic and handles are polymeric, too. This by no means is associated with an inadequate strength of construction, it’s the other way round – 2-inch polyurethane shells, for example, fully comply with the requirements of domestic/camping/tailgating uses, when no falls from a height or wildlife intrusion loom on the horizon.
If you choose a soft-sided cooler, you’ll get a model made of nylon and water- plus puncture-resistant fabric. It is recommended to opt for sandwich-type fabric, such as 600-denier nylon canvas because not only it is water-resistant but also waterproof. As for the lining, the recommended choice would be materials with the best resistance to ripping at seams. The following should prove good at holding the average 20-30 pounds of cooler contents: flexible polyvinyl carbonate, 330-denier polyester exterior fabric, or 600-denier polyester.
More impressive top-rated models are generally made of stainless steel and UV-resistant plastic. Most coolers in premium price ranges consist of similar quality materials and so the real difference between them turns on specific design features.
With the question of ruggedness and retention capabilities being settled, the next step is getting determined about cooling storage space. Important! We advise you to care as little as possible about the numbers most cooler manufacturers specify in product titles. Mostly, those numbers do not indicate the cooler volume as measured in liters or quarts (unless it specifically says so). You’d be better off by learning the actual capacity of an interesting cooler model from its detailed description. As for can/bottle/ice capacity itself, this parameter directly influences your supply capabilities, so knowing your trip plans and/or guest quantity is key.
Traditionally, coolers get divided into three categories that go as follows: personal, middle-sized, large.
Personal ice chests rarely exceed the notch of 25 quarts and are handy for one, two people tops, being able to accommodate a day’s meal for a single person or store a small table’s worth of products.
Medium-sized coolers stay close to the 40-quart mark and, when fully loaded, will sustain you alone for up to a week. This is a perfect size for gathering a couple of your friends at the campfire for a night or two.
Large models start from 70 quarts up and have the best use for big get-togethers or parties.
Bear in mind that while personal cooling bags can be carried by a sling, those with significant external dimensions are practically unmanageable without an automobile or boat.
If your trip involves a container of chilled provision, this might well indicate that you need to think out the problem of its mobility. Surely, it goes without saying that neither backpack coolers nor one-person chests require much planning. That is never the case with unwieldy containers, though; their weight matters a lot when it comes to carrying them through a rough wooded country or bringing down to a river bank.
A rule of thumb here would be to check if your desired over-70 quart model is equipped with an extra set of handles for two-person carry. In other respects, have a means of transportation on the ready to haul the cram-full container down to your picnic place, especially if you deal with rotomolded types.
Ease of Use
Talking about the ease of maintenance, we mean ease of access and drainage of melted ice.
Ease of access
The difficulty you experience when opening the lid is determined by the design of the latches securing it. Standard lids with a propensity to snap shut add a certain degree of difficulty to normal use. High-end coolers along with thermoelectric ones come with various sorts of latches that make it easier to both open and reliably close the lid.
Drainage can be pretty time-wasting when it comes to larger ice chests. If time matters a lot for you, choose coolers with higher draining capabilities and look for the coolers with larger plug holes. This becomes crucial for models from 70 quarts up, whereas the smaller 25-quarts have no such problems, holding not more than a few cups of melted ice. Ultimately, the quality of plug material matters too, as some cheaper rubber/plastic tend to wear faster with years of use.
These come as pleasant and usable bonuses more than actually impact the cooling performance. Some people gladly welcome extra comfort as they prefer to get the most of their outings and vacations.
- Lids of some models often come imprinted with catch measuring notches. In cases of high-end solutions, users may often benefit from added toughness of the construction that have a look of pin-styled hinges and reinforced latches. Molded-in cup/can holders is especially great when you won’t risk spilling your drink by placing it on an uneven surface. Finally, a leash keeping the drain plug securely tethered is a nice gimmick; for some reason, however, a great number of coolers in the range of 25-50 do not feature it.
- A large heavy cooler often serves as a seat or a coffee table. Pressure from above is not a challenge for a high-end cooler made of rugged plastic and equipped with steel hinges; however, most lower-end models could break when they are used as an improvised chair.
- Other features. Among these, there are rod holsters, cup holders or even bottle openers.
Some outdoor coolers come equipped with wheels. Such containers could be a preferred choice for a long walk in the park or a trek to the beach. Large coolers with 4 wheels (2 locking and 2 non-locking) 2.5-3 inches in diameter are best suited for transportation on a smooth road; smaller models equipped with larger wheels are designed for more bumpy terrains.
The market features two different categories: premium coolers that cost a bundle and less expensive budget models. A cheap cooler does not necessarily mean a bad one: extra features provided by costly models tend to focus on prolonged usage and increased capacity, which is rarely required for occasional one-day picnics. A model designed to last a lifetime may constitute a decent investment but the benefits for voracious travelers are telling.
A traditional inexpensive ice chest seems an awesome compromise between extended warranty and standard capacity. It is also possible to find soft coolers that cost under 100 and provide up to 50 quarts of useful space.
Factors to Consider Before Your Final Decision
- Before choosing a cooler, you should decide on how many people you are going to treat while camping. A small company may be satisfied with a 50-quart chest, whereas six and more adventurers would hardly make it with anything less worthwhile than a 90-quart food box.
- Depending on how many days you wish to use your cooler for, pay attention to its ice-retention capability (for ice chests) and watt-hour energy usage (for thermoelectric products). Normally, electric mini-refrigerators/freezers will last eternally as long as you can power them up with the help of car battery during the longest of trips.
- Alternatively, you can choose not to fret about the ice retention when going out for more than 5 days. Instead, be ready to find access to ice resupply and replenish that melted mass inside your cooler. On average, you’ll need 0.75 lbs. of cubed ice per each quart of the ice chest for 4-6 days.
- When choosing a larger chest do not forget about its weight. If you plan to use a cooler close to your camping site or car, heavy models are surely appropriate. It also will do fine to have a pair or two of strong hands to carry the container around. For more options of transportation, check if your cooler of choice has an extra set of handles for two-people carry.
Outdoor coolers are great for admirers of outdoor activities.
High-end and premium models provide you with long-lasting cooling performance and reliable protection of the contents. They are designed to withstand rainwater and heat, stay functional even when dropped and submerged. Mostly, those products come rugged and equipped with reinforced parts to keep away wildlife and offer superb quality mold- and mildew-resistant liner.
Cheaper coolers along with soft-sided products may be incapable of enduring similarly harsh conditions; still, their portability complemented by ease of use and cleaning make them perfect for short trips and cocktail parties. Larger soft-sided products are also capable of storing food for bigger companies and some of them, especially semi-rigid containers, are supplied with handles for two-people carry.
Most medium-sized models are good if you like to compromise and get covered for all occasions. Depending on the brand and design, their insulation capabilities and toughness may either stand up to extreme requirements, such as for motor-boating or camping or be simply sufficient for tailgate parties and backyard get-togethers.