When looking for a comfortable way to carry your everyday lunch or deliver chilled drinks to the party, there is an immense chance you’ll eventually opt for a small cooler. What poses a certain problem, though, is that both small coolers and mini-freezers are present in so great a variety of capacities, features, and styles that selecting the most suitable one may look sophisticated.
For a start, the term “small cooler” means different things for different people. In general, it’s a cooler that can be carried by one person. Therefore, the same model may be considered both small and large depending on your physical strength. Talking about small coolers, people usually mean models holding up to 30-35 quarts.
A great idea for breaking off would be to set your mind on what purposes you wish to use your cooler for.
Hard-sided coolers for active tourists and sport enthusiasts
Made of UV-resistant plastic and polymeric materials, hard-sided models provide chilling temperatures for not less than 3-4 days, preserve food from spoiling and guarantee protection against both temperature and mechanical damage. Being usually heavier than their soft-sided equivalents, most hard-sided coolers are carried by handles and not shoulder straps.
Roto-molded cooolers – the most durable coolers ever!
High-end plastic coolers manufactured by the rotational molding process. This manufacturing technique provides even dispersion of plastic powder on the casting form, resulting in single-piece boxes. Roto-molded coolers have consistently thick walls with strengthened corners, which grants them an increased structural integrity. Designed to withstand unfavorable weather conditions and keep the chill inside for 5-6 days, roto-molded coolers make for a great choice for those who put reliability above all.
Soft-sided coolers – comfortable solutions for short-term storage
The exact features of such coolers vary greatly in accordance with their intended purposes, manufacturers, and materials they are made of. Most soft-sided coolers are up to 20 qt models made of a thick fabric with nylon gussets, thermally insulating foam, and plastic or rubber zip-ties with shoulder straps. Waterproofness and insulation ability of these models depend on the price tiers they are in; for the most part, high-end coolers are capable of providing the necessary temperatures for no longer than 3 days.
Backpacks – mobility above all!
are mostly soft-sided containers designed as moderate-sized or large knapsacks. Weight distribution provided by these models makes it possible to carry more supplies, so they are mostly used by hikers, tourists, and bicycle riders. Because of the variety of available sizes (from 11 x 6 x 12 inches to 18.5 x 13 x 7.5 inches) and weights starting from 1 pound, you can also use additional available space for keeping ice to extend the marching range.
Electric models for weeks of reliable cooling!
Thermoelectric coolers require a constantly working power source, which nevertheless does not mean they cannot be used away from the comforts of home. These coolers guarantee steady chilling and their refrigeration abilities are not limited to the amount of stored ice – and all that is available upon plugging the chest in a cigarette lighter receptacle or USB port. As a rule, thermoelectric coolers demand 120-volt AC or 12/24-volt DC power, which means you can freely use them both in your car and with powerbanks.
Personal coolers for lunches
Standard soft-sided portable lightweight models (seldom plastic) with a capacity of up to 17 quarts. Designed mainly to provide short-term refrigeration, these models occupy a narrow niche of handy lunch boxes for temperature-sensitive foods.
Ice chests for holding cans and bottles – these models feature internal partition walls and thick soft bottoms made of several layers of fabric to protect fragile glassware. The most popular and at the same time practicable models are regular 6-pack soft coolers.
What’s Better: Regular Ice or Ice Packs?
When considering hiking tours and short trips from home to work you should opt for ice coolers with greater portability.
Most smaller coolers work better when loaded with ice packs. Although both types of coolants work good, ice packs won’t flood cooler bags with melt water. Few inches of thawed ice make no problems for a watertight high-end cooler, whereas waterproofness of folded soft-sided models should not be too much relied on.
Dry ice also provides chilling without puddles of water. You should decide on this variant only when using tightly sealed high-end coolers. Carbon dioxide quickly evaporates if left under the sun or even at room temperature, which renders this type of ice useless for coolers you plan to open frequently.
What to Choose: Hard or Soft-Sided Coolers?
Well, for the majority of buyers this is simply a choice between extended operation and portability. Not all hard-sided coolers are heavy to carry, and you can find a hard-sided cooler that weights not more than 8 pounds, such as a midsize Engel. However, the key difference lies not in the parameters of each model but in the general design approaches.
Hard-sided coolers with their thick walls and extended durability are all about long-term food storage, while the very construction of folded soft-sided bags makes the balance tilt to portability at the cost of the operation cycle.
Coolers with high insulation values keep cold for 36-72 hours and allow you to change ice packs less frequently. Insulation value depends on the material (two-inch plastic walls provide better thermal isolation than foam and multi-layered nylon), container integrity (especially for coolers with volatile coolants, such as dry ice) and quality of zippers.
The effectiveness of zippers/lockers plays no lesser role in the duration of a cooler’s work cycle than the material it is made of. For example, hard-sided RTIC and soft-sided Engel models have similarly high ice retention parameters due to the increased tightness of stainless steel lockers and waterproof zippers regardless of the different materials.
If you intend to get the most of your cooler, you can also look for insulated protective covers. Made of thick nylon fabric with an aluminum-coated interior lining, such a cover will not only protect your cooler against dust and dirt but also serve as a thermal insulation jacket.
Handling and operation specifics
Even hard-sided models of small ice chests fit really well in the back seat of an auto. Even better – low profile coolers (say you have more than one of those) are incredibly easy to stow behind the seat, be it your truck or kayak.
But what about even greater portability, is that possible for a cooler? It definitely is, for folding coolers. Those baggy things collapse and go completely flat so you can put them away for storage. A choice for either habitual horizontal use or mobile vertical use comes with high-end handles and significantly benefits its versatility.
For sportsmen and active adventurers, cooler straps are a must. As long as your cooling container can stay comfortably on your back, it unties both your arms to hold a fishing rod, a surfboard, or any other touristic gear. In less extreme environs, such as parks, beaches, and campsites, straps will simply give you the freedom to travel and wander without minding your cooler all the time.
The lid in many rotomolded modes is strong enough to double as a seat, stepstool or even a coffee table with a flat and firm top.
Rest of the essentials
Normally, you should care about the hygiene characteristics of your cooler cleaning only if you often spill liquids or carry items with a strong long-living smell. Some ice chests’ bodies resist staining and mold/bacterial contamination due to specific materials. This is especially true for Rubbermaid Small Ice Chests.
Non-leaking and rust-proof drain ensures the long-term service of your cooler. Draining may be a problem for large models, but with miniature coolers, such as OUTBOUND Bird Dog, you have to deal with a miniature amount of the cleaning chore. Just make sure that bungs, stoppers or plugs fit nicely and are tethered to rule out the risk of them getting lost.
This a bit ambiguous term may refer to the specifics of sealing or to the locks installed on the box. The former translates as the quality of rubber gaskets that impacts the container’s waterproofness and airtightness. Top brands strive to implement unique sealing technologies; for instance, Cooluli Mini Fridge is known for a magnetic latch. Speaking of protection locks, some coolers may feature eyelets for padlocks or a key lock to keep the contents safe from unwanted intrusion.
Getting the best bargain for the price
Here, your preferences are key. A host of brands, especially YETI, can deliver for you a feature-rich product to please your maximal comfort requirements. This would mean marine grade plastic, HQ rubber and rope handles, removable cutting boards and wire baskets, dry food/bread compartments, external MOLLE pockets as well as scratch-resistant, nice-to-touch surfaces of all the parts.
Considering your means, you might like to look out for containers that are cheaper and more affordable. For many lower-cost ice boxes, such as Bison 12 Can Softpak or Rubbermain ice boxes, a difference in price does not entail a huge quality gap. With fewer bells and whistles, cheaper coolers offer a reliable and long-lasting service that sufficiently covers you ordinary day-to-day needs.
The main aim of your cooler/heater is to keep food in a practicable temperature zone. This amounts to 39°F for perishables and above 140°F for foods that should stay warm. Regardless of the cooler’s designed performance, there exists a number of tips to improve their storage characteristics, namely:
- try to pack only pre-chilled non-fizzy drinks or overnight-frozen foods;
- leave as few air gaps between products as possible by filling them up with cubed ice;
- place the job of packing the cooler on the end of your to-do list when getting away;
- use freezer packs to insulate the chill inside by placing them in layers on the bottom and top of the cooler. Fill with them any empty space in the sides too;
- maintain a strict order of neighboring foods – separate raw and cooked products by keeping them in zip-lock bags or leak-proof plastic boxes;
- make certain you close the lid tightly;
- choose liquid freeze packs rather than gel types for a longer cold retention.
As helpful as they are, ice chests guarantee you an even better performance when you stick to the above rules. Take care of your cooler, clean it properly and keep in the shade during operation – thanks to these you’ll have it nicely running for years to come.