If you’re thinking about a picnic or camping trip then a cooler should be part of your plans. A cooler is an insulated chest that is used to keep food or drink cold and these can range from simple boxes to electric versions that use thermoelectric cooling to maintain a chill within the chest.
We have included four traditional coolers in our reviews along with three electric boxes. It is important to note that electric coolers are not refrigerators: they are a means to maintain cold rather than to provide active cooling.
One problem with coolers is that they are not collapsible and take up significant storage space when not in use so we have noted dimensions in our reviews below. A soft ‘cool bag’ could be an answer to the storage problem but as we feel cool bags fulfill a different need we haven’t included any below.
What to look for in a cooler
Some things to consider before buying a new cooler are capacity; durability, including several issues under the heading of ‘design’; issues particular to electric coolers; and price.
Capacity: You need to buy a box with enough space for your needs. Food storage for a family camping trip will obviously require a bigger box than you would need for a picnic lunch. As a rough guide, a 21 quart box will hold about thirty-six 12 fl oz cans.
Durability: Our picks are all well-reviewed for durability, which can be a function of the thickness of the shell but also the design of the handles and hinges and, if fitted, the wheels. If the cooler has a drain plug it should be tight-fitting and leak-proof.
Electric Coolers: Thermoelectric cooling via the Peltier effect is inefficient and anyone considering an electric cool box should check the power utilization and consider the energy-drain on a car battery. Additionally, it is worth bearing in mind that the noise of the fan on an electric box can be bothersome if, for instance, the box is being used in a bedroom.
Price: Price varies with size and features but not always with quality. We’ve chosen coolers that we think offer value to buyers while recognizing that there may be ‘luxury’ options available at higher prices.
A final note before our list: ‘Cooler’ is the most common designation in the US, while ‘Cool box’ is the British usage. Our favorite, though, is the name applied by New Zealanders: ‘Chilly Bin’.
Adriatic 21 Quart Cooler
The Adriatic Cooler is a well-reviewed, budget-priced box offered in a choice of seven different colors, with or without two ice packs. The external dimensions are 15 inches wide x 9 inches deep x 15 inches high, but the walls are approximately 1 inch thick which reduces the available internal volume.
The lid can be reversed to use the six cup-holder indentations on its underside and, when set vertically, the handle locks the lid tight-closed for carrying and transport. If well packed with frozen goods and two ice packs, the box should maintain a sub-zero temperature over a twelve hour period.
Coleman 36 Quart Cooler
This is a durable offering from the brand that first popularised the cooler. The lid is molded with four cup holders and is strong enough to be used as a seat. The walls are filled with 4 inches of polyurethane insulation and, properly packed, the box will keep items frozen for up to two days.
The box weighs 6.5 lbs and its exterior measurements are 14.5″ x 22″ x 14.5″. In summary, a good quality cooler, ideally suited to picnics and family outings.
Igloo Maxcold Roller Cooler
Igloo is a Texas-based brand offering a wide range of coolers with a variety of features and specifications from ‘picnic’ to ‘sportsman-grade’. All of their products are durable and well-reviewed and the Maxcold Roller Cooler is a fine example.
The lid is hinged and fits snugly. There are two, bolted side handles for lifting and, when fully loaded, an extendable handle and two wide wheels can be used to pull the cooler along.
The outside dimensions of the box are 23 x 17.4 x 12.9 inches and it weighs a sturdy 9.8 lb. A reviewer describes the box maintaining items frozen over a period of days. This box should be more than adequate for regular consumer purposes.
Campingaz Powerbox Plus 24L Electric Cooler
The Campingaz features superior insulation which the distributor claims allows it to maintain an interior temperature 36ºF below the ambient temperature. The hard shell is propylene and the box features an antibacterial lining. The bacterial resistance derives from an additive that is ‘baked into’ the material of the lining that will not be removed by washing or scratching.
We have no data on its power consumption but the Campingaz Powerbox is only supplied with a 12V adapter for use in a car cigarette lighter; a mains transformer is available but at extra cost. Because it is well-insulated, the non-electric ‘Keep-cool’ performance of this box should be comparable to that of a traditional cooler and we believe it will be useful for a longer car-and-camping trip. The exterior dimensions are 16.1 x 16.5 x 12.6 inches and it weighs 7.95 lbs empty.