If you’re thinking about a picnic or camping trip then a cool box should be part of your plans. A cool box, of course, is an insulated chest that is used to keep food or drink cold.
A US Patent was filed in 1951 but Coleman began popularising the product in 1954 with a galvanised box. By 1957, the ‘traditional’ box had taken shape in the form of a plastic shell and liner with a hard foam insulation in between.
We have included four traditional boxes in our reviews along with three electric boxes that use thermoelectric cooling to create and maintain a chill within the chest. It is important to note that electric cool boxes are not refrigerators: they are a means to maintain cold rather than to provide active cooling.
One problem with cool boxes 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’ is an answer to the storage problem but we feel a cool bag is most appropriate for carrying perishable items from the supermarket to home, and we have not included a bag in these reviews.
What to look for in a cool box
Some things to consider before buying a new box are capacity; durability, including several issues under the heading of ‘design’; issues particular to electric cool boxes; and price.
Capacity: You need to buy a box with an internal volume that meets your anticipated storage needs. Food storage for a family camping trip will obviously require a bigger box than will be needed for a picnic lunch. As a rough guide, a 24L box will hold about thirty-six 330mL 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 a box has a drain plug it should be tight-fitting and leak-proof.
Electric Cool Boxes: Thermoelectric cooling via the Peltier effect is inefficient and anyone considering an electric cool box should check the power utilisation 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 cool boxes that we think offer value to average buyers while recognising that there may be ‘luxury’ boxes available at higher prices.
A final note before our list: ‘Cool Box’ is the most common designation in the U.K, while ‘Cooler’ is the American usage. Our favourite, though, is the name applied by New Zealanders: ‘Chilly Bin’.
Best Cool Boxes
Adriatic 24 Litre Coolbox
The Adriatic Coolbox is a well-reviewed, budget-priced box offered in a choice of seven different colours, with or without two ice packs. The external dimensions are 39cm wide x 24cm deep x 38cm high, but the walls are approximately 3cm 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.
Thermos 28 Litre Cool Box
This offering from Thermos is a very good box at a friendly price from a reputable manufacturer. This design is offered in two sizes 28L and 32L and it is solidly constructed with thick walls filled with polystyrene insulation but remains fairly lightweight at 1.2 kilos (for the 28L model).
The carrying handle locks the lid in place. The smaller box’s exterior dimensions are 43cm x 30cm x 40cm (L x W x H) but, inside, roughly 10 m smaller all round due to the insulation. While probably not suitable for heavy-duty use, this box is solid enough for all picnic and some camping purposes and is well worth consideration.
Coleman 36 qt Cooler
This is a durable offering from the brand that first popularised the cool box. The lid is moulded with four cup holders and is strong enough to be used as a seat. The walls are filled with over 10cm of polyurethane insulation and, properly packed, the box will keep items frozen for up to two days.
The box weighs 3kg and its exterior measurements are 37cm x 57cm x 37cm. In summary, a good quality box, ideally suited to picnics and family outings.
Igloo Maxcold Island Breeze 62 quart Rolling Coolbox
Igloo is a Texas-based brand offering a wide range of cool boxes with a variety of features and specifications from ‘picnic’ to ‘sportsman-grade’. All of their products are durable and well-reviewed and the Maxcold Island Breeze is a representative 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 box along. The outside edge of the box has four moulded tie-down loops that allow the user to secure additional items on top of the cool-box lid with elastic cords.
The outer base of the box is designed to minimise contact with the ground which the manufacturer believes improves cooling ‘by elevating the cooler from a hot surface’. The outside dimensions of the box are 44cm x 70cm x 48cm (L x W X H) and it weighs a sturdy 6kg. A reviewer describes the box maintaining items frozen over a period of days. This box should be more than adequate for regular consumer purposes.
DC/AC Electric 24 L Coolbox
A no-brand cool box that uses a thermoelectric array and fan for cooling and heating. The kit includes both a mains adapter and a 12V car adapter that fits in a cigarette lighter socket. With a power source connected, it is specified to maintain an internal temperature of 15ºC below the ambient temperature.
In cooling mode, the power-draw on a 12v car battery is 46 watts, or 54 watts when connected to an AC supply. When not powered-up, this box is not as effective at keeping items cold as our traditional picks and one reviewer notes that the box is most effective when used in conjunction with an ice-pack. Nevertheless, with electricity, the box can maintain a cold interior indefinitely and it enjoys generally favourable reviews. The electrics and fan are contained in the lid which is fitted with a rubberised gasket for a tight seal. The exterior dimensions are 40cm x 33cm x 44cm (W x D x H).
Marko 30L Electric Cool Box
The Marko is an electric cool box that is supplied with connectors for both mains and 12v car battery power. A user advises that the power leads are 2 metres long in each case. The fan and thermoelectric array draw 52 watts when used for cooling with a 12v connection.
The distributor claims it will maintain the interior 15 to 18 degrees ºC below the outside temperature and one reviewer describes its usefulness over a two week period. The interior lining is CFC-free polyurethane foam. The box’s exterior dimensions are 31cm x 40cm x 44cm (D x W x H) which enable a relatively generous 30 litre capacity. We like this box for its larger size and internal height that will accommodate a wine bottle standing vertically.
Campingaz Powerbox Plus 24L Electric Cooler
The Campingaz features superior insulation which the distributor claims allows it to maintain an interior temperature 20ºC 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 box and we believe it will be useful for a longer car-and-camping trip. The exterior dimensions are 41cm x 31cm x 44cm (W x D X H) and it weighs 3.6kg empty.