Best Cooler of 2024

All people who enjoy being outdoors in some capacity should have a good cooler. Whether you’re going to sporting events, camping, traveling or just having people over for a backyard party, having a place to keep drinks cool is necessary. However, the best cooler for your needs may have a bit more going for it than just a cold place for drinks. For example, more and more coolers right now are offering roto-molded material for superior insulation.

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.

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:

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.  

How we tested the coolers

Capacity considerations

If we’re going to talk about performance, we should talk about capacity first. Although some ice chest sizes are more popular than others (50-quart, for instance), there 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 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.

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 fit only 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.

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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.

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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 be 26.42 quarts, which is 117% of the stated volume (about one extra six-pack compared to other 20-quart coolers). The worst offender, offering only 65% 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. The 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.

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 after days but in hours, before any of the ice had even melted.

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).

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Steve Conaway/CNET

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Steve Conaway/CNET

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Steve Conaway/CNET

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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 is that the T-shaped handlebar includes comfy rubber grips on the sides, but not in the middle, the spot you’ll want to hold as you lug it around one-handed.

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. 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 of the 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 latch, the Bison cooler felt the most like a premium product to the touch. 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

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.

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Let’s 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 it’s 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 the ones 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 that 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 the best latching mechanism.

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 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, and 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. 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.

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.

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