Top 6 Most Recommended Coolers for CampingPublished on 07/26/2023 · 11 min readExplore the top 6 highly recommended coolers for camping, ensuring your food stays fresh and drinks cold during your outdoor adventures.
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Camping is all about getting outdoors and enjoying nature, but a crucial part of every camping trip is making sure you have enough food for the duration of your adventure! While it’s possible to make camp meals work without the use of a cooler (by bringing freeze-dried camp food or dry goods such as pasta), a cooler can really take your camping food game to the next level. A camp cooler will keep your food and drinks cold, fresh, and protected from any critters that may try to sneak a bite.
Growing up, I camped a lot with my dad. I distinctly remember when he switched from a cheap, 20-year-old cooler, to a new, fancy YETI cooler. I thought it was a bit extra because this cooler was massive, expensive, and annoying to help haul in and out of the car as a little kid. Once I started camping on my own as an adult, I totally understood the hype, however. I used a small, cheap cooler for a few trips, and then I started borrowing my dad’s cooler almost every time. It was so much nicer not having to restock ice everyday, and to own something durable that didn’t bounce around on dirt roads. After a ton of research, I eventually bought my own YETI and have never looked back.
It’s honestly a game changer to have a nice, well-made, and durable means of keeping your food and drinks cold. But with all the options out there, it can be hard to know what’s actually worth spending your money on. In this article, I’ll present some of the top camp coolers on the market, so that you better understand which type of cooler is the best fit for you! Let’s jump in!
Types of Coolers
Coolers aren’t all the same, and understanding the different types can help you figure out which would be best for your car camping adventures. Let’s explore the different types of coolers out there.
Soft coolers are the lightest and most portable type of cooler. They usually come with shoulder straps or handles, making them perfect for short hikes away from your car camping base. They usually have an outer pocket or two for extra storage, and they can fit into tighter spaces due to their more flexible structure. The downside to soft coolers is that they have less insolation, so if you’re looking to use your cooler on a longer trip or for a lot of perishable food, soft coolers might not be the best option.
Next up we have hard coolers, which are the classic choice for many campers. They come in a wide range of sizes and tend to have superior insulation capabilities compared to soft coolers. Hard coolers are perfect for long car camping trips, where keeping food and drinks cold for several days is necessary. Depending on the cooler, they can usually double as an extra seat to use around the camp, or as a table for cooking and eating. Many hard coolers—such as Yeti brand coolers—are also bear-resistant, or come with holes to attach a bear-resistant lock to. Unsurprisingly, they’re usually a bit more expensive and heavier than soft coolers. The weight can be excellent for keeping your food and drinks upright and protected in windy weather, but a pain if you need to carry it far.
Electric coolers, also known as thermoelectric coolers or portable refrigerators, offer the most reliable cooling solution. These coolers run on your car's 12-volt outlet and can keep your food and beverages at refrigerator-like temperatures, regardless of the outside temperature; some high-end models even have freezer capabilities. Electric coolers are great for long trips and those who prefer not to deal with ice. However, they can be significantly more expensive than other coolers and also require an energy source, which can drain your car's battery if not managed properly!
Features to Consider When Shopping for a Cooler
When choosing a cooler that can withstand your adventures while keeping your food and drinks at the optimal temperature, there are a few key things to keep in mind:
- Durability: A great cooler is one that can withstand the elements and rigors of heavy outdoor use. It should be able to handle the occasional bump, drop, or scrape without breaking or spilling everything. Look for a cooler with sturdy materials, strong handles, and robust hinges that promise to go the distance with you.
- Size and Capacity: Size does matter when it comes to coolers. How long are you normally camping for? How many people are typically in your group? What types of food and beverages do you have? These are all questions to ask yourself to make sure that your cooler isn't too small that it leaves you short on supplies, or too large that it’s a burden to carry and waste of space in your car.
- Insulation Performance: Your cooler's primary job is to keep your items cold. Insulation performance determines how long a cooler can maintain the cold temperatures within it. Better insulation means less dependency on ice (which saves you money and time spent running to town for ice), more space for food and drinks, and less worry about your food going bad.
- Ease of Use and Portability: A camping trip shouldn't feel like a weightlifting session. Coolers should be easy to transport, whether they come with comfortable handles, wheels, or shoulder straps. Also, the lid should open smoothly, and the interior should be easy to clean. Cleaning your cooler at the end of a camping trip is already such a dreaded task—having a cooler that’s easy to clean makes it all that much easier!
- Additional Features: In the world of camping, versatility can be key. Some coolers have accessories such as built-in bottle openers, cup holders, or fish scalers. Some can even double as a bear box, if you commonly camp in bear territory. Most useful feature to me, some coolers are sturdy enough to be used as extra seating, a table, or a stepping stool to get into a tall roof box. The more versatile your cooler, the better it adapts to your adventure!
Now that you have an idea of some key things to look for, let’s get into our list of the best camping coolers!
Top Coolers for Car Camping
1. Yeti Tundra 65
Yeti is a big name in the world of high-end coolers, and their Tundra 65 is one of the most popular. Known for legendary durability and exceptional ice retention, Yeti’s PermaFrost Insulation system keeps your items cold for days on end. It also has a sturdy hinge system—two rubber latches that are easy to open and close, and bear-resistant. It’s sturdy enough to sit on, use as a table, and I’ve stood on it to reach the rack on top of my truck, since I’m a bit short to reach it otherwise. It also comes with an internal basket to keep your food organized and provide some protection for delicate items (such as eggs) when you’re driving down a bumpy dirt road. This is a large cooler, so if you’re typically camping alone or with only a few others, check out the smaller Yeti Tundra 35. Though the Yeti Tundra 65 is a bit on the pricier end, it’ll absolutely last a lifetime—it’s sturdy enough to withstand years and years of camping trips!
2. Yeti Tundra Haul
The Tundra Haul shares a lot of features with the original Tundra, but this one comes with wheels to make it even easier to move around your camp. It has the same hinge, locking, and insulation system as the Yeti 65, and it’s also certified bear-proof by the IGBC (Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee). Though it’s slightly deeper, shorter, and taller than the Tundra 65, the Haul actually has the same capacity—though the different shape can make items fit a bit differently (more cans fit in the Haul versus the Tundra 65). It doesn’t come with a basket, but it’s compatible with an internal dry basket that can be purchased separately. The Tundra Haul is a great option for campers who want to avoid lifting a heavy cooler around their camp, but don’t want to skimp on insulation capabilities.
Another incredibly well-insulated option, the RTIC Ultra-Light distinguishes itself with its conveniently manageable size and weight. It’s engineered to be lightweight yet durable, making it perfect for solo campers. With up to three inches of closed-cell foam insulation and a freezer-style gasket, the RTIC Ultra-Light can retain ice for a prolonged period of time. It has two drain plugs—one on either side (most coolers have only a single drain)—making it fast and easy to drain melted ice, or clean when you get home. While the RTIC fits only 48 cans of beer, soda, or bubble water as opposed to the Tundra 65’s 77 can capacity or the Tundra Haul’s 82 can capacity, it’s still a super durable and weight-friendly option that’ll keep your food and drinks cold for the whole duration of your camping trip!
For sustainability and budget-oriented car campers, the Coleman Atlas is a great option for keeping your food and beverages cold. It’s designed with 15% less plastic than comparable models and has a TempLock fully-insulated lid to keep ice from melting. It holds up to 50 cans, has 4 built-in cup holders on the lid, and features an antimicrobial liner to prevent your cooler from getting that weird, dreaded smell after days of camping. It’s not as insulated as any of the three options mentioned above, but for shorter trips where you don't need to keep things cool for as long, it’s a great option that won’t break the bank.
5. Dometic CFX3 55 Powered Cooler
If you’re the type of car camper that likes the fanciest and latest gear, and always wished you could take your refrigerator on camping trips, the Dometic CFX3 55 was made for you. It does require a power source—either from your car, a generator, or a battery box—but it uses less power than a classic 60 W lightbulb. It comes with its own integrated ice maker, and the internal temperature of the cooler, which can be controlled from an app on your phone via Bluetooth, can reach as low as -7°F. It can fit up to 83 cans and has durable aluminum walls that can withstand the rigors of heavy outdoor use. Though it’s pretty pricey, it’s an excellent choice for campers who don’t want to take chances with keeping their food and drinks cold, or make any trips into town to restock on ice.
6. Pelican Elite 50 QT
Pelican is a unique cooler brand started by a SCUBA enthusiast who wanted to make heavy-duty gear to keep scientific and emergency equipment dry under extreme conditions. They’ve since started making coolers with that same mindset of “ultra durable gear that can withstand anything.” The Pelican 50 QT is no exception, and it features easy-latching closures, a freezer grade seal, and exceptional ice retention. It has a built-in bottle opener, cup holders, and ruler markings on the top for measuring your catch after a long day of fishing. The Pelican Elite is super tough, but Pelican also offers a lifetime warranty on all of their products.
How to Maintain Your Cooler
After deciding on a cooler for your excursions, it’s important to take care of it. A cooler can be a big investment, and taking care of it properly can ensure it’s ready to camp with you for a long, long time.
Tips for Cleaning Your Cooler
Even the highest quality cooler can lose its charm if not kept clean. To maintain your cooler's hygiene, make a habit of cleaning it after each use. A mild detergent or baking soda solution can do wonders for removing grime and odors. For stubborn stains or smells, a vinegar soak can be a game-changer.
Storing Your Cooler Properly
When your cooler isn't on car camping duty, it deserves a good rest. Dry your cooler thoroughly before storage to avoid mold and unpleasant odors. Keeping the lid slightly open promotes air circulation and protects against any trapped smells. To preserve your cooler’s condition, store it in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight or extreme temperatures.
Chat with an Expert
As you can see, there's a lot to think about when choosing a cooler for camping. The best coolers are ones that fit seamlessly into your camping escapades, making your trips more enjoyable with less hassle! Hopefully, you have a good idea of which cooler best suits you, but if you want to chat things over, feel free to reach out to a Curated Camping & Hiking Expert such as myself. Any of us would be happy to help you find the best cooler for your needs. Happy camping!