What to Look for in a Cooler

There's more to coolers than what meets the eye. Discover the features to look for so your food and drink essentials stay cool.

September 26, 2017
A couple camping around a camp fire.

From keeping your beverages chilled at a weekend barbecue to housing your day’s fresh catch on the boat, a quality cooler is a necessity. There are a number of situations that call for a cooler, but not all call for the same demands. Different activities require different features, and there are design options aplenty. But finding the right cooler for your needs can be simple once you know what to look for.

Before running to the store or searching online for the largest, most insulated cooler, however, you have to ask yourself this vital question: What do you intend to use your cooler for? If you only plan on using it during tailgating events or weekend excursions, your cooler needs aren’t going to be the same as someone trying to keep fresh-caught fish cool or keep ice for multiple days. When you’re thinking of the role your future cooler will play, look at your durability and insulation demands. Understanding these factors can help you decide the level of insulation you need and could help you hone in on a price range.


When thinking about which cooler to purchase, consider how much punishment it will take. If your cooler will be sitting underneath a picnic table or cozily in the bed of your vehicle for only a few hours, then you won’t have to search for tough exterior materials. Softshell coolers that are light and easy to carry can be a much easier and efficient option in these situations.

If you plan on using your cooler on a boat or on extended trips through the wilderness, you’ll likely want one that can handle getting thrown around. A tougher exterior, such as those made of harder plastic or metal, will increase the price of your cooler, but will give you the high-level durability you expect .

You should also ask yourself if you’ll be using your cooler for another purpose — to act as a piece of furniture during your trip. Keep in mind that some less expensive coolers might be able to cool your snacks efficiently, but may not be able to withstand being sat on and could potentially break or crack.

Another factor to consider, especially for those camping in areas prone to bear sightings, is a making sure your cooler is bear-resistant. The smell of tasty treats can attract these animals, and if bears find the food source (your cooler) they can cause major damage to your campsite and themselves. The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC) has a complete list of products with added locks that they have found to be durable enough to withstand a bear interaction. If you believe that run-ins with these creatures is a possibility, consult the IGBC website for a list of bear-resistant products.


Keeping your food and beverages cool is the main purpose of a cooler, so naturally, you should consider your container’s insulation capabilities when making a purchase. Hard-shell coolers are better suited for ice retention than their softshell counterparts because there is more insulating material designed into them. If you plan on packing perishable food, or items that might spoil, you might want to consider a hard-shell cooler, especially if you’re packing for multiple days. While softshell coolers will work for a few hours, the more insulated hard-shell coolers are better equipped to keep food below the recommended 40-degree mark set by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration for longer periods of time.

As is the case with durability, when it comes to a cooler’s insulation, you often get what you pay for. Higher-quality coolers feature a denser, thicker insulating material, which creates a better ice retention rate. Traditional coolers will work fine for a few hours to a day, but you might want to consider making the investment in a high-end cooler if you know you won’t be able to easily replenish your ice or plan to be out for long periods of time.

PRO TIP: Look at the cooler’s lid and make sure it has sufficient insulation. The lid will take much of the heat when your cooler is sitting outside, so having a thick layer between the elements and the ice will make for better cooling capabilities.


The size of your desired cooler should be determined by two factors: how much food and drink you are trying to keep cool, and how much space you have available for the cooler itself. Most cooler hulls are measured in quarts, with some smaller options measured by how many cans they can comfortably carry. Coolers measuring 25 quarts or less are great for overnight or evening trips and can house plenty of ice and food or drinks for one individual or a small group. If your trip will be an extended excursion, look for larger options. There are a number of sizes available, with some coolers reaching more than 75 quarts in size. Coolers designed for marine use or housing meat from a hunting trip are the largest options, tipping past the 100-quart mark.

Always remember to factor room for ice or ice packs into your size decision; a good rule of thumb is to think of one part ice for every two parts food or beverage. Larger coolers will also require more space, so be sure your container can fit in your vehicle before opting for the largest one available. A cooler will be most efficient when the ice levels reach the top of the cooler, so look for a container that allows for ample storage but doesn’t require loads upon loads of ice to reach this prime level.

PRO TIP: If you are worried about your ice melting and dampening your stored food or beverages, consider using ice packs or reusable ice substitutes. These products can be frozen prior to your trip and offer exceptional cooling capabilities.


There are a few material options available when it comes to a cooler’s construction. Softshell coolers made from fabric are ideal for short trips or for events calling for a little food or drink. The lightweight, collapsible design also makes storage simple. Softshell coolers can also feature additional pockets on their exterior that can house extra snacks and smaller items like your phone, wallet or keys. What you gain in storage and versatility, though, you lose in insulation, so keep this fact in mind.

Hard-shell coolers are typically made from plastic or metal. These materials allow for thicker insulation, thus keeping items cold longer. While these containers are great for keeping larger amounts of food and beverages chilled and can really retain ice for lengthy trips, you have to plan for space. Hard-shell coolers do not break down or collapse, so you have to designate some room to tote them around. Also, be sure you’re prepared to store these coolers away with the proper space when they are not in use.


Having a cooler with unequaled insulation and durability is fantastic, but it doesn’t do much when you can’t transport the container to your desired location or event. When making a purchase decision, consider how cumbersome the cooler’s design will be and how that will affect portability. Some smaller options offer a single-handle design and many larger coolers offer side handles or ropes for a more efficient two-person carry. There are also coolers with built-in wheels, like a suitcase, for easy mobility. Some wheeled coolers also feature a telescopic handle which increases comfort by allowing you to walk upright without bending over to reach the container. Once you’ve reached your destination, the handle discretely folds away to save space. Shoulder straps and coolers designed to be worn as a backpack are also available in some models.

Regardless of your design features, remember to take your personal limitations into consideration. These containers can get quite heavy when fully loaded with ice, food and drinks. Don’t limit your travels because you can’t tote the cooler to the campsite.


While shopping for a new cooler, you might also stumble upon a few specialty models, which either have a designated purpose or have unique features to their design. For example, one of the most popular specialty coolers is the marine cooler. As mentioned before, these containers can reach more than 100 quarts in size and are constructed from a white, antimicrobial plastic. The antimicrobial materials can help limit bacteria buildup on the interior and exterior, letting you confidently store your day’s catch with less fear of spoiled meat. Combine these features with a marine cooler’s great thermal capabilities and you have the perfect container for an expedition on the open water.

Aside from fabric coolers and hard-shell models, there are also thermoelectric coolers to provide you with supreme travel refrigeration. These containers act, in essence, as miniature refrigerators and run off either home- or vehicle-powered outlets. The electric-powered refrigeration system in these coolers eliminates the need for ice and allows for better regulation of temperature. Because of their power needs, though, thermoelectric coolers are not recommended for camping or treks that will take you away from power sources.


There are a few final qualities to consider once you have narrowed down your cooler options. Some models come with a locking or latching mechanism, especially those marked as bear-resistant. Make sure that these locking systems are easy to use and meet your comfort and safety needs.

When it comes time to drain the melted ice, you will want to have a proper and efficient drain plug. Be sure your cooler is equipped with either a pop-top or screw-in drain plug so that you can drain and clean your cooler with ease.

A cooler can take on many roles while you’re enjoying the outdoors. Make sure that you are properly equipped with a well-functioning model for your next camping trip, fishing excursion or gameday tailgate by following these Pro Tips.