The best coolers of 2021

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As we continue to work through the ongoing pandemic, camping trips and socially distanced backyard get-togethers have never sounded more appealing. That’s why a decent, dependable cooler makes for a particularly worthy splurge. But with countless coolers available online and in stores, which one should you get?

The list of options has grown steadily in recent years. Chief among them are a growing number of heavy-duty, rotomolded coolers that deliver thick, dense insulation superior to traditional coolers (and perform better than a soft cooler or cooler bag by leaps and bounds). They might also cost hundreds of dollars more than you might be used to paying for a cooler. Keep shopping and you’ll find coolers on wheels, coolers with power, even a cooler backpack or two — truly coolers as far as the eye can see. If that sounds a little overwhelming, don’t worry. The entire point of this list is to make finding a premium cooler easy for you.

Over the past four years, we’ve tested dozens of coolers, 25 of which are still commercially available as of this writing. I’ve broken them down into three size categories. The small or personal sized coolers advertise internal volumes of less than 45 quarts (that’s 11.25 gallons or 42.6 liters). Midsized coolers, where most of your top options seem to land, range between 45 and 비잔틴 59 quarts. The largest “party” coolers boast volumes over 60 quarts (15 gallons or 56.8 liters).

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Is bigger always better? Are the more expensive coolers actually worth their asking prices? And can any of the cheaper models keep up?

That’s what I wanted to know, so I grabbed the usual suspects — RubbermaidIglooColemanOrcaRovrYetiPelicanRTICCabela’s and more — and lugged their most popular models into the CNET Home test lab. My mission? Find the best coolers of the bunch, and categorize them in a way that will make it easy for you to find the perfect cooler for your needs. 

After several weeks of hands-on testing and countless ambient temperature readings (of course things like the inclusion of a bottle opener or cup holder is important, but the most critical thing a quality cooler does is keep your cold drinks cold), I’ve separated the winners from the also-rans. 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’ll update this periodically.

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Taking the crown of best cooler overall is the Xspec 60qt Rotomolded High Performance cooler. Got colder faster than its competitors? Check. Coldest temp reached in our lab tests at 43.8 degrees Fahrenheit? Check. Easy to close and open latches? Check. Metal reinforced lock area, nonslip feet, etched rulers, built in compass for when you get lost? All at a $180 price tag? Checkity check check. 

Chart-topping performance with a median price tag on a reasonably sized cooler gets the spotlight. This cooler would also get the nod as best rotomolded value, coming in as the least expensive rotomolded cooler we’ve tested to date. 

Steve Conaway/CNET

The performance data between this newcomer and the previous titleholder, the Yeti Tundra 45 Cooler, was nearly identical. The Yeti got a little colder, and the Magellan held its temp a little longer. The real deciding factor here is the price. At $120, the Magellan Outdoors unit is less than half the cost of the Yeti. 

Aside from performance, this cooler offers plenty of other extras, including quite possibly my favorite lid design: dual-side latches that can double as hinges, allowing you to open the cooler from either side. Genius. While you’re at it, Magellan tosses in a couple of bottle openers, a metal reinforced lock area and a drain plug.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Our rotomolded cooler pick from previous years, this Orca cooler is just flat-out tough to beat when it comes to performance. The Bison Gen 2 cooler came close, and even reached a minimum temp that was one tenth of a degree colder than the Orca’s low, and a bit sooner than the Orca did, too — but overall, the Orca is able to hold those low temperatures for longer. 

It does carry a $340 price tag, so it stands as one of the most expensive options we’ve tested to date. But sometimes you do get what you pay for.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Along with the aforementioned Orca, Cabela’s Polar Cap Equalizer is another rotomolded winner from previous years that remains on our list of top picks. The Polar Cap got about a degree colder than the Orca did, it has about 3 quarts more internal volume, and it costs about 10 bucks more at $350. Again, you’re going to pay for this level of performance (and the clever built-in bottle openers in the latches), but if top-of-the-line performance is what you’re after, you know where to start.

Steve Conaway/CNET

Let me start by saying this: The sheer amount of features and accessories makes this cooler feel more like a “friends or family to the lake” cooler than one you’re taking on your next extended camping trip. There’s no lid latch on this one, and all of the extras eat into the interior volume, reducing its claimed 70-quart storage by about 15% to 60.3 quarts. 

That being said, here are some of the included goodies: Oversized, never-flat wheels, a metal telescoping locking handle that pulls double duty as a mounting point for the included serving tray, a dry/food basket, padded glove box, two accessory/bottle holders, four cup holders on the lid, and a built-in mobile device stand, two bottle openers, four tie-down points, an outside pocket, and a removable serving tray securely stored on the underside of the lid. Oh, and the drain plug, can’t forget that. 

The Igloo Trailmate didn’t perform poorly — it actually outperformed all of the coolers outside of the other top recommendations listed here. And that’s no small feat for a cooler with no latching or pressurized lid to help contain that cold air. 

Steve Conaway/CNET

It’s hard to go wrong at this price when you look at the temperature graph. In fact, the Coleman Party Stacker finished with the third coldest temperature in its size category. It doesn’t hold that temp as long as the other coolers, but if you’re planning to load up, get busy and be done within a 12-hour window, you shouldn’t have any problems. 

The other unique feature about this line of Colemans is that they have several sizes and shapes of Stacker coolers, and they’re all designed to be, well, stackable and interlocking. Mix and match, stack and go.

Chris Monroe/CNET

You’ve got lots of options if you want a wheeled cooler, but if it were me, I’d save up and plunk down $370 for the <a website Rollr 60. Though it wasn’t quite as strong of a performer as Cabela’s or Xspec, it still finished our tests with above-average cooling capabilities, and it was, by far, the easiest and most comfortable cooler to transport from point A to point B. That’s good, because this cooler would be a pain to carry. With 9-inch wheels and a frame built from stainless steel and aluminum, the Rollr is quite heavy even before you start loading cans, <a website bottles and other beverages into it. 

On top of that, I like the included removable fabric wagon bin and the plastic dry bin that helps you keep your food and beverages separate from wet ice. If you’re willing to pay a little extra, you can customize your cooler with extras like a built-in prep board for campsite cooking, stainless-steel bottle holders or even a $54 Bikr Kit that makes it easy to tow the Rollr behind a bike (though, at $450 for the cooler, I wish at least one or two of these kits came included). 

What we’ve tested

These coolers are currently commercially available from the dozens that have been tested over the last few years. Here’s a linked list with brief insights:

How we tested them

Ice retention

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 rotomolded coolers specifically designed to ace it (and in doing so, 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 days in, but hours in, before any of the ice had even melted at all.

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 just 3 pounds — not even half of a small bag from the gas station. 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.

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