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Updated Feb 22, 2022 4:20 PM

A solid cooler for camping can make a major difference. That idea cemented in my mind after I watched a video series about guys who took their overlanding Toyota Tacomas 500 miles across the desert without using paved roads, hotels, or restaurants. They just started driving with about a week’s worth of fuel and supplies. Imagine my surprise when they kicked off the first night with grilled steak and fresh vegetables washed down with cold beer.

I reflected on my own camping menu of Clif bars and jerky. A package of Ramen cooked over my Jetboil is the closest I get to a real meal in the woods. Camping can sure mean different things to different people. As I watched their steak sizzle on screen, I couldn’t help but think that I was making life way harder than it has to be.

The difference-maker––aside from motor vehicles––is a camping cooler. The only way to enjoy a fresh meal at your campsite is to keep your provisions cold until it’s time to cook. There are a few ways to do that, depending on your style of camping, but we set out to find a camping cooler for everyone. Let this gear guide be your first step toward living the good life.

Best Overall

Lifetime has carved out a market for itself by offering quality products at competitive prices, and this cooler is no exception. The Lifetime 77 cooler is an all-around contender that we’d recommend for just about any type of camping.

Even at half the price of a premium cooler, the Lifetime 77 doesn’t cut corners on quality components. High-wear areas like the latches, seal, and handles are built to perform even when the cooler is fully loaded. There are also convenience features like the threaded drain spout that allows you to attach a garden hose to direct water away from your campsite.

In general, being the best overall comes with drawbacks in certain areas. This cooler is strong but it isn’t as beefy as premium coolers from other big-name manufacturers. At this price, we’re fine with that.

Product Specs
  • Capacity (in quarts): 77
  • Capacity (in cans): 96
  • Claimed ice retention: Nine days
PROS

We love the 77-quart capacity

Holds ice for up to nine days

Heavy-duty components stand the test of time

Priced below comparable alternatives

CONS

Odd exterior shape can be awkward to pack

Not as overbuilt as premium coolers

Hinge rod can come loose and fall out

Best Value

The Coleman Xtreme 5 is built for people who want something better than a disposable styrofoam cooler but aren’t about to drop hundreds of dollars on one of the premium options from a designer brand. Those people are in luck because it does everything they need it to do at a fantastic price.

Coleman keeps costs down by using lightweight injection-molded plastic and a relatively thin layer of insulation. This also makes the Xtreme 5 more manageable to carry. Performance certainly isn’t affected, though, because we tested this cooler ourselves and can vouch for Coleman’s claim about retaining ice for five days. Car camping, tailgating, and backyard cookouts are well-served by this affordable cooler.

This cooler isn’t as strong as many of the other options on this list. Don’t overload it or subject it to abuse, and you should be golden.

Product Specs
  • Capacity (in quarts): 70
  • Capacity (in cans): 100
  • Claimed ice retention: Five days
PROS

Five-day ice retention is totally attainable

Light and easy to carry

Strong enough to sit on

Far better than the price suggests

CONS

Thin shell and lightweight hinges raise durability concerns

Lid seal has been known to leak

Handles exhibit flex under load

Editor’s Choice

OtterBox makes all kinds of rugged outdoor gear, and they can help you with food storage, too. We love the Venture 45 because it offers premium build quality and features in a more portable size.

This cooler is built using an extremely durable polypropylene shell that’s made to shake off bumps and scrapes at the campsite. Heavy-duty latches and a strong seal make us confident that this could be strapped to a UTV and driven down a fire road with no problems. Best of all, you can shop the OtterBox accessory catalog for things like a food prep shelf, cupholders, and a bottle opener that you can mount to the cooler to personalize it.

At just shy of $300, this is an expensive 45-quart cooler. To be fair, it might be the last one you need to buy.

Product Specs
  • Capacity (in quarts): 45
  • Capacity (in cans): 25
  • Claimed ice retention: 14 days
PROS

Overbuilt and ready to take whatever you dish out

Thick insulation provides excellent ice retention

Customize with accessories from OtterBox

Big-time quality in a midsize cooler

CONS

Noticeably heavy compared to the alternatives

Handles are bulky and don’t fold down

Thick walls make this less compact than you might expect

Best High-End Cooler

This list wouldn’t be complete without representation from Yeti. There’s some debate about whether or not the premium brand lives up to the hype, but if you have to buy the most badass camping cooler available, the V-series is an easy decision.

No plastic cooler can touch the strength of this stainless steel shell. It looks fantastic, is incredibly tough, and shrugs off rust and corrosion like they’re nothing. Instead of foam insulation, this cooler uses a vacuum layer to insulate your food the same way a dual-walled tumbler does. That approach isn’t cheap, but it makes the walls thinner and more efficient than just about anything else.

The obvious downside is printed right on the tag: it’s extremely expensive. If you’re going to spend hundreds of dollars on a premium camping cooler, you might as well swing big and buy one that’s probably going to last longer than you do while performing better than anything that doesn’t plug in.

Product Specs
  • Capacity (in quarts): 47
  • Capacity (in cans): 46
  • Claimed ice retention: Not specified
PROS

Most rugged cooler here by far

Stainless steel is sturdy and looks great

Metal hinges are sure to outlast plastic ones

Vacuum insulation is superior to foam

CONS

Several times the cost of other premium coolers

Yeti doesn’t provide an ice retention rating

Not the easiest to carry

Best Soft Cooler

Camping doesn’t always call for a massive cooler filled with a case of beer and enough meat for Ted Nugent’s Fourth of July party. If all you need to keep cold is the bacon and eggs for a hearty breakfast, this RTIC soft cooler is just what the doctor ordered. Besides, it’s a great lunchbox every other day of the week.

Like RTIC’s other soft-sided coolers, this one uses rugged materials, leak-proof zippers, and sealed seams to make a waterproof cooler that handles life in the outdoors better than any soft cooler should. When packed correctly, this cooler can retain ice for up to 24 hours. We prefer the 20-can size that comes in 10 colors including camouflage, but smaller and larger sizes are available.

This cooler’s size and ice retention limit it to overnight use. For longer trips, you’ll want something bigger, though.

Product Specs
  • Capacity (in quarts): not specified
  • Capacity (in cans): 20
  • Claimed ice retention: 24 hours
PROS

Quality item that’s built to last

Waterproof, sweat-proof, and floats

Leakproof zippers prevent melted ice from escaping

Available in multiple sizes

CONS

Only stays cold for about a day

Works noticeably better with ice packs than loose ice

Zipper isn’t as beefy as the rest of the cooler

Best Rolling Cooler

Rolling your cooler is one of the best ways to carry a lot of food without straining your back and spoiling the trip. This Igloo cooler uses clever design to make transporting up to 168 cans to the campsite a stress-free affair.

What sold us was the way the primary handle is attached. Mounting the structure along the full length of the cooler provides more stability than other rolling coolers and is less likely to break. Draining this much melted ice at the end of the trip can make a mess, so Igloo threaded the drain spout for a garden hose so you can direct water away from the campsite.

The hard shell is certainly adequate, but it’s not the kind of heavy-duty armor you’ll see on this list’s premium coolers. The wheels are a great asset, but they aren’t meant for loose surfaces or rough terrain.

Product Specs
  • Capacity (in quarts): 110
  • Capacity (in cans): 168
  • Claimed ice retention: Five days
PROS

Massive capacity is sufficient for long trips and large groups

Sturdy handle support runs the full length of the cooler

Priced extremely competitively given its size

Drain spout is threaded to attach a hose

CONS

Not as robust as higher-end coolers

Exterior plastic is not as thick as we’d like

Wheels are only helpful on smooth, hard ground

Best Backpack Cooler

There are a lot of times when it would be nice to have a cooler but you need to keep your hands free. Backpack coolers are a great way to make your cold food and drinks more portable, and this one from RTIC would be our go-to for that kind of thing.

The soft cooler and padded shoulder straps make this comfortable to carry. There’s also a padded hip belt to distribute weight more evenly. Efficient insulation keeps the size down while providing enough room for 30 cans. Plastic-welded seams are waterproof and the whole cooler floats. Of course, we’d never flip a canoe full of gear and make our friend Mark call his mom to rescue us, but it’s nice to know that this cooler could survive such things.

This cooler’s size is great for day trips, but you’ll still want a more traditional cooler for extended camping trips and larger groups. Soft-sided coolers are very forgiving, but some people prefer a hard-sided cooler that can be stacked and used as a table for food prep.

Product Specs
  • Capacity (in quarts): Not specified
  • Capacity (in cans): 30
  • Claimed ice retention: Several days
PROS

Excellent soft-sided build quality

Room for 30 cans plus a bag of ice

Padded shoulder straps and hip belt

Available in tan with olive drab trim

CONS

Zippers are a potential weak point

Soft sides aren’t as strong as a hard cooler

Expensive for its size

Best Styrofoam Cooler

Styrofoam coolers have been around for ages, and there’s a reason people still buy them. They’re cheap, effective, and available just about everywhere. You can find a styrofoam cooler at almost any gas station or convenience store in the U.S. The problem is that most of them are single-use items that spend eternity in a landfill. That’s what sets this one from LifeMade apart.

The LifeMade Evercooler earned its spot on our list by doing everything a styrofoam cooler should do without sucker-punching the environment. Unlike most styrofoam, this cooler is biodegradable and breaks down within four years of being thrown away. Until then, it’s actually stronger than most styrofoam coolers. As a reward for your environmental consideration, you’ll only have to shell out five bucks for this cooler.

The usual drawbacks still exist, so manage your expectations. This is a strong styrofoam cooler, but it’s nowhere near as durable as the other coolers on this list. It can’t handle as much weight and space is relatively limited at 22 quarts, which is enough for 24 cans plus ice.

Product Specs
  • Capacity (in quarts): 22
  • Capacity (in cans): 24
  • Claimed ice retention: Not specified
PROS

Biodegradable foam decomposes in four years

Lasts longer than a traditional styrofoam cooler

Can be recycled after use

Great size for day trips

CONS

Least durable cooler on this list

Capacity can be limiting

Raised top isn’t great for stacking

Why you should trust us

Our staff is full of people who pursue all kinds of outdoor adventures. We’ve also got a few die-hard foodies. Combining our passions is only natural, and coolers allow us to do just that. We’ve reviewed plenty of gear that’s designed to elevate the camping experience, including sleeping bags, camping grills, and some of our favorite coolers. At the very least, you know we’re not about to let our beer get warm

Types of coolers for camping 

Coolers are pretty basic. They all use an outer shell and some kind of insulation to keep food and drinks cold. There’s still some room for variation, though, so it’s important to know what you’re getting into. Are premium coolers worth the upcharge? Will a good, old styrofoam cooler from the gas station do the trick? We’re here to answer life’s important questions.

Traditional coolers

If your idea of a cooler is a big rectangle with a flat lid and a few built-in cup holders, you’re not wrong. Most coolers look exactly like that and have for many years. It is the way. The reason most coolers fall into this category is simple: they work and they don’t have to cost a lot.

These are great for group camping trips, tailgating, and backyard barbeques. They come in all different sizes and hold temperatures low for hours or even days. Ice is cheap, so we recommend buying the biggest size you think you’re likely to use. One of these will ensure that you have safe, cold food for the whole group days into your camping trip.

Portable coolers

There are other options when carrying a full-sized cooler isn’t practical. Portable coolers allow you to take a few drinks or a single meal on the go. These can be totes or backpacks that are great for picnics and small outings. A lot of people use these for lunchboxes because they eliminate the need for a refrigerator.

Because of their small size, portable coolers don’t hold temperature as well as larger coolers. Their insulation is much thinner and it’s usually necessary to use blocky ice packs rather than loose ice that can fill the cooler evenly. They’re good for a few hours, but we wouldn’t use most of them for much longer.

Tubs and tanks

If you’ve been to a big cookout, you’ve probably seen big, open containers filled with ice. Back in the day, we used corrugated tin water troughs. Now, people use cooler tubs with insulated walls to keep drinks accessible and cold. These coolers have huge amounts of space and make it easy for people to grab and go.

Tubs and tanks have one serious drawback: they violate the closed-lid rule. Without a lid, they burn through ice much faster and are constantly being bombarded by the hot sun. They make up for this in sheer size. Because they’re so big, people can stuff a tremendous amount of ice inside and refill frequently.

Power coolers

If your style of camping takes you away from home for a long enough time, even the best cooler will let you down. If you can’t refill your ice, you’re out of luck––almost. Power coolers are effectively refrigerators that can be plugged into vehicles or generators (gas or solar) to stay cool indefinitely.

These are gaining popularity with car campers and overlanders because they allow people to enjoy meat, dairy, and cold drinks for weeks on end. Even when the power source is disconnected, they can hold their temperature for hours like a traditional cooler. This kind of luxury isn’t cheap, but it’s worth it to replace your beef jerky with freshly grilled steak.

Key features of coolers for camping

Shell

Any cooler that’s going to join you on a camping trip needs to be able to take a beating. Having the best insulation and tastiest food in the world won’t do you any good if the cooler cracks in half before you get the campfire hot. Some coolers achieve this with pliable plastic that absorbs impacts. Others ate a more heavy-duty approach with synthetic materials that are so overbuilt that you’re unlikely to damage them.

Some of the coolers on this list take another approach altogether. Soft-sided coolers are much less brittle than hard coolers, but they also don’t protect their contents against impacts very well. If you bump into a soft cooler it will be fine, but the food inside might end up absorbing the jolt.

Insulation

Insulation is the difference between a cooler and a box. Foam is the go-to for coolers across the price spectrum because it’s cheap, light, and effective. As long as foam insulation is encased in a strong shell, it can last indefinitely because there’s nothing to go wrong. Manufacturers used different kinds of foam, like inexpensive styrofoam and high-end closed-cell foam, but the principle remains the same.

What’s inside is what gives insulation its power. One common rule of thumb is to fill your cooler with two parts ice and one part air. That mixture should keep your food cold without freezing solid. As the ice melts, leave the water inside the cooler to get the most out of it.

Bonus features

One way cooler manufacturers differentiate their products is with extra features. Usually, this means adding a ruler on the lid for measuring fish, cupholders built into the lid to hold your drinks, or rubber padding on the handles for a more comfortable grip. Other common features are drain spouts and wheels.

One innovative cooler on our list is the OtterBox Venture 45. The Venture series includes attachment points where you can mount other OtterBox accessories like a side table, bottle opener, or hard case for things like utensils. We like the idea of being able to customize your cooler, and it wouldn’t surprise us to see more manufacturers jumping on the bandwagon.

Benefits of coolers for camping 

Food safety

Believe it or not, frosty brews aren’t the biggest advantage to making a cooler part of your camping gear list. Your cooler’s first priority should be keeping food at a safe temperature. Meat and dairy products are the biggest concern, but other foods can also grow harmful bacteria or spoil if they aren’t kept cool.

The CDC recommends storing food below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. The range between 40 and 140 degrees presents the most favorable environment for bacteria to grow and spoil your food. Food poisoning isn’t just miserable, it can be life-threatening if you aren’t able to reach medical care fast enough. Keeping food cold until you’re ready to cook and storing leftovers properly is one way to keep your digestive tract running on time.

Camping experience

We’ve done our share of camping with only jerky, trail mix, and MREs to keep us going. That kind of stuff will keep you alive, but if you’re camping for fun it kind of defeats the purpose. If you have access to a vehicle of some kind, a cooler is probably the best way to upgrade your campsite.

The ability to keep food cold will allow you to trade in granola for bacon and eggs, and swap ramen for ribeye. This kind of thing isn’t practical for backpacking, but car camping presents the perfect opportunity to stoke a fire and grill over an open flame and under an open sky. We’re willing to bet that you’ll see a direct correlation between buying a cooler and scheduling more weekend camping trips.

Versatility

Most camping gear is pretty specialized. There aren’t a lot of other situations where you’d want to cook over a Jetboil or take an E-tool to the bathroom, after all. Coolers are an exception to that rule. Their versatility makes them more practical and easier to justify spending your money to get one.

Coolers are perfect for tailgating, outdoor concerts, and picnics in the park. We can’t think of a family reunion that hasn’t had two or three kicking around. They’re also nice to have around the house. Instead of making everyone at your backyard barbeque track through the house every time they need a drink, set your cooler on the patio for them. Keep it on hand in case of a power outage so you can preserve your cold food until the refrigerator comes back on. And here’s a pro tip: you can use a cooler to keep briskets warm until it’s time to eat.

Pricing considerations of coolers for camping

Less than $50

At the bottom of the camping cooler price range, you’re basically looking at disposable styrofoam coolers like the ones you’d find at the gas station. These are certainly usable and might be a cost-effective option if you only go camping once a year. We found one option that’s biodegradable, but most are pretty horrific for the environment.

Styrofoam coolers can hold ice all day if they’re packed right, but don’t expect much more than that. The ones that are used to ship cold food are packed with a ton of ice compared to the actual contents. They’re also not very durable, so don’t expect more than one or two uses out of one.

Between $50 and $150

We’re pretty happy with the midrange coolers available in this price range. There’s a decent selection in terms of size and features. Most of these coolers are good for a few days worth of ice retention and can last several years if you take care of them.

Midrange coolers do a great job and offer a lot of bang for the buck, but they aren’t meant to take much abuse. Tailgating and backyard cookouts are in their wheelhouse. Car camping is no problem. Extended overlanding will stretch these coolers to the limit, especially in hot weather. There’s no reason to avoid them as long as you’re realistic about what you plan to use them for.

More than $150

Coolers that break the $150 mark are what we consider premium coolers. They include innovative features, quality materials, and excellent design. They can come in the form of a high-volume traditional cooler, a midsized cooler, or a backpack cooler. Many cost more than $300 and we’ve seen plenty encroach on $1,000.

At this level, you can expect a rugged shell that’s unfazed by riding around on an ATV or being drug around a campsite. Insulation tends to be more efficient and ice retention is measured in days, if not weeks. Some people argue that these coolers are overpriced and sold on name recognition. That may be true to some degree, but we can’t dispute their effectiveness.

How we chose our top picks

First and foremost, coolers need to keep a stable internal temperature for a long time, regardless of what’s going on outside. We focused on established brands with strong records of success when it comes to building coolers that work. Camping coolers also need to be tough. We weeded out the lightweights because you need to know that your cooler isn’t going to fall apart on the way to the campsite or crack when you set it down on the rocky ground. We also wanted to find a nice variety in terms of size and price. What’s left is a list of the best camping coolers money can buy.

FAQs on coolers for camping

You’ve got questions, Task & Purpose has answers.

Q. Why is bringing a cooler important?

A: Coolers are your best bet for keeping drinks cool during the summer. They’re also critical if you bring raw meat to cook at your campsite. Meat and dairy need to be refrigerated to prevent foodborne illness. We recommend throwing in a thermometer so you can monitor the interior temperature. 

Q. What’s the best way to fill a cooler?

A: Pack your food and drinks first. It’s not a bad idea to put packages of uncooked meat on the bottom, just in case they leak. Cold air is heavy, so pack ice on top of your food to get the most out of it. Don’t skimp on the ice, either. Stack it as thick as you can.

Q. Should I drain the water from my cooler?

A: This is a hotly contested debate, but we’re with Adventure Journal on this one––don’t do it. As long as the water is cooler than the ambient air, it’s less of a problem than the air that will take its place when you drain it.

Q. How can I take care of my camping cooler?

A: You obviously want to protect your cooler against impacts. In between uses, give it a thorough scrubbing with mild dish soap and warm water. That should be all it takes to keep your cooler fresh and ready for the next trip.

Q. Are camping coolers bear-proof?

A: No. Cars aren’t even bear-proof.

Q. How can I keep my cooler cold longer?

A: Coolers do a great job of keeping their internal temperature low, but they can’t actively lower it. To get the most out of your cooler, pack lots of ice and don’t open the lid any longer than is necessary.

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Scott Murdock is a Task & Purpose commerce writer and Marine Corps veteran. He’s selflessly committed himself to experiencing the best gear, gadgets, stories, and alcoholic beverages in the service of you, the reader.

Task & Purpose and its partners may earn a commission if you purchase a product through one of our links. We independently evaluate gear by putting products in the hands of subject matter experts. The products we test may be purchased by Task & Purpose, our staff, or provided for review by a manufacturer. No matter the source, our testing procedures and our assessments remain free from third-party influence. Learn more about our product review process.