The sun is out, the party’s on, and you have all the makings of a great day with your speakers, your grill and your string lights. All that’s missing is a good reliable cooler to keep your food and drinks cold (particularly if you’re feeling this heat wave). There are a variety of options on the market, so we rounded up our favorites at all price points and styles. Whether you’re spending your day on the beach, in a backyard, or on a balcony, we’ve found a cooler for you.
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I travel with groceries in my car many weekends of the year and join friends for beach picnics during the summer, so I’ve got quite a few coolers in my house. What is particularly interesting is how the category has changed in the past few years with the advent of lighter, “tougher”, and more marketing inspired choices. This is a good thing which has reawakened a once sleepy category.
While I lately have opted to travel most often with a YETI Flip 12—lightweight, shoulder strap, easy to clean—AND would recommend it, I continue to experience such sticker shock on the price ($250) that I cannot recommend it to everyone I meet with comfort. It is, quite frankly, a luxury.
Which brings me to the Coleman Vintage Steel-Belted Cooler, of which I have six (why? you may ask…). These things were my go-to for years and I still use them for bigger loads as well as anytime I need a table or seat at the beach (you can stand on them). I love how durable, no nonsense they are, how classic they look, and how much more affordable they are. THESE get my first recommendation, YETI my second.
You might recognize OtterBox for their basically indestructible phone cases, but their coolers are just as impressive (and heavy duty). The Venture 45 is, you guessed it, 45 quarts, and comes with a bottle opener and dry storage tray. If you’re looking for something rugged, this is a great option—it keeps ice for up to 14 days and is designed with a mounting system, plus it’s even Certified Bear Resistant when used with the OtterBox Locking Kit.
Another heavy-duty pick, the 50-quart Pelican Elite has a lifetime warranty and can be used for three to five days of travel/camping. There are a lot of built-ins here, like cup holders, a bottle opener and tie downs, making the most of the cooler’s surface area. This one is also Certified Bear Proof—plus comes in a variety of colors to please any person.
People freak out over YETI coolers. They’re tough, high quality and strangely pretty. Here’s what else people love about them: They have two inches of PermaFrost insulation (basically, they’re great at staying cold) and you have the option of personalizing your YETI’s ice configuration. This is a great pick for barbecues, picnics and beach days—and, if you take tailgating seriously you can even buy a version with your college’s logo on it.
Despite appearances, this soft-shell cooler does a lot of work. It keeps drinks cold for 36 hours and can fit up to 50 cans plus ice, but folds down to less than three inches when not in use. So, if the idea of the giant bulky coolers makes you nervous storage-wise, the SnapBasket is a great option, especially if you don’t need something so heavy duty. For those of us who aren’t exactly campers, this cooler is perfect for day trips and road trips.
If all you’re doing outside is picnicking, consider this wine and cheese tote found at Home Depot. It’s specifically designed to hold two bottles of wine and comes with its own cutting board, cheese knife, and corkscrew—easiest date ever. The center divider that prevents the bottles from hitting each other can be folded down if you’d rather transport larger bottles or food, but why change a good thing?
Newer on the scene is the KULA 5, a smaller hardshell cooler that holds 5 gallons and is designed to maximize drink storage (check out that round shape). It kind of looks like a heavily armored lunch box, which makes sense considering that the people over at KULA claim that it’s the only product ever Certified Gator Proof by the Gator Proof Alliance. Is that a real thing? Let this video convince you.
A soft-shell option from the experts over at YETI, the Hopper Flip 12 holds up to 13 cans or 16 pounds of ice. The DryHide shell is waterproof and resistant to mildew, punctures and even UV rays—clearly it can withstand a lot despite its softer surface. The grid system built into the front of the cooler allows you to attach pretty much anything to it, and the shoulder strap means easy portability. It may not fit as much as the larger YETI options, but the Hopper Flip is a perfect fit for solo travelers.
This cooler has some major mom vibes, and I mean that in the best way. It reminds me of what my own mother used to carry when she took us kids to the pool: Roomy enough to fit a day’s worth of food and water, inexpensive enough to get roughed up (hello, wet bathing suits) and versatile enough to also hold things that usually go in a purse. The Topanga tote fits the bill—the perfect companion for moms (and just organized people in general) everywhere.
From Australian company Sunnylife comes this fun bucket bag that works especially well with wine bottles. It doesn’t have as long a cooling period as the others on this list (only about 4 hours), so it’s definitely not ideal for camping or long days. On the other hand, if you’re looking for something small and stylish that can be brought along to picnics or parties, this bag is worth considering.
California-based lifestyle brand ban.do is nothing if not unabashedly fun, and couldn’t we all have a little more of that in our lives? The Super Chill Cooler Bag comes in three different fruity patterns: watermelon (our favorite), lemon and grapefruit. These totes are so cute that you could honestly use them as a purse when they aren’t on cooling duty—if there’s such a thing as a perfect beach accessory, this is it.
Tips for Packing Your Cooler
- Build your base with beer and ice. Putting the heaviest items on the bottom is an obvious method to prevent smushed food while also creating a solid base for your food supplies to sit on. Plus, the things on the bottom will stay cooler longer.
- Have a method for food storage. Meats should go on top of the base in airtight baggies, followed by the most fragile food supplies (think fruit, pasta salad, sandwiches, etc). Devote one half of the top layer to pre-chilled drinks so you don’t have to rummage around and mess up your organization, or consider bringing two coolers—one for drinks (that you’ll expect to open more frequently) and one for food and extra drinks (that will stay closed and keep cooler longer).
- Ice! You’ll need three to five bags of ice depending on the size of your cooler. If you’re using a smaller, soft-shell cooler it’s probably best to use ice packs instead to avoid a melting mess. Although it’s a bit more work, using large blocks of ice instead of smaller cubes will take longer to melt and will definitely keep your supplies cold. Frozen water bottles do the trick too, and you can drink the water once it thaws.
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