These are the best coolers you can buy

Now playing: Watch this: 12 coolers tested: Which ones are worth the cash? 3:23 From tailgating to backyard parties, a dependable, portable cooler that isn’t a pain to lug around is an awfully nice thing to have on hand — and these days, you’ve got more options than ever. That’s largely thanks to the rise of “rotomolded” heavy duty coolers that promise significantly better insulation than traditional coolers, albeit at a much higher price than you’re probably used to paying — typically, hundreds of dollars.

These days, if you’re looking for a dependable, portable cooler that is easy to bring to everything from tailgating events to backyard parties, you’ve got more options than ever. before, thanks to the rise of “rotomolded” heavy duty coolers that promise significantly better insulation than traditional coolers. What’s the catch? Rotomolded coolers tend to come at much higher prices than you’re probably used to paying — typically, hundreds of dollars.

So are the best coolers actually worth their asking prices? And can any of the cheaper ones keep up? That’s what I wanted to know, so I turned to the usual suspects — Rubbermaid, Igloo, Coleman — and lugged their most popular models into the CNET Appliances test lab, where we pitted them against the insulated power of rotomolded coolers from Orca, Rovr, Yeti, Pelican, RTIC, Cabela’s and more. I was testing hard-sided coolers only, no soft coolers made the list. Our mission? Find the best coolers of the bunch — you know, the ones that pack a lot of stuff, are easy to carry, and are virtually indestructible — and figure out if the insulation offered by rotomolded, hard-sided coolers is worth the cold, hard cash needed to bring them home.

After several weeks of hands-on testing and countless ambient temperature readings, we were ready to separate 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.

Best rotomolded cooler Cabela’s Polar Cap Equalizer Cooler $250 at Cabela’s

Best value pick Igloo MaxCold Cooler $57 on Amazon

Best rotomolded value pick RTIC 65 Cooler $326 on Amazon

Best performance Yeti Tundra 45 $300 on Amazon

Best design Lifetime High Performance Cooler $100 at Lifetime

Best mobility Rovr Rollr 60 Cooler $400 at Amazon

Best cooler for cheapskates Igloo Recool Biodegradable Cooler $10 at REI

Enlarge Image Tyler Lizenby/CNET Best rotomolded coolers
Cabela’s Polar Cap Equalizer Cooler, $250  
Orca Classic Cooler, $330

Enlarge ImageCabela’s cooler finished in a dead heat with last year’s rotomolded champ, the Orca Classic Cooler. I say take your pick between them.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET Rotomolding is short for rotational molding, a manufacturing technique that literally spins the mold as the plastic is poured in. The result: plastic that’s more durable, more uniform in density and, most importantly in the case of coolers, better at insulation.

Rotomolded coolers don’t come cheap, but they’re demonstrably better than the competition at keeping things cold. I mean, it’s not like we have a portable refrigerator on our hands here, but it keeps cans COLD. The best we’ve seen from a pure performance standpoint comes from Yeti — but the extra-thick walls of that heavy-duty cooler mean that you’re getting seriously shortchanged on inches and capacity (more on that in just a bit).

Out of the rest of the rotomolded field, our top durable performers for insulation were the Orca Classic Cooler and the Cabela’s Polar Cap Equalizer Cooler, which are fairly close in price. They essentially tied in my performance tests, so picking between them really comes down to taste. The Cabela’s cooler offers slightly more space inside (about 3 quarts’ worth), and it includes clever bottle openers built into the rubber latches. Meanwhile, the Orca cooler comes in better-looking colors, and it’s a bit more comfortable to carry since it doesn’t have rigid molded handles that jut out over top of the roped handles.

Available at Cabela’s
Read the full Orca Classic Cooler review

Available at AmazonEnlarge Image Tyler Lizenby/CNET Best value picks
Igloo MaxCold Cooler, $57
RTIC 65 Cooler, $326

Enlarge ImageThe rotomolded RTIC 65 didn’t perform as well as the Yeti, Cabela’s or Orca models, but with roughly a 73-quart capacity, it also had a bigger job on its hands than those three. Currently available for $326, it’s about as close to a value pick as you’ll find among rotomolded coolers.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET If you just want a dependable cooler that’s not too expensive, put the Igloo MaxCold at the top of your list. Prices vary based on where and when you buy, but I scored mine on sale last year for $45. That makes it the only cooler available for less than $50 that remains in the top five of my performance tests, a list that now includes two years’ worth of contenders. In fact, it finished in fourth. Only the Yeti, Cabela’s and Orca managed to outperform it — and again, each of those costs closer to $300.

The MaxCold’s plasticky build and dated design aren’t anything fancy to look at, but it covers the basics by including a drainage spout and a latch for the lid (not every cooler in this price range does). Plus, it’s sturdy enough to sit on, which could come in handy during your next camping trip. All of that adds up to a lot of value — enough so that the MaxCold earned an overall score of 8.2 here on CNET, higher than any other cooler I’ve reviewed.

Read the full Igloo MaxCold Cooler review

Available at AmazonLooking for a rotomolded value? Check out the RTIC 65. It’s a large cooler that’ll hold about twice as many cans as the Yeti. The 1-year warranty is shorter than you’ll get with most other rotomolded options, but if you just want a budget pick, it fits the bill.

Available at AmazonEnlarge Image Tyler Lizenby/CNET Best performance
Yeti Tundra 45 Cooler, $300

I told you a couple of paragraphs ago that the $300 Yeti Tundra 45 was our top-performing cooler, but I should also add that it really wasn’t close. With walls that are about 2.75 inches thick, it’s insulated better than any other cooler that I’ve tested to date, which is key for performance in a portable cooler.

Lots of insulation means that the Yeti can do more with less. With just 3 pounds of ice — not even enough to fully cover the bottom of the cooler — the Yeti was able to pull its internal ambient temperature down by almost 25 degrees, the second biggest temperature drop of the group. The cooler from Cabela’s hit a minimum temperature that was about 1 degree lower, but unlike the Yeti, it wasn’t able to hold that minimum for long periods of time. In fact, after 24 hours in a climate-controlled room set to 70 degrees, the Yeti was the only cooler that still had ice in it. After 48 hours, it was the only cooler that still hadn’t returned to room temperature.

You’ll want to check out my full review of this bear resistant, heavy duty cooler to get a better sense of just how badly it smoked the competition, but a good analogy would be a horse that separates itself from the pack early on and wins its race in a breakaway finish. I wish the Tundra 45 offered more capacity for the price, but if you just want the cooler that’ll keep your ice frozen the longest, this is the one.

Read the full Yeti Tundra 45 Cooler review

Available at AmazonEnlarge Image Tyler Lizenby/CNET Best design
Lifetime High Performance Cooler, $100

Enlarge ImagePelican’s rotomolded coolers come in a wide range of great-looking colors, and each comes with a lifetime warranty — they’re worth a look if you just want something eye-catching.

Pelican If you want a cooler that feels modern and fancy, but you aren’t ready to dish out hundreds of dollars for a rotomolded model, consider the Lifetime High Performance Cooler, which I found on sale at Walmart for $97 (though it’s currently out of stock). It was a top-five performer in my tests, essentially tying the excellent Igloo MaxCold while also offering a significant step up in build quality. 

The Lifetime cooler isn’t rotomolded, but that’s the kind of aesthetic that it offers. Call it a lookalike if you must, but it’s a very good one, with elegant roped handles, dual-locking lid latches and even a built-in bottle opener, something you won’t get with the Yeti or Orca we tested. It’s also bigger than both of those pricier options, coming in at a bigger-than-advertised 62.4 quarts. If you’re looking for a top performer that looks the part, Lifetime’s design offers the most bang for your buck.

Read the full Lifetime High Performance Cooler review

Available at LifetimeLooking for something eye-catching that’ll stand out the next time you’re tailgating? Check out Pelican. I wasn’t terribly impressed with the performance as compared with other rotomolded coolers, but the brand offers one of the best ranges of color options that you’ll find as you shop, and most of the colors don’t cost anything extra. I’ll add that the Pelican cooler is one of the only models we’ve tested that comes with a lifetime warranty.

Available at PelicanEnlarge Image Chris Monroe/CNET Best mobility
Rovr Rollr 60 Cooler, $399

You’ve got lots of options if you want a wheeled cooler, but if it were me, I’d save up and plunk down $400 for the Rovr Rollr 60. Though it wasn’t quite as strong of a performer as the Yeti or Orca, 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, as long as we didn’t have to carry it for very long. With 9-inch wheels and a frame built from stainless steel and aluminum, the Rollr is quite heavy even before you start loading cans, water 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 $50 “Bikr Kit” that makes it easy to tow the Rollr behind a bike (though, at almost $400 for the cooler, I wish at least one or two of these kits came included).

In fairness, we’ve only tested a couple of wheeled coolers so far, and the Rollr was the only one that I’d be happy to own. If I find a better value pick in the future I’ll update this space, but for now, I think Rovr’s wheeled cooler is well worth the money.

Read the full Rovr Rollr 60 Cooler review

Available at AmazonEnlarge Image Ry Crist/CNET Best cooler for cheapskates
Igloo Recool, $10

Enlarge ImageIn our 70-degree test lab, the Igloo Recool held our test beverages below 40 degrees for a good 15 hours before things started to heat back up.

Ry Crist/CNET One last recommendation — Even if you don’t want to spend more than $20 on a cooler, you might as well not bother with cheapies like the Igloo Island Breeze and Rubbermaid Ice Chest coolers that I managed to score on sale for as little as $15. The latches and hinges felt flimsy, they both lack a drain, and neither one performed any better than a cheap Styrofoam cooler from the gas station. 

Of course, Styrofoam buildup is a big problem in landfills these days, so for an eco-friendly alternative, go with the Igloo Recool. Available at an REI co-op, grocery store, super market, or gas station near you for about $10, the Recool is a reusable cooler made from recycled tree pulp with environmentally safe additives to help it hold water and keep things cold. It only promises 12 hours of ice retention, and at 18 quarts, it doesn’t offer room for much more than six cans or so — but hey, that’s still enough for a quick day trip to the beach with a buddy. If a small cooler is all you need, it’ll do the job.

The Recool didn’t hold the cold quite as well as Styrofoam when I tested it out, but it still performed as promised. Sitting in our 70-degree test lab with a small bag of ice from the gas station in it (roughly 7 pounds), the Recool was able to keep six Diet Cokes down at cold temps for a good 15 hours. Afterward, just dump the water out and let it air dry.

Read more about the Igloo Recool
Available at REIThe $8 Vericool Ohana is a little bigger than the Recool, but it isn’t available in stores yet.

Chris Monroe/CNET If you need something a little bigger than the Recool’s 18 quarts, then you could opt for the Vericool Ohana, another eco-friendly disposable cooler that comes in a 42-quart size for just $8. The rub is that it’s currently only available direct from Vericool’s website, and you’ll need to pay extra for shipping (here in Kentucky, that brought the total up to $22).

Still, in addition to being reusable and biodegradable like the Recool, the Ohana is also recyclable (the Recool isn’t because of some of the additives it uses for waterproofing). Vericool tells us that it’s in talks to get the Ohana into retail outlets like convenience stores, grocery stores and gas stations, so keep an eye out — and rest assured that, like the Recool, the Ohana passed our tests with flying colors.

Read more about the Vericool Ohana
Available at VericoolAnd hey, while we’re talking tests…

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