Coolers are everywhere. They have a new rugged look and Coleman and Igloo are no longer the only game in town. From cabin to fishing boat, in the campsite or the backyard barbeque, you won’t go many summer days without spotting a cooler. Buying a cooler used to be easy- walk into a store, find a few models almost identical in appearance, performance, and price, choose a size that fit your needs and you’re on your way. Today, buying a cooler means wading through a ton of options, price points, and marketing claims. Instead of a quick $50 purchase you could find yourself shelling out up to $400 for a cooler that should last long enough to be a family heirloom. The average cooler is OK for keeping drinks cold for an afternoon, but when it comes to extended camping or fishing trips, superior ice retention- we’re talking at least a week- is the requirement. That kind of performance is only provided by rugged, heavy-duty coolers designed for the extreme outdoorsmen. It’s market niche with a number of serious contenders:
YETI: Yeti was born with the hardcore outdoor enthusiast in mind. It’s a name at the forefront of “serious” coolers and ice chests. To highlight that fact, their Yeti Hopper 12 just won its class at the iCast 2016 show in Orlando. Yeti basically invented the high-end category when it introduced its first cooler in 2006. Perhaps the finest example of the company’s
commitment to its customer base is the Tundra series. It may look like a slab of thick white plastic from the outside, but the thick walls and airtight lockdown system make the Tundra an excellent cooler. The rugged design is built to take a beating over years of use and abuse without any degradation to its stellar ice retention.
ICEY-TEK: This company may lack the name recognition of Yeti, but they are a serious competitor in performance. Typical of the segment, the Icey-Tek line has its own rugged designs, insulated walls, powerful latches, and other features that catch the attention of cooler shoppers. The company boasts “the largest range of sizes and colors in the industry”, giving buyers plenty of choice.
ENGEL: The DeepBlue is a slight step down from the Yeti/Icey-Tek level, but make no mistake, they are solid coolers with impressive ice retention. DeepBlue has a simple design with an austere body and streamlined, no nonsense latches. Engel is also hiding something- its small metal hooks that secure the latches double as bottle openers, a feature perfect when the need arises for a frosty one. Engel ads represent DeepBlue coolers as resistant to a hungry grizzly trying to break into the chest. Indeed, buyers will notice a stamp on DeepBlue products stating “IGCB Certified Bear Resistant Container.” Say no more, these coolers are tough!
GRIZZLY: Speaking of bears, the company that named itself after one offers its own set of durable and thoroughly insulated coolers. Grizzly coolers have four primary selling points. The first, is durability- Grizzly claims its coolers stand up to a lifetime of use. The second are strong brass latches and integrated hinges that keep Grizzly cooler tops tight. Third is the unique two-inch drain feature that Grizzly includes on all of its coolers, which makes purging and cleaning the cooler easier than with many other brands. Last but not least is color. Grizzly prides itself on offering a wide range of unique colors for those who like to stand out from the mainstream.
ORCA: The Orca Extra Heavy Duty is a cooler that has separated itself from this strong field of contenders. Despite lacking name recognition, ORCA continues to impress in test results, steadily rising up the ranks in performance. It is also
one of the easier models to carry when loaded. Its design makes draining fairly painless. ORCA is a Cinderella story as, from a performance standpoint, and is now challenging the Yeti in many performance categories. They maintained safe food temperatures for an entire extra day in recent insulation tests.
CANYON: Though not quite as well known as the others, Canyon is a brand whose coolers feature three-inch thick polyurethane walls. The company offers a variety of cooler lines ranging in size and design. The “Outfitter” line, from its small one-two person coolers to its bigger ice chests, is Canyon’s most popular, but smaller and more compact coolers from the “Pro Cubes” and “Expedition” lines will catch the eye of campers or fishermen planning an outdoor adventure on a smaller scale.
PELICAN: If you were casting a movie about high-end coolers, it is very likely you would choose the Pelican ProGear Elite. Its rugged good looks just look the part, which is what you would expect from a cooler designed to spend a lifetime fighting off hungry grizzlies. Its is known for its rugged, easy on the hands handles, and it is highly touted as very easy to drain. The Pelican also features a drain plug leash and built-in lid ruler all to make it a worthy competitor.
COLEMAN AND OTHERS: It just would not be a cooler review without this stalwart brand. If you are on a budget, and the cost is more important than the best performance, the truth is you might not need a cooler that could withstand a grizzly attack or a high speed tumble out of a moving pick-up. For buyers planning less intense pursuits, companies like Coleman, Igloo, and Rubbermaid can still satisfy customers at the beach, out camping or cheering, on the sidelines at an organized sporting event. Coleman’s Xtreme 6 complete with wheels and an easy-pull handle, is a great choice as far as mainstream coolers are concerned. It doesn’t have the ice retention or durability of other coolers on this list, but for under $100, the Xtreme offers portability, insulation, and space, and performed average in insulation. This is impressive when you consider that the field is skewed with expensive high-end models. When it comes to value, not many can compete with the Xtreme.
So now that you know the field, how do you make a decision? We recommend focusing on five basic criteria: 1) Insulation; 2) Durability; 3) Ease of Use; 4) Portability, and 5) Features.
INSULATION: The main purpose of a cooler is to keep things cold. Accordingly, insulation is far and away the most important performance metric. Insulation performance falls into two categories. First, maintaining safe food temperatures. Second is ice retention. The Food and Drug Administration considers 40˚F the maximum temperature at which perishable food can safely be stored., Ice retention is fairly self-explanatory, it is the amount of time a cooler can retain ice. Think of ice retention as the length of time drinks can be kept cold- not cool, or sort of … we mean COLD. Recent testing revealed ORCA as best performing model, keeping food at safe temperatures nearly three times as long as the worst performing model, the Rubbermaid Extreme. With the exception of the Grizzly, the high-end models performed significantly better than the traditional models. ORCA supplied 6 full days of safe food temperatures while the Coleman Xtreme supplied 3. The best high end model provided double the performance of the best traditional model, but double performance comes at quadruple the cost. Most high end models claim at least 5-day performance. Engel, ORCA, and Pelican each advertise up to 10-days. The Grizzly and Yeti forgo making claims. Pelican came closest to achieving 7 full days, but it was well short of its 10-day claim.
DURABILITY: It is expected that coolers be put through some abuse and bouncing around in their outdoor uses. Increased durability means longer useful life, and the lower likelihood of mid-trip duct tape repairs. Durability is tough to quantify and assessments tend to be more qualitative. Durability testing clearly separated the two groups- the extremely durable high-end models and the less durable traditional models. All high-end models scores were good to very good. The Pelican and the Yeti were slightly lower due to leaking some water out of the lid which may indicate slightly less structural integrity. The Pelican drain plug leash showed some signs of wear. Just as with my own, personal Xtreme, the hinges on the Coleman showed wear problems indicative of the design differences you expect between traditional and high-end models ( I admit to having had one cooler where the lid blew off cruising down I-87 from the High Peaks Region of the Adirondacks due to broken hinges). The traditional coolers were all below average leading to expectation of a shortened life expectancy.
EASE OF USE: Ease of use boils down to two major things- opening/closing the lid and draining meltwater. Lid opening difficulty is mostly determined by the latches. Lids that have a propensity to snap shut on a whim add a degree of difficulty to normal loading and unloading. Drain plugs sometimes blast streams of water creating collateral splashing or dripping which can make a mess when you’re trying to drain. The highest performing models were the Pelican, Engel and Igloo. The Grizzly, Yeti, and Rubbermaid Extreme lost points because of annoyances during the draining. The Grizzly’s drain plug got stuck, requiring some grunting to get it free. It also splashed quite a bit when the plug finally came off. The Yeti’s drain also had splashing issues when it was first opened. Further,Yeti’s handle always swings in the way of the drain. The Rubbermaid was by far the least favorite to drain. In order to accommodate its wheels, drain plug placement is halfway up the body, requiring you to tip it completely on its side to completely drain.
PORTABILITY: When fully packed, ice chests are heavy. Loaded with water, the Yeti Tundra and Coleman Xtreme weighed 137 lbs. and 147 lbs. respectively. Even a two-person carry will get the heart pumping. Ease of portability is almost completely determined by handle comfort. Poorly designed handles can leave your hands looking like raw meat, while nice handles can make moving a heavy load a lot less painful. The ORCA and Pelican were favorite models to carry when heavily loaded. The rigid plastic handles of the Pelican were the most comfortable, although the Pelican lost points on packability due to its hefty exterior size. While the ORCA’s handles weren’t quite as comfortable, they were still clearly better than the rest of the models, and its more cubic shape made it more packable. The lowest scorers were the Yeti and Grizzly. Both models missed the mark in handle design. The Yeti combined a rigid handle with a rope attachment giving it a load distribution that was not comfortable on hands. The Grizzly has a soft handle which caused a lot of pinching during the carry.
FEATURES: Features weighed the lowest in consideration- many being standard must haves. The most convenient feature was the drain plug leash, but while convenient sometimes these led to splashing and durability issues. The Engel includes the built in emergency bottle opener which is the handiest feature for the forgetful
.CONCLUSION: One of the complications in buying a cooler is figuring out how much cooler performance do you really need? The very best coolers are robust, and will last a very long time, offering outstanding insulation for multi-day outings. If you don’t need to keep things cold for very long, then a lower priced cooler could be best for you. I hope this information helps narrow the field to one or two products that seem just right for your needs. Whatever you decide, remember to LIVE THE PASSION!