A good camping cooler is an essential piece of equipment for your family adventures. Without it, you simply cannot go camping unless you stock up on MREs and due to sodium content, we do not recommend that. In this article, we are going to detail all the important features to look for and our list of the 10 best camping coolers.
Hard-Shell Cooler vs. Soft-Shell Cooler
First, there are two types of coolers: hard shells and soft shells. As you can probably guess, one is made of rigid plastic, and the other is made of fabric. We will quickly compare and contrast the two in the following table.
||Suitable for cooler climates
|Ice retention for up to one week
||Ice retention up to three days
|Larger capacity, heavy
||Smaller capacity, lightweight
|Some have wheels for moving
|No external wetness
||Condensation, leakage possible
As you can see, there are quite a few differences in the two. Your preference will be determined by how you camp. If you prefer long weeks in the wilderness, a hard-shell cooler will be most beneficial. However, if you only take short camping trips, a soft-shell cooler might be convenient.
What to Look for in a Camping Cooler
When shopping for your camping cooler, consider the following features to narrow down what is most important to you.
Obviously, you need to pick a cooler that has room for the amount of food you need to take. Capacity is often listed in quarts, liters, and sometimes cans (of the 12 ounce variety). It is important to remember, that you will need room for ice packs or cubes along with your food and beverages.
The cooler’s weight is closely related to its capacity. Larger capacity coolers are often heavier. This is also true of coolers with extra insulation or convenience features that we will discuss later. You will want a cooler you can maneuver into and out of your vehicle when loaded with sustenance.
Many larger hard-shell coolers come with a handle and wheels, so you can easily pull it around instead of carrying it. Depending on the terrain at your campsite, you may need rugged wheels on your cooler. Most soft-shell coolers do not feature wheels and must be carried in and out of the site by a shoulder strap.
If you camp with your family often, you obviously want a cooler that will last. Hard-shell coolers definitely win in this category. Most are made with durable plastic and some feature plastics that help deflect the sun’s rays and hinder the breakdown of the materials.
You will also want to stay away from plastic hinges and opt instead for stainless steel or integrated hinges. Plastic hinges are easier to break. If you choose a locking cooler, make sure the locking mechanism is durable, as well.
As you saw in the table, hard-shell coolers can boast a much longer cooling time (ice retention). This is often due to thicker insulation, which equates to a heavier, bulkier cooler. However, if you plan long camping trips, you will want your cooler to stay cool as long as possible.
By pre-cooling your cooler with ice packs or bags of ice, you can extend the cooling time of your cooler. Loading a room temperature (or warmer) cooler will use up your ice quicker than if you’ve already pre-cooled to close to the intended temperature. Simply, put ice or packs inside the cooler the night before you intend to pack it, but be sure to empty out this “sacrificial” ice prior to packing.
This category includes features that aren’t necessary for a great camping cooler, but sure do help out at the campsite. This can include built-in drink holders on the cooler’s lid, the ability to use the cooler as a stool or seat, and the ability to lock the cooler. Some coolers are equipped with dividers so you can keep different types of food separated.
The Best Camping Coolers
As promised, here is our list of the best camping coolers out there. Remember that the best cooler for you may be different than ours depending on how you camp. However, we feel this is a solid list, and most family campers can find an ideal cooler in it.