How To Choose A Camping Cooler

The Best Coolers for Camping: How to Choose (and Use) the Right One

Car camping or canoeing or rafting? You should eat (and drink) well. A cooler is key, of course. There are more choices than ever for keeping food cold, which is great but also daunting if you’re not sure what features you need. Use this guide to find the right cooler. Plus: 6 tips to keep stuff cold longer.

Cooler Types

Hard-sided: The classic cooler is durable and provides good to great insulation. In general they’re the best choice for multi-day trips. The top models are made with UV-resistant polyethylene and rotomolded; the seamless, one-piece construction improves insulation and durability.  

Pros: Efficiency and durability; the best hard-sided coolers keep ice cold for as long as a week, and will last for years. 

Cons: Large models are bulky (and heavy when fully loaded); can be expensive 

Soft-sided: Soft-sided coolers keep ice cold for a full day. 

Pros: Compact; portable (shoulder straps make for efficient carrying); easier to store

Cons: Generally less durable than hard-sided models; not very useful for large groups and long trips 

Electric: If you have power, this option is essentially a portable refrigerator. 

Pros: Keep food cold as long as you have power—without dealing with melting ice. That also increases capacity, since you don’t have ice blocks taking up space. 

Cons: Expensive; power management can be a hassle


Wheels: Large coolers may be too heavy to lift or at least difficult to move very far once they’re packed. Wheels are the answer, but just remember that most cooler wheels won’t work on rugged terrain.  

Seat cushions: A hard-sided cooler makes a great place to sit; make it more comfortable with a portable seat cushion. 

Straps: Soft-sided coolers that come with backpack or shoulder straps are best for portability.  

Hydrolock zipper: These durable, waterproof zippers are a bonus on any soft-sided cooler. 

Bear lock: Some coolers are certified as bear-resistant.

Cooler Tips

Keep things cold longer by packing and prepping your cooler the right way. 

Pre-chill: Cool down the interior before you pack it. 

Fill it up: A fully loaded cooler stays cold longer, since there’s less air circulating to melt ice.

Use plenty of ice: If you want a cooler to stay cold for days, pack it half full of ice.

Mix it up: Ice blocks stay cold longer than ice cubes, but cubes keep the contents of the cooler colder. A mix works best. 

Don’t drain it: Meltwater keeps the remaining ice cold. 

Environment: In hot weather, keep the cooler in the shade as much as possible. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.