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Cooler Buyer's Guide at Cabela's

Cooler Buyer's Guide

Author: Wes Wiedmaier

If you already have a cooler, chances are you could use another one. If you don’t have one, you’ve clicked on the right link for concise information to make your buying decision easier.

Consider the importance of all the gear you take on any fishing, hunting or camping trip. Where does the cooler rank on this list? In the middle? At the bottom? Obviously, coolers are essential for your outdoor adventures. There are plenty on the market to choose from. For simplicity we’ll break down the buying decision into two all-encompassing questions: What type of cooler do I need and what size do I need?


What type of cooler do I need?
Here’s a quick rundown of the coolers on the market with the advantages and drawbacks of each.

Soft-sided (Collapsible) coolers
Intended use - To hold a few beverages and food for a meal or two on day trips.

Soft-sided nylon coolers are often used to carry lunch to work or school and are convenient for day trips. The main drawbacks of soft-sided coolers are their lack of durable rigidity and lowered cooling efficiency. If compact storage is enough of a priority to offset the drawbacks, consider these your first choice. Otherwise, look elsewhere.

An example of this type in a larger size is the Thermos Collapsible Cooler. It has a 66-quart capacity and folds down to the size of a portfolio.

Hard-sided coolers
Intended use - Mainstream outdoor enthusiasts who want durability and efficient cooling properties.

These are the most popular coolers in the outdoor industry. They can be further broken down into traditional stainless steel and plastic models. Metal coolers are known for near indestructibility and, unfortunately, a hefty weight difference when compared with their plastic counterparts. The Coleman Stainless Steel Cooler was originally manufactured from 1954 to 1994. It has been brought back to appease customers who love the sleek looks and five-generation-heirloom longevity. If you desire the same, the metal coolers are made for you. One thing to bear in mind: Metal absorbs and retains heat longer than plastic. If you leave a metal cooler in the sun, the metal will warm up and retain its heat long after you move it to a shaded location. This is a reason for the overwhelming popularity of plastic coolers.

In recent years, plastic coolers have been further improved by advancements in insulation and the lid seal efficiency. Most coolers are insulated with high-density foam. The higher the density, the higher the overall cooling efficiency. Coolers like the Coleman Extreme and the Max Cool series from Igloo are among the most thermal-efficient coolers on the market to date. They have been tested to support claims, such as those from Coleman, that state their best coolers will keep ice for up to six days in 90° heat. These are the preferred option for the warmest climates and the hottest summer days.

If you decide to go with a hard-sided cooler, here are some additional considerations to make before your purchase: Check to see if the lid is insulated and has a tight seal. Models skimping on such features will not compete with models that do. Consider hard-sided models with built-in wheels and oversized handles to make transport easier. Your back will thank you when it comes time to move it, fully loaded. Another beneficial feature found on most coolers is a drain plug to quickly empty melted ice.

Electric coolers
Intended use - Those who have access to a power supply and want to eliminate the inconvenience of using ice to keep things cool.

An electric cooler, such as a midsized 12-volt model, is ideal for situations where your vehicle will power the cooler to keep food and beverages chilled on long drives. Most 12-volt coolers also can be converted to work in an ordinary 110-volt AC wall socket like those in a cabin or lodge. Some 12-volt coolers come with the AC adapter, but for others it is sold separately.

The obvious drawback with this type of cooler is that once the power is cut off, so is the cooling capacity. How long an electric cooler keeps its contents cool when not connected to a power source depends on conditions such as the ambient temperature, how full the cooler is and how often you open the lid. Electric coolers are well-insulated and should keep their contents cool for a few hours in the absence of electricity, but it depends greatly on the ambient temperature.

The temperature on most electric coolers cannot be set to an exact number. It can only be set to cool and, for some models, to warm. This warming temperature is ideal for keeping hot foods hot, but it is also in the ideal range for bacteria growth. Think twice before keeping food at this temperature range for longer than 45 minutes at a time.

Most electric coolers do not give a specific minimum temperature. Instead most say they cool to 40° below the ambient temperature. This means that if you keep the cooler in a 75° air-conditioned house, the inside of the cooler can get as low as 35°. However, if the cooler is outside in 90° weather, it will only get as low as 50°. The fridge/freezer models are more powerful than the standard coolers and can reach far lower temperatures in the same ambient temperature because they use compressor cooling rather than thermoelectric cooling. However, these models are less than ideal when space and power supply are limited.

What size cooler do I need?
After selecting the type of cooler or coolers you need, the next consideration is size. The capacity of a cooler is measured in quarts. Coolers come in sizes ranging from 16 quarts to 400+ quarts. In order to give you a better idea of how much this is, the capacity in 12-ounce cans is also usually given. On average, 1 quart equates to 0.75 cans. So, a 12-quart cooler can hold about nine cans, but you also have to leave room for ice if you want to enjoy a cool drink. If you have bulky containers that must fit inside, make sure to check the dimensions of the cooler to see if they will fit.

When considering sizes, it’s best to think long term. Think about every type of use, not just the short-term ones. What about that weeklong hunt you plan to take? The extra capacity of the largest-sized coolers will be a relief when you find out how much meat you’ll be transporting home after you down that elk you’ve been dreaming of. Hard-core hunters who spend extended periods in remote backcountry should consider the 420-quart Outfitter Grizzly Cooler. It has been field-tested to cool the quarters of three elk for a week.

For avid outdoor enthusiasts, the best way to cover all the bases is to have one small or medium-sized cooler for weekend camping trips and another larger-capacity cooler for extended vacations and to carry large amounts of fish or game meat. Having more than one cooler is also ideal for hot summer days. One of which would be used for often-needed items such as beverages. The other cooler can be used for food for meals, two to three times a day. When a cooler is repeatedly opened, the inside air that has been cooling escapes, replaced with warmer air, requiring the cooling cycle to start over again. Opening it fewer times keeps your food and drinks colder longer.

In weekend camping situations with two to three people, a 50- to 60-quart cooler should be sufficient to store all the food and drinks you’ll need. For day trips, consider a cooler smaller than 40 quarts. It is best to keep the size of the cooler to a minimum as dictated by your needs. If the cooler is packed tightly, it will stay colder. Too much air in the cooler allows the temperature to rise more rapidly.

Tips and Advice
Here are some tips to maximize the efficiency of the cooler or coolers you select.

  • Whenever possible, pre-chill drinks and food before placing them in the cooler. Think of it this way: It takes 1-1/2 pounds of ice just to cool a gallon of room-temperature liquid. Having it already cold ensures ice lasts much longer. It is also a good idea to pre-chill the cooler itself by placing some ice inside an hour before you load it.
  • Put your ice in last. Cold air travels down. For beverage-only coolers, load cans and bottles first, then cover with ice. Use crushed or block ice? Crushed ice cools food and drinks fast; however, block ice lasts longer. Pre-freezing drinking water or juices in clean milk jugs is an excellent alternative to the bulk of block ice. This will keep foods cold and provide a source of cold beverages as the jugs thaw.
  • Pack foods in chronological order by placing foods that will be consumed last on the bottom, storing first-used and often-used items on top. Store perishable foods like meat and dairy products directly on ice. Keep foods dry by using sealed plastic containers or zip-closure plastic bags.
  • Store coolers out of the sun, and your ice will last twice as long. To keep warm air out and cold air in, open the lid only when necessary and close it right away. While traveling, pack picnic blankets, sleeping bags or clothing around the cooler to insulate it even more.
  • Don’t drain the cold water from freshly melted ice to keep contents cold. Cold water will preserve the remaining ice much better than air. Drain the water only when necessary for convenient removal of cooler contents or before adding more ice.