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Things to Consider When Choosing a Camping Cooler

When away from home, your cooler is essentially your camping refrigerator. To ensure your food does not spoil, you will want to use a portable camping cooler that you are comfortable with. For all of my years of camping, as far as keeping my perishables cool I have been a bit of a minimalist. I grab a large cooler, fill it with ice, and am good to go. When considering a cooler for camping, I had never thought of an electric camping cooler or special technology that keeps ice from melting for days in hot temperatures. It turns out that there are many options available; so many in fact, that it can be hard to know where to start in looking for the right camping cooler for you.

First, let’s consider the types of coolers that are available. Then, we can consider a few questions that will help you to make an educated decision on what cooler is best for you to purchase.

Types of Coolers

There are hard-sided and soft-sided coolers available. Hard-sided are either plastic or metal, while soft-sided are made of a flexible material and can be folded up when empty. There are also electric coolers and heavy-duty coolers. There are positives and negatives to each type of cooler.

Plastic coolers are usually built with high density foam for insulation. Depending on the quality of the cooler, it may have an insulated lid and tight seal to help keep things cool. Often, plastic coolers have wheels or handles that will make them easier to carry or transport. Plastic coolers are great for car camping, however it can be challenging to bring a medium or large size plastic cooler on a miles-long hike into the wilderness.

Metal coolers are great for their durability. However, they are heavier than their plastic counterparts. A major issue is that the metal will absorb and retain heat longer than a plastic cooler will. Should you leave a metal cooler in the sun, it will heat up faster and take longer to cool down than if you leave a plastic cooler in the sun.

Soft-sided coolers are great for limited space. There are many versions of soft-sided coolers on the market, some of which can be carried like a backpack. Soft-sided coolers are the lightest weight cooler options, however they are not as durable and they typically have less insulation, meaning they are not as efficient in regards to cooling. There are a variety of these made by Coleman and Yeti offers multiple versions of soft-sided coolers that while expensive, perform very well.

Electric coolers are able to keep your items cool without ice. For those who regularly camp in an RV or where there is access to an electrical hook up, this is a great option. You can also plug the cooler into your car’s AC outlet. For backcountry camping, this is not an option to consider, as there will be no electricity to plug into. Coleman and Igloo both make versions of electric coolers.

Beyond your cooler being made of a hard material like plastic or metal, or soft-sided, there are basic coolers and heavy-duty coolers. Basic coolers are inexpensive and the price goes up based on size. These are the coolers that are easy to find at your local discount or sporting goods store. They offer less insulation than heavy-duty coolers and the seal around the lid is often not tight. For a few nights of car camping, these coolers will work fine, as long as you plan to replace the ice as needed in order to keep your perishables cool. Igloo and Coleman make a variety of basic, plastic coolers in all sizes.

Heavy-duty coolers offer thick insulation and lids that lock and seals that are tight. These coolers are often made out of a special type of plastic. They are built to withstand not just the elements, but bears and other wildlife. These coolers are very heavy and very expensive, so it is important to consider whether a heavy-duty cooler is something that you truly need. Yeti and Grizzly are popular brands for heavy-duty coolers.

Choosing the Right Option for You

Now that you have an idea of all of the types of coolers available, it is time to consider how you plan to use your cooler. Take the time to consider the following prior to making your choice:

  • What type of camping will you be doing?
  • What do you plan to keep in your cooler?
  • How far do you plan to carry your cooler?

Knowing the answers to these questions will help you to choose a cooler that will best meet your needs. After assessing your needs, you can consider the types of coolers available along with the features they offer and determine which is best for you.

What Type of Camping Will you be Doing?

Choosing Camping Cooler

Prior to choosing a cooler for camping, you will want to consider what type of camping you have been doing and plan to do in the future. Are you mainly car camping on the weekends? Going out for weeks at a time in your RV? Something in the middle of those two? An electric camping cooler is really neat, but likely unnecessarily for one or two night adventures and not useful when in the backcountry. On the other hand, it would be very convenient to have an electric camping cooler for a long trip on the road where you are either car camping or enjoying time in your RV. If you like to car camp in remote areas, getting ice may be challenging for you during your adventures. A heavy-duty cooler that will hold ice for multiple days could be beneficial. This should be factored into you decision.

Another thing to consider is what you may encounter during your camping trips. If you may encounter bears or other wildlife, a heavy-duty cooler may be for you.

Considering the type of camping you do along with how long you do it and whether things are accessible will help you in deciding the size and weight of the cooler and what features you would benefit from.

What do you plan to keep in your Cooler?

choosing camping cooler

This is a big question. If you are only planning to use your cooler to keep cans of soda cold, your needs will be much different than someone who is looking for their cooler to refrigerate meat or dairy. Some folks plan to cook while camping and bring meats, fresh vegetables, and dairy to their campsite. Should you be bringing meat or dairy that needs to be refrigerated for multiple days, it is important that you find a cooler that seals well and is able to keep your provisions at an appropriate temperature. You will again need to keep in mind whether you are able to access ice when camping. Should this regularly be a challenge, you will want to be sure to get a cooler that will not require a new bag of ice every day or two.

How Far do you Plan to Carry Your Cooler?

For someone who mainly car camps, the cooler won’t be carried far. However, if you are an avid backpacker who wants to be able to bring in a few perishable items along for your trip, you will want your cooler to be small and light. There are soft-sided coolers that are lighter and easier to carry for backcountry camping, however these are not as sturdy.

Keep in mind the distance you will carry your cooler. This is key to purchasing something you can use. You may find that for you it makes sense to have two different coolers. In the case of my family, having a basic large cooler for car camping and a second, smaller cooler for backpacking would work well for us.

Important Features to Consider

Prior to purchasing your cooler, take a few minutes to consider what features are important to you.

  • Drain plug: this is important so that you may easily drain from your cooler the water that you get from melted ice.
  • Insert trays: these are trays that will hook on the top of the cooler, hanging above the items in the bottom the cooler. This is good for organization should that be important for you.
  • Section dividers: found in larger coolers and helpful for organization as well.
  • Toughness/durability: if you are frequently camping in the backcountry, a cooler built to withstand bears and other wildlife is a great feature.
  • How long the cooler will hold ice: check camping coolers manufacturer’s ice-holding ratings which will tell how long the cooler will hold ice.
  • Wheels: these are helpful on the larger coolers use might choose for car camping, allowing the cooler to more easily be moved into the shade or location of your choice.

Making your Decision

Now that you have a good understanding of the types of camping coolers available as well as how you will use your cooler, you can make your decision with confidence. Choose the size, weight and cooler type that best meets your needs. Keep in mind that a cooler that holds ice for longer periods of time will be more expensive, but will save you money and time in not having to purchase replacement ice.

There is no right or wrong choice; choosing camping cooler it is all about finding the cooler that is the best fit for you.

  • Updated February 17, 2017
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My name is William, a family man with two kids and the passion for camping. I started Pandaneo with sharing memorable camping experiences back as a newbie camper, introducing my family to the love for the great outdoors. As time passed, we started traveling across states, trying to hit as many campsites we can!