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Part of the joy of road trips is visiting convenience stores in unfamiliar places to stock up on snacks and drinks, as local convenience food is a small window into the culture and daily lives of a community. But there are times when you don't have time to shop, you're driving through when the store is closed, or you're in full road trip mode in the middle of summer and you just want to keep everything cool. That's where car coolers come in to save the day by keeping your drinks at the proper temperature—no offense Europeans—and to keep those chocolate-coated, marshmallow-filled pecan patties from melting.
Coolers come in all sizes, styles, prices, and levels of effectiveness. Some are meant for multiple days of keeping warmth out, while others are meant for a quick day trip. You can decide if you're better served by something that works as a makeshift armrest, or a bigger chest that has to go in the trunk. No matter what, you want something that isn't going to leak, keep things cold, and can survive the abuse of life on the road. Here are the best around.
Coleman Banyan 30-can Soft Cooler
- Keeps food and drinks cool for up to 24 hours
- Looks great and compresses down when not in use
- Easy to carry for grocery shopping or short hikes
- Less insulation than hard-sided coolers
- more likely to roll around and tip over if not secured while driving
Tourit 46-Can Soft Cooler
- Holds 46 cans which is about 8.5 gallons of actual space.
- Compartments to separate foods that might leak
- Outside pockets and cargo net on the top
- Only rated for 12 hours
- This is not a lifetime product
Yeti Tundra 35
- Life of this cooler is measured in decades not years
- This size makes a good armrest on a bench seat
- Certified bear-proof by the IGBC
- Thick insulation means outside dimensions are big for the interior dimensions
- You will need to use it regularly to justify the price
One of the parts of being an automotive journalist that people outside the business don't realize is the amount of time we spend both at, and driving to, photo shoots. Those shoots are quite often in very remote places miles from restaurants or convenience stores; being self-sufficient is a must. I've tried multiple different types and brands of coolers throughout the years. "You get what you pay for," may be a cliche, but things become cliche for a reason. The price of a cooler is justified by two things; how long it isolates what's inside from the outside temperature and the ultimate lifespan of the cooler. There are things like compartments, handles, and accessories, but it's the big two that determine value.
I didn't get any of these products in for testing before assembling this guide, but I have used several of these and countless other brands in the past. There are a couple of coolers here that will seem insanely expensive for people who have never shopped for a camp cooler or something designed for long-term use. Two others are very reasonably priced and meant for day trips. Lastly, we have what is technically a refrigerator. As with all the guides we do here, this is a living document. New products are being released constantly so what you see here today, may not be what you find if you return later. These will still be good products, just maybe not the best.
Best Coolers For Road Trips: Reviews & Recommendations
Best Overall: Coleman Banyan 30-can Soft Cooler
Rugged materials and design holds up to tough use
Packs up small enough so you can keep it in your trunk
Keeps your stuff cold for up to 24 hours
Works better with ice packs rather than loose ice
No color choices
For versatility, it's hard to beat a soft-sided cooler. The Banyan from Coleman looks more like a big tote bag but is lined with a waterproof interior and packed full of insulation. The outside has multiple pockets for storing everything from utensils and napkins to sunblock. It is rated at 30 cans of storage capacity, but more than likely, you're going to put maybe a dozen cans in it and you'll have plenty of room for meals and snacks.
I like that this type of bag folds up small enough that I can keep it in my trunk all the time. I can use it to hold frozen or cold items at the grocery store, or I can even take something off the smoker, wrap it up, and through it into the bag to rest. It's even a great way to transport a pork shoulder if you're having a picnic in the park. Obviously, it works just as well with a couple of ice packs for picnics in the park, however far away that park may be.
Best Value: Tourit 46-Can Soft Cooler
This is a very basic soft-sided cooler, done very well
Will keep your items cold for about 12 hours
Plenty of external storage
Good for occasional use, but won't hold up to years of abuse
Straps feel a bit flimsy when it's all loaded up
If you aren't planning on using a cooler all the time, and you just want something to keep your drinks and snacks cold for a day of driving, it's hard to justify spending a lot of money. Luckily, coolers like this Tourit will deliver the performance you need. This is rated for 46 cans, which the company says is the equivalent of 32 liters or 8.5 gallons of interior space. Soft bags are better suited for ice packs, so once you get those in there, you will still have plenty of room for food and drink.
The bag has plenty of outside pockets along with a cargo net on top, which is always nice if you have a grass-covered picnic blanket or wet beach towel. This doesn't quite have the quality of the Coleman, so the handles and strap will feel a bit shaky when you get this thing all loaded up, but if it's just getting from the kitchen to the car, it shouldn't be an issue. This cooler is half the price of the Coleman and an order of magnitude cheaper than some of the hard-sided competitors, so it was a no brainer for best value.
Best Multiday cooler: Yeti Tundra 35
Keeps your stuff cool for days not hours
Built like a tank, or maybe more accurately a Navy submarine
A Yeti coolers are to a millenials as Corvettes are to boomers
Being tough and functional carries a trade off of big and heavy
If you've never set foot in an REI, the prices are going to be a shock
There was a time when the American dream involved a house in the suburbs with a white picket fence and a station wagon with three kids in the way back. Today, that dream has changed to renting a nice townhome with a Yeti cooler in the hatch of your Subaru – which I mean is still basically a station wagon, just taller. Of all the coolers I've ever used, Yetis are the only ones that ever made me, a person who's worked in engineering and manufacturing, stop and say, "Wow, that's a superior product." The body is made from rotomolded plastic, which Yeti makes a point of emphasizing, but isn't that impressive. It does provide one-piece parts with no seams which are then filled with up to three inches of insulation. It also allows for an overlapping closure that uses a gasket to seal it shut. Yeti finishes it off with metal hinge pins and RSR-style stretch-ball style hood straps.
This is an ideal cooler if your road trip is more than a day and you have limited chances to re-freeze ice packs or get fresh ice. If you're car camping, this is rated as bearproof by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee(IGBC) *when used in conjunction with an Extra-Long Shank Masterlock Padlock. Apparently, bears can pick cheaper padlocks fairly easily. I have to imagine it is only a matter of time before they find Lock Picking Lawyer's YouTube Channel to get through the Masterlock. Assuming a grizzly doesn't get a hold of your cooler, this will last you years of use. I have seen these go through unimaginable abuse and suffer nothing but aesthetic damage, which by the way, earns you outdoor hipster cred when your Yeti looks used. If your budget allows, this is the one to get.
Best Compact: Pelican 8QT Personal Cooler
Will hold up to 8 cans or 4 cans and a lot of food
The latch is ideal for one-handed operation while on the road
Has a 3 year warranty, but will last far longer than that
While good at isolating temperature, still not quite up to Yeti's level
Any hard-sided cooler can become a dangerous projectile in an accident
I can already see the comments coming in, "If you're such a Yeti fanboi, why didn't you just pick the smaller one for best compact cooler?" One good reason: the latch. Having done countless solo road trips over the years, I can tell you, that what you want is a cooler that sits upright in the passenger seat and is easy to operate with one hand. Pelican coolers are almost as good as Yetis at keeping things cool, being rugged, but the easily operated single latch makes it a clear winner.
This is another hard plastic cooler that can be used as a stool, a wheel chock, or whatever it doesn't care. Its cooling properties are measured in days and it is super easy to clean. For a third the price of a comparable Yeti, it also comes with a removable try so you can store your sandwich above your drinks and even an ice pack that snaps to the bottom side of the lid. It even has a dry storage compartment built into the top of the lid.
Best Iceless Powered Cooler: Bodega Cooler AC/DC Car Refrigerator
It's a powered refrigerator disguised as a cooler so keeps food cold as long as it's plugged in
Has two different sections, one refrigerator, one freezer
Controlled by smartphone app, that's a plus, right?
It's big and will be big whether in use or trying to store it
If you're camping, you will need to find a power source other than your idling car
Yes, it looks like a cooler, but it is a refrigerator. The Bodega Cooler can be plugged into a 12V socket in your car or run off 110V in your house. It has two sections inside which can be temperature controlled independently using a smartphone app. Not only will it keep your drinks chilled at the exact temperature you would like, it will keep your popsicles frozen too.
This is big, it holds 41 cans which translates to 36 liters of space. It's also nearly two and a half feet long, and then 15 inches wide and tall. This is going to need to ride in the trunk or get two spots on a bench seat. It weighs 35 pounds, which isn't bad at all for something this size, and it does have wheels and collapsible handles at both ends. This isn't nearly as rugged as some of the other choices here, but when plugged in, it will basically keep your food cold indefinitely.
Admittedly, there are some big jumps in levels of intensity. For what most people want out of a cooler used for road trips, the Coleman Banyan 30-can Soft Cooler will work great. If you are looking for something, much more serious in terms of performance and price, then you can't beat the Yeti Tundra 35 for its long-term durability and temperature-isolating ability.
You've got questions. The Drive has answers.
Are hard or soft-sided coolers better?
A hard-sided cooler is almost better at keeping things cooler, and longer. However, soft-sided coolers are easier to store when not in use and also generally have a greater ratio of inside storage to outside dimensions.
Is it better to use ice or ice packs in a cooler?
Ice cubes can fill a greater amount of empty space in the cooler and with the extra contact, will cool things faster. Ice packs are sometimes filled with something other than water, so they can perform better than regular ice and they won't leak when they melt.
How long do coolers keep things cool?
There are a lot of variables here, but cheaper soft-sided coolers with a decent ice pack will usually last at least three hours. High-end hard coolers with a high ice-to-food ratio can last days. Outside temperature, how much time the cooler spends open, and a dozen other variables have a huge effect.
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