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Is a good cooler worth investing in? That's a question I've always wrestled with.
I definitely spend enough time outdoors to entertain the idea. I regularly go fishing, hiking, kayaking, riding, and exploring on the weekends. However, an entry-level cooler is more than up to the task, especially since the vast majority of my time is spent in the garage, with my kitchen's stocked refrigerator just a few yards away. So, yeah, a top-shelf piece would sure be nice, but I'm not placing high enough of a demand on them to justify paying a premium.
That's where I find myself with most things, somewhere in the middle. And since I know all too well what's going on behind the scenes in manufacturing, I've learned it pays to do a little research before you buy. Oftentimes, that's all it takes to find really good stuff for cheap. In the case of coolers, it seems as though RTIC Outdoors is the name for folks like me to turn to. It prides itself on matching the quality of industry leaders at a fraction of the cost.
Still, it's always better to get a better look at things before you make a snap decision. That's why I jumped on the opportunity to test RTIC's new 52-Quart Ultra-Light Wheeled Cooler for review. It's a good way to see what all this cooler hype is about, and if it's really worth spending all that money on the high-end stuff.
This new 52-Quart Ultra-Light Wheeled Cooler is essentially a wheeled version of RTIC's best-selling model, but it has been upgraded for easier transportation, and all of its greatest hits have carried over.
The dimensions are nearly identical, both internally and externally, it has up to 2.5 inches of closed-celled foam insulation, features an o-ring seal to keep things tight, a built-in bottle opener and tie-down slots, and accommodations for the special ice-pack divider. The only two changes are the addition of all-terrain wheels with a fully protected axle and a pull handle, which make for a massive difference in convenience.
The smooth rolling wheels are designed to easily roll over rough terrain and feature RTIC lettering on the sidewall to match the color selected. Speaking of which, the colors available at launch are White/Gray, DK Grey/Cool Grey, Patriot, and Trailblazer. I was sent the white model, which is just as well because I will be covering it in stickers anyway.
The aluminum handle and lightweight design really take advantage of those wheels. At 6 feet tall, the handle extends high enough so I can comfortably pull it along, and the smooth rolling wheels do make for a feeling of quality, regardless of the surface you're pulling it on. Another nice touch is the fact that the handle doesn't just slam down when you let go. The mechanism is designed for smooth, slow lowering that keeps you from wincing every time you set it down.
As for the specs, as the name suggests, this is a 52-quart cooler with a 78-can capacity. It can support up to 53 pounds of ice and has a 7-day ice retention period. It is available on RTIC's site and retails at $299 for the cooler alone, which it advertises as $175 less than the competition.
Putting it to Use in the Garage
I've now had this cooler for a couple of weeks, but since the weather's unpredictable in northeastern Pennsylvania this time of year, it's spent the majority of its time in the garage, supervising my 1969 Dodge Charger restoration.
I'm not the fun 20-something-year-old I could be, so RTIC's wheeled cooler mostly stored seltzer water and plenty of ice to soothe my war-time injuries. Still, it's been an absolute pleasure to have around the shop while I work.
Of course, any cooler is great to have in lieu of a minifridge out in the garage, but I'd say the wheels on this thing actually make it better. I can easily move it around as needed and don't have to worry about destroying my lower back or scraping up the bottom while I do it. Those wheels also don't get snagged on screws or shop debris that are the bane of the casters we usually have to work with. Its non-skid rubber feet are great for keeping the cooler in place if I misuse it as a seat, and offer some peace of mind as I’m not just letting the aforementioned debris tear up the bottom.
The long handle and smooth rolling wheels are also great for getting low and sneaking it through tight spots. And I can easily slip right past all of my primered panels without scratching or denting anything. Anyone who's spent enough time block-sanding a car in their home garage can attest to how greatly appreciated that detail is.
If all of that's not enough, it's the perfect height to serve as a low bench or additional seating. It's hosted not only drinks but myself and a few tools while working on my 440 on the engine stand. What more could a guy want from a cooler in the workshop?
Taking it Out into the Wild
I did get the chance to take the cooler out for its first adventure when I visited the Crystal Cave of Berks County, Pennsylvania, for mothers Day. Not the ultimate shake-down, but it did give me a good for what the cooler is all about outside of the garage.
First, let's cover the issues. I only ran into two, so this will be brief. The first problem I had was a slow leak at the drain plug. This could be a user error, but it's something I noticed when loading it into the back seat of my other half's Honda Civic. I really had to crank down on the plug to get it to properly seal.
The other issue is the fact that the wheels are the only thing that prevented me from loading it into the trunk of the car. They made it so it's just wide enough not to fit into the opening, which is something owners of similar-sized vehicles should be aware of.
The dimensions of the cooler are just that, though. They are the size, and that's not really a drawback. Besides, I did find that this cooler does fit perfectly in the bed of a 2018 RAM 1500 on this trip, even with the tonneau cover deployed. It won't, however, fit under the tonneau in a mid-size truck bed such as a Toyota Tacoma, which I also had the chance to test fit the cooler in. Teh 18.75 inch height sits just proud of the bed of the smaller truck.
As for the upsides, those wheels and that low weight shined through. While I didn't encounter anything extreme, I did go out of my way to see how the cooler performed on rough terrain. Rolling over gravel, rocks, grass, and dirt was absolutely no issue and not having to worry about banging up the axle is a big plus. Lifting the cooler and moving it to and from vehicles was no issue either, even when fully loaded with drinks and ice.
A day trip is by no means enough time to test ice retention, but I had filled the cooler days before and had no need to fill it back up. Obviously, ice had melted but not enough to warrant topping off. In fact, the same ice still sits in the cooler at the time of writing this, and I’m sure it will last a full week.
At the end of the day, I found RTIC's 52-quart wheeling cooler a worthwhile investment.
Overall, I am satisfied with the performance and recognize the value. Yeti’s closest match is considerably more expensive despite being largely the same, and its portability is far better than Dometic’s most similar offering that I could find. Though I haven’t had the chance to test the two for comparison, I’d still be inclined to lean toward RTIC Outdoors because of that price difference.
Now, those of you who argue that $300 is a lot for a cooler in any case, I absolutely agree. Normally, I'm not one to get on board with expensive gear like this. Truth be told, I'm usually using a 20-year-old lunch box cooler if not a cheap disposable foam piece.
However, a few years back, my siblings and I chipped in to buy a wheeling cooler for my father. It was about $100 less expensive, and while it's still regularly used for fishing trips and vacations, I'd easily buy this instead if we were to do it again. The wheels are a main selling point, but it truly is built better in just about every aspect, which goes a long way when you're actually out there beating up on your gear.