9 Best Coolers, Tested by Food Network Kitchen
We melted popsicles in top coolers in sweltering heat. See which ones passed the test!
Our Top Cooler Picks:
- Best Overall: Yeti Tundra Haul
- Large Cooler Runner-Up: Yeti Tundra 65
- Best Budget Large Cooler: Coleman 48 Quart 3 Day Cooler
- Best in Show: RTIC 20
- Best Soft Cooler: RTIC Soft Cooler 20
- Soft Cooler Runner-Up: Yeti Hopper Flip
- Best For Packing Light: CleverMade Collapsible Cooler
- Chic and Compact: Igloo Playmate
- Best Retro Vibes: Coleman FlipLid Personal Cooler
Tested by Madison Papp for Food Network Kitchen
If you are a fan of summer fun, the great outdoors, and drinks and snacks that stay artic-cold on the hottest of days, a sturdy cooler is a must-have. However, not all coolers reign supreme. Thus, we’ve rolled up our sleeves and tested the most tried and true of coolers in tough summer heat.
What Makes a Great Cooler
All coolers do their best when they are lined with ice packs, insulation materials, or large blocks of ice. If you want the coldest of coolers, these are all great hacks. But what about a cooler that simply takes your favorite frozen treats as-is and keeps them that way, in 90-degree heat, with the sun baking down?
Before we go into our results and top performers, here's what makes a cooler, a great cooler.
- Sturdy Handles: Yes, you will fill it up to the brim with chilly treats and, without sturdy handles, walking your cooler to the beach or from the car to campsite on a scorching and sunny day will not be fun.
- Wheels: Wheels are essential on larger models. To handle a mega-cooler, you'll want wheels and a solid handle to get it to and from your location.
- Weight: In our testing, the heavier the cooler, the better the insulation and thus better results. This also bore true for the range of mini coolers we tested. The heavier-duty mini models crushed the lightweights on melt time and temperature control.
- Temperature Control: The best coolers will maintain the temperature of whatever you put in them. Which brings us to our test...
How We Tested
If you really want to test the strength of a cooler, we found that it would be counter-intuitive to pack it with ice...especially when coolers of different shapes and sizes were going head-to-head. Ice packed into a cooler will feed off the surrounding ice and stay colder, longer. So, the question remains: Is the ice keeping your favorite frosty treats, or is your cooler actually doing its job?
We tested 10 well-reviewed coolers of varying shapes, sizes and materials. We purchased bunches of the classic multicolored and multi-flavored summer treat: Fun Pops. We chose this popsicle for our cooler testing because they easily go from liquid to solid and back to liquid, while keeping a uniform shape. This would allow for an easy measurement in our test.
We added a total of 15 popsicles to each cooler and let the sun, the heat, and our top 10 cooler picks take care of the rest. When entering this experiment, we were prepared to let the popsicles slowly melt for days on end. However, the test only lasted 5 hours with the cooler sitting on hot sandy gravel in 90-plus degree heat. The coolers received direct sunlight, without shade. Basically, we delivered the perfect hot and sunny beach day to put these coolers to the test.
In terms of performance, this was the best cooler we tested. After 4 hours in the hot sun, our ice pops only just began to melt. This means that this cooler functions well in hot conditions at different capacities. The product has a solid drainage system and a handle which makes wheeling this heavier model a breeze. This cooler is an investment piece at $400. But, if heavy duty tailgating or camping is in your future, this may be the cooler for you.
In our popsicle melt test, this cooler came in second to its sibling the Yeti Tundra Haul. It is a lighter-weight model for its size, carrying a 65 quart capacity. We also liked the cute basket inside the model which helps separate the cold and condensation-forward items from the items you want to keep cold and dry. Also, for heavy-duty campers in bear country this model also boasts that it is bear-proof. We also like the model’s signature T-Rex latches which are not easy to break and bust (trust us, we tried). All the larger Yeti models come with these seals and are definitely a perk if you are going all in on this $350 model.
This cooler claims to keep ice cold for up to three days, but a few frozen popsicles melted within four hours of sitting in the sun in this cooler. That being said, stocking the cooler with plenty of ice for a backyard barbecue will yield better results. Plus, you can’t beat the price. Although we tested popsicles, we figured that filling such a large cooler with ice will get heavy. To make spillage clean-up or removing ice melt a breeze, this cooler has a drain! Plus at the 48 quart capacity it was the most lightweight of all the coolers tested in the large category.
We tested this model in the cutest shade of light blue. It has a sleek design which honestly we would display in a cute corner of our home. Like larger models it has a drain, and will hold up to 20 quarts. Now our favorite feature it’s the leak-proof seal in its lid. We filled this performance-built cooler with water and shook it in a few directions with zero leaks! At $200, it is certainly an investment and it is heavy for its size. Still, cushioning on the handle helps when carrying this sturdy option to any locale.
This cooler is plenty chic and at $125, it’s worth the investment. It comes in a range of fun colors and honestly it tested on-par with the Yeti and rocked an easy leakproof zipper (we tested it). We let some water spill in the bottom and turned it upside down and were excited to find that none of the water spilled! Other smaller models on the market do not come with this handy seal and if you plan to drive winding roads, take this compact cooler along trusting that your precious cargo will stay cool and any spillage will stay within the walls of the cooler.
Is it pricey? Sure, at $250 this cooler is an investment piece. But boy, is it amazing. Not only did it rival and out-perform larger coolers in our popsicle test, it’s stylish too. Plus, its seamless interior makes for an easy clean. The only drawback is that the zipper is strong and needs a solid tug to open and close. It doesn’t collapse like other models, but it is still small enough to make packing for an outdoor gathering a breeze. Now, unlike the heavier duty models on this list, we still recommend bringing additional insulation for hotter days and longer periods of time in the sun.
This cooler packs flat, and that’s where we give this handy bag extra points. It is also ultra light-weight at just two pounds, and still can fit up to 50 cans of your favorite summer brew. Similar to other coolers on the list, this one does not fare well packed with a few ice pops, but load this cooler with sturdy ice packs, and your beverages will be safe and sound (and cold!) for a few hours.
That being said, one of the blue Fun Pops leaked shortly after our experiment. The scent and stickiness of the popsicle leaked into the cooler’s seams and it took a good scrub to return the cooler back to its original condition. If you are planning to pack more pungent, oily, or sticky items, you may want to go for a model without interior seams.
The sun was a solid match for this chic red mini cooler. It holds a six pack, which is ideal for a quick beach trip. However, we recommend you pack this cooler with ice. Within an hour atop hot sand and in the hot sun, our freshly frozen Fun Pops melted back to well below room temperature. Still, this cooler would work for a quick trip outdoors or perhaps a sunset sail. Plus, it is compact, holding just four quarts. As for style, we give this cooler a 10 out of 10. Not only does it come in a chic red, but browse the Igloo website and you will see a variety of shades and styles.
The Coleman FlipLid holds 5 quarts and tied with the Playmate in our ice pop melt test. It can fit a snug 6 cans and has a large handle making it easy to carry. However, we also recommend you pack this red (or blue!) cutie with ice to keep your drinks cool. The Coleman cooler definitely gets points for its retro-chic and it is well priced at just above $12.80 on Amazon. Still, if one of your main cooler concerns is cleaning ease, in the smaller category the Coleman could be your win. It has no interior seams, and thus in one-two easy rinses, spills are easily cleaned.
The Results, Explained
The Igloo Playmate and the Coleman FlipLid barely lasted one hour before turning into slush. We think this was due to the hot sandy gravel beneath the surface of the cooler which subsequently heated the floor of each cooler. This environment would be similar to hot sand at the beach and thus we hypothesize that these coolers would fare better with a similar outdoor temperature in the shade on sitting on a blanket or towel.
In our soft cooler categories, the popsicles in the Clevermade lasted about an hour and fifteen minutes before the appearance of slush and melt took over. The Yeti Hopper Flip and The RTIC Soft Cooler 20 saw full melt after 3 hours. However, after five hours, the popsicles were still cold in both the Flip and RTIC. This led us to conclude that these coolers would be solid options for storing frozen water bottles, and letting them slowly melt throughout the day for guaranteed cold water at the end of a long day of hiking. The frozen water bottles could also act as ice packs for other snacks!
The Coleman 48 lasted about 2 hours in our test conditions while the Igloo Max 50 lasted 2.5 hours. Still, the popsicles in the Coleman 48 quickly turned to room temperature when melted while the popsicles in the Igloo Max 50 stayed cool yet liquified for up to four hours. The RTIC tested similarly to the Igloo Max 50 with the popsicles staying cold for 3.25 hours.
Our top winners in the popsicle test were the Yeti Tundra 65 and the Yeti Tundra Haul. The Yeti Tundra Haul however outperformed the 65 by 15 minutes, each melting after 4 hours. Curious, we let the popsicles sit for an additional 2 hours. At this point all the popsicles returned to room temperature except for the popsicles in the two large Yeti Coolers.