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How to Choose the Right Camping Cooler to Buy

What you need to consider when shopping for a cooler for your next camping trip.

Row boat with camping cooler

A good cooler can be extremely useful when you’re on a camping trip, and will help to keep your food and drinks cool. However if you’re shopping for one you’ll quickly realize that there a lots of different options available – and may feel at a loss over which to choose.

Naturally you’ll want to pick out the best camping cooler for your needs. But what type of cooler is best, and what exactly do you need to look for?

Types of Coolers

Nowadays there are tons and tons of different types of coolers. That being said broadly speaking they tend to fall into a few main categories:

  • Hard-side coolers are the conventional coolers with hard cases. While the insulation can vary, it tends to be better than other options. The downside of this type of cooler is that portability can be an issue.
  • Soft-side coolers are coolers with soft walls that look like stiff bags. The insulation on them is typically not as good as hard-side coolers and they tend to have less capacity, but they are far more portable.
  • Powered coolers are essentially portable refrigerators that will provide the best cooling in the long term. However they do need to be plugged in – normally to a vehicle’s DC outlet.

Aside from these categories there are several others, such as heavy-duty hard-side coolers (that have better insulation and larger capacity) or disposable Styrofoam coolers that are meant for single-use situations.

In most cases however you’ll want to look for a camping cooler among the three types listed above.

Factors to Consider

Before you start to look at coolers of any type, you should first figure out what exactly you need. On that front there are several factors that you may want to consider:

  • Size

The size of your cooler should be based on how much you need it to store. For a one-night trip you could get by with a 28-quart or 54-quart cooler for 2-4 people, but for longer camping trips you may need something larger that is 100-quarts or more.

  • Portability

Some coolers are a lot more portable than others – depending on their size, type, and other features they may have. If you’re going to have to carry around your cooler, a smaller soft-side cooler may be better.

On the other hand if you’re driving right up to a campsite then a larger hard-side cooler may be feasible – or even one with wheels that you can roll around.

  • Durability

If you’re choosing a cooler for a camping trip it should normally be fairly durable. That is especially the case if it is going to be left outdoors and exposed to the elements.

It should be noted that if you’re planning to camp anywhere with animals that may be tempted to raid your cooler (e.g. raccoons or bears) you may want to choose a heavy-duty option. It should be very durable and ideally should have a strong latch.

  • Bottom drain

One of the most useful features if you plan on using your cooler to store ice is a drain at the bottom. It will make it much more convenient to drain out any water that accumulates inside it as the ice starts to melt, and is certainly better than picking up the cooler and tilting it.

  • Dividers or trays

Both dividers and trays can be helpful to section off some of the items that you put in your cooler. For example you may want to separate the foods from the drinks and ice.

That said using dividers or trays can waste some space, which will mean that you aren’t able to fill up your cooler with as many items.

  • Budget

Needless to say budget is an important factor, and the cost of coolers can vary quite a bit. If you’re on a tight budget you may want to stay away from coolers that have lots of features you don’t need, and look at the more basic options.

On top of these factors, there may be other specific features that you feel could be useful. For example some coolers have drink molds on the cover that could be useful.

Based on the factors listed above you should be able to identify exactly what you are looking for in a cooler, and narrow down your options accordingly.

Final Words

Before you come to a final decision, it may help to read up on reviews, or get recommendations from camping blogs and forums. That way you’ll get insights from others on what type of cooler you should be looking for.

Overall you should find it much easier to find an excellent cooler to buy that you can take with you camping. By focusing on the areas that are most important, it should definitely fit your needs.


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