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Best Coolers of 2023 - Everything You Should Know To Pick the Right One

WriterAubrey McShan
10 min read
Man holding beach cooler while friends rest on the sand in the background

From week-long summer trips to your favorite campground to a day trip at the beach or a game-day tailgate, you need the best cooler that’s adaptive to all your favorite sporting activities and outdoor hobbies! In this guide, we walk you through all the essential features, use cases, and specific types of coolers you need to know about when choosing one that best fits your exact needs.

Here’s a brief list of things to consider (Hint: each of the links below takes you straight to the content you’re looking for):

Cooler Features to Consider

From insulation to internal capacity, coolers come with different features to suit many needs and activities. But those needs may not always overlap. Ultimately, you may deem it necessary to use multiple coolers — or opt to use different coolers for the various activities you love — for different reasons or to take advantage of specific features lacking in your existing one.

Cooler Materials

Much like other cooler features, there’s no right or wrong material, only what makes the most sense for your needs!

Ice Retention

Ice retention simply refers to the length of time it takes for ice to melt within a sealed, full cooler. This is where the different types of insulation make the biggest difference. Here are a few fast facts you should keep in mind:

  • A cooler that can keep ice frozen for a week will cost on average significantly more than one that keeps ice frozen for 48 hours.

  • More expensive coolers may be overkill when you only plan on using your cooler for quick day trips to the beach or overnight camping stays.

  • Consider the type of food you’ll pack and how important it is for those items to stay consistently cold. Raw and pre-cooked food, eggs, and dairy will all have their own unique packing strategy.

  • Hard-sided rotational molded coolers (think Yeti and Magellan Outdoors) with their dense insulation are specifically designed for maximum ice retention.

  • The latch/closure system of a cooler also plays a significant role in overall ice retention.

Expert Tip:

Ice-to-food and/or drink ratio also makes a huge difference. Typically, the more ice you start with the longer your ice will last (many manufacturers recommend a ratio of 2:1).

Cooler Size

When thinking about what size cooler you need, both the inside AND the outside matter equally for different reasons:

  • Internal capacity is how much food, drinks, and/or ice your cooler can hold inside while the lid is closed

  • External size effectively is how much ‘real estate’ (or space) it’s going to take up in your car, camper, tent, or boat

Internal Capacity

Hard- and soft-sided coolers are often categorized as small, medium, large, and extra large. Individual brands define these size categories in their own ways and comparing sizes can be apples to oranges as some brands use volume to define interior capacity while others use a number of cans.

External Size

One major benefit of soft-sided coolers is that they are collapsable and easily stored when you’re not using them. Your hard-sided cooler will stay the same size whether or not you’re using it to keep anything cold, so you’ll have to designate enough room to tote them around and store them when they’re not in use.


When choosing your cooler, you may need to compromise between ice retention, material, and size to find the cooler that best fits your needs (and your vehicle). There are, however, some features to look for that can help with portability:

  • Lid handles: A single handle on the cooler lid makes it easy for one person to carry it. Because they are not as strong as side handles, they are most likely to be found on smaller, lighter models.

  • Side handles: Side handles are found on most coolers and come in a variety of materials: from rope to plastic and metal. Some may even feature additional grips for extra comfort. Depending on the size, one person can carry a cooler by the side handles alone or you can position someone on both sides for easier transportation.

  • Wheels: Wheels are great for transporting large coolers that can weigh dozens of pounds when loaded with food, drinks, and ice. Small plastic wheels are likely sufficient for a tailgate but will leave you literally stuck in the mud at a campsite.

  • Shoulder straps: Shoulder straps allow you to carry your cooler over your shoulder so your hands remain free. Shoulder straps are typically found on smaller, lighter-weight, and soft-sided coolers.

Expert Tip:

For coolers with wheels, take into consideration handle and wheel type and construction. You’ll want the handle to be comfortable and something that won’t bend to the pressure of a fully-loaded cooler.


Higher-end materials like metal usually outlive plastic — especially when it comes to hardware and hinges. But higher quality comes at a price. Another question of durability is whether you’ll want to use your cooler for extra seating.

Expert Tip:

Less expensive plastic models may be sufficient for keeping your food and drinks cold while camping but may crack if sat on.

Our Best Cooler Picks By Feature or Use

Once you know exactly what features you need, picking a cooler becomes really simple. It all comes down to how you intend on using your cooler.

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Cooler Feature Breakdown & Comparison
Best Cooler Category Ice Retention Size Portability Materials Durability
Camping Becomes more important by how long your stay is At least medium Wheels & durable handles are ideal for camping Hard-sided coolers recommended Hard-sided coolers usually see better durability for camping
Beach Depends on how you store the cooler and the forecast Small to large in size Wheels and shoulder straps recommended Soft-sided coolers recommended Improves with proper care; Can last for years
With Wheels Depends on the construction of the cooler Depends on your group’s size Best option for easy portability Soft or hard-sided coolers Better is necessary to consider due to its proximity to the ground
Hard Sided Best ice retention for at least a few days Depends on your specific needs Good depending on size; better with wheels Sturdy plastics, metals, etc. Depending on how you care for it, typically lasts at least a few years
Soft Sided Good ice retention for a day Depends on your specific needs Excellent with smaller size; best with wheels Moldable, collapsible materials used for easy Improves with proper care; Can last for years
Small Depends on the construction of the cooler Convenient to store; ideal for inside cars Excellent all around Soft or hard-sided coolers Improves with proper care; Can last for years
Budget Decent ice retention up to 2-3 days Depends on your specific needs Can be lacking without wheels or better quality handles Soft or hard-sided coolers Improves with proper care; Can last for years

Best Cooler for Camping

Not everyone will need that big, expensive cooler you probably think of when you hear the words ‘camping trip’. But when it comes to camping, the one you choose boils down to a few factors:

  • Number of people: You should always have enough food for everyone you camp with — and then some. You don’t need to pack too much extra, but it’s always better to be prepared than to go without.

  • Stay duration: The length of your camping stay will greatly impact what size you should get at a minimum. This factor can help you narrow down your options!

  • Construction: For camping, we almost always recommend opting for hard-sided coolers simply because they are more durable and can retain food the longest.

  • Size: If you dedicate too much real estate to your cooler, you won’t have room for other important camping gear! Extra room is nice, but remember that you won’t have room for other important camping gear.

  • Wheels: When your cooler is filled with food and drink and to the top with ice, it will be heavy. Wheels that can tackle tough terrains like rocks, dirt, and mud will make carting your cooler from the car to your campsite a cinch.

Our picks for the best cooler for camping:

Igloo MaxCold Glide 110 qt Full-Size Wheeled Cooler

Expert Tip:

When you expect a long campsite stay, always pre-pre everything you pack. Remove the original packaging and transfer to flexible packaging like Ziplock bags to save on how much garbage you handle.

Best Beach Cooler

What good is an icy drink when it’s in your car because your cooler is impossible to haul across the hot sand? Portability matters when it comes to having the most fun on the sand! Soft-sided backpack coolers or tote-style coolers should be your go-to anytime you plan a beach trip.

Insulation (or ice retention) is another important factor to prioritize when selecting a beach cooler. Even when you place it under a canopy, it will be exposed to heat all day.

Our picks for the best cooler for the beach:

Magellan Outdoors Pro Explore Leakproof 36-Can Duffle Cooler

Best Cooler With Wheels

If you know you need to lug a large-capacity cooler a long distance, it's best to consider something with wheels. Once loaded with food and drinks and ice, it will be HEAVY. Not to mention, coolers with significant ice retention will also be on the weighty side due to their construction and extra insulation.

Wheeled models can be pricier than their stationary counterparts, but it’s often worth paying for top-of-the-line durability. You don't want wheels, handles, or hardware that will bend or break under heavy loads.

Our picks for the best cooler with wheels:

Magellan Outdoors Pro Explore IceBox 75 qt Cooler

Expert Tip:

Choosing a medium-sized cooler or smaller with wheels can be great if you have kids! We always recommend giving everyone a responsibility when setting up a tailgate party, a campsite, or a spot on the beach.

Best Hard Cooler

Compared to soft-sided coolers, even by the same brand, hard-sided coolers have better ice retention and greater capacity. They are also more durable and typically outlast years of use — even in the most rugged conditions.

But not all hard-sided coolers are created equal. Lighter-weight models will have less ice retention but are easier to transport and perfect for short excursions. Other features to consider with hard-sided coolers are whether you need:

  • Wheel

  • The ability to lock it

  • A bear-resistant rating

  • Tie-down slots for securing your cooler to your boat or the bed of your truck

Our picks for the best hard cooler:

Magellan Outdoors Pro Explore IceBox 75 qt Cooler

Best Soft Coolers

While soft-sided models don't offer the same ice rendition as hard-sided designs (and typically feature smaller capacities), they are significantly lighter in weight and even collapsible — making them more portable and often less expensive.

Soft-sided coolers typically also have more features like pockets and additional or adjustable straps. Just remember that what you gain in packability and versatility, you lose in insulation.

Our picks for the best soft cooler:

Columbia Sportswear PFG 24 Can Welded HardBody Cooler

Expert Tip:

You may even want to use a small soft-sided cooler in your vehicle for the drive to your campsite.

Best Small Cooler

Small coolers are ideal for short-term use and casual outings due to being lighter to carry and impossible to overpack. Not everyone WANTS to camp outdoors or go to a tailgate in a hot lot. Sometimes, you just want to drive to a spontaneous destination a few hours away!

Coolers that are smaller and lighter in their build are made to be as flexible as you need them to be. Because they’re smaller in size, they won’t take up as much room as larger options. Our pick for the best small cooler is one that:

  • Is easy to carry and stow

  • Is affordable

  • Has enough insulation to keep your food and drinks icy cold for several hours

Our picks for the best small cooler:

Magellan Outdoors Pro Leakproof 24-Can Square Cooler

Best Budget Cooler

Sometimes, you just want to hit the road on a budget. Whether you’re joining your buddies for a quick hunting trip or you’re taking your family to the weekend campground, there are so many great options to choose from when it comes to budget coolers.

Keep in mind that you’ll often get what you pay for in terms of construction and insulation, but it's typically enough ice retention for shorter use or as a backup option. Whenever you’re strapped to a tight budget, always remember to pre-chill everything you plan on taking with you!

Our picks for the best budget cooler:

Igloo Latitude 30 qt Personal Cooler

Use This Cooler Size Chart To Choose the Best Size

Cooler size chart

Cooler brands often have their own standards for measuring just how much you can fit within the confines of their products. That means one 50-quart cooler may not match holding the same number of cans as another of the same internal capacity — all because of the shape.

To remove any room for confusion, we’ve created a simple standard to help you gauge the scale of each size in the form of 12-ounce cans (paired with a 2:1 ice ratio). Remember that the total number of cans your cooler can hold may vary slightly from the estimates in our cooler size chart above.


Small coolers range in size between 17-34 quarts (or about 10-20 12-ounce soda cans). While impractical for large groups and longer stays, they are perfect for the following:

  • Short picnic for two

  • Family trips to the park

  • Brief beach trip for 2-3 people

  • Weekend road trips

Expert Tip:

Don’t write off small coolers! They’re handy to have when you need to bring home chilled items from the store or when you travel to your campsite.


Medium coolers range in size between 35-59 quarts (or about 20-40 soda cans). They’re ideal for smaller families or groups with less than 4-6 people in size and are perfect for the following:

  • Family picnics or smaller parties at the park

  • Overnight, small family camping

  • Small group tailgating party

Expert Tip:

Hard-sided medium coolers can be essentials for families with smaller children. You’ll have an extra place for them to sit when you eat or when they want to rest.


Large coolers range in size between 60-99 quarts (or about 40-70 soda cans). They’re most practical for larger families or groups with more than 6 people in size and are perfect for the following:

  • Fishing trips where you know you’ll catch a lot

  • Extended stay camping trips with more than 6 people

  • Bigger tailgating parties at the game

Expert Tip:

Choosing a hard-sided cooler is perfect when you go tailgating or camping a lot with a large family or group. You’ll have an extra, sturdy surface to prep or display your food.

Extra Large

Extra large coolers vary in size starting from 100 quarts and beyond (or about 70+ soda cans). While not ideal for shorter trips or those driving smaller cars, they are perfect for the following:

  • Week-long camping trips

  • Larger family tailgating parties

  • Longer hunting trips

  • Emergencies (like hurricanes, power outages, etc.)

Expert Tip:

While you may not be able to plan for all emergencies, Gulf Coast or East Coast natives know all about prepping for hurricane season. Having an extra large cooler can save your freezer foods from spoiling when you add ‘pre-chill my cooler’ to your emergency to-do list.

Most Popular Cooler Brands

Today, there are a number of cooler brands that make top-quality coolers at every price point. Whether your top factor is budget or exterior design, there’s something for you available. At Academy, we offer a unique variety of soft-sided and hard-sided cooler brands:

Expert Tip:

Did you know that in 2021, coolers larger than 50 quarts dominated the industry! This group’s market share was 54% compared to other coolers with lower internal capacities. Yeti, Igloo, and Coleman are the top three performing brands in the business, but as the market continues to grow, we’re seeing growth for other brands as well.

Have Fun Out There!

There are plenty of additional features to consider when shopping for a cooler that can enhance your experience. Some coolers come with built-in pole mounts and measurement marks for fishing, cup holders, exterior side pockets, bottle openers, antimicrobial barriers, lights, speakers, and so on.

To make sure you’re properly equipped for your next excursion, shop our selection of coolers online at Academy Sports + Outdoors or consult a specialist in-store. Most importantly, have fun out there!