Hard coolers keep food and drinks cold during camping trips. They give you more protection than soft-sided coolers since they're built of plastic, metal or other more sturdy materials.
The best cooler for your money will give you all the features you need for basic camping and keep your beverages at their intended temperatures.
How to Choose a Hard Cooler
To effectively choose the best hard cooler for your needs, think about the types of outdoor trips you take most often.
Do you live in an area with lots of mountains, hills, and hiking trails? If so, you may hike every day as part of your daily or weekly routine. The cooler you buy won’t need to keep food cold for days (unless you’re planning to camp out in the area and do a “staycation” hike). The cooler size will depend on whether you’re hiking and camping solo or with friends.
Are you an experienced hiker and camper who's not afraid of exploring in the deep woods? If so, you'll want to make sure your cooler keeps contents cold longer since you won't be close to a store where you can purchase more ice.
Will you be camping near water, canoeing or swimming? You'll want to choose a seal-tight, insulated cooler.
Food and Beverages
The size and cooling capabilities depend on what foods and beverages you'll need to keep in your cooler. For a day hike, you may only need soda, sandwiches, and water.
If you're going on a long hike with your friends and bringing a camping stove, what meals will you prepare? Will you need to store meat, dairy, bread? Will you bring processed food to cook up quick or make food from scratch using vegetables and fresh meat? If so, make sure you buy a well-insulated cooler that seals well.
If you need to access the cooler regular basis (if you take your kid’s camping, for instance) look for a cooler that won't need ice changed too often. Also, you'll need more trays or dividers if you're storing different types of meats veggies, dairy products, and beverages.
Hard coolers can be large enough to carry food for a group hike or small enough for a sandwich and drinks for a solo car trip. If you go on outings with family and friends, buying a medium or large sized cooler in the 50-100-quart range makes sense.
A higher capacity cooler or one that holds ice for longer periods will cost more, but save you in the long run. You won’t need to buy replacement ice or throw away spoiled food If you’re a solo backpacker, a soft-sided cooler helps you maneuver better and keeps the load light. Hard coolers work better if you’re part of a group.
You still need to pack food carefully, regardless of the cooler you buy. Wrap raw meat separately from beverages and washing the cooler between uses.
Benefits of a Hard Cooler
A hard cooler made of plastic or metal protects the contents. With a hard-backed cooler, there’s little chance of damage to the items inside.
Plastic coolers have better insulation and high-density foam to keep all your food and drink ice-cold longer. If you buy a better-quality cooler, it may have insulated lids seal tighter at the top and sides.
When you travel with a lot of food and a large group, wheeled coolers let everyone in your party take turns transporting the edibles. Wheels and telescopic handles make it easier for even the weak-muscled to transports a large cooler.
Choose a plastic cooler over a metal one for simple camping trips in the front woods. In the back woods, you may need a metal cooler to guard against curious bears and other wildlife. It will be tougher for you to transport from place to place, especially uphill or in rocky terrain.
The cooler will need a drain plug so you can efficiently drain the water from melted ice.You may want insert trays to hook on top of the cooler to store selected items above drinks in the bottom of the cooler. You can choose coolers that let you organize food with dividers or trays for dairy, meat, and desserts.
If you buy a cooler that's too large or heavy for your current needs, you may waste time lugging it around unless you are driving for part of the trip.
You’ll also need to look at how you’re going to transport the cooler. A wheeled cooler is easier to transport over most surfaces. A choice of wheel and either side or front handles may be best, as sometimes you may need to carry the cooler instead of wheeling it.
Our Five Best Hard Coolers
The best hard cooler for camping depends on your needs and camping style, but there are coolers that fulfill basic fictions for most campers. Let’s look at a few coolers to consider for your next trip.
The Coleman 52-Quart Extreme Cooler offers a great “in-between” size that should satisfy your cooler needs for any camping trip. The Coleman name alone tells you the cooler sturdy and capable of keeping food and drink cool for a long time.
If you take long road trips or camping trips the 52-Quart Extreme Cooler keeps its contents cold for up to five days in 90-degree weather. If you store lots of food and don't have time to replenish ice, the Coleman Extreme cooler will keep food frozen for two days and semi-frozen on the third day.
That's above and beyond the call of duty unless you're camping in the desert. It's so well-insulated some users report it keeps fresh fish cold for days (as long as you fill the cooler with enough ice).
If you often go camping in large groups, this cooler holds 82 cans, enough for a long trip. There's so much room; you can even stand soda or wine bottles upright in the cooler.
- No-tilt draining
- Insulated lid for cold retention
- Sturdy but lightweight
- Handles and lid can be flimsy
- Occasional leaks
- May not fit in the trunks of compact cars
One of the best coolers with wheels, this Coleman 50 Quart Extreme Cooler looks like luggage at first with its hard, stylish casing and telescopic handle. You can wheel it anywhere, and the handle helps you maneuver in and out of tough spots.
The ample storage space keeps iced food and drinks cold for from three to five days. You won't have to worry about draining this cooler. The drainage spout, located near the bottom of the cooler and between the wheels, efficiently rids the unit of melted ice.
If you're in a hurry and need to rest before setting up camp, the Coleman 50 Extreme has four molded cup holders in the lid for a quick rest. When you use this cooler, you're helping to save the environment. The insulation contains no harmful CFCs, HFCs or HCFCs, unlike many other hard plastic coolers.
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- Excellent insulation
- Has five large, sturdy wheels
- Holds up to 84 cans
- Have-a-Seat lid lets you use the cooler as a chair
- Has easy to clean top for quick washing
- Handle can be flimsy
- Loaded cooler hard to push
- Lid may be hard to open
The Stanley Adventure Cooler, an excellent mid-range cooler, gives you plenty of space for small camping trips. This 16-quart cooler holds 21 cans and keeps food and drinks cold for up to 36 hours. It keeps drinks cold for even in 90-degree weather. If it can do that, your food and drinks will be cold in average temperatures. This cooler's spacious enough for beverages, sandwiches and a few other items. There's enough for lunch and drinks for two people or drinks for four.
The cooler gives you a firm hold and longer cold retention with strong locking clips. There's an elastic strap with a cradle so you can include your Thermos when you go camping. You can put bottle openers and other nonfood items on the bungee cords on top of the cooler.
Even if you’re clumsy (or have a camping mate who is), the rubber gasket under the lid keeps the cooler tightly sealed even if it tips over.
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- Protected from heat with double wall foam insulation
- Holds up to 21 cans
- Keeps drinks cold in up to 90-degree weather
- No upright retention on handle
- Can’t load bottles in a vertical position
- Laches may break
A mid-range to large cooler, this RITC ice chest can handle up to 50 pounds of food, drinks, and ice. It can get quite heavy when filled up since it weighs 25 pounds when empty. Keep in mind; you'll need to be pretty strong to lift it up and carry it from place to place. The RITC tan cooler has rope handles on either side, but no wheels or telescopic handle.
If you're worried about your food or any other contents being stolen, this cooler has an integrated locking system, so anyone not in your camping group will have a hard time getting anything out of it.
The heavy rubber T-latches help you secure the lid to keep the cold in and hot air outside, where it belongs. The RTIC does more for you than store food and drink. You can use it as a tabletop or bench while camping (or anytime) even while it’s full of ice and perishables.
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- Keeps contents cold for up to 6 days
- Fits 40 12-ounce cans
- Roto-molded construction
- Ice lasts up to 10 days
- Pricier than many comparable coolers
- Rope handles may fall apart
- 30-day warranty
The Engel 19-Quart Cooler/Dry Box keeps food and drinks cool and dry while you fish, kayak or canoe. The Engel USA Cooler/Dry stays dry during day-long camping trips. It looks different than other coolers you may have used – more utilitarian, like a toolbox.
That design may not be as attractive as others, but it helps keep water from seeping into the cooler and dry box even if you bring it with you on your boat or canoe. Since it’s designed for use around water, you can be confident it will retain a cold temperature even longer away from water.
Insulated with a high-grade polystyrene core, the Engel Cooler/ Dry Box proves hard to destroy, no matter what you or your campmates do to it.
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- Excellent for fishing trips, kayaking, canoeing
- Tray to hold keys and other personal items
- Stainless steel latches and screws
- Foam-insulated to keep food and drink colder longer
- Stain and odor resistant
- Only keeps food cold for day trips
- Lid hinges may not attach properly
- “Boxy” look
While all five of our picks for the best hard cooler for camping rank wells with users, the RITC 45-Quart Tan Cooler hits all the requirements for a mid-size cooler for serious campers. It keeps your ice, food, and beverages cold longer, and holds enough food and drink to satisfy your small to mid-sized group.
Its sturdy construction not only keeps the contents cold, but it keeps it safe, too. Since it doubles as a bench, step-stool or tabletop, it gives you more user options. All-around, it’s the best cooler for the money.