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The 10 Best Coolers for Road Trips

Budget, premium, and 12V – these are the best coolers to keep chilled drinks and food on a road trip.

By Jason Barnette | Travel writer and photographer with 15+ years of road tripping experience

This post may contain affiliate links. Read my Affiliate Disclosure here.

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Ice, ice baby. That seems to be the motto for anyone on a road trip with a cooler of partially melted ice rattling around cans of your favorite beverage. Coolers are one of the most common pieces of road trip travel gear. And it’s also one of the most annoying.

Even the best “premium” cooler from a big-box retailer couldn’t keep ice frozen for more than a few hours. By the end of every road trip day, the chunks were converted into moderately chilled water. Labels peeled from bottles and seeped into cheap food containers.

What. A. Mess.

So, after years of road tripping with cheap soft-sided coolers, cheap hard-sided coolers, and no-name gas station coolers bought on the fly, I finally decided to invest in the last road trip cooler I’ll ever buy.

But first, I had to do some research. And this is what I found. A collection of best coolers for road trips. And the most surprising thing I tested was a cooler that never needs ice.

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Top Picks

Best Overall

YETI Roadie 24 Cooler

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Best Budget

Igloo BMX 25-Quart Ice Chest

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Best 12V Fridge

Dometic 35-Liter Portable Refrigerator

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Best Durable

Pelican Elite 30 Quart Cooler

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Bote KULA 5 Cooler

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Best Budget Alternative

Coleman 316 Series 52-Quart Cooler

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Best 12V Alternative

Euhomy 37-Quart 12V Refrigerator

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YETI Tundra 45 Cooler

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Best Type of Cooler for Road Trips

Out of the three types of coolers – soft-sided, hard-sided, and 12v – avoid the soft-sided coolers on a road trip. This type of cooler has the least insulation and typically only keeps ice frozen for a day or less.

12V coolers are wonderful because you never have to worry about buying a $3 bag of ice at a gas station to keep the contents chilled. However, the downside is that a 12V cooler only operates when the vehicle is running. Insulation helps keep the contents chilled while the vehicle is turned off, but only for short periods – maybe only hours.

The best type of cooler for road trips is a hard-sided cooler. These feature the most insulation of any type of cooler and can keep ice frozen for days. They are stackable, making it easier to pack in the car for a road trip.

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Best Practices for Coolers on a Road Trip

Any manufacturer hesitates to definitively claim how long ice can stay frozen in their coolers. Instead, they will admit it can vary because of several factors – air temperature, quality of the ice, and initial temperature of the contents.

But there are some things you can do to get the best results out of a cooler of any type.

  • Refrigerate the contents overnight before placing them in the cooler.
  • Don’t overpack the cooler. For any times that don’t require refrigeration, only pack what you need until you can find ice again.
  • Use quality ice. Ice vending machines at hotels frequently have weak ice that feels wet to the touch – this kind of ice will melt faster. Five-pound bags of ice at gas stations are usually the best kind of ice. Dig to the bottom to find the best bag of ice.
  • Drain warm water from the cooler before filling it with ice. But leave the cold water – this can help chill the empty spaces between contents.
  • Pack the cooler with ice. Any empty space inside a cooler means warm air, and warm air will melt the ice faster. Pack every cubic inch possible with ice.
  • Open the cooler as infrequently as possible and immediately close the lid.
  • Store the cooler somewhere inside your vehicle out of direct sunlight.
  • Don’t leave the cooler in the car overnight if the outdoor overnight low is higher than your hotel room. Bringing the cooler into the air-conditioned room will help keep the cooler itself chilled and keeps your ice frozen for longer periods.
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Best Overall

YETI Roadie 24 Cooler

The Roadie 24 is the perfect road trip cooler that can fit in the backseat’s floor, hold enough food and drinks for up to four people for two days, and keeps ice frozen for 3-5 days.

Founded in 2006, YETI is a Texas-based company known for making coolers that keep ice frozen with thick insulation and a hefty price. Their lineup includes dozens of coolers ranging from small soft sided lunch boxes to enormous deck boxes for boats. Their Roadie lineup includes the Roadie 48 and Roadie 60, both wheeled coolers, but the best cooler for road trips is the Roadie 24.

The Roadie 24 is 17-inches wide and 14-inches deep which means it can fit in the floor of the backseat in most cars. The lid features a gasket for an airtight, leak-proof seal and quick-release latches. The integrated strap also makes it easy to carry the cooler between the car and hotel on lengthy road trips.

YETI’s legendary pressure-injected polyurethane insulation keeps ice frozen in the Roadie 24 for about 3-5 days. It has a 24-liter capacity that holds 18 cans with a 2:1 ratio of ice to cans. Ideally, you could do a 1:1 ratio with 24 cans. Interestingly, the Roadie 24 can hold most wine bottles with an interior height of 13.3 inches.

Pick up a few add-ons to make the most of the Roadie 24. The YETI Basket Accessory is a clear plastic tray 4-inches deep and half the width of the cooler, allowing you to keep food out of the melted ice. The YETI Thin ICE is a reusable freezer block that replaces the need for ice and can be frozen overnight in hotel mini fridges.

Pros

Durable hard shell

Excellent insulation

Easy to pack in the car

Easy to open the lid

Cons

Carrying strap is too short

No drain

Expensive

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Best Budget

Igloo BMX 25-Quart Ice Chest

This ice chest is one of the least expensive on this list and includes some great features for the price like a rugged hard shell, easy carry handle, and decent insulation to keep ice frozen for about 2-4 days.

Igloo has been making coolers in Texas since 1947, and their first all-plastic cooler debuted in 1962. The Igloo 25-Quart BMX Ice Chest is one of the latest innovations for long road trips in tough conditions.

The ice chest is compact, measuring about 13-inches deep and 20-inches wide, so it fits in the floor behind the front seats. It’s built tough with stainless steel hinge rods on the handle and rubberized T-latches on the lid. And the Igloo’s iconic swing handle makes it easy to grab the cooler and go between hotel rooms and destinations on road trips.

The blow-molded construction features 20% thicker insulation for greater performance. The cooler can keep ice frozen form about 3-4 days. The 23-liter capacity can hold about 18 cans with a 2:1 ratio of ice, the necessary ratio to keep this budget cooler’s contents chilled.

And if the 23 liters isn’t big enough for your road trip, try the Igloo BMX 52-Quart or 72-Quart, both with pivoting side handles for carrying.

Pros

Durable hard shell

Easy to carry with the swinging handle

Good capacity for the price

Cons

No drain

Rubberized latches eventually break

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Best 12V Fridge

Dometic 35-Liter Portable Refrigerator

This electric fridge ends the dependency on daily bags of ice and keeps the contents perfectly chilled to a temperature you can set through a smartphone app, but it doesn’t perform well while unpowered and is a beast to carry into a hotel room.

Dometic has become the go-to brand for 12V fridges in DIY campervans and overlanding vehicles – and for a good reason. Their lineup ranges from the 25-liter to an impressive 100-liter, but the Dometic 35-liter Portable Refrigerator is the best 12V fridge for road trips.

Dometic fridges feature a rugged exterior meant for long haul uses in tough conditions. The additional Protective Cover wraps the fridge in a heavy-duty 1200D nylon that adds protection to your investment for road trips. With or without the cover, the lid pivots open from a sturdy latch, making it easy to quickly access all the contents. It’s large, though, taking up a 27-inch long and 16-inch wide footprint somewhere in your car.

Inside, the fridge has a 35-liter capacity in a large compartment at the front and a shallow shelf at the back that sits on top of the motor. The fridge can hold 50 cans since ice is never needed. The temperature can be manually set using the digital display on the front of the fridge or with a smartphone connected through their app.

The downside to Dometic comes when the power is turned off. The fridge weighs 37 pounds unloaded, which already makes it difficult to carry into hotel rooms. But if you can manage, the fridges include a household power adapter so you can keep it going all night.

Pros

Never needs ice

Rugged exterior

Smartphone app for monitoring

Large capacity

Cons

Poor insulation for unpowered use

Difficult to carry

Expensive

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Best Durable

Pelican Elite 30 Quart Cooler

This cooler is built tough using Pelican’s impressive designs for durable travel cases. Although the cooler’s shape is awkward for packing in the car and it’s difficult to carry, the cooler can keep ice frozen for days and the sloped drain makes cleanup easy.

In 1976, David and Arline Parker founded a mail-order home business to develop special equipment for scuba divers. One of their first products was a hard-shell waterproof case – the product the brand is most popular known for making. In 2013, the new consumer division added coolers, backpacks, and flashlights to their lineup.

The Pelican Elite lineup of coolers includes the 8 Quart Personal Cooler and 20 Quart Elite, both descent coolers for solo road trips. But the best cooler for road trips in their lineup is the Pelican Elite 30 Quart Cooler.

Pelican applied their impressive durability to the cooler’s design with a rugged exterior that can withstand the toughest punishment. The company offers a lifetime guarantee that if you manage to break it, they’ll replace it. The anti-sheer hinges and durable latches make it easy to open the cooler while also providing a great seal. And the four integrated cup holders on the lid’s top feature drain holes.

Two inches of foam inside the polypropylene shell provide adequate insulation to keep ice frozen for about 3-4 days. The interior has a 28-liter capacity which is enough for 22 cans with a 2:1 ratio of ice. The drain plug features a sloped channel so the water can drain without tilting the cooler.

If the 28-liter capacity is too small for your road trip needs, the Pelican 70 Quart Elite Cooler has more than twice the capacity with the same features. The additional Pelican Cooler Ice Pack can eliminate the need for buying bags of ice – the 2-inch wide reusable ice pack can be frozen overnight in a hotel’s mini fridge. And the additional Pelican Elite Cooler Wire Basket can keep food out of the sloshy melted ice.

Pros

Durable hard shell

Good insulation

Easy open lid

Lifetime replacement guarantee

Sloped drain

Cons

Difficult to carry with the integrated handles

Awkward size for packing in a car

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Bote KULA 5 Cooler

The KULA 5 was built specifically for Bote’s lineup of paddleboards, but the bucket-sized cooler is also great for solo road trippers who want something portable and easy to carry.

After Corey and Magda Cooper moved to Destin, Florida, they fell in love with paddleboarding. But when they couldn’t find a decent paddleboard in the Panhandle region, they decided to make their own. A few years after founding BOTE, they expanded their lineup of paddleboards and kayaks to include coolers.

The KULA 5 “combines the best parts of a cooler with a five-gallon bucket.” Made from ABS plastic, the lightweight but durable cooler also serves as a seat. The swinging handle features a padded grip to make it easy to carry. The newest innovation is Magnepod – integrated magnets in many of the products that allows tumblers, coolers, and paddleboards to securely fasten to each other.

The insulation keeps ice frozen for about 1-2 days. The interior of the 19-liter cooler is small – 11.75-inches wide and 11-inches tall. It has capacity for about 15 cans with moderate ice. And the round interior works best with cans – square containers quickly take up lots of room. The lid is fastened with a rubberized T-latch and the leak-proof gasket prevents accidental spills in the car.

Pros

Portable

Lightweight

Durable

Cons

Small capacity

Expensive vs larger coolers

Poor insulation

Best for solo road trippers only

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Best Budget Alternative

Coleman 316 Series 52-Quart Cooler

This budget-friendly cooler has a large capacity and durable design, but it lacks any latches on the lid. It’s still a great cooler for a road trip.

Founded in 1900 in Kingfisher, Oklahoma, Coleman is a brand synonymous with budget-friendly outdoor recreational equipment like tents, camp furniture, cookware, and coolers. Their impressive lineup of coolers ranges from inexpensive day trip options to road trip worthy insulated behemoths.

The Coleman 316 Series 52-Quart Cooler is their best cooler for road trips. The blow-molded design is tough, and the cooler can even function as a seat with a 250-pound capacity. The pivoting side handles make it easy for one or two people to carry the cooler. And integrated cup holders on the lid with drainage make it easy to keep your drinks nearby.

The 49-liter capacity can hold up to 80 cans with moderate ice. Thick insulation can keep the ice frozen for about 2-3 days. A drain hole makes it easy to drain the water, but you’ll have to tip the cooler to get it all out.

The cooler is 26-inches long, 15-inches deep, and 17-inches tall. It’s easy to pack into the car for a road trip. But if the 80-can capacity isn’t enough, you can also get the 70-quart, 120-quart, and 150-quart sizes. And their lineup of rolling coolers includes the 62-quart and 100-quart.

Pros

Large capacity

Affordable

Durable design

Drain hole

Cons

No latches on the lid

Lid won’t stay open without support

Heavy when fully loaded

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Best 12V Alternative

Euhomy 37-Quart 12V Refrigerator

This 12V fridge is less expensive than its competitor, Dometic, but it stands up to the challenge with decent performance, great capacity, and the ability to plug into a 12V accessory outlet or household outlet.

Euhomy is a small U.S.-based manufacturer of countertop ice makers and portable refrigerators. Most of their products are made in China, but don’t let that discourage you from considering this budget-friendly alternative to Dometic.

The Euhomy 37-Quart 12V Refrigerator features a durable plastic construction with integrated handles. The lid is fastened with a latch and swings open from the back, providing quick and easy access to the contents. The fridge is about 14″ wide and 27″ long, taking up a small footprint in your car.

The fridge’s temperature can be set manually using the digital display on the front or with a smartphone through an app. The interior is divided into two compartments: a 2/3 front compartment with a 14″ interior height and a 1/3 rear compartment with less than half that height. The compartments act like a freezer and fridge with a 10-degree difference. The included wire rack makes it easy to remove all the contents at once. The 35-liter capacity can hold about 60 cans and the front compartment is tall enough for wine bottles or two-liter bottles.

But like other 12V fridges, this one fails when the power is turned off. Inside a hot car, the poor insulation means the contents’ temps will soar in about 3-4 hours. But the fridge includes a household power adapter, so if you carry it into the hotel room, you can plug it in overnight.

Pros

Durable design

Integrated carry handles

Digital temperature display

Manual temp control with display or smartphone app

Large capacity

Inexpensive vs competitors

Cons

Poor insulation for unpowered use

Heavy when fully loaded

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YETI Tundra 45 Cooler

Debuting in 2008, the YETI Tundra features the impressive insulation that made the company popular for keeping ice frozen. The durable design and integrated handles make this a great cooler for road trips.

Founded in 2006, YETI is a Texas-based company known for making coolers that keep ice frozen with thick insulation and a hefty price. The Tundra series of coolers debuted in 2008 and is among their most popular, divided between carried coolers and rolling coolers. The YETI Tundra 45 Cooler is their best large cooler for road trips.

The Tundra features a durable plastic shell that can withstand the rigors of road tripping. The lid is fastened with rubberized T-latches that are easy to unfasten when you want to get inside. Measuring 16-inches wide and 25.5-inches long, it doesn’t take up too much footprint in the car.

3 inches of PermaFrost Insulation gives the cooler it’s famed insulating value. Ice stays frozen for about 3-5 days. The interior has a height of 11 inches so tall bottles, like wine or soda, can stand upright. The 33-liter capacity has room for 26 cans with a 2:1 ratio of ice, but you can get away with a 1:1 ratio and stuff about 35 cans into the cooler.

The cooler weighs 23 pounds when empty, so it gets heavy when fully loaded with food, drinks, and ice. Integrated handles in the molded exterior make it easy to get a grip. The Tundra also features integrated rope handles with a rubberized grip that makes it easy for two people to carry the cooler.

The Tundra 45 Haul is the wheeled version of the cooler – for an extra price. The solid tires are impact and puncture resistant and the curved aluminum handle folds down when not needed.

Pros

Durable design

Excellent insulation

Large capacity

Drain hole

Cons

Expensive

Heavy when fully loaded

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Do you have a question about travel or road trips? Are you a CVB or DMO interested in working with me? I typically respond to emails within 24 hours. Quicker if you include a good riddle.
Do you have a question about travel or road trips? Are you a CVB or DMO interested in working with me? I typically respond to emails within 24 hours. Quicker if you include a good riddle.
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