Ice, ice baby. That seems to be the motto for anyone on a road trip with a cooler full of partially melted ice rattling around cans of your favorite beverage. Coolers are one of the most common pieces of outdoor gear that come in all shapes and sizes. But which cooler is the best for a road trip?
I have embarked on epic road trips with soft-sided coolers that kept ice frozen for about as long as an episode of Top Gear. I’ve tried the cheapest hard-sided coolers available at big-box retailers and found the hard sides made little difference. After years of spending $3 per day on ice, I finally invested in a decent cooler that paid for itself after just six weeks of road tripping.
Hint: I’ll tell you which cooler I road trip with below.
Browse the list below for the best budget and premium coolers that will keep your ice frozen, contents chilled, and will mean fewer trips to the gas station for yet another bag of ice.
- Best Type of Cooler for Road Trips
- Best Practices for Coolers on a Road Trip
- Best Budget: Igloo BMX Ice Chest
- Best Premium: YETI Roadie 24
- Best Budget Rolling: Coleman Xtreme Rolling Cooler
- Best Premium Rolling: YETI Tundra Haul
- Best Budget Large Capacity: Coleman 316 Series Cooler
- Best Premium Large Capacity: YETI Tundra
- Best Style: Coleman Steel-Belted Cooler
- Best Portable: KULA Cooler
- Best Budget 12V: Igloo Versatemp Cooler
- Best Premium 12V: Dometic Powered Cooler
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.
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.
- 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.
Best Budget: Igloo BMX Ice Chest
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 blow-molded construction and steel kick plate make it perfect for tossing the cooler into the bed of a pickup truck or strapping it to a rooftop cargo box. An ergonomic carry handle pivots out of the way when you want a drink. The leak-resistant lid is secured with durable plastic hinges and rubber latches.
The cooler can keep ice frozen for 2-4 days. The 25-quart capacity can hold a 12-pack of cans, and the internal height is enough for long neck bottles.
Pros: Durable, easy to carry, and a great capacity for the price.
Cons: No drain, plastic hinges, and rubber latches will eventually wear out
Best Premium: YETI Roadie 24
Founded in 2006, YETI is another Texas-based cooler manufacturer making some of the best products on the market. And when it comes to weekend road trips or epic adventures, their YETI Roadie 24 is one of the best coolers you could pack in your car.
The Roadie was designed to fit behind the front seats of most passenger vehicles. Their legendary pressure-injected polyurethane insulation keeps ice frozen for 3-5 days. The lid features a gasket for an airtight, leak-proof seal to keep the hot out and the cold in, and the quick-release latch makes it easy to grab a drink quickly. The Roadie is YETI’s largest cooler with a carrying strap, although the strap’s length is not adjustable and is just a tad too short.
The Roadie has a capacity for 24 cans of your favorite beverage with just enough room for a moderate amount of ice. The cooler is even tall enough for most wine bottles. 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.
Pros: Excellent insulation, durability, and effortless to open and close the lid
Cons: Carrying strap is too short to comfortably carry on your shoulder, no drain
Best Overall Cooler I spent $250 to buy this cooler at the YETI store in downtown Charleston, South Carolina. It was the most I had ever spent on a cooler, but the investment paid for itself in just a few weeks. Before that purchase, I bought a five-pound bag of ice for about $3 at least once every day of a road trip. With the YETI Roadie, I only had to buy a bag of ice once per week. The cooler had saved enough money on ice to pay for itself in just ten weeks.
Best Budget Rolling: Coleman Xtreme Rolling Cooler
Founded in 1900 in Kingfisher, Oklahoma, Coleman is a brand synonymous with budget-friendly outdoor recreational equipment. And the Coleman Xtreme Rolling Cooler continues their legacy.
The cooler is made from plastic, but it’s durable. The closed lid can support up to 250 pounds to add an extra seat to your camp. The rolling wheels are labeled as “durable,” but they are plastic and will not last as long as other types of wheels. The extendable handle makes it easy to roll the cooler, but you can also carry it with the built-in molded handles.
The Xtreme Rolling Cooler has ample insulation in the sides and lid, keeping ice frozen for about 2-5 days. The 50-quart capacity is enough to hold 84 cans of your favorite beverage with a moderate amount of ice, and it’s tall enough to fit standard bottles of wine. The Coleman Xtreme Rolling Cooler is also available in 65-quart and 100-quart capacities.
Pros: Good insulation, durable construction, built-in cup holders on the lid
Cons: Plastic wheels, lid won’t stay open on its own, no secure latch on the lid
Best Premium Rolling: YETI Tundra Haul
When it comes to rolling coolers, the YETI Tundra Haul continues the company’s tradition of outstanding coolers – for a price.
The rolling cooler is essentially a YETI Tundra with wheels – and a good thing, too, because the cooler weighs 37 pounds when empty! The wheels are a single piece of molded plastic, but they’re ginormous for a cooler at 8-inches in diameter and 2.5-inches wide. The aluminum handle pivots up from the side of the cooler for easy transport and folds away when not in use.
The cooler features the same polyurethane construction with foam insulation as the Tundra that can keep ice frozen for about 4-7 days. The Tundra Haul can hold up to 45 cans of your favorite beverage with a 2:1 ratio of cans to ice. The lid features a leak-proof, airtight gasket for keeping the contents chilled.
Pros: Excellent insulation, best wheels of any rolling cooler
Cons: Can weigh up to 80 pounds fully loaded, making it difficult to get out of your car
Best Budget Large Capacity: Coleman 316 Series Cooler
Coleman features an extensive lineup of coolers, and the top of that lineup is the Coleman 316 Series Cooler.
The 316 Series Cooler features a molded plastic body with thick insulation capable of keeping ice frozen for 3-5 days. A plastic drain plug makes it easy to drain the water and refill it with ice.
The durable lid has built-in cup holders and doubles as a seat with a 250-pound capacity. The lid does not have a latch for securely closing the cooler but instead relies on a snug fit with the cooler’s body.
Pros: Large capacity, low price, durable design
Cons: Lid won’t stay open on its own, no latch on the lid, heavy when fully loaded
Best Premium Large Capacity: YETI Tundra
The YETI Tundra is the pinnacle of coolers for just about any kind of traveler and outdoor adventure seeker. Since debuting in 2008, the Tundra has dominated the market for long-lasting ice at a premium price.
The YETI Tundra features a durable plastic shell with thick polyurethane foam. Under good conditions, the insulation can keep ice frozen for 5-7 days. That insulation means the coolers are heavy – even empty, the Tundra 45 weighs 23 pounds, and the Tundra 125 weighs 45 pounds. The lid features a leak-proof and airtight gasket, and the lid securely fastens with rubber latches.
YETI designed their Tundra coolers for a 2:1 ratio of contents to ice to keep things chilled properly. The Tundra 45 has a capacity for up to 26 cans, the Tundra 65 has a capacity for 42 cans, the Tundra 105 has a capacity for 67 cans, and the Tundra 125 has a capacity for 92 cans.
Pros: Outstanding insulation, large capacity, durable design
Cons: Heavy when fully packed
Best Style: Coleman Steel-Belted Cooler
The Coleman Steel-Belted Cooler is a retro throwback to their early days of metal coolers. But don’t be fooled – this is a plastic cooler wrapped in a stainless-steel shell.
The durable cooler can hold up to the elements better than most coolers. The cooler could double as a bench with a capacity of 250 pounds – just bring a bench cushion to sit on. The metal carry handles are strong and feature a comfortable grip.
The 54-quart capacity is large enough to hold up to 84 cans of your favorite beverage packed with a moderate amount of ice. The insulation is not supreme, but good enough to keep all the ice from melting for about 1-3 days. A convenient drain plug on the bottom is angled so you can drain the cooler without tilting it.
Pros: Large capacity, retro stylish
Cons: More style than insulation
Best Portable: KULA Cooler
Corey and Magda Cooper moved to Destin, Florida, and fell in love with the idea of paddleboarding. But when they couldn’t find a decent paddleboard, they decided to make their own “boat” – and they called it BOTE. A few years later, they expanded their product line with KULA Coolers.
The KULA 5 “combines the best parts of a cooler with a five-gallon bucket.” Made from durable ABS plastic, the cooler is rock solid and durable and even features a rubberized seat cushion built into the top of the lid. The lid opens effortlessly with one hand with a single rubber latch, and a gasket makes it leak-proof and airtight.
The one thing the folks at BOTE want everyone to know about the KULA 2.5 is that “it has a freakin’ tap.” A built-in tap allows users to skip carrying the bottles and simply fill the 2.5-gallon cooler with their favorite beverage and drink it straight from the tap. The freakin’ tap.
The KULA 5 and KULA 2.5 can keep ice frozen for about 1-3 days, and with a drain plug on the bottom, it will be easy to remove the water without tilting the cooler.
Pros: Durable, portable, and a drain plug on the very bottom
Cons: Expensive for the small capacity
Best Budget 12V: Igloo Versatemp Cooler
12V accessories change how we road trip for the better, and now 12V coolers are here. The Igloo Versatemp Cooler is a budget-level entry in the market that could be a great investment for frequent road trippers.
The Versatemp Cooler plugs into a 12V outlet and uses convection cooling to chill the contents. It can be set upright like a mini-fridge – it even includes a shelf – or horizontal like a traditional cooler. The quiet motor can cool the cooler’s interior 38 degrees below the ambient temperature. But like all 12V coolers and fridges, the Versatemp Cooler features very little insulation. Once the vehicle turns off, the contents begin to warm at several degrees per hour – in about 4-5 hours, the interior will reach ambient temperature.
The 40-quart capacity will feel spacious when you realize you never have to pack it with ice. The interior dimensions of the Versatemp Cooler are large enough to accommodate 12 cans of your favorite beverage, two-liter bottles, and even traditional wine bottles.
Pros: Never needs ice, large capacity
Cons: Poor insulation, heavy at 20 pounds empty
Best Premium 12V: Dometic Powered Cooler
Dometic has become the go-to brand for 12V fridges in DIY campervans and overlanding vehicles – and for a good reason. Their lineup of fridges is the best on the market and worth the hefty investment for frequent road trippers who want to take lots of food and drinks on the road.
All Dometic powered coolers feature a rugged exterior with metal frames to protect from damage while on the road. With a powerful compressor, the coolers can chill contents below zero without ever needing ice. The lids feature a leak-proof, airtight gasket to keep the cool inside.
The coolers are powered through the 12V outlet in a vehicle. A built-in protection system prevents the units from draining a vehicle battery if the accessory mode is left on. Once the power is turned off, moderate insulation helps the units retain their internal temperatures. Temperature is controlled on the high-resolution display with soft-touch buttons or through a smartphone app with a Bluetooth connection.
Pros: Outstanding performance, freezer and refrigerator on demand, an array of accessories
Cons: Most expensive option on this list