Premium coolers have become aspirational accessories, but do you really need to spend almost $400 to get a product that works?
Last Updated June 13, 2022. Appears in Cook's Country TV Season 12: Texas Barbecue Brisket
We put two additional coolers through rigorous testing to see how they stacked up to those we had already tested. The Yeti Tundra 45 remains our favorite: It’s durable and relatively easy to use, and its ability to keep foods cool remains unmatched.
Yeti now makes a wheeled version of our favorite cooler. You can read our in-depth review of the Yeti Tundra Haul here.
A cooler is an indispensable tool for the traveling cook, coming in handy for camping, beach trips, long car rides, parties, and tailgating. A $25.00 plastic cooler was once the norm, but in recent years, premium products have shaken up the consumer market with offerings that go up to $1,300.00 for a massive ice chest that weighs 85 pounds when empty. Sleek, certified bear-proof, and “virtually indestructible,” Yeti coolers in particular have gained a cultlike status among the social media set, outdoor enthusiasts, and career hunters and fishermen. But do they really live up to the hype, or do less expensive options work just as well?
We selected a range of large coolers at various price points from five top-selling cooler manufacturers, including a Yeti, RTIC, and a comparable model from Pelican. We chose a mix of models with wheels and without and opted for those with capacities of about 50 quarts—a size that we think should be sufficient for a weekend’s worth of supplies for four people.
We ran the coolers through a battery of tests. To gauge cold retention, we loaded each with 32 pounds of ice and monitored how long the ice lasted. We also filled the coolers with ice packs and soda cans and used thermometers to track how long they kept sodas under 50 degrees. We tested ease of use by attempting to stuff a weekend's worth of groceries into each cooler, and we carried or wheeled the full coolers across concrete, asphalt, gravel, and grass; up and down stairs; and in and out of the back of a car. Finally, we put the products through abuse tests: We pushed full coolers out of the back of an SUV five times and operated all handles, latches, and hinges a minimum of 100 times.
Functionality issues came up first. One cooler's lid wouldn't stay open and repeatedly flopped onto our hands as we loaded it. Another cooler lacked a drain, so we had to unload everything and strain the ice to get rid of excess water. And the high-end coolers were just plain heavy. While every other product weighed between 7 and 12 pounds when empty, the Yeti weighed in at 26 pounds empty and required two people to carry it when full. The Pelican was even heavier, at 38 pounds, and though its wheels helped, lugging it up and down stairs or in and out of the car was still a two-person job.
All that heft, however, made these two coolers less likely to tumble over and more durable when they did. Thanks to sturdier locking latches, the lids on these models never opened when we pushed them out of the SUV. The lighter coolers all spilled open, sending sodas and ice packs everywhere. By the end of testing, one had lost a side handle and anoth...
The mission of America’s Test Kitchen Reviews is to find the best equipment and ingredients for the home cook through rigorous, hands-on testing. We stand behind our winners so much that we even put our seal of approval on them.
Valerie is an assistant editor for ATK Reviews. In addition to cooking, she loves skiing, traveling, and spending time outdoors.