The Best Coolers for Car Camping or Road Trips
There’s nothing quite so important on any outdoor excursion with the kids as food! Food can make or break a camping trip, hike, day on the river, or off-roading adventure. Make sure you have the best coolers for your outdoor family to keep your food cold and the kids happy.
Note: Want tips for what foods to put in these coolers AND how to pack them? Be sure to check out our recipe books that include sections on how to do just that and our favorite recipes too.
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Choosing the Right Cooler for your Family
Best cooler size for families
First and foremost, make sure you get a cooler big enough for your family’s needs. Most coolers are measured in quarts.
While looking at how many drink cans a cooler holds are the obvious form of comparison with a cooler. We’ve found another handy ruler of dimension: how many rolls of toilet paper will fit? It’s a great measurement for volume that most people can immediately relate to. A standard roll (NOT a Costco roll, mind you), is about 4″x4″x4″.
Here’s a handy little cooler size comparison:
15Q – Big enough for lunch and a cold drink for 1-2 people. That would hold about 15 cans, or 6 rolls of toilet paper.
40Q – Big enough for two family meals, plus drinks. Holds about 66 cans with 10lbs of ice, or 30 rolls of toilet paper.
60Q – Big enough for cold storage food for a 3-day overnight camping trip for a family. Holds about 72 cans with 20 lbs of ice, or 72 rolls of toilet paper.
100Q – Big enough for a major food event with a big group, or feeding a family for a week. Holds 95 cans with 30lbs of ice, or 96 rolls of toilet paper with some extra wiggle room.
While you can buy a straight foam cooler at the grocery store, we encourage you not to use them! They are really wasteful and not easy to recycle. Most durable, multi-use coolers are made of a plastic shell with foam insulation.
“Overbuilt” hard-sided coolers are engineered with heavy-duty materials and are usually pressure-injected with insulating foam to prevent any air gaps, which in turn makes the insulation perform better. The overbuilt class of cooler is much pricier, but the coolers keep your food cold and your ice from melting for days longer than a standard cooler.
Soft-sided coolers use a variety of materials, from reflective aluminum (think space blankets) to a closed-cell foam. Most of these coolers generally don’t have the same insulation thickness as a hard-sided cooler, so won’t keep your ice from melting nearly as long. As a result, they are lighter and more portable.
What you should pay for a cooler
There’s a huge spectrum of prices when it comes to coolers, but generally you get what you pay for. You can pick up an entry-level cooler at Target for under $30, or you can drop $300-400 on an overbuilt cooler.
The price range has a reason though. Those overbuilt coolers will keep ice frozen for a full week in hot weather and will be certified bear-resistant, while the bargain cooler’s ice will melt in just a day or two.
It’s very possible to find middle ground and find a cooler that’s right for you and your needs! If your adventures are usually family days at the beach or weekend trips, you don’t need to invest as much into a cooler as a family that might be camping in bear country or taking a long river trip.
Best Coolers for Camping – Hard Sided
The classic cooler to keep on standby. Perfect for those on a budget, taking day trips or short camping trips. Don’t plan more than 2 days without an ice refresh.
I have had this cooler for over 20 years now and it has been on many, MANY car camping trips, backyard barbeques, and float trips. It has been loaded, unloaded, dropped, banged, smashed, sat on, jumped on, and more. This cooler is pretty much indestructible, which is probably why the design hasn’t changed in 20 years.
The Coleman Performance Cooler is very lightweight, with plenty of functional space on the inside. It’s big enough to hold drinks and food for the family for 2-3 days. The handles are also stiff plastic, which makes it easier to carry solo.
For all its durability, this cooler isn’t designed to keep things cold for more than a day or two without adding more ice. Of course, ice is great for keeping drinks cold, but not so great for packing milk and raw chicken for multiple days. We have also used this cooler to store dry/non-perishable foods to keep the mice away in camp.
Pros: Affordable, durable, lightweight, made in the USA.
Cons: Not going to keep your ice from melting after day 2.
Best cooler for camping with wheels for big families or heavy loads of drinks and food at beach trips, sports leagues, and shorter camping trips. Stays cold 3-4 days without ice refresh.
With more insulation in the walls and lid than the Coleman Performance Cooler, the Xtreme will hold ice for 3-4 days. It’s also lightweight, and holds more food than you’ll likely want to pack around (although it also comes in a 100 Qt version if you are feeding a small army).
Hands-down, the best feature is the handle and wheels. Hauling a heavy cooler around is HARD, and downright impossible if you are solo-parenting younger kids for the day. Wheels make all the difference in portability.
As a bonus, this cooler is actually reinforced for seating. It even has cup holders built into the lid so your drink is always close by!
Pros: Easy to carry alone, extra-large capacity in multiple sizes, affordable, made in the USA.
Cons: It’s big, and you still have to load it in and out of the car.
Best Bear-Resistant Coolers
Grizzly bears can be found in Alaska, Canada, Northern Washington, Montana, and Wyoming. Most of these areas have food storage orders, requiring bear-resistant containers.
Black bears, on the other hand, are fairly prolific and can be found in most of the Lower 48. They are notorious for breaking into vehicles in popular camping areas in states like California, Colorado, Oregon, North Carolina, Virginia, and Minnesota. While most areas don’t have food storage orders, it’s still wise to keep your food stored in a bear-resistant container if you plan on leaving your cooler in camp when you aren’t there.
Bear-resistant coolers must be certified by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee. That means you can safely store you food in your cooler, and leave it unattended in camp, without violating food storage orders and running the risk of a bear getting into your cooler. I live in Montana, so being bear-resistant is pretty important!
The IGBC tests coolers just down the road from me at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone. (Here’s a cool video about how they do the testing!)
The bears at the center are “problem bears” who have been removed from the wild because they got into trouble with food. These bears are pros at getting into coolers, cars, and houses to get food rewards.
To get certified, these coolers have to survive at least 60 minutes without a cooler-cracking bear getting the treats inside. And preventing a bear from getting your food is good both for your camping trip, and for the bear.
Best for longer camping trips and camping in bear country. Keeps ice frozen for 5-7 days, even in hot weather. Pricey, but it’s the last cooler you’ll ever need.
In the age of overbuilt coolers, you might be wondering why in the world people spend $350 on a cooler. You can get a simple one for $50. Well, it turns out that you get what you pay for!
Grizzly coolers are beefy. Like other overbuilt coolers, they are made from a rotomolded plastic, which makes them extra tough (and a perfect surface for holding your favorite stickers). The coolers are pressure injected with 2″ of super-insulating polyurethane foam, and have a silicone gasket around the lid. All this insulation keeps your food cold and your ice frozen for up to 7 days.
Having tested this cooler in some HOT camping weather this summer, I can attest that it really does keep your food cold and your ice frozen. We brought it to the lake for 3 days when it was in the upper 90s, and by the time we got home, we still had over half the ice left.
The downside to having an IGBC-certified, bear-resistant cooler is that they are generally HEAVY. The Grizzly 60 weighs 30lbs, empty. Add in 20lb of ice, plus food and drinks, this thing gets heavy quickly. Plan to take it to the location you want it (ie: in the back of the car) before filling it, or make sure you have a buddy to help carry it.
While very comparable to the Yeti and RTIC overbuilt coolers in terms of design, cold storage, and durability, the dual handle system gives the Grizzly a leg up over the competition. One handle is a rope with rubber-grip style, similar to other coolers on the market. These generally work when you are carrying it with someone, but are awkward and result in pinched fingers when carrying a heavy cooler solo.
The other handle is a molded grip under the lip of the cooler. These are the difference maker for me, since Yeti and RTIC are generally harder to carry under the lip.
I really love the oversized 2″ drain and integrated channels. You don’t have to tilt the cooler to drain it, which is good because this cooler is heavy! It drains melted water out very quickly, but on the flipside, it will drain small ice chunks as well.
Grizzly coolers come with grips on the bottom, so your heavy cooler won’t slide around the back of your car or truck. If you want it to slide more easily, it comes with slick feet attachments you can use instead.
There’s also slots for dividers, cutting boards, and even a dry-goods basket, to keep those strawberries and your lettuce out of the ice.
It shouldn’t matter, but unlike the Yetis and RTICs, this cooler also comes in loads of bright colors. Honestly, in a world of white and tan coolers, it’s really nice to have some fun color selection too! The folks at Grizzly really did think of everything!
The Grizzly makes hard-sided coolers in multiple sizes, from 15-165L. If you need a really big cooler for hunting season, running an outdoor restaurant, or bringing food for the entire neighborhood, Grizzly also makes the biggest cooler on the market – the G400.
Pros: Will last forever, drains easy, keeps food cold and ice frozen up to 7 days, certified bear-resistant, lockable, comes in fun colors, made in the USA.
Cons: Expensive, too heavy to carry solo when full.
Parent Note: If your kids are mischievous, make sure they don’t try to hide inside one of these heavy-duty coolers. They are airtight and your child could suffocate.
Best for multi-day camping trips, long road trips, and hot trips on the river or lake. This cooler is the OG of overbuilt coolers and is pretty much indestructible.
The Yeti is the OG of overbuilt coolers for a reason… it was the first and toughest overbuilt style that spawned a whole industry of imitators. RTIC, Grizzly, even Otterbox are getting in on the action now, but all will be compared to the standard set by Yeti. Founded in 2006, Yeti builds coolers for people who use them, and use them hard.
The Tundra comes in a bunch of different sizes and styles, to fit your family needs, from 35L on the small side, to 105L. There are even bigger versions, aimed at outdoor restaurants, bbq pitmasters, and anyone feeding an giant crowd. The Tundra Hard Haul has wheels if you are carrying your cooler solo.
You can expect your ice to stay frozen up to 7 days, with up to 3″ of pressure-injected insulation and a freezer-grade gasket around the lid.
All the Tundra coolers are built with Yeti’s usual attention to durability, with a virtually indestructible rotomolded shell and beefy lid hinges. The handles are military-grade rope, so should never break, although they can pinch your fingers if you are carrying the cooler solo.
Like all overbuilt coolers, this cooler is very heavy at 29lbs, empty. You’re best to get it where you want it before you pack it, or else make sure you have a strong buddy to help you move it once it’s loaded. We have found that the under-lid grips are not ideal for carrying the cooler solo on the Tundra, so we recommend carrying with two people so you can use the rope handles.
Like the Grizzly, Yeti is IGBC-certified bear resistant when you add a padlock to the corners, so it is very convenient for car camping or river trips in bear country.
If you want all the bells and whistles, Yeti has a leg up on the competition. From fly-rod and cup holders, to seat-cushions and no-slip deck pads, Yeti Tundra coolers can be accessorized for both boating and camping.
If you need to tie your cooler down for a bumpy ride on an atv, boat, or on a hitch rack, the Yeti has a slight advantage over other coolers, owing to the tie-down grooves built into the lid. The grooves will help the cooler stay a bit more secure and prevent any strap sliding.
Pros: Extremely durable, keeps your food seriously cold for a long time, will be the last cooler you ever need to buy, easily compatible and very secure to tie down, lots of accessories available, made in the USA
Cons: Expensive, heavy, hard to carry solo
Parent Note: If your kids are mischievous, make sure they don’t try to hide inside one of these heavy-duty coolers. They are airtight and your child could suffocate.
Our Favorite Soft Coolers
Best for work, air travel, a trip to the park, and road trips where you need to keep milk and/or snacks cold.
You don’t normally think of coolers when you think of Mountainsmith. They are known for their excellent lumbar packs, but they also make a handy soft-sided cooler!
We used the Sixer a ton for day trips and work, when I had to pump regularly. Throw in a 2-3 ice packs (we like the Yeti Ice ones), and it’s just the right size to store either a 6-pack of soda and a few juice boxes for after a hike, or 4 milk bottles and a hand pump (#momlife, right?) for pumping on the fly.
This cooler is small and light enough to take everywhere and we carried it everywhere, including on airplanes, under the stroller, and in the car. The straps aren’t padded the best for hauling when it gets heavy, but I wouldn’t want to carry it all day anyways.
There’s a stuff pocket in the front for extra napkins, utensils, or extra pumping bags.
Pros: Lightweight and very packable for day trips or flights, plenty of storage.
Cons: Won’t keep your food/drinks cold longer than 12 hours.
Best for hauling lunch for the family day trip, hauling snacks to the crag, fishing, boating, road trips.
Let’s be super clear here – NO soft-sided cooler will be as thermally efficient as a hard-sided cooler. Not even if it has the Yeti name slapped on it. So don’t get a soft-sided cooler, expecting to take it camping overnight.
That said, if you need a cooler to hold a family-sized picnic lunch for a few hours, that you can carry like a backpack, this is a good option.
This cooler is pretty big at 24L, and to keep things cold inside, you need to really fill it up with a lot of ice packs. One of our team members had trouble keeping things cold because of the interior size.
Like everything Yeti makes, it is overbuilt and tough. It’s waterproof fabric with a leakproof zipper, which means you could actually use real ice in it and it won’t leak! That said, draining regular ice would be difficult, so we recommend using ice packs instead.
The backpack design is functional and comfortable and makes the food easy access. Tie-down loops on the outside make it really simple to secure to your paddleboard, atv, or boat.
Pros: Easy to carry with backpack style, easy to tie down to vehicles and boats, waterproof, durable.
Cons: Pricey, won’t keep your food cold more than a few hours, needs lots of ice packs.
Best for family meals on a road trip, picnics, soccer games, day at the beach
If the Yeti Backflip gives you sticker shock, the Hydro Flask Day Escape should seem a bit more affordable. Built for easy hauling, the Day Escape is fully waterproof with plenty of room for a picnic meal and drinks for a family of 4.
The tote styling is super easy to pack and access food without the bag falling over. The tote handles were our favorite for easy carrying, but this cooler also has backpack straps for longer distance carrying. There are also big grab handles on the sides, which make it extra easy to lift in and out of the car or the raft.
Like the Yeti, be sure to pack this cooler with ice blocks (preferably) to keep your food plenty cold in the large interior space. Also like the Yeti, this cooler is fully waterproof, so you can also use real ice if you’d prefer.
Pros: High quality at a more affordable price, multiple carry configurations including backpack and cross-body straps, waterproof, exterior pocket will hold your phone, a toy, or baby wipes.
Cons: Tie-down loops are a little awkward to access, so not as easy to attach to your boat or atv, won’t keep food cold without lots of ice for longer than a few hours.
Best for: Road trips, adventure vans, recreational vehicles, or boats with an outlet.
Coleman knows not to mess with a good thing. The Coleman Powerchill is another classic cooler style that has been around forever.
Perfect for cold drinks, fruit, veggies and dip, cheese sticks, sandwich materials, and all our favorite road-trip snacks, this electric cooler excels as a #vanlife fridge, road trip to-go lunchbox, and keeping beverages frosty on your jet boat using a 12v plug-in.
Take note; this cooler is NOT a refrigerator. It is designed to keep food and drinks up to 40° cooler than the surrounding air without ice. That means if it’s 80° outside, your cooler can only get down to 40° on its own. If you plan on storing milk, chicken salad, or anything else that requires real refrigeration to stay edible, you may want to throw in some ice packs to keep the temperature a bit lower. The cooler will keep that ice frozen a long time, like your fridge at home. The ice packs also help keep the cooler cold when the car/power is off.
We found it helps to pre-chill your cooler in the car before you load it up if you choose not to use ice packs, but it’s certainly not required. The size seems to be just right for road-trip lunches and dinners.
We tested it on a road trip to an isolated log cabin. Since COVID steamrolled through last year, we try to pack our own meals when we travel with our kid. It’s actually really convenient to stop at a park and let him burn off some steam on the playground, while we stretch out in our camp chairs and eat a leisurely lunch. Makes me wonder why in the world we ever stopped to eat at a restaurant in the “old” days!
The Coleman Powerchill kept our lunches cold on the way there and back. Then, it kept our meals cold for a few more days inside the cabin. It was very convenient, and allowed us to not mess around with draining coolers or soggy cheese and strawberries.
A common complaint in online reviews about the cooler is the power cord shorting out. But, even after several months of testing, we haven’t had a problem. Still, it bears keeping in mind to take care of the power cord and avoid letting your dog chew on it.
Note: The Powerchill only comes with a 12v car adapter. You’ll want to use an AC to DC converter (like this one) to plug it in to a regular outlet in a house, cabin, or hotel room.
Pros: Keeps food cold on a road trip without tons of messy ice, also works as a mini fridge in a van, RV, or boat.
Cons: Doesn’t keep things as cold as a regular fridge, so you may want to pack some extra ice packs, needs electricity so not great for car camping.
Which Cooler Do I Need?
There are so many great coolers out there. You don’t need to spend $300 on a cooler for a road trip, but remember that you get what you pay for! If you plan on camping for a week at a time, you might consider investing in an “overbuilt” cooler like the Grizzly. If you are doing more casual car camping on the weekends and you don’t mind running to the gas station for ice, a classic Coleman cooler might suit your needs just fine.
- Family Camping Meal Plan
- Dispersed Camping With Families Hacks
- How to Set Up a Camp Kitchen
- Our Definitive Packing List for Car Camping with the Kids
- The Easy Camp Cookbook
Best Coolers for Camping
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