My wife was right.
For our 2-night camping trips, I wanted to get the bigger, “better” cooler. She wanted smaller.
We got smaller. Everything fit. Everything stayed cool.
The “best” cooler turned out to be the correctly-sized cooler, correctly packed.
For coolers, there are several good guides around the web and numerous good reviews. Many discuss a very fine cooler for the money, the Coleman 52-Quart Xtreme 5, which comes in 3 sizes: 52, 70, and 100 quarts. It bests other sub $100 coolers on keeping contents coolest the longest, truly living up to its 5 day claim. But even 52 quarts is too big when you have to carry a fully loaded cooler a thousand feet.
In this article I share what I learned by buying and successfully using a smaller, 28 Quart Coleman Xtreme 3 Cooler. It is perfectly appropriate for a small family (like ours) that goes on a few 2-night camping trips each year, along with many youth-baseball dominated weekend trips.
It’s just a matter of how you pack it.
Why Bigger isn’t Always Better
Whatever the cooling method, the weekend camper (and even more so the weekend youth sports parent) will need to transport this heavy thing, sometimes hundreds of yards, sometimes as many as 4 times per day. There are other considerations of course which I’ll get to later, but how hard it is to transport matters more than anything when you have to haul a cooler several hundred meters.
Therefore, the most obvious reason to steer away from a bigger cooler is that you have to carry it. Any fully loaded cooler over 36 quarts will be awkward to carry for an average adult. Some coolers come with wheels, but wheels on sub-$100 coolers don’t tend to last and may make it more difficult to pack an already crowded car trunk.
Coolers stay cooler much longer when fully packed. Every time you open a cooler, you replace cold air with warm air, which warms up the contents. The less full the cooler, the greater the volume of warm air that will enter each time it’s opened. Even a top-rated Coleman Extreme 5 cooler that is only packed 1/2 full will not keep its contents as cool as a fully loaded inferior model that is half the size.
You can pack unused portions of a big cooler with ice packs or ice, but why bother when you can get away with using a small cooler . . . if you pack right.
The Smart Way to Pack a Cooler
There is a use case for packing a cooler with hundreds of ice cubes: drinks. Whether soda or beer, bottles or cans, you want to keep it all cool, spread evenly throughout the cooler. Ice cubes fit the bill.
We drink no beer and very little soda. So we never pack a cooler with ice. This is a good thing, because ice cubes are messier and less cooling efficient than other solutions. They’re also an additional expense.
So how do you pack a cooler to stay cool without ice cubes?
Start by cooling everything down. Everything going into a cooler should come from your refrigerator or freezer. A few hours before leaving on a trip, shift many items from the refrigerator to the freezer, to add extra cooling power. Some people even cool down the cooler itself by stuffing it with ice for a day, but you don’t need to go that far for a weekend trip.
The bigger your blocks of ice, the better. Bigger keeps itself cool longer. You can accomplish this by buying large ice packs, freezing large plastic bottles of water, or freezing ice to exactly the right shape to line the bottom of your cooler.
I personally prefer ice packs for the sporting events as they are simple and quick, which is what we need when we’re trying to get out the door early. Rubbermaid Blue Ice is one of the more durable brands. But on camping trips, you may want cool water on day two or three, so loading frozen water bottles serves a dual purpose. Any solution you choose is better than small ice cubes, which expose more surface area to warm air that enters the cooler.
Pack tight. The more you cram in, the less air there will be.
Pack in layers. Think of your cooler as if it has a freezer on the bottom and a refrigerator on the top. If you put all of your ice packs or other dedicated cooling items on the bottom, the bottom will stay colder longer, while the top of the cooler will not be as cold. If this is a camping trip, put the first meal or two on top as you’ll be using them the soonest, while putting the last day meal and anything that needs to remain frozen on the bottom. You may also have items on top that you really don’t want to freeze, such as milk, butter, or cheese.
Layers can be separated by insulated materials, which helps keep the bottom layers even cooler. We take an arm icer to baseball tournaments in case our son does a lot of pitching, but we also use it as a divider between layers on camping trips. If you don’t have an arm icer, try using some other type of stiff, insulated divider, such as an ice sheet.
Do keep in mind that the frozen layer at the bottom will probably not be frozen on the last day of a 3-day, 2-night trip. This is because you will have consumed everything from the top 2/3 of the cooler, so outside air will more rapidly warm the remaining contents every time you open the cooler.
The Smart Way to Use a Cooler
Open your cooler as little as possible, in order to keep cool air in, warm air out. Don’t let your kids open the cooler and then spend minutes rummaging around inside, thinking about what they feel like having for snack. Have them decide what they want before opening.
Keep your cooler away from anything that will warm it, including a hot car trunk, campfires, or exposure to direct sunlight. Keep the cooler in the shade on sunny days.
Specific Cooler Models
The two basic types of cooler models are soft or hard. Even the most expensive soft-walled models don’t have insulation as good as even low-end hard-walled models. In my opinion, the best use of soft models is for all-day trips or keeping items from a grocery store cold on a hot day. We’ve tried using a soft-walled model for camping and multi-day sporting events. It only worked reasonably when we had access to a freezer each night to refreeze the arm icer and ice packs.
It was the two-night camping trips that motivated us to get a 28 Quart Coleman Xtreme 3 Cooler.
Packed as described above, for a 2-night camping trip, this Coleman model does a great job of keeping contents cool. It also doubles as a seat for kids or shorter adults, and has two depressions to hold cups built into the lid.
Our low-cost model does come with one caveat. It has thin plastic hinges that look like they could easily break (and they do sometimes break according to Amazon reviews). We’ve been opening and closing the lid carefully. So far so good.
Looking through other models, I’m not sure we could have done better for less than $100. Igloo also makes a very good too-big 50 quart model. But moving smaller, the Igloo (and other Coleman) models have wheels, are intended for use in boats, or are even more cheaply built than the Coleman we got. Apart from thin hinges, our model seems well built.
However, if you’re planning to go on many camping trips per year, you might want to invest in the very best. Yeti has a nearly indestructible model with superior materials and craftsmanship, but it will set you back around $400:
Yeti models even come with a manual with good advice.
Obviously, it can make sense to go for a bigger cooler model if you really need it—and then you move up in quality while still staying under $100, whether you get a Coleman 52-Quart Xtreme 5 or an Igloo MaxCold Cooler 50-Quart. Maybe you have a really big family. Maybe your camping trips typically last 4-5 nights. Whatever your reason, one big cooler will stay cooler for longer than 2 smaller coolers. Just understand that you want to fully load it to get the best use out of it. You’ll likely need two people to carry it, in its fully loaded state.
Everything I described in this article makes perfect sense if you keep in mind two principals :
- Frequent air exchange is primarily what warms up coolers. Keep the amount of cool air exchanged for warm air to a minimum by packing tightly and rarely lifting the lid.
- Start with initial contents as cold as possible. All contents.
All of this is basic physics. It is true that larger models with thicker, insulating walls will keep contents cool for longer when testing under ideal conditions (contents are very cold initially, tightly packed, never lifting lid). But in real life you don’t have time to make everything perfect, and you may not want to haul around a big, heavy cooler. You may not even be able to fit it in your trunk, if you’re already packed to the gills with camping gear.
So is there a moral to this story? Yup.
Listen to your wife. She’s usually right!