A good cooler is an absolute essential for any camping trip. Whether car camping down the road or embarking on a backcountry trek, you need a way to keep food and beverages fresh and safe to eat for days on end.
But with the dizzying array of cooler styles and brands on the market, how do you pick the ideal model tailored to your particular camping situation?
In this guide, we’ll cover the pros, cons and ideal uses for the top 5 camping cooler types:
- Hard-sided coolers – The classic, durable ice chests
- Soft-sided coolers – More portable and packable
- Electric coolers – Coolers with built-in refrigeration
- Backpack coolers – Lightweight and hands-free carrying
- Bucket coolers – Stackable and versatile
We’ll highlight what to look for in each variety based on capacity needs, portability, budget, and other factors. Let’s breakdown how to keep things chilled in the outdoors!
Hard-Sided Coolers – The Gold Standard for Ice Retention
When you picture a standard cooler, a rugged, rectangular hard-sided model likely comes to mind. These classic ice chests have thick plastic or metal walls filled with insulating foam that helps block external temperatures from warming the contents.
Pros of hard-sided coolers:
- Excellent ice retention – can keep things chilled for days
- Very durable and bear-resistant
- Wide range of capacities, from small to massive
Cons to consider:
- Heavy and bulky once filled, difficult to transport
- More expensive than soft coolers
On the higher end, brands like Yeti, RTIC, Pelican, and Grizzly make premium rotomolded hard coolers designed to retain ice for 5-10 days. Look for commercial grade features like rubber latches, molded handles, and drain plugs.
For most casual camping, cheaper models from Coleman, Igloo, and other brands provide sufficient insulation at lower costs. Just watch out for thinner plastic prone to cracking over time.
Soft-Sided Coolers – More Portable and Packable
For easier transport to campsites and day hikes, soft-sided coolers provide noteworthy benefits. These use flexible exterior fabrics like nylon wrapped around insulation inside, making them lighter than rigid plastic coolers.
Benefits of soft coolers:
- More lightweight and packable when empty
- Lower cost than hard-sided
- Shoulder straps make carrying easy
- Less insulation than hard plastic walls
- Vulnerable to punctures and tears
- Not bear-proof
Trusted brands like Coleman, Arctic Zone, and eBags offer soft coolers in sizes from compact lunch bags to large 50+ quart models. Look for backpacks styles as well as models with handy exterior pockets and padded shoulder straps for easy carrying.
While soft coolers won’t retain ice as long as rotomolded models, convenience is key for short trips and smaller groups. Just be diligent about packing the cooler properly and avoiding opening the lid to prolong chilling time.
Electric Coolers – Next Level Cooling Capacity
Want maximum chilling power without constantly buying new ice? Check out electric coolers that have built-in compressors and fan systems to actively refrigerate contents, just like your home fridge.
Advantages of electric coolers:
- Significantly improve ice retention time
- Allow adjusting and lowering interior temps
- Can be plugged into your car or portable power
- Require an external power source
- More expensive than regular coolers
- Heavier when including batteries
High-end brands like Dometic, ARB, and Koolatron make electric coolers ranging from compact 19 quart units to massive 94 quart models. Look for digital temperature readouts and preset modes to dial in your desired chilling level.
While electric coolers still require ice for peak performance, the active cooling can keep a properly packed cooler ice cold for up to two weeks, eliminating constant ice runs. Just make sure you have the power supply to support it.
Backpack Coolers – Hands Free Portability
Heading down the trail and need a way to transport chilled drinks, snacks, and lunch? A backpack cooler allows convenient hands-free carrying over long distances.
Benefits of backpack coolers:
- Padded shoulder straps for trekking comfort
- Leave hands free to navigate terrain
- Compact and packable when empty
- Only useful for smaller loads
- Minimal insulation capacity
Top brands like YETI and RTIC make backpack coolers ranging from lightweight nylon designs to more durable soft-sides models with max capacities around 24 cans. Storage options like exterior pockets and built-in bottle openers add convenience.
While backpack coolers won’t keep things frozen all day like a Yeti Tundra, they’re perfect for short hikes, beach trips, and transporting a few cold ones across campgrounds on a hot summer day.
Bucket Coolers – Stackable Storage
Finally, don’t overlook the versatile bucket cooler for certain camping situations. These cylindrical coolers have outperformed traditional cheap styrofoam versions and are ideal for organizers.
Pros of bucket coolers:
- Stackable and modular – good use of vertical space
- Come in a range of sizes for different needs
- Lid doubles as seat
- Interior baskets to separate items
- Only accessible from the top
- Less efficient design loses cold quicker
Affordable bucket coolers from Coleman, Igloo, and other brands offer rugged construction perfect for keeping drinks chilled when space in a car trunk or at a crowded campsite is limited. Look for ultra-duty models with extra insulation they can retain ice for 5+ days.
So those are the main cooler types to consider for camping and outdoor trips. Think about expected ice retention needs, capacity, carrying methods, and available space in your vehicle or backpack to select the right model. Proper cooler packing and usage techniques also let you maximize chilling performance once on the trails.
A final tip: Consider bringing 2 smaller coolers for food and beverages rather than one huge model. That allows accessing what you need quickly without letting all the cold air out each time.
Let us know if you have any other camping cooler questions as you plan your next adventure under the stars! We’re always happy to help fellow outdoor enthusiasts keep things cool and enjoyable out in nature. Just remember the s’mores!