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(The Gear Loop) - To put it simply, the best cool boxes do the job of your fridge in the great outdoors. When you return to basecamp after a day spent adventuring, being handed a cold beverage really can be the icing on the cake. Whether you’re camping with the family and your kids have just made memories to last a lifetime or you’ve just descended from a long expedition on the hill, taking that moment to kick back enjoy a cold drink and reflect on the events of the day is priceless.

Cool boxes have been around since the early 1950s, when American Richard Laramy patented the "portable ice chest". Seventy-odd years of innovation has led to the highly effective boxes and bags we enjoy today. With the helping hand of a load of ice, the best cool boxes will keep your food and drink chilled even beyond the duration of a long weekend.

StanleyThe best cool boxes: lifestyle photo 8

Not brought enough camping chairs for the whole family? Not an issue either, because some of the boxes mentioned here also double up as seats, or tables and even steps. Here we feature three of the very best cool boxes available today, models that are robust, durable and offer unbeatable insulation.

We also feature two of the best soft-sided coolers: bags that are ideal for day trips to the beach or picnics in the countryside. While they don’t keep everything ice cold for as long as their bulkier, boxier cousins, they do boast the benefit of easy portability.

PrimusThe best cool boxes: lifestyle photo 2

For more information on what to look out for when buying one of the best cool boxes, check out our guide at the bottom of this feature.

The best cool boxes

YetiThe best cool boxes: product photo 5

Yeti Tundra 65 Cooler

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For

  • Unbeatable insulation
  • Huge capacity
  • Easy to use

Against

  • Pricey
  • Heavy when full
  • Takes two people to carry

The Yeti Tundra 65 Cooler may just be the ultimate hard-sided cool box. Not so much built like a tank, this thing is more akin to Fort Knox, armoured by a rotomolded construction that makes it virtually indestructible. Its thick walls and polyurethane insulation result in a cool box that outperforms all others in terms of keeping your food and drink cold, which is why we’re here after all. Its integrated hinge and Coldlock gasket also stop any of that precious cold air escaping from the lid.

The 65 Cooler takes a capacity of around 61 litres, which means it can get extremely heavy when full. There are no wheels here, but instead you get two grippy rope handles, one on either end for you and a strong buddy. However, it’s full of innovative little features, like tie-down points, non-slip feet, rubber T-grips and a dual drain plugs.

Yes, the price will make your piggy bank substantially lighter, but the investment is totally worth it. The Tundra series features a range of capacities, from 33 litres to a monstrous 311 litres, so whether you’re just keeping yourself watered or entertaining the entire street, there’s a box for you. Oh, and most of them are "bear-proof", too.

StanleyThe best cool boxes: product photo 4

Stanley Adventure Cold For Days Outdoor Cooler 30 QT

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For

  • Tall enough for wine bottles
  • Built like a tank

Against

  • Smaller than some
  • Insulation not as long lasting as competition

The main selling point of Stanley’s Adventure Cold For Days Outdoor Cooler is that it keeps your beverages cold for up to four days, so those of you who are paying close attention will have noticed the play on words in its name. This premium, medium-sized cooler is also built like a tank, with a durable leak-free design. Thanks to this, it also doubles up as a seat or a step when required.

With a modest capacity of 28 litres, this cooler isn’t designed for a family’s food and drink for a full weekend. Its narrow and tall design is intended more for personal use but comfortably fits taller bottles. Champagne on the beach anyone?

When it comes to emptying ice melt, there’s a well-positioned drain plug that means you don’t have to tip the entire thing up at the end of a trip. It’s a separate component that has been sealed to the rest of the cooler, which opens up question marks over whether or not it will leak given time.

Despite the "cold for four days" claim, this cool box is outperformed in terms of thermal insulation by some of its direct competitors. However, as a personal cool box that will take years of use and abuse, it’s a solid bet.

In fact, Stanley are so confident in this product’s quality, it comes with a lifetime warranty, which is reassuring should anything go awry with that drain plug.

ColemanThe best cool boxes: product photo 1

Coleman 50-Quart Extreme Wheeled Cooler

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For

  • Wheels and telescopic handle for easy mobility
  • Large capacity
  • Sturdy and robust
  • Great insulation

Against

  • Very heavy when full
  • Needs a lot of ice to get things started

Imagine if you could simply wheel all of your beverages and cold snacks across the festival site as if they were in a suitcase. With Coleman’s 50-Quart Extreme Wheeled Cooler, you don’t have to imagine. Boasting a not-inconsiderable 47-litre capacity, two wheels and a suitcase-style telescopic handle, it’s basically a portable fridge.

The downsides are that it’s very heavy when full - though its wheels and handle compensate - and it takes a lot of ice (officially 13kg of the stuff) to cool things down in the first place. However, these are obviously unavoidable issues for a big cool box like this, which can store enough food and drink to keep the family going over a long weekend. Crucially, its polyurethane foam insulation keeps things chilled for up to five days.

Other features include a drain plug at its base. At the end of your trip, simply open the plug and watch the ice melt drain away. As with many of the best cool boxes, it’s also sturdy enough to double up as a seat or a table - the lid is even moulded to hold four of the 84 cans it can store inside. In summary, this is a great choice for family camping trips and festivals but is probably overkill for an evening on the beach.

PrimusThe best cool boxes: product photo 3

Primus Campfire Cooler Backpack

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For

  • Smart looks
  • Wonderfully portable

Against

  • Limited insulation compared to hard-backs
  • Limited capacity

The first thing that strikes you about Primus’ Campfire Cooler Backpack is the smart, understated and almost formal, appearance. It’s as if it’s designed for sneaking ice cold beverages into formal events (Downing Street parties, perhaps?). It’s certainly a contrast when set against the bold rainbow of colourways you get from brands like ICEMULE.

So, how does the Campfire Cooler perform? It will keep your drinks chilled for the duration of a day out thanks to its EVA foam and it's waterproof thanks to its Polyurethane-coated polyester inner. The outer fabric is woven from nylon, which makes it both rugged and durable. Its tall and thin design means it will comfortably carry longnecked bottles and with a 22-litre capacity, its larger than many soft-sided coolers but still on the small sided compared to big hard-backed models we've mentioned.

There are handy little touches too, such as the integrated bottle opener, a zippered pocket on the front for items like bottle caps and adjustable shoulder straps. It’s perfect for days out, though the insulation will start to suffer on longer trips, such as long weekends away. 

IcemuleThe best cool boxes: product photo 2

IceMule Classic Insulated Backpack Cooler Bag

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For

  • Gloriously portable
  • Rolls up neatly
  • Attractive colour options

Against

  • Doesn’t insulate for as long as hard-sided coolers
  • Small capacity

If you’re looking to obtain a cooler for a day at the beach or a picnic, convenience is king. This is where a soft-sided cooler like ICEMULE’s Classic comes in. Rather than lugging a heavy hard-sided model around, the ergonomically designed Classic can be carried like a backpack. Like a dry bag, it features a roll-top closure and welded seams, which makes it wonderfully waterproof. Nothing’s getting in our out.

It’s just as robust as its harder-sided cousins too, with its proprietary MuleSkin fabric giving it a durable, tough outer layer. Insulation is achieved thanks to its PolarLayer foam, while air can be added, thus increasing insulation as well as its buoyancy, thanks to the innovative IM AirValve. Once empty, you can roll it up and stash it easily, ready for the next adventure.

A soft-sided cooler is always going to struggle to perform as well as a hard-sided model in terms of insulation. That said, the Classic will retain solid ice for over 24 hours, which makes it suitable for days out, but not great for festivals and camping weekends. There are four sizes available, with capacity ranging from from 9 to 20 litres.

UnsplashThe best cool boxes: lifestyle photo 11

What to look for when buying cool boxes

Portability 

When it comes to the best camping coolers, there’s a trade-off between portability and insulation. If you’ve got a steep path to negotiate between the car and the beach on a scorching hot July afternoon, the last thing you want to be doing is lugging a huge, hard-sided cool box like a glorified mule. This is where a portable soft-sided cooler comes into its own. While they may not keep your beers ice cold for days on end, it doesn’t really matter if you’re only on a day trip.

However, for permanent basecamps and events like long camping weekends and music festivals, the initial suffering might be worth it. Getting a big, sturdy, well-insulated hard-sided cool box in situ means you’ve got chilled food and drink for days to come. Just make sure you rope in a buddy to lighten the load. 

Insulation

This is the killer question when it comes to choosing your cool box: can it maintain ice cold temperatures? The boxes and bags we’ve featured here are all passive coolers, which means they rely solely on their insulating qualities to maintain a chilled temperature and not on an outside power source, like your fridge does.

While a passive cooler does not require electricity, it does require lots of ice to kick things off, otherwise when you closed the lid, you’d just be maintaining room temperature. Each cooler comes with instructions that will specify the appropriate amount of ice needed for ideal conditions. Insulation is then usually achieved via a Polyurethane (PU) foam within the shell of the cooler, while the lid has to be absolutely watertight to slow down the rate of convection.

Other features

Cool boxes come with a range of features depending on their style. Hard-sided boxes are multipurpose beasts, often used as tables, seats and steps, so they’re often rated with a maximum weight capacity, just like a camping chair. Their secondary use as tables has seen many feature cup holders within the design of their lid, while a grippy underside is also vital to stop it sliding around. With really bulky boxes, look out for the amount of thought that the designers put into making sure they are comfortable to carry.

Writing by Alex Foxfield. Editing by Leon Poultney.