Forget about your father's or grandfather's bulky, battered ice chest. Thanks to improvements in insulation, many coolers (when used properly) can provide up to five or six days of safe cooling, making them handy for long road trips and use during power outages and other emergencies.
Cooler size is traditionally measured in quarts, but many manufacturers also state the number of 12-ounce soda cans that fit inside a particular model. For example, an 8-quart cooler will hold 10 soda cans plus ice and an 80-quart cooler will hold 106 cans plus ice, as Justin Hoffman explains in his buyer's guide written for Bass Pro Shops. For short trips or smaller parties, a 30-quart cooler should suffice, while families may need an 80-quart cooler for longer trips or backyard barbeques. Personal mini coolers -- which are designed to hold snacks, ice packs and a few drink cans or bottles -- usually have a 6- to 8-quart capacity. For the purpose of this report, we break down our search into several categories: large "ice chest" coolers suitable for weeklong camping or road trips, medium-size coolers designed for shorter day trips, and mini coolers that are made to keep a few soda cans or water bottles cold for a few hours.
We found several detailed and thorough professional tests of coolers. Most notable are tests by the editors of Cook's Illustrated magazine and the Good Housekeeping Research Institute, both of which evaluate how well an assortment of coolers maintain soda-can coolness over a period of time. Good Housekeeping also tests the coolers for portability, ease of packing and unpacking, and ease of cleaning. We also consult Australian magazine Choice, which tests coolers in a similar manner. Trailer Boats magazine evaluates several cooler models by filling them with ice and leaving them outside in 90-degree heat to determine their ability to maintain a chill.
Supplementing these opinions are user reviews from sites such as Amazon.com, Target.com and Walmart.com, where we find more feedback on larger coolers than smaller or personal-sized coolers. The aggregator site Buzzillions.com proves helpful by bringing together reviews from various sources, even though they include some duplicate reviews that have been posted at more than one site. To avoid potential conflicts, we don't count recommendations from these sources when they overlap with other user-review sources that recommend the same model.