The Best Hard Cooler
After more than 20 hours of research and a week of testing, the Coleman 70-Quart Xtreme Marine Cooler is our pick for the best cooler because of its fantastic insulation, above-average features, and affordable price. It was able to keep ice solid for a full week, performing nearly 20 percent better than its more-expensive counterpart from Igloo. The Coleman Xtreme is a tremendous value if you’re looking for a spacious, reliable cooler to take camping or to keep tons of beer cold at a barbecue, or for those emergencies when your power goes out and you need to prevent food from the fridge from spoiling. Not only that, it’s sized so you can still move it and carry it with reasonable ease. It also fits in most cars’ trunks and works great as extra seating.
The Igloo MaxCold Ultra 70 Cooler is a solid runner-up to the Coleman Xtreme. It is similar in size and functionality, and it’s a very solid performer, keeping ice frozen for six days—a day beyond its rated capacity. But the Coleman Xtreme gave seven days of ice in our tests, and its drain port is easier to use and more effective than the Igloo’s. The Igloo MaxCold also tends to cost a few dollars more. It’s a solid choice, but get the Coleman Xtreme if it’s available.
Table of contents
- How we picked
- Our pick
- Flaws but not dealbreakers
- How we tested
- Why Igloo and Coleman are the leaders (in this price range)
- What size cooler you need
- Marine coolers
- To wheel or not to wheel?
- What $400 gets you
- Wrapping it up
How we picked
A cooler is made to keep things cold. It does this via insulation. With better insulation, a cooler can maintain lower temperatures for longer, thus consuming less ice. That’s important, especially if you, like most people, don’t have a freezer that can produce enough ice to fill a cooler and you tend to resort to buying bags of ice from the grocery store or liquor store. Those bags aren’t expensive (a 16-pound bag of ice at one local liquor store we checked is $3.50, while a 40-pound bag is $7), but if you can use less ice or reload less often, you’ll save money in the long run and also spare yourself the hassles of having to leave midparty for more ice or draining the meltwater over and over.
We studied editorial reviews from outdoor and boating experts at The Boat Galley, Camping Life Magazine, and Slate, as well as plenty of discussion forums (such as TexasBowhunter.com and Graybeard Outdoors), most of which recommend the Coleman Xtreme, the Igloo MaxCold, or the Yeti (if you have the cash to drop). We then tested the cold-keeping power of three lauded coolers that were at our ideal price: the Coleman 50-quart wheeled cooler, the Coleman 70-Quart Xtreme, and the Igloo MaxCold 70-quart cooler. To test them, we filled them with 60 pounds of ice and left them outdoors with plenty of sun, after which we measured the amount of remaining ice each day for a week.
The Coleman 70-Quart Xtreme Marine Cooler, along with the Igloo MaxCold, dominated the cooler recommendations we came across in our research. The Coleman Xtreme kept ice for a full week (170 hours or 7.08 days)—30 hours longer than the Igloo MaxCold (140 hours, or six days). It’s a resounding achievement that despite being cheaper than the Igloo, the Coleman lasted almost 20 percent longer in a head-to-head test. Even more impressive was the performance gap between the Coleman’s lower-end 50-quart cooler and its higher-end Xtreme model; the wheeled 50-quart Coleman lost all its ice in three days.
Coleman makes many nearly identical versions of the Xtreme cooler. We don’t know why they all have the same name and such different looks, but according to sources within Coleman, they are all for practical purposes identical where it counts: in insulation and build materials. We consider all of these models to be part of the same line. And while any model within the Coleman Xtreme series is fine, we hope to always keep this review updated with whichever model is the most affordable.
The Coleman Xtreme weighs about 12 pounds empty, and with 60 pounds of ice it was still comfortable to carry. It measures 31.5 inches long by 16 inches wide by 18.25 inches tall, and its design incorporates bevels and angles all over the place and has a ruler and cup holders molded into its lid. Real insulation nuts will want to fill the cup holders with Styrofoam, but given how well it performed in our tests, doing so doesn’t seem to be all that critical. We also preferred the handhold on the Coleman Xtreme’s lid, as it had enough resistance without being bothersome. Additionally, the Coleman Xtreme’s Have-a-Seat Lid is capable of supporting up to 250 pounds.
The most noticeable functional difference in the design of the tested coolers is in their drainage ports. Given that we were draining these coolers upwards of three times a day for several days straight, we learned quite a bit about what works and what doesn’t. The Coleman Xtreme has a channeled drain, which made draining much easier and required very little tilting.
Also, the Coleman Xtreme performed nearly as well as coolers costing $350 to $450 in a deluxe-cooler test done by SportsmanGuys.com, in which the site called the Coleman Xtreme the “best bang for your buck.”
Flaws but not dealbreakers
Though the lid seals well—like those of other coolers in its price range—the Coleman Xtreme’s lid doesn’t have a gasket, which could allow warm air or rainwater to seep in. In our tests, however, its insulating power didn’t seem to suffer. Some reviewers also complain that its drainage port’s bilge cap is slightly flimsier than the Igloo’s cap.
The hinges on both the Igloo MaxCold and the Coleman Xtreme are really similar. Neither set of hinges is terribly robust (the Coleman Xtreme relies on a wedge built into the hinge to stop it from falling too far), and it’s pretty clear that this is where these coolers will fail first.
Both coolers’ handles were comparable and surprisingly comfortable for moving each cooler short distances. We would not, however, want to be stuck hauling either of these coolers much more than a couple hundred feet without someone’s help.
One thing that’s great about both the Coleman Xtreme and the Igloo MaxCold is that they feature replaceable hardware. (Some of these brands’ cheaper models don’t.) It’s an important detail because the first thing that’s going to wear out on a cooler is either a hinge or a handle, and having affordable replacements means a cheap repair rather than a brand-new purchase. At the moment you can buy Coleman’s replacement hinges and handles for around $10 each and Igloo’s parts kit (including hinges and a drain spout) for around $16.
To be clear, no coolers under $200 have excellent hardware. They pale in comparison with their more-expensive siblings from Yeti and Engels. That being said, the Coleman Xtreme and the Igloo MaxCold were easy to carry, had comfortable handles, and featured drainage ports that didn’t leak. So even though their hardware isn’t top notch, it’s definitely good enough.
The only other model with as many rave reviews as the Coleman Xtreme is the Igloo MaxCold Ultra 70. Though the Coleman Xtreme beat the Igloo MaxCold in our ice test by more than a day, the Igloo MaxCold still managed to retain its ice for a full six days. The Igloo MaxCold comes in at 29.5 inches long by 16.5 inches wide by 16 inches high and has a simple, utilitarian design that is devoid of any markings or indentations. Like the Coleman Xtreme, it weighs about 12 pounds empty, and you can also use it as a seat.
Unlike the Coleman Xtreme, the Igloo MaxCold lacks a channeled bilge drain, which makes emptying wastewater a bit more difficult than it needs to be—you have to tilt and twist the cooler to drain the last bit of water. However, the Igloo MaxCold’s drainage port accepts a garden hose, so you can channel the water far away from the cooler. Though this feature is somewhat handy, we don’t really see a compelling need for it unless you spend a lot of time on a boat. Outside of that, the Igloo MaxCold’s drain has a slightly wider diameter, so you can drain it a bit faster than you can the Coleman Xtreme, and it comes with a screw-on cap, which means less chance of your accidentally unplugging the cooler.
Like the Coleman Xtreme, the Igloo MaxCold’s hinges and hardware are its weakest points. The Igloo MaxCold has an additional plastic strap to prevent the lid from falling backward and to minimize strain. Between the Coleman Xtreme and the Igloo MaxCold, we slightly prefer the Igloo’s handles, in part because they feature hardware that allows you to install a rope. This means that if a handle breaks at an inopportune moment, you can replace it in the field with an impromptu rope handle or use a rope to tie the cooler down. Like Coleman, Igloo sells replacement parts, but in the form of a parts kit that includes hinges and a drain spout.
How we tested
In order to differentiate between lower-end and higher-end models, Igloo and Coleman (among other manufacturers) have adopted a strategy of naming and marketing their coolers after the length of time they can keep things cold. The metric the companies usually use to determine that length is ice retention. But no formal methodology for determining ice retention exists, so we developed our own that relied on filling the coolers with a fixed quantity of ice and then, at regular intervals, draining any meltwater and weighing it. This measurement told us the percentage of ice that had melted to that point.
Why did we do this, instead of simply measuring the temperature change over time? Because if we relied on temperature (which is what most other published tests rely on), we would have seen a steady 32 degrees Fahrenheit until all the ice melted, and only then would the water’s temperature increase dramatically. Though this kind of test is somewhat useful for determining the total length of time ice stays preserved, it doesn’t provide data that allows us to discern the rate of ice melting. By measuring meltwater, we can produce data that illustrates the relative performance of insulation between coolers over time. For example, after five days, the Coleman Xtreme retained 11 more pounds of ice than the Igloo MaxCold. That translates to the Coleman Xtreme being 20 percent more efficient than the Igloo MaxCold overall in ice retention during the same time period. If we had measured temperature only, all we would have seen was two coolers reporting an identical 32 degrees Fahrenheit.
We tested three coolers: the Coleman 50-quart wheeled cooler, the Coleman 70-Quart Xtreme Cooler, and the Igloo MaxCold Ultra 70 Cooler. Prior to loading the coolers with ice, we prechilled them with cold tap water (65 degrees Fahrenheit) for 30 minutes, until their interior temperatures stabilized. We then simultaneously loaded the coolers with equivalent volumes of ice (60 pounds of ice for the 70-quart coolers and 42 pounds of ice for the 50-quart model). At regular intervals, we fully drained the coolers’ meltwater and weighed it before returning it to the coolers. (We returned the meltwater to the coolers in order to keep the systems stable across the week of testing.) Testing continued until all ice had melted.
Both Coleman and Igloo claim that their coolers keep ice solid for around five days, but Coleman is a bit more specific in that it refers to 90-degree days. However, what that means is not entirely clear. Is the spec talking about days with a high of 90 degrees Fahrenheit, or conditions where it’s constantly 90 degrees Fahrenheit for 120 hours straight?
During our testing, we kept the coolers outside of a house in Baltimore, Maryland, and they were fully exposed to sunshine and the elements in an open area 24 hours a day throughout the testing, with mostly hot, sunny days throughout the week. (On days with rain or thunderstorms, we brought the coolers onto the porch because they lacked gaskets, which meant that water could possibly infiltrate the coolers and upset the volume measurements. When the threat of rain passed, we brought the coolers back outside.) The temperature range throughout the week saw highs of 80 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit and lows of 64 to 72 degrees Fahrenheit.
Throughout testing we also considered and scrutinized how easy it was to carry both coolers when they were fully loaded, whether they worked well as seating options, and how well they drained.
Why Igloo and Coleman are the leaders (in this price range)
Today’s cooler market is dominated by two names: Igloo and Coleman. Rubbermaid, a former heavyweight, no longer produces the same diversity or quality of coolers it used to. In our research, nearly everyone recommended either an Igloo or Coleman within this price range, and whenever Rubbermaid was mentioned it was most often in the form of a criticism.
During our research we found heavy users of coolers and ice chests skewed toward boaters, people who fish, hunters, and campers. These populations depend on their coolers to keep their catch fresh or their food from spoiling when they’re out at sea or in the woods, and as such they place significant demands on cooler performance. Forum after forum and review after review, the same piece of advice appeared over and over: Get yourself a Coleman Xtreme or an Igloo MaxCold (or, if you have money to burn, a Yeti).
Outside of forums, Carolyn Shearlock, who writes about living and cooking on boats for her website The Boat Galley, has a great writeup of what to avoid and what to look for in a cooler for food storage. Her recommendations are to seek out either the Igloo MaxCold or the Coleman Xtreme. The latter is “what we used and block ice lasted 7 days in 90+ degree heat (and the cooler sat in a parked car much of the time, so it was even hotter),” Shearlock writes. However, she also mentions that if you need “something that can stand up to rougher conditions, check out the Yeti.”
Tom Bartlett of Slate also waded into the insulation mire when he wrote up his experience with both soft and hard coolers back in 2006. He struggled with Rubbermaid’s Endurance model, writing that “it will slightly but noticeably lessen the pleasure of being alive” due to its frustrating-to-open lid. He too rates the Coleman Xtreme highest, explaining that “it stays cool for a long, long time. And in these increasingly warm times, isn’t that what matters?”
Lastly, Camping Life Magazine performed one of the more thorough tests we encountered online and came away feeling positive about both the Igloo MaxCold and the Coleman Xtreme. But the reviewers found the Rubbermaid lacking, saying it had “the worst drain of all the units tested, requiring radical tilting to be fully emptied.”
What became clear is that both the Coleman Xtreme and the Igloo MaxCold represented a significant step up in performance from the base models without being significantly more expensive, and so they were obvious candidates for testing. Though some Rubbermaid models had favorable reviews, the one five-day model the company produces is available only through Walmart and is rarely in stock (the wait was 10 days at the time of this review).
On the other end of the spectrum, our research brought to light how popular high-end cooler brands like Yeti, Engels, Brute, and Icey-Tek are becoming. These models tend to be highly specialized (grizzly proof!), high-performance coolers that cost nearly six to 10 times what an equivalent-volume performance cooler from Coleman and Igloo costs. That being the case, they fall outside the needs or price range of a majority of the people looking for a cooler, which is why we decided not to test them. We’ll mention a bit about what separates a Coleman from a Yeti later. It’s worth noting, though, that the Coleman Xtreme performed nearly as well as coolers costing $350 to $450 in a high-end cooler test done by SportsmanGuys.com; that site ended up calling the Xtreme the “best bang for your buck” among high-end coolers.
What size cooler you need
Everybody has different needs, and as such we couldn’t test every single size of cooler on the market. Instead, we decided to focus on the most utilitarian and family-friendly size we could find (70 quarts). Such coolers are rated to hold between 100 and 114 12-ounce cans and ice (of course, the number of cans depends on how much ice you load). What’s nice about the 70-quart size is that it’s big enough for a variety of tasks. If you’re a boater, Carolyn Shearlock of The Boating Galley explains that “a 65- or 70- quart cooler is about the minimum size needed to have enough ice and space for food for a week-long trip for two.” Again, this is going to depend on how you pack your cooler and how long you need to keep things cold (more ice will take up more volume). Another example came up last year during a power outage, as one of us was able to store most of the contents of a fridge in a 70-quart cooler along with the necessary ice to keep it cold.
If you are looking for something smaller, Coleman’s Xtreme line comes in a variety of sizes, including 52-quart and 36-quart models. They have the same insulation; the only difference is that they have proportionately more surface area to volume, which might have an impact on performance. The 52-quart model is good for a smaller family or a couple interested in camping for a few days, and the 36-quart is appropriate for shorter excursions or as a second cooler when you’re separating drinks and food.
A 70-quart cooler is the ideal size because anything larger will be difficult for you to move due to weight and ergonomics—larger coolers start to get so wide that one person can’t carry them. During our testing, a moderately athletic 6-foot-tall man found the 70-quart size to be pretty comfortable to lift and move around, even at 70 pounds. It also helps that 70-quart coolers (both wheeled and non-wheeled) are often in stock at places like Walmart, Home Depot, and Amazon. The 70-quart size surfaced often enough during our research that in our opinion it seems to solve the not-too-small and not-too-big Goldilocks dilemma.
One other thing to address is the divide between marine and non-marine coolers. Marine coolers tend to be all white (why all coolers aren’t white for the sake of reflectivity is beyond us), made of UV-resistant material, equipped with latches, and sold with accessories that make it easier for you to lash the cooler down to the deck. Because they stay on boats, they see a lot more sun than the typical Coleman sitting in the garage, and the marine rating ensures that they won’t fail quite as quickly due to UV damage. Most of the time, you can expect to pay a $30 to $60 premium for a marine cooler over a standard Igloo or Coleman cooler. But we’ve found that our top pick, the marine version of the Coleman Xtreme, is often the same price or cheaper than its counterpart.
To wheel or not to wheel?
Because they can be a back-saver, you might be interested in coolers that have wheels. When we visited Walmart, Ace Hardware, and Target, we took a close look at what was available and came away feeling that the options from Coleman, Rubbermaid, and Igloo were remarkably similar. The wheels were almost always made out of cheap-feeling plastic, and none that we saw inspired confidence in long-term performance despite their being described as “rugged.” Carolyn Shearlock of The Boat Galley specifically points out that “wheels and axles on coolers tend to break easily on rough ground.” Her recommendation is that folks look into using a more durable dolly.
The second reason we stayed away from coolers with wheels for our testing is that they can’t serve as seats because the added weight will snap the axle (most will have a warning against sitting on the cooler printed on the cooler’s top). This is a huge bummer, especially when you’re camping (or at a party), where seating is scarce. That said, both the wheeled Igloo MaxCold 70-quart and the wheeled Coleman Xtreme 62-quart are well-reviewed on Amazon and look like good choices if you absolutely need the added mobility.
What $400 gets you
Throughout our research we found almost universal praise for Yeti coolers—at least from people who could stomach the price. Nearly every publication that reviewed the Yeti scored it at or near the top. In two head-to-head tests with the Coleman Xtreme (one from Camping Life Magazine and one from SportsmanGuys.com), the Yeti bested the cheaper Coleman Xtreme in ice retention. But that could be because Yeti’s model with equivalent volume to the Coleman Xtreme costs about eight times more. So at the end of the day, what does an extra $400 get you?
From the ground up, nearly everything in the Yeti would be an upgrade from the Coleman Xtreme. The Yeti has stronger hinges, a well-reviewed toggle latching system to keep the lid secure, a rubber gasket to reduce airflow, and a variety of handles and accessories that offer wider utility for boaters, hunters, and campers. Another big bonus is that the Yeti comes with a five-year warranty. For people who need the pinnacle of performance—and don’t mind paying through the nose—the Yeti is definitely worth a look.
Be ready, though, because the world of high-end coolers is fast becoming crowded. You can find similar recommendations for Engels (especially among boaters), Icey-Tek, and IRP, and newcomers Brute and K2 are just now getting into the high-performance cooler game. Almost all these brands tout the fact that they’re made in the USA, which is great, but the same is true of the Coleman Xtreme.
Igloo is also in the high-end game with its Yukon line, competing with Yeti; the 70-quart Igloo Yukon model currently goes for $335 or so on Amazon. This ruggedized cooler claims seven-day ice retention at 90 degrees Fahrenheit and has stainless steel hardware. Igloo also has its Super Tough STX family; the line’s 72-quart cooler currently retails for $110. Again, this model features stainless steel and is more ruggedized, but it promises to keep ice cold for only five days. We still don’t think you should pay that kind of money for a cooler when a $60 Coleman will meet most people’s needs.
The last thing to note is that Coleman recently upgraded its Xtreme line by adding a six-day series. These models end up costing nearly three times as much as our pick (the 80-quart Xtreme 6 is currently $150 versus around $60 for the 70-quart Xtreme 5), with the only notable difference being the addition of about 20 percent more insulation, which should theoretically provide improved performance. Even the hardware, such as the hinges and handles, is identical. This places the Xtreme 6 in an awkward position, because it costs three times as much as the Xtreme 5 for only a modest gain in performance. As a result, the reviews we found online were mixed. For the price, you’re probably better off spending even more and going with a higher-end performance cooler if you really need the increased insulation.
At the end of the day, unless you have very specialized needs or absolutely must have the best available, a $60 cooler from Coleman will keep things cold almost as long as coolers that cost many times more—or at least as long as necessary for most people.
Wrapping it up
Though both the Coleman 70-Quart Xtreme Marine Cooler and the Igloo MaxCold Ultra 70 overperformed on manufacturer claims, the Coleman Xtreme performed the best in our tests and was also the cheapest option. That’s why we heartily recommend the Coleman 70-Quart Xtreme Marine as the cooler to look for as things start to heat up this summer.
(Photos by Michael Hession.)
Originally published: June 16, 2016