Some may say a cooler is a luxury car camping item, while others agree it is one of the best car camping essentials. I’m somewhere in between, but even if I don’t use my cooler to cool stuff, it is excellent for storing food on a road trip.
There is a slew of coolers on the market in all different shapes, sizes, and materials. I’ve used a few different ones over the years before I started using the Yeti Roadie 24 for all my road trip adventures. It is the perfect size for my car and my needs, but it might not be right for you.
The best cooler for road trips will depend on a few things, including what you need to keep cool, how long you will be traveling, how much needs to be refrigerated, and how much space you have. Coolers come in all different shapes, sizes, and types, including soft shells, hard shells, and electric options. Each has its benefits and drawbacks, but the right choice will depend on your specific needs.
In this post, I’ll dig into the different kinds of coolers on the market and share some of the pros and cons of the most popular road trip coolers to help you decide which cooler is best for you and your way of travel.
Types of Coolers Explained
There are three main types of coolers, softshell, hardshell, and electric. Electric coolers do not require ice which makes cooling food and drinks simpler, but electric coolers also come with their own set of challenges-will you have enough power to operate your electric cooler during your road trip, and where will you plug it in?
Softshell coolers are great for portability and saving space when not used, but their cooling performance is not as good as hardshell options.
Hardshell coolers will keep your things cold for longer, but they’re bulky and heavy, especially once filled.
Let us dig a little deeper…
Soft Shell Coolers
Soft shell coolers are generally lighter and easier to transport than hard shell options. They’re made of durable fabrics or waterproof materials. They can be carried easily, usually with a shoulder strap, and are best suited for shorter road trips or excursions where you’re short on space. Where hardshell options are often bulky, soft shell coolers easily squeeze into tight places, and some fold up to save space when not in use, making them one of the best options for car travel.
On the contrary, they’re often much smaller and have less room than heavy-duty hardshell options, and their closures can sometimes be tricky to open, often requiring two hands.
Soft shell coolers are great if you’re looking for something easy to carry and maneuver frequently on shorter trips.
Pros of soft shell coolers:
- Generally more affordable
- Easy to carry
- Some are foldable
Cons of soft shell coolers:
- Zippers can be difficult to open or close
- Harder to Clean
- Cooling performance can be less efficient
- Not easy to drain water when filled
Hard Shell Coolers
Hardshell coolers, or ice boxes, come in different sizes and various quality levels. You can find an affordable option for as little as $20 or spend as much as $500 or more for an advanced version.
Most hard shell coolers are boxy and durable, known for their sturdiness and good cooling performance. A hard shell cooler can double as a table, a spot to sit, or a drink holder. However, they’re bulky and might not fit into your car if you work with limited space.
Hardshell coolers can be difficult to carry, especially if they’re full. This makes them best suited for road trips where you don’t have to carry your gear too far. Even if your hard shell cooler is empty, it will take up considerable room in your car, so make sure you’ve got the space before you purchase one. Also, ensure you can easily open the top, as the lid takes up more space when opened.
However, due to their size and a large amount of insulation, hard shell coolers are better at keeping things cold than soft shell options. High-quality coolers can keep ice frozen for several days if left unopened, so they’re a lot more reliable and perfect for longer trips in hotter weather. In addition, they’re easy to clean and come in multiple sizes, so you can buy one that perfectly suits your needs.
Pros of hard shell coolers:
- Great cooling performance
- Easy to clean
- Multi-functional (can double as a table or chair)
- Durable and long-lasting
Cons of hard shell coolers:
- Heavy and bulky
- High-quality options can be expensive
Electric coolers are fantastic road trip companions and ideal for driving long distances by car. Two main types of electric coolers are Thermoelectric coolers and portable refrigerators. The big difference is Thermoelectric coolers can only cool to certain degrees (usually 40 degrees below whatever the outside temperature is) while portable fridges and freezers are temperature regulators and can cool at a constant temperature no matter the outside temperature.
For this post, I will concentrate on electric portable fridges. Although they are more expensive, portable refrigerators are a better option for car camping and road trips since you never know what weather conditions you may encounter.
There are several types of electric coolers; many newer designs are quieter when plugged in, have an internal battery that can be charged via your car’s DC plug (cigarette outlet), and are lighter and better insulated, so they can cool longer when not plugged in. Most modern electric coolers have a battery-saver option, so you will never drain your car battery while your electric cooler is plugged in (unless you want to).
For some electric cooler models, you will need a 12V car plug that stays on when the car is turned off. Most cars have the option to turn at least one DC plug on, so it is live even when the car is off.
The main benefit of an electric cooler is that you can keep things colder for longer without having to worry about buying fresh ice. In fact, you don’t have to buy ice for most electric coolers, although it helps keep everything cool for longer. With no need for ice, you’ll love how much more space you’ll have in the cooler.
Much like with any cooler, the performance of electric ones will depend significantly on the outside temperature. Internal batteries tend to last anywhere from 2 to 24 hours, and it’s recommended to plug the cooler in whenever possible to achieve maximum performance.
Pros of electric coolers:
- No need to buy ice
- More space for drinks and food
- Some come with a rechargeable internal battery
- It can still be used like a regular cooler when the battery is drained
Cons of electric coolers:
- Bulky and heavy
- It can be noisy when in use
- Batteries have to be charged frequently
- Some models require constant electricity for optimal performance
Things to Think About Before Buying a Cooler:
As I said, many factors go into buying the right cooler. Many well-made coolers are expensive (but so worth the cost) so make sure you do your research and check the return policy so you don’t waste money buying a cooler that doesn’t work for you- as I did!
- How long do you need to keep food cool?
- How often will you have access to ice?
- What is the daily temperature outside?
- How much do you need to store, and for how many people?
- How much space do you have in your car?
- Will you need to lift the cooler in and out of the car often?
Pro Tip: One way to make a cooler cool for longer is to fill it up with ice, latch the lid and let it sit for 24-72 hours (or until the ice melts) before using it. I’ve tried this method, and it works!
Things to Know About Coolers
Before you buy a cooler, carefully consider what size you will need. Anything below 30 quarts is usually considered a small cooler sufficient for one person for around two days or a couple on a day trip. A cooler with 30 to 45 quarts is medium-sized and more suitable for two people on a shorter road trip. It will fit around 30 to 50 cans and be tall enough to have upright water bottles. Anything between 45 and 70 quarts is a large cooler that will fit between 80 and 120 cans and is best for multiple people.
Consider buying a cooler with closed-cell polyurethane foam. This is the best insulation currently on the market, and although it can be heavy, it is the most reliable for keeping things cold, making it a great road trip cooler. Rotomolded ice chests generally have this type of insulation, especially big brands like Yeti or Orca. Polyethylene (PE) foam is a cheaper alternative and should be avoided when it comes to hard shell coolers. It’s lighter, though, and may be more useful in soft shell coolers, which are more portable.
Rotomolded ice chests are a type of hard shell cooler manufactured in a specific way to create an extremely durable exterior, resulting in excellent cooling performance. Many low-quality coolers have weak points in their shells where heat can enter. Rotomolded ice chests are always perfectly even, and keep your drinks or food as cold as possible. Check out the Patriot 20 Qt Cooler, Yeti Roadie 24, or Otterbox Venture for the best-rotomolded coolers.
If you’ll be visiting an area where bears are common, getting a cooler that is bear-proof or, more realistically, bear-resistant is essential. You should always pack food, trash, and anything with a strong fragrance in a bear-safe box if camping overnight on public lands. The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee has a long list of products considered bear-resistant and helpful tips to help you stay bear safe. The most important features to look out for when purchasing a bear-safe cooler are a durable rotomolded exterior and a lockable lid. Even coolers that are certified bear-resistant only work if they are locked with a padlock.
Soft Coolers that are Great for a Road Trip
REI Co-op Cool Haul 18 Soft Cooler
Road trips mean limited space, and you might not have room for a bulky cooler in your camping setup. The REI Co-op Cool Haul 18 Soft Cooler is easy to store away when it’s not needed and even doubles as a tote if you remove the cooling box inside. It’s incredibly lightweight and small, making it comfortable to carry and tuck away behind the seat for easy access. In addition, it comes with a few handy features like an integrated bottle opener and a front pocket for your keys or phone. While you won’t be able to use this cooler to keep frozen items for very long, it’s ideal for ensuring your drinks and snacks stay chilled on a short road trip.
- Weight: 3 lbs
- Dimensions: 11 x 13 x 15 inches
- Capacity: 23 quarts (22 liters)
- Very lightweight
- Front pocket for storing small items
- It comes with a bottle opener
- Made from recycled materials
- The insulation box can be removed for cleaning
- Cooling performance not comparable to hard shell models
- Despite being leak-proof, it occasionally leaks, according to user reviews
Engel HD30 32 Quart Heavy-Duty Soft-Sided Cooler Bag
For maximum storage and convenience, check out the Engel HD30 32 Quart heavy-duty soft-sided cooler bag. This cooler is costly, but its performance speaks for itself. It comes with vacuum valve technology which adds an extra insulation layer and keeps everything cold for much longer. When left unopened, it promises to keep drinks cold for over three days, and the entire bag is waterproof so that no liquids can get in or out. In addition, it has a waterproof front pocket where you can safely store your phone and an integrated bottle opener. Paired with a comfortable carrying strap, this is one of the best coolers for a fun road trip. It also comes in a 22 Qt option, great for one person or a shorter weekend road trip.
- Weight: 7 lbs
- Dimensions: 20.5 x 9.5 x 17 inches
- Capacity: 32 quarts (30 liters)
- Vacuum technology
- Integrated bottle opener
- Waterproof front pocket
- Comfortable straps and handles
- Zipper can be tough to open
Hydro Flask 26 L Day Escape Soft Cooler
The Hydro Flask Day Escape coolers are a great soft shell cooler option that looks stylish and is portable with removable carry straps. The shape of the 26 L tapers up, making it easily fit behind most front seats, and it packs down nicely when emptied. It promises 36 hours of cold with specialized cold-retaining technology- and it works!
I love this cooler for beach or lake days when I need to transport it to and from the car. However, the zipper is tough to open with one hand, so I use the Yeti Roadie 24 as my stationary cooler inside my car during road trips- I often reach in my cooler with one hand when I am driving for a cold drink.
- Weight: 2.9 lbs
- Dimensions: 23.9 x 10.4 x 14.97 inches
- Capacity: 26 liters
- Waterproof zipper and seams
- It can fold up for easy storage when empty
- It comes with removable shoulder and cross-body straps
- Has gear attachment loops compatible with Hydro Flask dry storage pouch
- Zipper can be hard to open
- The top does not hold its shape
The Best Hard Coolers Perfect for a Road Trip
Yeti Roadie 24
The Yeti Roadie 24 is one of the best small coolers for a road trip, especially for solo travelers looking for something convenient and reliable. This version of the Yeti Roadie can fit an entire bottle of wine standing up and plenty of space for cans, snacks, and ice. In addition, it’s designed to fit behind the seat of a car (although this will depend on your type of car and how far back the front seat is), and it also has a soft handle, so it does not take up extra space.
For this cooler to fit behind the passenger seat, I must push the front passenger seat all the way forward in my Hyundai Santa Fe, making it difficult for anyone else to ride in the front passenger seat.
Every detail of this cooler is well-thought-out, and you can even open it with one hand, which is perfect if you’re sitting in the front seat and have to reach behind you to get something out. The only downside of this cooler is that it can’t compete with larger rotomolded coolers due to its small size, which will have a better cooling performance.
- Weight: 13 lbs
- Dimensions: 17 x 16 x 14 inches
- Capacity: 24 quarts (23 liters)
- One-handed access
- Small size can fit behind a car seat
- Comfortable soft handle for carrying
- It comes in fun colors
- Small, good for a short weekend trip or one person
- Cooling performance is not as good as larger models
- Expensive, considering its size
Igloo Heavy-Duty 25 Qt BMX
The Igloo Heavy-Duty 25 Qt BMX is a fantastic budget-friendly alternative for those hoping to spend a bit less and still get a reliable cooler. It’s small but built with heavy-duty materials, including stainless steel elements, oversize screws, and skid corners to protect the insulation. However, despite these features, the handle is a weak point of this cooler and frequently breaks over time. Luckily, it comes with a warranty from Igloo so that you can get a replacement should issues arise. This is a fantastic small cooler for a road trip, especially considering the price point, which is unbeatable for the value provided.
- Weight: 11 lbs
- Dimensions: 20 x 13 x 15.6 inches
- Capacity: 25 quarts (23 liters)
- More affordable
- Heavy-duty and extra durable
- It comes with a warranty
- No easy drain plug
- Screws on the handle are prone to failing
- Handel is bulky
The Best Electric Cooler Options
Dometic CFX3 35 Powered Cooler
The Dometic CFX3 35 Powered Cooler is the perfect road trip companion if you are looking for an electric cooler for 2 people that takes minimal power to run and is quiet while plugged in. This electric cooler is exceptionally durable and made of high-quality materials, so the steep price is more than worth it. In addition, it can deep freeze to temperatures as low as -7°F, although it needs to be connected to an electricity source. Luckily, the dynamic battery protection prevents your car battery from being drained, so you never have to be worried about forgetting to unplug your cooler. The Dometic CFX3 even comes with an app that allows you to check the cooler’s temperature and performance from your phone.
- Weight: 37 lbs
- Dimensions: 27.3 x 16 x 15.7 inches
- Capacity: 38 quarts (36 liters)
- 3-stage dynamic battery protection so your car battery isn’t drained
- Ability to deep-freeze
- It can be connected to your phone via an app
- It is one of the quieter electric coolers on the market
Alpicool K25 Portable Freezer, 12 Volt Car Refrigerator
If you’re looking for a more affordable electric travel cooler for your car, the Alpicool K25 Portable Freezer is a great choice. This cooler comes with battery protection and uses very little energy when closed in a cool place, allowing it to keep your things cold even when it’s unplugged. It can provide temperatures as low as -4°F and is even compatible with most car camping solar system setups. Another bonus of this electric cooler is that you can use it as a power bank to charge your phone or other devices while on the road.
- Weight: 27.8 lbs
- Dimensions: 13.2 x 13.8 x 23.03 inches
- Capacity: 26 quarts (25 liters)
- 1-year warranty
- Can be used to charge a phone
- Protects car battery from draining
- No batteries required
- The touch panel can be glitchy
- You will need a 12V outlet that stays on even when the ignition is off.
I hope this post helps you decide what cooler is right for you! If you have a favorite cooler you can’t live without that is not on the list, let me know in the comments below; I’d love to add it.
I often take multiple coolers with me on road trips since there are so many different ones perfect for different uses. I try not to eat out (which usually means fast food) and having a cooler is a great way to keep fresh food chilled. I also usually get free ice at gas stations by asking to fill up a gallon zip lock bag (sometimes only 1/2 way), usually the clerk does not charge me and sometimes I’ll pay for a large drink, either way it is better than always having to buy a 5lb bag of ice that I won’t completely use.