Menu
Search
Menu
Close

Large Coolers

Published August 2018

How we tested

A cooler is an indispensable tool for the traveling cook, coming in handy for camping, beach trips, long car rides, parties, and tailgating. A $25.00 plastic cooler was once the norm, but in recent years, premium products have shaken up the consumer market with offerings that go up to $1,300.00 for a massive ice chest that weighs 85 pounds when empty. Sleek, certified bear-proof, and “virtually indestructible,” Yeti coolers in particular have gained a cultlike status among the social media set, outdoor enthusiasts, and career hunters and fishermen. But do they really live up to the hype, or do less expensive options work just as well?

We selected seven products, priced from $19.99 to $379.99, from five top-selling cooler manufacturers, including a Yeti and a comparable model from Pelican. We chose a mix of models with wheels and without and opted for those with capacities of about 50 quarts—a size that we think should be sufficient for a weekend's worth of supplies for four people.

We ran the coolers through a battery of tests. To gauge cold retention, we loaded each with 32 pounds of ice and monitored how long the ice lasted. We also filled the coolers with ice packs and soda cans and used thermometers to track how long they kept sodas under 50 degrees. We tested ease of use by attempting to stuff a weekend's worth of groceries into each cooler, and we carried or wheeled the full coolers across concrete, asphalt, gravel, and grass; up and down stairs; and in and out of the back of a car. Finally, we put the products through abuse tests: We pushed full coolers out of the back of an SUV five times and operated all handles, latches, and hinges a minimum of 100 times.

A Weighty Trade-Off

Functionality issues came up first. One cooler's lid wouldn't stay open and repeatedly flopped onto our hands as we loaded it. Another cooler lacked a drain, so we had to unload everything and strain the ice to get rid of excess water. And the high-end coolers were just plain heavy. While every other product weighed between 7 and 12 pounds when empty, the Yeti weighed in at 26 pounds empty and required two people to carry it when full. The Pelican was even heavier, at 38 pounds, and though its wheels helped, lugging it up and down stairs or in and out of the car was still a two-person job.

All that heft, however, made these two coolers less likely to tumble over and more durable when they did. Thanks to sturdier locking latches, the lids on these models never opened when we pushed them out of the SUV. The lighter coolers all spilled open, sending sodas and ice packs everywhere. By the end of testing, one had lost a side handle and another had a dented pole that prevented the telescoping handle from collapsing. The Yeti and Pelican models emerged with only scratches.

Which Models Stayed Cooler Longer?

Our two high-end coolers also stood out for their superior cold retention. Most of the coolers allowed sodas and ice packs to reach 50 degrees in two days and ice to melt completely in four days. Soda in the Yeti and the Pelican was still 49 degrees after four days; ice melted fully after 10 and eight days, respectively.

Of course, warm soda isn't the end of the world, but foods such as hamburger and fish are considered unsafe after spending more than 2 hours at 41 degrees or higher, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. With enough coolant and careful packing, all the coolers in our lineup can safely store your food for a day or two, but the Yeti and the Pelican can do so for longer.

Examining Insulation

To figure out what set these two coolers apart, we had to get inside them. So we bought an electric saw, strapped on safety goggles, and ripped our way through every model in the lineup.

Coolers are made of a hard plastic shell surrounding a thick layer of foam insulation. The specific type of insulation didn't matter, but the location and thickness of it did. The top four coolers had insulated lids; the rest were just hollow plastic. Because air doesn't conduct heat well, the hollow models can insulate to a degree, but we found that coolers with added insulation in the lid performed better.

The highly ranked coolers also had thicker insulation all around (though that thickness varied in different parts of each cooler). The coolers that got warmer faster had ½ to 1 inch of insulation. The Yeti's insulation was double that, ranging from 1.4 to 2.3 inches thick, and the Pelican went even further, with a whopping 3 inches of insulation throughout. But if the Pelican had the thickest insulation, why did the Yeti perform better in our cold-retention tests?

How Insulation Works

We excavated insulation from each cooler and used a tape measure and a scale to calculate the density. We found that the Yeti's insulation was less dense than the Pelican's (35 milligrams per cubic centimeter versus 40 milligrams per cubic centimeter). Though it seems counterintuitive, our science editor confirmed that less-dense insulation can insulate better. Air is a poor conductor of heat, especially when it's immobile, so it's the air inside foam insulation that really insulates. The pockets in foam trap air, preventing it from moving, thus creating a barrier between the contents of the cooler and the heat outside. If the insulating material is less dense, it contains more air.

How Much Do You Have to Spend for a Good Cooler?

When it comes to cold retention and durability, the Yeti Tundra 50 ($379.99)lived up to the hype—we've named it our overall winner. We particularly liked its rubber latches and rope handles, which are durable and comfortable to operate; plus, they're replaceable if they do happen to break (the company sells these parts on its website). However, this rugged and pricey cooler isn't for everyone. For more casual cooling needs—a day at the beach or a barbecue—we recommend the Coleman 50 QT Xtreme Wheeled Cooler ($45.99). This budget-friendly model has excellent cold-retention abilities, a roomy interior, and wheels that make it easy to transport.

Methodology

We tested seven coolers from five top-selling, well-known brands, priced from $19.99 to $379.99, with capacities of about 50 quarts. To evaluate cold retention, we loaded each with 32 pounds of ice and measured their daily ice loss until none remained. We also filled the coolers with ice packs and soda cans, tracking how long they kept sodas at a cold, drinkable temperature, which we determined to be under 50 degrees. We tested ease of use by attempting to stuff a weekend's worth of groceries into each cooler and carried or wheeled the full coolers across concrete, asphalt, gravel, and grass; up and down stairs; and in and out of the back of a car. We also performed abuse tests: We pushed full coolers out of the back of an SUV five times and operated all handles, latches, and hinges a minimum of 100 times. Weight, insulation thickness, and insulation density were measured in-house. Products appear below in order of preference.

Cold Retention: We measured how well products kept ice and ice packs cold by tracking the temperature of ice as it melted over several days and by checking the temperatures of sodas. The best coolers still had ice after eight days of testing and kept drinks below 50 degrees for at least four days.

Portability: Testers evaluated how easy each cooler was to lift in and out of an SUV, carry or wheel up and down stairs, and move across concrete, asphalt, gravel, and grass. Lightweight models with wheels received the highest marks for portability.

Ease of Use: We looked at how easy the coolers were to load, drain, and latch. Coolers lost points for floppy lids, ineffective drains, and deep wheel wells that created awkward space issues for fitting groceries.

Durability: We operated all latches, lids, and handles a minimum of 100 times and pushed full coolers out the back of an SUV five times. Products lost points if they spilled open when dropped or emerged from testing damaged.

Try All Access Membership Free for 14 Days

Included in your trial membership

  • 25 years of Cook's Illustrated, Cook's Country, and America's Test Kitchen foolproof recipes
  • In-depth videos of recipes and cooking techniques
  • SAVE all your Favorites for easy access
  • Up-to-Date reviews and product buying guides

Get America's Test Kitchen All Access — become the Smartest Cook you know, guaranteed.

Email is required
How we use your email address

The Results

Winner
Recommended

Design Trifecta 360 Knife Block

Admittedly expensive, this handsome block certainly seemed to live up to its billing as “the last knife block you ever have to buy.” The heaviest model in our testing, this block was ultrastable, and its durable bamboo exterior was a breeze to clean. Well-placed medium-strength magnets made it easy to attach all our knives, and a rotating base gave us quick access to them. One tiny quibble: The blade of our 12-inch slicing knife stuck out a little.

$248.64*
Recommended

Schmidt Brothers Downtown Block

This roomy block completely sheathed our entire winning knife set using just one of its two sides—and quite securely, thanks to long, medium-strength magnet bars. Heavy, with a grippy base, this block was very stable. An acrylic guard made this model extra-safe but also made it a little trickier to insert knives and to clean; the wood block itself showed some minor cosmetic scratching during use.

$141.90*

Schmidt Brothers Midtown Block

This smaller version of the Downtown Block secured all our knives nicely, though the blade of the slicing knife stuck out a bit. With a base lined with grippy material, this block was very stable. An acrylic guard afforded extra protection against contact with blades but made it a little harder to insert knives and to clean; the wood itself got a little scratched during use.

$67.99*
Recommended with Reservations

Swissmar Bamboo Magnetic Knife Block

This small, scratch-resistant model had a stable, rubber-lined base and could hold all our knives, though the blade of the 12-inch slicing knife stuck out a bit. But inch-long gaps between its small magnets made coverage uneven and forced us to find the magnetic hot spots in order to secure the knives. Its acrylic guard made it safer to use but harder to insert knives and to clean.

$49.93*
Not Recommended

Messermeister Walnut Magnet Block

This handsome block was done in by its shape—a tippy, top-heavy quarter-circle that wasn’t tall or broad enough to keep the blades of three knives from poking out. It lacked a nonslip base, and its extra-strong magnets made it unnerving to attach or remove our heavy cleaver. Finally, it got a bit scratched after extensive use.

$129.95*

Epicurean Standing Knife Rack 12"

This magnetic block sheathed all our knives completely, though with a bit of crowding. But it was hard to insert each knife without hitting the block’s decorative slats on way down, and because the block was light and narrow, it wobbled when bumped. Worse, we couldn’t take it apart, so splatters that hit the interior were there to stay. Additionally, the outside stained easily, and when we wiped it down, the unit smelled like wet dog.

$99.95*

Kapoosh Rondelle Knife Block

This model stabilized knives with a mass of stiff, spaghetti-like bristles that shed and nicked easily after extensive use, covering our knives with plastic debris. While all our knives fit securely, several of the blades stuck out, making this unit feel less safe overall. Finally, though the bristles could be removed and cleaned in the dishwasher, their nooks and crannies made this block hard to wash by hand.

$24.99*

Kuhn Rikon Vision Knife Block, Clear

This plastic block required us to aim each knife into the folds of an accordion-pleated insert that was removable for easy cleaning but got nicked easily with repeated use. Because we could only insert the knives vertically, longer knife blades stuck out; a cleaver was too wide to fit. The lightest model in our lineup, this block was dangerously top-heavy when loaded with knives.

$35.88*