Ice Chest Shootout
When you’re going camping and the summer heat is on, you can’t afford to compromise on your ice chest, because that’s what keeps your food cold and safe to eat. Lots of ice chests claim to be five-day coolers. Some even claim six-day performance. But do they really stay cold for that long? That’s what we set out to determine with our ice chest shootout.
We sent out the invitations and four contenders responded to the challenge. Initially we wanted all of the test coolers to be 50-quart capacity, because that’s a popular size for family camping, but one company supplied a 75-quart cooler because of product availability issues.
Coleman’s 50-quart Wheeled Xtreme 6 Cooler (www.coleman.com) has several likable features. The comfortable fold-up handle allowed me to tow it on its wheels, and relieved my back from having to carry the cooler. Its two-way carry handles pivoted or simply lifted straight up, which made the handles accessible, no matter how tight the space around the cooler. A deep trough leading to the drain plug was molded into the floor, giving meltwater a place to collect and drain without tilting the chest. However, the drain plug was only a simple plastic stopper — less secure than a threaded plug. Four deep cup-holders sized to hold a beverage can were molded into the lid. The rest of the lid was flat and could be used as a table. Along one edge of the lid was a molded 24-inch ruler, handy for anglers to measure their catch. The lid latch was a simple interference fit with no moving parts, but the lid had no strap to prevent damage to the hinge if opened too aggressively. The Coleman measured 31.5 inches long and 18.25 inches wide. $94.99.
The Igloo 50-quart Maxcold (www.igloocoolers.com) had a relatively compact footprint for a 50-quart cooler, measuring 25.5 inches long by 15.25 inches wide, but the handles on each end only pivoted so they needed extra room to lift the cooler out of tight quarters. The drain plug (with a screw-on cap) was threaded so a standard garden hose could be attached for draining at a distance from the cooler. It was a good idea, but the drain was an inch off the bottom of the cooler, so it was still necessary to tilt the chest to fully drain it. The flat lid offered no cup-holders, but its hinges were protected against overextension by restraining straps. Igloo claimed the snap-lock lid latch was child safe, but the company doesn’t know my 2-year-old grandson. Integrated into the carry handle bracket on each end was a loop to attach a bungee cord or tie-down strap across the lid to keep it shut or to secure the cooler in a vehicle. $65.99.
Largest of the coolers in this test, the Rubbermaid 75-quart DuraChill Wheeled 5-day Cooler (www.rubbermaid.com), measured 33.4 inches long by 19.6 inches wide, and was rated to hold 130 cans of soda, plus ice. With a cooler this large, it was nice to have wheels and a fold-up tow handle on it.
The primary handles only pivoted upward but offered a good grip. Rubbermaid designed this cooler with a split lid, so you could grab a drink without letting too much cold air out. A total of four hinges (two for each lid) were employed in the split lid design, but three hinges broke during the test. Four cup-holders on one half of the lid and two on the other fit 12-ounce cans or 20-ounce bottles. The drain was plugged with a simple plastic stopper, and the outlet was a full 3 inches above the bottom of the cooler, so severe tilting of this unit was required for draining. $44.97.
The Yeti Tundra Series 50-quart Cooler (www.yeticoolers.com) featured a freezer-type gasket to ensure a tight seal when the lid was closed, and a sturdy hinge system extended the entire length of the lid, so there was no concern about durability. The lockdown system to keep the lid closed consisted of very strong rubber T-latches and padlock holes at the front corners. It took some serious effort to release the T-latches, so we didn’t have to worry about the lid popping open on its own. A strong wire rack inside was used for food storage and to keep items off of the ice. Stout marine-grade nylon rope handles on each end are fitted with comfortable ribbed rubber grips, allowing easy replacement of the handle in a matter of minutes, if it ever wears out or breaks. Slots at each end of the cooler allowed us to thread a tie-down strap through for security while carrying the Yeti in the bed of the truck. Strength came at a cost in weight and price, though. At 25 pounds, the Yeti was twice as heavy and much more expensive than the other contenders. $299.99.
The test involved loading the coolers equally with ice, using a block of ice and a bag of cubed ice in each 50-quart cooler. To compensate for the Rubbermaid 75-quart unit, we simply did the math. Seventy-five quarts is 1.5 times the capacity of a 50-quart cooler, so we multiplied the quantity of ice by 1.5 to keep the ratios appropriate for the space involved.
We ran the test for five days in a temperature-controlled environment kept at 75 degrees F around the clock. Every 24 hours, we checked the interior temperature of the air (not the ice) at the mid-level of the cooler. Then we checked the liquid temperature of a beverage surrounded by ice. At no point did we replenish the ice.
So much of this story is about how long the ice lasted. When there’s ice and meltwater surrounding it, the difference in temperature of food in one cooler versus another is small. It’s the ice that does the active cooling, so as long as there is ice, the food will stay cold enough to be safe. At the end of day five, we weighed the remaining ice to calculate ice retention efficiency.
The Coleman lost 88 percent of its cubed ice, but 34 percent of the block ice was still solid. At the end of day five, there was one lonely ice cube remaining in the Igloo, but 42 percent of its block ice was still solid. All the cubed ice in the Rubbermaid had melted by the end of day five. Of its block ice, only a tiny sliver remained, weighing less than one-half pound. That’s 100 percent loss of cubed ice and more than 95 percent loss of block ice in the Rubbermaid during the test period. The fact that the meltwater in the Rubbermaid still kept the beverage temperature at 40 degrees F is testament to the fact that you should not drain the water if you don’t have to. The Yeti lost 76 percent of its cubed ice, but 46 percent of the ice block was still solid.
The Yeti cooler prevailed because it retained ice better than the other units. That was primarily due to the cooler’s superior construction; its thicker walls (2-inch) and lid (3-inch) filled with more polyurethane foam for more efficient insulation, and the full-frame rubber seal around the lid.
In the ice-retention challenge, the coolers were ranked Yeti, Coleman, Igloo, and finally Rubbermaid. Interesting that this is exactly how the coolers stack up according to price. Maybe it’s true that you get what you pay for.
There is no argument that they all kept at least some ice all the way to the end of the five-day test. And they all retained a safe temperature for properly sealed foods and drinks immersed in the meltwater. But according to our standard of a real refrigerator-like environment of close to 40 degrees F, foods that were in the dead air space above the ice/water level would be at risk in all but the Yeti. Even the Yeti couldn’t perfectly match a real refrigerator, but it was darn close.
Then there’s the likability factor. Naturally, each individual will like or dislike different things about the various coolers in our test. Actually, there’s plenty to like about each of these coolers, but also a few things to watch out for.
With the Coleman, the pro side of the ledger lists the solid feel of construction, the versatile lid with drink holders and a 24-inch ruler, the meltwater drain bilge, and the unit’s towability with wheels and a comfortable folding handle. On the con side are the lid hinges that, although they held up OK, still felt vulnerable to me.
Pros for the Igloo MaxCold include the smallest footprint of the bunch, the lid-restraint strap that protects the hinges, and the threaded drain that will accommodate a hose. I didn’t really find any obvious bad points about this unit, and it doesn’t have many bells and whistles — it’s just a solid and efficient ice chest for a good price.
The Rubbermaid with its convenient split lid and tow wheels is a nice unit, and it comes at the lowest price for the largest cooler. I was disappointed with the fragile hinges, and it has the worst drain of all the units tested, requiring radical tilting to be fully emptied.
The Yeti offered exceptional construction and the best ice retention. It’s an ice chest that looks like it may deliver excellent service and last for years. But the price may put this piece of equipment out of reach for many.
At the end of the five-day trial period they all still had ice left, but some retained more than others. Overall efficiency, the different features and the price will ultimately determine which cooler is right for you.
To see how we set up the test, valuable tips on getting better performance out of your existing ice chest, and advice on using dry ice in your coolers, check out the Ice Chest Performance Enhancement article.