Remember when we used to entrust our crucially cold summer refreshments to Styrofoam coolers? They’d inevitably begin disintegrating on the way to the picnic, spewing polystyrene bits everywhere. Meanwhile, drinks got warm, melted ice leaked out, and we grew nervous that the lovingly homemade chicken salad sandwiches had turned into a platter of food-borne illness.
Back to the future, where coolers are high tech and full of promises. But many are promising too much, offering bizarre bells and whistles like built-in MP3 speakers or even Transformering themselves into motorized trikes. What we really want is just a reliable, transportable container for our perishables.
The ideal cooler should be well insulated, spacious, and maneuverable, especially when heavy with food and drink. I highly recommend models with wheels and pull handles, so you’re not challenged to feats of strength trying to move more than your body weight in picnic food or farmers’ market finds.
Despite their name, coolers can keep food and drink warm too. The insulation maintains temperature inside, so your favorite potluck dishes don’t need reheating.
Get a better cooler to last you beyond summer.
California Innovations invented the collapsible cooler in 1990, creating a roomy, soft-sided insulated box out of backpack-type nylon lined with high-tech thermal material. This model features a bag that folds down flat for storage and a foldable cart, which carries up to 80 pounds on sturdy all-terrain wheels. The bag detaches from the cart so both can be used separately.
The bag holds 50 12-ounce cans with room to spare for gel packs or ice. A small Velcro flap on top gives easy access to its contents without having to unzip the entire lid, for those beverage emergencies. Two gusseted cargo pockets and a zip pocket on the front hold things that don’t need to be insulated, like plates, utensils, and napkins.
If it weren’t for the sole color choice (navy), this could be the perfect cooler. Blue is not that bad, and does camouflage dirt well, but who doesn’t love basic black?
Wheeled Ultimate Xtreme Cooler (50 Quart)
By Coleman, $59.99
This Coleman hard cooler will keep ice, with some melt, for an impressively long six days in up to 90-degree conditions, with its two-inch-thick insulation. It is, in fact, the official cooler of the Badwater Ultramarathon, a 135-mile extreme running race in California that goes from Death Valley to Mount Whitney in as high as 130-degree heat. The black plastic wheels don’t leave much clearance for off-roading, so they work best on solid ground.
The cooler’s got a drain in the bottom, rather than on the side, so you don’t have to tilt it to get the water out. This is great when the cooler is filled to maximum capacity with 72 12-ounce cans and melting ice.
The hinged lid has four two-inch-deep drink holders on top—a nice bonus, what with the danger of spillage from fellow revelers in wild, outdoor settings.
It’s only available with a pale green body. And the handles and lid are high-maintenance white, a poor choice because they will inevitably get grimy from handling.
Need to take 145 cold ones to the beach? This cooler is actually the smallest of Igloo’s All-Terrain line. It is, nonetheless, the biggest of all the coolers we like, plus it handles heavy loads with the best-designed wheels. It will hold ice, with some melt, for five days.
Its huge, cushioned, inflated tires roll over sand, one of the most challenging terrains, and support up to 300 pounds. The tires can be swung up along the sides of the cooler and locked in place when not in use, so the cooler sits flat on its bottom.
Close it with its snap-lock, child-safety lid, which does have a quick-access hatch. Drain it with a bottom plug.
The cooler is inexplicably only available in white, though there is a stain- and odor-resistant liner. We hope Igloo eventually offers this terrific line in a dark, lower-maintenance color.