As the weather heated up our first summer cruising Mexico, I found myself needing a cooler to carry my meat, butter, milk and cheese back to the boat without any of it going bad. After several “experiments” with the wrong coolers, I finally found what worked well for us in tropical summers — and well as in cooler seasons.
My Criteria for a Provisioning Cooler
My criteria for the “perfect” cooler to take along on provisioning runs basically came from things I hated about several other coolers I tried using. I discovered that the following were important to me:
- Soft sided, so it didn’t take up too much room on the boat when not in use — and also easier to carry on a hip with the shoulder strap across my chest.
- Leakproof — tops need to zip shut, not just Velcro.
- Heavy-duty carry straps — both for hand-holding and also a shoulder strap; it’s best if the straps go completely around the cooler, they’re not as likely to tear loose.
- Shoulder strap long enough to carry across your chest (it can be heavy and it’s much easier on your back to put the strap across your chest)
- Well-insulated — when it’s 100 degrees out and the cooler is in the trunk of the taxi for an hour ride, then you have to carry it to the dinghy and ferry it to the boat, it takes a very well insulated cooler to keep your hamburger from turning green!
- Large enough to carry all your super-perishable goods (meat, butter, cheese, milk) AND ice if it’s more than a very short trip from store to boat. This will depend on how often you’re able to provision where you are cruising, but I found I needed at least an “18 can” size and really preferred a “24 can” cooler. BUT consider how heavy it will be when full and whether you (or others on your boat who may help with the provisioning) will be able to carry it more than a very short distance. More than once, we found ourselves carrying provisions a mile or more — and so we made several trips instead of one big stock-up!
- As far as size goes, I’d definitely recommend one that’s large enough to stick a 9×13 pan into — “coolers” will also keep food hot, and I frequently used mine to take hot foods to potlucks.
- Heavy-duty all over — materials, stitching, zippers, etc. I found I used this cooler far more — and more roughly — than I had used any while living ashore. The first few (cheap) ones I got quickly fell apart until I finally decided I was paying more by buying a new one every six months than a good one would cost.
Recommended Provisioning Cooler
About a year ago, a cruising friend who had seen my cooler wrote and asked what kind it was — she needed a new one and knew I’d really liked mine. Well, it turned out that the cooler that I had eventually bought and loved isn’t sold any more . . . of course. So she asked what I’d buy in its place — she was making a trip to the US and wanted to order it in advance.
We’re in a small town now, where Wal-mart is the big store. So I started there. They really didn’t have anything that met my criteria. So then I started looking online and found these made by Polar Bear. The pictures and descriptions seemed like what I would want, and the reviews were fantastic. So I suggested them to Lori, on S/V Puffins. She bought the 24-can size.
Her initial reaction when she received it was that it would be great, but I didn’t hear anything more from her about it. And then a couple weeks ago that trusty cooler that I bought in 2005 in El Salvador sprang a leak (I can’t consider it a failure, considering how roughly I’ve used it for so long). So I wrote Lori and asked how her Polar Bear was holding up and how she liked it after using it a year — should I buy one (I live half an hour from the big supermarkets and still use a cooler to transport food home in the summer)?
To cut a long, gushing e-mail down to the bare bones, she said that it was perfect — far better insulated than anything she’d had before, nothing had broken in a year, it was a good size, reasonably easy to carry as well as pass up and down from the dinghy to boat, and didn’t leak at all. And so I ordered one. I agree, it’s great!
- Polar Bear 24-can soft cooler (18″ x 10″ x 12″)
- Polar Bear 48-can soft cooler (21″ x 13″ x 13″ — will carry a lot, but can get heavy)
- Polar Bear 12-pack cooler (14″ x 7″ x 12″; good size to take on a hike but won’t hold much to come home from a store)
The picture at the top of this article is that 24-can size, but frankly they all look almost identical. They come in a variety of colors and for some reason the price varies slightly by the color.
One thing that I didn’t realize until I received mine is that its folds almost flat for storage — definitely smaller than the previous soft cooler, which still kept its boxy shape but could be “mushed” into a smaller space.
These aren’t cheap, at about $50 for a 24-can cooler. I know, I resisted buying a “good” cooler for a long time — I just couldn’t see paying that much when I could find others for half that price. It was false economy, as the cheaper ones didn’t work nearly as well and certainly didn’t last. With six+ years on my “good” cooler versus about 6 months on the ones that cost half as much (and didn’t keep food as cold), I learned my lesson!
On one hand, I don’t want to encourage anyone to spend more on any piece of gear than they feel they can. And many times, I try to show how a less expensive alternative can work pretty well. But I also want to point out equipment where spending a little more really does get you more, and this is one of those cases. If you’re in hot locale, and will be giving your provisioning cooler some rough use, I really think these are worth the money.