Are those expensive $300 or $400 coolers really worth it? Can a cheaper one hold ice and food for a week? What are the trade-offs?

The Best Cooler for Food Storage

If you don’t have a refrigerator, a good cooler is invaluable for being able to have fresh produce.  With one, you have a tremendous variety of foods and menus available, and won’t feel like you’re just “making do.”

But when you start looking at a “food storage” cooler — as opposed to one that will keep drinks or one to keep food cold for an hour on the way home from the store — you’ll quickly see that there is a huge price difference in various brands.  Do you really need to spend $300 (or more!) for a decent ice box?

My basic answer is NO — but it comes with several caveats.  I’ll start by saying that I don’t have any personal experience with using one of the expensive coolers — I have friends and campground acquaintances who have told me their experiences.

I looked very seriously at the expensive coolers a few years ago, before we made a long (2-month) tent camping trip, over half of it in 90+ temps.  I finally decided to start out with a Coleman Xtreme 70-quart cooler that cost less than $50 (shown in the photo) and see if it would do what we needed.  It did, and we’ve used it on several more trips.

Once you get into the coolers that are marketed as 5- or 6-day coolers, the insulation seems to be fairly equal in all of them regardless of price — about 2″ thick.  The difference between the ones that sell for $100 or under and those going for $300 or more seems to be in the overall construction quality and features.

  • On the more expensive coolers, the lid has a sturdy latch; on cheaper ones, it does not — just a “tight fit.”  Without a latch, it can be a real problem if the cooler tips over!  This can be a consideration on rough passages where a knockdown is possible.
  • More expensive coolers have much more rugged hinges — important if anyone aboard isn’t very gentle.  With a cheaper one, carry duct tape and be prepared to improvise.
  • Many of the less expensive coolers have “drink holders” in the top, which seems like a nice feature until you realize that there is almost no insulation where the cutout is.  Fill the cup holder with foam peanuts and duct tape over the top.
  • The more expensive coolers tend to have places designed for tie-downs that are beefed up accordingly.  With the cheaper ones, you’ll have to run lines to the handles — and the handles haven’t been designed to take this type of load and are more likely to break.
  • Drain plugs are more rugged on more expensive units, and less likely to leak or pop open (I never had a problem with ours, but I’ve heard people complain).

Follow-up:  After I wrote this article, I got an e-mail from Dave on S/V Auspicious, who has direct experience with both cheaper (Igloo) and expensive (Yeti) coolers on offshore passages.  He said, “I purchased an Igloo Marine 72 cooler as part of a “pack” (the big cooler, a smaller cubic cooler, and a seating pad) for about $100. Over the next four years I spent about $300 to replace broken handles, tie down loops, hinges, and latches. When the case of the cooler cracked from cumulative UV exposure I gave up and bought a Yeti cooler. While expensive to purchase initially, two years downstream the Yeti has lived up to its advertised robustness. Perhaps the Igloo is fine for those who loiter in anchorages and only sail in gentle conditions, for those who sail offshore and often the more sturdy cooler ends up being cheaper.”

I’d say his experience fits in perfectly with my thoughts:  if you’re spending time in protected waters, you don’t need the expensive cooler.  But if you’ll be in rough conditions, the extra features and robustness will pay off in the long run.

A couple of other tips on selecting a cooler for week-long food storage, before I get into my choices:

  • The larger the cooler, the more efficient it will be — if you use that extra space for more ice.  If it just holds more air, it will be less efficient.
  • A 65- or 70-quart cooler is about the minimum size needed to have enough ice and space for food.
  • All-white “marine” coolers really do a better job of insulating if they are sitting in the sun — but if you’re going to throw a blanket over the cooler for extra insulation, it really doesn’t matter what color the cooler is.
  • Soft-sided coolers are great for taking to the store or defrosting the refrigerator, but totally insufficient for long-term storage.  They just don’t have the insulation.
  • I’ve never seen a Styrofoam cooler that was up to the task, either — the lids don’t fit tightly enough and the Styrofoam tends to break.
  • The Coleman coolers that are “steel belted” and look like the ones available 30+ years ago just aren’t the same.  They are not nearly as bullet-proof as they used to be and the insulation is not as good as the Xtreme series.
  • 12-volt coolers have way too large a current draw to use aboard most boats (about 3.75 amps at 12 volts and they run constantly, no on and off cycling — 90 amp-hours per 24-hour day, or nearly what a 12-volt refrigerator would use), will only chill items a maximum of 40 degrees Farenheit below the ambient temperature AND you can’t put ice in them (unless it’s in a plastic bottle) to add to the cold.
  • The point above does NOT apply to the Engel Portable Refrigerator/Freezers, which also run on 12 volts but are extremely good (and much, much more expensive).  Read my article about the Engel Portable Refrigerator/Freezer here.
  • If you’re going to be lugging the ice chest up and down the dock regularly, a wheeled one will make it easier.  But a dolly or dock cart (preferably the type that can be used as a dolly) will work just as well if you already have it — and it will definitely be sturdier!  Wheels and axles on coolers tend to break easily on rough ground.

If you are new to cruising without a refrigerator (and hence maybe not sure of your plans), or have plans to install a refrigerator in the near future, I’d go with one of the cheaper coolers unless you are 100% positive you need the beefier features in the short run.  The expensive ones have their place — I’m not arguing against them.  However, for cruisers who spend weekends or even a week or two at a time on the boat, in reasonably sheltered waters, the cheaper ones will do just as well.

For a less expensive cooler that will need a certain amount of “babying,” I recommend (links are to Amazon; prices are similar at many big box stores and will vary depending on sales):

  • Coleman Xtreme or Ultimate Xtreme coolers — that’s what we used and block ice lasted 7 days in 90+ degree heat (and the cooler sat in a parked car much of the time, so it was even hotter), although I did pile blankets and tarps over the cooler and kept a separate cooler for drinks.
  • Are those expensive $300 or $400 coolers really worth it? Can a cheaper one hold ice and food for a week? What are the trade-offs? Get answers here!Igloo Maxcold coolers — the “Maxcold” name has some smaller coolers, soft-sided coolers and ones without insulated tops that are NOT what you need.  But the larger ones that are solid are good.

If you are 100% positive that you’re going to be cruising for longer periods of time without a refrigerator, or need something that can stand up to rougher conditions,  check out the Yeti (link to Yeti on Amazon).  It’s the one brand that almost everyone I’ve spoken with has been happy with.

The other often-mentioned brand of “bulletproof” coolers is Engel (see them on Amazon, about the same price as Yeti — Engel also makes great 12 volt fridge/freezers).  I’ve heard mixed reviews on them — most people liking them, but a few having problems with hinges and latches breaking, although parts could be purchased to repair them.

Whatever cooler you get, pre-chilling your food before loading it in the cooler will really help the ice last longer.

Are those expensive $300 or $400 coolers really worth it?  Can a cheaper one hold ice and food for a week?  What are the trade-offs?

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  • Charles Badoian
    Posted at 05 December 2011 Reply

    12 volt coolers like the engel MT range are much more efficient than you mention in your article, do not have to run all the time, and can freeze. Cheers,

    • Carolyn Shearlock
      Posted at 05 December 2011 Reply

      Thanks for the info — I’ll look into them.


    • Mike
      Posted at 04 February 2012 Reply

      I totally agree Charles! Engel is the most efficient 12 volt cooler / warmer and has a great line-up for just about every possible use.

      Nothing but good reviews about the site from what I see:)

  • Mike
    Posted at 04 February 2012 Reply

    The higher end coolers / ice chest are a great investment for serious anglers and outdoorsman. In other words, you get what you pay for!

    From my experience, the Icey-Tek or the Engel Cooler are by far the best on the market providing the ultimate cooling conditions. They both hold ice about 8-12 days if your not opening it constantly. Icey-Tek used to make the Yeti and has by far, the largest selection of sizes, from 25qt all the way up to 600qt. Huge!

    You can get them at http://www.Icey-Tek-Coolers |

    Hope this helps:) Good luck with your cooler purchase!

  • Ed Robinson
    Posted at 24 April 2012 Reply

    I have the Yeti 85 qt. model. Although I choked on the original purchase price, I’m completely happy with it. It can easily hold ice up to 10 days and has stood up to the elements very well. We keep it very clean inside, then when the ice is gone we drain it into our water tanks. Love my Yeti.

    • Carolyn Shearlock
      Posted at 24 April 2012 Reply

      Glad to hear it! Always nice when an expensive item turns out to be worth it . . .

  • Bob Hawkins on Facebook
    Posted at 23 October 2012 Reply

    love my YETI…..

  • ken
    Posted at 26 April 2013 Reply

    Ive been looking at the grizzly coolers for two reasons life time warranty and they are made in the USA and yeti is made in the Phillipines and only have a 5 yr. warranty. There are a few others made in the USA also.

  • Bob Pierson
    Posted at 24 June 2013 Reply

    How to repair broken cooler handles and lids. Farm to City uses 50 and 110 quart coolers for transporting food.

    When handles break, I repair them in 5 minutes with parachute cord and Tygon tubing. The handle attachment points must be intact and have a hole in each side. I loop the parachute cord back and forth twice between the handle attachment points and through the Tygon tubing (about .5″ to .75″ inside dia; cut to be about an inch or less as the distance between the attachment points). Then I tie off the two ends of the parachute cord with a tight square knot and burn the cut ends with a match to prevent the cord from unraveling.

    To replace hinges, I remove the broken hinges and replace them with simple 1.5″ x 2″ steel hinges purchased from a hardware store. I take care to align the hinge carefully between the lid and body of the cooler and to screw the new hinge slghtly displaced from the old hinge location to obtain fresh purchase for the screws.

  • Bob Pierson
    Posted at 24 June 2013 Reply

    I am looking for insulating blankets for coolers. We use coolers to deliver refrigerated and frozen foods, often both in the same cooler. Often the refrigerated items will cause some thawing of the frozen items. Does anyone know of a supplier of small (approx 15″ x 18″) impermeable insulated blankets that can separate the frozen and unfrozen items?

  • Suzanne C
    Posted at 10 July 2013 Reply

    We are weekend boaters and the refrig we have on the boat just doesn’t hold enough for us, so I usually stock the refrig with drinks,condiments, etc. and food we keep in an Igloo Marine Elite 110 quart cooler. Rather sturdy, wheels, metal latches and an extending handle for pulling down to the dock. This past holiday weekend I packed four days worth of food, two water jugs which I had previously frozen and 4 bags of ice. Our dock is made of composite decking and it gets hot, real hot in the blazing sun. Four days of 90+ degree temps and the food all stayed cold. I do use a large car windshield sun shade on the inside of the cooler to help insulate and keep the cold in. Seems to have work well for us over the past few years.

  • Peggy
    Posted at 19 July 2014 Reply

    I have heard these are pretty good too:

    Here is the comparison of the Yeti and the Pelican:

    • Carolyn Shearlock
      Posted at 19 July 2014 Reply

      I hadn’t heard of those before but they look great!

    • Aileen
      Posted at 21 July 2015 Reply

      Omg, I have one of those! They are great! I got mine on discount and had my reservations, but I recommend it now!

  • Adam House
    Posted at 19 July 2014 Reply

    I’ll give you my report on this cooler next summer.

  • Mark
    Posted at 22 April 2015 Reply

    Best brand when it comes to marine coolers – I bought mine at Cooler Store.

  • Dave Skolnick (S/V Auspicious)
    Posted at 16 May 2015 Reply

    Hi Carolyn!

    An update on our Yeti experience. We’re five years (at least) into the Yeti. It’s been strapped on the aft deck on numerous offshore passages (Cape Henlopen to Newport and back, Norfolk to Bermuda and back, Norfolk to Marsh Harbour and back, Norfolk to BVI and back (including some really nasty weather). Total maintenance costs: some squirts of Armor All on a rag to wipe oxidation off the latches. On the basis of dollars per year the Yeti continues to be much cheaper than the Igloo it replaced.

  • jamey
    Posted at 10 January 2016 Reply

    Thanks for the update Dave, I was reading this guide and wondered if the Yeti was still the best one to get for “hardcore” use. Cheers.

  • Ed Robinson
    Posted at 22 September 2016 Reply

    We balked at the price of a Yeti at first, but it’s been a great investment.

  • Cathleen Speaker Holzknecht
    Posted at 22 September 2016 Reply

    I have a Yeti 65 and love it. I have transported frozen food for 24 hours and it was still rock hard. The key is not to have air space. If the cooler is not full, put a blanket on top of food. It really helps.

  • Laurie Hopkinson
    Posted at 05 January 2017 Reply

    The best review of coolers we have seen by far is this YouTube video where it compares many top end coolers on a scientific basis. Worth the watch if you are looking into serious coolers. I know we were surprised the Yeti was not the best cooler of the bunch. Google “Five Day Ice Challenge, Coolers Yeti, Grizzly, Pelican, Engel, Igloo, Canyon, Siberian, More” on You Tube. This company that did the video does sell coolers but I did feel like it was an unbiased review. Funny the things you find yourself watching when your planning to cruise!!!

  • Ana V
    Posted at 05 January 2017 Reply

    We made a week long trip with a rinky dink Coleman cooler with ONE bag of cubed ice. The trick? Dry ice. We put 2 blocks on the bottom, cardboard to isolate the food and a bag of ice on top in another garbage bag to keep stuff dry. We were still chiseling ice on the 7th day and our cream for the coffee froze. Won’t take another trip without dry ice. Sold at Publix!

  • Nicola Kamper
    Posted at 05 January 2017 Reply

    We bought a pelican cooler and loved it so much we bought a second. The first one holds food, and the second holds drinks and serves as a helm seat. We noticed that they were thicker than the Yetis for insulation for less than half the cost. They are very rugged with solid metal hinges and clasps. They also have a thick gasket around the lid, so will frequently form a vacuum… I would highly recommend these!

  • Don Mont
    Posted at 05 January 2017 Reply

    I went with the RTIC, pronounced Artic, same construction as the Yeti but less than half the price. Did well on my week sailing in the FL Keys. It replaces the small steps to the cabin and holds up well being walked on, the Coleman lid didn’t survive this abuse long.

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