My provisioning cooler is my secret weapon in getting cold foods home without spoilage, even when it's HOT out!

Provisioning Cooler

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.

And while I call this a “provisioning” cooler, I also use it for taking food to a beach potluck or a friend’s boat . . . and it’s invaluable when defrosting the refrigerator.

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

I have the Polar Bear 24-can soft cooler and love it. I got it on Amazon after quite a bit of research. I’ve now had it 6+ years and it’s still going strong — and has all the features I love.

The picture at the top of this article is mine — the 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 my previous soft cooler, which still kept its boxy shape but could be “mushed” into a smaller space.

These aren’t cheap.  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.

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24 Comments
  • Relinda Ted Broom on Facebook
    Posted at 08 December 2011 Reply

    We are on our second one (don’t remember the brand name) in over 10 years. The first is still is use but did encounter a few small slits inside that make it harder to store ice but works great for going to and from the store. Relinda

  • Jackie
    Posted at 08 December 2011 Reply

    I have the Harken cooler that looks like the one pictured. It DOES work well for carrying cold and hot food and defrosting, but it also got pressed into action as luggage after I won it in a door-prize drawing (YAY me!!) and needed to protect the new VHF radio and miscellany purchased on the yearly US trip. In that same vein, I’ve heard of folks using a cooler as their carry-on so when they get to their destination they have a cooler to use for their excursions there (ie. picnics, shopping, etc.)

  • Mid-Life Cruising! on Facebook
    Posted at 08 December 2011 Reply

    One of these in red would be great for Christmas … Santa are you listening?

  • The Boat Galley on Facebook
    Posted at 08 December 2011 Reply

    Combining this with Jackie’s comment, maybe Santa could use it to carry all his other goodies to you . . . you HAVE been good this year, haven’t you?

  • Donna
    Posted at 04 January 2012 Reply

    I have 2 that look similar to the one picture. One is a backpack style and is great for hands-free boarding; the other is long and narrow and was sold as a wine “cooler” but I’ve used it for so much more…..this one with its longer strap is great as a cross-body, also keeping your hands free and enabling you to also use the backpack if needed. The long one is great for hot or cold if you are bringing dinner back to the boat or from the boat to the beach! I purchased ours at boat shows over the years……

  • Tammy Swart on Facebook
    Posted at 28 April 2012 Reply

    We bought one of these and I can throw my recommendation in with yours. We love it!

  • Andrea Dollins on Facebook
    Posted at 28 April 2012 Reply

    We have one also, love it!!..worth every penny!!

  • Andrea Dollins on Facebook
    Posted at 28 April 2012 Reply

    We have one also, love it!!..worth every penny!!

  • The Boat Galley on Facebook
    Posted at 28 April 2012 Reply

    Glad to hear you’re both liking them. I think mine’s one of the best things I’ve bought.

  • Lisa Parker on Facebook
    Posted at 25 October 2012 Reply

    Have any of you tried the one that is backpack style?

  • The Boat Galley on Facebook
    Posted at 25 October 2012 Reply

    No but it looks like a great way to carry it any distance. If it’s built like the rest of the Polar Bear stuff (and I can’t imagine that it isn’t), I’m sure it would work well.

  • Robin Mangione
    Posted at 04 April 2013 Reply

    My husband and I have one that looks similar. It’s made by Horizon’s and will keep ice for a long weekend in hot Arkansas summers. It lies flat, is sturdy, and we plan to take it on our boat, Sea Change,when we go cruising at the end of this year. It was a little pricey but has been well worth every penny. Comes in different colors and sizes!

  • Yvonne McTeer on Facebook
    Posted at 06 July 2013 Reply

    I bought one !!!

  • Judie Ashford
    Posted at 06 July 2013 Reply

    Until you can buy one of these Polar Bear coolers, try a layer of Reflectix in any cooler to help with insulation. A layer across the top, particularly, does wonders since it keeps the cold where it is needed, and not in the empty air space above the food. When the cooler is opened, that top air escapes, and then must be re-cooled, taking cool from the food. Even in a Polar Bear, keep a layer of Reflectix on top of the food, and lift up only the side where the item is that you are seeking.

    This also helps keep your brain cells active to remember what food is where in the cooler! ;->

    If your cooler is in bright light, put a white fuzzy or fleecy, long-haired item, like a bathroom rug, over the top. This reflects a tremendous amount of light, and makes a big difference.

    • Carolyn Shearlock
      Posted at 06 July 2013 Reply

      Sort of combining both your remarks, I’ve also seen people make a “jacket” out of Reflectix to put over the cooler when it’s in the sun. Reflectix is SUPER at reflecting sunlight. For those who may not have read it, see my article on Reflectix.

      • Judie Ashford
        Posted at 06 July 2013 Reply

        Exactly! I’ve read about that, too. But it required more “fashioning” than I had the patience for. It’s like a five-sided box that drops over the top of the cooler itself. I use a similar “chimney”-like affair out of Reflectix to incubate my yogurt! It’s great stuff – the Reflectix, that is! ;->

  • Kathy Haslam
    Posted at 19 April 2014 Reply

    It really is the best! Use ours to house drinks as a supplement to the refrig. Love that the water from melted ice doesn’t leak out.

  • Margaret Steele
    Posted at 19 April 2014 Reply

    I have a small rolling cooler that works well for shopping and converts to lunch box with ice, drinks and sandwiches on the flying bridge to cut down on the climbing while underway..just tie it down!

  • Becky
    Posted at 16 February 2016 Reply

    We scored big with a rolling cooler some years ago. The handle telescopes down/up, and we take it to distant stores, use it for greens later on a settee, and use it even for hauling dry-goods to and from the boat. I wouldn’t be without one, and it makes a great gift for fellow boaters.

  • Jim Allen
    Posted at 16 February 2016 Reply

    Like mine, but buy the larger one, I didn’t and wish I had

  • Debbie Silck
    Posted at 18 February 2016 Reply

    Do you have to add those ICE blocks inside or not needed ?

    • Carolyn Shearlock
      Posted at 09 May 2017 Reply

      Depends on what you’re carrying, how far and outside temps. When it’s half an hour or less, I figure the food will keep itself cool. But when I’ve been riding for over an hour with the cooler in the roasting trunk of a taxi in 100+ temps, I buy a bag of ice to throw in with the food — the blue ice blocks would work, too.

  • L Shields
    Posted at 09 May 2017 Reply

    We’ve had several, in a similar style, in the past — purchased at the Chicago Boat & RV show, and / or the Strictly Sail Show. Don’t remember the brand / seller, but style is similar to what is pictured. Loved them for the first couple of years, but when they started to deteriorate, they exterior fabric bled — and bled badly. Blue on blue carpet was not bad, but our burgundy one bled pink — and we’d replaced the old blue carpet with one that was more neutral. Has anyone had anything similar happen witht he Polar Bear ones? Before I spend the $$$ on another one …

    • Carolyn Shearlock
      Posted at 09 May 2017 Reply

      I have both a blue one and a smaller red one. The blue one is over five years old and the red one about a year and a half. Neither one have bled.

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