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
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.
- Polar Bear 24-can soft cooler (18″ x 10″ x 12″)
- 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 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.