Nothing beats an ice-cold beverage while relaxing on the beach. Nothing is worse than reaching for an icy drink and finding your cans swimming. Coolers are essential for family days on the sand. A good modern cooler will keep food and drinks fresh for days. In addition to beverages, fishermen rely coolers to keep bait fresh, and hopefully the catch of the day. Walk onto any beach or pier in North or South Carolina and you’ll see a plethora of cooler models and sizes. Cooler technology has advanced rapidly in modern years. Top-end hard-sided coolers can keep ice frozen for a week. Soft coolers are easier for one person to carry onto a beach, but can still keep food cool for days. Cooler materials and price points vary wildly, so we put together this guide with our recommendations for your coastal vacation.
We were not provided with free or discounted products to review. These recommendations were not influenced by manufacturers. We did, however, heavily consider customer reviews at retail websites when deciding which products to feature. We like these products, but we took care to make sure other customers agree. Some of the product links include affiliate codes. If a purchase is made, OuterBanks.com is paid a commission for the referral.
Best high-end hard-sided coolers:
We love Yeti as much as anyone, but we’ve been won over by Cabela’s thoughtfulness and performance. Made in the USA, and available in 25, 40, 60, 80 and big 100qt sizes, the Polar Cap Equalizer series matches the insulating capabilities of its competitors. That’s a good start, but using this cooler daily really is a pleasure. We love the molded handles in addition to the (glow in the dark) rope handles. We find ourselves able to carry more weight, more comfortably vs. competing models. Like many top coolers, the Cabelas Polar Cap Equalizer includes a freezer-grade gasket to create an air-tight seal. If you’ve used a cooler with an air-tight seal, you know how difficult they can be to open. Cabela’s smartly included a pressure-release valve. Problem solved. The elevated, non-skid feet help isolate contents from hot surfaces, thereby increasing cooling efficiency. The rubberized T-handles are easy to use, create a tight seal, and double as bottle openers. The leakproof spigot includes a stainless steel lanyard (except the 25qt model). To top it all off, Cabela’s makes a cooler cart specifically for the Polar Cap Equalizer. While the wheels are not wide enough for a loaded cooler on soft sand, they are very handy everywhere else. The spring-loaded retaining pins secure your (40qt, 60qt, or 80qt) Polar Cap Equalizer, and away you go with very little effort. Cabela’s rates these coolers as bear-proof, but no official word about Corolla wild horse or shark-proof at time of writing. As you’d expect of a branded product, Polar Cap Equalizer coolers are only available through Cabela’s.
Yeti built its empire by offering best-of-class products for years. The Yeti Tundra offers 2 inches of polyurethane foam insulation in the walls and lid and a freezer gasket seal. Yeti coolers are extremely durable, and tubs are constructed in one piece utilizing food-grade materials. Yeti also included non-slip rubber feet, recessed leak-proof drain plug, a dry goods rack (great feature!), and a locking top. Heavy-duty T-latches fasten the lid securely closed. Strong rope handles make carrying the Tundra easy, and locking this cooler to a deck or boat is quick with tie-down slots. Finally, boaters will appreciate that the outer dimensions of the various Tundra models match many popular marine coolers, making it easy for you to upgrade your old marine cooler. Yetis are big, heavy, provide top-level performance and are priced accordingly. You can’t go wrong with a Yeti Tundra.
Best affordable hard-sided cooler
You likely remember your parents Coleman cooler. Today’s steel-belted cooler from Coleman is just like the one you remember, but adds modern touches. These coolers offer great retro style in a number of colors. They’ve got space to put 2-liter bottles upright, or hold 85 cans, enough for even the largest family beach outing. With the lid closed, these coolers serve as seats. The leak-resistant drain doesn’t require tipping to drain. The latch and hardware are stainless. Some models come with retro-style bottle openers on the front. Coleman offers a 6 year warranty on the steel belted cooler.
Of course, with a lower price point comes some compromises. Handles are advertised as “comfort”, but we find them to be very basic. While the insulation is good enough to keep drinks cold all day, you’ll need to add ice more frequently than Yeti and Cabela’s models. If you can live with those trade-offs, you’ll have plenty left over for food, drinks or bait. Nevertheless, these are solid coolers from a company with decades of experience. Check out color options and great reviews for the Coleman Steel Belted Cooler.
Best Soft Coolers
Yeti knocked it out of the park with the Hopper. We love the lighter weight (4-6lbs.) and portability with minimal performance loss vs. hard sided coolers. Don’t worry about insulation, the Hopper will keep ice solid for days. It is often easier to sling the hopper over your sholder and keep your hands available for other gear at the beach. The Hopper is leak-proof, and available in 20qt (18 cans), 30qt (24 cans) and 40qt (36 cans) sizes. The outer shell is a tough 840 denier nylon (the same material used on white water rafts) fused with RF welded seams. The large, high-performance hydro-lock zipper creates an air-tight, water-tight seal. Six D-ring tie-down points help anchor the cooler to anything. The bottom is a heavy EVA foam platform which makes the cooler sit upright without propping. Carry straps are reinforced and double-stitched. A side attachment system allows you to add Yeti accessories for your application. Yeti offers a 3 year warranty on the Hopper. Some owners use the Hopper as a dry bag, a camera bag, or a carry-on. We love packing it with drinks, fruit and lunch. Hoppers are available in tan and white.
The RTIC Soft Pack is leakproof, puncture-resistant, and mildew-resistant. Like the Yeti Hopper, it comes in 20qt (20 cans), 30qt (30 cans) and 40qt (40 cans) sizes. It’ll keep ice cold for 4-5 days with thick, closed-cell foam insulation. RTIC’s zippers are waterproof. We prefer the fully-accessable top of the RTIC to the Yeti Hopper. The front pocket is a nice feature, but the only thing we’ve used it for is a bottle opener. Straps are heavy and well made, and we really like the silver color.
A backpack cooler? Yes please! The Polar Bear name is quickly gaining recognition for good reason. This reasonably-priced design hits all the important features. Polar Bear makes 12 can, 24 can, and big 48 can versions, but our personal favorite is the backpack for easy of carry onto the beach. Features include high density open-cell foam insulation that keeps ice cold for up to 3 days in 90 degree heat, genuine YKK #10 zippers, bottle openers, stainless tie downs, and a durable shoulder strap and handle system. Polar Bear coolers are waterproof, and utilize FDA-approved food grade interior liners. Like the RTIC, this top opens wide and access is easy. The exterior is rugged 1000 denier nylon, available in a number of colors. And if you’re into custom, Polar Bear will embroider your logo on the cooler. These coolers come with a limited lifetime warranty. Multiple colors and camo patterns are available. And, Polar Bear makes an upgraded leakproof, sweatproof and waterproof H2O Cooler version with even more insulation!
Coleman continues its legacy of well made, affordable coolers with the 16-can soft cooler with hard liner. It’s hard to beat the value this basic soft cooler offers. The inner hard liner prevents food from being crushed, and is removable for flexibility. An adjustable shoulder strap allows hands-free carrying. The small size and light weight make for an easy haul. There is a front pocket, bungees on the lid and FDA food grade antimicrobial interior liner. Heat welded construction helps prevent liner leaks. This cooler won’t keep food or drinks cold as long as the high-end models listed above, but it’s perfect for a day on the beach, and a great value. More than 1,000 customers agree.
A collapsible cooler at a fantastic price. When taking a road trip to the beach, space in the car is always at a premium. CleverMade solves a problem with their 30 liter insulated cooler tote. This bag collapses down flat for your trip, and quickly expands with enough cold space for a family. CleverMade interiors are leak resistant, and designed to keep ice cold for up to 36 hours. The exteriors feature tough rip-stop fabric. Basic, sturdy handles are stitched all the way down the side for durability. Other features include an integrated bottle opener, front zipper pocket, and multiple fun, beachy color combos. Just like the Coleman, The CleverMade SnapBasket gets great reviews for value and performance.