In our testing we did not set out to prove or disprove these manufacturer claims because, really, there is no reason to. Most of these claims come with fine print that just doesn't translate to real-world use. For example, most of these claims come with the stipulation that the slow to warm melt water is never drained. This will certainly keep things colder, but also means your bacon could get soggy. Many of these claims also require that the lid only be opened minimally. This requires the sort of strict planning and scheduling that just isn't conducive to big adventurous days outside. After a long, hot hike try telling your friend they can't grab a beer because the cooler can't be opened until dinner time. We doubt that will end well. So we didn't design our tests to mimic the cushy conditions of the manufacturer claim fine print, we designed them to mimic what we feel is realistic use and abuse.
Now we know there are people out there who know the 4 laws of thermodynamics by heart, will pre chill their cooler in a freezer, load it up with dry ice, and see if they can still have some edible ice cream left on day 14 of a rafting trip. We didn't design our tests for those people (since they've probably already designed and run their own tests). We designed our tests for what we feel are the majority of people out there; someone who goes on a few long weekend camping trips a year, occasionally at the spur of the moment without much pre planning, may do a few more extended trips as well, and doesn't want cooler tending to be a major camp chore.
Obviously the most important aspect of performance is keeping things cold, so we focused our testing on insulation capacity. In order to make this a fair test we had to choose models of a similar size. We opted for models in the 70 quart range as they are the most versatile, easily handling family camping trips, extended trips for a couple, or a day's worth of drinks for a large group at the beach. We also ran a 20qt version of the Yeti Tundra 65 through our battery of tests, in order to get a sense of how size impacts insulation performance.
We also considered other less obvious but still important facets of cooler use. Some of the high-end models we looked at list for north of $400. You'll want to make sure a purchase of that magnitude will last more than a season, so we tested durability. Carrying 70 quarts of food, drink, and ice can feel like running a marathon while breathing through a straw, so our testers also scrutinized portability. It should be easy to load, drain, and open and close a cooler, making it especially frustrating when one of those tasks proves to be difficult. To save you those frustrations we tested ease of use. Finally, some models come with snazzy features, so we included that in our testing as well.
We did two rounds of insulation testing, because we didn't feel that just one was rigorous enough.
For each round we looked at two metrics; ice retention and safe food storage temperatures. The FDA mandates that perishable food must be stored at 40˚F or below. Most people will store their food on top of the ice rather than mixed in amongst the cubes. This is great as it keeps all that precious meat, cheese, and produce nice and dry, but it will naturally be a bit warmer than the ice bath down at the bottom. To ensure this reality was accurately represented in our testing we whipped up some thermometer sandwiches. We placed temperature sensors in between two slices of bread, put the bread in tupperware containers, and then sat the tupperware on top of the ice in each cooler. This temperature sensor trojan horse ensured we were taking temperature readings from right where some perishable meat and cheese would be stored. These sensors took a temperature reading every 30 minutes throughout our tests.
Testing ice retention was a simpler matter, we just checked if there was ice left at the end of each day. Also, since cans and bottles can be stored in with the ice without fear of soakage, we assumed that ice retention would directly correlate to how long each model could keep beverages cold. We tested this assumption using Coors Cold Activated Cans, which have mountains that turn from white to blue when the beer inside is cold. We placed one in each model we tested and monitored when the mountains turned from blue back to white. While Coors is tight lipped about the exact temperature at which this happens, they did let slip that it is just above 40˚F. All the cans in our tests stayed blue until after all the ice had melted. So we feel safe in saying that ice retention is a direct indicator of how long each model will serve up frosty beverages.
For our first round of insulation testing we put a sacrificial 20lb bag of cubed ice into each cooler for a few days in order to precool them. We figured this minimal precooling didn't require too much effort and is something most people wouldn't mind doing. Before our test began we ditched the half melted precooling ice and replaced it with a fresh 20lb bag of cubed ice and a 10lb block of ice. This mix of cubed and block ice provides a good mix of chilling ability and longevity, and is what many campers are moving towards. We then put all the coolers in a room with blacked out windows (to avoid uneven sun) and let them run until the last one ran out of ice. During the testing we opened all the lids for 7 minutes at 8am and again for another 7 minutes at 4pm. This was done in order to simulate opening the cooler during breakfast and dinner prep. We also drained all of the meltwater each day at 4pm. At the end of this round of testing the best performing model (the ORCA 58 Quart) had retained ice for an impressive 10 days. However, when we extracted the data from our temperature sensors we found the the room temperature had ranged from 55˚F to 65˚F. While this test gave us a great idea of each model's relative insulation performance, we felt the room temperature didn't represent the summer camping trips many people buy coolers for. So, being perfectionists, we decided to run the whole thing again.
In our second round of testing we ditched the precooling phase. We felt this would make the test harder, and would tailor to those adventurous souls who, after far too many hours sitting at a desk, decide at 3pm on Friday that they're going camping that weekend. We also rearranged all the coolers into a semicircle so that we could place a space heater equidistant from all of them. We're sure that these plastic campers, huddled around their electric campfire, told some ghost stories when we weren't looking. We then ran an identical test, with the same amount of ice, lid opening, and draining, the big difference being that we cranked up the space heater from 8am to 4:30pm every day. The room temperature readings from this test were a much better representation of summer camping, and these are the results that we reference in the rest of this review. The ORCA still came out on top, but its ice retention was reduced from 10 to 7 days.
We put the same amount of ice into each cooler, regardless of size. This left the larger 100+ quart coolers at a disadvantage, as they had more air space to keep cool. We thus gave them a slight bump up in the final insulation score as a handicap.
Adding New Coolers
When we add a new cooler to the review, we run into a problem. We can't exactly recreate teh atmospheric conditions of our original insulation test. To get around this we use the exact YETI Tundra 65 that we used ion our original test as a control cooler, and run it along side any new coolers we are adding to the review. That way we can get a direct performance comparison, and can even adjust its performance metrics to be comparable with all of our other coolers (when we adjust one of these measurements, we always make a note of it).
Many of the high-end models we tested feature videos on their websites of lions and bears (no tigers yet) trying and failing to get into the cooler. We don't have an office bear, yet, so we had to settle for human testers. We inspected all the hinges, latches, and gaskets, pushed on lids and walls, and yanked on handles to assess how durable they felt. To top it off we filled each model with water, sloshed them around, and observed if any water leaked out of the lids. This allowed us to assess the structural integrity of the lid seals. We also scoured the internet to find user reviews that complained of durability issues, effectively increasing the sample size of units we considered in our durability testing.
Ease of Use
For coolers ease of use essentially boils down to draining and opening/closing the lid. To test draining we filled each model with water, propped them on a block to tilt them at a slight angle, and opened the drains (and created some geology textbook worthy sand ravines in the process). This gave us an idea of how messy draining would be under the heaviest load possible. It also showed us how much each model would drain with just a slight tilt. We also observed less intense draining scenarios as we drained the melt water from each model during each day of our insulation test.
Throughout our testing we were constantly undoing latches, opening lids, closing lids, and securing latches. This allowed all of our testers to thoroughly assess how easy each model was to open and close.
We also looked at how easy each model was to pack. Since all the models were roughly the same size and shape we didn't find any real differences, so we removed this test from our scoring. However, we made sure to take photos so you could see how each model looks all loaded up for a well-fed adventure.
When fully loaded, models of the size we tested can feel like anvils, so portability can be a differentiating factor. We found that portability is largely determined by handle design and comfort.
We Tested portability by, again, filling each model with water to make it as heavy as possible (we brought water in buckets from the lake and then dumped it all back into the lake to be as sustainable as possible). Our testers then performed a 2 person carry on each model, carrying them across a sandy beach about 30 yards, up an approximately 15 foot sand hill, and heaved them up onto a standard park bench, all so you can know which handles won't hurt your hands.
There are a variety of extra features available on different models. We tallied and scored all of the features that came standard on the models we tested. We gave lower scores to features we thought were nice to have but didn't add too much, like cupholders, and scored features we thought really improved user experience more highly, like drain plug leashes.