Like most reasonable people, I'm concerned about global warming. I haven't seen An Inconvenient Truth yet, but from what I understand, glaciers are melting, ocean levels are rising, and if we don't act quickly, the future of the planet—and the human race—will be in jeopardy. As I see it, we have two options: 1) Embrace alternative sources of energy. 2) Buy an excellent cooler and hope for the best. A fan of the easy way out, I'm choosing No. 2. So which cooler is the coolest? To find out, I performed three tests:
The Beer Test: I took six coolers, filled them with ice and a six-pack of beer (Shiner Bock, my fave), and then left them in my back yard. I checked on them twice a day, first thing in the morning and again in the evening, taking copious notes on the ice levels. If they looked dangerously low, I rescued the beer and drank it immediately. The science of cooler testing demands no less.
The Ice Cream Experiment: Same drill, but with ice cream and Popsicles. This didn't work as well as I had hoped. Coolers cool; they don't freeze. After a day, the ice cream was a soupy mess and the Popsicles had gone soft. But it did give me a chance to test how easy they were to clean.
The Beach Trial: I filled the coolers with ice, turkey sandwiches, and soda, and then left them on my covered porch. From 11 a.m. to sundown, I went out every 20 minutes and opened the coolers for about 30 seconds to simulate how a cooler might be used at the beach. I wore a bathing suit and draped a towel over my shoulders to fully mimic the seaside experience.
Along the way, I gained some general cooler wisdom, which I'll share for your benefit. For starters, pack your cooler in layers: Toss in some ice, your soda, and then some more ice. Put soft food near the top (otherwise, that turkey sandwich will get crushed) or pack it in Tupperware. And, perhaps most important, fill your cooler entirely: Ice in a half-filled cooler melts much more quickly.
I tested coolers that a family of three or four might take to the beach, steering clear of those mini lunch-size coolers and those coolers big enough for a deer carcass. Some of the coolers, assuming they're not opened often, will keep ice cold for days—perfect for that long weekend camping trip you were planning.
Chill Factor (10 points): More points for coolers that stay cool longer. I took special care to ensure each received equal amounts of sunlight and shade. I kept a log of the ice levels, backing up my handwritten documentation with photographs. (A neighbor witnessed my photography and asked me what I was doing. "I'm taking pictures of ice," I said matter-of-factly. "Ah," he replied.)
Ease of Use (10 points): Look, coolers aren't very complicated. You put stuff in that you want to stay cold. They should be easy to lug around, easy to clean, and generally problem-free. The coolers I tested could all handle at least four six-packs of soda. Because they're simple products (or should be), I have zero patience for minor flaws. Is that too harsh? Maybe, but that's how I roll.
Here are the results, from melted to ice-cold:
Thermos Classic Soft Cooler, $17.99 On the upside, the Thermos is easy to store and comes with a handy shoulder strap. On the downside, it doesn't keep things cool as long as you might hope. Which, for a cooler, is a pretty big flaw.
In fairness to the Thermos, the tag says it's good for 18 hours and that's how long it lasted (though the melting had definitely begun—about a third of the ice was already gone). And it boasts a Velcro "quick access panel," which is convenient for car use. For a picnic in the park, the Thermos might suit your needs fine. It didn't pass the beach test, however: After about four hours, I had nothing but cold water. And a nasty-smelling turkey sandwich.
One last beef: It claims to be 100 percent leak-proof, but the zippered lid has no seal. Consequently, if it tips to one side, any water inside spills out (I know; I tried it). So how is that 100 percent leak-proof? Answer: It's not.
Chill Factor: 2
Ease of Use: 6
Total: 8 (out of 20 possible)
Rubbermaid Endurance Cooler, $42.99 I'm torn on this one. It performed excellently, staying very cool for two full days. By day three, my beer was still reasonably chilled. Not bad at all. But the Rubbermaid has one enormous, crucial, deal-breaking drawback: The lid. You can't open it. Well, you can, but it's a struggle, because there's no place to grip. I thought there was some trick to it, but it's just terribly designed. It will annoy you every single time you try to open it. It will make you curse loudly and creatively. It will slightly but noticeably lessen the pleasure of being alive.
Chill Factor: 7
Ease of Use: 3
Igloo Cool Fusion, $54.99 Nice wheels, a retractable handle, side mesh pockets that could accommodate a sandwich or a bottle opener, cup holders in the lid—this is one pimped-out cooler. But despite all these extras, it does only a so-so job. Most of the ice melted after 36 hours. (After two days, it was totally melted.) Also, someone at Igloo forgot to stick a drain on this baby. (They must have been too busy coming up with silly stuff I don't need—side mesh pockets, anyone?) And, not to pile on, but you can't sit on the lid. I know this because it says so in all caps right on the top. When camping or tailgating, the extra seat created by the cooler is a fringe benefit, no?
Chill Factor: 5
Ease of Use: 6
Polar Bear Soft Side Cooler, $49.95 While it couldn't compete with its hard-sided brethren, the Polar Bear outlasted the Thermos by a full day. It has a removable lining, making it easy to clean. It rolls up, so it's compact for travel. One thoughtful feature: It features a bottle opener attached to the lid—now you won't have to go hunting for one! Or accuse your wife of losing it! (Hypothetically speaking, of course.) The model I tested was bright red, but the Polar Bear is also available in camouflage. Perfect for the drunken hunter on your shopping list.
Chill Factor: 4
Ease of Use: 8
Coleman Steel Cooler, $99.99 Everyone loves this cooler. And by "everyone," I mean the people who have visited my back yard recently. It has a pleasing, old-fashioned design. The steel exterior makes it seem considerably classier than your average plastic cooler. It has a metal latch that is more for show than security—you can pop it open without unlocking it. But it stays closed fairly well, so I won't count that against it. Most important, the beer stayed cold a full three days. If you can get past the price, this is a great cooler, second only to …
Chill Factor: 8
Ease of Use: 10
Coleman Ultimate Xtreme, $49.99 How extreme, you ask, is the Ultimate Xtreme? So extreme they disregarded the normal rules of spelling! The Ultimate Xtreme says it will stay cool for six days. In my test, it was more like four. But if you kept it in the shade, I bet it would make the full six. Even so, four is pretty damn good. The model I tested had sturdy wheels and a big handle. Unlike a certain other cooler I could name (Igloo), you can sit on the lid without fear of breaking it. Unlike another cooler I could name (Rubbermaid), the lid is easy to open. It's less sexy than the steel-sided and harder to store than the Polar Bear, but it stays cool for a long, long time. And in these increasingly warm times, isn't that what matters?
Chill Factor: 10
Ease of Use: 10