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A Camping, Jeeping, Cooler Guide

Posted in How To on September 1, 2012
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Photographers: JP Staff

We don’t know about you, but we’ve literally got a stack of coolers and we don’t use most of them. Why? Because we are really good at finding things wrong with coolers after we’ve bought them. Let’s face it, as Jeepers and off-road enthusiasts, an ordinary cooler that is good enough for camping or tailgating might not be good enough for our special use. Over the years and miles we have accumulated a list of pet peeves and likes when it comes to coolers, fridges, and insulated bottles. It seems as if every company has its own special tape measures. From things we buy at actual stores to coolers we’ve mail ordered, sometimes they don’t fit in the Jeep where they are supposed to. So, we took an actual tape measure marked in actual inches and actually measured our coolers to give you a real idea of what fits and what hits. And, true to Jp form, we personally took an interest in taking these things for a long test drive. We wheeled with them, camped with them, heck, even slept next to a few of them. We weren’t particularly nice to any of them, either. We decided to take our pile of coolers and our years of experience with them off-road and put the proverbial pen to paper to help you with your next chilling purchase.

The Big Picture
We put together this simple chart both so you can see how we decide what items are important to us in a cooler and how they stack up against one another.

Lids: Whether you are flopping your Jeep or blasting down a washboard road, the lid should stay closed. We’ve lost entire weekends of food not to mention various beverages from lids unintentionally opening.

Abuse: We aren’t going to molly coddle our equipment. It just isn’t how we are built. We want whatever we use to take the same abuse we take and not worry about it. If we haven’t managed to break or damage it, it gets the Jp stamp of approval.

Security: If you leave your Jeep in unattended with thirsty and hungry “friends” will your food be there when you get back? Sometimes locking it up is important too.

Tie down: It’s a fact of Jeeping that you need to tie your stuff down. You can tie anything down if you are motivated enough, but you want to get into coolers as well as have them secure. So, does the design include a way to tie it down and still open the lid?

Food Tray: There is nothing worse after a long day of Jeeping to find your food has fallen off your drinks into the melted water and is now soggy or inedible. Does the cooler include a food tray?

Product Lid Latch Abuse Security Tie Down Food Tray
Coleman Stainless Yes No No No No
Igloo Ice Cube No No No No No
Grizzly Yes Yes Yes Yes No
Yeti Tundra Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Engel Fridge Yes Yes No Yes N/A
ARB Fridge/Freeze (new) Yes Yes No Yes N/A

Over the Counter
If you are like us, you see coolers at stores and often wonder how it might work for you. Every once in a while some new advertising slogan proves to be too much to resist and we take the plunge. Here is how a couple of those chain-store models stack up.

Coleman Stainless Steel Belted
The Coleman Stainless Steel Belted cooler is a throwback to the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, when extremely durable steel coolers were the norm. It features stainless steel hinges, handles, and a latch that are similar to the old-style Coleman coolers. Ours did not include a food tray to keep items dry so we pilfered one from another cooler we had on hand. The Coleman is a great alternative for anyone who is tired of the plastic cooler hinges that break over time. It will keep your stuff cold for several days, even in triple-digit temps. The stainless belt does get beat up a bit and can get dented if you are really rough with it, however few coolers can withstand ratchet-strap tie downs like the Coleman. Ham-fisted users that overfill the cooler and crush the contents with the lid will be rewarded with bent hinges. It doesn’t make the cooler unusable, but it should be avoided to maintain a good seal on the lid. The Coleman Stainless Steel Belted cooler is only available in brushed stainless, but there are painted-steel versions in red and green.

Size (WxDxH, inches): 23.5x16x16.5 (including handles and latches)
Capacity: 54 quarts
Price: $149.99

Pros: • Can keep ice for 3-4 days with regular openings in 80-90-degree temps
• You can tie it down tight
• Solid steel handles, hinges, and latch

• 54 quarts seems kinda small
• Abuse will bend hinges
• No food tray

Contact: Coleman

Igloo Ice Cube The Igloo Ice Cube was the first cooler we had with a hinge that didn’t rip, and its thickness told us it would outperform all the coolers that came before. It has kept ice for four days with temps in the mid-90s while sitting in the sun. Then it kept our food and the melted ice cold enough for another two days that we weren’t concerned about spoilage. We’ve used this cooler for about six years over numerous camping and wheeling trips, and it is still very serviceable. The wheels don’t roll as freely as they once did and are showing their mileage, and the extendable handle is sticky thanks to a healthy diet of dirt.

Size (WxDxH, inches): 20x19x24
Capacity: 70 quarts
Price: $64.99

• Keeps ice cold for a long time
• Wheels make moving easy
• Thick lid resists heat transfer

• Can’t sit on lid and no latch on lid
• Can’t handle lots of dirt
• Weird shape doesn’t lend itself well to small Jeeps

Contact: Igloo

They’re soft-sided coolers designed to fit the space behind the back seat of a YJ, TJ, or JK Wrangler. The 56-quart Coolers are essentially two 28-quart Coolers sewn together and will fill the entire cargo area. The 28-quart Coolers are (obviously) half as wide. We’ve been using them for camping, Jeeping, boating, and just plain day-tripping. They feature nice external zippered pockets, mesh bungee straps for holding jackets or whatever on top, a removable inner liner, and a very handy nylon bag. Our buddy who runs one calls it the water maker. Admittedly, they don’t seem to keep ice as long as a hard-shell cooler. But for us, we’ve really come to appreciate their Jeep-specific sizing. On a hot day in a boat or Jeep without A/C, they’ll keep ice for the better part of a day. However, we mostly use them to keep dry goods like snacks or sandwiches cool and chuck the drinks into a hard-sided cooler if we’re out for more than 12-24 hours.

Size (WxDxH, inches): 28-quart: 16x7x15 56-quart: 33x7x15
Capacity: 28 quarts; 56 quarts
Price: $39.95 (28-quart); $59.95 (56-quart)

• Perfect size for Jeep use
• Surprisingly versatile and handy
• Extras like mesh webbing, pockets nice extras

• Don’t keep cool as long as hard-sided cooler
• Can’t stack heavy stuff on top
• 56-quart model can a bit unwieldy

Contact: JP Cooler

Rotomolding is not by any means new. You’ve seen plastic kayaks for years. However, we only recently got turned on to rotomolded coolers. Regular coolers are basically two thin plastic pieces glued together over the insulation and can split and often do over time. Rotomolded coolers are much more stout, seal better, and hold ice colder longer. We got a hold of two of the most popular rotomolded coolers for this story: a Grizzly and a Yeti. Both boast that they are bear-resistant, both feature great warrantees, and both of them are hella-strong.

We set them side-by-side on Memorial Day weekend and stocked them both with frosty beverages to see which one would keep the beer colder longer. Over the course of four days the results were inconclusive. The more you open and close a cooler the more heat you let in. It’s impossible to know how many times these were opened over the course of a weekend. One thing is certain: They both outperformed the “regular” coolers by a long shot. Both still had ice left in them where the ice in the regular coolers was all melted by the end of the weekend. Either one of these could be the last cooler you ever buy.

Grizzly coolers are rotomolded right here in the USA and are available in 60-, 150-, and 400-quart capacities. They are built to last with features like a molded-in hinge, heavy-duty rubber latches, and a 1⁄2-inch-thick foam rubber gasket. This thing is beefy. The latches are easily replaceable at home if you ever do manage to destroy one and the cooler is easily tied down using the big, built-in handles. None of those pansy drain plugs here, either. The drain plug on this thing won’t rip, tear off, or get lost. It is 2 inches in diameter so when you do need to drain the cooler it will drain in a big hurry. The coolers are covered by an incredible lifetime warranty against any and all defects in materials and craftsmanship. We went with the 60-quart cooler, which fits easily in any Jeep we have. We put 60 12-ounce cans in it with a 10lb bag of ice and it easily kept them cold for a three-day-weekend despite 85-degree heat and direct sun exposure.

Size (WxDxH, inches): 29x20x20
Capacity: 60 quarts
Price: $330.00

• Keeps ice colder longer than a normal cooler
• Way more abuse-resistant than a normal cooler
• Seal keeps water in cooler, even at crazy angles

• Heavier than a normal cooler (25.9 lbs empty)
• Handles that stick out like big ears can make fitting in some places harder
• No food tray

Contact: Iowa Rotocast Plastics

The Yeti Tundra is a bulletproof rotomolded cooler available in a staggering array of sizes. Although it seems it was designed for boats, it works well in Jeeps too. Molded into the lid are grooves to keep tie-down straps in place. Or, there are neat tie-down slots above the side-mounted handles. The rubber latches seem every bit as sturdy as those found holding many Jeep hoods down but if they ever go bad or get damaged, they appear very difficult to replace. That said, the freezer-style gasket used to seal the cooler doesn’t appear to need the help from the rubber latches when sitting still. It is actually a little tough to break the seal and open the lid if it is dry. Off-road at extreme angles with the latches latched, no water comes out of the cooler. “Yeti” is molded into the underside of the lid and a food basket that fits tight inside is included. Regular ice is at 32 degrees, but dry ice is -109 degrees. Most normal coolers will crack with dry ice, but the Yeti can handle it. We didn’t test it with dry ice, but rather put 30 pounds of regular ice along with all our food and drinks for a weekend campout and despite 90-100 degree temperatures, frequently opening the lid, and using the ice in drinks, we still had ice left after work on Monday. We went with the Yeti 125, which is probably the biggest one that will still fit in the back of a Cherokee; it weighs in at 46.7 lbs empty.

Size (WxDxH, inches): 40x19x20
Capacity: 125 quarts
Price: $499.99

• Lots of available accessories
• Rubber feet help it stay in place on painted surfaces
• Heavy-duty, lid seats two

• Rope handles means it swings a lot when carrying it
• Hard to replace latches in the event they are ever damaged
• Difficult to strap down and still open lid without buying accessories

Contact: YETI Coolers

Hydro Flask
If you are like us, often you will foil-wrap your lunch or dinner and simply toss it on the manifold to cook. On the trips that we do that, we just leave the cooler back in camp. The problem is, we are then drinking warm drinks on the trail. Until now we haven’t found an insulated bottle worth a damn so when we saw the claimed “cold for 24 hours” and “hot for 12 hours” we were quick to call BS.

The flasks are built with two walls of 18/8 stainless steel with a vacuum between them. A vacuum is the absence of anything, even air. Heat and cold needs something to pass through so a vacuum is the best insulator anywhere. We stopped by the booth twice over the course of two days and by the second day we were convinced enough to give them a try.

While nothing can pass through a vacuum, the caps are where loss occurs. The temperature retention claims are based on the narrow mouthed flasks. So, we picked up a narrow-mouth 18oz flask and a wide mouth 64oz growler. We took them out for a few days of wheeling an M-715 in Moab with highs in the 80s and lows in the 40s. One day we put coffee in the 18oz one and learned you have to be careful when drinking from it because even eight hours after getting the coffee at the gas station, it was still hot enough to scald. Overall the narrow-mouth flask easily lived up to the claims and the wide-mouth one came within an hour of doing so. They are available in a much wider selection of capacities, colors, and mouth sizes than just the two we have tested here.

Size (HxDia, inches):91⁄2 x 3 (narrow mouth) 101⁄2 x 5 (wide mouth)
Capacity:18 ounces (narrow mouth) 64 ounces (wide mouth)
Price:$23.99 (narrow mouth) $49.99 (wide mouth)

• Keep drinks cool on the trail (and then some) without cooler hassle
• Can keep narrow-mouth one in cupholders
• No condensation forms on the outside

• 64oz only available in raw stainless and black
• Hydro Flask doesn’t offer sleeves (for protection from metal consoles)
• Burned ourselves on coffee more than 8 hours after pouring it

Contact: Hydro Flask

12-volt Freezer/Fridges
The next step up the economic ladder is a fridge that can run off your Jeep’s battery. Fridges are more expensive to get into initially, but you’ll never need to buy ice again and you will never have to worry about food getting soggy from falling into melted ice water. The compressors are built to run off of 12 volts, but they have an onboard inverter so you can also run them off of regular household AC power.

You might be hesitant to spend so much money on a “fancy cooler” and you might be worried about the complicated mechanical stuff dying a horrible death. Well, when they first came out, we were too. But we’ve been using and abusing these things for years, and we can tell you they are still one of our favorite Jeep accessories.

ARB Freezer/Fridge (original)
The previous generation of ARB Freezer/Fridge was loved by those who owned it and inspired envy in those who didn’t. Long on high points, short on gripes, it proved its durability in a variety of climates all over the world. Here at Jp, we ran a 33-quart model (PN MT35F-AL) in the back of an open-top flattie for about 10 years. With a durable steel case, internal wiring and a motor designed to survive harsh vibration and weather, a waterproof interior (ask us about the time a drunken buddy filled ours with ice thinking the “cooler” was empty), and an efficient cooling system that runs on 120-volt AC or 12- or 24-volt DC current, it served admirably in multi-day trips ranging from 30-degree winter camping to 125-degree summer brain-frying desert wheeling. Our only gripes were the somewhat-weenie stamped-steel latch.

Size (WxDxH, inches): 141⁄8x247⁄8x16
Capacity: 33 quarts
Price: $620 (as of test time in 2003)

• Sturdy and durable down to steel carrying/tie down handles
• Once contents cooled, doesn’t kick on very often
• Relatively compact size for use in variety of Jeep models

• Latch a bit weak
• Top’s removable design needed refinement (sometimes lid would come off when fully opened)
• Somewhat expensive

Contact: ARB USA

ARB Fridge/Freeze (new)
The current generation of ARB fridge/freezers is the most efficient and easiest-to-use yet. The temperature gauge is an easy-to-read-anytime white LED display and there is an interior LED light to see contents at night. There are several sizes available, but we chose the 63-quart version for its low height and impressive capacity. Its footprint is the perfect size for the back of a TJ with the rear seat removed. It has the capability to cool from 50 degrees all the way down to 0 degrees, but we often just set it at 31 degrees and forget it. We have found that anything less than that and it will freeze water or soda solid. It is easy to tie down with the built-in steel handles and ARB offers a slick tie-down kit for it.

We’ve used this latest version for about a year now, and it’s been wheeling in many Jeeps. From the dust of a very dry desert at the end of a long column of Jeeps to being in the back of a Comanche through torrential rain storms to getting air in the back of a Cherokee because we forgot to tie it down, nothing has phased it. It draws 0.87 amps per hour (less than a single headlight) and has an automatic adjustable low-voltage shut-off protection so you will always be able to start your Jeep. Since ours does spend a lot of time in the back of our Jeep trucks, as well as our normal Jeeps, we put it in the Transit bag for further protection.

Size (WxDxH, inches): 19x34x171⁄2
Capacity: 63 quarts
Price: $945.00

Pros: • Keep anything cold, anywhere
• Can stand two-liter soda bottles upright
• Easy to tie down

• Long lid means limited access in Cherokee
• 12-volt plug has a removable tip that comes out in normal 12-volt outlets
• Color might fade with prolonged exposure to sun

Contact: ARB USA

Engel MR040 AC/DC Fridge-Freezer
This thing works almost too well. It might have been too cold (if that can happen) on at least one wheeling trip. Murphy’s Law states that with a freezer fridge with a cord, said cord will get caught on practically any snag imaginable when moving cooler from vehicle to storage or whatever. You can keep ice cream or frozen steaks in this thing while running the Rubicon during the summer no problem. It only draws 0.7amps- 2.5amps (12V DC) depending on the setting you use. So far it’s held up to Feature Editor Simons’ destructive-testing level of care (or utter disregard for), including a thorough dousing in fine dust and sand at TDS and a mild roll-over in Mickey’s Hot Tub in Moab.

Size (WxDxH, inches): 161⁄2x31x183⁄4
Capacity: 40 quarts
Price: $849.00

• Keeps beer…er soda very cool
• Has settings ranging from cool to refrigerate to freezer
• Has frozen bottles of water solid at about half of max setting

• Kind of heavy
• Compressor and mechanics take up space on the inside
• No temperature gauge means you don’t know it’s too cold till it freezes

Contact: Engel USA

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