If you are going wheeling for more than a couple hours, you are going to want to bring some food and drinks with you. And even if you are just planning a short jaunt on the trail, it’s not a bad idea to bring refreshments and snacks. We’ve all had those short trips that turn into long trips when something unexpected happens. We have used just about every type of cooler on the market over the years, and as a result we have formed opinions about what works and what doesn’t. Spoiler: There is not one perfect cooler for every situation.
Just like wheeling rigs, coolers run the gamut from disposable Styrofoam ice chests (the Cherokee on 31s of coolers) to thousand-dollar freezer-fridges (the Hemi-powered JK of coolers). Inexpensive coolers like the Coleman Steel Belted model shown here are perfect for daytrips, when ice retention is not a priority, and in buggies because they are exposed to the elements and may have to double as skidplates. Freezer-fridges like the Dometic CFX28 are better suited for the back of an enclosed SUV or under a camper shell, where they are spared from the elements. They are the best choice for long, unsupported trips. Longtime readers will likely have already noticed that nearly every vehicle on our annual Ultimate Adventures is typically equipped with a freezer-fridge for this exact reason.
In between cheap coolers and electric fridges are high-end coolers like the Yeti Tundra 45 shown here. It is rotomolded and uses thick insulation to keep your food cold for days. The price of these coolers can creep up close to freezer-fridge territory, but they are tough as nails, foolproof, and simple. The Tundra 45 fits perfectly in the Synergy Baja Basket in the back of our pickup, where it is easy to reach but also exposed to the trail and the elements. We use it for weekend trips to the Rubicon, where we want to keep our food from spoiling but also have a fairly high probability of dragging the cooler through Old Sluice.
We didn’t test the $25 coolers you can find in the sporting goods section of Wally World. While they have a place on the trail, they just haven’t proven tough enough to be more than a disposable item. Buy a few of these coolers that crack or have the lid blow off on the road and you realize that you could have saved money and purchased a better cooler that is more durable and will last more than one wheeling trip. Which cooler to buy depends not only on your budget but also on how you intend to mount the ice chest, how you want to use it, and what kind of wheeling you do.
While the exterior dimensions of these three are similar, the interior dimensions are not. The Coleman (left) has the most room, but at the expense of insulating properties. The Dometic (center) has to house the compressor for the fridge, but none of the space is taken up by ice. The Yeti (right) employs extra insulation that reduces the interior volume.
The Coleman steel-belted cooler has a hinged latch and no gasket to seal the lid. Dometic uses a gasket and a convenient latch that automatically closes when the lid is shut and is easy to open with one hand. Yeti uses a thick gasket and two patented T-Rex rubber latches that are easy to open, even with gloves on.
Block ice lasts considerably longer than cubes. Even better is to freeze water bottles for use in your cooler. Bottles keep water from pooling in the cooler and provide drinking water as they melt.
The Coleman steel-belted cooler is huge inside and relatively light, making it perfectly for taking along on the trail. We typically freeze two 1-gallon water bottles to keep all the contents cold. Make certain you buy bottles with threaded lids so they won’t pop off during spirited wheeling.
We don’t recommend bringing glass on the trail due to the high risk of breakage. Stick with aluminum cans and plastic containers for your food and beverages. And always remember to pack out whatever you bring and dispose of it properly.
Oftentimes we will take a small soft-sided cooler with us for refreshments on the trail. This is more convenient than stopping for some water, and also minimizes how often you open your cooler and let all the cold air out.
Yeti recommends pre-chilling the interior of its coolers with a sacrificial bag of ice the day before your trip. This is a useful tip for any traditional cooler if you plan ahead.
If you intend to freeze bottles of water to use in your cooler, pour out a little before putting the bottles in the freezer. As they freeze the water expands and can cause the bottles to split, which kind of defeats the purpose.
The more you fill your cooler, the more efficient it will be. Dry ice can keep items considerably colder than frozen water. Use newspaper (or old issues of 4WOR) to take up extra volume with dry ice, as the melting ice can consume the dry ice.
Freezing your food ahead of time allows it to act as ice and keep your cooler cold. The tradeoff is that if you want to eat that sausage for dinner and it’s still frozen, you can’t.
Dometic offers electric fridges in a variety of sizes. The larger sizes even provide separate cold and frozen compartments just like your fridge at home. They run on 12V power in your vehicle or 110V at home.
Dometic offers an app that allows you to monitor the temperature of your fridge. At first we thought it was excessive, but it’s actually useful if you have the fridge strapped in the back of your vehicle and want to ensure that it’s functioning properly and the cord didn’t come loose.
Dometic offers an insulated cover for its freezer-fridges that is really easy to install and fits like a glove. Not only does it improve the efficiency of the fridge by adding insulation, but it also keeps the exterior from getting scratched and dented on the trail.
The Dometic display makes it easy to set and monitor the temperature of your fridge. A battery monitor is built into the fridge to keep it from draining your battery if the voltage drops too low when the vehicle isn’t running. We’ll take warm drinks over having to walk home.