Anyone that’s spent even a moderate amount of time in the outdoors during the year’s warmer months no doubt is well aware of just how essential a cooler for practically any activity that requires being off-grid for more than a few hours. Whether preserving and storing perishable foods on weekend overnighters or just keeping a case of beer nice and frosty, coolers allow you to bring one of the ultimate comforts of home practically anywhere, lending themselves equally well to tailgating, days at the beach, picnics, or cookouts as they do camping, off-roading or fishing.
Today’s latest crop of coolers has benefitted from decades of advancements, and now offers a wide range of hard and soft-construction items largely characterized by their immense durability, lack of weight, and utterly outstanding thermal retention properties. Distinguishing modern coolers from their predecessors, this aforementioned trio of traits is primarily owed to the use of some cutting-edge materials and construction techniques that afford incredible performance but tend to do so at fairly exorbitant costs. If you do your research, however, you’ll find there that is a small handful of thoroughly high-end coolers that can be had for less than a Benjamin — and that’s the segment we’ll be exploring today in this guide to the best coolers for under $100.
Quality Cooler Characteristics
The Factors To Consider When Buying A Sub-$100 Cooler
Shopping around for a sub-$100 cooler isn’t all that different from researching any other type of cooler purchase, though there are a few supplementary areas that you should take into consideration. Below, we’ll briefly touch on the most pivotal areas to factor in when shopping for an outdoor cooler, along with some of the finer points to think about when browsing for sub-$100 items.
Cooler Type: One of the first things to consider when buying any cooler is your intended use (or uses), as this will help you determine which type of cooler will be most conducive to the application(s) you have in mind. If you plan on driving to most of your destinations — or only trekking a short distance from the car — then you’ll likely want to look at hard-sided coolers, though if you require a more mobile means of refrigeration then a soft-sided item will probably serve you best. There are also sling-style and backpack coolers that offer even more mobility as well as hybrid, exoskeletoned hard-sided soft-coolers that often offer the best of both worlds.
Size & Volume: The appropriate size and volume of your cooler will also largely be determined by your intended use in terms of how many people you plan on serving/feeding, and how long you plan on remaining off-grid. Even some of the coolers available for under $100 offer some pretty generously real-estate, though it is worth noting that looking for a smaller size is often one of the first — and best ways — of saving money when buying a cooler. Likewise, it’s also worth touching on the fact that it’s crucial to consider both a cooler’s internal and external dimensions, as some coolers are able to afford remarkable thermal retention properties while utilizing ultra-thin and highly efficient shells and insulations.
Weight & Mobility: A cooler’s overall mobility is only partially determined by its weight and dimensions. Just as important are factors such as whether a cooler has carrying straps, a grab handle, or wheels — all of which tremendously up a cooler’s mobility. Looking at a cooler’s weight should also give you a decent idea of how heavy it will be to carry, though it’s also crucial to factor in the weight of your intended cargo. As an example, just a single six-pack of cans of beer will add approximately 4.75lbs to the weight of the cooler, and that’s before factoring in ice or cooling packs.
Construction & Durability: Coolers have come a long way since the lunch boxes we took to school and drank Gatorade from at little league as kids. Not only are today’s coolers wildly impressive in terms of thermal retention abilities, but they’re also markedly more rugged and hardwearing than cooler’s from decades’ past, with ample abrasion-resistance sitting at the bottom of the cooler-durability spectrum, and full-on crushproof (and damn-near bulletproof) items sitting at the top. Because these coolers need to withstand the rigors and abuses, temperatures, and conditions of off-grid exploration, their overall durability is another pivotal area to take into account before pulling the trigger on your purchase.
Hardware & Components: Modern outdoor coolers are far more than just a case/shell and a lid. On top of some coolers being able to double as dry boxes, the lion’s share of today’s coolers come equipped with features and amenities that add functionality, performance, or convenience. This includes built-in thermometers, bottle-openers, waterproof zippers, MOLLE webbing, and release valves, just to name a few.
Thermal Retention Abilities: Considering that a cooler’s job is to keep its contents at low temperatures in order to preserve perishable items or keep food or drinks at an ideal serving temp, its ability to ward off external heat is of utmost importance and should be one of the first elements to consider when shopping. This area largely boils down to the type of insulation used, though the rest of the construction and the seal and closure configuration also play notable roles. To get a sense of a particular offering’s cooling capabilities, cooler manufacturers will typically advertise how long a given model will keep ice from for — a metric that at this point in time is more often than not measured in days rather than mere hours. Comparing these figures should help give you a sense of where a cooler stands in relation to others in terms of performance and thermal retention abilities.
Necessary Sacrifices: High-quality coolers are seldom cheap, and cheap coolers are just as seldom high-quality. In order to get your hands on a more-than-decent cooler without spending an arm and a leg, there are a few areas that you may want to consider compromising on. In addition to potentially opting for a smaller size or volume, you can also look for coolers that are devoid of fancy features such as release valves, integrated thermometers, name-brand insulations, propriety locking, and closure mechanisms, and the like. And while opting for a cooler from a proven, industry-leading brand like YETI or RTIC will almost always guarantee top-notch quality and performance, you are admittedly paying a premium for the brand name. Alternatively, you can always opt for a cooler that boasts the same type of hardwearing and advanced construction techniques and materials as the big-name brands in the space, but is made by a lesser-known, often foreign-owned and operated brand, many of which are now producing some immensely high-quality coolers.
Economical Off-Grid Iceboxes
The Best Coolers You Can Buy For Under $100
Now that you’ve gotten a decent sense of what areas to think about and how to make the most of your dollar when shopping in this space, let’s dive into our picks for the eight finest coolers that money can buy for under $100.
YETI Daytrip Lunch Bag
A modernized reinvented take on a classic lunchbox, this personal-sized YETI cooler is crafted from a rugged TPU-laminated 840D nylon that’s been paired with the brand’s COLDCELL FLEX closed-cell foam insulation. Offered in a variety of colors, the cooler is closed using YETI’s THERMO SNAP magnetic closure supplemented via an aluminum hook buckle with an adjustable webbing grid system. YETI also makes a similarly-sized Daytrip Lunch Box with a zipper closure that’s available for the same price.
Outer Construction: TPU-Laminated 840D Nylon
Insulation: Proprietary Closed-Cell Foam
Closure: Folding Magnetic & Adjustable Hook Buckle System
Volume: Approximately 5.87-Quarts
REYLEO Camping Cooler
The REYLEO Camping Cooler is nothing if not a bargain, offering top-shelf quality at accessible prices. Weighing just under 17lbs, this 21-quart cooler features rotomolded construction backed by polyurethane foam insulation, a freezer-quality gasket, and robust latching closure system, and offers 72-hour ice retention capabilities, the ability to accommodate 30x 12oz canned cocktails, beers, beverages, and a whopping 700lb load capacity. Giving you even more bang for your buck are non-skid feet, a drain plug that doubles as a pressure-relief valve, and a built-in bottle opener, cup holder, and 16″ fishing ruler.
Outer Construction: Rotomolded Polyethylene
Insulation: Polyurethane Foam
Closure: Latching System
Engel 30QT Drybox Cooler
Built around a nonabsorbent, injection-molded polypropylene copolymer shell that’s insulated with high-grade molded polystyrene foam, this cooler boasts an airtight EVA gasket seal sitting in a recessed housing and integrated ABS plastic self-stopping hinges and carry handles, is made with stainless steel construction screws throughout, and is sold with an included accessory tray and a supplementary carrying strap. Best of all, this item can serve double duty, being able to also act as a live-bait dry box. Backed by a half-decade warranty, this cooler is also manufactured in eight different color options.
Outer Construction: Injection-Molded Polypropylene Copolymer
Insulation: Polystyrene Foam
Closure: ABS Latching Self-Stopping Hinge System
Stanley Adventure Easy Carry Outdoor Cooler
With a now 108-year history, the Stanley name is synonymous with producing top-notch outdoor gear using premium materials and hardwearing designs, and the company’s Adventure Easy Carry Outdoor Cooler is no exception. Offering space for 21x 12oz cans while weighing just 6.6lbs, this cooler’s double-wall foam insulation setup and double-hinge closure — which is helped along by a leak-resistant gasket — afford it 36-hours of ice retention. In addition to being protected by a generous lifetime warranty, this cooler also features an adjustable bungee system for accommodating other small items and pieces of gear.
Outer Construction: Polypropylene
Closure: Double ABS Hinge System
LERPIN Outdoor 25 QT Cooler
In recent years, brands like Kizer have been steadily altering our perceptions of Chinese-made products, utilizing premium materials and manufacturing in more cost-efficient regions to deliver top-notch yet affordable EDC knives. And LERPIN has done the same thing with its coolers, in this case bestowing this 25-quart item with rotomolded composite construction with integrated molded-in handles and built-in tie-downs. Other highlights on this hardwearing cooler include a built-in pressure-release valve and analog thermometer gauge, a swiveling steel carrying handle, a lockable stainless steel hasp plate that doubles as a bottle-opener, T-shaped latches, and a freezer-grade, 360-degree seal.
Outer Construction: Rotomolded Composite
Insulation: Polyurethane Foam
Closure: T-Shaped Latch System
Igloo 90QT ECOCOOL Roller Cooler
Igloo is no stranger to envelope-pushing, sustainable takes on modern coolers, though the Texas-based company’s latest eco-focused items take this concept to new heights with a line of hard coolers that are made in America using a proprietary resin compound dubbed “ECOCOOL” that’s derived from recycled milk jugs and yogurt cups. This patented external construction is joined by Igloo’s MaxCold foam-insulated lid and body and THERMECOOL foam insulation which together, allow for a full five days (or 120 hours) of ice retention. Brimming with tie-down points and riding on a set of oversized off-road wheels, the cooler also features a molded fishing ruler, self-draining cup holders, a threaded drain plug, and hybrid latches on stainless steel hinges.
Outer Construction: Recycled Resin Compound
Insulation: Proprietary Ultratherm Foam
Closure: Hybrid Latch System
RTIC 30-Can Soft Pack
Pronounced “Artic,” RTIC is a name that needs to introduction in the outdoor gear space, standing as one of the two most respected brands in the business. As such, practically everything RTIC makes is of the top-notch variety, including its entry-level Soft Pack Cooler. Produced in eight color options and four sizes, this legitimately bear-resistant soft cooler offers room for 30x 12oz cans — plus the necessary ice to keep them nice and frosty — and an unparalleled 10 days (or 240 hours) of ice retention. Your $100 also gets you waterproof zippers, a mildew-resistant, antimicrobial liner, up to 3” of commercial-grade closed-cell foam, heavy-duty rubber T-latches, RTIC’s Rapid V-Drain draining system, and “No-Fail” hinges, freezer-style gasket, non-slip feet, integrated locking system, molded tie-down slots, and side handles, and heavy-duty marine-grade rope handles with textured grips.
Outer Construction: Injection-Molded Construction With Heavy-Duty Nylon Shell
Insulation: Commercial Grade Closed Cell Foam
Closure: Heavy-Duty Rubber T-Latches
Pelican 14QT Personal Cooler
Though Pelican is probably best-known for its ultra-durable hard gear cases, the Southern California company is no less adept at producing equally top-notch rugged coolers, as evidenced by its 14-quart personal cooler. Unlike Pelicans coolers measuring 70-quarts or larger — which are made using rotomolded construction — the company’s smaller coolers are crafted using an injection-molded process. Despite this, they are still immensely hardwearing and pack an enormous amount of functionality, including a built-in dry box and integrated magnetic bottle opener and cup-holders. This item is also available in two different color options, and Pelican stands behind it with a three-year warranty.
Outer Construction: Injection-Molded Plastic
Closure: Press-N-Pull Dual-Latch Hinge System
The 12 Best Coolers
Want to check out a list of the outright finest outdoor iceboxes on the market without any financial restraints? Then be sure to head over to our guide to the best coolers for a dozen of the best slings, cooler-packs, lunch boxes, and hard coolers.
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