There’s nothing quite like a cold beer after a day on the trail. And even if booze isn’t your thing, there is no question that having cold food and beverages will elevate your overlanding experience.
To keep your stuff cold in the backcountry, you’re gonna need a cooler – or a fridge. But for most people looking to explore in their vehicle, a good cooler is all that’s needed to preserve food and drinks cold.
Fortunately, there’s been an explosion in recent years of companies making high-quality coolers designed to meet the requirements of extended backcountry travel and exploration. This is accomplished through a combination of ruggedness and long-term insulating capabilities.
While their price tag can cause sticker shock, these coolers offer many advantages over the typical cooler designed for backyard barbecues, picnics, and sports events (though you can certainly use your mighty overland cooler for those events).
In this guide, I’ll explain some of the key factors in choosing a cooler as well as share some recommendations for some of the best overlanding coolers available.
Best Overland Coolers
Like I said before, there are many coolers on the market nowadays. Here, we’ll present a few that we’ve either used or come highly recommended.
In each case, the manufacturer makes the model in different sizes but we feature the size of cooler that is a good fit for most overlanding situations. When getting an overland cooler, we generally recommend getting one on the larger size so you have the option for using it on longer trips where more food is needed.
If you are only planning on shorter trips, a smaller cooler might work just fine. Conversely, if you’re planning to use a cooler for weeks at a time, a larger model may be warranted – or you might want to consider getting a portable refrigerator.
Below the list of coolers, you’ll find some guidance on how to choose a cooler for overlanding. We also get into the distinction between coolers and portable refrigerators and why you might choose one over the other.
Yeti Tundra 65
|Outside dimensions||17.25 × 16 × 30.6 inches|
|Inside dimensions||10.6 × 11.1 × 23.1 inches|
|Internal volume||65 quarts|
|Empty weight||29 pounds|
|Other sizes||35 quarts, 45 quarts, 75 quarts, 105 quarts|
We’ll start with a cooler from Yeti, an Austin, Texas-based company that was one of the first to popularize thick-walled coolers designed for rugged outdoor adventure. The Yeti Tundra is a sturdy beast of a cooler featuring a rotomolded polyethylene construction. The lid and 3-inch thick walls are insulated with pressure-injected polyurethane foam that allows the cooler to keep ice for 5-7 days, typically.
The lid latches are made from a durable rubber – a departure from some other companies that use hard plastics or aluminum. One nice feature are tie down slots that are molded into the cooler, which makes it easy to secure it in your vehicle or on a rack. These aren’t the cheapest overland coolers out there, but Yeti has a great reputation and the coolers have been battle tested by many outdoors enthusiasts.
The Tundra comes in many sizes, ranging from 45-350 gallons. Visit their site here to see the various sizes as well as a wheeled version of the cooler.
Blue Cooler Ice Vault
|Outside dimensions||18.1 × 18.9 × 27 inches|
|Inside dimensions||12.5 × 13 × 19.2 inches|
|Internal volume||55 quarts|
|Empty weight||28.2 pounds|
|Other sizes||30 quart, 100 quart|
Blue Coolers was started in 2018 by a couple of guys from Salt Lake City, Utah, and offers some of the more affordable overlanding-capable coolers on the market. It’s Ice Vault model is marketed as keeping ice for up to 10 days, which has been confirmed by owners of the coolers. They also make a 5-day version of the cooler, which costs quite a bit less.
These are durable rotomolded coolers that in many ways are similar in construction to Yeti coolers, from their rubber lid latches to their overall look. One nice feature is stainless steel plates added to the front corners for locking the cooler closed. The main distinction between these coolers, from our perspective, is brand and price. You are getting a less well-known and pressure-tested brand, but you’re also getting a solid price discount compared to some of the more premium brands, such as Yeti, Dometic, and Pelican.
The Ice Vault comes in white, blue or gray.
Pelican Elite Cooler
|Outside dimensions||30.00 x 20.30 x 20.40 inches|
|Inside dimensions||17.50 x 11.00 x 13.70 inches|
|Internal volume||50 quarts|
|Empty weight||26.4 pounds|
|Other sizes||30 quart, 100 quart|
Pelican is one of the leaders in making durable, waterproof storage containers. I’ve used Pelican cases for years to protect cameras and other sensitive electronics in the outdoors.
In recent years, Pelican has expanded into manufacturing coolers for recreational and professional uses. Made of rotomolded plastic, Pelican’s Elite series coolers are some of the most durable in their cooler line and on the market. They aren’t the cheapest coolers out there, but you get what you pay for.
One really nice aspect of the Pelican coolers is that they offer a lifetime guarantee, which sets them apart from most other companies.
Choosing an Overlanding Cooler
When choosing a cooler for overlanding or car camping, there are a few factors to consider. Here’s a shortlist of the key things to keep in mind.
Size and Weight
Cargo space is always at a premium when overlanding and car camping, and a cooler can take up quite a bit of space. Generally speaking, you’ll want to get a cooler that is large enough, but not larger than you need to conserve cargo space in your rig. Also, all things being equal, get the lightest cooler you can to save your back from injury when lugging it around.
The internal capacity of rugged coolers designed for overlanding and other outdoor adventures varies considerably, from around 15 quarts up to over 250 quarts (way overkill for most people). For most overlanding enthusiasts, we’d recommend something in the 40 – 100 quart capacity, depending on how many days you plan to travel and your access to fresh ice.
You want your cooler to keep your food cool for as long as possible for a given amount of ice. Unfortunately, there isn’t a standard cooling rating that is shared across all manufacturers, so it can be hard to compare one make and model to another in this regard. Anecdotal evidence from people who have used the coolers is helpful in this regard, and we’ve selected coolers here that are known to keep ice frozen and food cool for long periods of time. Generally speaking, a decent cooler should keep your food cold for around 5-10days.
If you are doing it right, you’ll be putting your overland cooler through its paces. Bouncing around in the back of a vehicle, sitting outside in inclement weather, and being used as a step stool to access the top of your vehicle are all legit abuses for a cooler. Coolers nowadays are typically constructed from rotomolded polypropylene (plastic) so that the body of the cooler is a unified piece, which makes it stronger and less likely to leak. High-use/leverage latches are often made of ABS (a stiffer plastic) or heavy-duty rubber. The insulation material of choice is polyurethane foam. In the recommendations above and below, we’ve selected only coolers that have exemplary reputations for durability.
While we wouldn’t recommend buying a cooler just because it has some trivial addons, sometimes bells and whistles can make the difference if you are having trouble deciding between different brands and models.
For instance, if you are into fishing, a fish ruler imprinted on the top of the cooler might come in handy. Cup holders molded into the top can be nice as well. Make sure you are getting the right size, capacity, and functionality that you need, then see if there are some extra features that set it apart from other similarly capable coolers. One thing that can come in particularly handy are wheels, which can help take some of the load off your arms and backs when moving your cooler around.
There are so many solid coolers on the market nowadays, that it can be difficult to distinguish between them. All else being equal, look for a manufacturer that offers a great warranty. Of the coolers we’ve highlighted, most offer 5-year warranties, while Pelican offers a lifetime warranty, so if something breaks due to normal wear and tear, they’ll replace it with a new one.
Overlanding coolers versus portable fridge freezers
Let’s make sure the distinction between coolers and refrigerators freezers is clear and provide some idea of why you might choose one over the other.
A cooler keeps food and drinks cold by using ice and insulating the inside of the cooler from the outside ambient temperatures. The interior of a portable refrigerator, in contrast, is cooled by a cooling system powered by electricity or gas or a combination of both.
Coolers are simpler, lighter, and generally less expensive than refrigerators, but they aren’t able to keep foods frozen, as some fridges can and they are dependent on ice to keep food cool, so are limited in how long they can keep perishables cool.
If you are just getting into overlanding or just simple car camping, a cooler is probably a good place to start. If you plan on spending extended periods of time living from your vehicle or a camper, you may want to eventually invest in a portable fridge. That said, I know plenty of overlanding enthusiasts who happily use coolers and have no plans to spend money on a fridge.
If you are interested in learning more about fridges, check out our guide to overlanding refrigerators.