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You'd be right to think an ice chest has no place next to your bug-out bag. You'd be right to say that dragging a cooler over the scattered rubble of your last-known address would end in frustration and futility. You'd also be correct that there's nothing in your emergency plans requiring you to schlep 40 pounds of ice in a plastic box just to keep something cold for a few extra days. Or would you?
Perhaps the news comes from the ham radio, the weather band, or the internet, but the time to pack up and leave was 40 minutes ago. Your destination? Anywhere outside the city — but where you're going there's no amenities, no power, no utilities, no nothing but uncertain safety. Besides stuffing your truck with as much gear as you can, you break out a cooler or two and gut the fridge of whatever you think you'll need in the next two or three days … maybe more.
Frozen ground beef, sausage links, bags of veggies, and ice. How about drinks? How about medicine that needs to remain cool, like some types of insulin and antibiotics?
Imagine you don't make it to your fully stocked cabin tucked away amongst the trees. Imagine there's too much traffic, or there are road closures, blockades, marauders, or any number of obstacles. What then? Who knows how long you'll be delayed. Are you prepared for it? Perhaps, but wouldn't it be nice to have a mobile cooler full of food and drink at your disposal? It might just save your life.
Depending on the size of your cooler, it'll weigh upward of 60 or 70 pounds when loaded. Do you really want to lug that, even if it's a short distance from your house to the truck or from the truck up a trail to your cabin? Of course not. There's no reason your coolers shouldn't have wheels; even though navigating them over rough terrain can be cumbersome, it still beats breaking your back.
There are three different grades of coolers on the market today:
Traditional Coolers: These are for the masses, the day at the beach, and the tailgating party. They're designed to contain ice, keeping it cold for a couple of days at most. They won't win any design awards, aren't terrifically durable, but are affordable.
High-End Coolers: These hit the market 11 years ago thanks to brothers Roy and Ryan Seiders, creators of the Yeti Tundra, the first money's-no-object cooler. Since then, many other companies have entered the market, offering increased insulation, external latches, pinned hinges, rubber gaskets, and a variety of accessories that increase the cooler's function. An integrated bottle opener? Brilliant.
Powered Coolers: These are basically portable refrigerators tethered to a wall or car socket. They can be pricey because of the electrical components involved, but most are inexpensively produced and lack much insulation because they're constantly cooled.
Which you should get depends solely on your activities. If you're hitting the beach and only want to keep a few drinks and sandwiches cold, an economical cooler is perfect. Or if you don't plan to be far from electricity, such as near your RV, a powered cooler will keep your victuals refreshingly cold in perpetuity. However, if there's a chance your cooler will tumble off of the cargo rack of an ATV while you're tracking a herd of elk deep in the untamed Unita Mountains of Utah, you might be interested in purchasing a high-end cooler offering a greater degree of ruggedness and durability.
Let's get this out of the way right off the bat: Such a diverse range of coolers can't be fairly tested against each other on an apples-to-apples basis, considering that size, insulation thickness, features, capacity, and even color all have some bearing on whether they'll keep their contents cool. Larger coolers take more ice to keep cold, while smaller coolers need less insulation.
Because of these fundamental differences, our test was simple: After acclimating each cooler to the ambient temperature of a warm spring day of 86 degrees F, we filled each one exactly halfway with ice. For example, into the 62-quart Coleman went 31 quarts of ice (by volume) and 25 quarts of ice were dumped into the 50-quart Rubbermaid. Nestled snuggly in the very center of each cooler was a 12-ounce glass bottle of beer with the hopes of chilled reward at the conclusion of our test.
Then we waited 48 hours. The high temperature over the course of the test steadily climbed to 92 degrees when we reopened the coolers.
First, the important part: Much to our delight, all of the beers were a crisp 35 to 38 degrees F. Once the single beer reached the approximate temperature of the ice surrounding it over the course of the test, all that affected the ice then was the temperature of the insulated walls. When we opened the coolers, there was a moat of water around the perimeter of the cooler, surrounding an ice island in which perched the beer. Removing the ice, we measured the water and calculated a percentage of how much ice had been lost from the original amount (list in order of largest loss to least):
Percentage of Ice Lost By Volume
Rubbermaid Extreme (25 quarts of ice): 32
Koolatron Kargo (16 quarts of ice): 30.3
Igloo Max (26 quarts of ice): 28.84
Knox Electric (24 quarts of ice): 28.12
Canyon Cooler Mule (16 quarts of ice): 25.78
Pelican (22 quarts of ice): 23.33
RovR RollR 80 (40 quarts of ice): 21.25
Coleman (31 quarts of ice): 20.16
The results were surprising and perhaps a little upsetting to a couple of the more popular brands on the market, Rubbermaid and Igloo. Both suffered as much ice loss as did the two electric-powered coolers (neither of which are really designed to hold ice, so we never expected them to perform very well in this test). Over the course of 48 hours, sitting in 90-degree temperature, the worst of the lot, the 50-quart Rubbermaid cooler, lost 32 percent of its ice, while the best performer, the larger 62-quart Coleman, only lost 20.16 percent of its ice.
However, look at this in relation to how much food a particular cooler can hold, how much ice can be placed in it, how expensive that ice is, and how much ice melted. You may be comfortable accepting a larger percentage of ice loss to water if the cooler fits your needs well. And the enormous 80-quart RovR lost just 21.25 percent of its ice, while still holding the contents of the Mule and Koolatron combined.
Of course, the real test is how each one measures up against reality — full of food, being jostled around in a truck, boat, or RV, sitting in the blazing sun, being opened and closed (or left open), and being pulled along a rocky trail. Cooler performance cannot be accurately tested under specific conditions, as there are too many variables. A cooler advertised to keep ice frozen for five days (e.g. Rubbermaid and Coleman) likely won't under real-world situations.
Though it's difficult to justify a rolling cooler for every conceivable situation, and it's questionable whether a cooler of any kind has an esteemed place in your top-tier bug-out gear, it's impossible to argue the finer points of fresh food, potent medicine, and better tasting drinks.
Though the Canyon Cooler Mule is too small to be used for anything more than fulfilling the needs of a single person, we're naming it the Best Bug-Out Pick for just that reason: it's compact, takes up less space, and performed well in our challenge.
Not only does Igloo's MaxCold Quantum sound like a sci-fi movie, but its package size, wheel clearance, tie-down points, and robust telescoping handle means it's a quality cooler that'll serve well without breaking the bank. So, it wins our Best Value award.
Our overall Top Pick prize goes to the Pelican for its over-the-top ruggedness, well-integrated amenities, capacity, and engineering. The handle design is superior to all the others, tilting with little effort and placing the weight of the cooler as far back as possible while offering a stout thick grip that won't tire your hand. Most importantly, this is one cooler that can take a beating and keep its cool.
Your mileage may vary, but at the end of the day, you want a cooler that'll function properly for your personal needs and fit within your budget; as when buying a Cadillac, you still want funds leftover to fill the tank. The only thing more depressing than an empty cooler is a hot one.