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8 best cool boxes that are perfect for picnics and barbecues in the sun

Elevate your alfresco get-togethers this summer with these chilled out containers

Ben Olsen
Friday 23 April 2021 14:58
<p>We’ve found the perfect cooler for every occasion</p>

We’ve found the perfect cooler for every occasion

With staycations likely to remain firm fixtures in our calendars over the coming months, now is the perfect time to take stock of your outdoor gear in anticipation of domestic escapes.

Whether you’re heading to the UK’s beaches, mountains, forests or even just the park around the corner, a high-performance cool box is a worthy investment, ensuring beers are sufficiently frosty, barbecue goods are safely chilled and any picnic is suitably elevated. 

A passive cool box – i.e. one that uses ice or freeze blocks rather than an electric input – provides a sturdy step up from a cool bag. Relying on insulation and build quality to keep the cold in and warmth out, they’re often relatively simple in form, but a full spectrum of high-tech materials and additional functionality mean there are options to suit all budgets.

“With passive cool boxes there certainly is a degree of you get what you pay for,” says Iain Geddes, senior technical advisor at The Camping and Caravanning Club. “They come in a range of materials – some are merely padded bags while, at the premium end of the market, there are products that can keep ice frozen for days, such is the quality of their insulation.” 

He advises weighing up the excursions you’re likely to need a cool box for before making any decision. “If it’s just something to prevent dairy produce spoiling on a short trip then it need not be an expensive box – highly effective insulation can also be quite bulky,” he says.

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To help you make the decision, we’ve tested the following cool boxes by half-filling them with ice, as well as two room-temperature bottles of wine, with contents regularly checked over a period of four days to reflect a weekend’s usage. We also took each box on a local excursion to assess portability and durability, to provide a tried-and-tested list of the best cool boxes on the market right now.

You can trust our independent reviews. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections, which are formed from real-world testing and expert advice. This revenue helps us to fund journalism acrossThe Independent.

Best for:

Family weekends and festivals: Coleman 50QT xtreme wheeled cooler: £79.95, Wowcamping.co.uk

Entry-level chilling: Vango pinnacle 32l: £31.99, Winfieldsoutdoors.co.uk

Chic weekends away: Yeti roadie cooler: £199.99, Yeti.com

Watersport aficionados: Red Original waterproof cooler bag 30l: £179.95, Redoriginal.com

Extended trips and fishing excursions: Icey-tek 40l cube cool box: £159.99, Coolboxesuk.com

Urban picnics: Kelty folding cooler 25l: £68.95, Absolute-snow.co.uk

Family camping holidays: Dometic cool ice CI 42: £229, Dometic.com

Frequent adventurers: Igloo BMX 25 heavy duty 23l: £89.95, Igloocoolers.co.uk

Coleman 50QT xtreme wheeled cooler, 47l

Best for: Family weekends and festivals 

Offering an expansive 47 litre capacity – equally sufficient for a family camping break or a particularly thirsty set of friends – this was one of the largest coolers we tested, filling the boot of a small car. Its sturdy, polyurethane-injected construction provides effective insulation that placed it among our best performing coolers, with the ice packed around its contents remaining largely intact well into the fourth day.

Of equal merit was its highly portable design. Its two wheels and telescopic handle are hard-wearing enough to tackle mixed terrain, saving our shoulders as we wheeled it across footpaths and parkland during testing. Other useful touches include a plug in the base to drain ice melt with ease, while a durable hinged lid that boasts four in-built cup holders and can double up as a seat makes it a top pick for festivals.

Vango pinnacle, 32l

Best for: Entry-level chilling

Coming in a rather vivid shade of green, the Vango pinnacle offers plenty of functionality for its low price point, making it an attractive option for those on a budget. A storage capacity of 32l gives sufficient space for up to 46 cans or six two-litre bottles and – even when fully loaded – we found its streamlined shape and soft-grip handle easy to transport.

While it lacks the indestructible feel of some of its pricier, roto-moulded rivals, it’s robust enough to take a few knocks, and its lid can double up as a seat. Its high-density plastic walls conceal foam insulation that, during testing, saw the ice melt by the end of day two, but contents remain chilled into day three – not bad for a low-cost box. The lid’s locking mechanism also means contents are childproof, although – lacking clear latches – it was also slightly tricky to open. But we found the small storage hatch on the lid an ingenious place to stash a bottle opener.

Yeti roadie cooler

Best for: Chic weekends away

One of the most recognised brands on the market, Yeti cool boxes are also among the priciest but, as we discovered, you certainly get bang for your buck. More compact than its larger tundra cousin, the Yeti roadie has room for a party-starting 24 cans, while its height can also accommodate upright bottles of wine or two-litre bottles of soda.

Sleek good looks are accompanied by a roto-moulded design – a process resulting in a one-piece construction that feels nigh-on indestructible. Within these sturdy walls sits a thick layer of pressure-injected foam insulation, which explains why its contents remained ice cool, with minimal melt during testing. Yet its chunky build also means the roadie is quite a weighty cooler. Lacking wheels, you’re limited to using its single handle that – although highly durable – made it slightly awkward to carry over distance. That minor niggle aside, the roadie is a super-stylish companion with serious cooling credentials.

Red Original waterproof cooler bag, 30l

Best for: Watersport aficionados

We loved the portability of this cooler – a padded shoulder strap and rounded shape that keeps it snug to the body made it easy to lug over distance, helped by the fact that a semi-rigid construction means it’s relatively lightweight. Yet this didn’t overly compromise the cooling performance, and its ThermalLock insulation stood up well during testing, keeping contents cool for three full days, although the ice didn’t survive quite as long as some of its rigid rivals. Other design touches we loved were a range of straps and handles for different carrying positions, two webbed pockets and multiple points for tying the bag down – whether that’s to your car, board or boat.

As you might expect from one of the UK’s leading water sports brands, this smart cooler is tailor-made for life on the water. Thanks to its corrosion-proof zips and welded seams, this durable bag is fully waterproof and floats, too – perfect for being thrown onto paddle boards or into canoes – although we were equally taken by its potential for land-locked escapes.

Icey-tek cube cool box, 40l

Best for: Extended trips and fishing excursions 

Coming in a zingy range of colourways (our hot pink model proving popular in the park during testing) the Icey-Tek cube might lack the aesthetic sophistication of some of its design-led rivals, but its chilling performance proved exemplary. Thanks to foam insulation injected into every side, ice remained intact well into the fourth day of testing, putting this among our top performers.

Clocking in at 10 kilograms – and the fact that it lacks wheels – means it’s not the easiest to transport and therefore may not suit travellers wishing to remain nimble, but what it lacks in mobility it makes up in durability and functions. The lid is tough enough to be stackers, sat or stood upon (additional cushions are available), which – alongside its hard-wearing rubber seal and latches, two drainage plugs, lockable padlock point and ergonomically lipped handles – makes this a no-nonsense option that has proved popular among the marine industry for decades, and for good reason.

Kelty folding cooler, 25l

Best for: Urban picnics

For those short of space, this collapsable cool box, which clocks in at a midweight price point, is a worthy contender. An internal foam support provides insulation and adds rigidity to the external bag, and although we found assembly slightly fiddly (Velcro strips attach the waterproof inner to outer), it packs down small enough to be stashed away in a cupboard.

It’s a handsome piece of kit, with pop-colour accents on a grey-green bag, as well as rugged details including chunky zips and cup-holder slots in the lid. A 25l capacity means there’s plenty of space for park picnics or beach barbecues, and its lightweight form and carry handle made it easy to transport. Ice remained intact long into the second day of testing, making it a great option for an overnighter, although, for lengthier outings, it might be worth investing in a rigid box.

Dometic cool ice CI 42

Best for: Family camping holidays

This low-slung trunk is a firm favourite within the fishing fraternity and it’s easy to see why. Although the priciest of all the cool boxes we tested, its build quality and chilling performance were second-to-none. It sailed through our test, with ice still largely frozen after four days thanks to its fridge-grade insulation and labyrinth seal, designed to keep cold air in and heat out.

It feels like a serious piece of kit, thanks to its tough, roto-moulded plastic walls and robust dropdown handles that feel like they’re built to withstand years of use. It’s sturdy enough to be stacked in storage or used as a seat, and thanks to its drain plug and stainless steel fixings it was also easy to clean down. While it might be overkill for beach trips or picnics, this cooler is a worthy investment if whole weeks under canvas or on the water are more your speed.

Igloo BMX 25 heavy duty, 23l

Best for: Frequent adventurers

With a history stretching back to 1947, this Texan brand is synonymous with cool boxes across the Atlantic and is making waves over here, too. Looking more like a tradesman’s toolbox than a cooler, the BMX 25 is built to take a battering, with its stainless steel kick plates, sturdy extra-thick walls and multiple tie-down loops making it a great option to tackle the elements.

Despite its chunky form it’s surprisingly portable, with a tough, steel-reinforced handle and slimline width making it easy to shift from place to place. It also delivered on the cooling front, too, with ice remaining intact until day four – long enough to weather a weekend trip. While its macho looks might not appeal to everyone, the BMX will definitely suit the adventurous at heart and anglers alike, with a ruler imprinted into the lid meaning you can measure up your catch with accuracy.

The verdict: Cool boxes

In terms of chilling power, testing showed that – in general – the heftier the box, the better it performed, due to the level of insulation provided. While some of the more expensive options performed marginally better in testing, the Coleman xtreme 50l provided top-tier chilling for up to four days, coupled with easy portability and an attractive price point, which gave it the edge overall.

Despite that, if you’re likely to be heading out for lengthier trips, it’s hard to fault the Dometic cool ice, which – although the most expensive passive cool box of those tested – delivered the cooling performance to justify the price tag, alongside a family-sized capacity and premium construction that feels robust enough to last a lifetime.

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For more alfresco dining essentials, check out our best portable coffee makers for the perfect brew while camping

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