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16 best cool bags and ice boxes for picnics and camping

Keep your food and drink colder for longer with these tried and tested options

Zoe Phillimore
Thursday 22 June 2023 17:25 BST
<p>These were taken camping, used in the garden, on picnics and at a festival </p>

These were taken camping, used in the garden, on picnics and at a festival

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Aussies call them Eskies, Kiwis prefer chilly bin, but in good old Blighty we know them as cool boxes. And they’re the best way to keep food and drinks chilled while away from home or even in the garden.

There are two types of cool boxes: passive and active. Passive cool boxes insulate food at the temperature they’re at, so they’re not actively cooling. They also work best when filled with ice packs or ice, which will help keep everything colder.

Active cool boxes, meanwhile, plug in, either to the mains or via a lighter in your car. These will, as the name suggests, actively cool your picnic while plugged in and they’re insulated too. Some even have fans to circulate cool air inside the box. But active cool boxes are heavier and bulkier than the passive option.

Finding the perfect cool box for you needs some pondering. Look at dimensions, capacity and what you want to fit in yours. You might have big Tupperware pots or dishes to fit, or big bottles of drink. Generally speaking cool boxes are measured in litres. An 18l box is going to fit in 28 cans, 30l will fit 50 cans. But the bigger the box, the heavier it’s going to be. If you’re planning on lugging it over sand dunes and across festival campsites, go small.

Whether you fill your box with ice or ice blocks is entirely up to you. But cool boxes work best when they’re full, so pack it high with pre-chilled items (frozen juice boxes are a great shout) and then pack in as much ice or as many ice blocks if you can. If you are committed to using ice, look for a cool box that has a plug in the bottom for easy draining and reloading.

How we tested

We took to the road during a month of testing, on some very hot summer’s days. The cool boxes in this round-up were taken camping, used in the garden, on picnics and at a festival. Our ultimate requirement that we wouldn’t compromise on was that the cool box kept the contents cool. We didn’t want to see a sweaty sandwich or warm beer. Other things we were looking for were value for money, durability, ease of cleaning, portability and versatility. These really are the coolest of the bunch.

The best cool bags and ice boxes for 2023 are:

  • Best ice box overall – Outwell Fulmar deep freeze box: £76, Outwell.com
  • Best ice box for couples – Stanley adventure series 15.1L hard coolerL £99.99, Stanley1913.com
  • Best small cool bag – Thermos eco cool dual lunch kit: £15, Thermos.co.uk
  • Best lightweight ice box – Coleman xtreme cooler box: £75.60, Amazon.co.uk
  • Best cool bag for bottles – CaddyO bottle chiller: £39.99, Cellardine.co.uk

Outwell Fulmar deep freeze box

best cool bags and ice boxes
  • Best: Overall
  • Capacity: 30l
  • Weight: 2.8kg
  • Dimensions: 51.5cm x 36.5cm x 33 cm

Sturdy and robust, this passive cool box feels like it’d last you a lifetime. The clip fastenings ensured the cool air stayed in the box for ages, keeping all our chilled goods nice and cold. We found that because the carry handles are on the side, you cannot do a one-handed carry. This could be a bit annoying if you had lots of picnic kit to lug from the car, but the carry handles are comfy to hold and feel durable even when you’re carrying a full box.

At 2.8kg it’s also lightweight compared to some of the other large-capacity cool boxes on this roundup. The box has been designed in such a way that allows you to carry large bottles upright, which makes it perfect for parties. We liked that it was wide and reasonably shallow, meaning we could see what was lurking at the bottom much more easily. A drain valve means it’s great for filling with ice and keeping it topped up, too.

  1. £76 from Outwell.com
Prices may vary
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Quechua isothermal backpack 20l

2 Quenchua.jpg
  • Best: For hikers
  • Capacity: 20l
  • Weight: Not specified
  • Dimensions: 29cm x 19cm x 42 cm

This is a very comprehensive yet lightweight cool bag. The isothermal feature should keep food cool for seven hours without the need for an ice pack. Obviously you’d need to chill your food first, but this is handy as it means you don’t have to lug heavy ice packs around with you. We loved the mesh pockets inside, which meant our drinks bottles stayed upright and leak-free. There are two zipped pockets too, one of which is in the main compartment. This meant we could keep meat and non-meat items separate. Comfy padded straps, a chest strap and loops for your thumbs make this a very comfy wear, even when fully loaded. A great one for those who like an off-the-beaten-track picnic.

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Yeti roadie 24 cool box

best cool bags and ice boxes
  • Best: For passive cooling
  • Capacity: 24L
  • Weight: 5.8kg
  • Dimensions: 42.2cm x 35.6cm x 44.2cm

We were keen to see if Yeti’s cool box lived up to the hype. These durable boxes are pricey, and we wanted to get a feel for whether they were worth the money or whether it’s just clever branding.

Folks, Yeti has put its money where its mouth is. The Roadie 24, which is the smallest of their cool boxes and comes in an array of colours, kept our drinks chilled for 48 hours. It’s tall enough to stand a bottle of wine in, and you can buy a dry-goods shelf for it, which will keep your sandwiches and salads out of the icy depths if you choose to fill it with ice.

It isn’t light before it’s full, but we found that the carry strap made lugging it a bit easier. But it is designed to be slim enough to fit in the footwell of the backseat of a car. It also has non-slip feet so it won’t slide about in the boot or your boat. We liked that the fastenings were easy to open one handed, and kept the freshness locked inside.

  1. £200 from Yeti.com
Prices may vary
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Joules cool bag bee print

Joules cool bag bee print.jpg
  • Best: For quality
  • Capacity: 20l
  • Weight: 485g
  • Dimensions: 29cm x 19cm x 42 cm

British, outdoorsy and stylish, we feel Joules is very much a brand to get involved with at a picnic – and it certainly didn’t let us down with this bee-print number. The bag has a very decent capacity, and kept our picnics pretty cool with the help of ice packs. Everything screams good quality with this bag – the handles and shoulder strap are soft (no nylon here, thank you very much), and the buckles are sturdy. This bag will go and go, and look very smart while doing so.

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Stanley adventure hard cooler

best cool bags and ice boxes
  • Best: Large-capacity passive box
  • Capacity: 28l
  • Weight: 6.07kg
  • Dimensions: 47.1cm x 39.7cm x 54cm

This is a bit of a beast for a passive box, but provided lots of cooler space for a full weekend of camping. Indeed it can hold up to 40 cans at once, and claims to keep things cool for four days. Certainly after a weekend on the hottest days of summer so far, our drinks were still cold, if not icy.

We liked the fastenings, which locked in cold air – although they’re tricky to get shut again. And we also liked the drainage plug for getting rid of any melted ice. The carry handles are practical and durable, if not the most comfortable to use. Certainly the Stanley Adventure felt built to last, and it comes with a lifetime guarantee. Bring your strongest friends; this cool box is heavy!

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ProCook insulated picnic backpack

6 ProCook.jpg
  • Best: For accessories
  • Capacity: 15l
  • Weight: 1.6kg
  • Dimensions: 28cm x 30xm x 37cm

This cool bag has everything you need to get a classy picnic started. The front pocket includes four sets of cutlery, a bottle opener, wine glasses, four plates and a chopping board. We know what you’re thinking, and no, it’s still pretty lightweight. The main pocket has enough room to keep a picnic for four chilled, and it did keep things pretty cold despite not having the foil-style lining. The navy and striped design means it looks very smart, while padded straps make it fairly comfortable to carry.

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Stanley adventure series 15.1L hard cooler

best cool bags and ice boxes
  • Best: For couples
  • Capactity: 15.1l
  • Weight: 301g
  • Dimensions: 42.5cm x 32.5cm x 28.5cm

This cute little cool box is perfect for two, whether you’re going on romantic picnic dates, or spending the day on the beach. It has an easy-to-carry handle, which locks into place meaning you can hook it over your arm and it won’t swing about. The Stanley 15l can hold 21 cans of beer – cocktails and soft drinks are also valid.

We found when we filled it to the brim it kept our drinks noticeably cool (you will have to pre-chill everything first). Another thing we liked was the bungee fastenings on top – these held our picnic wine glasses in place nicely. There’s also space to stand drinks on the lid.

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Thermos eco cool dual lunch kit

7 Thermos.jpg
  • Best: Small cool bag
  • Capacity: Not specified
  • Weight: 180g
  • Dimensions: 19cm x 12cm x 24cm

Perfect for a solo picnicker, or if you’re taking your packed lunch to the next level, this cool bag is one of the smallest we tried. It has two compartments – a largeish one that has more than enough space for a whole meal if we’re honest and then a bottom compartment, which you could use to stow your ice pack, or just to keep food separate. It’s made from eight recycled PET bottles, and is insulated with foam and wipe-clean fabric inside. We found this bag is great for food on the go, if you have a tribe of snack-crazed kids like us.

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Coleman xtreme cooler box

best cool bags and ice boxes
  • Best: Lightweight cool box
  • Capacity: 26l
  • Weight: 2.2kg
  • Dimensions: 47cm x 31cm x 43cm

Despite this cool box from Coleman being lightweight, it’s surprisingly robust. We made good use out of the lid, which can double as a table with four slots to stow drinks, and it’s been made to use as a seat too. The hinged lid made it easy to flip it open one-handed, too. It doesn’t have any fastenings though, so be sure to store it securely to prevent spillages. The slim profile on it meant we could tuck it in the footwell of the back seat of our car – handy in our over-packed car.

It claims to keep drinks cool for three days. While it didn’t have quite as good insulation as the Yeti (£200, Yeti.com) say, it is a relatively purse-friendly option. The Coleman xtreme feels well made, with a handle that can cope with weighty items in the box and a grip on the underside to make lugging it slightly easier.

  1. £78 from Amazon.co.uk
Prices may vary
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Fortnum & Mason eau de nil

8 Fortnum Mason.jpg
  • Best: Premium cool bag
  • Capacity: Not specified
  • Weight: Not specified
  • Dimensions: 35cm x 37cm x 26cm

In the hallmark duck-egg blue of Fortnum’s comes this very handy holdall. There’s a really good capacity in this cool bag – plenty of space for strawberries, salads, sandwiches and the picnic essential, Pimms. We loved that the lining of this bag has a Fortnum’s print – it’s such a nice touch. On a more practical level, the two internal pockets were useful for keeping food separate and there’s an elastic strap for holding a bottle upright. There’s also one external pocket, which isn’t insulated but handy for corkscrews and that kind of thing.

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Campos cool box

best cool bags and ice boxes
  • Best: Cheap cool box
  • Capacity: 29l
  • Weight: 2.2kg
  • Dimensions: 43cm x 39cm x 29cm

A budget-friendly option, this Campos cool box is ideal for picnics and days on the beach. With a capacity of 29l, you can fit up to 50 cans in this cool box. It’s also tall enough to stand 2l bottles up in. The handle is easy to carry thanks to a slightly wider grip in the middle that fits ergonomically into your hand. We also liked that the handle doubles as a fastening, meaning we could lock the lid shut while transporting and for keeping cool air in more effectively. This doesn’t have the keep-cool might of some of the other cool boxes on this round up, but it’s great for day trips.

  1. £22 from Argos.co.uk
Prices may vary
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Vonshef 18l cooler backpack

9 VonShef backpack.jpg
  • Best: Backpack
  • Capacity: 18l
  • Weight: Not specified
  • Dimensions: 27cm x 38cm x 18cm

This gets a huge two thumbs up from us. It’s got a sensible capacity, so we weren’t tempted to overpack and make it too heavy to carry. The straps are comfortable and actually wick away sweat (gross, but essential on a hot summer’s day), while the main section has an opening that lets you access everything easily, and is lined with heat-radiant foil fabric. This claims to keep everything cool for four hours, but when we chucked in an ice pack it went for a lot longer. The front pocket isn’t insulated, but it’s handy for cutlery and the all-important bottle opener.

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Halfords electric cool box

best cool bags and ice boxes
  • Best: Electric cool box
  • Capacity: 40l
  • Weight: 8.4kg
  • Dimensions: 55cm x 37cm x 43.5cm

If you’re going away for a long period of time, whether you’re camping or driving a long distance, this cool box is going to work well for you. It’s large alright, but it can plug into the mains and into the lighter of a car (it comes with both cables) and actively cools the contents of your box. There’s also an in-built fan to keep circulating air within the box, and a climate-control dial so you can decide how cool you want your box to be.

Inside there’s enough space for 56 cans, and it’s been designed so you can stand three 2l bottles up inside it. We liked that there are two removable dividers in the box, which meant we had flexible space and could keep food and drink separate. Although we wouldn’t want to make a habit of lugging this box around, it does have wheels and a pull-out handle too.

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Life of Riley waxed canvas cool bag

 Life of Riley waxed canvas cool bag
  • Best: For durability
  • Capacity: 20l
  • Weight: 750g
  • Dimensions: 32cm x 20cm x 30cm

This cool bag is really smart. It’s made from wax canvas on the outer, which makes it look very Barbour-esque. It feels incredibly hardwearing and well made and, after looking at the price tag in comparison to some others in this round-up, you would hope so. The leather zip knots and a handle really up the ante on this bag. The heat-radiant material on the side, and insulated walls kept our picnic at a chilled temperature throughout a lengthy afternoon in the park.

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Easy Camp chill cool box

best cool bags and ice boxes
  • Best: Small electric cool box
  • Capacity: 24l
  • Weight: 3.95kg
  • Dimensions: 40cm x 29cm x 43 cm

Perfect for car and campervans, this cool box can run off 12V and 230V, can comes with plugs for both, plus a European plug too – clever stuff. It cools food to about 15C below the outside temperature, and can warm to 50C if you so wish. A switch on the outside lets you choose between “eco” and “max” settings, which we appreciated when we were worried about power. Plus, there’s a fan inside to keep air circulating around your food, so things were kept just so.

We liked that there was a divide included, and two slots to slide it into, so you have flexible space. It’s worth noting the divider doesn’t cover the full depth of the cool box, so we found we have to plan a bit more what we were putting where – but it did mean we could still fit in bulkier items and have the divider up. There are three cup holders in the lid, making it a great table for campervan sundowners.

  1. £76 from Easycamp.com
Prices may vary
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CaddyO bottle chiller

12 CaddyO.jpg
  • Best: For bottles
  • Capacity: Fits 75cl and 1l bottles
  • Weight: Not specified
  • Dimensions: 15cm x 36cm

If you want to cut out the superfluous food and focus solely on the drink, look no further than this handy carrier. Inside is a bottle chiller – pop this in your freezer for four hours and then stick it back in the bag. Then this cool bag will actively chill your wine. We found we needed a lot of real estate in our freezer for the bottle chiller, but aside from that this was brilliant. A sturdy base means that it stays upright if you have an open bottle inside. And the carry handle has a little pocket with a waiter’s friend in it – we liked this touch a lot.

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The verdict: Cool bags and ice boxes

We highly rated the Outwell cool box. It’s well proportioned with lots of space for a large picnic, yet it is lightweight. The box feels completely life-proof in its durability, and we think it offers great value for money. If you’re off on a longer trip, or want beefier cooling facilities, the Halfords cooler is brilliant. For one-handed carry (for the Outwell requires two hands to carry it) the Coleman gets our two thumbs up approval.

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