The 10 Best Small Coolers for Everything From Picnics to Road Trips
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The right small cooler can make a big difference.
Whether it's a picnic, tailgate, or simply a long car ride, a cooler is an excellent idea — you can keep snacks, drinks, and other perishables cold until you need them. When a family-sized ice chest is too much and an insulated lunch bag isn’t enough, a small cooler can be just right. Small coolers come in a variety of sizes and materials, from soft-sided totes to durable, bear-proof trunks. Most of these coolers range from around 11 quarts to 24 quarts, big enough to hold at least a dozen soft drink cans plus ice. Drawing on insights from our testing lab as well as our knowledge of the market, we rounded up the best small coolers and compared their features, capacities, and insulation performance to determine their placement on this list.
Pelican 14-Quart Personal Cooler
Pros: It’s made of thick, commercial-grade polyurethane and can be locked with a padlock when needed.
Cons: It’s really only meant for one person, so if you need more space you’ll likely have to size up.
When it comes to keeping food and drinks cool as well as secured, this 14-quart cooler from Pelican is a top-of-the-line choice. Made of thick, commercial-grade polyurethane, it’s designed for daily use (even in rugged conditions like hiking, kayaking, or fishing). It features a dry compartment on the lid to hold utensils, napkins, or other non-perishable goods, and an inner tray that holds items away from the ice to keep them cool but dry. A gasket lid helps keep cool air in and keeps items cold for up to three days. It can also be secured with a padlock, which essentially makes the unit bear-proof — a must if you’re using it for camping.
Price at time of publish: $119
Capacity: 14 quarts
Weight: 8.3 pounds
Dimensions: 18 x 11.5 x 13 inches
Coleman Chiller 16-Quart Cooler
Pros: This cooler is easy to clean and can carry a fair amount of food or drink without becoming too heavy.
Cons: The lid doesn’t latch as securely or hold cold as well as more expensive models.
This 16-quart cooler by Coleman is a wallet-friendly option that keeps its design simple but functional. It can hold up to 11 drink cans along with eight pounds of ice, keeping items cold throughout the day. The lid flips open for easy access and the large handle makes it pretty easy to maneuver with one hand. Because of its less elaborate construction, this cooler doesn’t have the same cold insulation as some of its pricier competitors, but it does a great job for the price — it would do great for picnics, tailgate parties, or as a work lunchbox.
Price at time of publish: $23
Capacity: 16 quarts
Weight: 3.6 pounds
Dimensions: 12.5 x 9.7 x 8.2 inches
Related:The 8 Best Ice Buckets to Keep Beverages Cold
YETI Hopper Flip 12 Portable Soft Cooler
Pros: This cooler is lightweight and roomy enough for up to a case of drink cans plus ice. It’s also leakproof and resistant to abrasions and punctures.
Cons: It works best with gel-style cold packs, so you’ll have to purchase those separately.
YETI coolers tend to come with a hefty price tag, but they stand out in our tests for quality and performance. This 12-quart cooler is made from high-density fabric that withstands scratches and punctures and is also totally waterproof. The zipper, the same kind on survival suits, offers airtight closures, and our tests have confirmed YETI's claim it's leakproof. Fit up to 12 drink cans (plus ice) and keep everything cool for days, thanks to rubber foam insulation. The shoulder strap makes lugging it around easy, though we think it could benefit from more padding. Finally, the entire unit is easy to clean with mild dish soap and water, so it can handle plenty of outdoor use.
Price at time of publish: $200
Capacity: 12 quarts
Weight: 3.1 pounds
Dimensions: 14 x 14 x 11 inches
Igloo Latitude 16-Quart Rolling Cooler
Pros: This super affordable, lightweight cooler is the perfect size for poolside drinks or to bring to a sporting event.
Cons: You’ll need to prep the cooler by pre-cooling it before filling it with food, drinks, and ice.
Many rolling coolers only come in large sizes, so this 16-quart hard cooler is a rare find. It’s ideal for anyone who wants the maneuverability of a roller with the compact silhouette of a small cooler to hold just enough food and drink for a few people. The telescoping handle tucks away easily when not in use, and the molded side handles make loading or unloading from your trunk easy. One caveat — this type of cooler needs to be prepped before use. The manufacturer recommends bringing it indoors and filling it with ice for a few hours to let the container cool, then adding fresh ice and your perishables for optimum performance.
Price at time of publish: $24
Capacity: 16 quart
Weight: 6.3 pounds
Dimensions: 12 x 14 x 13.5 inches
Hydro Flask Escape Soft Cooler
Pros: This watertight cooler holds about two dozen cans with ice for up to 36 hours. It’s also tall enough to accommodate wine bottles.
Cons: The opening is tight, which can be an obstacle for getting larger items in and out.
A backpack-style cooler lets you keep your hands free and is the ideal vessel to keep drinks cold when trekking out to your favorite chill spot. After testing 23 backpack coolers, we named this sporty, streamlined Hydro Flask model the Best Overall. Designed for durability, it's made out of rugged, waterproof nylon and outfitted with lightweight insulation that keeps items cold for up to 36 hours. In our tests, we found that this backpack resisted damage and leaking even when knocked over, while the contents inside remained intact. Despite the shoulder padding, we found it felt less and less comfortable the longer we wore it. So, comfort is a factor to consider when deciding between a backpack cooler and other styles.
Price at time of publish: $200
Capacity: 24 cans
Weight: 2.6 pounds
Dimensions: 8.5 x 18.5 x 18.1 inches
Hydro Flask 18L Day Escape Tote
Pros: This soft cooler keeps things cold for up to 36 hours. It’s leakproof, waterproof, and comes with a detachable crossbody strap for easier carrying.
Cons: It’s on the pricier side.
A tote bag style cooler is a smart option for picnics and long trips, but it can also be nice to have for transporting perishable items from the grocery store or farmers market. Made from durable 600D polyester, this zipper-top bag from Hydro Flask boasts lightweight insulation that keeps things cold for up to 36 hours. This model holds up to 24 cans (without ice) and also comes in a larger 26-liter size that can hold up to 42 cans (without ice). You can also opt to purchase a dry storage accessory that attaches to the front, perfect for utensils and napkins or anything else that doesn’t need to be kept cold. Both sizes have comfortable shoulder straps and a detachable crossbody strap for hands-free carrying, and thanks to its soft build, it’s incredibly easy to store when it’s not in use.
Price at time of publish: $150
Capacity: 18 liters/19 quarts
Weight: 2.4 pounds
Dimensions: 19 x 14 x 8 inches
Corkcicle EOLA Bucket Cooler
Best for Wine
Pros: Designed specifically for wine, this backpack can fit up to five bottles. Backpack straps let you keep your hands free to carry other essentials.
Cons: The fabric isn't durable compared to other backpack coolers we tested, and it can leak when tipped over.
Not all coolers can accommodate tall wine bottles, so if you’re looking specifically for one that can keep your rosé or Sauvignon Blanc chilled, the Corcksicle is for you. This sleek backpack cooler comes in an array of colors (in either vegan leather or neoprene) and features a sturdy zipper closure. It has a lightweight food-safe liner that helps keep the cooler ice cold and can act as an ice bucket for you to keep your beverages at the perfect temperature all day long. There’s also a handy zippered accessory pocket for you to stash a wine key. With a smaller capacity, we found it comfortable to wear and easy to pick up. We wish the material held up better, as dropping the bag from a table a few times scuffed it. On the upside, the contents were not damaged.
Price at time of publish: $160
Capacity: 12 cans or 5 wine bottles
Weight: 3 pounds
Dimensions: 14 x 11 x 8.5 inches
YETI Roadie 24 Hard Cooler
Best for Road Trips
Pros: This ultra-premium cooler fits comfortably behind the driver or passenger seat and can be accessed with just one hand.
Cons: It isn’t leakproof, so you need to keep the cooler upright at all times. It is also heavy to carry with the shoulder strap for extended periods.
Once again, YETI gets high marks for performance — this time, the road trip-friendly Roadie 24 cooler (the updated version of the Roadie 20). The cooler can be tucked behind the driver or passenger seat for easy access. It’s got the same high-quality build we expect from this brand, with thick walls and rugged latch closures that can be opened with one hand. It’s tall enough to accommodate most wine bottles and two-liter sodas, and it can fit at least 24 soft drink cans plus ice. It’s also sturdy enough to use as a seat, which can be useful for tailgates and barbecues. Use the built-in carrying strap for hands-free transport. One thing to note about this cooler: it’s not entirely leakproof, so you’ll likely want to use gel freezer packs instead of traditional ice to avoid spillage.
Price at time of publish: $250
Capacity: 24 cans plus ice
Weight: 13.1 pounds
Dimensions: 16.5 x 14.5 x 17.5 inches
Igloo Tagalong Too 11-Quart Cooler
Best for the Beach
Pros: Bright, playful colors make this a fun addition to your beach gear. It’s sealed well and keeps things cold for up to two days.
Cons: The strap isn’t the best quality for the long haul.
When hauling food and drinks to the beach, you want a lightweight cooler that is easy to clean — exactly what you can expect from the Igloo Tagalong Too. This 11-quart model can hold up to 14 cans and comes equipped with an adjustable carrying strap you can use on the shoulder or across the body. The tough plastic body provides enough insulation to keep contents cold for up to two days, and the side-locking lid is sealed with a gasket to protect against spills and leaks. The cooler is easy to clean with mild dish soap and water and comes in a variety of fun colors.
Price at time of publish: $60
Capacity: 11 quarts
Weight: 4.1 pounds
Dimensions: 13.07 x 9.33 x 13.07 inches
RTIC 20-Quart Cooler
Best for Camping
Pros: The super rugged exterior makes this ideal for camping. It’s a less expensive yet quality alternative to YETI or Pelican.
Cons: It’s not officially certified as bear-proof by the IGBC.
For those who love camping in the great outdoors, this high-end cooler from RTIC is a fantastic, less expensive alternative to a YETI or Pelican cooler designed for rugged use. Made from rotationally molded plastic, the thick walls ensure contents stay cold for up to 10 days. The container and locking system are bear-resistant — though not officially certified as bear-proof by the IGBC, you can add a padlock to the corners to keep the container secured. This cooler holds up to 24 cans plus ice and would be a valuable addition to your camp gear collection. Other features include a drainage spout and a heavy-duty stainless steel handle that locks upright for easy carrying. You can also use this as a seat, with the option to purchase a seat cushion separately.
Price at time of publish: $180
Capacity: 20 quarts
Weight: 19 pounds
Dimensions: 20 x 15 x 11.75 inches
Factors to Consider
When picking out a cooler, portability is an important factor. Look for easy-to-hold handles that allow you to securely load and unload your cooler. Some coolers have straps that can be worn on the shoulder or crossbody so you can keep your hands free to carry other items. If you don’t want to bear the weight of the cooler on your arms or shoulders, pick a model on wheels for optimum maneuverability.
Hard-sided coolers should be made of durable plastic — thicker, commercial-grade polyurethane will last longer than thin plastic but will be more expensive. Soft-sided coolers should be made of stain-resistant, durable fabric like high-density nylon or neoprene. If your cooler has a zipper closure, look for a version with a high-quality zipper mechanism and well-made seams that can withstand the rigors of constant opening and closing with the added weight of the cooler’s contents.
Insulation will determine how long your cooler actually keeps things cold. Thicker insulation tends to aid in maintaining coolness for up to several days, but you may find these models to be more bulky overall. Conversely, a compact cooler with lots of interior space might have thinner, less efficient insulation (fine if you’re just planning on using a cooler for a few hours).
Frequently Asked Questions
What size are small coolers?
Generally speaking, small coolers run anywhere from 10 to 24 quarts — large enough to hold drinks, food, and ice, but still compact and easily portable.
How do I choose the right size cooler?
Picking a cooler size depends on how much you need to pack. If you’re planning on just carrying lunch to and from a work site, an 11-quart cooler should be totally adequate. If you’re toting food for more than a couple of people, you’ll want to size up, always keeping in mind that you need to leave room for ice or gel freezer packs.
How long does a small cooler stay cold?
This depends on how insulated the cooler is, but you can expect most coolers to stay cold for at least a day. Higher-end models can stay cold for up to three days or longer, depending on the ambient temperature the cooler is kept in.
Bernadette Machard de Gramont is an LA-based freelance writer specializing in food, wine, and kitchen products. After a two-year stint at Williams Sonoma headquarters in San Francisco, she now researches and tests a variety of cookware, bakeware, and wine tools, and interviews field experts for their insight.
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