The 5 Best Coolers for Van Life

by Vera Lawrence | LAST UPDATED May 16, 2019

This article may contain affiliate links. We may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.
Table of Contents
Primary Item (H2)

Today, we're going to talk about keeping food cold and the best coolers for van life. When it comes to keeping food cold in the van, there are essentially three options: fridges, freezers, and coolers.

Of course, within those realms, it goes much deeper. There are gas fridges vs. compression fridges, thermoelectric coolers vs. standard coolers, etc. We could debate the merits for all of these cooling devices, and there are perfect use-cases for each one.

But our personal favorite is the good ol' dry cooler because of the simplicity and general efficiency.

With a traditional cooler, there's no need to mess with propane or power converters, you just fill them with blocks of ice and they're good to go for days or even weeks.

And we're not talking about your grandma's Coleman cooler that comes out on the 4th of July (no offense to Coleman, they make some of the best low-cost camping equipment out there).

Today's coolers are tougher, colder, and a hell of a lot more expensive.

When you're buying a cooler for any long-term, outdoor adventure, the most important factors to keep in mind are:

  • Ice retention - The number one job of a cooler is to keep things cold. Keeping ice frozen for 7 days is pretty standard for most high-end coolers.
  • Durability - Everything needs to be durable when you're living outdoors. Plus, a durable cooler means it can double as a stool or bench when you need it. Look for a bear-cooler if you really want to be safe.
  • Size - When you're living in close quarters, size is everything. With a cooler, you need something that fits nicely in your van, but also holds enough food and ice to last you until your next pitstop. If you're only away from civilization for a few days, something in the 50qt range usually works. But if you're in the wilderness for 7 days or longer, consider something larger.

When you're planning your van build-out, the type and size of your cooler is a very important decision. That's why we created this list of the 5 best coolers for van life.

Every cooler on this list is an honorable addition to any camper van. Whether you're building out a 1987 Westfalia or a brand-new Sprinter van, one of these coolers fits the bill.


RTIC 45

The RTIC 45 keeps ice-cold for up to 10 days, which is plenty of time for almost any adventure. Most reviewers say that 7 days is more realistic in hotter temperatures.

But what we really like about RTIC coolers is the simplicity and durability. This cooler can double as a workbench, a chair, a cutting board, and whatever else you can think of. It's also bear-resistant, which is a major plus if you're parking for the night in bear country.

The cooler itself is about 25 pounds completely empty, and it can store up to 40 pounds of ice or 36 cans. We like the 45qt size because it fits in that not-too-big/not-too-small sweet spot, meaning that it can fit in even the smallest vans, but it still can hold enough food and ice to last a couple of people several days.

It's also available in a 65qt size if you need additional storage. Or you can go even bigger, all the way up to 145qts, but we don't think that's really practical for most #vanlife applications.


YETI Tundra 45

YETI is definitely the most trendy cooler brand out there (I can't believe that's even real), which can lead to premium prices. But the quality of the Tundra 45 is self-evident. Plus, it comes in a wide variety of colors so you can match your van's interior aesthetic, which is paramount for many Instagrammers out there.

The YETI 45 can hold 28 cans or 34 pounds of ice, and you can always upgrade to the 65qt version for longer excursions. They even make a 350qt version, but that's more designed for month-long stays in the wilderness, long days out on the ocean, or the biggest tailgates in the state.

Outside of the storage capacity and minor cosmetic changes, there are very few differences between the YETI and the RTIC. Both are extremely durable, both have grippy rubber feet so they won't slide around the van, and both of them keep ice frozen for about a week.


Pelican Elite 50

Product Preview

Pelican elite 50 cooler for van life

Features

  • Bear Proof
  • Lifetime Warranty
  • Keeps Ice Frozen for 48 Hours
  • Built-in Cup Houlders

Our Rating

The Pelican Elite 50 cooler features "extreme ice retention," but we haven't done a real-world review to see if that makes it any better than the others on the list.

The integrated cupholders and bottle opener make the Pelican stand out on this list. But personally, the cupholders are not a positive feature for us as we prefer a flat, multi-purpose surface. But if you plan to do a lot of drinking around a fire, the Elite 50 could be the perfect cooler for you.

A few reviewers have commented that the Pelican can leak, which could lead to a disaster if gone unnoticed. And even though the Pelican features a lifetime warranty, we've heard some purchasers have not had much luck redeeming that warranty.


Canyon Coolers Outfitter Series 55

One of the reasons we love Canyon Cooler's Outfitter Series 55 is that it is relatively lightweight. The 55qt model weighs about the same as RTIC's 45 qt model. That means more mobility and more storage space.

The lighter weight does come at a cost. The Outfitter Series 55 features 3 to 7 to days of ice retention, which puts it on the lower side compared to the other high-performing coolers on this list, but that's still plenty of time for many van dwellers.

This cooler is bear-resistant and comes with a lifetime warranty.

If we were staying in colder temperatures, this would probably be the top pick. But if you're venturing out in the heat of the summer, opt for something with a little bit more insulation.


Engel 50 Deep Blue Hard Cooler

The final cooler to make our list is the Engel 50 Deep Blue Hard Cooler. We're more familiar with Engel's 12V freezers, but we're still very impressed with their dry coolers as well.

This cooler is waterproof up to a depth of 3 feet, which is great to know when you're trapped inside your van during a rainstorm and have to move your cooler outside to make more room for your wet dog.

Just because they are the final cooler on our list does not mean they are the worst. In fact, there are no real winners here because all of these qualities are extremely high-quality and built to last.


Tips to Make Ice Last Longer in a Cooler

The most obvious downside of a cooler compared to a gas or electric-powered freezer is that ice will eventually melt. All of the coolers listed above can store ice for days on end, but there are limitations.

Fortunately, there are some things that you can do to prolong the lifespan of your ice.

"Pre-Cool" your cooler.

If you can, the day before your excursion, place a bag of ice in your cooler to bring down the internal temperature before you load it fully. We like to use some two liters filled with frozen water that we can take out before our journey and reuse later.

Only open the cooler when necessary.

Every time you open your cooler, you're letting our precious cool air. Limit how often you open your cooler by planning ahead and grabbing everything you need to prepare a meal at once. And if you're grabbing a beer for your self, grab one for your friend while you're at it, they probably need a fresh one too.

Don't leave the cooler open longer than necessary.

Just like the previous tip, this one is obvious. When you're done grabbing something out of the cooler, close it ASAP.

Use high-quality block ice.

According to Canyon Coolers, "Block ice will last much longer than cube ice... Buy ice from a commercial supplier (ice from your freezer or an ice machine is not hard frozen and will not last as long and is not as cold).

We've personally tested this and can say it is 100% true. Using small ice cubes is great when filling extra space in your cooler, but large blocks of ice will last much longer after a week on the road.

Buyers Guide

Let’s walk you through some of the key points to consider when choosing which cooler van to buy when traveling in your van!

Type Of Cooler

There are several different types of coolers you could consider. For example, there are thermoelectric coolers, standard coolers, and dry coolers. For more information, check out this Wikipedia link.

Advantages Of Dry Coolers

As you may have gathered from the coolers that made our shortlist, we favor good old-fashioned dry coolers over the other types.

This is primarily because they are the simplest type of cooler on the market. All you have to do is pack it with ice and the integrated insulation maintains the cool temperature provided by the ice, which serves to keep your food and drinks cold.

The other clear advantage of dry coolers is that there’s no maintenance to worry about since there aren’t any fancy parts that will need to be replaced over time.

They’re also portable, so you can take them to the beach with you. 

Hard Vs Soft Coolers

The outer part of the cooler can be made out of all manner of different materials. You can get soft materials, such as canvas, cotton, neoprene, nylon, polyester, polypropylene, styrofoam, and vinyl. Or you can get coolers made with harder materials such as hard plastic or metal.

We favor hard coolers because these will ensure that your sandwiches etc. won’t ever get squashed. Moreover, a cooler that’s constructed from hard materials can double as a seat or as a table to rest things on.

Dimensions And Capacity

This is an extremely important factor when dealing with a limited amount of space.

Fitting It In Your Van

Most vans don’t have a whole lot of room, so you have to ensure that your cooler is small enough to fit in the available space. This means that you should decide where you want to store it, and measure that area to compare with the dimensions of the cooler you’re looking at.

We neglected to mention the precise dimensions in some of our reviews, but you can find them by clicking on the links provided, which will take you to the product page.

Having Enough Room To Accommodate All Your Food And Drinks

On the flip side, however, you don’t want your cooler to be too small. If it’s too small, it won’t be able to accommodate everything you want to keep in it, including both all of your chilled foods and all of your various beverage refreshments.

The more of you there are, the bigger the cooler you will need. And, the longer the stints you have in the van before you make another pit stop to buy more groceries, again, the bigger the cooler you will need.

Dry Cooler Sizes and Finding The Sweet Spot

Dry coolers can come in a wide range of sizes. They can be as small as 13 quarts or as large as a whopping 110 quarts or more.

We would argue that the sweet spot between compact dimensions and large capacity comes in at about 45 quarts. It’s not too big, and it’s not too small.

Ice Retention

The next thing to consider is just how well the insulation within the cooler can perform. The general idea is that the insulation is so effective and efficient that it works to prevent the ice from melting for days, possibly even weeks at a time.

This is particularly important if you’re out of town or on the road for several days at a time before you have the chance to stop at a store to get more ice.

This is quite an important spec to consider, and something you should definitely check before you buy. Some coolers will only retain ice for a maximum of 48 hours, but others can retain the ice for up to a maximum of 10 days.

However, coolers don’t always retain the ice for their maximum retention time if the cooler is kept in particularly hot conditions.

Portability

Is your cooler going to stay in the van for the most part or are you going to be taking it out and about with you?

Handle/s

Once you’ve parked up your van, you may want to take your cooler outside, so you can enjoy your snacks and drinks al fresco. But to do so, you’ll have to carry the cooler from the van and take it outside.

So to that end, we recommend that you invest in a cooler that’s portable and easy to carry with a large handle.

Relatively Lightweight

You may also want to consider a cooler that’s on wheels. Or one that’s relatively lightweight. You can find out the weight of each of the coolers we have reviewed by clicking on the link provided, which will take you to the product page.

Waterproof

And on the subject of taking your cooler outside, it would also be helpful if your cooler can stand up to the elements, so that if it starts to rain, you don’t have to lug the cooler back in a hurry.

Warranty

A lengthy manufacturer warranty on a product is generally a good sign of the product’s quality. Moreover, it's reassurance that if something does go wrong, you're backed up, and may even be able to request a replacement free of charge.

Additional Functions

You know what? Hard dry coolers can also have a lot of possibly unintended uses beyond keeping your food and drinks cool. They can double as a seat, or as a table, or even as a food prep area.

Brand

You know, there’s something very reassuring about buying from a good, well established brand. Big brands, like the Yeti brand for example, have a reputation to live up to, and can’t afford to sell inferior quality products.

Value For Money

You may have noticed that we didn’t include any prices in our reviews. That’s in case the prices change. But it’s important to note at this point that coolers can really vary in price, according to such factors as the type, the brand, and the size.

For these reasons, we strongly recommend that you make a point of checking prices as you go along, so you can learn what features your money buys you, so you can make a good, well-informed decision about how much your budget should be.

Vera Lawrence
Vera is a part-time van lifer after spending nearly four years in her 1990 Ford E350 (named Fred). She currently lives in Utah and takes extended weekend trips into the desert with her two dogs. She is an ice cream fanatic and avid runner.
OptOutLiving is an online destination for alternative lifestyle inspiration, advice and information. Our goal is to help people design a life that optimizes their time and happiness.
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram