From an outsider’s point of view, the cooler market seems to be dominated by expensive, high-end products designed for active users like hikers and fisherman, but in reality there are many cheaper options available.
Unfortunately, many of these discount options come along with several downsides. They are manufactured in offshore countries like China, and in case you didn’t already know, the quality control for Chinese manufactured products is very unreliable. This leaves you at risk of buying a poorly constructed cooler that is bound to break.
Luckily for you, we have researched the affordable cooler market in search of the best cheap coolers and have compiled a list of the top 5 best budget coolers.
Best Budget Coolers
Top 5 Best Cheap Ice Chests
Although the majority of coolers in the low-end market are comparable to trash, there are a few models that shine through. We have searched far and wide for these rare jewels which we have compiled into a list of the best affordable coolers.
This list was created with “value for the money” being the number one ranking factor. Because of this, we cannot guarantee that the featured models will be free of defects and of a perfect quality.
Although we recommend these coolers for individuals on a tight budget, we highly encourage you to check out some more premium models. Cheap coolers can be a temporary “fix” for tight situations, but they are not a permanent solution.
Summary of Findings
For those wanting a short answer to a rather subjective question, here is a brief breakdown of what we discovered.
- The best cheap cooler is undoubtedly the Rtic Cooler, but it is more expensive than other models on the list
- Cheap coolers tend to be very similar in terms of performance and cost due to current manufacturing and marketing practices
- Most models come with common issues which we discuss below each review
- Besides the Rtic, the other coolers are pretty similar in terms of performance so you should choose based on sizing and features you prefer like wheels and looks
Best Ice Chest for the Money: Rtic Cooler
The Rtic Cooler is not really a cheap cooler, but it is the most budget-oriented premium cooler available on the market today. It’s consumer base is dominated by individuals looking to buy coolers like the Yeti at a discount.
Sometimes dubbed as the “Yeti killer”, the Rtic’s marketing strategy revolves around advertising the likeness of their cooler with the Yeti at a fraction of the cost. They are both built using the same rotomolded, polyethylene construction and they advertise having the same 10 days of ice retention.
Although this claim is not always true as environment plays a large role in ice longevity, it does seem like consumers see the Rtic as a comparable cooler to the Yeti. Many reviews in fact claim that their Rtic is exactly the same as their Yeti minus the name-tag and tremendous sticker price.
If you’re willing to splurge a little more than the bare minimum on a cooler, we highly recommend you check out the Rtic.
Want to see the premium coolers that the Rtic competes with? Check out our list of the best coolers of 2017.
Best Cooler under $100: Igloo Marine Breeze Roller Cooler
It comes in three sizes (28, 50, 60 Qt) and all of them are aggressively priced. They target the low-end market with an affordable price, but include several premium features that are not found in other cheap coolers.
They include small things like UV protected plastic for better performance in sunlight and a telescoping handle for convenient rolling and transporting between locations. Because the Marine Breeze is meant to be a boat cooler, it features several cup and fishing rod holders as well.
We found that wheeling the cooler around was easy to do even when it was full of food and ice. This makes it suitable for events in remote locations where food must be transported by foot. Liting the cooler is also a possibility with built in handles located on the sides of the body.
The Marine Breeze handled ice retention very well thanks to its insulated body and lid. When full of ice in a hot climate, ice lasted 3 days which is not bad considering its price.
Best Cheap Small Cooler: Rubbermaid Personal Ice Chest
Since it can only hold a dozen soda cans plus ice, this cooler should not be used for trips lasting longer than a day. In fact, forget about using this cooler to store several meals, that’s not what it’s intended for. Instead, It’s the perfect cooler for bringing ice cold drinks to the party or BBQ gathering. Even if you were to leave it, there’s no need to worry about affording another one as they are so inexpensive to replace.
It features a nice little flip up handle for convenient, one-handed transportation, and it’s the perfect accessory piece for a daytrip to the beach.
Considering its ridiculously low price tag, I always have a spare one to use when I don’t want to take out my more expensive models. We recommend everyone to give one a shot.
Coleman Steel Cooler
It weighs in at 19 pounds and features 54 quarts of storage space. This is enough room to hold up to 84 cans plus ice. A similarly sized Yeti cooler can run as much $400!
Even at such a low price, this model contains several great features that are uncommon in the bottom market. It has sturdy, stainless-steel handles that are wrapped in rubber for great gripping, plus it has a stainless steel latch that seals the lid tightly.
This cooler is great for carrying big portions of food to events and gatherings, but we don’t recommend it for trips lasting longer than 2 or 3 days. Although it may be able to hold enough food for an entire week, the limited amount of ice will melt in two or three days – especially under extreme heat.
Best Budget Cooler: Rubbermaid Extreme 5-Day Wheeled Ice Chest
Although it looks terribly bland and generic, this cooler will get the job done at a very low price. It can hold up to 75 Quarts which is enough to store food for week long trips.
The manufacturer claims that this cooler can hold ice for up to 5 days, but we found this claim to be true only under ideal circumstances. When the cooler was a quarter filled with ice and placed under hot conditions, ice lasted roughly 3 and a half days. The 5-day claim was only supported when the cooler was prechilled and filled with much more ice than is reasonable.
Coleman 48 Quart Cooler
The Coleman 48 Quart cooler is the standard for cheap coolers everywhere. It looks very typical like the kind you would find at any backyard party or BBQ, and we’re sure you’ve seen it around before.
Although it has nothing particularly intriguing about the way it looks, there are some hidden features that make this a special cooler.
It’s tall enough to comfortably fit 2-liter bottles on top of ice, and it features an easy to use leakage drain for quick cleanup. Featuring Coleman’s very own “Thermozone” insulation, it can chill large amounts of food for short periods of time.
We recommend this cooler for day long events, but do not believe it is suitable for keeping ice longer than two days max.
Problems with Buying a Cheap Ice Chest
Although their low price can be very enticing, buying a cheap ice chest can come with a whole world of issues. Their low pricing should make it obvious that corners were cut during production. There simply is no other ways to bring cost down besides using cheaper goods and a cheaper manufacturing process. Here’s the problem with that.
- Inferior Materials: The quality of materials is usually the first expense to be cut. While a premium cooler may use multiple layers of pressure-injected, polyethylene insulation, a cheap cooler will only feature a single, thin layer. The hinges and latches will also be noticeably weaker and more flimsy. They can be broken with even the slightest use of force and may need to be replaced constantly. This is the most common complaint made by owners of cheap coolers.
- Poor Manufacturing: Inexpensive coolers feature container bodies that are built by fusing multiple pieces of plastic, and unlike the rotomolded bodies of expensive coolers, this process leaves several seams that leak air. The fusion points between the plastic pieces also compromise the cooler’s structural integrity by creating several stress points that are at a dramatically higher risk of cracking.
- Weak Performance: A cheap cooler will almost never out perform a more expensive model, and that is due to their inferior insulating abilities. Often times their gaskets are weak and create poor seals that allow cold air to escape. Their latches will also clamp with less force because they are usually made of plastic. The bottom line is that they retain ice for much less time than premium models.
- Durability: All together, these individual weak points combine to compromise the cooler’s overall durability. Simply spoken, cheap ice chests are not made to last. They have the tendency to break quickly and easily without warning. At best, the cooler may last a few years of light use with extreme caution – any amount of abuse will inevitably break the cooler.
Although they are less costly up front, cheap coolers may end up being more expensive in the long run. Having to constantly replace them can be extremely frustrating and costly. Many people buy a premium cooler for this exact reason – to have a product that will last longer than just a few seasons.
Reasons to buy a high end cooler instead:
- They can retain ice for more than a week at a time
- Most companies offer free warranty
- Most are extremely rugged and more suitable for heavy-duty use
- Their rotomolded bodies are much less likely to break
- Stronger hinges and latches can take lots of abuse
- Many models are certified to be bear-proof
- They will work just as well in ten years!