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Coolers for Road Trips

This photo shows a soft sided cooler with a plastic insert, which is ideal for a road trip.

Soft sided coolers with hard inserts are ideal.

If you want to choose the best cooler for the road trip, this short article has some expert tips.

When it comes to food coolers, there a plenty of different styles available. They range from the cheap styrofoam ones all the way up to the luxurious Yeti.

I wouldn’t recommend getting a cheap styrofoam cooler. They can go to the beach and back a few times, but cannot handle the wear and tear of a road trip. Besides, they can smell funky after a few uses, because they are hard to sterilize.

In the middle range there’s all sorts of hard plastic and soft sided coolers. The hard plastic coolers are generally larger and don’t have carrying straps. On the upside, they tend to keep food cold longer and are easier to clean than soft sided coolers.


The soft sided coolers are lightweight and easy to transport. They are usually smaller and can fit into all sorts of nooks and crannies. Most of them are washable inside, but it can be tough to get into the corners, to clean up any kind of spillage, unless they have a plastic insert.

Another option is the 12 volt plugin travel cooler. They come in both hard shell and soft sided models. If you have a 12 volt outlet in the back of your SUV, car or van, it can keep the food cold as you go, without the need for ice packs.

You can also take the electric cooler into your hotel room, if you bought the 120 volt AC adapter. The real advantage is that you don’t have to worry about booking hotels with fridges in them.

On the downside, read the fine print on the 12 volt cooler label. Many of them say they will cool to 17 C degrees (30 F) below ambient temperature. That means if it’s 100 degrees in the desert, your cooler will only cool to 70 degrees, or room temperature. So don’t expect miracles out of these little electric travel coolers.


On the high end are the Yeti line of coolers. These are in a class of their own. They are so strong that they are literally bear proof. They keep food colder than any other cooler on the market. Even their drinking cups are little miracles. If you poor cold water into a Yeti tumbler at bedtime, it’s still cool in the morning. They are not cheap, but they are the best coolers that money can buy.

For staying in hotels, I like medium sized, soft shell coolers with a hard plastic liner inside. They keep the food cold much longer than a plain soft sided cooler. They are also easier to clean, because you can lift the hard liner out and clean it with bleach when you need to.

Some people like to use ice, but it can be messy. I prefer to use reusable gel packs, because they are cheaper in the long run. There’s no water to clean up and they stay frozen longer than ice. Don’t get me wrong though. I love ice if I’m packing something like raw seafood, but for road trips, I’ll stick with the gel packs.

The secret to making the gel packs last longer, is to keep the cooler lids closed. Cover them with a light colored blanket, to reflect direct sunlight off of them. If you do that, and use two gel packs per cooler, they can keep everything cold for up to eight hours.


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