Best Hard Cooler of 2021
Which cooler is right for you?
Whether you’re headed to the beach or the jobsite, a good cooler can make the experience much better. In the world of hard coolers things have come a long way since the aluminum ice chests I remember from childhood, with their rusty metal hinges and latches that never worked.
You can spend a ton of money on hard coolers costing hundreds of dollars, but do you really need to spend that kind of scratch to get the cooler that’s best for you? Does it make sense to spend twice the money on a cooler that keeps ice for 10 days if you’re only planning on afternoon picnics? I bought five coolers at different price points to help you decide which is best for your needs. I tried to get hard coolers in a similar size, approximately 20-25 quarts which makes them ideal for a small gathering, an especially long day at work, or out for a fishing trip.
The Coolers we will be Comparing:
We’re going to compare performance, features, and value but first let’s introduce the contenders:
- YETI Roadie 24. Probably the best-known brand in the lineup is YETI, and for good reason. For most people YETI was the brand that redefined how good coolers can be. Of course, they also redefined the price with their most expensive models costing over $1,000!
- ORCA 20 Quart. Orca is a very similar appearing option to YETI but made exclusively in the USA. It matches the YETI’s price, but does it match its performance?
- RTIC (Pronounced “Arctic”?) 20 Quart Hard Cooler. Often seen as the budget version of YETI, I’ve always wondered if they perform 90% as well for about 30% less money.
- Reyleo 21 Quart. I’d never heard of this brand before, but I wanted to include a totally off the wall option. At under $100 it sure seems promising with a lot of the features of the more expensive models but at less than half their price.
- IGLOO BMX-25. Igloo is a recognizable name in coolers, and I’ve owned my fair share over the years. It only costs only $75 and boasts a lot of great features.
My prediction before testing was that the YETI would win most tests but be equaled by the Orca, which appeared to be similarly built. Not far behind would be the RTIC making it a high value option with fewer bells and whistles. Finally, the Reyleo and IGLOO would be in last place since they’re the least expensive and often you get what you pay for.
The tests performed on these coolers were meant to show their strengths and expose their weaknesses. Insulating ability, portability, features, price, and warranty are the components which can make all the difference when choosing the cooler which best suits your needs. Is it worth spending $200 on a cooler with a lifetime warranty when it will only be used once or twice per year? Do you need features like a drain plug, or a ruler on the lid? Your needs may vary and it’s worth getting the model which meets your requirements, not just the most expensive model.
Which Cooler Insulates the Best?
For this test I wanted to simulate a typical day at the beach or a picnic on a sunny summer day. The day of the test was clear and reached a high just over 80° Fahrenheit. I placed a 5lb bag of ice inside of each cooler along with a digital thermometer and placed them all in a row at 6:00 a.m. on the sunny side of my house. At peak temperature around 3:00pm I took readings from each cooler one at a time, then brought them inside my garage at approximately 6:00pm. I recorded their internal temperatures a second time and visually checked the amount of ice left in the 5lb bag.
The results were interesting. At mid-day, the YETI recorded the lowest temperature at 43° Fahrenheit while the Reyleo and the IGLOO were highest at 46° each. The difference of 3° isn’t much and it’s unlikely you’ll notice any real difference in use, but something I failed to take into consideration was the color of each cooler. Ideally each would have been the same color to reflect or absorb the same amount of UV light. However, the darker colors of the Reyleo and the Orca might be a contributing factor in the higher temperature readings mid-day. The YETI and the RTIC on the other hand were lighter in color and likely had a lower surface temperature. All this to say that if you want the best performance in the sun, go with lighter colors if you can.
After the sun had begun its descent, I brought all five coolers into my garage and left them there for an hour. When I recorded the temperatures one final time the YETI was still the winner at 32°, besting the second-place holders: ORCA, RTIC, and Reyleo by nearly 10°! They each recorded 41° while the Igloo fell in last place with 42°. The bags of ice confirmed these findings with the YETI clearly having more solid ice left in the 5lb bag, with the others approximately the same amount of solid ice each. Overall, the YETI clearly won this test, recording the lowest internal temperatures each time. Even though it may have been aided by its lighter color, I would have expected equal results from the RTIC being a similar shade and saturation.
Even though the YETI kept the internal temperature best, I was impressed by the performance of the Igloo. Even handicapped by a darker color and no lid gasket, it still was within one degree of the ORCA which costs more than double the price.
Cooler Insulation by the Numbers
- YETI Roadie 24 Temp at peak temp. in sun: 43°
Temp after 12hr in the sun @6:00pm: 32°
- ORCA 20 Quart Temp at peak temp. in sun: 45°
Temp after 12hr in sun @6:00 pm: 41°
- RTIC 20 Quart Temp at peak temp. in sun: 44°
Temp after 12hr in sun @6:00 pm: 41°
- Reyleo 21 Quart Temp at peak temp. in sun: 46°
Temp after 12hr in sun @6:00 pm: 41°
- IGLOO BMX-25 Temp at peak temp. in sun: 46°
Temp after 12hr in the sun @6:00pm: 42°
Note: Coolers were outside from 6 a.m. until 6 p.m. in direct sun on a day that reached 80°F ambient temp. at peak. Thermometer in direct sun measured 119°F at 3:00 p.m.
Which Cooler is Most Portable?
Once you load up your cooler, you’ve got to move it. When you must walk from the parking lot to a beach or picnic table, portability matters! The portability of a cooler is determined by a few factors but most important are weight and handle design.
The lightest of the bunch is the Igloo at 9lbs 10oz thanks in part to its blow-molded construction and thinner wall construction. Igloo also opted to use a plastic handle instead of stainless steel saving a little weight. The lighter weight is noticeable and makes a difference where you can use this cooler. In fact, it’s the only one I’d consider bringing to the jobsite where the walk from your truck to the site can be considerable.
YETI Roadie 24
Next lightest is the YETI coming in at 12lbs 12.5oz and featuring the most unique handle of the bunch with a woven nylon strap on rotating mounting points. It’s an interesting solution and one which carries very well compared to the traditional cooler handle. It also appears to be replaceable if the strap breaks, which is unlikely judging by its thickness and substantial feel. One downside is that it’s tricky to get a two-handed grip unlike the metal, squared handles. The strap can sometimes interfere with the lid however, so just make sure it’s tucked to the front or back before opening the cooler. It also features molded side handles which make grabbing the cooler from the sides easy.
Reyleo 21 Quart
The Reyleo is next heaviest at 13lbs. 8.7oz which is impressive considering that it’s as full featured as the heavier models and even sports a metal bottle opener! The handle is standard fare stainless steel with foam rubber grip, but anyone who’s used something with foam rubber knows that it doesn’t tend to last long. Either it tears or eventually dries out and becomes brittle, so in time you’ll just have a rather thin metal bar to hold on to.
orca 20 Quart
The ORCA tips the scales at 16lbs 9.5oz and this bad boy feels all of that and then some. The handle is typical stainless steel/rubber foam, but it’s approximately double the thickness of the Reyleo or RTIC. This makes for easier carrying and feels in proportion to the coolers heft especially when loaded up. I wish it had molded size handles though, since it can get quite heavy at capacity.
RTIC 20 Quart
Finally, the heavyweight of the bunch is the RTIC at 17lbs 10oz. It’s a tank. Unfortunately, they used a very similar handle to the Reyleo which feels inadequate when you have this thing packed with ice and beverages. For a nearly 20lb cooler I think they should have gone with a more robust handle since this could easily weigh 50lbs when loaded to capacity. It has molded side handles which make carrying it without the handle easier, but those handles don’t have a recess like the YETI or Reyleo.
Each cooler has its unique features and benefits. From rulers to bottle openers, this may be the most important segment depending on your usage. Do you need to tie it down on a quad or a boat? Does it need to double as a seat or a standing surface? Will kids need to be able to operate the latches? These just some of the things to consider when choosing the right hard cooler.
YETI Roadie 24 Features
Extremely full-featured and customizable, the YETI can be outfitted with a cushioned seat top, internal tray, and tie-down kit which are all available for purchase. The cooler as it comes stock is clean and simple with its nylon strap and latch closure. Those latches are what YETI calls their Quicklatch system and are the easiest to operate by far. These are the only latches my five-year-old daughter could open easily and they take very little force compared to the others. The one feature absent from the Roadie 24 is a drain/pressure release plug. This wasn’t really an issue since the cooler is light enough to simply tip over if you need to drain it, but if having a drain is essential for your needs, you may want to consider the other options. The YETI Roadie 24 is made in either USA or The Philippines and features a 5 Year Warranty.
ORCA 20 Quart Features
The ORCA 20 Quart Cooler is a solid little fella with a fantastic cargo mesh back pocket. This is especially handy for keys or other small items you may wish to keep secure but not necessarily want inside the cooler itself. It has an integrated drain/pressure release plug and slip resistant feet. The latch closure is a very on-brand rubber tail design which works very well. It keeps the lid secure and sealed but can be a little tricky to open for those lacking a kung fu grip. The ORCA 20 is made in the USA and has a lifetime guarantee.
RTIC 20 Quart Features
The RTIC has a lot of the same features we’ve seen in other models: slip resistant feet, tie down slots, and handle lock. It also claims to have a slip resistant lid surface which is capable of being used as a casting platform, and a nice V-shaped channel in the base to drain out water easily. The latches are rubberized ball and socket type which are secure but take quite a bit of effort to put into place. The RTIC 20 Quart is made in China and features a lifetime warranty.
Reyleo 21 Quart Features
There is a lot to like about the Reyleo cooler, including a metal bottle opener beneath the lid, 16” ruler and cup holder on top, slip resistant feet, and drain/pressure release plug. Reyleo is a brand sold exclusively through Amazon and use eyelet style latches which are easier to use than the rubber “ball and socket” type. The handle also has a nice little centering lock mechanism which keeps the handle in its upright position. The Reyleo 21 is made in China and warranty information was not available.
IGloo BMX-25 Features
The Igloo sports a ruler on top for measuring a fish, or a sandwich, or a fish sandwich. It has four tie-down points in case you need to secure your cooler to a vehicle or vessel, there is stainless steel in key areas like the front kick plate and the screws, along with slip-resistant skid pads at the bottom corners. The IGLOO BMX 25 is made in China and features a 3-year warranty.
- YETI Roadie 24: $199
- ORCA 20 Quart: $199
- RTIC 20 Quart: $139
- Reyleo 21 Quart: $89
- IGLOO BMX-25: $75
YETI Roadie 24. If you’re looking for the best overall hard cooler, it has to be the YETI. With its thoughtful features, best in group insulating properties, and available accessories it’s the one I’ll be keeping for myself. The fact that it’s a slightly taller design means that using it as a seat is easy, and the lighter weight along with those latches mean it’s the most user friendly of the bunch. The downside is that it’s also priced the highest, and these models are made in either USA or the Philippines without the ability to choose country of manufacture.
Reyleo 21 Quart. This cooler kept surprising me. From its low price to the build quality and features, it’s definitely the best value of the bunch. You get handy features like a bottle opener and drain plug, and this could very easily be the last cooler you’ll need. The only drawback could be dealing with Amazon to get replacement parts or a warranty replacement should you need it.
Best Cooler for The Jobsite
IGLOO BMX 25. Of them all the one I’d bring to the jobsite would be the IGLOO. It’s small, lightweight, but keeps the contents cold and even looks the part. The stainless steel should hold up well, but I wish it had a lid gasket and I’m concerned at how durable the handle will be. It feels plenty sturdy, but construction sites have a way of destroying even the most durable products. For a cooler priced at less than half of the YETI, it packs quite a punch!
There’s no doubt that coolers these days can do things once only imagined. This is one product category which feels built better than they ever have been before. In an age where appliances last 5-10 years, and fast fashion has replaced quality clothing, this is a breath of fresh air.