Gear Review: 7 New Coolers for 2014

Cheap, chintzy ice chests have spoiled countless outdoor adventures through the years. Known as "coolers" in name only, these glorified plastic tubs are woefully incapable of keeping their contents cold or withstanding even a whisper of abuse.

Recently, however, outdoorsmen have begun to clamor for quality builds that are capable of carrying significant loads and keeping them on ice for days, price be damned. Manufacturers have responded by flooding the market with a number of premium ice lockers.

Today's rotationally molded coolers are remarkable examples of innovative engineering, with price tags to match. These new-age chillers are super tough--many of them capable of withstanding the wrath of an ill-tempered grizzly--while nestling their cargo in icy comfort for a week or more at a time.

We recently rounded up seven manufacturers' 100-quart coolers (or the one from their lineup with a capacity nearest that mark) and put them to the test.

Rating Key: ★ ★ ★ ★ - Excellent; ★ ★ ★ - Good; ★ ★ - Fair; ★ - Poor

1. Editor's Choice: Igloo Yukon 120

Photos by Stuart Fisher

The Yukon 120's large molded handles minimize the swaying you encounter when hauling a cooler with rope or hinged grips. On the downside, they add considerable length to the cooler's profile. Beefy, replaceable stainless hinges articulate perfectly with the lid, which opens past 90 degrees and won't blow shut--a fantastic feature when accessing contents under windy conditions. The feet are reversible, offering both a rubber grip for keeping the chest in place and a slick skid-pad option, which comes in handy if you're sliding the cooler when it's fully loaded.

The raised, textured lid offers ample workspace for cleaning fish or serving as a camp table. The dual drains were the best in the test; at 2 inches in diameter, they won't easily become clogged with fish scales or ice. Stainless tethers keep the plugs from being misplaced.

The rubber closures are easily operated, and dual reinforced lock ports accommodate regular padlocks, for those who want to keep tailgate party crashers out of their stash.

Overall Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★
Latches: A
Handles: A-
Hinges: A
Quality of Construction: A
Ice Retention (Int. temp. after 5 days): B (54.7)
True Capacity (Qt.): 120
Cost Per Quart: $3.91
Drain Time (Min.): 1.33
Weight (Lb.): 48.6
Price/Value: A
Price: $469 / igloocoolers.com

2. Pelican ProGear Elite 95

A dual-handle system (integrated grabs on either side and two hinged handles that recess into the cooler's body when not in use) provides multiple hauling options. The wide, rigid press-and-pull latches were the easiest to operate; however, they tend to stick out when unlatched, and are susceptible to breakage. (Luckily, they are replaceable.) Built-in tie-down spots at the four corners make certain this cooler stays put, and the tall, deep profile is well suited for areas with limited floor space.

Overall Rating: ★ ★ ★ ½
Latches: B+
Handles: A
Hinges: B-
Quality of Construction: A
Ice Retention (Int. temp. after 5 days): A+ (47)
True Capacity (Qt.): 95
Cost Per Quart: $5.04
Drain Time (Min.): 4.10
Weight (Lb.): 48.2
Price/Value: B
Price: $479 / pelican.com

3. Great Buy: Canyon Outfitter 125

At 41.2 pounds, this giant chiller is on the lighter side of the ones we tested, making it a relatively easy carry via its rope handles. Three latches secure the lid, but, like the Pelican's, they are candidates for breakage when unlatched. Two thick, full-length skid plates on the bottom are designed for sliding heavy loads around in truck beds or over any rugged terrain. The Outfitter performed admirably across the board, without any glaring flaws. Its skinny $3.15-per-quart cost makes it worthy of our Great Buy award.

Overall Rating: ★ ★ ★ ½
Latches: B-
Handles: B+
Hinges: A-
Quality of Construction: A
Ice Retention (Int. temp. after 5 days): B (54.9)
True Capacity (Qt.): 124.8
Cost Per Quart: $3.20
Drain Time (Min.): 6.47
Weight (Lb.): 41.2
Price/Value: A+
Price: $400 / canyoncoolers.com

4. Yeti Tundra 110

The Tundra 110 from Yeti, one of the pioneers of the modern roto-molded cooler craze, provides solid performance with clean, classic lines. The rubber latches are simple and functional, and they're easy to grab with slimy or gloved hands. The Tundra is dry-ice-­compatible, making it ideal for shipping or transporting trophies home from distant locales. The non-marking feet keep the cooler in place and up off the ground for better insulation. The food-grade polymer build is UV-resistant, which will keep the cooler from warping.

Overall Rating: ★ ★ ★ ½
Latches: A
Handles: B
Hinges: B-
Quality of Construction: A+
Ice Retention (Int. temp. after 5 days): A- (52.6)
True Capacity (Qt.): 93
Cost Per Quart: $5.37
Drain Time (Min.): 4.15
Weight (Lb.): 41
Price/Value: B-
Price: $500 / yeticoolers.com

5. Coleman Esky 85

The Esky is blow-molded rather than roto-molded, which allows it to have an antimicrobial liner that minimizes the smells coolers tend to adopt after toting fish for a season or two. A cutting board tucks into the lid and slides out neatly when needed. The latches are massive; however, they are a chore to operate. Integrated tie-downs shore this cooler up for safe transit. The rounded profile eliminates sharp corners for tender shins to bang into. A dry-­storage rack keeps sandwiches and fried chicken from getting soggy.

Overall Rating: ★ ★ ★ ½
Latches: C
Handles: B
Hinges: B-
Quality of Construction: A-
Ice Retention (Int. temp. after 5 days): A+ (48.9)
True Capacity (Qt.): 88.3
Cost Per Quart: $4.63
Drain Time (Min.): 0.53
Weight (Lb.): 40.1
Price/Value: B
Price: $409 / eskyseriescoolers.com

6. Engel Deep Blue 123

The Engel has three self-drawing latches to seal the lid evenly along its length, though they could stand to cinch a little tighter. All hardware is mounted to threaded stainless-steel backer plates to eliminate the possibility of fasteners stripping. The cooler is structurally very sound, with I-beams molded into the lid for reinforcement. A silicone freezer-style gasket is tasked with keeping the cold in. A one-turn drain allows melted ice to run off without the need to remove the plug.

Overall Rating: ★ ★ ★
Latches: B-
Handles: B
Hinges: B-
Quality of Construction: A-
Ice Retention (Int. temp. after 5 days): B- (58.3)
True Capacity (Qt.): 107.8
Cost Per Quart: $4.63
Drain Time (Min.): 4.12
Weight (Lb.): 41.8
Price/Value: A-
Price: $460 / engel-coolers.com

7. K2 Summit 120

The no-frills Summit is a workhorse, with two sets of handles--both rope (large enough for two hands) and hard-molded--­making it easy to grab and go. The lid seals tightly, providing very good ice retention in the true 120-quart box. However, the small rubber latches are difficult to manipulate. The box's design is clean and streamlined, with no protruding parts that might catch and break, whether on the deck of a bay boat or banging around in a truck bed.

Overall Rating: ★ ★ ★
Latches: C
Handles: A-
Hinges: C
Quality of Construction: B-
Ice Retention (Int. temp. after 5 days): B+ (54)
True Capacity (Qt.): 120
Cost Per Quart: $3.66
Drain Time (Min.): 8.36
Weight (Lb.): 45.4
Price/Value: A
Price: $439 / k2-coolers.com

How We Test
We tested coolers in the 100-quart neighborhood for a couple of reasons. First, this is the size preferred by the marine crowd, who make up a substantial portion of high-end coolers' customer base. Second, they're big enough to accommodate the meat from an adult elk.

The coolers' lids, feet, walls, and drains were evaluated for quality of construction, design, and functionality. Latches, handles, and hinges were judged for form, fit, and design integrity.

Each cooler was loaded with the equivalent of one pound of cubed commercial ice per quart of capacity. Coolers were sealed and monitored remotely for 120 hours. Ice retention scores reflect the relative internal temperature after five days.

We also measured each cooler's true capacity, and timed how quickly they drained. Finally, we divided the price by the true capacity to arrive at our "cost per quart" figure.