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What is the Best Cooler for Boating?

Best Cooler for Your Boat

Buying a cooler isn’t as simple as running to the local big box store and buying whatever is on sale. Buying a cooler involves making a number of decisions: What insulation is best? What size cooler fits my boat? Do I need a multi-purpose cooler? What brand is best?

And today’s coolers have a number of features that make it worth the investment to upgrade.

But choosing the right cooler depends on how you use your boat. Anglers need different coolers than pleasure boaters. And day-trippers need different coolers than boaters who stay out on the water days at a time.

How Do You Plan to Use Your Cooler?

“Day trips with just a few people who need light snacks or lunch and a few beverages can take smaller, less insulated coolers, including soft coolers. Party barges require larger coolers with better insulation to reduce the need for constant ice maintenance from frequent accessing of the cooler,” says Mark Kellum, Fishing Lifestyle Marketing Manager with MarineMax. He spends half his time on the water in a 40-foot Aft Cabin Sea Ray motor yacht and the other half on a 21-foot center-console light offshore fishing boat.

He says, “Inshore fishermen tend to use relatively small to medium coolers for the relative size of fish they will need to put on ice. Offshore anglers tend to need large to huge coolers for the catch, according to how their boat is set up and the targeted species. In addition, they spend more time offshore, even days at a time. They need stronger coolers that have a good tie-down system.”

For day trips where you want to take lunch and a few beverages, almost any cooler will do, but buying the cheapest isn’t always the most cost-effective decision in the long run, Kellum notes. “The better insulated coolers will use least amount of ice, which is a recurring cost of about $2 per 10 pounds.”

For offshore purposes, boaters want a cooler that will not roll around. Check out tie-down accessories while you are buying your cooler.

If the coolers will be used as seating or steps, they need to be strong enough to support each purpose.

Kellum warns against using Styrofoam models. “The Styrofoam-style coolers made for beaches and tailgates are particularly susceptible to being destroyed on a boat and the lids tend to disappear overboard when running at speed,” he says.

Cooler Options

Many boat models incorporate the cooler into seating and so the coolers need to be appropriately sized.

Pleasure boaters generally don’t need the multi-day coolers and should purchase coolers that fit the space on the boat — so the shape and size of the cooler are important factors. Measure the height, width and depth of the space where the cooler needs to fit before you go shopping.

Some boaters appreciate the convenience of wheeled coolers. For example, Coleman makes wheeled coolers with capacity ranging from 16 to 100 quarts and Igloo has a similar range of sizes, offering a model up to 165-quart capacity with “all terrain” wheels. However, wheeled coolers tend to roll on the deck if not strategically placed and blocked, Kellum warns.

Some pleasure boaters prefer cooler bags for the convenience of carrying and stuffing into storage spaces. For example, SailorBags makes several CoolerBags (large, medium and small) out of sailcloth and Igloo has soft-side bags up to 36 quarts.  

“Soft coolers tend to be able to fit in disparate places and don’t damage shins when knocked around,” Kellum says. “However, soft coolers tend to lose their cool more quickly than hard coolers.”

And although space is usually at a premium on a boat, a smartly placed hard cooler can double as a seat.

Many anglers use coolers as fishboxes (a place to keep the fish cool while they continue to fish). These are generally large boxes, with 120-quart capacity or larger. Kellum recommends a 100-quart XTREME 5; the 150-quart Yukon Cold Locker by Igloo; and the Engel 123, which holds 123 quarts.

Kellum notes, “The Engel has a positively locking cover latch. Igloo has less impressive lid latches, and Coleman uses self-latching covers.”

Better Insulation in Today’s Coolers

Heavier duty, thicker insulation has created new competition in the marine cooler industry, according to Kellum. And the competition has resulted in better options for boaters.

He explains, “Coleman marine coolers once dominated this category and were even standard equipment in many boat models. For example, Engel Coolers introduced stronger and longer lasting coolers that can keep things cool for up to 10 days.”

In response, Coleman and Igloo have come out with multi-day coolers. Coleman developed its XTREME coolers and Igloo developed Yukon Cold Locker line.

Other Features to Consider

Some coolers have small access doors in the lid so you do not have to open the big lid and let more cool air out and warm air in.

Many coolers claim “dry ice compatibility.” How important is this? “Dry ice lasts longer and is much colder than traditional ice,” Kellum says. “In fact, dry ice is so cold it can affect the plastic and insulation, causing brittleness and cracks in non-compatible coolers. However, in my experience, dry ice is particularly hard to find and expensive. The extreme cold can freeze foods and beverages making them untenable on a boat. And some people complain about the odor of the off-gasses. With traditional water-based ice, the slush that occurs as the ice melts will create a better conducting cool, since air is not a good conductor. Technically, you do not cool something. The conductivity is from hot to cold. Therefore you are conducting heat from the food and beverages, thus warming the ice and drawing heat energy away from the food and beverages until equilibrium.”

Regardless of the science behind it, the bottom line is that few boaters actually need dry ice-compatible coolers.

Cooler accessories may include security systems, tie-down systems, seat cushions, non-slip tops for coolers that are used as steps, rack separators, and bait trays.

Check Out MarineMax for Your Best Cooler Options

Visit any of our 32 MarineMax Boating Gear Centers to see a variety of cooler options and for expert help choosing the best cooler to complement your boat!

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