Coolers 101: Do you really need that Yeti?

As an undergraduate at Ball State University I had talked several friends into spending a night catfishing on the banks of the Mississinewa River, a short drive from Muncie. The year was 1977. Back then the majority of ice chests, which we call coolers, were the inexpensive Styrofoam variety. The kind with handles made for looks rather than functionality. Being poor college students, we couldn’t have afforded much more anyway. But I’ll give them credit. They provided me with a memory I’ll never forget.

“I’ll grab the cooler if you carry my fishing stuff,” said my friend Jeff Harp, from Fort Wayne. The trail leading down to the river was steep and slick so without hesitation we agreed. Once reaching the river’s edge we looked around to see “Harpo” cradling the cooler like a baby as he began his descent. It was at that instant we watched in shock as he lost his footing and began tumbling head-over-heels down the slick slope. The precious Styrofoam box exploded in his arms after his first roll. Packages of hotdogs and dozens of canned beverages rolled to the bottom in a cascade of ice. His bug-eyed look is an expression I’ll never forget. The rest of the night was spent fishing, throwing light-hearted jabs at Harpo and drinking warm beer.

The Super Cooler Arrives: Yeti Mania

There is no doubt chintzy ice chests has spoiled countless food and outdoor adventures. Since then times have changed. Now the word “super” is attached to anything supposedly great and coolers are no exception. We have entered the era of “super coolers.” Today’s rotationally molded varieties are remarkable examples of modern engineering with price tags to match.

A cooler in its simplest form is just an insulated box. We use them to protect perishable foods and drinks from heat when we are not near domestic refrigeration. They are also expected to be easily transportable, durable and even serve as camping or picnic furniture.

Manufacturers of portable ice chests have responded with a whole range of products capable of keeping their contents in an icy nirvana for a week or more. They are also indestructible with costs upwards of a month’s rent.

These super coolers didn’t exist until roughly 2006. Prior to that manufacturers believed there was a cap on what any responsible consumer would spend. A company called Yeti went out on a limb and created a no-holds-barred cooler, selling them at a price still considered astronomical.

To their delight, the market responded favorably. Since then a dozen other companies, like Canyon, Engle, K2, Igloo and Orca have followed suit. There are now a number of very well built, highly insulated designs available to consumers. These high end versions start around $250 for the smallest and go up into the thousands for industrial size versions.

Pretty much everyone will have use for a cooler at some point, although most will use one only several times a year. So before purchasing your next ice chest you need to determine cost over benefit.

If you are someone who will use your cooler 20 or 30 days a year, the initial investment on a high-end model will be worthwhile. If you need it to keep stuff in cold comfort for a week in a remote environment, again, the cost may be justifiable. But, if you will use it like 90 percent of most consumers, a more traditional ice chest will suffice. By the way, a study found most use a cooler several weekends a year and then again maybe once for a longer trip and even on the longer trip few are far away from a fresh supply of ice.

User's Speak

“I can’t see spending hundreds of dollars on a cooler,” said Rex Benson, an avid outdoorsman who uses his coolers dozens of times each year. “At a couple bucks a bag, ice is still pretty cheap,” he added with a smirk.

On the other hand Tony Nuehauser wouldn’t leave home without his Yeti. “They’re not cheap, in cost or design, but once I fill it I never have to worry about making sure everything stays cold, especially on extended trips,” he explained. “I even had mine fall out of the bed of my truck and other than one small scratch it’s still perfect,” he added.

“These are extreme, indestructible coolers,” said Roby Ahnert, owner of Roby’s Bullseye Outdoors and a local dealer for the Yeti Brand. “If you are just going to the beach then these types of coolers are not what you need.” Ahnert went on to say that nearly every person who purchased one of the top-shelf coolers has come back with a story about their quality. “A guy who works in outdoor construction bought one and came back to let us know how impressed he was,” he recalled. “He went from buying a bag of ice every day to buying one or two a week.”

So if you’re someone who uses a cooler like most, an inexpensive model will probably work just fine. But if you use a portable ice chest more than others and expect a top quality build rest assured you now have many choices.