Selecting the best kayak cooler that's just right for your kayaking style warrants some careful consideration. There are many factors to take into account, and it will all depend on how you use your kayak. A white-water enthusiast won't be happy with a cooler that would be ideal for someone who takes weekend camping trips.
Quick Top 5 Kayak Coolers
*Keep reading for full reviews below
The Size Really does Matter
Everyone knows that hydration is important when you're exercising, so carrying enough water or sports drinks along should become a part of your routine.
If you're planning on a couple of hours of white water, 4 or 6 pint-sized bottles should be plenty. If you're going out for a full day's fishing, you'll want more liquids and room for lunch, and maybe another one to bring the catch home in. If you're bringing the beer for a group that plans on camping out for a couple of nights, you'll want the biggest cooler that you can manage comfortably on your kayak.
A cooler that has less space than you could use is a little more inconvenient than one that you'll never fill up, but not by much. Pick a size that closely fits your needs.
Are you Going to Need it to be Light or Heavy Duty?
While weight isn't as much of an issue as it is for backpacking, it does matter some. You've got to haul the gear around, and your kayak will handle better under a light load.
This is often a trade-off between durability and capacity. The most rugged coolers will usually be the heaviest. Of course, a full 30-quart cooler is going to weigh much more than a 9-quart cooler filled to the brim with water.
Keeping Your Cool
Cold retention, how long the cooler will keep its contents cold, depends on a lot of factors, and how the cooler is constructed is just one of them. This makes it challenging to fairly compare different coolers based on manufacturer's claims or online reviews—since everyone will talk up their cooler. It's a shame that coolers don't have R- ratings like insulation does.
Thermal mass is a major factor. A pound of crushed ice will melt faster than a pound of cubes, and a block will last even longer. 5 lbs of canned pop will stay cold longer than 1 pound will, in the same cooler.
One favorite trick of kayak anglers is to freeze a few plastic bottles of water and use them as freezer packs. They last a while, turn into beverages and are disposable. If you do this, keep in mind that water expands when it freezes, and overfull bottles may split.
Freezer packs have the advantage of not getting the contents of your cooler wet, and this is especially important if you're also using the cooler as a dry box.
Dry ice packs a lot of cold into a small space, but it can destroy some coolers. If this is your plan, check with the manufacturer before you buy to make sure that the cooler won't be ruined. It is absolutely the wrong choice if the cooler seals too tightly because the CO2 that dry ice gives off expands quite a bit.
One trick that can help is to use evaporation cooling. A wet towel (the lightest color you've got) draped over the cooler will help it stay cold if the air isn't too humid. Make sure to keep the towel wet. This page explains how this works, though they focus more on cooling rooms or houses.
The Main Drain
If your cooler is filling with ice melt, you might want to drain it to reduce the weight. Ice melts faster in water, though the water does add thermal mass to the equation. If draining the cooler is something that you're going to want to do, then a cooler with a drain is much easier than unpacking it and pouring the water out.
Tucking It Away
If you plan to go ashore before you get into your cooler, it doesn't matter much where you stow it. If you're going to want access to the cooler's contents while you're afloat, that narrows your options to the areas you can reach quickly.
Almost any cooler will stow under a cargo net, but if you intend to strap one down, you'll want one that has good attachment points. For convenient access, few options work better than strapped down to the deck behind you.
Take It Easy
If you do plan to have the cooler behind you for easy access, one aspect of the cooler design becomes particularly relevant. How easy is it to reach behind you, open the cooler, get what you want, and close the cooler again, one-handed?
This will be possible for most designs, but some coolers have latches that require too much torque to do this easily.
What to Look for in a Kayak Cooler
The Color Your Cooler
If the cooler is in the sun all day, it will stay cool longer if it's white or light-colored. Darker colors absorb heat from the sun.
Get A Grip
Some do, but there are a lot of coolers that don't have rubber feet to keep them from sliding around, but there's an easy fix. A sheet of anti-slip drawer liner under the cooler will help hold it in place.
A cooler that suits you perfectly is going to be a disappointment if it starts falling apart after using it a few times. In the long run, you'll save money paying more for gear that will last a long time rather than pay less now for equipment that will have to be frequently replaced. Look for wear-resistant materials and solid construction.
Bang For Your Buck
When you've narrowed your selection down to a few that will all suit your needs, there's the matter of price. You can either compare price tags directly, or you can fine-tune a bit and divide the price by the cooler's capacity. If one is $100 for a 20-quart capacity, that's $5/quart, and a better deal per quart than an 18-quart model that's $95, if you'll have any use for the extra space.
The Best Kayak Cooler
Exterior: 16.6" x 11" x 13"
Interior: 13.5" x 8" x 10"
32 12-oz cans
This is an impact-resistant, injection-molded PP Copolymer hard case insulated with high-grade Polystyrene to retain cold well. It will seal airtight with an EVA Gasket, held with two marine-grade stainless steel lunchbox-style latches.
It comes with a 9" x 6" x 2-5/8" top tray that slides easily to the side for easy access to the cooler's contents. There's a comfortable recessed handle, and an adjustable shoulder carry strap. Not to mention. this kayak cooler has four built in rod holders that are perfect for the kayak fisherman!
Used with freezer packs instead of ice, it will make a reliable dry box to keep your gear safe and dry. There is a tie-down kit available as an accessory from Engel.
It resists absorbing stains or odors, inside and out. There is room for 25 pounds of ice or 32 12-oz cans. Empty weight is 5.5 lbs.
This soft-sided cooler has plenty of accessible carry space. There's a zippered pocket in front, two mesh pockets on the sides, a bungee hold-down on top, and a mesh pocket inside the zippered lid. The only handle is the sewn-on adjustable shoulder strap.
It works with the plastic food-safe insert, or without. It will hold 16 12-oz cans, but that leaves little room for ice or ice packs. Without the liner, it will have enough room for thin ice packs with the cans. It will hold eight 12-oz beer bottles comfortably, or a 750ml wine bottle diagonally.
It will hold 1-liter bottles, but not 2-liter. It cleans easily and has been treated with an antimicrobial agent. Cold retention is reasonable; enough ice should last 12 hours in moderate heat.
This injection-molded cooler is insulated with Polystyrene, with an airtight EVA gasket seal. Non-porous materials inside and out make it stain and odor-resistant and easy to clean. It has a top center recessed handle, a 2 5/8" deep half-width top tray, and a strap for shoulder carry.
The lunchbox-style latches and all fittings are corrosion-resistant stainless steel. The self-stopping hinges and handle are made of ABS. You'll never complain about it failing as a dry box.
Easy to carry, this cooler weighs only 3.5 pounds and It will fit 18 cans or 12 pounds of ice.
Basic backpack configuration, with a crush-proof insulated top compartment, the main compartment, two mesh bottle pockets and a back (as worn) pocket with buckle closure. Two shoulder straps and a top handle.
It's made from a durable fabric with mildew and UV protection, and most users praise its ability to keep things cold.
A soft-sider with a hard liner, a top tray to keep food dry, two outside mesh pockets, one zippered pocket, and a bungee carrier on the top. There is a shoulder strap, but no handles, so it might be awkward to stow in your kayak.
It has a catch on the flip-up lid that is held closed with Velcro. The top may not seal well if the contents are too tall. It cannot be used as a dry box. Also, melted ice can't be drained off without unloading it.
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