The Different Types of Coolers: An Ultimate Guide

August 16, 2022

Despite the fact that the cooler market is expected to reach 1,024.5 million by 2026, many folks think that a cooler is a cooler. This could not be further from the truth as there are a wide array of different types of coolers. Moreover, the types of coolers that one might be interested in procuring will also vary based on their use, quality, features and so much more.

Ultimately, this means that all coolers are not created equal. Thus, there can actually be a bit of complexity involved with understanding the uses for different types of coolers and choosing one that will serve you well.

cooler cases in trunk

To help all of you cooler shoppers out there find the right solution for your needs, today, we will explore the different types of coolers out there and what they are best suited for, as well as some features that you should look for in a quality cooler.

Let’s get started.

Understanding Different Types of Coolers: Seven Common Options

There are a multitude of different kinds of coolers on the market. Some of today’s most common and popular options include:

1. Styrofoam Coolers

Beginning with the least durable and most disposable option, Styrofoam coolers are highly affordable, extremely lightweight and often used for shipping purposes. However, they are also well-known among barbecue goers and Sunday football fanatics.

While these can have their time and place, Styrofoam coolers do not clean well and cannot be recycled unless taken to a specialized recycling center. As a result, people have come up with some creative ways to “upcycle” Styrofoam coolers.

2. Soft-Sided Coolers

A step up from Styrofoam coolers is soft-sided coolers. These are, as one might expect, soft and collapsible. However, some will include hard liners that improve their insulation properties. That said, most soft-sided coolers are completely flexible.

Soft-sided coolers provide a moderate amount of insulation and ice retention and are good for personal use and keeping items cool for anywhere between a few hours and a couple of days, depending on if it has a hard liner or not.

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High-quality soft coolers will come with a variety of features, including a carrying strap or handle, a variety of zippered pockets, leak-resistant properties and similar elements.

These types of coolers can be good for a day of fishing, bringing lunch to work and other light activities.

Soft-sided coolers can also be made from a multitude of materials including vinyl, cotton, polyester, canvas, neoprene, nylon and more.

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3. Hard Plastic Coolers

This is likely the most familiar and widely-used cooler option among consumers. Everyone has seen one of those red or blue plastic coolers with the white lid at big box stores, barbecues and similar settings.

This type of hard plastic cooler has a lid that lifts via hinges on the back or is completely removable and has handles on the side. While this cooler icon is not the best one on the market, it can surely get the job done, which is why they are so popular.

Hard plastic coolers tend to be affordable, relatively durable and fairly decent when it comes to insulation and ice retention. However, given that these can be made from a variety of different kinds of plastics, some will be more effective than others.

Additionally, another perk of this type of cooler is that they boast a far greater capacity than Styrofoam or soft-sided coolers, thereby making them a good choice for sizable get-togethers, a day at the beach or park, sporting events and the like. When the event is over, owners can let out the melted ice via a drain toward the bottom of the cooler.

pelican 14qt personal cooler

4. Injection Molded and Rotomolded Coolers

If you like the idea of a hard plastic cooler but want something more durable and high-quality, then an injection molded or rotomolded cooler might be your best bet.

While many consider coolers made using roto-molding processes to be top-of-the-line, there are a fair number of advantages of injection molding over rotational molding. Nonetheless, both types of coolers are extremely high quality, especially when compared with cheap blow-molded plastic coolers.

In a nutshell, injection molded and rotomolded coolers are superior hard coolers compared to their more commonplace counterparts and can withstand an incredible amount of abuse.

Additionally, these types of coolers often come with far better hardware and features, such as freezer-grade gaskets, heavy duty latching mechanisms, tie-downs to secure them in a truck or boat, wheels, extreme insulation and ice retention capabilities and numerous other features. Most injection molded or rotomolded coolers will also come equipped with recessed grab points or handles of some flavor. Of course, they will also come with a higher price tag. However, these are the types of coolers that will last a person a lifetime, so the investment will likely be worth it for many folks.

Where uses are concerned, injection molded and rotomolded coolers can do anything and everything that a hard plastic cooler can do — but better. Additionally, many of these can also be used for professional uses, hunting and other more challenging jobs.

explore collection of rugged hard coolers

5. Backpack Coolers

One of the more unique cooler offerings on the market today is the backpack cooler. Backpack coolers give owners the ability to strap a cooler to their back and take their goods with them wherever they go.

Backpack coolers share many similarities with some soft-sided coolers, primarily in the materials they are made of, soft exterior, external pockets and the like. Additionally, backpack coolers are, by necessity, a lighter-weight option and come with unique features like padded shoulder straps, waist belts or chest straps and other elements that are found on normal backpacks.

These types of coolers, while not the absolute best at retaining ice, are still quite effective, with some enabling goods to stay cold for days on end.

Because of the more specialty nature of this type of cooler, it tends to come with a higher price tag. However, for those who are in need of this kind of an item, there is no better option.

6. Metal Coolers

Metal coolers are possibly the least common type of cooler on this list, though they are readily available. Metal coolers tend to come in a panoply of different colors and are usually made from aluminum or stainless steel. Where insulation is concerned, metal coolers are usually lined with thin plastic with foam separating the metal exterior from the plastic interior. Better quality metal coolers will usually offer a greater degree of insulation and ice retention.

Naturally, metal coolers are highly durable and can sustain a considerable amount of wear and tear. On the downside, they can also be quite heavy and not very portable, thereby standing in stark contrast to plastic and backpack coolers.

80qt fishing ice cooler

7. Rolling Coolers

Admittedly, this type of cooler isn’t really a category unto itself as you can find rolling coolers in hard plastic, metal, rotomolded coolers and even some soft-sided coolers. However, if you are going to need to move your cooler any sort of distance, wheels are an extremely nice feature to have on your cooler. Therefore, if you plan on doing any sort of outdoor activity like hiking or camping, you are going to want to purchase a rolling cooler for your adventure.

Generally, rolling coolers will have two wheels on one end of the cooler and a trolley handle on the other, thus allowing them to be moved across different kinds of terrain. However, there are different kinds. For instance, many rolling metal coolers will have casters affixed to four legs, thereby making them better suited for catering events or as a backyard staple in someone’s home.

Additionally, many rolling coolers can be on the heavier side. But it has wheels, so it’s easier to pull!

While rolling coolers are a big enough deal to warrant their own category, the presence of wheels is technically a feature that someone might look for in their ideal cooler. Therefore, this is the perfect time to explore what to look for in a quality cooler.

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What to Look for When Buying a Cooler

Before committing to a purchase, it is important to think about how you intend to use your cooler. Is it going to mainly be used for keeping beverages cold in the backyard during a cookout or are you planning on hauling it through the woods for a hunt?

Additionally, it is also essential to consider what features you want your cooler to possess. Depending on the type of cooler you choose, it could be the last one you ever buy. Therefore, having the right features is critical to your long-term satisfaction.

That said, some elements to look for and think about include:

Country of Origin

Many folks are aware that seemingly everything sold in the United States is made overseas. Coolers are no exception to this rule. In fact, even some of the biggest names in the cooler industry have their products produced in China and the Philippines.

pelican 14qt personal cooler bottle opener

Latching Mechanisms

While soft coolers will usually come with a zipper, hard coolers tend to come with a latching mechanism of some kind. Unfortunately, the quality of various locking latch types can be severely lacking on some models.

20qt elite cooler

For instance, many of the big box store hard plastic coolers come with a cheap lid latch that breaks after a short period of time. Similarly, many of the high-end cooler companies offer rubber lid latches that, over time, will wear out, deteriorate and eventually break.

However, Pelican coolers come equipped with unique push-button cooler latches that are constructed with longevity in mind. Additionally, Pelican push and pull latches are easy to use, even when wearing thick gloves.


The type of cooler you get and the material it is made of will largely depend on how you will use the cooler. If you just plan on using it for your daily lunch, then a soft cooler made of nylon or vinyl should do just fine. If you want the cooler to be a semi-permanent fixture in your garage or backyard, then you might consider a metal cooler. If you plan on taking your cooler hunting or camping, you will probably want a polyethylene rotomolded cooler.

Let your intended use guide the material you choose.


Depending on the average lifespan of the cooler you buy, you might want to make sure it is packed with great features.

This is an area where Pelican coolers shine, as many of our coolers come equipped with magnetic bottle openers, cup holders, tie downs, fish rulers, rubberized feet, freezer-grade gaskets, sloped drains, wheels, organizational trays, dry storage compartments and a panoply of other features that ensure your cooler never leaves you wanting or unprepared.

Ice Retention

This is what truly makes or breaks a cooler. After all, the sole purpose of the item is to keep things cool.

Naturally, hard coolers are going to have better ice retention and insulation than soft coolers. Moreover, some company’s coolers will have better retention than others.

Fortunately, no matter which Pelican cooler you decide is right for you, you are guaranteed to find yourself on the upper echelon of ice retention capabilities.


Again, the size cooler you select will largely depend on how you will use the item. That said, it is important to view coolers with a discerning eye when it comes to size as the interior space of many coolers does not align with its advertised capacity.

That said, all Pelican coolers are true to size. Therefore, no matter if you are interested in our 14 QT personal cooler, 150 QT Elite coolers or anything in between, you are sure to get exactly what you expect to receive.


Many top-of-the-line coolers are accompanied by sizable price tags. For such an investment, your cooler should last you a lifetime. However, things happen.

Mainly, those things are bears.

Rest easy knowing that many Pelican Elite coolers come with a lifetime warranty and are certified bear-resistant by IGBG

Choosing the Right Cooler for You

Now that you understand the different types of coolers out there, their use cases, features and what to look for in a quality cooler, you should have a solid foundation for making a purchase and procuring a cooler that will perfectly fit your needs.

perfect cooler for the mission

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