If you’re jumping into the van life, there’s no double you’ll need a way to keep food and drinks cool when traveling.
The best coolers for van life are heavy-duty and well-insulated so you don’t have to run to the store every single day for ice.
Coolers are typically cheaper than 12-volt portable refrigerators, which require a power source. You can use a cooler without setting up an elaborate solar system in your van or purchasing a solar generator.
The main downsides of using a cooler instead of a portable fridge for van life is that you’ll have to deal with melting ice and constantly buying new ice. Plus, all that ice takes up room in a cooler you might use for food and drinks.
There are ways to keep ice in your cooler lasting longer, which we’ll discuss further down in this article.
We’ve browsed van life forums and read tons of Amazon reviews to come up with these 5 best coolers for van life.
More interested in a fridge? Head over here: 8 best compressor fridges for van life
The Best Coolers for Van Life: Our Top 3 Picks
- 3 inches of insulation
- Can double-duty as a bench/step-stool
- R-Value of 7 per inch of thickness
- Keep ice cold for five days at 90 degrees
- Dual snap-fit latches and a tie-down loop
- Good storage space
- 2-inches of polyurethane insulation
- Rugged design
- Molded carry handles, 3-inch locking latches
The Best Coolers for Van Life – A Breakdown
RTIC coolers came up again and again when van lifers discussed the best cooler for van life.
The RTIC cooler boasts 3″ of insulated walls to keep ice cold for days. It’s impact-resistant, durable and can double-duty as a bench, step-stool or tabletop.
RTIC’s website says: “We use up to three inches of pressure-injected commercial-grade polyurethane foam in the walls and lid with an R-Value of 7 per inch of thickness, which is among the best insulation properties in the industry.”
While most reviews on Amazon are good, some people claim this cooler for van life doesn’t work as expected with ice melted within a day. However, others claim it kep food cold for eight days, even in a hot climate.
The RTIC has heavy-duty latches that keep the lid shut, plus molded handles and tie-downs.
The Pelican Elite Cooler is one of the best coolers for van life thanks to its rugged design, 2-inches of polyurethane insulation and lifetime guarantee.
Yep, if you break it, Pelican will replace it – forever! That’s a pretty darn good deal considering the abuse coolers get when living in a campervan.
You’ll love the molded carry handles, 3-inch locking latches and the added stainless steel bottle opener.
The cooler also offers four self-draining cup holders.
Pelican gets excellent reviews on Amazon, with hardly a negative review we could find.
The Pelican cooler for van life comes in a variety of sizes.
If you have a larger van with space for the Igloo Polar Cooler, it’s definitely one of the best coolers for van life to keep ice cold for days.
The 120-quart cooler has an ultratherm insulated body – the company claims it can keep ice cold for five days at 90 degrees.
Your lid stays extra tight with dual snap-fit latches and a tie-down loop. Easily drain the cooler with a threaded drain plug.
Reinforced swing-up handles with tie-down loop feature coupled with dual snap-fit latches for secure lid closure and finally a threaded drain plug for hose hook up and easy draining.
Some reviewers complained of bad quality control and hardware. Others raved about the storage space and ability to keep ice cold.
Orca Hard Sided Cooler
The Orca cooler also gets a top rating as one of the best coolers for van life. This cooler is made of durable, roto-molded construction with a lid gasket to keep warm air from seeping in.
The manufacturer claims the Orca cooler keeps items cold and fresh for up to 10 days.
Extendable flex-grip handles make it easy to move this cooler around, and comes with a cargo net attachment where you can store things like plates, cutlery and napkins.
Reviewers on Amazon love that the Orca is much cheaper than the Yeti, but seems to work as well if not better.
While most reviews were positive, someone wrote it wouldn’t keep ice cold longer than two days.
The Orca cooler for van life comes in tons of sizes.
The Ozark Trail cooler is WalMart’s version of the Yeti. The company claims heavy-duty insulation can keep ice from melting for up to seven days.
Ozark Trail coolers are made with one-piece construction, which makes them extra rugged for the rigors of van life.
Also included is a built-in bottle opened and four drink holders.
Drain this cooler for van life easily with an oversize drain, offered in the bigger size coolers. We also love the wire mesh compartment for storing more delicate items like fruits, yogurts and cheese.
Ozark Trail also claims this cooler is bear-resistant. It gets great reviews on both Amazon and WalMart.
Tips for Keeping Ice Cold During Van Life
One thing that’s a pain in the butt when using a traditional cooler for van life is dealing with ice. Ice melts, get in your food, fills your cooler with water, and can be annoying to deal with.
Here are some tips we’ve found that will help keep the ice in your cooler cold.
Add cold food and drinks only
Try to buy drinks out of the refrigerated section when you grocery shop, then add them straight to your cooler. You can also do this with food – even though we use an ARB-fridge in our Chevy Astro, we love putting frozen food and storing it for a couple days, which works to keep everything else cold.
Keep your van life cooler full
A cooler packed with ice, food and drinks stays way colder than one that’s half-full or quarter full. Try to keep your cooler filled up to the brim as much as you can!
Use blankets and shade wisely
When you’re using a cooler for van life, it’s important to keep that cooler as cold as possible. Cover it with a warm blanket during the day to help insulate your van life cooler. Or, you can set it beneath the shade of a tree. Just try not to leave it inside your van on a hot day unless you want rapidly melting ice!
Use a separate cooler for drinks
One cool tip I read was to use a second, small cooler for drinks. Usually, you open your cooler every time you reach for a cold beverage. Imagine a night of beer drinking – you might open the cooler 5 times! Keeping drinks in a smaller cooler reduces the number of times you have to open your van life cooler, which helps keep its contents cold.
Choose the right type of ice for your van life cooler
Crushed ice melts way faster than other types of ice. Many van lifers say they prefer block ice or even dry ice to keep food cold longer.
A couple cheap alternatives to traditional coolers for van life
Are you choosing one of the best coolers for van life because you don’t want to fork out a ton of money paying for a 12-volt compressor fridge?
There are really affordable portable refrigerators the van life community recommends.
If you don’t want to install a solar system in your van, you can run one of these fridges off a Jackery Explorer 500 portable power station.
I just wanted to give you more options in case price was holding you back from buying a fridge.
|Alpicool Portable Refrigerator||Check Price On Amazon|
|COSTWAY Refrigerator||Check Price On Amazon|
|ICECO Portable Refrigerator||Check Price On Amazon|
Conclusion on the Best Coolers for Van Life
A cooler can either make or break your van life trip. Imagine needing to replace ice every two days, or deal with melting ice getting into your food.
For a campervan, you’ll need a cooler that’s rugged, durable and well-insulated to keep ice cold for days.
The best coolers for van life can also double as a seat, a step-stool or a small table.
We hope you find the best cooler for your van life adventures!
Other van life stories to check out:
- The 4 best portable toilet options for van life
- The best roof vents for a campervan
- The top induction cooktops for van life
Kristin Hanes is a journalist who founded The Wayward Home as a place to learn about alternative living. She currently lives on a sailboat and in a Chevy Astro van, and has written articles about alternative living published in Good Housekeeping, Business Insider, Marie Claire and SF Gate. Read more about Kristin here.