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 5 Best Coolers for Van Life at a Glance
The Best Coolers for Van Life – A Breakdown
RTIC Ice Chest Hard Cooler
- BEST COOLER ON THE MARKET: Up for any occasion, the RTIC 45 will be the star of the show at any barbecue, fishing trip or campout. Roto-molded construction with heavy duty T-latches and a freezer grade gasket will store all your necessities with ease.
- INSULATION THAT DOESN'T QUIT: Going on a long trip? No problem. Up to 3" of insulated walls will keep your ice cold for days.
- THE BEST OF THE BEST: No fail hinges, no sweat exterior, cool lift design, molded side handles and tie downs so your cooler is always where it needs to be.
RTIC coolers came up again and again when van lifers discussed the best coolers 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.
Check them out on Amazon:
Pelican Elite Cooler
- VOLUME: True 30 quart internal volume
- EXTREME ICE RETENTION: 2 inches of polyurethane insulation with a 360 degree freezer-grade gasket delivers extreme ice retention
- FEATURES: Overmolded carry handle, 3 inch locking latches, reinforced lockable hasp, stainless steel bottle opener, anti-shear hinge system, molded-in tie-down slots
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.
Check them out on Amazon:
Igloo Polar Cooler
- Ultratherm insulated body and lid keep ice for 5 days at 90 degrees Fahrenheit
- Reinforced swing-up handles with tie-down loop feature
- Dual snap-fit latches secure lid closure
If you have a larger van with space for the Igloo Polar Cooler, its 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.
This cooler comes in only one size:
Orca Hard Sided Cooler
- Roto molded construction
- Integrated insulation
- Lid gasket for perfect seal
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. Here are a few to check out on Amazon:
Ozark Trails Cooler
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.
- ❄ FREEZES WITHOUT ICE: -4°F(-20°C) deep chilling down performance ,can be a fridge and freezer.Run great with your small solar system as well.【Buyer Notice: This product is not for sale in California!】
- ❄ STORAGE SPACE: Exterior Size- 22.4"x12.6"x10.2".16 Quart(15 Liter) capacity ,fits 20 cans of Cola.
- ❄ CAR BATTERY PROTECTION:With temperature memory function and 3 different levels for battery protection: Low, Med and High to protect your vehicle battery without run down.
- ❄️ 【A Multi-voltage System】This portable car refrigerator operates at 12V/24V DC and 100V~240V AC power source, which allow you to plug in a socket at home or use it with a cigarette lighter on the car. The original package includes 1 DC power cord and 1 AC adapter. You don’t have to reset the temperature when you change the power source because of the memory function.【This product is not for sale in California.】
- ❄️【Large Capacity】With a capacity of 55 quarts, the compressor car refrigerator is able to hold 84 bottles 330ml beer, 60 bottles 550ml water and 19 bottles 750ml wine. What's more, the car fridge can keep your food chilled or frozen easily without consuming too much energy. It has MAX and ECO working modes for you to adjust as needed.
- ❄️【Convenient Operation with LCD Display】With LCD display screen and digital buttons, you can set your desired temperature (range from -4°F to 50°F) and adjust compressor speed conveniently. Internal LED lights also allow easier and more convenient access in low light conditions. Our car refrigerator handles on both sides allow you to move it to any desired location.
- ※ 【FREE PARTS】- Insulated Protective Cover & 12 Feet-Long Extend DC Power Cable.
- ※ 【MAX & ECO MODE】- This function allows the compressor speed to be slowed down to increase operational efficiencies(ECO) or increase the compressor speed to provide ''quick'' cooldown times(MAX).
- ※ 【NO ICE NEEDED】- Adjustable Temperature From -7℉～50℉(-22℃～+10℃). How Danfoss compressor works: for the purpose of saving energy, the compressor will stop operating when the freezer up to the set temperature and the compressor will restart to operating when the temperature in the box has risen 6℉-9℉.
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!
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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.