Gear Review: Roto Molded Coolers

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July 15, 2019
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Gear Review: Roto Molded Coolers

Kick the cheap coolers to the curb and invest in a roto-molded cooler to eliminate the frustration of lesser built coolers.

By Eric Martin, SSJ Gear Editor

     From tearing waders and breaking rods, to dinging up props and killing reels with corrosion, anglers push the performance and durability of equipment to the limits on every trip on the water. This is especially true when it comes to one of the pieces of equipment we all rely on the most: coolers. For unlike most fishing gear, coolers play a crucial role in a wide range of pursuits, both on and off the water, and with this high rate of use, come equally high rates of failure and frustration.

For much of the last decade, one of the hottest pieces of outdoor gear, ironically, is designed to be anything but. The explosion in popularity of hell for stout roto-molded extreme coolers has been impossible to miss. From ads and exposure in print media and outdoor programming, to seeing them everywhere from hunting camps and boat decks, to picnics and tailgating parties, new age roto-molded coolers have worked their way into just about every facet of our outdoor pursuits, and for good reason. Unlike so many other pieces of equipment we rely on for our various outdoor activities which can have a very narrow and specific usage applications, coolers are quite literally a part of day-to-day life for most of us. 

     And yet, many people still cringe at the thought of spending a couple hundred dollars for, as many put it, “just an ice chest”. Some are quick to claim that one could buy a lot of ice for the price of a new cooler. While such sentiments are understandable, the cost of poor performance is far greater. How much did it cost to replace your “cheap” cooler after the lid blew off on the highway, and then the next one because it cracked when the handles broke off and your buddy dropped it in the parking lot and the next one because the warped lid no longer seals?  

     What so many people incorrectly assume when it comes to the functionality of roto-molded coolers is that you are buying a cooler to obtain longer ice retention in hot conditions or long duration trips. While this is a considerable benefit of such cooler designs, it is not the sole reason driving the decision to make a purchase. You are not buying a roto-molded cooler to make your ice last longer, you are buying a roto-molded cooler to make your cooler last longer. I can guarantee that I have destroyed enough cheap coolers over the years to make roto-molded replacements seem like a bargain.

     So, what exactly are roto-molded coolers? Rotational molding is a process in which media, commonly a variant of polyethylene, is placed into a mold cavity and the mold is then heated to liquefy the material. The mold rotates on both axis to spread the liquid evenly throughout the mold, and continues to rotate through the cooling cycle until the material has solidified enough to be removed from the mold, creating seamless, incredibly strong products ranging from whitewater kayaks, hazardous materials storage tanks, aerospace parts and of course, coolers. 

     It seems like every time you open social media, or flip through the pages of an ad mailer or magazine, there is another company claiming to have the best cooler on the market. Though coolers may seem like a relatively straight forward and simplistic piece of equipment, it still pays to thoroughly examine everything from the fit and finish of components to the overall size and capacity before making a purchase. It’s often these smaller details that can make or break a cooler, and selection should not simply be based on a rating for how long a model may hold ice. 

     One of the first things to consider is the sheer size of roto-molded coolers. Heavy duty construction comes at the price of increased overall weight. Some coolers can weigh over 50 pounds, empty! Because these coolers often feature as much as three inches of insulation in not only the walls, but floor and lid as well, the overall size in relation to internal volume capacity is considerably larger than the standard coolers most of us are used to. This is something I didn’t plan for with my first roto-molded cooler purchase. I had purchased a model with the same volume as the cheap cooler I was replacing, but only after I was loading up for a trip did I find that the new cooler wouldn’t even fit through the door of my camper. Volume and dimensions are one of the most important aspects to consider for a cooler that will spend considerable time in the confines of a boat.  

     Insulation is what drives the exceptional performance of roto-molded coolers. Whereas standard coolers typically have one inch or less of insulation and may only keep ice for a few days, ultimate coolers typically pack two inches or more of heavy duty insulation in the walls, and often thicker insulation in the floor and lid, allowing ice retention for up to two weeks. Superior insulation is a key benefit for coolers that are subjected to extreme heat and full sun exposure while out on the water. Look for models which feature uniform, thick walls free of recessed or tapered designs as these will reduce the thickness of insulation. Pay attention to descriptors such as “at least 2 inches of insulation” meaning the thinnest point is that thickness, as opposed to models that claim “up to two inches of insulation” which may mean only a portion of the insulation is actually that thick.

   Shape can also vary between models of the same volume. Longer, more rectangular styles work well with large fish like chinook or tuna but may lack internal height needed for lid clearance with taller items. Deeper, squarer shaped styles often work well with the confined space of some vehicles and boats. If shopping online, use manufacturer provided internal and external dimensions to make a quick mock-up with a few pieces of cardboard to confirm a model is sized to fit your needs. 

     A benefit to this beefy construction, especially in the lid area, is that unlike bargain coolers, you can actually use a roto-molded cooler as a seat and step stool without warping the lid and causing damage. Some are even designed for use as seats, with comfy, slip resistant foam tops, or sizing to fit into whitewater raft frames and utility vehicles. These extremely rigid lids are paired with an internal gasket to provide a tight seal and keep cold air trapped inside the cooler to further maximize ice retention. Some seal so well, that traveling between large elevation changes can actually create a vacuum and make opening the cooler very difficult. (If this occurs, temporarily loosen the drain plug to release the pressure once at your destination.) When storing your cooler, it is a good idea to prop the lid slightly open to relieve compression and extend the life of the gasket. I have found that a small block of wood between the lid and cooler body (not touching the gasket) in each front corner to avoid torque on the lid, works well. 

     I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had flimsy plastic hinges on economy coolers strip out or break from UV degradation, and have had to deal with flimsy latches failing to hold the lid secure when running boats in choppy water, traveling down the road in the back of a truck, or when a cooler is accidentally knocked over. Such issues are a thing of the past with roto-molded coolers. 

     Hinges on roto-molded coolers are relatively similar throughout manufacturers. Alternating segments of body and lid material mesh together for a flush finish and are held in place by a stout metal rod. Often, the hinge runs the full length of the cooler which helps to evenly distribute the load when the lid is open.

     Lid latches often vary between manufacturers. Some are simple, rubber, T style designs which stretch and hold in specially designed pockets while others may be more of a mechanical latch design. Unlike hinges, the latches of roto-molded coolers can become damaged and need replacement. Styles which protrude out from the cooler body or have extended pull tabs can snag on nets and other items in your vehicle or boat and tear or become bent. For best performance, look for models with latches that sit very flush to the cooler body, and at a minimum, should be easy to replace if needed. Most rubber pull styles are held in place with a pin similar to the hinge. The pin can be removed to install a new latch, and then pushed back into position. Mechanical styles are often attached via screws and are easier to replace. 

    Because roto-molded coolers are heavy, especially when loaded, it pays to look at handle design. Many will feature sturdy, rope style handles which can be nice when carrying the cooler between two people as they allow more distance from the cooler to prevent accidentally banging your knee, but this can also allow the cooler to swing a bit which can be uncomfortable. Rope handles can let the cooler hang awkwardly low when carrying by yourself, so make sure you select a cooler which also features integrated handles molded into the cooler body. Some may be simply a lip in the body, while others are an open, pass through style that allow full grip around the handle. Open styles often provide the best grip and comfort with extremely heavy loads.

     Of course, there comes a time when water and ice must be drained from a cooler, and this too is more effectively achieved with roto-molded styles versus conventional coolers. Due to the multi-piece shell style construction of standard coolers, drain plugs almost always sit up a small distance above the actual bottom of the cooler, making complete drainage hard to achieve, even when propping the cooler up at the opposite end. The plugs also extend out from the body of the cooler, which puts them at risk of being broken off or having the cap knocked loose as other equipment is stacked in around them. Standard plugs are also very small, and can be easily blocked by ice or contents of the cooler. 

     The plugs on roto-molded coolers often sit below the actual bottom of the cooler, allowing for complete drainage. Because the drain is molded into the body, there is nothing to come loose and leak, and nothing to extend out of the cooler which could become damaged. Most feature flush or recessed plugs with large threads and thick rubber gaskets for easy, leak free installation and fit. Some models have a drain on each end, making draining a snap no matter the coolers orientation or location in a vehicle or boat. Drains on roto-molded coolers are also very large, with some over two inches in diameter, allowing for even large pieces of ice to easily drain out quickly.

     There are always little features which may make one cooler a better fit than another for your particular needs. Tray systems, integrated cutting boards, external mesh organizers and even bottle openers are becoming quite common. I also like models that feature molded slots in the interior wall of the cooler, allowing for dividers to separate contents.      

       By investing in roto-molded coolers, no matter your application or activity, you will eliminate the stress and frustration of dealing with the inadequacies and poor performance of lesser built coolers. At a time in our society when the ‘disposable; build it cheap and we can sell it to you again when it breaks’ attitude which seems to be so rampant in modern manufacturing, the seemingly indestructible construction of well-built roto-molded coolers is a breath of fresh air and a nod back to the time when high performance and dependability were the keystones which defined a product.   

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