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Storage life, size, compactness and carrying comfort: coolers offer a variety of storage solutions for your food and beverages when you go camping or picnicking. We give you all our advice so that you make the right choice in this article!
The choice of your future cooler will be made according to 5 criteria: its storage life, its capacity, its compactness, its storage accessories and its carrying comfort.
The first criteria that will help you choose your cooler is its ability to keep cool. For example, if you are going on a day hike and have packed your cooler with food and drink for when you return, you will need a longer storage life than if you use your cooler to go straight to your picnic spot without having to walk far to get to your spot to spread your red and white checkered blanket. So far, no surprises...
Passive coolers, which are the most common type of cooler for hiking because they do not require electricity, will not cool your food. They will slow down the heating of your food and keep it at the storage temperature, even when the ambient temperature is above 30°C.
How? Thanks to an insulating material. For example, for our rigid Quechua coolers, we use a 100% polyurethane foam which will slow down the "warming". For our soft Quechua coolers, we also use polyurethane foam or a 50% Polyurethane, 50% Polyethylene mix for our inflatable soft cooler. In short, you need an insulator and something to cover this insulator and "dress" the cooler.
With this type of system based on insulation alone, you can store fresh food, but not frozen food, as this could break the cold chain.
As you can see, the cooler "slows down" the heating time of food. You should therefore avoid opening it at any time, otherwise the warmer outside air will rush into your cooler and reduce its performance.
As for the electric cooler (a device to be plugged into the mains, the cigarette lighter of your car or the battery, to be recharged regularly), it will, for its part, have a cooling capacity. This means that it will not just slow down the heating of food, it will "create cold". It therefore has an "active" refrigeration function, and is similar to a mini-fridge. Beware, however, that it is more energy intensive and has a whole mini cooling system whose design has a greater environmental impact than a passive cooler.
So, if you need to store your food for 3 to 14 hours, we advise you go for a passive cooler.
Depending on the models, the food's storage time can be up to 14 hours without an ice pack. "Compact Fresh" coolers are among the most efficient, thanks in part to the innovative Fresh component that enhances their isothermicity.
If you want to boost the storage life of your food, you can give your cooler a little boost by adding the famous ice packs. You can also place your cooler (if it is not too big) in the refrigerator before your hike. The fuller your cooler, the better it will keep cool!
To recognise a quality cooler, pay particular attention to the standards it meets, which will give you confidence in the actual storage life of the food. The storage capacity of coolers is tested according to the European standard EN 12546-2, which provides information on the performance of a cooler without a cold accumulator. To obtain this standard, tests are carried out by an external laboratory.
Is a good cooler necessarily waterproof? "Hard" coolers are often waterproof. However, if you see a fabric cooler with water condensation, it doesn't mean it's poor quality and "leaking"! On the contrary, letting moisture drain away will not impair its performance, and will even prevent unwanted water storage inside the cooler. If this really bothers you (especially if you carry the cooler in a backpack), you can always add a waterproof bag inside your soft cooler.
This standard indicates the "performance of the cooler without a cold accumulator" (i.e. without ice packs). To obtain this standard, tests are carried out by an external laboratory (to ensure that the results are reliable and unbiased). These tests consist of putting water at 5°C in the cooler, which is then placed in a 32°C environment (the equivalent of a nice summer’s day for a picnic). The point is to then measure the time the water takes to reach a temperature of 15°C.
Camping coolers generally range in capacity from 10 to 36 litres. Some models can hold up to 40 litres, but this makes them very bulky and you'll need to make sure you have enough to fill them up so as not to impair their performance if they are passive coolers.
Nb: Some electric coolers are even bigger, but here we are really getting into the equivalent of portable fridges... We are moving away from "adventure" camping to "Glamping" (contraction of "glamour" and "camping", to live the life of a castle under canvas).
In the world of coolers, more is not always less. The key is to anticipate the actual use you will have of your cooler. Let me explain: the fuller your cooler is, the better it will perform (a small, insulated sandwich at the bottom of a 30-litre cooler will warm up faster than if it were surrounded by lots of other sandwiches that would keep each other cool, to make it extremely simple #UnityMakesStrength).
Are you going for a picnic as a couple? As a family? Between friends? Or do you want to store food for a day in a van? The amount of food to be transported will not be the same depending on each situation. So, when you're thinking about what size cooler to buy, think about how many people will need to store their food in it, for how long, and then how you're going to transport it.
When buying a cooler, the choice of its volume should really be based on your actual use of the cooler, the amount of food to be stored, even if it means having two medium-sized coolers rather than one large one for your solo picnics.
Are you going on a camping or adventure trip in a car or van? When you're not carrying your cooler "by hand", it's tempting to take a large one. But who hasn't had to play Tetris for hours on the trip home because the sturdy family cooler that has followed you on all your adventures since the first one was born is an incompressible volume? For ease of storage, and if you don't necessarily need your cooler every day, there are high performance inflatable coolers that will be forgotten when you don't need them.
In a van, you may be going away for longer periods of time, for example on a weekend camping trip or a road trip. Either you decide to manage your cooler on a day-to-day basis, and you go for a passive model with a medium capacity. Or you opt for an electric model capable of refrigeration with a larger capacity (but be careful not to take up unnecessary space, as every square centimetre is precious in vanlife).
If you are looking for a "mini cooler" for a single meal, there are also lunch boxes where you can put food boxes to feed one to two people. These sizes are less than 5 litres and let you store your lunch, whether you are hiking or even using them at work.
The advantage of our lunch boxes is that they have two separate compartments. This lets you store a meal in the top section, for example, without reducing the cold storage performance of the bottom compartment that you were planning to eat later. With a storage life of 2 hours per compartment (3 hours with ice packs), two boxes included and a shoulder strap, this lunch box will easily go from hiking trails to the city and vice versa.
The choice of your cooler can also be made according to its compactness. I gave you a bit of a "spoiler" (or "divulgence" as our Quebecois cousins say) above when I talked about inflatable coolers. We'll discuss it in more detail here!
If you have limited storage space at home or your boot is already full when you go camping, a soft cooler has the advantage that it can be folded on itself to take up very little space when not in use. You don't need to find an entire space to store it, once it's flat, it fits just about anywhere.
As for rigid coolers, they provide little compactness but more resistance for your food, which will remain protected from external shocks (RIP the blackened banana or the apple that took a few too many bumps). They are also very often waterproof. In addition, although they may have a passive system, they sometimes have a refrigeration system, as far as electric coolers are concerned (in any case, you are unlikely to come across a soft electric cooler...).
Finally, other coolers use a self-inflating system, which means they can be easily compacted: you just have to open the valve and squeeze the cooler to release the air and you're done! These coolers are the perfect in-between and combine the advantages of both soft and hard coolers. In addition, the self-inflating system reinforces their isothermal properties. It’s a win-win!
Please note! Flexibility does not mean fragility (on the contrary, if you remember the Fountain's fable of the "oak and the reed"... that bends does not break). Some soft coolers are equipped with durable components on the bottom so they can be used on all types of terrain.
For you, a cooler is a big empty cube, and that's it? Well, we've come a long way from the rigid one-piece cooler where all the food ends up upside down on arrival!
Flexible and inflatable coolers have added dividers to your cooler to make storage easier. Some soft coolers or lunch boxes also have nets to hold a water bottle or other food of your choice, to prevent it from moving around and crushing other more fragile foods, for example.
Some Quechua soft coolers also have expandable net pockets on the outside, often on the side and sometimes on the top, to hold cutlery, plates, tablecloth, water bottle or even an IGN map. In short, everything you need for your picnic.
The ideal cooler is efficient but also practical and lets you organise its contents and carry everything you need for your picnic.
Even if you are not planning to travel around the world with a cooler in your hand, avoid back pain by choosing a carrying solution that is appropriate for your mode of transport, the volume of the cooler (i.e. its size) and the final weight of your cooler loaded with food. For this, pay attention to the type of carrying handles, or shoulder strap system, which are essential accessories of a good cooler.
Carried on the back, on the shoulder or in the hand
Every self-respecting cooler has one or more carrying handles. And yes, otherwise it would just be a big cube or a big rectangular parallelepiped (a 3D rectangle, if like me, your geometry lessons are a distant memory).
On the other hand, most rigid coolers have a single carrying handle that often also serves as a "lock" for the lid. These coolers are not very pleasant to carry alone, and even less so with two people.... especially if they have a large volume and are full of food or liquid (a reminder: 1 litre bottle of water = 1 kilo... that can go very fast!).
However, there are flexible coolers that are easier to carry for larger volumes. For example, the Quechua 35-litre inflatable cooler has a shoulder strap and two handles, one on each side, so that two people can easily carry it. There are also 10-litre mini soft coolers that can be slung over the shoulder like a satchel, perfect for keeping your drinks cool.
In short, if you're looking for a cooler that performs well, takes up little space and has multiple carrying handles, you can choose the inflatable cooler with your eyes closed.
If you're going on a hike, efficient and practical
backpack coolers keep your picnic lunch cool for up to 5 hours without using ice packs. With this 2-in-1 innovation, you don't have to worry about carrying your cooler, you'll have it on your back and end up forgetting it.
It's perfect for short family outings! One person will carry a standard backpack with everything the whole family needs (mac and warm clothes just in case, compass, map, first aid kit, etc.) while the other carries lunch.
All other coolers are equipped with straps so you can carry them over your shoulder.
Are you going on a day hike and want to carry everything you need in one bag? Quechua has thought of you by creating a backpack with a cooler compartment. Do you see the shoe compartments sometimes at the bottom of sports backpacks? Well, instead of having a shoe compartment, the backpacks have a zipped insulated compartment at the bottom.
This can hold enough food for one person and a day's walking, all of it cool for 4 hours (without ice packs). This way, no one will be "designated" cooler carrier. Everyone carries their own snack. And if you’re going solo, you won't have to carry an extra cooler (we still advise you to always go with two people at least or to give your coordinates and your planned return time to a third person just in case).
At the risk of disappointing you (but for your own good, I promise), it depends!
Although we've talked a lot about passive coolers, for their ease of use and affordability, they may not be what you need if you want to keep food cool for a long time (basically, if you want to have the equivalent of a fridge during your camping trip).
In terms of space, the passive cooler will be the big winner. Also in terms of weight, it has no motor to weigh it down. Also, electric coolers have a noisy motor. It would be a shame to spoil the sweet sounds of nature... An absorption cooler, on the other hand, will be quiet because it is powered by gas or electricity (mains or battery), without a motor. For the chemistry lovers among us, an absorption cooler will create cold from heat through a reaction of ammonia which, if heated, will gasify and cause a drop in temperature. It’s quiet and mobile but much more expensive than a passive cooler.
When it comes to storage life, the electric cooler is the clear winner. However, not all electric coolers can be plugged into all sockets, depending on the number of volts. So be sure to check if the cooler is compatible with a car, motor home or a standard household socket.