Last Updated on by
Over the last decade or so, the popularity of camping coolers has absolutely skyrocketed, with one brand name, in particular, has seen its stock soar: Yeti. The robust build, long cooling times, and outstanding overall practicality of Yeti’s range of coolers have, in short, left most of the competition trailing in their wake.
While there are dozens of brands out there producing impressive and often much cheaper models of the outdoor cooler, the fact that Yeti’s fairly pricey offerings are still among the best-selling models of cooler out there tells us everything we need to know about the kind of marker they lay down for their market rivals. Recently, however, a pretender to the Yeti’s throne has emerged in the form of the Kysek brand, a cooler maker that has entered the market with a bang so loud that it made us want to do a little investigating to see just how its products compare to the best of the rest.
In this article, we aim to take an in-depth look at just how serious the challenge posed by Kysek is with a review of three types of cooler—large ice chests, mini coolers, and portable coolers—in order to determine which brand offers the best option for different backcountry activities, needs, and group sizes.
Before we get down to our review of these products, let’s first take a look at a few of the characteristics and features we should be looking for when weighing up the purchase of a camping cooler.
A number of features, characteristics, and design attributes go into the making of a great cooler. Below, we’ve listed the most important of these and added a short explanation of what to look for when buying.
Deciding which of the three options listed above will be best for your needs comes down to how and where you plan on using it.
If you are heading into the backcountry and will need to carry your cooler for any length of time, then in most cases a softshell cooler will be your best bet (or, more likely, your only option). Not only are these coolers much lighter than hard-shelled and powered coolers, but they also usually use some form of strap system to ease carrying. The downside to softshell coolers, however, is that the vast majority offer far less insulation than hardshell varieties, meaning they don’t keep your grub and drinks cool for quite so long.
If you are car camping, all three types of the cooler are viable options, but in most cases hard-shelled coolers and powered coolers will offer the superior cooling capacity to softshell models.
Choosing between a powered cooler and regular hardshell cooler usually comes down to just how cold you want to keep the goods stashed inside and for how long. While many varieties of standard hardshell cooler are capable of keeping your edibles cool or even frozen (if packed with enough ice) for multiple days, most powered coolers (which plug into the DC outlet in your vehicle) do not require ice and can keep your goods cool or frozen for as long as they remain plugged in.
The only notable downside to powered coolers is their lack of portability—to keep them functioning at full capacity they can never be moved further from the DC outlet in your car than the length of the cable connecting the two!
Like any item we use in the outdoors, our cooler is almost certain to be subjected to a little bit of abuse over the long-run. This being so, finding a model with tough exterior materials is essential to ensuring our purchase is one that’s going to last and, as such, offer good value for money.
Just how tough you need the materials on your cooler to be will depend on how you plan to use it. If you envision stowing it in the trunk of your vehicle while car camping or safely under a picnic table, then in all likelihood you’ll be able to get away with a model that’s a little less rugged. If, however, you plan on venturing into the backcountry on fishing, hunting, or hiking trips, then the law of averages dictates that the odd bump or bang is inevitable and in such cases, a tougher-built cooler is probably necessary to ensure your chilled goods don’t end up half-cooked or sprawled across a mountainside somewhere(!).
The toughest models out there usually use a rotomolded construction featuring a solid plastic outer shell with thick insulating walls rather than any form of coated foam walls like those often found in many budget models.
Many coolers are advertised as bearproof. This claim, however, should be taken with a pinch of salt. The agency responsible for the meting out of the bearproof logo proudly placed by many a brand alongside their products, the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC), deems worthy of certification all “products that minimize easy and direct access to attractants by grizzly bears.” A touch vague, right? As such, seeing the IGBC logo emblazoned on the packaging of any cooler is more of a guarantee that the cooler will be more bear-resistant than other models, but by no means bearproof. What this certification does tell us, however, is that the cooler in question is solidly made and, in most cases, built with components more likely to withstand a bit of rough treatment
Generally speaking, most models of hardshell cooler currently on the market use three layers of materials to insulate the interior: a hard plastic exterior; a layer of foam; a hard plastic interior. The best models available are usually rotation molded (rotomolded), meaning the plastic layers are melded over the plastic interior to create a single-piece construction with no weak-points where the layers are sealed together with a seal, thus ensuring cool air is trapped inside and warmer ambient air cannot enter.
Softshell models typically use some form of durable nylon or PVC exterior in combination with rubber foam insulation and a waterproof interior lining. For the most part, the beefier the insulation, the colder the cooler will keep your goods.
As a general rule, this insulating capacity of hard-shell coolers is far superior to that of soft-shell coolers and far better equipped to keep your goods below the temperature of 40 degrees Fahrenheit recommended by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) for safe storage for the length of time required. As such, campers who plan on heading on multi-day trips or packing perishable goods will most likely be best served by a hard shell cooler.
The biggest drawback to top-end camping coolers is, naturally, the cost, but one factor that offsets this a little is that models with superior insulation could save you a large whack of $ on ice in the long-run as you won’t have to replenish the ice quite so frequently in order to keep things adequately cool inside.
The size of cooler you need for trips in the backcountry will depend on a few potential variables, namely group size, the duration of your trip, and the type of food you plan on packing.
The volume or storage capacity of most models of cooler on the market is given in quarts, with the following volumes offering a ballpark idea of what size you will require for varying durations of the trip:
While it is obvious that the above figures will vary depending on the size of your group (they apply to groups of 2/3 people) and the size of their appetites (!), what is less obvious is that the type of food or goods you plan on carrying will also have a significant impact on how big a cooler you will need. If you are packing perishable goods and/or goods that must be kept frozen or below a certain temperature, then in particularly hot conditions or on longer trips you will need to pack extra ice into your cooler in order to keep those goods at the desired temperature, which means a larger cooler will be required if you wish to carry the desired quantity of goods. The bottom line? Always remember to factor in the space that will be taken up by ice or ice packs when deciding on your cooler size. As a general rule, the ratio of ice to goods used to optimize cooling is usually in the region of 1:2.
Asking yourself a few questions before clicking that ‘Buy’ button or handing over your cash is also a wise policy. Here are a few such questions that relate to a cooler’s size:
For most campers, the ability to transport their cooler with ease from one location to another is a huge plus, or even a ‘must.’ As you might expect, however, portability can come at a cost—most commonly in terms of the cooler’s capacity and insulating capacity.
The main factors to consider when determining a cooler’s portability are its size, weight, carry handles, and the inclusion (or not) or inbuilt wheels on the cooler’s underside. Balancing these with your own needs is often the best way to narrow down the options when drawing up you’re shortlisted of potential purchases.
If you happen to be car camping, then a larger cooler or powered cooler becomes an option, so long as you bear in mind that you’ll need to be parked next to where you’re doing your camping if taking the powered option. Even if choosing one of these two types of the cooler, always look for large, robust handles that permit easy transportation between your home and your vehicle and models that can be comfortably carried by two people when full, particularly if buying in the 60+ quart range. If the cooler happens to have a pair of built-in wheels and you know you’ll be transporting it over fairly flat terrain, then all the better…
The most portable models of cooler are the softshell variety. These typically use lightweight, flexible materials in combination with either a sling-style strap or duo of backpack-style shoulder straps to make portation a cinch. On the downside, this increase in portability most often comes at a cost in the cooler’s insulating power capacity.
The seal and latches on your cooler might not seem like such a big deal compared to other design components, but these two features can have a huge impact on your cooler’s effectiveness and durability. Ill-fitting or poorly made latches can, over time, leave gaps through which the cold air inside you cooler can escape and warm ambient air can enter, thus negating the good work done by the cooler’s insulating walls. Many budget models of cooler use an internal seal that closes in a similar fashion to your fridge at home—that is, by way of suction. This might well be adequate if you are buying a cooler to use in the yard, but if you plan on transporting it any distance in the car or, worse, by hand, then the chances are there will be some spillage at some point along the way.
The bottom line? If you plan on taking your cooler on any hiking, hunting, rafting, or fishing trips, then be sure to look for a model with robust external, clip-over latches that will help to ensure all your edibles and drinkables stay where they’re supposed to (inside the cooler!).
An effective drainage system is one of the most important factors contributing to a cooler’s convenience and ease of use. A drainage gasket—or, even better, two of them—not only simplifies cleaning, but also helps to ensure your coolers can be properly aired when not in use and facilitates emptying out all of the melted ice at the end of the day and also getting rid of all the meltwater before replenishing your ice while still in use. If your cooler doesn’t feature any built-in drainage system—not unusual in cheaper models of cooler—you’ll have to empty the cooler’s contents before being able to drain excess meltwater…a small annoyance first time around but a mighty pain in the *ss after the third or fourth repetition!
The most convenient drainage setups generally use a screw-in gasket and plug and/or a simple faucet. The most efficient of these are usually located low enough in the cooler that you can drain excess water without having to exert yourself too much when tipping the cooler on its side to allow the water level to reach the gasket—not a great concern if you’re using a smaller cooler with a capacity of 25 to 40 quarts, but almost essential with larger models in which the weight of the cooler plus its contents can be well in excess of fifty pounds.
A few design features can vastly enhance your cooler’s overall performance and practicality. We’ve listed the most important of them below:
Got all that? Great! Now that we know what makes a great camping cooler, let’s look at the comparable models on offer from Yeti and Kysek to see which one is the best buy for your backcountry eats and drinks.
We start our review by taking a look at two of the biggest models (150-quart versions are available for those with small armies or entire football teams to feed!) available from each brand.
Price-wise, there’s not a lot separating the two, but the Kysek comes in fractionally cheaper.
In terms of construction and performance, it’s worth noting from the start that these are two of the best-made coolers on the market, if not the best, period.
Both models use beefy insulation that’s capable of keeping your goods cold for up to a whopping ten days (or, they claim, in excess of 20 days in cooler conditions), with the Kysek using 4 inches of DuroCold insulation and a tough RotoMold design and the Yeti proprietary FatWall™ pressure-injected insulation and a similar RotoMold outer with a glossier finish. All told, it’s very difficult to split the two and the bottom line is that both models get the job done very well.
In terms of size, the Kysek measures 42.25″ x 20.25″ x 21″ externally and 33.75″ x 12″ x 13.25″ internally and the Yeti 37.5” x 20” x 35 3/4” on the outside and 18 1/8” x 15 1/8” x 15 3/8” internally, thereby giving the Yeti a very slight edge in terms of overall capacity and a slightly less bulky profile.
With regard to portability, neither model is going to win any prizes, but this owes entirely to their ponderous dimensions rather than their design or features. While the Yeti uses very robust and practical side handles and includes two “doublehaul” rope handles for carrying with a partner, the Kysek offers both of these carry options and the oh-so-dearly-appreciated bonus that is a pair of inset wheels that allow you to tow the cooler behind you as you would travel luggage.
While on the face of things these two beast-sized coolers are very similar, the main differences between the two are found in the details. In addition to the inbuilt wheels, a few features that give the Kysek the edge over the Yeti include a non-slip lid and cutting board surface, measuring tool on the lid, two bottle openers (the Yeti has only one!) and two drain plugs.
The Verdict? Both of these coolers are absolutely bomb-proof beauties that will keep your goods cooler for longer than the vast majority if not all of their competitors, but owing to its slightly lower price, those all-important wheels, and a few handy extra features, if forced to pick between the two we’d go for the Kysek 100.
In terms of construction, performance, and features, both the Kysek 35 and the Yeti 35 are identical to their larger siblings, the Kysek 100 and Yeti 110. As with those larger models, the most notable differences are found in the Yeti’s more streamlined external dimensions and the Kysek’s additional features, with that duo of inset wheels again winning the Kysek the prize for portability.
The Verdict? Get your nickels out and prepare for a coin toss! Joking aside, separating these two coolers in terms of performance and practicality is a very tricky business, with the Kysek perhaps just edging it owing to the inclusion of its inset wheels. However, given that the Yeti 35 is significantly cheaper it offers better overall value for money.
Let’s start with the bottom line: both of these coolers are absolute game-changers and worthy of every word of praise we can manage to give them in the following paragraphs.
There was a time when camping deep in the backcountry meant foregoing some of the luxuries we could expect when car camping—cool beers, cool sodas, fresh meat, non-moldy cheese, etc.—but, thanks to highly portable and effective softshell models of cooler like the Trekker and Hopper Backflip, those days have happily been consigned to history.
But which of these two brilliant backpacks is the best buy?
Let’s start with a word on insulation and construction…
The Hopper Backflip uses a very rugged, trail-worthy Dryhide™ Shell that is not only waterproof but also mildew, puncture, and UV-resistant. Insulation is provided by permafrost Coldcell, closed-cell rubber foam that can keep your goods chilled for up to an impressive 24 hours. The liner is made from FDA-approved food-grade materials and can have a bit of a whiff about it straight from the shelves, but this can be easily removed by giving it a quick rinse with detergent.
The Kysek Trekker is styled on an oversized, traditional drybag and so has a slightly sleeker appearance and profile than the Hopper as a result. In addition to the waterproof zipper and very tough, hard-wearing waterproofed rawhide exterior, it uses a thick layer of InternaShield insulation and can keep your goodies cool for around 16-24 hours.
The score on the board so far? Hopper Backflip 1—0 Kysek Trekker
In terms of size, the Kysek Trekker has a 24-can capacity (without ice) and the Hopper a 30-can capacity (also without ice), thereby giving the Hopper the advantage in this particular metric.
Hopper Backflip 2—0 Kysek Trekker
Both of these backpacks are very comfortable to wear, using adequately padded and adjustable shoulder straps, although the Hopper, again, wins our vote on account of the padded foam rear panel that prevents any of your cargo poking in you in the back while you get your wander on.
Finally, both models come with a handful of very handy features, including MOLLE-style attachment points on the sides and front, waterproof zippers, and wide-mouth entry.
The Verdict? All told, the Hopper Backflip is a clear winner thanks to its superior insulating capabilities, larger capacity, comfort-enhancing rear cushioning, and the flip-top lid design that makes your goods more accessible. In short, for just a few more $, you get a lot more bag with which to carry your swag…
Kieran James Cunningham is a climber, mountaineer and writer based in the Italian Alps. He’s climbed a handful of 6000ers in the Himalayas, 4000ers in the Alps and loves nothing more than a good long-distance wander in the wilderness.