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How to Select and Pack a Cooler for Road Trip Souvenirs

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I love taking road trips– besides the joy of the open road and not having to deal with airports (and the TSA), there is the added benefit of hassle-free packing. With an enormous trunk and empty back seat at my disposal,  my own efficient packing rules go out the window. Shoes are piled high into open shopping bags, extra jackets tossed are tossed onto the back seat. I never have to worry about “saving room” for souvenirs because there is always extra room.

But what I love most about road trip souvenirs isn’t the quantity of stuff I can bring back, but the kind of souvenirs– refrigerated edible souvenirs that would be a pain to bring home via plane are easily toted home in the giant cooler in my trunk. In my travels I’ve managed to bring home:

  • East Carolina barbecue
  • Jumbo lump back fin crabmeat from the Chesapeake
  • Fresh cheese from Vermont
  • Cream-based desserts from the South
  • Beer from local breweries

If you road trip often you are probably pretty familiar with the different kinds of coolers and may want to skip this review. But for city dwellers whose experience in road tripping is more limited (and may have involved ruining improperly stored barbecue), here are some tips on what to consider when selecting and packing the best cooler for bringing home road trip food souvenirs:

1. The Size of the Cooler Should Match the Size of the Souvenir

Are you bringing home a rack of ribs, a case of beer, or a small wedge of cheese? To maximize efficiency (and save on trunk space) the best cooler for the job will match the size of the food it’s storing. A huge cooler with one tiny item will have to be packed with lots of ice to stay cold. Be careful not to get a cooler too small though– you need to account for the size of ice packs too. You may want to have a couple of different size coolers on hand for different situations.


A friend left this mini cooler at my place, and so far, has not reclaimed it. Hope you’re not reading this post.

For the best small cooler option, I like this high-rated Coleman FlipLid– the flat lid makes stacking easier and the cooler gets excellent reviews.

I have this classic, retro-styled steel Coleman cooler. It can fit practically anything.

2.  Durability of the Cooler: a review

Sure, in a pinch those styrofoam coolers will work. Even an inexpensive plastic cooler will do the job (you’ll find plenty of suitable ones in the $30 range). But if you are in the market for a super deluxe, premium cooler– one that’s built like a tank–you only need ask your local fisherman for recommendations.

Just visit online fisherman forums to witness heated debates about sweating, cracking and favorite cooler hardware. I learned quickly that fisherman know their coolers and are willing to pay top dollar for the best ones.  This well-reviewed Yeti cooler is a fisherman favorite– and is stylish to boot.

3.  Standard Insulated Cooler v. Plug in Cooler

Worried about constantly keeping your cooler topped off with ice? Dislike the watery mess of melted ice? You may want to consider an electric cooler. Electric coolers are kept cool solely from the charge from your car’s cigarette lighter. If you’re staying overnight and don’t want to leave your car on all night (and kill your battery), there is an adaptor available to plug it into an electric outlet.

Downside? From reading reviews of different electric cooler models, I learned they can be noisy with a whirling fan sound (though this seems to vary by model).

This super-compact Koolatron cooler is designed to fit behind your car seat.


[box type=”alert”]Mini Bar Alert
Think you can throw your food souvenirs into the mini bar?  Proceed with caution as you may set off electronic sensors when you shuffle around cans of soda to make room for your tub of barbecue. While mini bars might be cold enough to keep your drinks chilled, they may not reach a low enough temperature to prevent food spoilage.[/box]

Do you bring home food souvenirs from road trips? What are your favorite coolers and packing tips?

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Sue Slaght

Tuesday 12th of August 2014

Great information Kristin. Good idea to be organized an have a cooler in the vehicle on road trips. Now I wonder if there is a tiny one for carry on for short plane trips for domestic flights?