Our pick of the best cool boxes and cool bags for picnics, camping, and transporting lunch this summer

A stylish, sturdy cool box or cool bag is an essential this summer - for camping, picnics, or simply keeping lunch fresh on the move

Best cool boxes for 2021Best cool boxes for 2021
Best cool boxes for 2021

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Whether you are heading to the beach for a picnic, out for the weekly shop, or simply need something to carry your lunch to work, a cool box or bag is a handy piece of kit to have; they are an excellent investment to keep your food, drinks or shopping cool, and safe to eat.

Before you decide what to buy, you may want to consider its primary use. How many is it for as sizes vary considerably, and a small thing often forgotten is the weight, especially if you are travelling on foot?

Cool boxes and bags vary hugely in price, size, and quality from all-singing-dancing electric ones that plug into the mains or cigarette lighter in the car and used for camping, in a camper van or on a boat. These can sometimes be cumbersome to constantly move around but super to have in the back of the car on a long journey.

A passive (non-electric) straightforward box or bag are those where the cooling comes from pre-frozen ice packs. They, too, are varied in size, style, weight and price.

All cool boxes and bags rely on insulation to make them efficient and deliver the results you need. So check out what they offer before buying. Insulation has come a long way in recent years and is super-efficient, and some coolers are so well designed they do what they say.

Some though will provide claims of extensive lengths of time for keeping the contents cool, which are true, but only as long as you never open the bag or box.

Essentially the Rolls Royce of the cool box world.

This portable cool box from Dometic is a serious piece of kit. The box is a generous 34 litres which takes some filling, and usefully, one-litre bottles stand upright comfortably. Though it is large, it is surprisingly light to lift when empty despite having a powerful energy-saving AC/DC built-in compressor.

There are some thoughtful touches on this box, such as a double-sided opening lid, which doesn’t sound exceptionally wow, but access from both sides is handy.

The carry handles are super strong and comfortable to hold, and there’s a dimmable led screen displaying the cooling temperature.

Having excellent insulation, once at the optimum temperature, it holds even when left in full sun. One aspect to this box that we appreciated is how quiet it is on both mains electric and plugged into the car; this is a real bonus using in a tent, motor home or boat etc

The box may be expensive compared to others, but what it delivers is beyond any we tested and definitely is one for the serious outdoor adventurist.

If you think style over substance is at play with Red’s cool bag, it is not. This is not only an incredibly handsome bag that also has oodles of clever, practical and unique design features.

Firstly, the bag is waterproof, thanks to the Aquaseal® zip and welded seams designed to keep water in and out, so strapping it onto a surfboard or in the back of a kayak is no problem.

The bag is robustly built with high-density waterproof fabric yet ever so light and comfortable to carry with its padded shoulder strap and woven carry handles, and there are pockets galore.

Reassuringly, the interior is lined with food-grade BPA, keeping it free from toxins and making it easy to clean. And, best of all, the excellent insulation ensures food and drink stays cool; ours stayed cool all day despite being 25C+ outside.

The lovely Red cool bag is an investment piece that should last for many years out and about on your adventures.

Outwell is renowned for everything outdoors, so it was not surprising that their EcoCool box was impressive.

We loved the shiny grey exterior and contrasting green handle of the sturdy 35-litre box. And, as this cool box is taller than fatter, it slips comfortably into the car’s back footwell for easy access when travelling.

The box works on thermo-electrics and has a sturdy fan and conductors positioned in the lid - leaving maximum interior space for food and drink – using the latest technology for energy saving is an ECO setting on the panel.

There’s a MAX switch for faster (though less energy efficient) cooling. And, at the flick of a switch, the EcoCool will also heat up.

The interior compartment is divided into two with a grid and houses an ingenious (included) slim water bottle, which, when frozen, acts as an icepack to keep food cold. We really liked that the walls have antimicrobial properties

The ECO is a super cool box as it both heats and cools, works on AC and DC, looks good, is light to carry, and performs well and at a price is a steal; what is not to like?

The Vango is a super straightforward cool box at a budget price, but one that delivers as some of the more expensive passive boxes but with fewer frills.

With the addition of a large ice pack, the Vango promises to keep food and drink cold for up to 72 hours, thanks to its excellent insulation. We found ours faded after 24, but we frequently opened it to check, and less opening would mean more extended cooling, so maybe our fault.

The Vango is strongly built and a sizeable box, too, holding a decent 32 litres. A compartment in the lid keeps bits and pieces handy, and a soft-grip handle makes carrying comfortable.

If what you want is something simple and straightforward to keep your drinks or food cool when out and about, then this is the one.

Like Red’s cooler bag, this backpack is also serious and handsome to boot. Though aimed to be on or near water, it at home surfing as it is with the family heading for the beach or a solo hike up the nearest mountain.

The bag is both air and watertight and also leakproof. With the food or drink already cold or hot, it will stay that way for several hours no matter the weather.

On a hot sunny day, we used the bag for several hours and were surprised by how well it performed. We struggled with the zip, which neatly tucked behind a rubber seal (hence the bag being watertight), but after several uses and a tiny bit of zipper lube, it eased up.

Incredibly light to carry, it packs in a useful 15 litres; there are straps, pockets, reflective strips, a food-grade PVA liner and the bag is made from Eco-conscious TPU (Thermoplastic Polyurethane).

With its outstanding credentials, good looks, and superb design, it is no wonder we loved this bag.

Not all cool bags need to be large enough for a family shop. This handy-sized cool bag only holds 6 litres and is perfect for carrying lunch to work or school.

The six litres are divided between a more significant zippered section -great for drinks, fruit etc. - and a lower one perfect for holding a sandwich box.

The bag is lined with leakproof PEVA and a suitable insulation thickness to keep food cool (not cold), but the addition of a small ice block indeed extended the coolness.

Our favourite bit about the bag, though, is its stylish good looks.

There’s a range of colours and patterns, a chunky, comfy top handle and a grey canvas carrying strap. In addition, there’s a stretchy side pocket for a small water bottle or drink can.

If you want to stand out from the crowd, you can do no better than with the robust, super-strong passive cool box from Icey Tex. Ours came in a show-stopping striking red colour, but if red is not for you, there are ten other equally stunning colours.

There’s much thought and attention given to the box’s design, not least that it is powerfully strong; so strong there’s an optional cushion that fits onto the lid, turning it into a seat; fishing lovers take note.

There are tough rubber latches, strong screwed and welded hinges, a padlock slot and two drain plugs. However, it is the insulation on this box that is a real stand out.

When used under optimum conditions, food and drinks will stay cool for a promised 72 hours. In our 40-litre box, we had 2 frozen Icey Tek gel packs and only opened the box to check the contents now and again and were amazed at its effectiveness after 48 hours, though it started to fade at 72; we maybe should not have opened it so much?

Be warned, these boxes are hugely popular and sell out quickly, but we are not surprised.