Trout and all fish quickly deteriorate once out of the water. So to maintain eating quality, it is important to store any caught trout in a cold environment. For most of us, that is in a cooler or ice chest.
This guide primarily looks at trout, but it basically applies to all fish of similar size and dimensions.
Best size cooler for trout?
When purchasing your cooler, you have to ask yourself how you plan on using it, and how far you have to carry it. Generally speaking, the larger a cooler, the longer it will stay cool but the more cumbersome it is to carry around. Even a relatively small 30 quartz cooler is heavy once full of wet and ice.
Trout are long and skinny, not short and square. Most of us prefer to eat trout between 10-12 inches in length. So any cooler must be long enough to comfortably accommodate such a fish.
In general, I prefer long thin coolers. Trout simply fit inside them better, many small coolers are square which is fine for cans of beer but not the most efficient sharp for storing fish. For trout I personally like a cooler about 20 inches long. This allows trout up to about 2lb to lay flat rather than bend into weird shapes but for stock lakes, a cooler with an interior length of around 14″ works well.
While the exterior measures might be close to 20 inches, there is usually several inches of insulation. Making the useable space for storage closer to 15 inches. This is still sufficient for the typical eating size brook, rainbow and brown trout which are found in stock lakes.
Lake Trout on the other hand grow much larger and do require a much longer cooler to adequately store them.
Rotomolded vs traditional coolers?
For years, most of us use relatively simple plastic coolers. They work okay, are affordable and can keep fish cold for a day by the lake.
Then sometime in the early 2000s, rotomolded coolers surged in popularity. They were amazing compared with the traditional plastic bins, although in recent years budget coolers have improved enough to close the gap.
Roto coolers are made from more durable material and generally built tough with plenty of insulation to keep ice frozen for longer. I have had several cheaper coolers break on me, often due to the plastic becoming brittle. While my roto coolers are built like rocks and have never broken.
There is no doubt that rotomolded coolers are impressive and I do own several for my fishing needs. But they do have their drawbacks. They are heavier, bulkier, and a lot more expensive. Let’s put it this way, when empty a 48Qt traditional cooler weighs about the same as an 20Qt rotomolded cooler.
For a days fishing, there is probably no need for the extra insulation of a rotomolded cooler. A full cooler is already heavy enough and as anglers already have enough gear to carry.
In this guide, I do list my favorite rotomolded coolers, but also several traditional coolers.
Latches and hinges need to durable and replaceable
While often an afterthought latches and hinges can really make or break a cooler. They are also one of the first parts to fail. When buying an expensive cooler, I like to ask myself, how easy will it be to replace the latches or hinges if they were to fail.
Do I have to purchase a specific moulded part or can I just retrofit a piece of bungy or cord. Basically, the more generic and replaceable the latch the better. I rate a simple bungy over a complicated moulded spring loaded latch.
Good handles for ease of carrying?
I like to be able to carry my cooler in one hand. I usually have a rod in the other and I do not like making multiple trips. My favorite type of handle in a shoulder sling. Not only can I carry it with a single hand, it is usually pretty easy to replace if the material does break. Molded side handles, can be a pain because they require boths hands to carry them.
There are also coolers with wheels and a tow handle. For the most part, I find the wheel to be kinda crappy on anything other than solid ground. Usually have to drag, rather than wheel them through sand or over stones. Half the time it is even easier to carry them.
The cooler needs to be easy to clean and with a drain.
Fishing coolers get smelly, and they must be easy to clean and get every drop of moisture out.
This is why I generally prefer hard coolers over soft fabric ones. No matter how hard I try, I can never get a fabric cooler smelling fresh.
A drain plug is also useful to get out the last few drops and to allow the cooler to breath while in storage. No matter how much I shake or hold a cooler upside to try and dry it some moisture always remains behind.
Which cooler stays cool for the longest?
I will love to have the resources available to test and compare a large selection of coolers personally, but this is only a small site and such comparisons are already available online.
Cnet has a great comparison table here
When storing fish, to maintain eating quality. It is best to keep the temperature below 40f or 4c. This is difficult to achieve with just a couple of blocks of ice but is realistic in an ice slurry.
Generally speaking, larger coolers stay cool for longer, but only if there is more ice. Rotomolded coolers due to their better insulation stay cold longer than plastic coolers.
If the same amount of ice is put into three different size coolers, the smallest cooler will stay cool for longer. Although a large cooler might actually get colder before more rapidly losing heat due to the larger surface area.
Even with as little as 3lb of ice, most coolers stay below 50F for 12 hours. This is cool enough to store trout in a somewhat fresh condition. Few anglers trout fish for longer than 12 hours so all but the most inefficient coolers are good enough.
How to keep a cooler cold?
There are a few tricks which can be used to keep a cooler cold for longer. The most important is to store it out of direct sunlight and try to open the cooler as little as possible. Every time you open a cooler more cold air escapes.
Any liquid water inside a cooler also causes the ice to melt, and for the cooler to warm faster. Although this is both a pro and a con. Melting ice cools faster, so makes the cooler colder. So for day trips, having the ice in a watery slurry is actually much colder and will keep the fish fresher.
But, on the other hand. If you want to keep the cooler cool for several days, it is best to open the drain occasionally and pour out any liquid.
I have done a lot of camping, and during the summer. I struggle to keep a cooler cold for more than four days when I am actually using it. That is way, I try to replace the ice every couple of days. This is fine if camping near a store, but not realistic when remote camping.
We rate 8 Coolers to find the best one for trout fishing
Grizzly 15 Cooler – Personal pick
Internal Dimension: 14.12″ x 6.75″ x 10.75
At the time of writing this, the Grizzly 15 cooler can be hard to find in stock. This American made cooler is my personal pick for a day by the lake. It is well designed and not too heavy. It has an interior length of just over 14”, so okay for stock trout which mostly average around 10-12 inches.
It is built very tough and solid. It is not going to break any time soon.
What separates the Grizzly apart is the thick, adjustable padded fabric handle. I love it. I can even loop the handle over my shoulder and with some discomfort carry it that way. This means I have both hands free to carry other supplies. What that means, is one less trip back to the car carrying my gear.
There is no drain plug, but Grizzily recommends not to drain it anyway. I doubt anyone is going to be using a 15 quartz cooler for more than a couple of days so there is little need to drain any moisture to slow down thawing. This is the perfect size for a day trip.
Igloo BMX 25qt – Best budget cooler
Internal Dimensions: 15″ x 8.5″ x 11″
The Igloo BMX is quite a nice cooler. It is long and relatively light. That weight makes it much nicer to carry longer distances.
It comes with a woven nylon strap, which I like but it is not long enough to swing over the shoulder.
The Igloo is not leak proof, like most cheaper coolers there is not even a gasket. So care must be taken during transport.
The Igloo does a decent job at holding ice, it is certainly not as good as an expensive roto cooler, But it still easily holds ice for a day fishing and with care it can last several.
CAMP-ZERO 20L – Budget friendly roto cooler
Internal Dimension: 14.60 x 9.45 x 9.92 D inches
Weight: 13.00 lbs.
Quite reasonably priced for a rotomolded cooler. With an internal length of 14.6 inches it is a touch on the small size, but still large enough for stock trout.
It is not quite as well insulated as some of the other coolers on this list, but that does mean slightly more internal space for storage. If you only using it for day trips insulation is adequate.
It comes with a useful carry handle. I do prefer a fabric handle over a sold handle because solid handles are less space effective to store. Although, a solid handle is bit more ergonomic and solid to hold onto.
I find the tolerances are slightly off compared with the premium brands but it still keeps ice cold.
Frosted Frog 20 – Good budget friendly cooler
Internal Dimensions: 14.45″ x 8.11″x 9.84″
Weight: 14.3 lbs
I like the Frosted Frog 20 Quartz because it is more oblong than square and it is not badly priced for a rotomolded cooler.
Its internal length is 14.45″ with and external length of over 21″. That means its walls around 2″ thick. A lot of insulation for such a small cooler and I been able to hold ice for a couple of days. Although, throwing in fish after fish does cause the ice to melt faster.
Build quality is good and It comes with a drain plug, and even a pressure release valve. I never really needed to use the pressure release valve but suppose it has a use.
It also comes in a range of colors. If it had a fabric handle, rather than metal I might even say it is the perfect 20 quartz cooler for a day of trout fishing.
Lifetime 28Qt – Cheap, heavy but with plenty of storage
Internal Dimensions: 17.6″L x 9.3″ x 11.5″
Weight: 17.35 lb
This cooler looks very simialar to the rotomolded coolers above, but it is blow molded. Meaning it is significantly cheaper.
Firstly, it is impressive for a cooler which costs under $100. Internally it is much bigger than roto coolers of a comparable weight. When not full, it is still fairly easy to carry with one hand.
This depends on many variables. But it can easily keeps ice for a couple of days. No need to worry about warm fish even after spending a day on the lake.
Unlike most cheap coolers, it does not leak. So no need to worry about it bumping around in the back of the car. Finally it is possible to lock the cooler to keep pesty animals out. A very impressive cooler.
Orca 20 Quart – Excellent cooler, but a bit heavy
Internal dimensions: 13.75″ x 9″ x 9″
The Orca 20 Quart is one of the heaviest Coolers on this, and is also one of the smallest. With an interior length a bit under 14″ making it one of the smaller coolers I still consider to be long enough to hold trout and other pan fish. It is heavy for its size, weighing in at close to 17lb.
Does that extra weight, translate to better insulation? Well, it does lose ice quicker than the significantly lighter Yeti Roadie. It is probably overengineered, which explains the weight. But I have never had a rotomolded cooler break on me so the weight is a bit hard to justify.
In general, I do not love the design. The lid jags outa bit meaning it is not as space efficient as it could be good. It also can leak if violently shacked. Probably a good idea to drain any excess moisture before the drive home.
It is not a bad cooler and the metal handle is very solid and comfortable, I just feel there are better options for a portable fishing cooler. The Orca 20 quart is made in the United States.
KENAI 25 Cooler – Good value, but requires both hands to carry.
Internal Dimensions: 16.91″ x 8.84″ x 10.38″
Weight: 17.5 lbs
The Kenai 25 is a nicely proportioned portable cooler. The oblong shape is well suited for storing trout and at over 16″ means its plenty long enough. This is also the longest rotomolded cooler I consider easily portable.
With regards to performance, it easily maintains ice for 48 hours even with regular use. So no complaints here.
The latches are well made, and they are easy to flick open which is both a pro and a con. Certainly an easy cooler to get into single handily, but it might just unlatch itself rubbing against other gear, and will certainly not be bear proof.
Another downside, unlike most rotomolded coolers it is not leak proof. Chances are a few splashes might get out while bumping down an uneven road.
It has two side handles, meaning it can not really be carried in one hand. As a portable fishing cooler that is a deal breaker for me. But otherwise, it is a very good compact cooler.
Finally, it is made in the united states.
YETI Roadie 24 Cooler – Excellent for drinks, average for fish.
Internal Dimensions: 8.2″ × 13.25 × 10.87″
The Yeti Roadie does so much right, but it is taller than it is long. So perfect for storing wine bottles that need to stand upright, but its 13.25″ length is less ideal for for storing trout. The blocky tall design is simply less efficient for trout storage. It does make for a comfy seating height.
I do like the fabric handle. Which is a good compromise between ease of carrying and being space efficient. The roadie is tall and slim which makes it somewhat less cumbersome to carry.
The latches are very easy to open. I am sure even a child can do it. The latches, do require two adjustments to fully unlock so the risk of an accidental opening should be minimum.
It has very good thermal properties and can keep ice frozen all day. One of the best in its class, and easily better than any comparable mass produced coolers sold in big box stores.
As a cooler, to store food and drink it is excellent. As a cooler for storing pan fish it is not quite wide enough. I personally would love this cooler if it was longer and not quite as high and it nearly justifies the high price.