Whether heading to the beach, grilling out with friends, or hanging at your favorite tailgate spot, one piece of equipment is always vital for success: a really good cooler. After all, there is nothing better than reaching in your cooler for an ice cold beer after several hours of tailgating glory in the hot sun. The only problem, good coolers can be really hard to come by. Most cheap ones are light and water tight but lack insulation and let your big bag of ice turn to water in no time. In recent years that problem has been addressed by Yeti which introduced a durable, well insulated cooler that could “keep ice for days.” And admittedly Yeti makes a good product, but it too has several drawbacks, most notably its cost. Even the smallest Yeti Cooler (which claims to hold 14 cans) will run you about $200 (while the comparable knock off brands that offer similar features to Yeti run well over $100 for the smallest size). That’s a steep price for a cooler. There has to be better, more cost effective way.
The thing about Yetis and similar insulated coolers is that they rely on one key principle: space inefficiency. Basically, the way these coolers keep the cold in and the hot out is they put as much insulated material between the cold and the hot as possible. That’s why when you open up a Yeti cooler you are met with a rather small interior area compared to what the exterior would suggest: a lot of the cooler’s space is used for insulation. Therefore, the only thing you need to do to make your own Yeti-like cooler is to find a way to better insulate your cooler, and that’s what we are going to do today.
When you think about it, the easiest way to better insulate a cooler is to simply put it inside another cooler, and that will actually be the foundation for our build. However, just putting a cooler inside a cooler doesn’t give you a practical or effective cooler, so there are several other steps we need to make our insulated cooler just as good as a Yeti. So let’s get started.
2 Coolers that fit inside one another (see below)
1 Can of insulating foam sealant
1 Roll of reflective foil tape (30ft roll of 2in should be plenty)
1 Roll of 1/8in foil pipe insulation (see below)
1 Tube of waterproof sealing caulk (for bathroom and tub use)
1 Roll of door striping insulation
1 Bungie cord (1 ½ feet or longer)
Super glue or other multipurpose glue
Step 1: Get Your Materials
- The first thing you will need to find are two coolers where one will fit comfortably inside the other. Admittedly this is the most difficult part of this whole process and can take some searching. One good place to look (and a way to cut costs further) is to see if you have any old coolers that fit together or which might work well as an interior or exterior cooler. Often times you will need to measure and experiment to see if you can find a smaller cooler whose exterior dimensions match a larger cooler’s interior dimensions. (Tip: for your exterior cooler you should look for one that is fairly tall).
That said, I have found two pretty cheap coolers that will work perfectly for this project and which I used in this example build. The larger one is a 50 Quart Rubbermaid double lid cooler I found at Home Depot for about $20. (See image)
The smaller cooler is an Igloo Marine 25 Quart cooler I found at Academy Sport and Outdoor also for about $20. (See Image)
- The other materials are much easier to acquire and are readily available at most hardware stores (or even laying around the house).
-First you will need a can of insulating foam sealant, the kind you use to fill gaps and cracks to better insulate your home (See image). This will help better insulate our cooler and improve ice retention.
(Note: You will not need the whole can for the project, and most of these insulating foam cans are single use as they seal themselves after opening. Before starting the project, check and see if you have any areas around the house that could use some insulating and use the remainder of the insulating foam there [waste not, want not]). One of these cans will run you about $4-$5
-You will also need a roll of reflective foil tape. It is similar to duct tape only thinner and made from a shiny, metallic, waterproof material that reflects heat pretty well. This can be a bit trickier to find in the quantities that we will need (it is sometimes sold in large rolls that are somewhat expensive and much larger than we would need here), but you should be able to find a 2 inch 30 ft roll around somewhere (I found mine at Lowe’s). It should only set you back about $3.50.
-In addition to the foil tape, you will need some 2 inch x 1/8 inch foil topped, foam pipe insulation (See image). This self-adhesive material will help insulate the lids and should run you about $5 for a 15 ft roll.
-Next, you will need some waterproof caulk, preferably one for bathroom and tubs (See image). I prefer a clear caulk (as I think it looks better for our purposes) but any color would work just fine and should cost about $6 for a tube.
-You will also need some weather stripping, like that used for doors and windows, to line the edges of the exterior cooler lid and prevent air transfer (See image). You should be able find a roll for about $6.50
-Lastly, you will need a single bungie cord, at least 1 ½ feet long, to ensure a firm seal on your cooler. If you don’t have an extra one you can use, you should be able to buy one for about $2
Again, if you happen to have any of these materials lying around the house, by all means use them as it will cut your costs even more. However, even if you have to buy all of these items you will be able to make your cooler for about $65-$70, a fraction of the cost of a Yeti or similar insulated cooler.
Step 2: Prep the coolers
Coolers were not necessarily designed to be put inside one another, so before you can actually get started there is a little prep work that needs to be done. In general, this means removing handles, lid straps, or anything else that might impede the functionality of having one cooler inside another (this is where you may need a screwdriver). What you will need to do will vary depending on the coolers you use, but I will go over what needs to done to prep the coolers I’m using here.
- Remove handles from smaller cooler. In this case, that simply involves some pulling on the handles which are attached with plastic snaps/hooks.
- Detach smaller cooler lid from plastic hinge.
- File down or trim plastic nubs on lid that attach lid to base of cooler. Cooler lid should freely come off from base when pulled rather than hinge up.
- Super glue halves of larger cooler lid together. (We are going to connect them in our insulation process anyway, so we might as well insure they are connected together securely).
Step 3: Combine and Insulate Coolers
Now that the coolers are prepped, it is time to get them inside one another. With this pair of coolers it is a pretty tight fit, but having done it already I promise they will fit together perfectly.
- Spray insulating foam in bottom of large cooler. (See image)
(Note: This spray foam is very sticky before it dries and can be messy if you are not careful. Make sure you read the directions before use).
- Before insulating foam dries, insert smaller cooler (with the lid off) into larger cooler. Again, this is a tight fit so you will need to put some firm pressure to get it set at the bottom of the larger cooler. I recommend stepping in the smaller cooler and using your body weight for best results. (See image)
- Carefully spray insulating foam in the cracks between the two coolers and fill empty space there. (See image)
(Note: As this insulation dries it expands, so there is no need to completely fill these cracks when spraying, and over filling could cause problems later).
- Let insulating foam dry completely (follow directions on can).
- Use a knife to trim dried insulating foam so that it is even with the lip of the smaller cooler.
Step 4: Tape and Seal Coolers Together
Now that we have our coolers combined and insulated, we need to make sure our cooler won’t get water in the spaces between them.
- Using foil tape, cover the gap (where the insulating foam is) between the smaller and larger cooler. (See image)
(Note: the foil tape does not tear easily and you will need scissors to cut each tape segment).
- Apply caulk to the outside edges of tape, where the tape and larger cooler meet. (See image)
- Using you’re a caulk spreading tool or your finger, spread caulk so that it covers the edge of tape and all cracks and gaps.
- Allow caulk to dry fully (follow directions on tube). You can barely tell the caulk is there with the clear.
Step 5: Insulate Small Cooler Lid
As I said, the premise behind our insulated cooler is to do as much as we can to keep the cold in and the heat out, and in this case that means insulating the small cooler lid. (Tip: You can work on this step while letting caulk dry).
- Using the 1/8 inch pipe insulation, cover the top of the small cooler lid. (See image)
- Using foil tape, cover seams and edges of insulating foam. (See image)
(Tip: Take care in placing the tape to ensure there are no lose pieces and that everything is secure. You don’t want your lid insulation peeling off after some light wear.)
Step 6: Insulating Large Cooler Lid
While we have already insulated the small cooler lid, we still create a better secondary barrier from the outside world by insulating the interior of the large cooler lid. (You can also work on this step while the caulk dries, but be careful not to disturb it).
- Using the weather stripping, line the edges of the lid of the larger cooler were the lid meets the base of the cooler (to fill any gaps between the two). (See image)
(Tip: While this weather stripping is self-adhesive, it does not always stick well to plastic. Using super glue in a few places will help prevent this stripping from peeling off in the future).
- With the remainder of the pipe insulation, cover the large areas of the interior of the large cooler lid. (See Image)
- Using what’s left of the foil tape, cover the rest of the interior of the large cooler lid making sure pipe insulation is secured as well. (See image)
Step 7: Attach Bungie Cord to handle
The one drawback to insulating the interiors of the coolers (and to using cheaper coolers in general) is that the lids tend to not fully close or stay closed without pressure being applied to them, and if we want to make sure our cooler works at its best we need to make sure that the cold air doesn’t escape through a cracked lid. The simplest method I have come up with to solve this problem is to simply attach a bungie cord to one handle of the larger cooler and stretch it across to the other handle thereby both ensuring the lid remains closed and that it has a firm seal to prevent air transfer.
There are lots of options as to how to attach the bungie cord (I tie mine to one handle) but the key is to make sure the bungie is at a length where it is stretched taught across the lid. (On this specific cooler, I had an extra-long bungie lying around so I tied it in a way so that both ends could stretch across the lid giving me an extra tight seal). (See Image)
With the caulking dry and the bungie attached we now have a fully functional insulated cooler. (See Images)
But how good is it? And more importantly, how does it stack up to a Yeti cooler or a regular cooler for that matter? Well, it’s time to test it out in a head to head match up.
Bonus step: Putting Our Cooler to the Test
For my test I pitted my newly constructed insulated cooler against a Roadie 20 Yeti (which I borrowed from a neighbor) and a small cooler I had sitting around that works pretty well. I filled each cooler with approximately 4 gallons of ice and let them sit in my dining room to see how long it took the ice to melt at room temperature (huge shout out to my wife for being so accommodating with my experimentations). To be fair, there are a few issues with this experiment as the interior of both my insulated cooler and regular cooler are a little larger than that of the Yeti and room temperature is the only outside temperature I tested it against, but for general purposes this should give us a reasonable test to see how they all compare.
0 Hours: All three coolers filled with four gallons of ice
24 Hours: Both our cooler and the Yeti are going strong with some minor settling of the ice, while the regular cooler has quite a bit of water from melting.
49 Hours: More than half the ice has melted in the regular cooler, while the Yeti and our cooler only show some signs of melting.
64 Hours: The regular cooler is all but tapped out with only a handful of ice cubes still floating around (I retired it after this point). The Yeti and our cooler are still hanging in there with each having about half their ice left.
74 Hours: Both are still hanging in there with only some additional melt evident from earlier.
89 Hours: Both have now had majority of their ice melt, but it seems that our cooler is retaining a little more ice.
101 Hours: The Yeti is basically done with only a small amount of ice left floating in the water. Our cooler is faring a little better with a thin layer of ice still covering the water’s surface.
At this point I decided to call the experiment as neither cooler had a whole lot left to go. However, I did scoop out the remaining ice for comparison.
All in all, our cooler did very well, outperforming even the Yeti cooler in its ability to retain ice and keep in the cold. While not conclusive, our experiment here shows that making your own insulated cooler can be just as effective and a whole lot cheaper than going out and buying one. And there’s no greater security than knowing that even after a long, hot day of tailgating, the last beer you pull from your cooler will be just as cold as the first one. Happy tailgating!