Best cool boxes: 2018 group test

Which cool box is the best for picnics on the move? We test nine

Whether you’re a day tripper or a weekend warrior, long car journeys can be made all the more tolerable if you’re carrying a cool box full of chilled drinks and snacks. And taking bottles of your favourite fizz will save a fortune on buying from vendors at tourist traps or motorway service stations.

If you buy a box that can take power from your car’s 12-volt socket, then you may also be able to keep food warm, while a mains mode means they can be used as an overflow fridge when entertaining, or food can be chilled before a trip. So which is the best travel companion this summer? We checked how cool nine were to find out. 

How we tested them

Cooling efficiency was tested by running each box at its maximum for two hours. We logged before and after figures compared to the workshop temperature. We checked how well typical picnic foods fitted (food boxes, crisps, 1.5-litre drinks bottles) and assessed practical features such as lead storage, temperature control and build quality. We also looked for a mains power option and the ability to heat as well as cool. Finally we factored in price from online sources at the time of writing. 

Verdict

The well built and high-spec Halfords 24L takes the top spot, no matter how many you’re catering for. 

  • 1. Halfords 24L Electric Coolbox
  • ReviewsHalfords 24L Electric Coolbox

    Price: Around £50
    Capacity/mains? 24 litres/no
    Rating: ★★★★★

    With a temperature drop of 15.3 degrees, this 12V cool box was joint best on test. It shared most of the impressive build quality of its larger sibling as well as the cable storage, strong lids and comfortable latch.

    We got four 1.5-litre bottles in the corners of the box – more than enough for its size – and the depth gave plenty of space for food storage. There was no temperature control and the carry handle wasn’t quite as taut as the larger Halfords box, but overall we liked it a lot, especially when you consider it costs just £2.08 per litre.

    Buy it from Halfords

    Halfords 40L Electric Coolbox

    Price: Around £85
    Capacity/mains? 40 litres/yes
    Rating: ★★★★☆

    To cater for an entire scout troop, look no further – this 40-litre box is huge. Its capacity was enhanced by having two dividers and three positions to keep the contents safe and tidy.

    We liked the cable compartments, which were large enough for wiring and plugs with solid covers, and the spring-loaded front latch. A temperature decrease of 14.6 degrees was impressive, cooling being easily adjustable via the rotary, lid-mounted control. Despite its bulk, small castors and a large handle made it easy to move around.

    Buy it from Halfords

    Campingaz Powerbox Plus 36L

    Price: Around £73
    Capacity/mains? 36 litres
    Rating: ★★★★☆

    The new 36L model is light given its size; at 5.7kg it was just 1.3kg heavier than the Halfords 24L and almost 3kg lighter than the firm’s 40L (recommended in our 2017 test). It’s well priced and works off 12V and 240V. We liked the max, eco and night modes, plus the Freezeguard facility which prevents contents freezing. 

    This is why the cooling performance appears to be worse, as it cut out early, keeping the temperature around that of a regular fridge, at 4.1 degrees Celsius. The motor design meant that despite the greater capacity, it took only three of our test 1.5-litre bottles. It lost 1.3 deg C over two hours – not bad – but it’s almost twice the per litre price of the Halfords.

    Buy now from Go Outdoors

    Campingaz Powerbox Plus 28L

    Price: Around £90
    Capacity/mains? 28 litres/yes
    Rating: ★★★★☆

    With an A++ power efficiency rating and a rotary control that offered max, eco and night modes, we liked the solid nature of the box, which took seven 1.5-litre bottles.

    The lid was well balanced and didn’t fall over even when empty, although it locked so tight it led to broken nails. A temperature drop of 11.6 degrees isn’t great, but that was due to the FreezeGuard feature, which cut power at zero degrees. This box is well made and a good size, with 12V and 240V supplies, but lost points on price and a lack of lead storage.

    Buy it from Amazon

    Kampa 25L Thermo Electric Cooler

    Price: Around £50
    Capacity/mains? 25 litres/no
    Rating: ★★★☆☆

    Unlike the 30-litre Kampa (below), this model was 12V only and the lead was separate, which left nowhere to store it when not in use. We found the handle a similar design and it, too, didn’t quite seem strong enough for the size of the box.

    The lid was also prone to dropping if not held. It was one of three boxes to register an 11-plus degree temperature drop, enough to chill the contents effectively, but at 11.3 degrees, it was a full four degrees off the best result. On the plus side, a third best price per litre clawed back valuable points.

    Buy it from Amazon

    Dometic CoolFun SCT-26

    Price: Around £85
    Capacity/mains? 25 litres/no
    Rating: ★★★☆☆

    A box that was very similar to the smaller Halfords in look and build and with a unique selling point – a USB socket set into the lid. The strong handle inspired confidence, flipping easily back and forth to lock/unlock the lid, which was well balanced, whether loaded or empty.

    The 12V cable could be squeezed into the lid compartment, although we would have liked a cover. We fitted four 1.5-litre bottles, but with only two inside there was lots of space for food. The temperature drop of 11.7 degrees was okay, but at this price we expected more. 

    Buy it from Dometic.com

    Dometic BordBar AS-25

    Price: Around £120
    Capacity/mains? 20 litres/yes
    Rating: ★★★☆☆

    The only cool box on test with external storage – two zipped pockets for small extras such as cutlery, plus a net and two ‘baguette’ tethers. Under the lid were two cut-outs for bottles, but the motor prevented getting any more in.

    The lid was well balanced and there was a rotary temperature control, producing a joint-best drop of 15.3 degrees. However, despite its plus points and A++ energy rating, we couldn’t ignore the Dometic’s steep price tag.

    Buy it from Dometic.com

    Kampa 30L Thermo Electric Cooler

    Price: Around £75
    Capacity/mains? 30 litres/yes
    Rating: ★★★☆☆

    With a reasonable price and useful 30 litre capacity which fitted six 1.5-litre bottles, only three other boxes were better on price per litre.

    The lid could be used as a temporary drinks table, courtesy of the twin circular cut-outs, but it only raised to a right angle and had to be held while loading to prevent it dropping on fingers. With the two cables squashed into the lid compartment, there was nowhere for the plug. We also thought the handle a bit flimsy and prone to fouling the lid lock. 

    Buy it from Amazon

    Atlantic 18L 12v Electric Coolbox

    Price: Around £30
    Capacity/mains? 18 litres/no
    Rating: ★★☆☆☆

    This was the cheapest box on test, and it felt like it, with quite poor build quality. At just 18 litres it wasn’t tall enough to take any 1.5-litre bottles, so would be a bit limited for taking on a picnic.

    Uniquely here, the lid was detachable, with a compartment within it for the cable. But this was really too small, causing aching fingers as we struggled to cram the wiring and plug in place. Finally, it produced the lowest temperature result, at just 7.1 degrees lower than ambient.

    Planning a road trip picnic? Then take a read of our best picnic set rucksacks group test.

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