Pelican 20QT Elite cooler near a stream in New Hampshire
Pelican 20QT Elite Cooler in the Wild

Pelican Elite Coolers: Like Refrigerators for Your Road Trip

2017 is shaping up to be “The Year of the Epic Vagabondish Road Trip“. Our plans for a cross-country drive are shaping up nicely and, with that, we’ve been digging deep into the perfect road trip gear.

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We love to cook at home and one of the biggest challenges we’re facing is how to keep our cold foods, well, cold. We’ll be camping for a good portion of our trip — sometimes far off-grid — so we’ll be without electricity. Which means portable refrigerators aren’t an option.

Enter: the “extreme cooler”. Or Pelican’s Elite coolers, in particular. These beasts are designed for maximum ice retention (10 days under ideal conditions). To be honest, I was a bit dubious of that claim. But, since Pelican was kind enough to send us a sample, it was the perfect opportunity to put one of these through its paces.

We tested Pelican’s 20QT Elite Cooler on two recent camping trips, including a 10-day road trip through the wilds of Western Pennsylvania. Here’s what we found …

The Skinny

According to Pelican:

You will never need another cooler (unless you want one of our other sizes). Our engineers have crafted the toughest mobile cold storage unit possible, with no detail overlooked. Reinforced corners and thick walls insulate better for longer ice retention while protecting from impact. Superior stainless steel hardware and built-in UV resistance protect for a lifetime.

Here’s an overview of the pertinent features:

The Traveler’s Take

It’s clear Pelican is very confident in the Elite’s abilities. And it’s easy to see why. Straight out of the box, it feels extremely durable. The exterior features a rugged, rock solid body of extra thick polyurethane. While this is first and foremost about ice retention, it also ensures that the cooler will probably outlast you.

It’s so sturdy, in fact, that it’s achieved a bear-resistant certification from the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (I swear that’s a real thing). Plus, with heavy duty latches and a built-in lock hasp, no one is dipping into your beer stash unless you invite them.

Pelican Elite Cooler
Look how much this lady is enjoying her tasty ice cold beverage

But what about the ice retention? First off, the “10-day ice retention” claim seems totally legit. Keep in mind that this is under completely ideal conditions which include you not opening the cooler for that entire time. Still, it gives you a good idea of what the Elite cooler is capable of. Realistically, many factors affect these figures: the ambient outside temperature, the temperature of your food, the size of your ice cubes, how often you open the cooler, and on and on.

Over the past few months, we’ve learned a good deal about keeping ice icy. We started off by placing our food in the bottom of the cooler and pouring the ice over the top of the contents. The ice-to-food ratio was about 1:2 (that’s about 33% ice to 66% food and drinks). The ice only lasted around two full days tops. Once we switched to block ice, that time doubled.

Pelican 20QT Elite Cooler (tan)
Pelican 20QT Elite Cooler

In the real world, we were able to extend the ice retention to about four days. We could likely stretch that to five if we were very conscious with how often we opened the top. That may seem far short of Pelican’s 10-day claim. But, keep in mind that includes opening the cooler several times a day, moving things around, taking food out, putting room temperature food in, etc. That means four whole days of ice cold milk, beer, bacon, eggs, and more bacon — all without electricity.

And that? That makes for a pretty sweet road trip!

A few additional miscellaneous features we like:

  • Standard 12-ounce beer bottles stand up straight in the cooler
  • The integrated bottle opener is a nice bonus
  • Molded-in tie-down channels allow for easy securing to a roof rack
  • The handles and latches are made for gloved hands (great for winter camping)
  • Non-skid feet means it stays put in the back of our truck
  • And of course, the cupholders

Pricing + Availability

Shop now in a variety of sizes starting at $200 (USD) from Amazon.

The Bottom Line

Straight away: these heavy duty coolers aren’t cheap. But, if you’re looking for the closest thing to a mobile refrigerator (that doesn’t require electricity), Pelican’s Elite Coolers are just the trick. We are extremely happy with our 20QT Elite (and all of the ice cold treats it’ll guarantee us on our upcoming roadventures).

Founding Editor

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