Ready for on-the-go adventures with a handy soft cooler? Over the last 5 years, we've tested 21 options to bring you the best 11 models available today. Soft coolers offer portability and versatility that traditional hard coolers just can't. From lunchboxes to beach days, we meticulously tested these toteable ice bags side-by-side to discover which are the best insulators, the exceedingly rugged, and the remarkably portable. We fully loaded these coolers, walked with them for miles, treated them carelessly, and let hundreds of pounds of ice melt in them. No matter your budget, our thorough testing will help you identify the perfect cooler for you.
The Best Soft Coolers
Best Overall Soft Cooler
We are seriously impressed by the Engel HD30. It packs some intense insulation powers, keeping raw foods safely cold for nearly four full days! On top of that, this is the largest cooler we tested, with an impressive 48-can capacity. Despite its bulky size, the Engel is surprisingly portable, and comes complete with a handy two-person carry, if you load it up with too many heavy items.
The HD30 is incredibly easy to use and boasts a shockingly durable construction. With all sorts of additional helpful features like extra handles, a removable bottle opener, and an additional pocket, the Engel outcompeted all the rest for the second year in a row to remain our top choice. Even your wallet will thank you, as it's much less expensive than many of the other coolers it beat out.
Read review: Engel Coolers HD30
Best Buy on a Budget
RTIC SoftPak 20
The RTIC SoftPak 20 continues to impress us with its simple, yet useful design. Though it's not the longest-lasting in terms of insulation, it does a pretty solid job that's likely more than enough for what most of us need. It's built well and of durable materials that can put up with some abuse. Its 20-can size is a good middle ground for most people and a shape that makes loading and rummaging around not a huge chore. And if being one of the top-scoring coolers isn't enough, it costs a lot less than the ones that scored higher - sometimes achieving triple-digit savings!
While this cooler gives an all-around good performance, it doesn't stand out in any particular category. Its leakproof zipper is a bit challenging to use, but if you keep it regularly treated with the included lubricant, that can be mostly alleviated. And though it's a rounded cooler, it does have some angular top and bottom corners that aren't our favorite to cart around. Though the few downsides this cooler has, we think are far outweighed by its pros and price.
Read review: RTIC SoftPak 20
Best for a Personal Cooler
YETI Hopper Flip 12
Year after year, the Yeti Hopper Flip 12 continues to impress This tried and true design boasts some seriously impressive insulation for a cooler so small. Its shape and size are convenient and easy to use with a simple design that just works. Like Yeti products have come to be known for, this cooler is seriously beefy and game to go on all your wild adventures. The latest rendition of this crowd favorite includes a top handle to make grabbing and going even easier.
While the Flip can have other Yeti accessories attached, it doesn't actually come with any additional pockets or features, which many other coolers do. Those extras, well, cost extra - on top of an already expensive cooler. Though this newest version costs a little bit less than its predecessor, it's still among the more expensive coolers out there. But if you want a personal cooler that just won't quit, there's no better option than the Flip.
Read review: Yeti Hopper Flip 12
Best for Long Distance Carrying
With several exciting backpack coolers on the scene, we recently retested this pack next to several new models, and the IceMule Pro remains our Top Pick for Long Distance Carrying for the third year in a row. Though this cooler requires a bit of a learning curve, it's incredibly easy to use and comfortable to carry. The large roll-top design allows easy access to its contents without having to remove everything on top to reach that last cold soda at the bottom. Soft, wide shoulder straps and a longer torso length make this pack much easier to carry than its more rigid competitors. With a lightly padded back panel, breathable mesh, and a more flexible structure, we found ourselves much less sweaty hiking this model up to the summit than any other backpack cooler. It also performed quite well in our insulation testing and is solidly durable.
It took some time for us to figure out the best way to use the inflatable sides to maximize both capacity and insulation, but once we got that down, we enjoyed the extra padding the air-filled walls provide. However, we couldn't quite get the top rolled tight enough to be waterproof, though it only leaked little drips when completely inverted. While we wish it had more pockets on the outside for extra items, we enjoyed using the IceMule Pro and it was our go-to pick when heading out for longer distances.
Read review: IceMule Pro
Notable for Cold and Dry Storage
REI Co-op Cool Trail Split Pack
Ever wish your cooler could haul more than just the cold stuff? Want a jacket and a book to go with that picnic? So do we. We absolutely adore the well-thought-out design of the REI Co-op Cool Trail Split Pack for making sure you never have to leave your sweatshirt or frisbee at home. The bottom half is a small cooler that fits provisions for you for the day while the top half holds all your dry goods. Several other useful pockets can hold easy-access items or wrappers and trask. This is also one of the most comfortable backpack models we tested, and we had no problems carrying it for miles to an exciting destination picnic. It's also among the least expensive coolers we tested.
However, next to some serious abrasion and puncture-resistant competition, the recycled ripstop nylon of this bag doesn't seem nearly so impressive. We worry a bit about the longevity, especially of the bottom of this bag over rough surfaces. And the sternum strap is a bit looser than we would like it to be. The relatively thin cooler isn't up for anything crazy long (like multiday ground beef storage), but will certainly get you through a day's adventuring. And though the cooler material is waterproof, the zipper isn't - so don't store this bag on its side! Despite a few flaws, we still love this ridiculously useful bag for all our adventures that involve more than just a cooler full of food.
Read review: REI Co-op Cool Trail Split Pack
Why You Should Trust Us
Our expert panel consists of Senior Review Editor Maggie Brandenburg and her crew of adventure-loving friends. Maggie has spent over 15 years as an outdoor and backcountry guide, from backpacking the Sierras and Andes to rafting South Africa and Utah. She spent a summer living out of her teardrop trailer and isn't one to give up on the comforts of a fresh meal while she's out. Her background in scientific research helps bring structure and scrutiny to our intensive cooler testing process. Maggie is the OutdoorGearLab cooler guru, and has tested nearly a hundred other coolers from traditional models to the latest powered technology.
Before we started timing how long our drinks stayed cold, this review began with market research into what soft coolers were worth trying out. We made an initial selection of 55 and then further refined this selection into 11 of the most promising to purchase and test in our lab environment and the field. Our in-depth insulation testing was developed in conjunction with Steven Tata, whose background in engineering helped design realistic but intensive testing of these coolers. Testing consisted of a quantitative ice melt test and field use. The ice melt test was carried out in a controlled environment with the internal temperature of the coolers monitored and analyzed in accordance with the USDA's Refrigeration and Food Safety Guidelines. Field use was in a variety of environments, from hot desert hikes to rainy days in the woods, for a well-rounded set of conditions. All this adds up to a comprehensive review, which will thoroughly equip you to make a great soft cooler purchase.
Related: How We Tested Soft Coolers
Analysis and Test Results
We compared each model side-by-side, bringing you the most transparent possible picture of each one's strengths and weaknesses. We rated each model on four key metrics that are critical to choosing the best one for your needs: insulation value, ease of use, portability, and durability. Insulation value is one of the essential categories to anyone in the market for a cooler; otherwise, you'd throw your sodas and salsa or champagne and cheese into any old bag and call it good! But with so many coolers (and exceptional ones!) on the market today, insulation value isn't the only important factor in the decision-making process. While we ranked insulation value as 30% of the overall score, ease of use and durability each accounted for 25% of the score, and portability makes up 20% of a cooler's final score.
Related: Buying Advice for Soft Coolers
At OutdoorGearLab, we appreciate high-scoring products that provide exceptional value. Though we never factor in the price of any product into its performance score, we realize that this is a major point for many of us looking to buy any piece of gear.
Contenders with both high scores and low price tags are the best value, which includes such products as the RTIC SoftPak 20. It is the winner of our Best Buy Award and is a top-notch product for its price point. For those on a tight budget, the Coleman 16-Can is one of the cheapest options we tested. In the case of soft coolers we tested with lower costs, we found that these products often - but not always - correlate with lower performance.
The FDA recommends keeping perishable foods that require refrigeration at or below 40º Fahrenheit; this will ensure their freshness and keep bacteria and other such nasties from growing inside, potentially making you sick. Keeping a larger cooler cold will require putting more ice or ice packs inside versus keeping a smaller cooler cold, as most coolers recommend at least a 1:1 ice to food ratio, if not even more ice. Making sure your items are cold before they go into the cooler is another way to add insulation value to any cooler. Keeping your food or beverages cold is the number one reason to purchase a cooler; thus, it was the most rigorous metric we tested. Our head-to-head ice tests highlight which coolers offer the best insulation value.
We're sure it comes as no surprise that, in general, models with thicker insulation and better seals performed better, at least for the most part. However, we also found that external and internal fabrics make a difference, as do the type and seal of closure mechanism used. Models that performed poorly have thinner insulation, less waterproof fabric, non-sealing zippers, or some combination of the three.
The Homitt 30 held ice longer than any other cooler, beating the Yeti Hopper M30 by a full day, and even outlasting the Editors' Choice, Engel HD30, by a small margin, hitting an impressive 103 hours of chill! The Engel still beat out the Yeti M30 by over a day - a seriously impressive feat. Even the smaller Yeti Hopper Flip 12 was no match for either the Engel or the Hopper. That said, both Yeti coolers were significantly higher performing than most of the rest of the pack. Surprisingly, the Yeti BackFlip 24 didn't do nearly as well as the other Yeti models, though it still lasted over two days. The RTIC SoftPak is the next closest competition but doesn't blow us away with its insulating prowess.
Another major factor that contributes to the effectiveness of cold-keeping is the closure system. Models like the IceMule Pro have a roll-top more reminiscent of a dry bag, while other models have zippers of various effectiveness. For example, many models like the Engel HD30, Homitt 30, RTIC SoftPak, Hydro Flask UnBound, and Yeti models, all boast a burly waterproof zipper. Coolers like the Igloo Outdoorsman Gizmo and REI Trail Split Pack have the more familiar standard zipper you might find on something like a ski jacket. And then there is the Coleman 16-Can. This cooler has our least favorite zipper of all. Not only is it not waterproof, but it also had us doubting its durability in addition to the detriment it was to the cooler's insulation value.
The thickness and effectiveness of the insulation, combined with the ability of each cooler to seal in the cold air within, is what earned each cooler its insulation value score. If this category is of utmost importance to you above all else, see our top two performers: the Editors' Choice Engel HD30 and Homitt 30 (though read more about the Homitt's durability before deciding if it's right for you).
Soft coolers have a variety of insulating capacities, and some can last several days. However, they're best as a single day or overnight item when portability and compact size are more important. If you're on the hunt for a cooler that can keep steaks fresh all weekend or hold your fishing trip catch on ice all week, consider a traditional hard cooler.Related: The Best Coolers and Ice Chests of 2020
Ease of Use
Aside from insulation and durability, how easy it is to use the darned thing? This question is important: if you find yourself cursing every time you try to open/close/carry/clean your cooler, you're probably not going to have a quite as nice experience on your cooler-related adventure. This moment is one of many in which questions of where you want to go and what you want to put in your cooler will come into play. For example, a cooler that may be easy to load things into might not be as well insulated, just like a model that may hold a picnic for six may not be the one you want to take on a five-mile day hike!
We tried to leave out the overall size of each contender from this section, as anyone could tell you that a smaller or less-packed cooler will be more comfortable to move around than a more massive, heavier cooler. Instead, we focused on how easy the coolers are to load and unload: how they open, how challenging the zipper or closing mechanism is to use, if they stay open while you packed them full, or if they require a second pair of hands. We considered how easy each cooler is to find a comfortable way to carry: if it has more than one way to carry, if it's adjustable, and how easy it is not to overextend ourselves carrying heavy loads for longer distances.
One of the most frustrating qualities of many of the models we tested is their challenging zippers. So far, manufacturers haven't been able to produce a zipper that's waterproof and truly easy to use. Many soft cooler zippers not only require two hands to open and close but also quite a bit of straining and muttering through clenched teeth. The cooler zipper that performed the best is that of the Engel HD30. Its zipper, though robust and watertight, is much easier to use, and come with zipper lubricant included, ensuring that they remained explicative-free. All zippered Yeti models (the Flip and BackFlip), as well as the RTIC SoftPak, also come with zipper lubricant that helps to make their zippers glide more easily, though they aren't quite as smooth as the Engel. Each of these coolers also features extra handles for more carrying options, tie-downs to attach them to your ATV or truck bed, and even some additional options like daisy-chain webbing to clip on your bottle opener or car keys.
Some other models are easy to use because of the excellent design or features they have. The Ice Mule is one of our favorites once you get used to it because of its simple roll-top design and comfortable straps that really make carrying this bag a breeze. The REI Cool Trail Split Pack is one of our absolute favorites for solo adventuring. It brings together some seriously exceptional features that let you bring along both cooler goods and your regular, dry adventure accessories all in one handy pack.
If you wanted to stay home, you'd use your fridge. For an adventure, you need a cooler. But where do you want to go with your cooler, and how do you want to get there? Depending on the size and type you're planning to take with you, you may have already put some limitations on your adventures. Any cooler can be loaded up and thrown in the car, so we didn't think about that so much when rating portability. Are you heading from the parking lot to the beach nearby? Are you carting around lunch all day at the zoo? Are you hiking five miles to your secret fishing hole? The most portable cooler will be more comfortable to carry for longer distances and amounts of time.
The clear winners in this category are some of the many backpack style coolers, as this distribution of weight across both shoulders and resting behind you will almost always beat out a unilateral carry. However, not all backpack coolers are created equal. We tested five, and the IceMule Pro remains our favorite, taking home our Top Pick for Long Distance Carrying award for the third year in a row. With soft, wide shoulder straps, a longer torso for more even weight distribution, and a flexible shape, the IceMule Pro is the most comfortable model we tested to carry on a multi-mile hike. The REI Split Pack is also a soft, comfortable option that we don't mind carrying for miles on end. The Yeti BackFlip is the only one we tested with a waistbelt, but we don't think it adds much to this uncomfortably rigid and corner-happy box.
Among the many tote and messenger style options we tested, we have our favorites. Models with helpful shapes, adjustable straps, and extra padding go a long way toward making these something you don't mind carrying. Some of the other reasonably portable bags like the Yeti Flip and RTIC SoftPak scored well thanks to their well-padded shoulder straps and additional options to hand carry or partner carry them if they're loaded down. The Engel HD30 and Yeti M30 both lost a few points in this category due to their sheer size, which makes them more challenging to carry even if it's empty, let alone loaded down with a full day's worth of refreshments for you and your eight friends.
If you're going to spend your hard-earned money on a piece of gear, you want it to last. This fact is just as true for coolers as any other piece of gear - especially because a failure of a cooler could mean food poisoning! The durability of any piece of gear comes down to a few simple factors: the quality of its materials and components, the style of construction, and the overall design of the gear. The coolers we tested feature a wide variety and quality of materials.
The models that scored lower in our durability tests use light to mid-weight nylon or canvas with middle-of-the-road zippers and regular construction regarding stitching or heat welding. The higher-end models feature heavy rubber or treated nylon, have heavy-duty zippers and components, reinforced seams and pressure points, and a more robust design and construction. All of these aspects affect the overall durability and lasting power.
When testing gear, we go out of our way to be extra hard on it to simulate years of wear during the months of testing. We know you likely won't treat your gear like we treat these coolers, and we hope that the beating we give them helps you get an idea of their toughness and ability to last as long as you want to use it. We approached testing durability in several different ways. Our first and most straightforward approach was to use the cooler as an average consumer will most likely use it. We wanted to see if the product could withstand simple everyday usage.
Our next step was to go above and beyond ordinary use, really abusing these coolers to see what they can handle. Generally, this meant throwing them around, dragging them on the ground, and filling them to the brim with heavy drinks. We were also packing, emptying, repacking, and bouncing them around in trunks and truck beds, leaving them out in the rain, burying them in the sand, and anything else we could think of.
The most durable coolers we tested are the Yeti Flip and M30 and the Engel. All of these coolers feature incredibly tough, wear-resistant outer fabric, durable components, sturdy zippers, reinforced stitching, and a design made to be used and abused. The RTIC, while not quite as impressive as the Engel or Yeti models, is also built to last. It is made of durable, sturdy fabric, but has a couple of concerns that we didn't find in the Yeti or Engel models.
The IceMule Pro is relatively durable and resistant to our abuse, though the attachment points of the straps seemed perhaps not as reliable or as robust as we'd like them to be. Not surprisingly, some of the coolers that performed the lowest in this category also had the weakest material. However, these coolers (the Coleman and Igloo) are also some of the cheapest we reviewed so you might not be so upset about replacing them when they bite the dust.
While we didn't rate any of the coolers on their accessories, we did make notes of them. Certain accessories can add to your adventure, by providing a bottle opener you can't forget at home, holding additional non-food items, or providing easy attachment points to make the cooler more versatile. However, while these features may add some convenience, they don't affect overall usability, and therefore are mentioned only as notes and not included in the overall scores of each cooler.
At first glance, soft coolers seem dichotomous, yet somehow all the same. When you delve deeper into the world of coolers, you'll find that they're as varied as that of any other gear category and that more models continue to hit the market, summer after summer. You'll find specialty coolers made for hiking, high-end models made for long-term cooler needs, standard models that are more like a lunch box, and everything in between. While reviewing these products, we went out of our way to imagine what every day, the unique, and the serious gear user and abuser might use them for and do those things: trips into the desert, long hikes, dinner parties, beach days, rainy camping weekends, and BBQs. We hauled these products all around and put all them through their paces. In doing so, we were able to compile one of the most comprehensive reviews of soft coolers currently available. We hope that the information compiled here helps you find the right cooler to fit your lifestyle!
— Maggie Brandenburg