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Hydro Flask Unbound 22L Review

A mediocre performance for a high-end price.
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Price:  $275 List | $180.73 at REI
Compare prices at 3 resellers
Pros:  Handy pockets, backpack carry, durable, leakproof zipper
Cons:  Not impressive insulation, tips over easily, very stiff, expensive
Manufacturer:   Hydro Flask
By Maggie Brandenburg ⋅ Senior Review Editor  ⋅  Nov 15, 2019
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SCORE


RANKED
#9 of 11
  • Insulation Value - 30% 4
  • Ease of Use - 25% 5
  • Portability - 25% 7
  • Durability - 20% 7

Our Verdict

The Hydro Flask Unbound 22L is a stylish backpack cooler with some helpful features, but relatively unimpressive insulation. It has extra pockets and a chic design that we like, but it tips over quite easily, is very stiff for carrying, and the back padding is a sweat-collection trap. Though it's quite durable, the insulation and the carrying experience don't live up to the competition.


Compare to Similar Products

 
Awards  Editors' Choice Award Best Buy Award Top Pick Award  
Price $180.73 at REI
Compare at 3 sellers
$180.82 at Amazon$93.99 at Amazon$114.95 at REI
Compare at 2 sellers
$55.93 at REI
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Pros Handy pockets, backpack carry, durable, leakproof zipperVery durable construction, excellent insulation, useful handles and features, comfortable shoulder strapGood insulation, easy to use, simple design, convenient size, affordableDurable design, comfortable to carry when full, good capacity, relatively inexpensiveComfortable to carry, convenient design, good features, tons of dry storage
Cons Not impressive insulation, tips over easily, very stiff, expensiveZippered exterior pocket not waterproof, very largeFrustrating zipperLearning curve for best use, not 100% leakproof, no extra pocketsZipper not leakproof, thin insulation, less durable, loose sternum strap
Bottom Line A mediocre performance for a high-end price.If you’re looking for the best soft cooler on the market today, look no further than this outstanding model from Engel.Great durability and insulation power at a relatively low price.A very different design than most, but by far our favorite to carry over long distances.Though not as hardy as some others, this design combines cooler space and dry storage for an all-in-one pack.
Rating Categories Hydro Flask Unbound 22L Engel HD30 RTIC SoftPak 20 IceMule Pro Cool Trail Split Pack
Insulation Value (30%)
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Ease Of Use (25%)
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Portability (25%)
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Specs Hydro Flask... Engel HD30 RTIC SoftPak 20 IceMule Pro Cool Trail Split...
Carry Style Backpack Messenger Bag Lunchbox Backpack Backpack
Measured Weight (lb) 3.1 lb 5.9 lb 3.0 lb 3.0 lb 2.4 lb
Exterior Fabric 420D nylon Abrasion-resistant fabric Thick nylon shell Mule SkinET 1000D ripstop tarpaulin/vinyl/nylon Recycled ripstop nylon outer/polyester inner
Closure Method Zippered flip top, watertight zip Zippered top, watertight zip Zippered flip top, watertight zip Roll-top Zippered flip top, dry storage cinch and clip
Handles and Straps Backpack straps, carry handle, sternum strap Shoulder strap, carry handles Shoulder strap, carry handle Backpack straps, sternum strap Backpack straps, carry handle, sternum strap
Additional Storage Yes; 2 small exterior (1 mesh and 1 zip), 1 large zip pocket on lid Yes; 1 larger exterior zippered (meant to be waterproof but isn't) Yes; small exterior No; exterior shock cord panel Yes; top half of pack, brain pocket, 2 mesh side pockets
Removable Liner? No No No No No

Our Analysis and Test Results

The Hydro Flask Unbound 22L is a waterproof backpack cooler with a 420D nylon shell and welded seams. It features thick back padding and stiff, upright design.

Performance Comparison


Three backpack coolers included in our tests  from left to right: Ice Mule Pro  Igloo Outdoorsman Gizmo  Hydro Flask Unbound.
Three backpack coolers included in our tests, from left to right: Ice Mule Pro, Igloo Outdoorsman Gizmo, Hydro Flask Unbound.

Insulation Value


The Hydro Flask Unbound has thick insulation and a watertight zipper, like many other models we tested. Unfortunately, this cooler still had an unimpressive insulation performance. The Unbound retained just 1.5 days of FDA-recommended food-safe temperatures, and even that was sketchy. The actual internal temperature fluctuated above and below 40ºF during those 36 hours before finally crossing that threshold for the last time. For this reason, we wouldn't recommend keeping items that have to be kept cold in this cooler (like raw meats), but it still works for beers and sandwiches and things that taste better on ice. While we aren't impressed by the insulation of this pack, it does have a leakproof zipper, provided you remember to close it fully.

Our insulation testing results from the backpack-style models in our review.
Our insulation testing results from the backpack-style models in our review.

Ease of Use


The Hydro Flask has three extra pockets that make it fairly nice to use. One on each side of the body (one zippered and one open top) and a large one comprising the inside of the lid, but accessible from the back of the pack. The lid pocket is quite large, though the zipper opening is rather small, making for a tight squeeze to get items in and out. Like many of the watertight zippers we tested, the Hydro Flask main zipper is a bit challenging to use. It's a bit tough to pull and goes around all four corners, adding to the challenge. A bit of zipper lubricant goes a long way, but you'll pay extra for that. Loading this cooler isn't bad once it's broken in enough that the lid stays open on its own. The Unbound's tall, thin design makes it a tipping hazard both during loading and anytime you set it down.

The top pocket is hard to get in and out of  due to this too short zipper.
The top pocket is hard to get in and out of, due to this too short zipper.

Portability


This backpack cooler makes carting your picnic around much more pleasant than a messenger-style cooler. That said, we tested several backpack coolers, and this one isn't our favorite - that goes to the IceMule Pro, our Top Pick for carrying your cold goods long distances. While the Hydro Flask has thickly padded back panel and shoulder straps, the shoulder straps are rather close together for individuals with broader shoulders and the back panel is a sweat trap on hot days. Additionally, this is the most rigid of the backpack coolers, and combined with a fairly short torso length, means you can feel the bottom edge of the cooler bumping uncomfortably on your lower back. We do appreciate the utility of the removable sternum strap though, and will gladly take a loaded down backpack cooler over a single-sided carry any day.

This full back panel quickly became full of sweat.
This full back panel quickly became full of sweat.

Durability


This cooler is built to last. With a 420D nylon shell that's puncture, tear, and abrasion-resistant and welded seams to boot, the Unbound feels solid and sturdy. All seams are well constructed, and even the plastic pieces seem to be good quality. We did have a bit of a funk going on inside this cooler at first from a spilled container of food. But once the lid was broken in and would stay open on its own, the smell dissipated easily. Even the zipper pulls are hardy and withstood all the yanking and tugging we gave them. Hydro Flask also backs this cooler with a solid five-year manufacturer's warranty.

The Hydro Flask Unbound withstood being dragged in the sand and sitting in a wet kayak for hours on end.
The Hydro Flask Unbound withstood being dragged in the sand and sitting in a wet kayak for hours on end.

Value


Retailing for $275, this is one of the most expensive coolers in this review. For that price, we expected more than the unimpressive insulation, not ideal backpack comfort, and awkwardly tippy shape and hard to use pockets we found. Unless you're head over heels for the look of this backpack, we think there are far better deals out there.

Ice packs last longer than ice  take up much less space  and help keep your cooler cleaner.

Conclusion


With a big name and a big price tag, we were expecting to like this backpack cooler more than we do. It's not a bad cooler - we enjoy the handy side pockets, the durable construction and leakproof zipper, and the useful backpack carry. But for the exceptionally high price, we expected better performance than it gives.

This shape is not our favorite to carry on long hikes.
This shape is not our favorite to carry on long hikes.


Maggie Brandenburg