Some coolers will keep your bacon cold all weekend for the final morning's breakfast, and some will last for years of intensive abuse. And then there's the REI Co-op Cool Trail Split Pack. What it lacks in durability and insulation prowess it makes up for by being an exceptionally convenient package for solo adventuring. With the cooler on the bottom and plenty of room on top for all your non-cooler-related items, this pack really lets you bring it all. It's a convenient setup with well-thought-out features that's also surprisingly comfortable to carry and is consistently our favorite option for any time we had a lot of dry goods as well as cooler provisions to bring along.
REI Co-op Cool Trail Split Pack Review
Cons: Zipper not leakproof, thin insulation, less durable, loose sternum strap
Manufacturer: REI Co-op
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Our Analysis and Test Results
The Cool Trail Split Pack is a half backpack, half cooler option that has comfortable backpack straps and a sternum strap. Its interior is leakproof, but the zippers are not. The cooler section fits 12 cans plus ice, and the dry storage area on top easily holds trail accessories like an extra layer, a first aid kit, snacks, a camera, etc.
Probably the least impressive part of the Split Pack is its insulation testing performance. Where some of its competitors lasted over four days holding food-safe temperatures of 40°F or less, this one made it just 32 hours in our hot room before rising to unsafe food temps. Another five hours after that (37 hours total), it surpassed the average "cold beer" temperature of 50°F. This isn't totally surprising, given its lightweight PE foam insulation that's merely 10mm thick. However, given that its intended usage is for a single day of adventuring, we think it's more than adequate to do the job at hand.
Importantly, while the inner PEVA lining is leakproof and holds ice long after it's turned to water, the zipper is not. So while you're carrying it, it will stay nice and dry, but if you tip it on its side to say or slide it under your seat as you travel, it will leak.
Ease of Use
REI really thought things through when it comes to the usability of this multi-function pack. Not only is the half-and-half design convenient for truly bringing all you might need for a full solo day in the backcountry or at the park, but there are also plenty of features to make it even handier. Two large, mesh side pockets can hold the beverage you're currently consuming or become excellent trash collectors. The top dry section is large enough to easily hold all your ten essentials while the over-the-top flap is a large, easy-access pocket for stuff you might need to use en route. Front lash straps make it easy to attach additional items and don't have to be messed with to gain access to the cooler or dry storage.
The cooler section itself can also be completely removed from the pack, so you could put it in your fridge or freezer the night before if you're feeling really prepared (pre-cooling a cooler is a great way to extend the lifespan of your cooler's ice). While it's in the pack, it's accessed by both its regular zipper and an additional zipper on the outside of the pack, hidden under a cover flap. This double zipper system pretty much guarantees you'll need to set down the whole thing to rummage around in the cooler, but also adds an extra layer of protection to your chilled goods. The lid of the cooler also velcros to the underside of its compartment within the pack to keep it all opening and closing together while in use. Because the pack splits in half to reach the cooler, a full dry storage compartment counterbalances the open bag, stopping it from tipping over like so many other backpack models tend to do. And though this cooler isn't particularly large, with capacity enough for 12 regular-sized cans plus ice, we think it's plenty large enough for 1-2 people on a day's worth of adventuring.
Another easy A for the Split Pack! Not only is it more convenient because it's a backpack, but it's also actually comfortable to carry. The shoulder straps are wide and pliable, offering both support and comfort. The pack alone is a featherlight 2.4 lbs, so you're not carrying much more weight than the actual items you're putting in this bag. Though it (like the vast majority of backpack coolers) lacks a waistbelt, we didn't find ourselves too upset about it even when it was packed full on a long slog up a canyon - though we did manage to soak the back padding with sweat! The shoulder straps are a bit on the wide side for some narrower shoulders, but the sternum strap helps to correct that. Of all the backpack coolers we tested, this is one of our favorites when it comes to actually being able to carry it - fully loaded - for long distances.
This is one other area in which the design of the Trail Split struck a compromise that's perhaps not the same deal other coolers have made. While it's made of recycled ripstop nylon with a polyester interior (and all eco-friendly, bluesign® compliant), it's just not living up to some of the super-intense, beefy models that can take some hardcore abuse. It does have pretty solid construction for what it is, but cut down on weight and added extra comfort by using less intensively durable materials. We don't think that trade-off is a terrible thing for what you get, though we would like to see a beefier bottom that is better able to withstand being set down on whatever picnic surface you choose. Additionally, the sternum strap slides a little too easily for our taste, and can actually come off its rail, which it's not supposed to do. While we didn't lose ours, we read several other reports from users saying one half or the other accidentally fell off somewhere along the trail. Bummer.
Considering that this pack is both a cooler AND a daypack, we think it's a pretty exceptional value. If you're after a super insulative cooler or an amazing daypack, this is neither of those. But if you love striking a middle ground and having one awesomely useful piece of gear, this is your jam. For a pretty low price compared to most of the competition, you don't have to sacrifice bringing cold beverages and food OR an extra layer and a guidebook to reference while on your adventures.
Though it doesn't win an award this time around, we think the REI Co-op Cool Trail Split Pack is an extremely useful piece of equipment. It does the hard job of merging a cooler and a daypack into this wonderful little bag that won't break the bank. It's not the most rugged, nor does it have the longest-lasting ice, but for bringing along those dry goods on your adventure, it's hard to beat this bag.
— Maggie Brandenburg