Over the last 5 years, we've vetted, purchased, and tested 24 soft coolers. Our latest trials compare the best 14 models available in 2020. Soft coolers offer portability and versatility that traditional hard coolers can't. From lunchboxes to beach days, we meticulously tested these sidekick coolers 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, and went through hundreds of pounds of ice. No matter your budget or needs, our thorough testing will help you identify the perfect cooler for you.Related: The Best Coolers and Ice Chests of 2020
The Best Soft Coolers of 2020
Best Overall Soft Cooler
We are seriously impressed by the Engel HD30. It packs some intense insulation powers, keeping raw foods safely cold for just over four full days. It's easy to use as well. With sides that unclip, the top can conveniently be opened further to allow quick loading and locating of contents. On top of that, this is the largest cooler we tested, with an impressive 48-can capacity, making it a solid contender to carry what you need for a long weekend of camping. Despite its bulky size, the Engel is more portable than we expected, featuring a handy two-person carry if you've loaded it up with too many heavy items. Due to quality and durable construction, we expect this model to survive lots of use and abuse for years.
Of course, large capacity always comes with a trade-off in how far you're willing to carry it. Even with a friend to help, this isn't the ideal cooler to cart a mile down the beach to the picnic. But 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 third year in a row to remain our top choice. It's may not be cheap, but it is impressive.
Read review: Engel Coolers HD30
Best Bang for Your Buck
AO Coolers 24 Pack Canvas Cooler
At first glance, this cooler may not look like much. It doesn't have the laminated exterior and waterproof zipper that so many others boast. Yet underneath this unassuming exterior, the AO Coolers 24 Pack is a solid cooler that's simple to use and easy to love. Thick insulation provides reliable freshness for an above-average amount of time. A single opening that's longer than the interior of the bag makes it uncomplicated to load and find what you're seeking. One large zippered pocket on the outside provides a fair amount of dry storage, and duffel style handles can be clipped together for easy transportation. Its flexible shape not only allows you to fold it flat for storage but also more easily accommodates tall objects - like a bottle of celebratory champagne.
The AO does lose some points for lack of a waterproof zipper and exterior - though the regular zipper is much easier to use than waterproof ones that require a lot more tugging. And though its hull isn't as stiff and impenetrable as some of the others we tested, it's still pretty strong and well-constructed. The shoulder strap could be longer. These drawbacks are very minor. All in all, this cooler performs well above its price tag, providing the most value among all models we tested.
Read review: AO Coolers 24 Pack Canvas Cooler
Best Value on a Tight Budget
Arctic Zone Titan Deep Freeze Zipperless
The Arctic Titan Zipperless is about utility for a steal. Despite having some of the thinnest insulation of any model we tested, it still managed to maintain safe food temperatures for over two days, reaching just shy of the average. The zipperless design for the main compartment is painless to use and the hard plastic interior makes it simple to pack. A removable shelf adds functionality, and numerous pockets adorn the outside. It even comes with its own bottle opener clipped to one end.
The low price tag comes at the cost of some durability. This is not the model we would expect to last the longest, as its materials and craftmanship are not top-tier. The plastic bin inside the Titan that stops melting ice from leaking onto your backseat is flimsy, too. Many of the features thrown seemingly everywhere also ride the line between being handy and almost not quite working. The shelf is easy to knock into the inner contents and the bottle opener isn't the best. This isn't the model we recommend for everyday use, but if you need a small cooler for occasional use and want to spend the least, this is the model to go for.
Read review: Arctic Zone Titan Deep Freeze Zipperless
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 Backpack Cooler
With many exciting backpack coolers now on the scene, we retested this pack next to several new models, and the IceMule Pro remains our Top Pick for Long Distance Carrying for the fourth 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 enjoy the extra padding the air-filled walls provide. However, we can't quite get the top rolled tight enough to be waterproof, though it only leaks little drips when completely inverted. While we wish it had more pockets on the outside for extra items, we enjoy using the IceMule Pro and it is 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 trash. This is also one of the most comfortable backpack models we tested, and we have no problems carrying it for miles to an exciting destination picnic. As a bonus, 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 as impressive. We worry a bit about its longevity; especially of the bottom of this bag as it's dragged over rough surfaces. And the sternum strap is a bit looser than we would like it to be. The relatively thin cooler section isn't up for anything crazy long, 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 GearLab cooler guru and has tested over 50 models, from traditional ice boxes to the latest powered technology.
Before we started timing how long our drinks stayed cold, this review began with market research into which soft coolers are worth trying out. Every year the number of impressive-looking soft coolers seems to grow, and we've been expanding our selection of test-worthy models for five years. Our in-depth insulation testing was developed in conjunction with Steven Tata, whose background in engineering helped us to design realistic and intensive testing of these coolers. Testing consisted of a quantitative ice melt test and extensive 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 road trips from Minnesota to California, 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
Here at GearLab, we appreciate high-scoring products that provide exceptional value. Though we don't 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 some of the best value, which includes such products as the AO 24 Pack and Arctic Titan Zipperless. They are two of our winners of our Best Buy Awards. The AO and is a quality product that performs like it costs more, and the Titan offers reasonable performance for an impressively low cost. Yet some coolers, though expensive, are well worth the investment because they'll last through years of use. Our Editor's Choice Award winner, the Engel HD30, is one such product. It's the top-scoring cooler we tested, yet doesn't even have the highest price tag.
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 perform 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 closures, 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 few hours, achieving an impressive 103 hours of chill. The Engel still beat out the Yeti M30 by over a day - a seriously impressive feat. Even the impressive but smaller Yeti Hopper Flip 12 was no match for either the Engel or the Homitt. That said, after the Engel and Homitt, both the Yeti Flip and the M30 proved themselves to be 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 REI Cool Haul is the next closest competition but doesn't blow us away with its insulating prowess, lasting 58 hours.
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, Homitt, 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 has us doubting its durability in addition to the detriment it was to the cooler's insulation value.
In an interesting twist, the Arctic Titan Zipperless has neither a zipper nor a roll-top. It closes like an old school hard cooler, with a plastic lid that fits into a plastic body, lined on the outside by an insulatory fabric bag. Even with this less-secure-sounding closure system, it still held ice for 51 hours during our testing. And though watertight zippers are all the rage these days, a couple of models without these beefy zippers performed well in our insulation testing. The REI Haul and our Best Buy Award winner, the AO 24 Pack, both made it over 50 hours with sub 40º temps, despite having regular zippers and non-waterproof exteriors. They are both lined with a waterproof fabric inside and very thick insulation around the whole body. While their scores may not look impressive next to the top performers, they're not shabby at all.
It's also worth mentioning that all three of these non-watertight coolers offering competitive insulation scores (the Titan, AO, and REI Haul) are far less expensive than most of the top models in this category. If you want serious insulation without the serious price tag, these are worth considering. The Homitt, the top performer in this single metric, isn't too much more expensive (though read more about the Homitt's durability before deciding if it's right for you). However, if you're ready to invest in serious insulation and need serious space, the Engel is where it's at.
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.
To evaluate this metric, 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 adaptable each cooler is to different sizes and shapes of contents: can it fit a carton of eggs for a breakfast cookout or a bottle of champagne for that special celebration? We also looked at the features each came with and evaluated their actual usability. Just because a bottle opener is clipped on one end, doesn't mean it will reliably open bottles.
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 watertight zipper that performed the best is that of the Engel HD30. Its zipper, though robust and watertight, is much easier to use, and comes with zipper lubricant included, ensuring that it remains 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 daily adventures. 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.
The REI Cool Haul and AO 24 Pack both have regular zippers that are easy to use, and just the right amount of additional design elements or features that make them quite handy. The AO is as easy to use as a simple duffel bag and clips on the ends of the top zipper make it easy for the top to stay open while you load and unload it. One long external pocket has plenty of space to bring some dry items along with. The REI Haul has several webbing loops, two exterior pockets, and an internal zippered pocket to keep you organized. It also has a bottle opener attached to it so you'll never have to remember yours again.
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.
We 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. The clear winners in this category are the 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 in this style, and the IceMule Pro is our favorite. With soft, wide shoulder straps, a longer torso for more even weight distribution, and a flexible shape, the IceMule 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 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 REI Cool Haul is also a favorite, with its soft, malleable body and long padded shoulder strap that make it much more pleasant weighed down across your body. The softer canvas of the AO 24 Pack feels more comfortable bouncing against our side as we walk than other models with more rigid sides.
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. The durability of any piece of gear comes down to a few simple factors: the quality of its materials and components, the method of construction, and the overall design. The coolers we tested feature a wide variety and quality of materials. We assessed durability over months of use, paying attention to how they handle daily rigors. We threw them around, dropped them on the ground, and filled 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 sun, and anything else we could think of.
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.
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 of similar materials. It is made of durable, sturdy fabric, but has a couple of longevity concerns that we don'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, Arctic Zone, 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.
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