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Over the last 6 years, we've vetted, purchased, and tested over 30 soft coolers. Our most recent test compares 13 of the best models available today. Soft coolers offer portability and versatility that traditional hard coolers can't. From lunchboxes to beach days, we meticulously put these soft-shelled sidekicks through the paces, side-by-side, to discover which are the best insulators, the supremely rugged, and the sensationally 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 exhaustive testing will help you identify the perfect cooler for you.
We are continually impressed by the Engel HD30. It provides top-notch insulation, keeping raw foods appropriately cold (below 40 degrees Fahrenheit) for just over three days in our insulation tests. While many soft coolers have bulky zippers that are difficult to use or narrow openings that hinder access, the Engel stands out as remarkably easy to use. With corners that unclip, the top conveniently opens further to allow quick loading and locating of contents. On top of that, this is one of the largest coolers we tested, fitting an impressive 48 cans, making it a solid contender to guard your food and drink for a long weekend of camping. Despite its bulky size, the Engel is more portable than we expected, featuring an easy two-person carry using the end handles. Even after several years of regular use, its durable construction has proven itself worth the investment, with consistent performance, unchanged over time, and even looking pretty much the same as the day we first bought it.
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 fully-loaded bag isn't the ideal cooler to cart a mile down the beach. But with all sorts of additional helpful features like extra handles, a removable bottle opener, and an additional pocket, the Engel continues to outcompete even the newest models for yet another year, remaining our favorite soft cooler. It may not be cheap, but it is impressive.
At first glance, the AO Coolers 24 Pack Canvas Cooler may not look like much. It doesn't have the snazzy laminated exterior and waterproof zipper that so many others boast. Yet underneath this unassuming exterior, this is a totally decent soft cooler that's simple to use and easy to love. Thick foam surrounding the entirety of your contents provides reliable insulation 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 later locate what you're seeking. On the outside, there is a large zippered pocket that provides a well-above-average amount of dry storage, and its duffel-style handles can be joined together for easy transportation. Its flexible shape allows you to fold it flat for storage (a unique feature that most of the competition can't claim) and easily accommodates tall objects, such as 750 ml wine bottles.
The AO loses some points since its exterior and zipper are not waterproof, though the regular zipper is much easier to use than waterproof ones, which typically 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. We also wish the shoulder strap was longer for cross-body wear. Lastly, this model lacks the high-end look of the more premium models in our test, but that might not matter to you. These drawbacks are minor. All in all, this cooler performs well above its price tag, offering a strong value.
With many exciting backpack coolers now on the scene, we retested this pack next to several new models, and the IceMule Pro handily holds its own among the backpack-style coolers. Though this cooler requires a bit of a learning curve, it proves itself incredibly easy to use and comfortable to carry. The large roll-top design allows easy access to its contents, so you won't have to remove everything on top to reach that last cold soda at the bottom. Soft, wide shoulder straps, a longer torso length, and sides easily inflated or deflated by hand make this pack much more comfortable to carry than its many rigid competitors. With a lightly padded back panel, breathable mesh, and a more flexible structure, we found ourselves much less sweaty hiking this model down the trail than any other backpack cooler. It also performs quite well among backpack models 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 provided by the air-filled walls. However, we can't quite get the top rolled tight enough to be waterproof, though it only leaks little drips when completely inverted. When fully loaded with a whopping 39 cans, we wish we had a waist belt to take some of the weight off our shoulders. But for lighter loads, wearing the IceMule is like carrying a grade school backpack. 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 choice for bringing a few refreshments along for a multi-mile hike or for any destination a little further from the parking lot.
Year after year, the Yeti Hopper Flip 12 continues to impress us. This tried and true model boasts impressive insulation for a small cooler. Its shape and size are convenient and easy to use with a simple design that simply works. Yeti products are known to be strong and primed to tackle all your wild adventures, and this one is no exception. The latest rendition of this crowd favorite includes a top handle (in addition to the two side handles from previous iterations) to make grabbing and going even more effortless. Yeti also includes a tube of zipper lubricant and helpful directions for caring for and making the most out of your investment.
The Flip 12 doesn't come with any additional pockets or features, while many other coolers do. Those extras, well, cost extra on top of an already expensive cooler. Though this latest version costs marginally 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, the Flip should be on your shortlist.
The Arctic Titan Zipperless offers great utility for a steal. Despite having some of the thinnest insulation of any model we tested, it still managed to maintain recommended food temperatures for a little under two days, which was right around the group average. The zipperless design for the main compartment makes it completely painless to use, and the hard plastic interior makes it simple to pack. A removable plastic shelf adds functionality, keeping sensitive items out of melted ice, and numerous pockets adorn the outside for wine corkscrews, napkins, and silverware. It even comes with a bottle opener clipped to one end.
The low price tag does come at the cost of some durability, though. This is not the model we would expect to last the longest, as its materials and craftsmanship are not top-tier. The additional features also ride the line between being handy and superfluous. The shelf is easy to knock loose and fall into the main chamber, and the bottle opener is not the best. This isn't the model we recommend for hardcore use, but if you simply need a small cooler for occasional use and want to spend the least, this model offers a lot of value.
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 six 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 consists 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 takes place in various environments, from hot desert hikes to road trips from muggy Minnesota to sunny California, for a well-rounded set of conditions. All this adds up to a comprehensive review, which will thoroughly equip you to make a well-suited soft cooler purchase.
Our testing of soft coolers is divided between four rating metrics:
Insulation Value (30% of total score weighting)
Ease of Use (25% weighting)
Portability (25% weighting)
Durability (20% weighting)
Our expert panel consists of Senior Review Editor, Maggie Nichols, 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 been testing coolers and other gear for GearLab since 2017, personally having tested over 60 different coolers, from traditional ice boxes to the latest in portable powered technology.
Analysis and Test Results
Each contender's overall score is carefully calculated through a myriad of tests spanning four crucial, mutually exclusive metrics. In order to discover the best cooler for every use, we broke down our testing into specific individual and comparative assessments of every model's Insulation Value, Ease of Use, Portability, and Durability. All four of these metrics include numerous tests and evaluations that inform each cooler's score in that metric. We weighted each metric according to its overall importance to the general experience of using a soft cooler. When the metrics' scores are totaled up, each cooler ends up with a score between 1 and 100. Here we break down those metrics individually and discuss the best performers across individual tests and full metric scores
When it comes to performance in soft coolers, you often get what you pay for in terms of durability and insulation value. Some of the most expensive products we tested offer some of the most impressive insulation powers and are made of impressively durable materials. However, this gear category continues to explode with innovations at competitive prices, and the correlation of price to performance is not a perfect linear relationship. Several models we tested challenge the idea that more money equals a better cooler, offering exceptional values and some impressive niche performances.
The AO 24 Pack is functional and well-priced cooler. Though not as rugged or waterproof as many options, we still find ourselves reaching for its straightforward functionality and above-average insulation time and time again. The most inexpensive cooler we generally recommend is the Arctic Zone Titan. It's surprisingly easy to use and can come in handy for infrequent use at a bargain price.
The FDA recommends keeping perishable foods that require refrigeration at or below 40º Fahrenheit; this helps prolong their freshness by slowing down the bacteria and other such nasties from growing inside. 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 is the most rigorous metric in our testing. Our head-to-head hot room insulation tests highlight which coolers provide the greatest insulation value.
We noted two critical temperature thresholds during our testing: 40º F and 50º F. While 40º Fahrenheit is the food-safe threshold recommended by the FDA, 50º F represents the average maximum ideal temperature for serving beer. Of course, the ideal beer-drinking temperature depends on the type of beer you're enjoying and your personal preference. The American Homebrewers Association breaks down the optimal serving temperature for many different types of beer. We chose 50º F in part as an average maximum ideal temperature for serving beer and also as a second benchmark temperature to easily grasp the rate of temperature increase as ice melts in each cooler.
After years of testing and retesting, the Engel HD30 also performed admirably in our intensive hot-room testing, lasting a full 73 hours below 40° F internally. The Engel then continued to maintain internal temperatures at refreshing, sub 50° F for 88 and 79 hours, respectively. The Engel's watertight zipper effectively seals insulated sides that are nearly 2 inches thick.
Among smaller coolers, those with volumes 20L or less, the REI Co-op Cool Haul 18 is a top performer. Despite lacking a waterproof exterior or leakproof zipper, the Cool Haul kept temperatures below 40° F for a whopping 61 hours, which is just over 2.5 days. It maintained sub 50° F temps for 75 hours, offering over three days of refreshing beverages. The OtterBox Trooper 20 and AO 24 are also noteworthy here, offering food-safe temps below 40° F for 61 and 57 hours, respectively.
Among backpack models, the IceMule and its roll-top lid continue to reign supreme, even after several years of testing, regular use, and retesting, maintaining temperatures below 40° F for 52 hours and below 50° F for 55 hours. The REI Co-op Cool Trail Pack outlasted it when it comes to refreshing beverage temps, holding below 50° F for 59 hours. However, the Cool Trail Pack failed to stay below 40° F after just 9 hours, making us not excited to entrust it to keep any sensitive food items fresh.
As soft-sided coolers have become increasingly popular, the market has become increasingly innovative. Once, the presence of an airtight zipper and waterproof exterior was an indicator of solid insulation. Now, a wide variety of closure solutions continue to impress us with their ability to keep things chilled. Models with the now old-school approach of having a water/airproof zipper include the Engel, RTIC SoftPak, and Yeti Hopper Flip. The Yeti M30 has replaced its waterproof zipper with an equally effective magnetic seal, the IceMule Pro has a (mostly sealed) roll-top (like a dry bag), and the OtterBox Trooper features a fully sealed, plastic flip-top lid.
In an interesting twist, the Arctic Titan Zipperless has neither a zipper nor a roll-top and isn't even fully sealed. It closes like an old-school hard cooler, with a plastic lid that nestles snugly into the top of its plastic body. It's lined on the outside by a thinly insulated fabric bag. Despite not being airtight or leakproof, it managed to hold ice for 40 hours during our testing. Still, other coolers have more traditional zippers that aren't watertight, yet they manage to provide effective insulation, including the REI Cool Haul, REI Pack Away, and AO 24 Pack.
It's also worth mentioning that of the coolers we tested, three of the six that managed above-average insulation testing results (keeping temperatures below 40º F for 44+ hours) are not watertight and are significantly more budget-friendly than the top two performers in this metric. Notably, the REI Cool Haul (61 hours below 40º F), AO 24 Pack (55 hours), and IceMule Pro (52 hours) are all impressive insulators for weekend uses and cost a lot less than you might expect. The Arctic Titan Zipperless comes close as well (40 hours), making it another promising option. If your needs are modest, and so is your budget, these coolers offer good insulation at a fraction of the cost.
Ease of Use
Ease of use is important. Some designs make using a cooler more enjoyable. We also found some options that proved frustrating to use.
To evaluate this metric, we focused on how easy the coolers are to load and unload—how they open and how challenging the zipper or closing mechanism is to use, and if they stay open while you pack 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 chilled Pinot Grigio for that fancy picnic? We also looked at the features each came with and evaluated their actual usability. As we discovered, just because a bottle opener is clipped onto the end, unfortunately, 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.
The Yeti M30 cuts out the cumbersome zipper for an easy magnetic strip closure instead. While we like the innovation, we aren't convinced the M30 design nailed it. It's the only soft cooler we tested that actually snaps closed around your hand while you try to grab a beverage, making it frustrating to load and unload without using something to prop it open—like a wooden spoon or a friend.
Though robust and watertight, its zipper is much easier to use and comes with zipper lubricant included, helping it to remain explicative-free. The Yeti Flip and the RTIC SoftPak also come standard with zipper lubricant that helps their zippers glide more easily, though they aren't as smooth as the Engel. Lubricant needs to be reapplied to zippers frequently, especially in dry, hot, outdoor environments. All of these coolers feature extra handles for additional carrying options, tie-downs to attach them to your ATV or truck bed, and even some extra features 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 IceMule Pro is one of our favorites once you get used to it because of its simple roll-top design and comfortable straps that make carrying this bag a breeze. The REI Trail Pack is one of our favorites for fully loaded distance missions, offering all the comfort of a backpacking backpack with its perfectly padded weight-bearing waistbelt. If you're ready to ditch the zip for a model that's both user-friendly and seals, the plastic latch and flip-open lid of the OtterBox Trooper are where it's at.
The REI Cool Haul, Trail Pack, and Pack Away, and the AO 24 Pack all have traditional zippers that are easy to use and just the right amount of additional design elements or features that make them quite handy. The AO and REI Pack Away are as easy to use as a simple duffel bag. The AO 24 features clips on the ends of the top zipper and a single long external pocket with plenty of space to bring along dry items and your favorite binoculars. The Pack Away adds onto this design with four 3-loop daisy chains located around the body of the bag and the ability to fold flat — adding capacity (albeit in an awkward shape without a good, structured bottom) and making it easier to store when not in use.
The REI Cool Haul features several webbing loops, two exterior pockets, and an internal zippered pocket to keep you organized. It has a bottle opener (that works) attached to it, so you'll never have to worry about forgetting one again. The interior insulation also slides out of the cooler's main body, making it even easier to load on the counter or clean in the sink after a spill. Both the Otterbox Trooper and Arctic Titan Zipperless also come with bottle openers on the outsides of the bag, though we struggled to effectively use the one on the Titan. The bottle opener on the Otterbox is actually a flat multi-tool, which we found useful occasionally but not enough to be a deal-breaker. The REI Trail Pack has several extra pockets around the outside and top of the bag, aiding in your long-distance adventure. Additionally, the entire cooler component can be removed, converting the entire thing into an uninsulated backpack when you need it.
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. 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? Without considering overall capacity, the most portable coolers will be more comfortable to carry for longer distances and amounts of time.
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 equally comfortable. We've tested several of this style, and the IceMule Pro is hands down our favorite for sheer carrying comfort. It has soft, wide shoulder straps, a longer torso for more even weight distribution, and a flexible shape that accommodates whatever you've filled it with. The walls of the cooler can also be inflated or deflated with a simple valve, adding both insulation and comfort against your back. In the face of some innovative competition, for years now, the IceMule remains the most comfortable model we've tested for carrying moderate provisions on a multi-mile hike.
The REI Trail Pack is another noteworthy competitor here. By adding a fully supportive, weight-bearing waist belt, this cooler is ideal for relieving your shoulders when you need your cooler filled to the brim with delicious picnic provisions. While the IceMule is our favorite for smaller and medium loads because of its comfortable straps and flexible body, the Trail Pack is our go-to choice for heavy cargo. It's comfortable like a daypack and really saves your shoulders over the long haul. If you're planning to bring a handful of snacks and beverages for you and a few buddies, the comfort of the IceMule is top-notch. If you're scheming to supply a full picnic and afternoon full of refreshments for everyone in your party, that extra weight is better handled by the Trail Pack.
Among the many tote and messenger style options we tested, we have our favorites. Models with flexible 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 12 scored well thanks to their well-padded shoulder straps and additional options to hand carry or partner carry them when they're loaded down. The REI Cool Haul is also a favorite, with its soft, malleable body and long padded shoulder strap that makes it far more pleasant across your body when weighed down. The softer canvas exteriors and flexible insulated walls of the AO 24 Pack and REI Pack Away are both much more comfortable bouncing against our sides and wear like an old favorite duffel bag.
If you're going to spend your money on gear, you want it to last. This fact is just as true for coolers as anything else you own. Any gear's durability 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 also packed, emptied, repacked, and bounced them around in back seats and truck beds, left them out in the sun for hours, strapped them into water-logged boats, 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 seam construction. The higher-end models feature heavy rubber or treated nylon, have heavy-duty zippers and components, reinforced and welded seams, and more robust designs and construction. All of these aspects affect the overall durability and lasting power.
The most durable coolers we tested are the Engel HD30, Yeti M30, and Yeti Flip 12. 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. Even after several years of regular use, all three of these models work just as well as when they were new and still look nearly as nice.
The OtterBox Trooper is another durable contender. It has a thick, waterproof exterior and a fully sealed rubber gasket around a plastic flip-top lid. This model also features a protective layer on its underside to help protect against abrasion.
The IceMule Pro is relatively durable and resistant to our abuse, though the straps' attachment points seemed perhaps not quite 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 have the weakest material. However, these coolers (the Coleman 16-Can and Arctic Zone Titan Deep Freeze) are also some of the least expensive we tested, so you might not be so upset about replacing them when they bite the dust.
While reviewing these products, we went out of our way to imagine the many ways in which they may be used. Then we put them to the test, toting them along for summer trips into the desert, long hikes on hot days, picnics in the park, sunny beach days, rainy camping weekends, and impromptu BBQs and dinner parties. We hauled these coolers around, putting them through plenty of use and abuse, and we've compiled what we believe is the most comprehensive review of soft coolers available. We hope that the information presented here helps you find the right cooler to fit your lifestyle.
We've been back in the ring testing this year's top water...
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GearLab is founded on the principle of honest, objective, reviews. Our experts test thousands of products each year using thoughtful test plans that bring out key performance differences between competing products. And, to assure complete independence, we buy all the products we test ourselves. No cherry-picked units sent by manufacturers. No sponsored content. No ads. Just real, honest, side-by-side testing and comparison.