The Best Soft Coolers of 2019
|Price||$199.99 at Amazon||Check Price at Amazon|
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|Pros||Very durable construction, excellent insulation, useful handles and features, comfortable shoulder strap||Extremely durable, easy to use, great insulation||Extremely durable, easy to use, great insulation||Durable design, comfortable to carry when full, good capacity, relatively inexpensive||Lid opens fully for easy access, very stable, excellent insulation, comparatively very low cost|
|Cons||Zippered exterior pocket not waterproof, very large||Very expensive, awkward to carry when full for longer distances||Very expensive||Learning curve for best use, not 100% leakproof, no extra pockets||Boxy construction is less comfortable to carry, zipper is very hard to pull|
|Bottom Line||If you’re looking for the best soft cooler on the market today, look no further than this outstanding model from Engel.||If you're ready to step up your cooler game and you're willing to shell out the money required, this is a good choice.||The best performing personal-sized cooler around.||A very different design than most, but by far our favorite to carry over long distances.||If you’re on the prowl for a cooler that will keep your drinks cold for days and not clean out your bank account, you’ve found a winner!|
|Rating Categories||Engel HD30||YETI Hopper Two 30||YETI Hopper Flip 12||IceMule Pro||Homitt 30 Can|
|Insulation Value (30%)|
|Ease Of Use (25%)|
|Specs||Engel HD30||YETI Hopper Two 30||YETI Hopper Flip 12||IceMule Pro||Homitt 30 Can|
|Style||Shoulder Bag||Shoulder Bag||Lunch-box||Backpack||Shoulder Bag|
|Capacity||48 cans||24 cans||12 cans||24 cans||40 cans|
|Measured Weight (lbs)||5.9 lbs||5.3 lbs||3.1 lbs||3 lbs||4 lbs|
|Exterior Fabric||Abrasion-resistant fabric||YETI "DRYHIDE" heavy duty rubber||YETI "DRYHIDE" heavy duty rubber||Mule SkinET 1000D ripstop tarpaulin/vinyl/nylon||840D TPU|
|Handle/Strap Design||Carry handles and shoulder strap||Carry strap and shoulder strap||Carry strap and shoulder strap||Ventilated backpack strap||Carry strap and shoulder strap|
|Other Pockets?||Yes, 1 larger exterior zippered (meant to be waterproof but isn't)||No||No||No; exterior shock cord panel||Yes, 2 small exterior; one mesh, one waterproof zip|
Best Overall Soft Cooler
We are seriously impressed by the Engel HD30. It outlasted the insulation powers of the previous Editors' Choice, the Yeti Hopper Two 30, by a full day! On top of that, this was the largest cooler we tested, with an impressive 48-can capacity. Despite its bulky size, the Engel was surprisingly portable, 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 the Yeti to become our new Editors' Choice soft cooler. Your wallet will thank you, too, as it costs significantly less than the Yeti.
Read review: Engel Coolers HD30
Best Buy on a Budget
Homitt 30 Can
We were blown away by the performance of this relatively inexpensive little cooler from Homitt. Not only did the Homitt 30 outcompete both Yeti models for insulation value, but it was also a joy to use. Its compact design is quite portable and features relatively durable materials, and strong construction to last the years.While the boxy shape of the Homitt makes it a bit less comfortable to carry for long distances, it was an excellent tabletop once we reached our destination. The zipper is a touch hard to pull, but with the addition of some zipper lubricant (not included), it eased right up. At its price-point, this soft cooler is an absolute no-brainer for our Best Buy Award.
Read review: Homitt 30 Can
Top Pick 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 your 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
Why You Should Trust Us
Our expert panel consists of Senior Review Editors Maggie Brandenburg and Andrew Schurr. Andrew regularly uses just about every category of outdoor gear available, from climbing gear to bikes and snowboards. Andrew works in the ski industry when he's not engaged in other outdoor pursuits, such as a multi-month bike tour of Mongolia and Kyrgyzstan he recently completed. 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. 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 50 and then further refined this selection into 12 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
Soft coolers, put simply, are bags made to keep things cold. Due to an influx of options available on the market over the past couple of years, these useful items find homes with thousands of people looking to adventure and chill. There are so many options to choose from these days; from simple, small models suited to acting like a lunch box or a six-pack caddie, to luxury models with all the bells and whistles, and even backpack options that make you wonder where can't you take it. But the question of "which one is the right one for me?" comes down to what you're hoping to use it for, where you plan to take it, and - let's be honest - how much you're willing to spend. We set out to look at the whole range, from the simplest to the fanciest, to see how they compare and stand up to all the use and abuse our testers could throw at them. In the process, we gained a better understanding of the many options available today, and put together some useful recommendations and observations for you!Related: Buying Advice for Soft Coolers
Even for something as seemingly straightforward as soft coolers, many various situations and uses can arise. While just about any old cooler will tote your beers to the game or cart your lunch to work, you might be on the hunt for something with a bit more versatility. We tested each model during camping trips that lasted weeks, treks to hidden waterfalls, full days on sunny beaches, and long road trips. We tested a wide range of types of coolers for months, retesting and comparing over the years as new kinds and models hit the market.
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.
At Outdoor GearLab, we appreciate high-scoring products that provide exceptional value. You'll find that we've listed the price of each soft cooler and any corresponding award. We also provide a score that encompasses the overall performance of each particular model.
Contenders with both high scores and low price tags are the best value, which includes such products as the Homitt 30. It is the winner of our Best Buy Award and is a top-notch product for the price point. The Igloo Outdoorsman Gizmo also performed rather well, if you're into a budget backpack option. If you're willing to sacrifice a bit of performance to save some cash, the Polar Bear Coolers 24 and the AO 24 Pack Canvas Cooler are good mid-range options. For those on a tight budget, the eBags Crew Cooler II and the Coleman 16-Can are our recommendations. In the case of soft coolers we tested with lower costs, we found that these products do tend to 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 performed better, at least for the most part. However, we also found that external and internal fabrics made a difference, as did the type and seal of zipper used. Models that performed poorly had thinner insulation, less waterproof fabric, non-sealing zippers, or some combination of the three.
The Homitt held ice longer than any other cooler, beating the previous Editors' Choice, the Yeti Hopper Two 30 by a full day, and even outlasting the Engel by several hours! The Engel still beat out the Yeti Hopper Two 30 by nearly 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 Polar Bear 24 Pack nearly performed as well as the much more expensive Yeti coolers. The RTIC SoftPak was the next closest competition but didn't astound us 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 Cans, RTIC SoftPak, Hydro Flask UnBound and Yeti models, all boast a burly waterproof zipper. Coolers like the AO Coolers 24 Pack Canvas Cooler, eBags Crew Cooler II, Igloo Outdoorsman Gizmo and the Polar Bear 24 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 was also of such poor quality we had doubts about 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 Best Buy Homitt 30 Cans.
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 2019
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. Zippers that not only require two hands to open and close but also quite a bit of straining and muttering through clenched teeth. The coolers that performed the best are the Yeti Hopper Two 30 and Engel HD30. Their zippers, though robust and watertight, are much easier to use, and both come with zipper lubricant included, ensuring that they remained explicative-free. They also feature 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. Open-topped models with flip-style lids, like the Yeti Hopper Flip, Hydro Flask Unbound, and Coleman 16-Can, also performed better in this category, as this style of lid makes loading and unloading your cooler much more straightforward. The IceMule Pro is also quite easy to use, as the top is quite broad and easily rolls down much like a dry bag.
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 backpack style coolers, as this distribution of weight across both shoulders and resting behind you will always beat out a unilateral carry. However, not all backpack coolers are created equal. We tested three, 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 Hydro Flask Unbound and Igloo Gizmo are both a bit shorter than the IceMule, and with less back ventilation for hot summer days. Though we like the IceMule best, we would still prefer to take any backpack cooler over a side-carry model for journeys longer than about half a mile.
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 models and Homitt 30 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 Editors' Choice Engel HD30 lost a few points in this category due to its sheer size, which makes it 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 coolers and Engel. All three 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 eBags) 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 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 & Andrew Schurr