How to Choose a Soft Cooler

Review lineup: From left to right; the Polar Bear 24 Pack  AO Coolers 24 Pack Canvas Cooler  the Ice Mule Pro  the Yeti Hopper 30  and the Coleman 16-Can.
Article By:
Andrew Schurr
Review Editor
OutdoorGearLab

Last Updated:
Wednesday
March 23, 2016
Soft coolers are a useful tool for many applications and some specific, and some not-so-specific situations. We won't go as far as to say they are a niche market but they are certainly designed with a set of uses in mind. By and large, most soft coolers are designed with the purpose of transporting canned beverages. This is true even to the point that most manufacturers advertise capacity in the number of cans a certain model can hold instead of a given volume measurement like you would find with, say, an overnight pack designed for backpacking. Even the models we looked at that do provide a volume measurement in liters then went and translated that into cans. It is pretty clear what the manufacturers assume we all do with our weekends.

The Ice Mule kept testers beers frosty even on long hikes in the sun.
The Ice Mule kept testers beers frosty even on long hikes in the sun.

Types/Styles Available


In the world of soft coolers there are a few options when it comes to styles or types on the market. Excluding price as a metric for a moment, let's focus on style.

Shoulder Bag


The AO Coolers 24 Pack Canvas Cooler. When not folded and clipped down it has the familiar shoulder bag triangular shape with the top zipper.
The AO Coolers 24 Pack Canvas Cooler. When not folded and clipped down it has the familiar shoulder bag triangular shape with the top zipper.
This design, or slight variations on it, is probably the most common found within soft coolers. It gives you the flexibility of soft and packable materials along with the ease of use of a shoulder bag. These bags usually have a shoulder strap, carry handles, and open with a zipper. The advantage of this type of cooler is that it can usually hold a decent amount of food or drink (the ones in our test were labeled for 24 and 30 cans) but when it is empty it can be compressed and stored much smaller than a regular hard cooler which always takes up the same amount of room. The shoulder straps also make for a different and arguably easier carry method than a hard model.

Lunch-box Style


The Coleman 16-Can is a tried and true package that delivers what you pay for.
The Coleman 16-Can is a tried and true package that delivers what you pay for.
This is a familiar design that most of us will remember fondly from the days of PB&J and juice boxes. It is an easy to use design with minimal features, a removable plastic liner for easy cleaning, and a wide opening. It is usually equipped with a shoulder strap, and is just as easy to carry as the standard bag design. This style is perfect for one person to bring food and drink for a single meal, or it can fit a couple drinks for 2-3 people. It won't be the cooler you want for a large party at the beach, but it will satisfy the cooler needs of 1-2.

Backpack Style


The Ice Mule has handy backpack straps for longer carries.
The Ice Mule has handy backpack straps for longer carries.

This build gives you all the benefits of a backpack combined with the insulation of a cooler. The beauty of the backpack design is the simple portability. It allows for hands-free and relatively comfortable transport, and it also provides for longer distance carrying without the discomfort of a single shoulder strap or carry handles. This can be particularly useful for heavier loads or a situation in which a cooler isn't the only thing you need to carry.

Bringing price back into the thought process there are varying levels of quality available in these different styles. For the most part, if you spend more money you will likely get a higher quality product. The basic models will run you anywhere between $15 and $50 and the most expensive can exceed $300. The more expensive models could be considered "high-end" but they are relatively few in number and most will run somewhere in the middle.

Now on to the all important…

Making a Choice


A singularity of intended use, however, does not necessarily make purchasing decisions any easier. There are a number of factors at play when looking for an insulating bag that will suit your needs. While each individual's desired feature set and intended use with differ slightly, it is safe to boil things down into a few evaluation categories. All of these categories are reflected in our complete review in one way or another, but not necessarily in this order, and it is good to remember that all of these factors play into one another when considering the whole.

The Yeti Hopper 30. The tight opening helps keep things cool but can make getting in and out a little difficult.
The Yeti Hopper 30. The tight opening helps keep things cool but can make getting in and out a little difficult.
When faced with a large variety to choose from, it can be hard to narrow down the options. Here we answer questions that you may consider as you shop with what we choices we would make in each case.

Intended Purpose


If your sole intended purpose is to simply carry beverages around for short distances and short periods of time, such as from the car to the picnic table, you most likely don't need to invest in a specialized product. You could choose something simple and inexpensive such as the AO Coolers 24 Pack Canvas Cooler. If you are looking for a machine that will allow you to take your "need to keep cold items" out farther and longer, you might want to consider something a little more involved like a backpack model. If you want a more versatile replacement for your hard cooler, road trips are great applications for a soft cooler for example, you may consider a higher-end model like the Yeti Hopper Two 30 that will insulate better and be more durable than your average model. Determining your most likely intended use is a great first step towards deciding what to buy.

Brian Russell enjoys a cold one while out for a day climbing. The Ice Mule made it easy to carry beverages to the crag.
Brian Russell enjoys a cold one while out for a day climbing. The Ice Mule made it easy to carry beverages to the crag.

Space Needed


The next best step is to determine just how much space you think you are going to need. If you are just going to be carrying your lunch around, you will need significantly less space than if you are carrying drinks for 6. Most cooler models come in a variety of sizes. Often they range from a single person size up to something that would allow you to provide for large groups. Careful consideration of the space you need will help you determine the best model. It logically follows that the more space you need, the heavier the load you will be carrying will be. This can help inform carrying systems, i.e. shoulder strap vs. backpack, and so on. We like the simple Coleman 16-Can for days when we only have food or drink for one or two people. Larger models like the Yeti and the Polar Bear Coolers 24 Pack are more ideal for groups or bigger loads, and they have the carry features to complement the heavier contents.

Portability


Following directly from discussions of carrying system choice as a product of weight and load comes the question of portability. How easy is it to carry full? How easy is it to carry empty? How well does it pack in a car? How well does it store? As we have already discussed, a heavier load over a longer distance will necessitate a more comfortable backpack or strap style. We have found that the backpack styles are the most comfortable to carry and the easiest to store. A heavy load over short distance can get by with a shoulder strap or simple handles like that found on the standard style like the Yeti or Polar Bear models.

Carrying the Yeti Hopper 30 could be a bit cumbersome  not made for long distance.
Carrying the Yeti Hopper 30 could be a bit cumbersome, not made for long distance.

The additional beauty of a soft cooler versus a hard ice chest, aside from easy portability, is their ability to conform to different shapes and spaces. Rather than a rigid box that always takes up the same amount of space no matter what, a soft cooler can get shoved into small spaces, sometimes rolled up, and generally tossed around much more easily. The down side to this is you can't stack things on top of them.

If you are looking for something that you can pull out of the closet, use, and shove back in there when empty, a bag or a backpack style such as the Ice Mule Pro will be your best bet.

If you want something a little more burly and don't mind the slight sacrifice in pack-ability or easy storage, a higher-end cooler like the Yeti with a little more shape and rigidity will suit the bill.

Insulation Value


The Coleman 16-Can ready for the ice test.
The Coleman 16-Can ready for the ice test.
Here is a another big thing to think about. Just how much insulation do you need? This is a category that usually falls into the more is better column, but not necessarily always. If you don't need that much insulation, consider going the cheaper route such as the AO Coolers model . If you need more, be sure to do your research. Ice retention claims by manufacturers often aren't quantified, and as we found out in our tests, there isn't a hard and fast rule to the price:insulation ratio.

As a general rule, one can assume that the higher-end, pricier soft cooler models will insulate better based on higher quality construction. But be sure to check the manufacturers specifications and intended uses, and also the internet and sites like OutdoorGearLab first. Insulation thickness is often a good indicator of overall insulation value. It is good to remember, like in our own testing, sometimes an underdog will surprise you and price may reflect features rather than insulation value.

Durability


Durability is most closely aligned with intended use. If you need a rough and tumble product to get you to where you need to go, drinks at the ready, you will choose a different cooler than just a walk to the park will necessitate. If durability is one of your primary concerns, consider choosing a higher-end or specialty use soft cooler.

The Ice Mule Pro.
The Ice Mule Pro.


High-end and specialty use soft coolers are made for more adventurous tasks and are able to put up with more abuse than their standard cousins. For example, the Yeti is far more durable than any other model we tested. You may pay a little more but they will put up with more wear and tear.

The Yeti Hopper 30  while short on pockets it does have external cargo  loops that allow you to clip things to the outside.
The Yeti Hopper 30, while short on pockets it does have external cargo loops that allow you to clip things to the outside.

You should look at external materials, heavy rubber or rubberized fabric are the most durable options over canvas and nylon, and also build and components. The more durable options will have higher quality zippers or closing mechanisms and a better construction. Thicker stitching or heat welding, and larger, thicker straps are good visual markers of a higher quality build.

Ease of Use


All of these factors directly roll into ease of use. The better built a product is, the easier it is going to be used for its intended application. If you want an easy to use, quick access cooler for small and short applications, go with an affordable option that is the size you want. For more specialized uses, decide what is most important between our selection criteria. If you are looking for something easy to carry you should consider that as a starting point then work your way through the other aspects of the cooler. If you want something that insulates well above all else, the same thought process will apply. Ultimately, and most likely, you will be using your soft cooler for simple and short applications. Decide which feature is most important then work your way through the rest starting from there.

Conclusions, price, other things to think about


Soft coolers have a relatively small set of ideal uses unlike their larger, sturdier, and more insulated, relatives the hard coolers. Soft coolers are made for transporting smaller amounts of food and drink over a distance. Higher-end and specialty models will be more expensive but come with more features or better insulation value. Most middle of the road styles will perform and carry very similarly with differences mainly in insulation value and portability features. Lower-end and less expensive models will be no frills, you get what you pay for and see, affairs that will do the job but not offer anything special or out of the ordinary. It is best to decide what is most important for your selection and work your way out from there. Figure out what you want to do and what you need to do it. You will be able to find a product that will get you where you need to go with what you need with a little careful thought and planning.

The Ice Mule in action.
The Ice Mule in action.



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