Reviews You Can Rely On

How We Tested Soft Coolers

By Maggie Brandenburg ⋅ Senior Review Editor
Monday May 10, 2021
Photo: Maggie Brandenburg

Testing soft coolers can, at first glance, be a challenge. Our testers were "forced" to grab these insulated bags full of ice, and most often beer, and head out to parties, campfires, beaches, climbing areas, and dinner parties. One might think all insulating bags are the same, but we were out to test that notion to the extreme.

Walk away with a deal on a nice cooler with the SoftPak 20.
Walk away with a deal on a nice cooler with the SoftPak 20.
Photo: Jenna Ammerman

Insulation Value


In keeping with other high testing standards developed by GearLab, all the soft coolers in this category went through a head-to-head temperature retention test. The FDA recommends keeping perishable food at or below 40 degrees Fahrenheit to ensure maximal freshness and quality. We, too, used this temperature threshold to compare each model's effectiveness. Each cooler was packed 1/3 to 1/2 full of cubed ice, several 12 oz cans (the number varied based on the size of each cooler), and a device to measure internal temperature, hidden inside a "sandwich" to give a more accurate picture of food temperature.

An experimental 'sandwich' to measure the actual temperature of food...
An experimental 'sandwich' to measure the actual temperature of food inside each cooler during our intensive insulation testing.
Photo: Maggie Brandenburg

They were all then placed in a controlled temperature hot room, set up to simulate the heat of a summer day. After five days, we then viewed and compared the internal temperature data from each cooler. This data is summarized in several graphs that can be viewed in the main article of this review, as well as incorporated into each cooler's overall insulation value score. These tests allowed us to, as scientifically as possible, assess the insulation of each cooler, and better inform you.

All loaded up and ready for testing!
All loaded up and ready for testing!
Photo: Maggie Brandenburg

Ease of Use


To test this metric, we used these coolers regularly for months. We've been testing and retesting soft coolers for years to combine all this information. We've loaded them with beer, and we've filled them with picnic contents. We took them to beach days and on kayak trips. We asked our friends to use them and evaluate them. We gauged the ease of zipping any cooler with a zipper. We experimented with coolers of different shapes and sizes, noting how easy or difficult each one was to fit all kinds of different possible foods and beverages inside. We also evaluated extra pockets and organizational features they may or may not have to make your cooler experience even, well, cooler.

We jammed coolers into kayaks and paddled around - no adventure was...
We jammed coolers into kayaks and paddled around - no adventure was too small for some chilled refreshments.
Photo: Maggie Brandenburg

Portability


Portability comes down to weight and handles or straps. Smaller coolers or less-filled bags are lighter, so we did our best to leave sheer capacity out of this metric. Instead, we considered the capacity vs. weight of each option and the design elements that make each more or less pleasant to carry. We examined the handles and straps of every model we tested. We judged the overall shape and rigidity as they pressed against us en route to our various destinations. And we carried them everywhere. From the car to the picnic table, a few blocks down to the neighbor's house, across the beach to the sunny spot, and up trails to reach summits.

We took these coolers everywhere to have cool refreshments and...
We took these coolers everywhere to have cool refreshments and snacks on hand wherever we went.
Photo: Emily LeVine

Durability


Testing the durability of an item meant to last years in just a few months is a tall order, but we're up for the challenge. Not only did we use each contender in 'normal' ways, but we also beat them up to see how they stood up to the challenge. We yanked on handles and zippers. We dragged them through sand and mud and left them out in the rain. We tossed them haphazardly and dropped them on rough surfaces. In essence, we did all the things you'd typically try not to do but could happen anyway. We also inspected each cooler for suspect construction or flaws. And to widen our pool of users, we scoured the internet for other people's complaints and noted those too.

We tested coolers in all conditions - the Homitt fabric soaked up a...
We tested coolers in all conditions - the Homitt fabric soaked up a little water after sitting through a few rain showers.
Photo: Maggie Brandenburg