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. We were sure to test for durability, putting the coolers through their paces by tossing them into truck beds and dragging them around rough campsites. We tested ease of use by noting how well you can carry these things when they are full, how easily you can stow them when empty, and how easy they are to load. We used them to keep our food and drink fresh on a regular basis and recorded how well each model insulated its contents. One might think all insulating bags are the same, but we were out to test that notion to the extreme.
In keeping with other testing conventions developed by OutdoorGearLab, all the soft coolers in this category were put to 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 with a standard seven-pound bag of cubed ice and a device to measure internal temperature and placed in a controlled environment. The coolers were then checked every 24 hours for a period up to 96 hours. After all the ice had melted, we then viewed and compared the internal temperature data from each cooler. This data was combined into 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.
We also realize that not all conditions in which you may need or want to use a cooler are the same. And so we tested them in all conditions - from hot desert hikes to sunny beach days to rainy weekends in the woods and muggy road trips. This gave us a well-rounded idea of what situations each cooler excels or struggles in. It is our hope that these real-world objective tests can help you make the wisest purchasing decision in this category.