Reviews You Can Rely On

Best Soft Cooler of 2021

By Maggie Brandenburg ⋅ Senior Review Editor
Monday May 10, 2021
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Over the last 6 years, we've vetted, purchased, and tested over 30 soft coolers. Our latest trials compare 15 of the best models of 2021. Soft coolers offer portability and versatility that traditional hard coolers can't. From lunchboxes to beach days, we meticulously tested these soft-shelled sidekicks 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.

Related: Best Cooler of 2021

Top 15 Product Ratings

Displaying 1 - 5 of 15
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Awards  Best Buy Award Top Pick Award Editors' Choice Award  
Price $80 List
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$236.98 at Amazon$199.99 at Amazon
Overall Score
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76
80
73
Star Rating
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Pros Comfortable to carry, convenient design, good features, tons of dry storageSimple and easy to use, decent insulation, folds flat for storage, duffel handlesDurable design, comfortable to carry when full, good capacity, relatively inexpensiveVery durable construction, excellent insulation, useful handles and features, comfortable shoulder strapUnique leak resistant lid, no difficult-to-use zipper, good insulation, external pocket, included bottle opener/multitool
Cons Zipper not leakproof, thin insulation, less durable, loose sternum strapShoulder strap a little short, zipper and exterior fabric are not waterproof, less durable materialsLearning curve for best use, not 100% leakproof, no extra pocketsZippered exterior pocket not waterproof, very largeMore rigid shape, heavy, no top handle
Bottom Line Though not as hardy as some others, this design combines cooler space and dry storage for an all-in-one packA solid performer that's simple to use, easy to carry, and costs less than mostThis backpack-style cooler is our favorite model to carry over longer distancesWhen it comes to the best performance, this model takes home the well-chilled trophyAn easy opening cooler that offers pretty high-quality insulation in an interesting design and comes with its own multi-tool
Rating Categories REI Co-op Cool Trai... AO Coolers 24 Pack... IceMule Pro Engel HD30 OtterBox Trooper 20
Insulation Value (30%)
4.0
7.0
7.0
9.0
8.0
Ease Of Use (25%) Sort Icon
9.0
8.0
8.0
7.0
7.0
Portability (25%)
9.0
6.0
9.0
7.0
6.0
Durability (20%)
5.0
6.0
6.0
9.0
8.0
Specs REI Co-op Cool Trai... AO Coolers 24 Pack... IceMule Pro Engel HD30 OtterBox Trooper 20
Measured Capacity (qt) 13 qt 24 qt 25 qt 32 qt 19.5 qt
Measured Capacity (cans with no ice) 16 cans 39 cans 39 cans 48 cans 28 cans
Carry Style Backpack Duffel Bag Backpack Messenger Bag Messenger Bag
Internal Maximum Height (in) 11" flex 11" fully closed
12.5" max
17" fully closed
23" max
13" 12"
Fits Standard Wine Bottle Standing Upright? Yes - some flex required, no zipper strain Yes - some flex required, no zipper strain Yes Yes Yes
Shelf Life of Food (Measured Hours Below 40ºF) 32 hr 55 hr 52 hr 73 hr 57 hr
Days of Cold Beverages (Measured Hours Below 50ºF) 37 hr 63 hr 55 hr 79 hr 70 hr
Measured Weight (lb) 2.4 lb 2.7 lb 3.0 lb 5.9 lb 6.8 lb
Exterior Fabric Recycled ripstop nylon outer/polyester inner 1000 x 1300D heavy duty polyester with vinyl coating Mule SkinET 1000D ripstop tarpaulin/vinyl/nylon Abrasion-resistant fabric TPU coated nylon
Closure Method Zippered flip top, dry storage cinch and clip Zippered top Roll-top Zippered top, watertight zip No-zip flip top
Handles and Straps Backpack straps, top handle, sternum strap Shoulder strap, duffel handles Backpack straps, sternum strap Shoulder strap, end handles, duffel handles Shoulder strap, end handles
Additional Storage Yes; top half of pack, brain pocket, 2 mesh side pockets Yes; 1 very large zippered exterior pocket No; exterior shock cord panel Yes; 1 larger exterior zippered (meant to be waterproof but isn't) Yes; 1 medium zippered exterior, daisy chain on back, 2 attachment clips for additional accessories
Removable Liner? No No No No No


Best Overall Soft Cooler


Engel HD30


80
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Insulation Value 9
  • Ease of Use 7
  • Portability 7
  • Durability 9
Closure Type: Leakproof zipper | Weight: 5.9 lb
Extremely durable
Top-notch insulation
Handy handles and features
Comfy shoulder carry
Exterior pocket not waterproof
Quite large

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 cool 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.

Read review: Engel Coolers HD30

Best Bang for Your Buck


Igloo Reactor Portable 30-Can


72
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Insulation Value 7
  • Ease of Use 7
  • Portability 7
  • Durability 8
Closure Type: Leakproof zipper | Weight: 3.1 lb
Zipper and fabric are leak resistant
Quality insulation
Great capacity to size ratio
Convenient top handle
No zipper lubricant included
No pockets

If you're a bargain hunter, we think you'll love the excellent value of the Igloo Reactor 30. This cooler has the look, feel, and nearly the performance of the high-end soft coolers we've tested yet costs significantly less. It outcompeted most others in this lineup in our rigorous insulation testing with thick walls and a leakproof zipper, which lends extra confidence to an already waterproof interior and exterior. An extra tough layer around the bottom and wrapping up the sides adds abrasion resistance where you need it most. Fitting 30 cans (without any ice), the Reactor maximizes internal capacity. Rounded corners and edges help maintain a fairly comfortable carrying experience while the top handle is very handy—a feature we love to see on coolers of this shape and size.

The only knock against the Reactor's straightforward, easy-to-use design is that its waterproof zipper is exceptionally difficult to operate. It eases up some with the application of zipper lubricant, which doesn't come with this cooler. While we appreciate the simplicity of this model, its lack of external pockets can be a downside. And though it doesn't seem to pose a usability issue, the D-rings on either end of the shoulder strap flip sideways readily, a very minor annoyance. Still, the issues we have with the Reactor are minor, and we found the pros far outweigh the cons — especially for this relatively low price.

Read review: Igloo Reactor Portable 30-Can

Best for a Tight Budget


AO Coolers 24 Pack Canvas Cooler


68
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Insulation Value 7
  • Ease of Use 8
  • Portability 6
  • Durability 6
Closure Type: Zipper | Weight: 2.7 lb
Simple design that's easy to use
Decent insulation
Duffel style handles
Folds flat for storage
Zipper and exterior not waterproof
Shoulder strap on the short side

At first glance, this cooler may not look like much. It doesn't have the laminated exterior and waterproof zipper that so many others boast. Yet underneath this unassuming exterior, the AO Coolers 24 Pack is a solid 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. One large zippered pocket on the outside provides a well-above-average amount of dry storage, and duffel-style handles can be joined together for easy transportation. Its flexible shape not only allows you to fold it flat for storage (which most of the competition can't claim) but also more easily accommodates tall objects, such as 750 ml wine bottles.

The AO does lose some points for its lack of waterproof zipper and exterior, though the regular zipper is much easier to use than waterproof ones that 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. The shoulder strap could be longer to accommodate cross-body wear better. Lastly, this model doesn't look the part of the high-end models we've tested, but that might not matter to you. These drawbacks are minor. All in all, this cooler performs well above its price tag, offering strong value.

Read review: AO Coolers 24 Pack Canvas Cooler

Best Portability


IceMule Pro


76
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Insulation Value 7
  • Ease of Use 8
  • Portability 9
  • Durability 6
Closure Type: Roll-top | Weight: 2.9 lb
Ease of transport
Surprisingly good capacity
Strong design
Not leakproof
Not as insulative as some
Usage learning curve

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 without having 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 enjoy the extra padding the air-filled walls provide. 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.

Read review: IceMule Pro

Best Personal Cooler


YETI Hopper Flip 12


71
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Insulation Value 6
  • Ease of Use 7
  • Portability 7
  • Durability 9
Closure Type: Leakproof zipper | Weight: 3.6 lb
Durability
Great insulation
Nice size for personal use
Convenient handles
No extra pockets
Flips upside down rather easily
Price

Year after year, the Yeti Hopper Flip 12 continues to impress us. This tried and true design boasts impressive insulation for a small cooler. Its shape and size are convenient and easy to use with a simple design that simply works. Like Yeti products have come to be known for, this cooler is strong and primed to tackle all your wild adventures. 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.

While the Flip can have other Yeti accessories (like bottle openers and extra pockets) attached, it 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.

Read review: Yeti Hopper Flip 12

Great Value for Casual Use


Arctic Zone Titan Deep Freeze Zipperless


54
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Insulation Value 6
  • Ease of Use 6
  • Portability 5
  • Durability 4
Closure Type: Zipperless lid | Weight: 3.4 lb
Fairly lightweight
Tons of features
Inexpensive
Not spillproof
Not the most durable

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; 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 craftmanship are not top-tier. Many of the features added on seemingly everywhere 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 need a small cooler for occasional use and want to spend the least, this model offers a lot of value.

Read review: Arctic Zone Titan Deep Freeze Zipperless

Compare Products

select up to 5 products to compare
Score Product Price Our Take
80
$240
Editors' Choice Award
Our choice for best all around soft cooler
76
$115
Top Pick Award
With a unique design and comfortable carry straps, we love it for long distances
75
$300
Swapping zippers for magnets is an intriguing move, but we're not fully convinced it was perfected here
73
$250
This easy-to-use cooler has a unique lid and good-quality insulation, for a unique, interesting design we enjoy using
72
$100
Best Buy Award
A leakproof model that's easy to use and has better-than-average insulation at a modest cost
71
$250
Top Pick Award
Sized for personal use, this option is a high-performer
68
$79
Best Buy Award
A decent cooler that's a simple design, easy to use, and less expensive than most
67
$80
Lacking a bit of beefiness, this pack is optimal for cool AND dry storage
66
$110
A pleasant mixture of solid insulation, usable capacity, and simplicity of design
63
$100
When you need to bring a ton of heavy cold stuff with you, look no further than this excellent backpack cooler
59
$300
A beefy but awkward design that isn't our favorite backpack cooler
54
$100
Though it looks imposing, its performance isn't exceptional
54
$45
An easy to use option that keeps costs low and offers surprising insulation
52
$50
A handy model that won't stop meltwater leakage but is a useful and comfortable solution for infrequent and casual use
43
$30
This model is lightweight and inexpensive, but also packs minimal insulation and durability

Testing coolers on hot lakeside beaches in the high desert.
Testing coolers on hot lakeside beaches in the high desert.
Photo: Maggie Brandenburg

Why You Should Trust Us


Our expert panel consists of Senior Review Editor, Maggie Brandenburg, 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.

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

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 five 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.

Related: How We Tested Soft Coolers

Maggie and her dog, Madeline, hard at work testing coolers in the...
Maggie and her dog, Madeline, hard at work testing coolers in the summer sun.
Photo: Maggie Brandenburg

Analysis and Test Results


Each contender's overall score is carefully calculated through a myriad of tests spanning four crucial, mutually exclusive metrics. 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. By weighting each metric according to its overall importance to the general experience of using a soft cooler and combining them for every model, each cooler in our review ends up with a total score somewhere between 1 and 100. Here we break down those metrics individually and discuss the best performers across individual tests and full metric scores

Related: Buying Advice for Soft Coolers

All coolers packed full of ice and cans, heading into our hot room...
All coolers packed full of ice and cans, heading into our hot room insulation testing.
Photo: Maggie Brandenburg

Value


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 Igloo Reactor 30 is our ideal combination of performance and price for those looking for a great product at a reduced price. It offers up above-average functionality, durability, and insulation for a price far below similar-scoring models, making it one of the best value options we've seen yet. The AO 24 Pack is another good example of a functional and well-priced cooler. It's not as rugged or waterproof as many options, but we still find ourselves reaching for its straightforward functionality and above-average insulation time and time again. The lowest-priced reusable 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.


Insulation Value


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.

The performance of large models (over 20L) in our insulation testing.
The performance of large models (over 20L) in our insulation testing.
Photo: Maggie Brandenburg

Leading the pack is the Yeti Hopper M30, which in our most recent round of testing managed an impressive 78 hours of sub 40° internal temps, even when the external temperatures in our hot room reached over 95° F. 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 Yeti M30 and Engel HD30 then continued to maintain internal temperatures at refreshing, sub 50° F for 88 and 79 hours, respectively. These coolers are on the large end of possible volumes among models in this category and have very thick insulation and waterproof fabric and closure systems. The Engel's watertight zipper effectively seals insulated sides that are nearly 2 inches thick. The Yeti M30 has done away with the zipper, instead sporting a leakproof magnetic strip that seals itself with a snap whenever your hand isn't in it. This helps to keep beverages colder even when you're hanging out with that one friend who likes to leave things hanging open.

Comparing results during insulation testing of models 20L and...
Comparing results during insulation testing of models 20L and smaller. The REI Pack Away 24 fits in this group because we tested it in its most convenient configuration -- a cube -- which we measured just under 20L.
Photo: Maggie Brandenburg

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.

The performance of backpack models in our insulation testing.
The performance of backpack models in our insulation testing.
Photo: Maggie Brandenburg

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, Igloo Reactor, and Yeti Hopper Flip and BackFlip. 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.

Results from our rigorous insulation testing.
Results from our rigorous insulation testing.
Photo: Maggie Brandenburg

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. Even with this less-secure-sounding, not airtight or leakproof closure system, it still held 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.

The OtterBox Trooper ditches the frequently cumbersome waterproof...
The OtterBox Trooper ditches the frequently cumbersome waterproof zipper for a flip-top plastic lid with an accompanying latch and rubber gasket lining the opening to keep it fully sealed.
Photo: Maggie Brandenburg

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.

The REI Cool Haul still manages well-above-average insulation...
The REI Cool Haul still manages well-above-average insulation, despite a lack of a watertight zipper or a waterproof exterior.
Photo: Maggie Brandenburg

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, how challenging the zipper or closing mechanism is to use, and if they stay open while you packed 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.

Zipper lubricant included with many models helps those thick, beefy...
Zipper lubricant included with many models helps those thick, beefy waterproof zippers to slide a bit more easily. However, many of them still require a significant amount of force to operate and can collect greasy-looking lubricant over time.
Photo: Maggie Brandenburg

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. Both zippered Yeti models (the Flip and BackFlip) 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. The Igloo Reactor doesn't come with zipper lubricant, but when we put some on, as we expected, it helped massively in the operation of this tough zipper. 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.

The Igloo Reactor has a fine-toothed zipper covered by a rubber seal...
The Igloo Reactor has a fine-toothed zipper covered by a rubber seal that effectively keeps it from leaking. However, it's one of the few models we tested with a waterproof zipper that doesn't come with any lubricant to make unzipping it smoother.
Photo: Maggie Brandenburg

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 roll-top design of the IceMule is pretty easy to use - no zipper...
The roll-top design of the IceMule is pretty easy to use - no zipper lubricant is ever required.
Photo: Maggie Brandenburg

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 dry items along with. 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.

Reminding us of a gym duffel bag, the REI Pack Away has a...
Reminding us of a gym duffel bag, the REI Pack Away has a canvas-like exterior and a convenient two-way zipper.
Photo: Maggie Brandenburg

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.

The REI Cool Haul is full of useful features from its flip-top lid...
The REI Cool Haul is full of useful features from its flip-top lid and removable liner to numerous pockets inside and out and a bottle opener that actually works.
Photo: Maggie Brandenburg

Portability


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.

Where will you go with your new cooler?
Where will you go with your new cooler?
Photo: Maggie Brandenburg

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.

If you&#039;re hitting the trails with a fully-loaded cooler, the REI...
If you're hitting the trails with a fully-loaded cooler, the REI Pack Away is the only model we tested with a fully padded, weight-bearing waist belt that helps save your shoulders no matter how far you roam.
Photo: Maggie Brandenburg

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.

The AO 24 Pack has a padded shoulder strap and malleable exterior...
The AO 24 Pack has a padded shoulder strap and malleable exterior that make it more comfortable to carry.
Photo: Maggie Brandenburg

Durability


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.

Some seriously sturdy construction means that soft coolers can be...
Some seriously sturdy construction means that soft coolers can be just as durable as their harder counterparts.
Photo: Maggie Brandenburg

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 Yeti BackFlip is similarly constructed from ultra-thick, durable material with a reinforced bottom and sturdy zipper but has extra strap attachment points for the backpack harness prone to additional wear and tear from supporting the cooler over time.

The Yeti Flip 12 is one of several coolers we&#039;ve been using...
The Yeti Flip 12 is one of several coolers we've been using regularly for years now. Aside from a few minor cosmetic complaints, it's holding up exceptionally well.
Photo: Maggie Brandenburg

The OtterBox Trooper and Igloo Reactor are durable contenders as well. Both have thick, waterproof exteriors and fully sealed openings — the Trooper with its rubber gasket around a plastic flip-top lid and the Reactor's waterproof zipper. Both of these models also feature protective layers on their undersides to help protect against abrasion.

The Igloo Reactor has an extra layer helping to protect its bottom...
The Igloo Reactor has an extra layer helping to protect its bottom side from the inevitable abrasion of regular use.
Photo: Maggie Brandenburg

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.

The Coleman 16-Can may not be a &quot;beast mode&quot; cooler that can...
The Coleman 16-Can may not be a "beast mode" cooler that can withstand a beating, but it's also relatively inexpensive, making it less painful to replace if and when it does finally give up.
Photo: Maggie Brandenburg

Conclusion


While reviewing these products, we went out of our way to imagine what the everyday, the unique, and the serious gear user and abuser might use them for. We did those things—summer trips into the desert, long hikes on hot days, dinner parties in the park, sunny beach days, rainy camping weekends, and impromptu BBQs. We hauled these coolers all around and put them through their paces. In doing so, we have 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.

There are tons of interesting, unique, and impressive soft coolers...
There are tons of interesting, unique, and impressive soft coolers available today. We can help you swim through the sea of options and pick your perfect picnic partner or adventure buddy.
Photo: Maggie Brandenburg

Maggie Brandenburg