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Best Soft Cooler of 2021

By Maggie Brandenburg ⋅ Senior Review Editor
Thursday February 4, 2021
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Over the last 5 years, we've vetted, purchased, and tested over two dozen soft coolers. Our latest trials compare the best 12 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 12 Product Ratings

Displaying 1 - 5 of 12
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Awards Editors' Choice Award Top Pick Award   Top Pick Award 
Price $239.99 at Amazon$249.98 at REI
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$110.00 at REI$114.95 at REI
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Overall Score Sort Icon
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74
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70
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Pros Very durable construction, excellent insulation, useful handles and features, comfortable shoulder strapExtremely durable, easy to use, great insulation, tons of handles, convenient sizeGood insulation, extremely durable, top opens wide, no zipper to worry aboutSoft cooler body, good pockets and features, comfortable shoulder strapDurable design, comfortable to carry when full, good capacity, relatively inexpensive
Cons Zippered exterior pocket not waterproof, very largeVery expensive, no extra pockets, flips upside down easilyMagnetic closure won't stay open, difficult to load alone, huge, picky shoulder strap arrangementExterior and zipper not waterproofLearning curve for best use, not 100% leakproof, no extra pockets
Bottom Line Our choice for best all around soft coolerSized for personal use, this option is a high-performerSwapping zippers for magnets is an intriguing move, but we're not fully convinced it was perfected hereA pleasant mixture of solid insulation, usable capacity, and simplicity of designWith a unique design and comfortable carry straps, we love it for long distances
Rating Categories Engel HD30 YETI Hopper Flip 12 YETI Hopper M30 REI Co-op Cool Haul 18 IceMule Pro
Insulation Value (30%)
9
7
9
8
5
Ease Of Use (25%)
7
7
6
7
8
Portability (25%)
6
7
5
7
9
Durability (20%)
9
9
9
6
6
Specs Engel HD30 YETI Hopper Flip 12 YETI Hopper M30 REI Co-op Cool... IceMule Pro
Measured Capacity (qt) 32 qt 13 qt 30.5 qt 18 qt 25 qt
Measured Capacity (cans with no ice) 48 cans 18 cans 50 cans 28 cans 39 cans
Carry Style Messenger Bag Lunchbox Messenger Bag Messenger Bag Backpack
Internal Maximum Height (in) 13" 8" 13" fully closed
15" max
11" insert
12" lid
17" fully closed
23" max
Fits Standard Wine Bottle Standing Upright? Yes No - will fit on side Yes Yes Yes
Shelf Life of Food (Measured Hours Below 40ºF) 98 hr 82 hr 73 hr 58 hr 40 hr
Days of Cold Beverages (Measured Hours Below 50ºF) 103 hr 92 hr 76 hr 61 hr 48 hr
Measured Weight (lb) 5.9 lb 3.6 lb 7.1 lb 4.3 lb 3.0 lb
Exterior Fabric Abrasion-resistant fabric 840D double-sided thermoplastic urethane 840D double-sided thermoplastic urethane Ripstop nylon, polyester shell Mule SkinET 1000D ripstop tarpaulin/vinyl/nylon
Closure Method Zippered top, watertight zip Zippered flip top, watertight zip Magnetic seal and over-the-top clips Zippered flip top Roll-top
Handles and Straps Shoulder strap, end handles, duffel handles Shoulder strap, top handle, end handles Shoulder strap, end handles, top handle Shoulder strap, end carry handles Backpack straps, sternum strap
Additional Storage Yes; 1 larger exterior zippered (meant to be waterproof but isn't) No; webbing attachment loops No; webbing attachment loops Yes; 2 slip exterior, 1 internal zip, webbing attachment loops No; exterior shock cord panel
Removable Liner? No No No Yes No

Best Overall Soft Cooler


Engel HD30


Engel HD30
Editors' Choice Award

$239.99
at Amazon
See It

78
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Insulation Value - 30% 9
  • Ease of Use - 25% 7
  • Portability - 25% 6
  • Durability - 20% 9
Closure Type: Leakproof magnetic strip | 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 under three days. 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 sides 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


AO Coolers 24 Pack Canvas Cooler


AO Coolers 24 Pack Canvas Cooler
Best Buy Award

$69.99
(11% off)
at Amazon
See It

68
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Insulation Value - 30% 7
  • Ease of Use - 25% 8
  • Portability - 25% 6
  • Durability - 20% 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. However, these drawbacks are minor. All in all, this cooler performs well above its price tag, offering the most value among all models we tested.

Read review: AO Coolers 24 Pack Canvas Cooler

Best for a Tight Budget


Arctic Zone Titan Deep Freeze Zipperless


Arctic Zone Titan Deep Freeze Zipperless
Best Buy Award

$39.99
(11% off)
at Amazon
See It

59
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Insulation Value - 30% 7
  • Ease of Use - 25% 6
  • Portability - 25% 6
  • Durability - 20% 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 close to two days, reaching several hours above 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 far from 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 decent value.

Read review: Arctic Zone Titan Deep Freeze Zipperless

Best for a Personal Cooler


YETI Hopper Flip 12


74
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Insulation Value - 30% 7
  • Ease of Use - 25% 7
  • Portability - 25% 7
  • Durability - 20% 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

Best Portability


IceMule Pro


70
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Insulation Value - 30% 5
  • Ease of Use - 25% 8
  • Portability - 25% 9
  • Durability - 20% 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 just can't be beaten 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. 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 when heading out for longer distances.

Read review: IceMule Pro

Notable for Cold and Dry Storage


REI Co-op Cool Trail Split Pack


REI Co-op Cool Trail Split Pack

$80 List
List Price
See It

67
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Insulation Value - 30% 4
  • Ease of Use - 25% 9
  • Portability - 25% 9
  • Durability - 20% 5
Closure Type: Zipper | Weight: 2.4 lb
Comfortable portability
Exceptionally convenient features
Unique and useful design
Lower durability
Zipper not leakproof
Not impressive insulation

Ever wish your cooler could haul more than just the cold stuff? Want a jacket and a book to go with that picnic? So do we. We like the well-thought-out design of the REI Co-op Cool Trail Split Pack for making sure you never have to leave your sweatshirt or frisbee at home. The bottom half is a small cooler that fits provisions for you for the day, while the top half holds all your dry goods. Several other useful pockets can hold easy-access items or wrappers and trash. This is also one of the most comfortable backpack models we tested, and we have no problems carrying it for miles to an exciting destination picnic. As a bonus, it's also among the least expensive coolers we tested.

However, the recycled ripstop nylon of this bag doesn't strike us as overly impressive. We worry a bit about its longevity, especially of the bottom of this bag, if it gets used or dragged over rough surfaces. Also, the attachment points of the sternum strap to the shoulder straps are a bit looser than we would like them to be for a more secure fit. The relatively thin, small cooler section doesn't hold very many cold items but might suffice for day trips. And though the cooler material is waterproof, the zipper isn't, so don't store this bag on its side. Despite a few flaws, we still love this useful daypack cooler for adventures that involve more than just a cooler full of food.

Read review: REI Co-op Cool Trail Split Pack


At work in the field during soft cooler testing.
At work in the field during soft cooler testing.
Photo: Steven Tata

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 50 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

We tested these coolers across a huge range of climates and locations.
We tested these coolers across a huge range of climates and locations.
Photo: Maggie Brandenburg

Analysis and Test Results


We pitted each model head-to-head to present you with the most comprehensive and transparent possible picture of each one's strengths and weaknesses. We scored each model's performance in each of the four key metrics mutually exclusive and critical to choosing the best one for your needs. Obviously, 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 rank insulation value as 30% of each contender's overall score, ease of use and durability account for 25% each, and portability comprises 20% of the final score. By weighting each metric according to its importance to identifying the perfect cooler, we're able to provide an easily comparable overall score from 1-100 for each contestant.

Related: Buying Advice for Soft Coolers

All in a day&#039;s work, testing coolers.
All in a day's work, testing coolers.
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, meaning that the correlation of price to performance isn't 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 AO 24 Pack is a good example of a functional and well-priced cooler. This inexpensive model offers excellent insulation in an easy-to-use package with adequate capacity and moldability. It's not as hip or chic as some modern options, but we found ourselves reaching for its functionality time and time again. The Arctic Titan Zipperless costs even less, and though it has some flaws, it still works and has a comparatively very low price tag that makes it a great buy for the infrequent cooler user. Even the Engel HD30 is a high-value item. Outperforming all the rest, this large cooler still isn't the most expensive model we tested and has stood the test of time over multiple years of testing, proving itself a worthy investment for its supreme insulation prowess and excellent durability.


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 ice 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 F 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 gain in each cooler of melting ice.

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

The Engel HD30 outshone the rest in our intensive hot-room testing, lasting a full 68 hours, or just shy of three days, holding internal temperatures below 40º Fahrenheit, even when the external temperatures soared well over 100º F. The Yeti Hopper M30 lasted almost as long, though coming up short by six hours, managing a still-impressive 62 hours of USDA safe-food temperatures. However, the 50º Fahrenheit threshold difference between these two is much smaller. The Engel lasted 73 hours, while the Yeti M30 closed the gap, managing 72 hours, or exactly three days of refreshing beer temperatures. These coolers are on the large side for 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 updated Yeti M30 has gone away from having a zipper. In place of the old tough zipper, the M30 has a leakproof magnetic strip that closes 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.

A zoomed in version of the previous graph, showing the detailed...
A zoomed in version of the previous graph, showing the detailed results of our rigorous insulation testing. The Engel HD30 and Yeti M30 are obvious winners here.
Photo: Maggie Brandenburg

As this type of cooler has become increasingly popular, the field has become increasingly innovative. Whereas once the presence of an airtight zipper and waterproof exterior was an indicator of insulation, now a wide variety of solutions have continued to impress us with their ability to keep things cold. Models with the now old-school approach of having a water/airproof zipper include the Engel, RTIC SoftPak, Hydro Flask UnBound, and Yeti Hopper Flip and BackFlip. Other coolers have more traditional zippers that aren't watertight, yet they manage to provide effective insulation, including the REI Cool Haul and AO 24 Pack. They demonstrated themselves to be worthy competitors during our insulation testing, achieving 55 and 46 hours, respectively, maintaining sub-40º F temps despite lacking either watertight zippers or waterproof exteriors.

Those same results from our laboratory insulation testing...
Those same results from our laboratory insulation testing, represented numerically.
Photo: Maggie Brandenburg

In an interesting twist, the Arctic Titan Zipperless has neither a zipper nor a roll-top. It closes like an old school hard cooler, with a plastic lid that nestles into the top of its plastic body, lined on the outside by a thinly insulated fabric bag. Even with this less-secure-sounding closure system, it still held ice for 43 hours during our testing — several hours above average. Another unique solution can be seen in the IceMule Pro, which has a roll-top closure system, similar to a dry bag. This backpack model held an internal temperature of under 40º F for just 28 hours during our testing. It then proceeded to keep its contents below 50º F for almost twice as long, providing 51 hours of chilled beer temps. Interestingly, another backpack cooler, the Yeti BackFlip, scored similarly, keeping sub-40º contents for just 27 hours and managing 51 hours of cool brews. Considering these backpack style bags are geared toward a single day's adventure, these test results are more than adequate.

Coolers like the Yeti Hopper Flip 12 have waterproof exteriors and...
Coolers like the Yeti Hopper Flip 12 have waterproof exteriors and zippers paired with thick insulation to help ice last longer.
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 40+ hours) are not watertight and are significantly more budget-friendly than the top two performers in this metric. Notably, the REI Cool Haul (55 hours below 40º F), AO 24 Pack (46 hours), and Arctic Titan Zipperless (43 hours) are all impressive insulators for single-day uses and cost a lot less than you might expect. 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 decent insulation, despite a lack of...
The REI Cool Haul still manages decent insulation, despite a lack of 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. 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. This lubricant also needs to be reapplied frequently. 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 latest large Yeti soft cooler, the 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.

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 Cool Trail Split Pack is one of our favorites for daily adventures and solo missions. It brings together unique features that let you bring along both cooler goods and dry adventure accessories all in one handy backpack.

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 and AO 24 Pack both 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 is as easy to use as a simple duffel bag, and clips on the ends of the top zipper make it easy for the top to stay open while you load and unload it. One long external pocket has tons of space to bring dry items along with. The REI 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.

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. 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.


We leave out each contender's overall size from this section, because a smaller or less-packed cooler will be almost always more comfortable to move around than a bigger, heavier cooler. 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 tested five 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 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 Split Pack is also a soft, comfortable option that we don't mind carrying for miles on end. It doesn't fit quite as well as the IceMule, with a slightly shorter torso and less flexible shape, but is still much better than the boxlike rigidity of others we tested. It also has the added convenience of carrying more than just cooler items, helping to keep your hands free while you hike. The Yeti BackFlip is the only backpack model we tested with a waistbelt, but we don't think that wide strip of webbing adds much to this particularly rigid box. The Hydro Flask Unbound is also a bit of a disappointment in the backpacking cooler family. Though its straps are cushioned and comfortable, its overall shape is quite stiff and boxy, making it less pleasant than more flexible models — especially when weighed down with heavy beverages and melting ice.

Backpack style coolers are an obvious portability win, but we found...
Backpack style coolers are an obvious portability win, but we found a vast range of comfort (or not so much) among contenders we tested.
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 of the AO 24 Pack is also much more comfortable bouncing against our sides as we walk than other models with more rigid forms.

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 hard-earned money on a piece of 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 RTIC, while not quite as impressive as the Engel or Yeti models, is also built of similar materials. It is made of durable, sturdy fabric but has a couple of longevity concerns that we don't find in the Yeti or Engel models (read the full RTIC SoftPak 20 review to learn more).

Though not our favorite cooler for other reasons, the Yeti BackFlip...
Though not our favorite cooler for other reasons, the Yeti BackFlip is quite durable.
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.

Yeti coolers continue to impress us with their intense durability -...
Yeti coolers continue to impress us with their intense durability - though they're no longer alone in that game.
Photo: Maggie Brandenburg

Conclusion


While reviewing these products, we went out of our way to imagine what the every day, 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.

The world of soft coolers continues to be filled with more and more...
The world of soft coolers continues to be filled with more and more contenders, with something for just about everyone.
Photo: Maggie Brandenburg

Maggie Brandenburg