Need a cooler for everyday adventures? We've researched more than 50 models and spent years rigorously trying out the newest and best models side-by-side, to bring you the best on the market. Soft coolers offer a versatility that hard coolers simply cannot, as they can be toted along on picnics, serve as lunchboxes, keep your fresh catch cold, be the perfect accessory for your beach day, or just keep a few victory brews frosty in your sun-baked car for when you return from an epic adventure. Despite, or maybe because of this versatility, it can sometimes be difficult to find the right soft cooler for your needs. We meticulously evaluated the insulation performance, ease of use, portability, and durability of these eleven soft coolers. No matter your price range, you can easily find one that ticks all of your boxes via our test results.
The Best Soft Coolers of 2018
We always strive to bring you the best gear to meet your needs, and this means a lot of testing and retesting, and retesting some more as new gear hits the market. Our most recent round of updates has upset the previous rankings; there's a new cooler in town, and the Engel HD30, took over the top of the chart. The Engel is also the new winner of our Editors' Choice Award, thanks to its incredible suite of traits. We also have a new Best Buy award winner, the Homitt 30 Can. To learn how and why these two upsets happened, read on!
Best Overall Soft Cooler
We were seriously impressed by the Engel HD30. It outlasted the insulation powers of the previous Editors' Choice, the Yeti Hopper Two 30, by a full day! On top of that, this was the largest cooler we tested, with an impressive 48-can capacity! Despite its bulky size, the Engel was surprisingly portable, complete with a handy two-person carry, if loaded it up with too many heavy items!The HD30 was incredibly easy to use and boasts a shockingly durable construction. With all sorts of additional helpful features like extra handles, a removable bottle opener, and an additional pocket, the Engel outcompeted the Yeti to become our new Editors' Choice soft cooler. To top it off, your wallet will thank you, as it costs over $100 less than the Yeti!
Read review: Engel Coolers HD30
Best Buy on a Budget
Homitt 30 Can
We were blown away by the performance of this relatively inexpensive little cooler from Homitt. Not only did the Homitt 30 outcompete both Yeti models for insulation value, but it was also a joy to use. Its compact design was quite portable and is made of relatively durable materials, and a strong construction to last the years.While the boxy shape of the Homitt made it a bit less comfortable to carry for long distances, it was an excellent tabletop once we reached our destination. The zipper is a touch hard to pull, but with the addition of some zipper lubricant (not included), it eased right up. Ringing in at approximately $100, this soft cooler was an absolute no-brainer for our Best Buy Award.
Read review: Homitt 30 Can
Top Pick for Long Distance Carrying
Ice Mule Pro
The Ice Mule Pro was the lead tester's favorite when heading out for longer distances. What it doesn't have in insulation power, it makes up for with highly useful portability and a long-haul design. The Ice Mule is made for multi-mile hikes and provides easy comfort while doing so. Equipped with padded backpack straps and a padded and ventilated back panel, it has more of a backpack feel than that of a cooler.The Ice Mule surprised and surpassed testers' expectations and outperformed others for ease of use and portability at every turn. The roll top is quick and easy, and when closed properly, is leak free. The air release valve helps keep loads secure and tight, and the durability is top-notch. If you are looking for something to take on remote country hikes or even a contender that is just plain easy to carry, the Ice Mule is for you.
Read review: Ice Mule Pro
Analysis and Test Results
Soft coolers, put simply, are bags made to keep things cold. However, not all cold-keeping bags are created equal. Due to an influx of options available on the market over the past couple of years, these useful items find homes with thousands of people looking to adventure and chill. There are so many options to choose from these days; from simple, small models suited to acting like a lunch box or a six-pack caddie, to luxury models with all the bells and whistles one would expect of a high-end product. But the question of "which one is the right one for me?" comes down to what you're hoping to use it for, where you plan to take it, and - let's be honest - how much you're willing to spend. We set out to look at the whole range, from the simplest to the fanciest, to see how they compare and stand up to all the use and abuse our testers could throw at them. In the process, we gained a better understanding of the many options available today, and put together some useful recommendations and observations for you!
Even for something as seemingly straightforward as soft coolers, many various situations and uses can arise. While just about any old cooler will tote your beers to the game or cart your lunch to work, you might be on the hunt for something with a bit more versatility. We tested each model during camping trips that lasted weeks, treks to hidden waterfalls, full days on sunny beaches, and long road trips. We tested a wide range of types of coolers for months, retesting and comparing over the years as new kinds and models hit the market.
We compared each model side-by-side, bringing you the clearest possible picture of each one's strengths and weaknesses. Yes, they're all coolers, but which one is best for what purpose? We rated each model on four key metrics that are critical to choosing the best one for your needs: insulation value, ease of use, durability, and portability. Insulation value is one of the most essential categories to anyone in the market for a cooler; otherwise, you'd just throw your beers 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 ranked insulation value as 40% of the overall score, ease of use, durability, and portability each accounted for 20% of a cooler's final score.
You can read more about how we tested each of these categories in our How We Test article. To learn more about how the coolers we did test compared to each other, read on!
At Outdoor GearLab, we value high-scoring products that provide an exceptional value. You'll find that we've listed the price of each soft cooler and any corresponding award. We also provide a score which encompasses the overall performance of each particular model. Coolers with both high scores and low price tags are the best values, such as the Homitt 30. At $100, it is the winner of our Best Buy award, and is a top-notch product for the price point. If you're willing to sacrifice a bit of performance to save some cash, the Polar Bear Coolers 24 costs $90 while the AO Coolers 24 Pack Canvas Cooler costs $70. For those on a tight budget, the Coleman 42 Can costs $41, the eBags Crew Cooler II rings in at $50, and the Coleman 16-Can will cost you $30. In the case of the coolers with lower costs, the products do correlate with lower performance costs.
The FDA recommends keeping perishable foods that require refrigeration at or below 40 degrees Fahrenheit; this will ensure their freshness and keep bacteria and other such nasties from growing inside, potentially making you sick. Keeping a larger cooler cold will require putting more ice or ice packs inside versus keeping a smaller cooler cold. 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 was the most rigorous metric we tested. Our head-to-head ice tests highlight which coolers offer the best insulation value.
We're sure it comes as no surprise that coolers with thicker insulation performed better, at least for the most part. However, we also found that external and internal fabrics made a difference, as did the type and seal of zipper used. Models that performed poorly had thinner insulation, less waterproof fabric, non-sealing zippers, or some combination of the three. You can see some of the outcomes of these insulation tests reflected in the charts below.
The Homitt held ice longer than any other cooler, beating the previous Editors' Choice, the Yeti Hopper Two 30 by a full day, and even outlasting the Engel by several hours! The Engel still beat out the Yeti Hopper Two 30 by nearly a day - a seriously impressive feat! Even the smaller Yeti Hopper Flip 12 was no match for either the Engel or the Hopper. That being said, both Yeti coolers were significantly higher performing than most of the rest of the pack. Surprisingly, the Polar Bear Coolers 24 Pack nearly performed as well as the much more expensive Yeti coolers. The RTIC SoftPak was the next closest competition but didn't astound us with its insulating prowess.
Another major factor that contributes to the effectiveness of cold-keeping is the closure system. Models like the Ice Mule Pro have a roll top more reminiscent of a dry bag, while other models have zippers of various effectiveness. For example, many models like the Engel HD30, Homitt 30 Cans, RTIC SoftPak and Yeti models, all boast a burly waterproof zipper. Coolers like the AO Coolers 24 Pack Canvas Cooler, eBags Crew Cooler II and the Polar Bear 24 Pack have the more familiar standard zipper you might find on something like a ski jacket. And then there are the Coleman coolers. These two coolers had our least favorite zippers of all. Not only were they not waterproof, but they were also of such poor quality we had doubts about their durability in addition to the detriment they were to the cooler's insulation value!
The thickness and effectiveness of the insulation, combined with the ability of each cooler to seal in the cold air within is what earned each cooler its insulation value score. If this category is of utmost importance to you above all else, check out our top two performers: the Editors' Choice, Engel HD30, and Best Buy, Homitt 30 Cans.
This, aside from insulation, might be one of the most important factors in choosing a soft cooler, or any product really. If you're going to spend your hard-earned money on a piece of gear, you want it to last. The durability of any piece of gear comes down to a few simple factors: the quality of materials and components it is made of, the style of construction, and the overall design of the gear. The coolers we tested were made from a wide variety and quality of materials.
The models that scored lower in our durability tests used light to mid-weight nylon or canvas with middle-of-the-road zippers and regular construction regarding stitching or heat welding. The higher-end models were made from heavy rubber or treated nylon, had heavy-duty zippers and components, reinforced seams and pressure points, and a more robust design and construction. All of these aspects affect the overall durability and lasting power.
We take the durability of gear very seriously! When testing gear, we go out of our way to be extra hard on it to simulate years of wear during the months of testing. We know you likely wouldn't treat your gear like we treated these coolers, and we hope that the beating we gave them helps you get an idea of their toughness and ability to last as long as you want to use it. We approached testing durability in several different ways. Our first and most straightforward approach was to use the cooler as an average consumer will most likely use it. We wanted to see if the product could withstand simple everyday usage.
Our next step was to go above and beyond ordinary use, really abusing these coolers to see what they can handle. Generally, this meant throwing them around, dragging them on the ground, and filling them to the brim with heavy drinks. We were also packing, emptying, repacking, and bouncing them around in trunks and truck beds, leaving them out in the rain, burying them in the sand, and anything else we could think of.
The most durable coolers we tested were the Yeti coolers and Engel. All three of these coolers feature incredibly tough, wear-resistant outer fabric, strong components, sturdy zippers, reinforced stitching, and a design made to be used and abused. The Homitt and RTIC, while not quite as impressive as the Engel or Yeti models, are also built to last. They too are made of durable, sturdy fabric, but each had a couple of concerns that we didn't find in the Yetis or Engel, such as slightly harder to use, lower quality zippers or a bit of waterlogging during repeated rainstorms. They are still above the rest, but not entirely of the highest quality.
The Ice Mule Pro was relatively durable and resistant to our abuse, though the attachment points of the straps seemed perhaps not as strong or as robust as we'd like them to be. Not surprisingly, some of the coolers that performed the lowest in this category were also made of the weakest material. However, these coolers (the Coleman models and eBags) are also some of the cheapest we reviewed, so you might not be so upset about replacing them when they bite the dust.
Ease of Use
Aside from insulation and durability, how easy it is to use the darned thing? This is an important question: if you find yourself cursing everytime you try to open/close/carry/clean your cooler, you're probably not going to have quite as nice of an experience on your cooler-related adventure. This is one of many moments in which questions of where you want to go and what you want to put in your cooler will come into play. For example, a cooler that may be easy to load things into might not be as well insulated, just like a model that may be a breeze to roll through the park may not be the one you want to take on a five-mile day hike!
We tried to leave out overall size from this section, as anyone could tell you that a smaller or less-packed cooler will be easier to move around than a more massive, heavier cooler. Instead, we focused on how easy the coolers were to load and unload: how they opened, how hard the zipper or closing mechanism was to use if they stayed open while you packed them with items from your fridge at home, or were better used with a second pair of hands. We considered how easy each cooler was to find a comfortable way to carry: if it had more than one way to carry, if it was adjustable, and how easy it was not to overextend ourselves carrying heavy loads for longer distances.
One of the most frustrating qualities about many of the models we tested were their challenging zippers. Zippers that not only required two hands to open and close but also quite a bit of straining and muttering through clenched teeth. The coolers that performed the best were the Yeti Hopper Two 30 and Engel HD30. Their zippers, though robust and watertight, were much easier to use, and both came with zipper lubricant included, ensuring that they remained explicative-free. They also included extra handles for more carrying options, tie-downs to attach them to your ATV or roof rack, and even some additional options like daisy-chained webbing to clip on your bottle opener or car keys. Open-topped models with flip-style lids, like the Yeti Hopper Flip and Coleman 16-Can, also tended to perform better in this category, as this style of lid makes loading and unloading your cooler much easier. The Ice Mule Pro was also quite easy to use, as the top simply rolls down much like a dry bag!
If you wanted to stay home, you'd just use your fridge. 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? Clearly, the most portable cooler will be more comfortable to carry for longer distances and amounts of time.
The clear winner in this category is the Ice Mule Pro. We're sure that to no one's surprise, this backpack style cooler is the most comfortable to carry for long distances. Other reasonably portable models like the Yeti models and Homitt 30 scored well thanks to their well-padded shoulder straps and additional options to hand carry or partner carry them if they're loaded down.
The Editors' Choice Engel HD30 lost a few points in this category due to its sheer size, which makes it more challenging to carry even if it's empty, let alone loaded down with a full day's worth of refreshments for you and your eight friends. We also were quite impressed with the portability of the Coleman 42 Can cooler, as it can be filled with all manner of cumbersome objects and simply rolled like a suitcase to your final destination. However, many destinations may require crossing uneven terrain, to which the Coleman is not well-suited.
While we didn't rate any of the coolers on their accessories, we did make notes of them. Certain accessories can add to your adventure, by providing a bottle opener you can't forget at home, holding additional non-food items, or providing easy attachment points to make the cooler more versatile. However, while these features may add some convenience, they don't affect overall usability, and therefore are mentioned only as notes and not included in the overall scores of each cooler.
At first glance, soft coolers seem dichotomous, yet all the same. When you delve deeper into the world of coolers, you'll find that they're as varied as that of any other gear category and that more models continue to hit the market, summer after summer. You'll find specialty coolers made for hiking, high-end models made for long-term cooler needs, standard models that are more like a lunch box, and everything in between. 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 and do those things: trips into the desert, long hikes, dinner parties, beach days, rainy camping weekends, and BBQs. We hauled these products all around and put all them through their paces. In doing so, we were able to compile one of the most comprehensive reviews of soft coolers currently available. We hope that the information compiled here helps you find the right cooler to fit your lifestyle!
— Maggie Brandenburg & Andrew Schurr