A Guide to Choosing the Perfect Cooler Backpack for All Your Adventures

Are you tired of lugging around heavy coolers or struggling to find space in your car for a bulky one? Look no further, as we have the answer to your troubles! Imagine a cooler that not only keeps your food and drinks chilled but also offers versatile carrying options. That's right, a cooler with multiple carrying options. In this article, we will provide you with all the essential buying advice you need to find the perfect backpack cooler. Say goodbye to tedious transportation and say hello to convenience and style!

Advice on Buying a Backpack Cooler

Our Opinion on Backpack Coolers: Practicality and Best Uses

Backpack coolers are a specialized type of soft-sided cooler that combines the convenience of a backpack with the insulating ability of a cooler. They are particularly useful for short trips to picnic spots or fishing spots, as well as for basecamping near water for a few hours. They can also be a great addition to a larger hard-sided cooler, providing extra storage space for food and drinks when camping with a larger group.

Backpack cooler (jumping over water)Backpack coolers offer the best portability for outdoor adventures with short approaches. However, they are not the best choice for overnight trips or multi-day outings. Unlike hard-sided coolers that can keep items cold for days or even weeks, backpack coolers are only designed to keep contents cold for a few days at most. Additionally, they are generally smaller, with a capacity of around 30 liters at the maximum. Despite these limitations, if you prioritize hands-free carrying for day trips, they are a worthwhile investment.

Sizes of Backpack Coolers (Capacities)

There is no standardized method for measuring the capacity of backpack coolers. Some use cans as a unit of measurement, while others use liters, quarts, or gallons. Most commonly, backpack coolers are listed by the number of cans they can hold (hard-sided coolers are usually listed in quarts). However, there can still be discrepancies, particularly whether or not the capacity includes ice. In our article, we have used the can measurement whenever available. However, it is important to keep in mind the presence of ice when shopping for a backpack cooler. For more detailed comparisons, refer to the table in the above link.

Backpack coolers (CamelBak ChillBak Pack 30 and ICEMULE Jaunt 15L at lunch)Backpack coolers come in a wide variety of capacities. The largest option on the list can fit up to 36 12-ounce cans without ice, while the smallest can fit just 6 cans with ice. Generally, the most commonly used backpack coolers can hold around 18 to 24 cans with ice. These sizes are suitable for day trips or weekend road trips, and they are lightweight and easy to transport.

Ice Retention and Cooling Abilities

As mentioned before, backpack coolers do not excel in ice retention. Most can only keep contents cold for a day or two in ideal conditions. External factors such as air temperature, frequency of lid opening, exposure to sunlight, and ice-to-food ratio can also affect performance. To maximize cooling capabilities, it is recommended to pre-chill the cooler with freezer packs or ice before use. During travel, replace melted ice or add pre-chilled packs along with drinks and food.

Backpack cooler (food and drinks inside REI Cool Trail Split Pack)REI's Cool Trail Split Pack can keep ice frozen for up to 40 hours. Most cooler manufacturers provide a specification for "claimed ice retention" (except YETI). The listed times vary from 8 hours to 3 days, with 24 hours being the average. However, these times can often be exaggerated, and real-world performance is typically about half of the claimed time.

Weight and Portability

Compared to hard-sided coolers, backpack coolers are much lighter and easier to carry. The options range from 2 to 6 pounds, with the heavier options being more robust and offering larger capacities. For reference, the heaviest backpack cooler on our list weighs 9 pounds 4.8 ounces, while the lightest weighs 1 pound 9 ounces. Comfortable shoulder straps and grab handles contribute to their portability.

Backpack cooler (putting on YETI Hopper M20)The YETI Hopper M20 is on the heavier end at 5 pounds 9.6 ounces.

Carrying Comfort: Straps, Padding, and Support

Backpack coolers are not designed for long-distance hauling like traditional daypacks or backpacking packs. However, they offer hands-free convenience and are better suited for uneven terrain compared to hard-sided or traditional soft-sided coolers. Most backpack coolers feature padded shoulder straps and backpanels for comfort while moving. They also have exterior pockets and lash points for additional storage. Some models include a hipbelt for weight transfer to the hips, which improves carrying comfort for longer distances. However, this is not necessary for most use cases.

Backpack cooler (padding along backpanel)Premium designs typically offer the best padding and support for all-day comfort.

Construction and Durability

The durability of backpack coolers varies greatly. The thickness of the fabric, measured in denier (D), is a good indication of durability. Models with higher denier ratings tend to have tougher exteriors and are more resilient to sharp objects. Rigid designs like the YETI Hopper M20 and Pelican Dayventure Backpack Cooler have exteriors that inspire confidence and have proven to be highly durable during testing. Softer options like the ICEMULE Jaunt 15L and OtterBox Backpack Cooler are less rugged but still suitable for most casual outdoor activities.

Backpack cooler (rolling up ICEMULE Pro Large)The ICEMULE Pro is impressively durable with a thick shell that stands up well to rough use. The price of the backpack cooler often reflects the quality of the suspension and padding. High-end designs like the YETI Hopper M20 and ICEMULE Boss offer superior padding and support. Budget options may have more basic strap systems that are less comfortable for extended use. It's also worth considering the shape and size of the cooler, as tall and rigid designs tend to be less comfortable.

Waterproof Backpack Coolers

Many mid-range and high-end backpack coolers have water-resistant zippers or openings to prevent leaks. Fully waterproof coolers, such as the ICEMULE Pro, are also available. They have dry bag-like shapes and can be submerged in water. RTIC's Backpack Cooler and Hydro Flask's 20 L Day Escape are fully waterproof with welded seams and watertight zippers. Other options are highly water-resistant and can withstand light moisture. Kayakers and paddleboarders may prefer fully waterproof options for added peace of mind.

Backpack cooler (watertight zipper on ICEMULE Boss)The ICEMULE Boss is fully waterproof with welded seams and watertight zippers.

Hybrid Backpack Coolers/Daypacks

Some backpack coolers have separate compartments for gear storage. These hybrid designs typically have an insulated bottom compartment for food and beverages, while the upper section can be used for extra gear. The Pelican Dayventure Backpack Cooler is a fully insulated example, while others like the REI Cool Trail Split Pack and Carhartt Insulated Two Compartment Cooler Backpack only have insulation in the bottom compartment. The downside of these designs is that gear storage space reduces the cooler's overall capacity. However, they are suitable for packing light lunches and a few drinks.

Backpack cooler (REI Cool Trail Split Pack split design)The REI Cool Trail Split's hybrid design is well-executed for dividing food/beverages and gear.

Opening Styles and Closure Systems

The opening style and closure system of a backpack cooler can significantly affect convenience and overall performance. Styles vary, with options such as magnet-equipped openings, zippers, and roll-top closures. Each has its pros and cons. Magnet-equipped openings like the ones on the YETI Hopper M20 may be easy to close but can be challenging to open wide enough to fit large items. Zipper-equipped coolers, like RTIC's Backpack Cooler, may require more force to operate but tend to be resistant to leaks. Roll-top openings are wider and allow for easy loading and unloading, but they require more time to secure and two hands to operate.

Backpack cooler (opening styles)Opening styles vary widely, from roll-top closures to zipper-equipped lids. Roll-top openings like the one on the CamelBak ChillBak Pack 30 provide quick and easy access to the interior.

Additional Features of Backpack Coolers

Pockets and Organization: Many backpack coolers have exterior pockets for storing small valuables like phones, wallets, and keys. Water-resistant pockets provide extra protection against splashes. Some models also include functional stash pockets for specific gear storage.

Backpack cooler (zippered pocket on ICEMULE Boss)The ICEMULE Boss has a large front stash pocket for storing valuables and accessories.

External Attachment Points: Many backpack coolers have daisy chain webbing or stretchy bungee systems for attaching extra gear to the outside.

Backpack cooler (YETI Hopper M20 exterior attachment points)YETI's Hopper M20 boasts an accessory-ready exterior with ample attachment points for gear.

Other Features: Some backpack coolers come with integrated bottle openers or vacuum ports for adding or releasing air. The REI Cool Trail Split Pack has a removable cooler insert for easy cleaning and flexible gear storage. Some coolers have attachment points for securing the cooler to a boat or truck bed. CamelBak's ChillBak Pack 30 includes a hydration reservoir for on-the-go fill-ups.

Backpack cooler (filling water bottle with CamelBak ChillBak 30 Pack)CamelBak's ChillBak Pack 30 comes with a handy 6-liter reservoir for on-the-go fill-ups.

Backpack Cooler Accessories

Many soft cooler manufacturers offer accessories that can attach directly to their coolers. For example, Hydro Flask's 20 L Day Escape has points on the outside for securing their Dry Storage Bags. YETI's soft coolers have limited accessory options, but their SideKick Dry Gear Case and Molle Zinger are notable attachments.

Price: Budget vs. Premium Backpack Coolers

In conclusion, when it comes to purchasing a backpack cooler, it's essential to consider your specific needs and preferences. Whether you're planning a weekend getaway, a hiking trip, or a day at the beach, having a cooler that offers multiple carrying options can make all the difference. From adjustable straps to sturdy handles, these features not only enhance convenience but also ensure that you can effortlessly transport your refreshments wherever your adventures take you. So, don't settle for a one-size-fits-all cooler – invest in one that offers the versatility and comfort you desire. With the right backpack cooler by your side, every outing can become a memorable and hassle-free experience.

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