Discovering the Perfect Picnic Companion: Essential Tips for Choosing the Best Soft Cooler
Are you tired of lugging around a heavy, clunky cooler every time you head out for a picnic? Look no further! We have the ultimate solution to keep your beverages ice-cold and your sandwiches fresh without the hassle. In this article, we will guide you through the world of soft coolers, revealing the secrets to finding the best cooler for picnics. Say goodbye to heavy lifting and hello to portable refreshment perfection!
Advice for Buying Soft Coolers
Our Opinion on Soft Coolers: Utility and Best Uses
Before we get into the details, it's important to note that soft coolers have their limitations. Unlike hard-sided coolers that can keep food and drinks cold for days or even weeks, soft coolers are not designed for long-term cooling. They are also generally smaller in size, usually holding around 30 liters of capacity at the most. Because of this, soft coolers are not ideal for multi-day outings. Instead, they are best suited for weekend getaways, day trips to the park or beach, tailgating, boating, or quick trips to the grocery store. Soft coolers can also be a great addition to a larger hard-sided cooler, providing extra space for food and drinks when camping with a larger group.
A selection of our favorite soft coolers
Additionally, it's important to differentiate between collapsible and rigid soft coolers. In our experience, flexible and packable models like the Hydro Flask 20 L Insulated Tote are more versatile and functional than thick and rigid options like the Engel HD20. These rigid designs lack drainage ports and the ability to compress for storage, and they don't retain ice as well as hard-sided coolers. However, they are still lighter and more portable than hard coolers, so they have their advantages. Just keep in mind that they're not as durable, insulated, or spacious as hard coolers.
Rigid coolers like the Engel HD30 and ORCA Walker Tote take up a lot of space
Soft Cooler Sizes (Capacities)
It's important to note that not all coolers measure capacity in the same way. Some use cans as a unit of measure, while others use liters, quarts, or gallons. However, cans are the most commonly used unit for soft coolers. The largest option on our list, the RTIC Soft Pack Cooler, can fit up to 30 12-ounce cans with ice. On the other end, the Cotopaxi Hielo 12L Cooler Bag can fit up to 12 cans without ice (around 8 cans with ice). In our experience, most soft coolers offer space for around 18-24 cans with ice. These sizes are perfect for day trips or weekend road trips, and they're lightweight and portable.
Hydro Flask's Insulated Tote (left) can fit around 10 cans with ice
Ice Retention and Cooling Capabilities
As mentioned earlier, soft coolers are not the best at retaining ice. Most soft coolers can only keep contents cold for a day or two, depending on various factors such as air temperature, lid opening frequency, sunlight exposure, and the ice-to-food ratio. To maximize performance, you can pre-chill your cooler by filling it with ice for a few hours before use. When you're ready to go, swap in pre-chilled packs or fresh ice with a 2:1 ice-to-food ratio.
Most manufacturers recommend a 2:1 ice-to-food ratio
Most manufacturers provide a "claimed ice retention" specification in their product listings, although these claims may be exaggerated. From our list, the Hydro Flask 20 L Insulated Tote has a claimed ice retention of 4 hours, while Engel's HD20 can retain ice for three or four days. However, it's important to take these claims with a grain of salt and expect about half of the claimed ice retention time in real-world use.
Helpful cooling tips inside REI Co-op's Cool Haul 24
Weight and Portability
One clear advantage of soft coolers is that they are much lighter and more portable than hard-sided coolers. Most soft coolers weigh between 2 and 4 pounds, while larger and more robust models can weigh 7 pounds or more. The heaviest model on our list, the YETI Hopper M30, weighs 7 pounds, while the Hydro Flask 20 L Insulated Tote and Cotopaxi Hielo 12L Cooler Bag are the lightest options. Comfortable shoulder straps and grab handles make them easy to carry on your shoulder or by hand.
The YETI Hopper M30 can feel heavy and bulky when filled
Construction and Durability
Durability varies among soft coolers, and it's important to consider the denier (D) measurement of the fabric for an indication of thickness. Rigid coolers like YETI's Hopper M30 and Engel's HD20 have tough exteriors that hold up well against wear and tear. Softer and more malleable options like the Hydro Flask 20 L Insulated Tote, Cotopaxi Hielo 12L Cooler Bag, and REI Co-op Pack-Away 24 are less durable but still suitable for most casual outdoor activities.
The YETI Hopper M30 is robust and long-lasting
It's worth noting that price and build quality often go hand in hand. Cheaper options like the AO Coolers 24 Pack Canvas, Coleman 24-Hour 16-Can Cooler, and Arctic Zone Titan Deep Freeze may not feel as high quality as more premium models. If you plan on using your cooler regularly, it's worth investing in a more durable option.
The AO Coolers 24 Pack Canvas provides decent durability for its price
Waterproof Soft Coolers
Most of the coolers on our list have highly water-resistant zippers and openings, but very few are fully waterproof. The ICEMULE Classic and RTIC Soft Pack are exceptions, as they have dry bag-like shapes and closures that can be fully submerged in water. These are great for activities like kayaking or paddleboarding. The RTIC Soft Pack is also tough and leakproof.
In conclusion, when it comes to finding the best cooler for your picnic adventures, it's crucial to consider your specific needs and preferences. Soft coolers offer a convenient and portable option, ensuring your snacks and drinks stay chilled throughout the day. From their impressive insulation capabilities to their lightweight design, these coolers are a practical investment for any outdoor enthusiast. So, whether you're planning a family gathering or a romantic rendezvous in the great outdoors, make sure to take this buying advice into account and choose the perfect soft cooler that will keep your drinks cold and your picnic experience unforgettable. Happy picnicking!
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