The Ultimate Guide to Choosing the Best Backpack Cooler for Your Adventures
Are you tired of lugging around a heavy cooler on all your outdoor adventures? Look no further than the hybrid backpack cooler – the ultimate solution for backpackers and adventurers alike. This innovative piece of gear combines the convenience of a backpack with the cooling power of a traditional cooler, making it the best cooler for backpacking. If you're ready to ditch the hassle and elevate your outdoor experience, keep reading to discover the benefits of a hybrid backpack cooler, compare different models, learn what to look for when making a purchase, and get expert advice on finding the perfect backpack cooler for your needs.
What Is a Hybrid Backpack Cooler?
When it comes to differentiating hybrid backpack coolers from regular ones, the key factor is the amount of storage space available in each.
For instance, some backpack coolers offer significant extra storage for books and gear, while others are simply large insulated bags.
More Articles You May Enjoy Jonathan Chan
Senior Manager of Lab Operations
Jonathan Chan currently serves as the Lab Manager at Reviewed. If you clean with it, it's likely that Jon oversees its testing. Since joining Reviewed in 2012, Jon has played a key role in reviewing laptops, vacuums, and outdoor gear. He thinks he's pretty important. In his pursuit of data, he has endured freezing cold water, mud-dragging, and watching paint dry. Jon hopes you have a nice day.
See all of Jonathan Chan's reviews
Staff Writer, Home
Gabriel Morgan is a staff writer on Reviewed's home team. He covers consumer education topics such as earthquake preparedness, radon in the home, and concerns about health and wellness in product design. He also writes product reviews and how-to articles on appliances, smart home technology, and goods for the home.
@gabriel.l.morgan [email protected]
See all of Gabriel Morgan's reviews
Our team is dedicated to helping you find and love the best products. Our writers, editors, and lab technicians are passionate about the products we review, ensuring your confidence and satisfaction. Have a different opinion about something we recommend? Email us and let's compare notes.
Shoot us an email
Backpack Cooler Comparison Chart
What to Look for in a Backpack Cooler
Size and Capacity
The most important factor to consider when purchasing a backpack cooler is its storage capacity. If you plan on throwing big beach parties, you'll want a cooler with more capacity. However, if you're going on a hike with just a few people, a smaller cooler might suffice. Keep in mind that liquid-filled cans are heavy, so the more you pack, the heavier the bag will be.
The straps of a backpack cooler can greatly impact its comfort while carrying a heavy load. Look for thick, adjustable shoulder straps with soft padding. Additional straps that buckle across the waist or chest can help distribute the weight evenly and provide support with your entire torso. The quality of the straps can also indicate the overall quality of the bag. Loose stitching, uneven fabric or color, and mismatched details may suggest poor craftsmanship.
The Spruce Eats / Henry Wortock
An effective backpack cooler should have excellent insulation to keep things cool. It can be challenging to judge insulation quality without testing the cooler in person. There are various materials with different thickness, weight, and insulation capabilities. The size and shape of the cooler alone aren't reliable indicators. We have found that coolers with product listings mentioning their ability to keep drinks cold or providing insulation details tend to offer better insulation compared to those without such information.
If you're carrying cold cans to a campsite, chances are you have other items with you, such as food, napkins, plates, and a camera or cell phone. Having additional dry storage space is beneficial. Coolers with plenty of pockets on the front and sides received higher ratings in this category.
The Spruce Eats / Tamara Staples
Advice for Buying a Backpack Cooler
Our Evaluation of Backpack Coolers: Practicality and Best Applications
Backpack coolers fall into the category of soft-sided coolers and are designed specifically for those who want the convenience of a backpack combined with the insulation capabilities of a cooler. In our experience, they are ideal for short trips to a picnic or fishing spot, as well as for basecamping by the water for a few hours. They can also be a valuable addition to a larger hard-sided cooler, providing extra space for food or drinks when camping with a larger group.
Backpack coolers are highly portable for outdoor adventures that require some walking.But, they are not as practical for overnight trips or multi-day outings. Unlike hard-sided coolers that can keep contents cold for days or even weeks, backpack coolers are only able to keep contents cold for a few days at most. Additionally, backpack coolers are generally smaller in size compared to hard-sided models, typically offering around 30 liters of capacity at most. Finally, considering their limited storage capacity and overall performance, backpack coolers can be quite expensive. However, if hands-free carrying is a top priority for your day trips, they are definitely worth considering.
Sizes of Backpack Coolers (Capacities)
You will notice that there is no universal standard for measuring the interior capacity of a cooler. Some use cans as a unit of measure, while others use liters, quarts, or gallons. In the case of backpack coolers, the most common unit of measure is "cans" (hard-sided coolers are usually listed in quarts). We have used this specification throughout our article whenever available. However, it is important to be aware of discrepancies, particularly with regards to whether or not the estimate includes ice. In our write-ups and comparison table above, we have done our best to clarify this distinction. When shopping for a backpack cooler, this is an important factor to consider.
Backpack coolers come in various sizes.For reference, the largest backpack cooler on our list is the Hydro Flask 20 L Day Escape, which can accommodate up to 36 12-ounce cans without ice. On the other hand, the smallest option is the Pelican Dayventure Backpack Cooler, which can fit 6 cans with ice according to Pelican's estimation. Based on our experience, the most commonly used backpack coolers provide storage space for around 18 to 24 cans with ice. These designs are generally sufficient for day trips or weekend road trips. They are also manageable in terms of weight and portability, and do not take up much space in your vehicle or garage.
Ice Retention and Cooling Abilities
As mentioned earlier, backpack coolers are not known for their ability to retain ice for extended periods. Most of them can only keep contents cold for a day or two under ideal conditions. There are several factors that affect ice retention, including air temperature, frequency of lid opening, exposure to sunlight, and the ice-to-food ratio (most brands recommend a 2:1 ratio). To maximize performance, you can pre-chill your cooler by filling it with freezer packs or ice for a few hours before use. When you're ready to go, switch to pre-chilled packs or fresh ice at the recommended ratio along with your drinks and food.
REI's Cool Trail Split Pack can keep ice frozen for up to 40 hours.Most cooler manufacturers provide a "claimed ice retention" specification in their product listings. However, it is important to take these claims with a grain of salt, as there is no established standardized test. From our list, claimed ice retention times range from 8 hours for the Carhartt Insulated Two Compartment Cooler Backpack to three days for Engel's Roll Top High Performance and CamelBak's ChillBack Pack 30 (the standard is around 24 hours). In real-world use, you can generally expect to get approximately half of the claimed ice retention time, depending on various factors.
CameBak's new ChillBak Pack 30 offers three days of ice retention.
Weight and Portability
One of the main advantages of a backpack cooler over a hard-sided cooler is its lighter weight and increased portability. They are much easier to carry, whether you are hiking to a campsite or taking lunch and gear to a nearby lake or river for paddling. Most backpack coolers on our list weigh between 2 and 4 pounds, with the larger and more robust designs weighing around 5 to 6 pounds. The heaviest model is the Pelican Dayventure Backpack Cooler at 9 pounds 4.8 ounces. On the other end of the spectrum, the Arctic Zone Titan Deep Freeze and Coleman 28-Can Soft Cooler Backpack are the lightest at 1 pound 8.5 ounces and 1 pound 9 ounces, respectively. Comfortable shoulder straps and grab handles are important for maximizing portability, and we have provided more detailed information on this below.
The YETI Hopper M20 is one of the heavier backpack coolers at 5 pounds 9.6 ounces.
Carrying Comfort: Straps, Padding, and Support
It is important to note that backpack coolers are not designed for long-distance hauling like regular daypacks or backpacking packs. However, they do offer the advantage of keeping your hands free and making it easier to walk on uneven terrain compared to hard-sided or traditional soft-sided coolers. Most backpack coolers come with padded shoulder straps and backpanels to provide comfort while on the move. They also often have exterior pockets and lash points for additional gear storage. Some models, such as the ICEMULE Boss, RTIC Backpack Cooler, and CamelBak ChillBak, even feature a hipbelt for transferring weight to your hips, which can increase comfort during long-distance carrying. However, this is not necessary for most situations.
In our experience, the price usually reflects the quality of suspension and padding. High-end models like the YETI Hopper M20 and ICEMULE Boss tend to have better suspensions and padding. On the other hand, budget coolers like those from Coleman and Arctic Zone usually have more basic strap systems that are less comfortable for extended periods of carrying. The shape and size of the cooler also play a role in comfort. Tall and rectangular designs with a rigid structure, such as the RTIC Backpack Cooler, are generally less comfortable to carry. However, all the models on our list are perfectly suitable for carrying food and drinks for short distances, such as to the beach or campsite.
Premium designs offer the best padding and support for all-day comfort.
Construction and Durability
The durability of backpack coolers can vary significantly, and one way to differentiate between models is to look at the denier (D) rating, which refers to fabric thickness. More rigid designs like the YETI Hopper M20 and Pelican Dayventure Backpack Cooler, both at 840D, are among the most durable. They have tough exteriors that provide confidence when carrying them around sharp objects, and they have withstood regular use very well with minimal signs of wear. ICEMULE's Pro Large cooler also stands out in terms of durability, with its thick (1,000D) dry bag-like exterior that is well-suited for rugged outdoor adventures. Softer and more flexible options like ICEMULE's Jaunt 15L and OtterBox's Backpack Cooler are less robust and may show more signs of wear over time, but they are still adequately built for most casual outdoor activities.
It is also worth noting that price and build quality often go hand in hand. Budget-friendly coolers like the Arctic Zone Titan Deep Freeze, Coleman 28-Can Soft Cooler Backpack, and Carhartt Insulated Two Compartment Cooler Backpack generally have cheaper-feeling constructions compared to their more premium counterparts. They may also be more prone to leaking as the ice melts. While these options can still work well for casual day trips and occasional use, dedicated outdoor enthusiasts who plan to use their coolers frequently, especially around water, may benefit from investing in higher-quality options.
Waterproof Backpack Coolers
Many mid-range and high-end backpack coolers utilize highly water-resistant zippers or openings to prevent leaks. Some models, like ICEMULE's Pro, are fully waterproof and can be submerged in water. RTIC's Backpack Cooler and Hydro Flask's 20 L Day Escape are also fully waterproof, featuring welded seams and watertight zippers. ICEMULE's Boss goes a step further by incorporating an air valve that allows it to float in rougher conditions. Most other options on our list are highly water-resistant and can withstand light moisture. However, kayakers and paddleboarders may want to opt for a fully waterproof option for added assurance while out on the water.
The ICEMULE Boss is fully waterproof with welded seams and watertight zippers to keep out moisture.
Hybrid Backpack Coolers/Daypacks
Some backpack coolers on our list have separate compartments for gear storage. For example, the REI Cool Trail Split Pack, Carhartt Insulated Two Compartment Cooler Backpack, and Pelican Dayventure Backpack Cooler feature hybrid designs with an insulated bottom compartment for keeping food and drinks cold, and an upper section for storing layers, snacks, and accessories. The Pelican model is fully insulated, allowing the use of both compartments for food and drinks, while the REI and Carhartt have insulation only in the bottom compartment. The main downside of these hybrid designs is that the gear storage space reduces the cooler's capacity, making them less suitable for group outings or situations where a full day's worth of food and drinks need to be kept cold. However, they work well for packing a light lunch and a couple of drinks. The cooler insert in the REI Cool Trail Split Pack is also removable, providing the option to use the entire capacity for gear.
The hybrid design of the REI Cool Trail Split Pack is perfect for dividing food/beverages and gear.
Opening Styles and Closure Systems
The opening style and closure system of a backpack cooler have a significant impact on convenience and overall performance. Different models have varying styles. For instance, the YETI Hopper M20 has a magnet-equipped opening that closes easily but can be challenging to fully open to fit larger items. Many models use zippers, which may require some force to operate. However, the wraparound design of backpack coolers like the RTIC Backpack Cooler makes it easier to keep the lid open. These zipper-equipped styles are also highly resistant to leaks. Another excellent opening style is the watertight zipper on Hydro Flask's 20 L Day Escape, which requires minimal force to open, provides a reliable seal, and can be easily realigned if it separates.
Backpack coolers have various opening styles, from roll-top closures to zipper-equipped lids.
The roll-top opening is another style used by ICEMULE, CamelBak, Engel, and Pelican. These roll tops create a wide opening for easy loading and unloading of items. Combined with a flexible structure, they can be compressed around a partially filled bag. However, roll tops take longer to secure than zippers and require the use of both hands. In our opinion, a smooth-operating zipper, like the one on Hydro Flask's Escape, is the preferred option.
The roll-top opening on the CamelBak ChillBak Pack 30 allows for quick and easy access.
Additional Features of Backpack Coolers
Pockets and Organization
Most backpack coolers come with at least one exterior pocket for storing small valuables such as a phone, wallet, or keys. In our experience, these pockets are very useful for keeping track of belongings during outdoor activities. Water-resistant pockets provide extra protection against splashes or rain. Some models with functional stash pockets include Igloo's Pursuit, Coleman's 28-Can Soft Cooler Backpack, ICEMULE's Boss, and Carhartt's Insulated Two Compartment Cooler Backpack.
The ICEMULE Boss has a spacious front stash pocket for storing valuables and accessories.
External Attachment Points
Many backpack coolers, including YETI's Hopper M20 and Hydro Flask's 20 L Day Escape, have daisy chain webbing on the outside for attaching additional gear. This feature is useful for keeping items like keys easily accessible (using a carabiner). We particularly like the stretchy bungee system on ICEMULE's Pro and Boss models, which makes it convenient to secure a lightweight jacket or small towel.
YETI's Hopper M20 has an accessory-ready exterior with ample attachment points for gear.
Some additional features to consider include integrated bottle openers and vacuum ports. From our list, the Engel Roll Top High Performance, Arctic Zone Titan Deep Freeze, Igloo Pursuit, OtterBox Backpack Cooler, and Coleman Soft Cooler come with built-in bottle openers. The Engel also includes a unique vacuum valve that allows you to remove excess air before use for maximum insulation. ICEMULE's Boss has a similar valve system, which allows you to add or remove air to adjust cooling capabilities and buoyancy or compress the cooler for storage.
Another notable feature is the removable cooler insert in the REI Cool Trail Split Pack, making it easy to clean and allowing you to use the full capacity for gear on day hikes. Some coolers also have attachment points for securing to a boat or truck bed, providing added security during rough waters or on bumpy drives to the trailhead. Finally, CamelBak's new ChillBak Pack 30 is the only cooler on the market with a built-in hydration reservoir, making it perfect for activities like climbing or group adventures where hydration is important.
CamelBak's ChillBak Pack 30 includes a convenient 6-liter reservoir for on-the-go refills.
Backpack Cooler Accessories
Many soft cooler manufacturers offer compatible accessories that can be attached to the outside of their coolers. For example, the Hydro Flask 20 L Day Escape has thread-through points for securing their Dry Storage Bags. While YETI's soft cooler accessories are more limited compared to their hard-sided collection, their SideKick Dry Gear Case is a great option for attaching to the HitchPoint grid on the Hopper M20, and the Molle Zinger is perfect for securing a multitool or bottle opener.
Price: Budget vs. Premium Backpack Coolers
In conclusion, when it comes to choosing the best cooler for backpacking, a hybrid backpack cooler is a game-changer. With its innovative design and practical features, this versatile cooler combines the convenience of a backpack with the functionality of a cooler, making it the ultimate companion for your outdoor adventures. With our comprehensive Backpack Cooler Comparison Chart and helpful tips on what to look for, you can now make an informed decision and choose the perfect backpack cooler that suits your needs. So, whether you're trekking through the wilderness or heading to the beach, don't forget to bring along your trusty hybrid backpack cooler for a refreshing and enjoyable journey.
Discover the ultimate guide to finding the best cooler for your boating vacations - essential tips, expert advice, and top picks reviewed. Keep your drinks icy cold and your excursions hassle-free with the perfect cooler for all your maritime adventures.
Discover why rotomolded coolers are the ultimate camping companion, offering unrivaled durability, superior insulation, and optimal ice retention. Explore how these coolers outperform the competition, keeping your food and beverages chilled for longer, ensuring a hassle-free outdoor adventure.
Discover the key factors, extensive options, and breathtaking expert tips in our comprehensive Ultimate Guide to Choosing the Best Wine Cooler Under Counter. Elevate your wine experience and find the perfect wine cooler to suit your needs with our expert recommendations. Don't settle for less, click now to make the most of your wine collection!
Discover the ultimate Yeti Cooler alternatives that perfectly match your needs. Explore a range of top-quality options designed to keep your beverages icy cold on any adventure. Find your ideal alternative and elevate your outdoor experience today!