The Ultimate Guide to Finding a Leak-Proof Cooler for Travel

Are you tired of struggling with bulky and inconvenient coolers that always seem to end up drenching your car's upholstery in melted ice? Well, it's time to say goodbye to soggy road trips and hello to the ultimate solution: the leak-proof cooler for travel. In this article, we will guide you through the process of choosing the perfect soft cooler that not only keeps your drinks and snacks refreshingly chilled but also saves you from any messy mishaps along the way. Get ready to embark on a journey of cooler enlightenment – let's dive in!

Advice for Buying a Soft Cooler

Our Thoughts on Soft Coolers: Practicality and Best Uses

Before delving into the details, it's essential to acknowledge that soft coolers have certain limitations. Unlike hard-sided models that can keep food and drinks cold for several days, soft coolers are not designed for long-term cooling and have a smaller capacity. They are more suitable for short outings, such as weekend getaways, park or beach trips, tailgating, boating, or quick errands like grocery shopping. Soft coolers can also serve as additional storage for larger groups when camping alongside a larger hard-sided cooler.

Soft coolers (lined up in front of REI tent)A lineup of some of our favorite soft coolers Additionally, it's important to distinguish 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. The flexible models lack drainage ports and the ability to compress for storage, but they are lighter and more portable. However, it's important to consider the trade-offs, such as decreased durability, insulation, and overall capacity.

Soft coolers (rigid Engel HD30 and ORCA Walker Tote)Rigid designs like the Engel HD30 and ORCA Walker Tote take up a lot of space

Sizes of Soft Coolers (Capacities)

It's important to note that not all coolers measure interior capacity in the same way. Some use cans as a unit of measure, while others use liters, quarts, or gallons. Soft coolers are commonly measured in cans, while hard-sided coolers are listed in quarts. The largest soft cooler option can fit up to 30 12-ounce cans with ice, while the smallest can accommodate around 12 cans without ice (~8 cans with ice). Most frequently used soft coolers offer space for approximately 18-24 cans with ice, making them suitable for day trips or weekend road trips without taking up excessive space.

Soft coolers (size comparison)Hydro Flask's Insulated Tote (left) can fit around 10 cans with ice

Ice Retention and Cooling Capabilities

Soft coolers are not known for their exceptional ice retention. In optimal conditions, they can keep contents cold for a day or two at most. Factors like air temperature, lid opening frequency, exposure to sunlight, and ice-to-food ratio affect their performance. To maximize their effectiveness, pre-chill the cooler with ice before loading it and maintain the recommended 2:1 ice-to-food ratio. Manufacturers provide "claimed ice retention" estimates, but these should be taken with some skepticism as real-world performance can vary. As a general guideline, expect approximately half of the claimed ice retention time in typical conditions.

Soft cooler (cooling tips inside REI Co-op Cool Haul)Helpful cooling tips inside REI Co-op's Cool Haul 24

Weight and Portability

Soft coolers offer the advantage of being much lighter and easier to transport compared to hard-sided coolers. Most options weigh between 2 to 4 pounds, with some larger designs weighing 7 pounds or more. The heaviest model on our list is the YETI Hopper M30 at 7 pounds, while the lightest are the Hydro Flask 20 L Insulated Tote (1 lb. 5.1 oz.) and Cotopaxi Hielo 12L Cooler Bag (1 lb. 9 oz.). Comfortable shoulder straps and grab handles contribute to portability, making it convenient to carry them over short distances.

Soft cooler (carrying YETI Hopper M30 into van)At 7 pounds when empty, the YETI Hopper M30 can feel heavy and bulky with food, drinks, and ice

Construction and Durability

Durability varies among soft coolers, primarily determined by the thickness of the fabric, measured in denier (D). Rigid designs like the YETI Hopper M30 and Engel HD20 (both 840D) offer high levels of durability and can withstand sharp gear without showing signs of wear. RovR's TravelR 30 stands out with its burly TPU base and welded seams, providing excellent durability. 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 sturdy but still suitable for most casual outdoor activities.

YETI's top-end Hopper M30 is undeniably robust and long-lasting It's worth noting that price often correlates with build quality. Cheaper options may have lower-grade constructions and components than premium models. While budget options can be sufficient for occasional use, those planning regular outdoor activities, especially around water, may benefit from investing in higher-quality coolers.

Soft cooler (carrying AO Coolers 24 Pack Canvas)The AO Coolers 24 Pack Canvas is reasonably well-built for the priceWaterproof Soft Coolers

Most soft coolers have highly water-resistant zippers or openings but lack complete waterproofing. The ICEMULE Classic is an exception, featuring a dry bag-like shape and exterior with a roll-top closure that can be fully submerged in water. This makes it ideal for water activities like kayaking or paddleboarding. The RTIC Soft Pack is another option falling into this category, with a tough shell and leakproof design that can withstand water exposure.


Price: Budget vs. Premium Soft Coolers

Soft coolers come in a wide price range, from inexpensive options to premium models. The price often reflects durability, with pricier coolers offering more robust builds. Top-tier models like the YETI Hopper M30, Hopper Flip 12, Engel HD20, and OtterBox Trooper 20 have thick and rigid exteriors that can withstand long-term use. However, even the cheaper options are reasonably well-built and suitable for beach outings or packing lunches on the road, making them a popular choice for many.

Soft coolers (premium Engel HD30 and YETI Hopper M30)Two of the most premium designs on the market: Engel's HD30 and YETI's Hopper M30 Additionally, the difference in ice retention between soft-sided models is not significant compared to hard coolers. Therefore, it might be difficult to justify the high cost of premium soft coolers. If budget allows, opting for a hard-sided cooler would provide better cooling capabilities and overall performance, albeit with a weight penalty.

Soft coolers (carrying REI Cool Haul and Hydro Flask Insulated Tote)Affordable designs like the REI Cool Haul and Hydro Flask Insulated Tote are appealing

Opening Styles and Closure Systems

The opening style and closure system of a soft cooler significantly impact convenience and performance. Various models offer different opening styles. For example, the YETI Hopper M30 has a magnet-equipped rigid opening that requires effort to keep open while loading and unloading. Some options have zipper closures that may be somewhat challenging to operate but provide better leak resistance. Roll-top closures, like those on the ICEMULE Classic, open and close easily but may be less insulated. The choice between convenience and seal quality is subjective and depends on individual preferences.

Soft cooler (magnetic opening on YETI Hopper M30)The YETI Hopper M30's strong magnetic design is hard to keep open A few desirable opening styles include the roll-top closure and zipperless design. However, while these are easier to open and close, they may provide a weaker seal and lesser insulation. Ultimately, the choice depends on the user's priorities.

Soft coolers (different opening styles)Opening styles vary considerably and impact convenience and insulation capabilities

Carrying Straps and Handles

Soft coolers are easy to transport due to their lighter weight and features like padded shoulder straps and grab handles. Premium models often have well-cushioned straps, such as the YETI Hopper M30, RTIC's Soft Pack Cooler, and Engel's HD20. Budget options may have more basic strap systems but are still portable for short walks. Backpack coolers, like the Hydro Flask 20 L Day Escape, offer the easiest portability with full harnesses that can be worn like a regular daypack.

Soft cooler (carry handle on ORCA Walker Tote)We like the integrated carry handle on the ORCA Walker Tote that secures with magnets

Backpack Coolers

For ultimate portability, soft-sided backpack-style coolers are an excellent choice. These models resemble hiking daypacks and offer features like shoulder straps, padded back panels, and exterior pockets. Backpack coolers are lightweight, easy to carry, and compact when not in use. However, their insulation power may be inferior to hard-sided coolers. Although backpack coolers can be relatively expensive given their modest storage capacity, they are worth the investment when walking longer distances to picnic spots or fishing locations. For more information, refer to our article on the best backpack coolers.

Soft cooler (clipping sternum strap on backpack cooler)Backpack-style coolers offer the ultimate in portability

Additional Soft Cooler Features

Pockets and Organization

Many soft coolers have at least one exterior pocket for storing small valuables like phones, wallets, or keys. These pockets are highly useful for keeping track of belongings during outdoor activities. Water-resistant pockets provide extra protection against splashes or precipitation. Models like the RTIC Soft Pack Cooler, ORCA Walker Tote, and Arctic Zone Titan Deep Freeze feature functional stash pockets.

Soft cooler (phone in front pocket of ORCA Walker Tote)We love the spacious front pocket on ORCA's Walker ToteExternal Attachment Points

Soft coolers like the YETI Hopper M30 and REI Co-op Cool Haul 24 have daisy chain webbing along the exterior, allowing for the attachment of additional gear. This area is useful for securing valuables like keys within easy reach. The Arctic Zone Titan Deep Freeze features a stretchy bungee system for securing lightweight items on top.

Soft cooler (daisy chain webbing on YETI Hopper M30)External attachment points are useful for securing extra gearOther Features

Integrated bottle openers and vacuum ports are notable features found on some soft coolers. The Engel HD20, Arctic Zone Titan Deep Freeze, and REI Co-op Cool Haul 24 include bottle openers. The HD20 also has a unique vacuum valve that allows excess air to be sucked out before use for maximum insulation. The ICEMULE Classic features a similar valve system, allowing air to be added or removed for cooling or storage. Other noteworthy features include the Arctic Zone Titan's shelf for separating items and the REI Cool Haul 24's removable inner liner, which allows the shell to be used separately as a tote.

In conclusion, finding the perfect leak-proof cooler for your travel adventures doesn't have to be a daunting task. By considering the factors discussed in this article such as material, insulation, capacity, and additional features, you can make an informed decision and invest in a soft cooler that will keep your food and beverages cold, without the worry of any leaks or spills. Whether you're heading out for a picnic in the park, a beach day with friends, or a camping trip in the wilderness, a leak-proof cooler is an essential companion that will keep your drinks refreshing and your perishables safe. So, with the right soft cooler by your side, get ready to hit the road and embark on your next unforgettable journey!

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