The Ultimate Guide to Finding the Best Cooler for Mountain Escapes: Top Picks and Expert Tips
Are you ready for the ultimate adventure companion? Look no further than the best cooler for mountain escapes in 2023! Whether you're conquering rugged trails or embarking on a serene retreat, these backpack coolers will keep your drinks icy cold and your snacks perfectly chilled. Say goodbye to warm beverages and hello to refreshing sips as we dive into the top picks that will revolutionize your outdoor experience. From the Kanga Insulated Cooler Backpack to the Hydro Flask Day Escape Soft Cooler, we've got the coolers that will make your wilderness journey an unforgettable one. So, strap on your backpack and let's embark on a chilling escapade!
The Best Backpack Coolers of 2023
Best Overall Backpack Cooler: M20 Soft Backpack Cooler
Best Budget Backpack Cooler: Stoic Hybrid Backpack Cooler
Best Lightweight Backpack Cooler: Hydro Flask Day Escape Soft Cooler 20L
Most Durable Backpack Cooler: RTIC Backpack Cooler
Best Split-Pack Backpack Cooler: REI Co-Op Cool Trail Split Pack Cooler
Kanga Insulated Cooler Backpack ($125)
Capacity: 24 cans (without ice)
Cold Time: 7 hours without ice, all day with ice
Pros: Can be used without ice
Cons: Doesn’t keep drinks cold for as long if you opt for no ice
The Kanga Insulated Cooler Backpack is a unique backpack cooler that can keep beverages cold for up to 7 hours without ice. It uses heavy-duty insulation to achieve this. However, it is important to note that the drinks must be cold when placed in the cooler to maintain their temperature. The Kanga is designed to fit over a case of beers or seltzers, but drinks can also be kept loose inside with ice for all-day coldness. The cooler has a secure closure with a combination of a zipper and a magnet, and its durable design prevents leaks. It also features comfortable shoulder straps and three additional pockets for storage. The Kanga is a stylish and versatile cooler for any occasion.
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ICEMULE Classic Collapsible Backpack Cooler 15 L ()
Weight: 1.75 lbs.
Capacity: 16 cans (without ice)
Cold Time: 24 hours
Pros: Affordable, easy to open/close
Cons: Not comfortable to carry over long distances, no extras
The ICEMULE Collapsible Backpack Cooler may be more of a sling than a backpack, but it's a convenient option for shorter treks. It is lightweight, easy to open and close with a roll-top design, and can keep drinks cold for 24 hours. While it may not be as comfortable as a traditional backpack cooler for long distances, its compact size and collapsible feature make it easy to store. Although it does not have any extra features, it is affordable and gets the job done.
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CamelBak ChillBak Pack 30 Soft Cooler Backpack ($325)
Weight: 4 lbs. 9 oz.
Capacity: 24 drinks (without ice)
Cold Time: 72 hours
Pros: 6 L reservoir, waist belt
The ChillBak Pack by CamelBak offers a combined backpack cooler and hydration system. It has a large cooler space that can hold up to 24 drinks, along with a 6L hydration bladder. The design allows for easy access to drinks with a roll-top closure and a hose with spigot for quick refills. The padded back panel, shoulder straps, and waist belt provide comfort and support. The ChillBak also includes additional storage space and is a durable and versatile option for those who want to stay hydrated while on the go.
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REI Co-Op Cool Trail Split Pack Cooler ()
Weight: 2 lbs. 8 oz.
Capacity: 12 cans (with ice)
Cold Time: 40 hours
Pros: Made from recycled materials, wet/dry compartments
Cons: Doesn’t hold as many cans as other options
The REI Co-Op Cool Trail Split Pack Cooler is a versatile backpack cooler that offers two separate compartments: a cooler section for ice and beverages, and a dry compartment for gear. It also features external pockets and lash straps for additional storage. Made from recycled materials, this cooler is environmentally friendly. It has padded and adjustable shoulder straps for comfort, making it suitable for hiking trips. While it may not hold as many cans as some other options, its unique design and functionality make it a great choice for those looking for a combination of a cooler and backpack.
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RTIC Backpack Cooler ($190)
Weight: 8 lbs.
Capacity: 30 cans (with ice)
Cold Time: Days (not specified)
Pros: Floats, can store a lot
Cons: Heavy, zipper is a little hard to operate
The RTIC Backpack Cooler is a heavy-duty cooler known for its durability. It can hold up to 30 cans with ice and is designed to float, making it perfect for outdoor activities near water. It has a reliable zipper closure but may require some effort to operate. The backpack straps, waist strap, handles, and removable shoulder strap ensure easy transport. The cooler also features bungee ties for securing additional items. While it may be heavier than other options, its storage capacity and durability make it a reliable choice for those who need a high-performance backpack cooler.
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Hydro Flask Day Escape Soft Cooler 20L ($200)
Weight: 2.63 lbs.
Capacity: 36 cans (without ice)
Cold Time: 36 hours
Pros: Water bottle holder on the exterior, padded straps
Cons: A little thinner/less durable than some other options
The Day Escape Soft Cooler by Hydro Flask is a spacious backpack cooler that can hold up to 36 cans without ice. It features a padded mesh back panel, padded backpack straps, and a sternum strap for comfortable transport. While it may be slightly thinner and less durable compared to other options, its 600D polyester shell still provides ample durability. One standout feature is the exterior water bottle holder, which saves space inside the cooler. The compression molded base allows the cooler to stand on its own, making it easy to access drinks. With the option to attach Hydro Flask Dry Storage accessories, this backpack cooler offers convenience and functionality.
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Stoic Hybrid Backpack Cooler ($100)
Weight: 2 lbs. 13.8 oz.
Capacity: 24 cans (without ice)
Cold Time: N/A
Pros: Affordable, included bottle opener
Cons: Not as comfortable as some other options
The Stoic Hybrid Backpack Cooler is a stylish and affordable option. It is made from 600D polyester with a compression-molded bottom, offering durability and waterproofing. It includes external straps for attaching additional gear and comes with a convenient bottle opener. While its backpack straps are padded and comfortable, they are not as cushioned as some other options. Despite not listing its specific cold time, it effectively keeps drinks cold when used with ice overnight. For its price point, the Stoic Hybrid Backpack Cooler provides great value for those on a budget.
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M20 Soft Backpack Cooler ($325)
Weight: 5.6 lbs.
Capacity: 36 cans (without ice)
Cold Time: Days (unspecified)
Pros: Magnets instead of zippers, durable
The M20 Soft Backpack Cooler by YETI is a high-quality, durable cooler with a magnetized seal instead of zippers. It can hold up to 36 cans without ice and offers exceptional cold time. The comfort of carrying the cooler is ensured by its backpack straps, and additional gear can be attached using the multiple points for attachment. Although it is a higher-priced option, YETI coolers are known for their reliability and performance. The M20 Soft Backpack Cooler is an excellent choice for those willing to invest in a top-of-the-line backpack cooler.
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What Else Should I Look For in A Backpack Cooler?
It's important to consider the availability of extra storage when choosing a backpack cooler. Look for coolers that have water bottle holders on the outside to save space inside the cooler. Additional pockets for essentials like keys, wallet, and sunscreen are also convenient features.
External bungees, D rings, and attachment straps provide added versatility and convenience. They allow you to attach extra items and keep your hands free.
Consider the size of the cooler and ensure you have enough space to store it when not in use. Backpack coolers are smaller than hard coolers, but it's still important to consider storage limitations.
Pay attention to the type of closure system the cooler utilizes. Zippers are common, but ensure they are easy to open and close without hassle. Some coolers, like the M20 Soft Backpack Cooler and the Kanga Insulated Cooler Backpack, use magnets for closure, which can be a convenient alternative. Closure systems should be reliable and easy to use.
If you plan on wearing your backpack coolers for any distance, having proper back support is crucial. Carrying a hard cooler full of cans on your back can be uncomfortable while hiking. We recommend cooler backpacks with padded and breathable pack panels to increase comfort and reduce sweatiness.
Different coolers have varying levels of insulation and designs, resulting in different durations of cold time. Most coolers today can keep drinks cold for at least 24 hours. However, some exceptional coolers, like the CamelBack Chill Pack, can keep drinks cold for up to 72 hours. While extended cold times may seem excessive for most situations, they are essential for camping trips. If you're planning on camping, you might even want to consider a more traditional style cooler. Before purchasing a backpack cooler, make sure to consider how you'll be using it and check the cold time specifications provided for each cooler in our list.
Backpack coolers come in various sizes, so the amount of storage space you need depends on personal preference. If you only plan on using the cooler for yourself and your significant other, a small cooler should suffice. However, if you intend to use it for beach parties with friends, a cooler that can hold more beverages would be a better choice. Keep in mind that the capacity mentioned for most coolers refers to the number of cans it can hold without ice. When you add ice, the capacity will decrease, so keep that in mind when making your decision.
The CamelBak ChillBak Pack allows you to walk and drink at the same time. Photo: Rebecca Parsons
Straps are an essential feature that distinguishes a backpack cooler from a regular cooler. The type of straps can significantly impact your comfort and the weight distribution of the cooler. For smaller coolers, minimalist straps are usually sufficient. However, for larger and heavier coolers, adjustable and padded shoulder straps are recommended. A chest or sternum strap can provide added stability while a waist strap can help transfer some weight from your shoulders to your hips, making it easier to carry a heavy cooler, similar to a backpacking backpack.
How to Care For Your Backpack Cooler
Maintaining the durability of your backpack cooler requires effort from both the manufacturer and the user. Choosing a well-made cooler is crucial, but taking good care of it is equally important. Here are some tips to ensure your cooler lasts as long as possible:
After each use, clean your cooler using soap and water. In case of tougher spills and stains, you can use a bit of baking soda, but avoid harsh chemicals. Regularly cleaning your cooler helps prevent the growth of mold and mildew.
After cleaning, make sure to thoroughly dry your cooler. You can use a towel or let it air dry in a shady area. Once dry and clean, store your cooler in a cool and dry place.
P.S. Although it may be tempting to pack your cooler to its maximum capacity, doing so can potentially damage it prematurely. Follow the manufacturer's guidelines to maximize the lifespan of your cooler.
The RTIC Backpack Cooler was the most durable cooler on our list. Photo: Rebecca Parsons
Tips for Buying a Soft Cooler
Match capacity to your usage priorities
Soft coolers are generally smaller than hard-sided coolers, but they come in various sizes. Consider what you plan to put inside and where you'll be taking it. Smaller options are ideal for hiking and picnics for two people, while larger options are necessary for family outings or sports team events.
Cooler capacities are often indicated in liters or cans. Remember that a 24-can capacity means the cooler can hold up to 24 cans and nothing else. If you add ice, the capacity may decrease, and it might only fit around 16 cans.
Know your temperature-retention needs
Many soft-sided coolers excel at retaining ice even on hot days, sometimes for over 24 hours. However, if you're only using the cooler for a day trip and need to keep pre-chilled items cold for a few hours, you may not even need to use ice.
Think carefully about portability
Hard-sided coolers are typically designed for short-distance carrying, often requiring two people or wheels. On the other hand, soft coolers are generally smaller and meant to be carried by one person, potentially over longer distances. Consider the portability features that suit your needs.
For example, heavy and bulky options may be uncomfortable to carry over one shoulder, so backpack-style coolers are often the most comfortable choice. They are usually compact and can be folded flat and packed into another bag.
Frequently Asked Questions
How should I pack a soft cooler?
The packing technique depends on the items you're putting inside. Unlike regular hard coolers, soft-sided designs are best packed strategically, like playing Tetris, to maximize the space.
If you're packing drinks and food, place the drinks at the bottom to prevent them from crushing sandwiches or fruits. For short outings, you can skip the ice and fill the cooler with pre-chilled items or use a couple of ice packs.
Should I get a soft cooler or a hard cooler?
Soft coolers are suitable for day trips and short outings, as they can retain temperatures for several hours. They are smaller and often come in backpack or tote form, making them more portable.
Hard coolers, on the other hand, are ideal for camping and multi-day trips, as they can retain ice for longer periods, sometimes up to three days. Large hard-sided coolers are also great for hosting barbecues and accommodating bigger groups.
How much should I spend on a soft cooler?
Soft coolers can range from $25 to $300. More affordable options are usually smaller and less durable, while pricier ones are larger and better at maintaining cold temperatures. With a budget of around $100, you can find a high-quality soft-sided cooler with ample capacity.
How to Keep Your Items Cold (For As Long As Possible)
For most people, the main goal of using a cooler is to keep their items cold for as long as possible. While simply adding ice works, there are some additional steps you can take to maximize the duration of coldness:
We recommend placing already cold items in the cooler by storing your food and drinks in the refrigerator before transferring them. Put the cold items at the bottom of the cooler and place ice on top. Fill the cooler completely with ice, as it helps maintain colder temperatures and prevents ice from melting faster.
Once the ice begins to melt, avoid draining the water. Keeping the water inside the cooler helps maintain the coldness. Additionally, store your cooler away from direct sunlight and keep the lid closed as much as possible.
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Editor’s Note: For more gear reviews and features on The Inertia, click here.
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Advice for Buying a Cooler
Cooler Construction: Rotomolding vs. Injection Molding
When it comes to premium hard-sided coolers, there are two main construction techniques: rotomolding and injection molding. Rotomolding, popularized by YETI, involves creating a cooler out of a single piece of plastic that is rotated until it takes on the desired shape. This method creates a durable cooler with fewer stress points and thick outer shell. However, rotomolded coolers tend to be more expensive and heavier. On the other hand, injection molded coolers are made by injecting hot plastic into a mold and allowing it to cool. This process is simpler and cheaper, but the coolers are made of multiple pieces, which can affect durability. One example of a high-quality injection-molded cooler is the OtterBox Venture 45, which offers comparable toughness to rotomolded coolers and additional mounting options for accessories.
Cooler Sizes (Capacities)
Coolers come in different sizes, and it's important to consider your needs when choosing a size. Small coolers, ranging from 10 to 35 quarts, are suitable for solo travelers or those prioritizing portability. They can hold a small amount of ice, a few drinks, and a meal. Medium-sized coolers, between 35 and 55 quarts, are all-purpose models that can be carried by one person and fit into compact spaces. They are suitable for groups of one to two people for a couple of days. Large coolers, from 55 to 75 quarts, are ideal for trips with two or more people over multiple days. They provide ample space for a proper ice-to-food ratio. Extra-large coolers, 75 quarts and larger, are designed for big groups and specific activities like fishing and hunting.
Ice Retention and Cooling Capabilities
A cooler's construction does not inherently affect ice retention. Both rotomolded and injection molded coolers can offer good insulation. However, high-end rotomolded coolers often have longer ice retention times. Most rotomolded coolers claim to retain ice for about 10 days, while many injection molded coolers only retain ice for 2 to 4 days. It's worth noting that some injection molded coolers, like the OtterBox Venture, can offer ice retention comparable to rotomolded coolers.
Weight and Portability
The weight of a cooler is an important consideration, especially if you plan to carry or move it frequently. Hard-sided coolers can weigh anywhere from 10 to 50 pounds. When loaded with ice and food, the weight increases significantly. If portability is a priority, look for coolers with wheels, like the RovR RollR 45 or Igloo Trailmate Journey. These coolers are still heavy, but the wheels make them easier to transport for extended periods.
Wheeled (Rolling) Coolers
Rolling coolers provide easy mobility, large capacity, and good ice retention. They are ideal for camping, days at the beach, or tailgating. Some recommended rolling coolers include the RovR Products RollR 45, Igloo Trailmate Journey, Pelican 80QT Elite, Coleman Xtreme, and YETI's Tundra series with wheel-equipped Haul.
Are Expensive Coolers Worth It?
Expensive coolers from brands like YETI, RTIC, and ORCA offer long-lasting ice retention and durability. They are worth the investment for those who consistently spend days outdoors. However, for day trips or shorter overnight outings, a cheaper cooler like the Coleman Xtreme or Igloo ECOCOOL can suffice.
Cooler Latch and Closure Systems
Premium coolers often have sturdy latch or closure systems that create a secure seal. These latches, like those found on YETI coolers and the OtterBox Venture, minimize openings for cold air to escape. Budget coolers may rely on a good fit between the lid and cooler body, resulting in reduced insulation performance.
Some hard-sided coolers are listed as bear-resistant, indicating they have met specific regulations set by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC). However, not all bear-resistant coolers have IGBC certification. It's important to check if your cooler is on the IGBC certified list if you will be camping in bear country.
Cooler Drain Systems
Most hard-sided coolers have drainage systems to remove melted ice. This often involves a screw-on or pop-off cap at the base of the cooler. Some coolers also have drainage channels to facilitate the cleanup process. However, there are exceptions like YETI's Roadie 24 and Pelican's 20QT Elite, which do not have drain plugs.
Accessories and Add-Ons
Many coolers have compatible accessories and add-ons available. These can include food baskets, dividers, cup holders, side tables, and more. Brands like YETI and RovR offer unique add-ons like fishing rod attachments and prep boards. GOAT's HUB cooler has built-in slots to accommodate smaller camp and kitchen accessories.
Ice Types: Crushed, Blocks, Packs, or Dry
The type of ice used in a cooler affects storage capacity and cooling efficiency. Crushed ice fills gaps between items quickly but melts faster. Blocks of ice take longer to melt but are bulky and take up more space. Ice packs provide reusable cooling without the need to drain melted ice, but they can be expensive and require refreezing. Dry ice can be an option, but it requires careful handling and may not be compatible with all coolers.
Cooler warranties vary among manufacturers. Some offer lifetime warranties, while others range from one to 10 years. It's important to consider the warranty when purchasing a cooler, as it can provide peace of mind and protect your investment.
Hard-Sided vs. Soft-Sided Coolers
Hard-sided coolers offer better insulation and durability compared to soft-sided coolers. They are ideal for longer trips and situations where ice retention is crucial. Soft-sided coolers are more lightweight and portable, making them suitable for day trips and shorter outings.
Ice Ice Baby
To get the best results with any cooler, it's recommended to add ice. There are a few options available to you. The first is to use the ice from your freezer or buy a party pack from a local gas station or supermarket. If you want to keep your items cold for a longer period of time, block ice is a great choice. Block ice takes longer to melt, making it perfect for camping trips.
Another great option is artificial ice, such as reusable ice cubes or cooler packs like the YETI Thin Ice. Although it may be a bit more expensive initially, it will prove to be cost-effective in the long run and is an easy solution.
In conclusion, whether you're planning a weekend hiking trip or a long-awaited mountain escape, having the best backpack cooler by your side can enhance your outdoor experience. From the sleek and convenient Kanga Insulated Cooler Backpack to the rugged and durable ICEMULE Classic Collapsible Backpack Cooler, there is a cooler perfect for every adventure. Remember to consider important features like the closure system, back support, cold time, storage space, and straps when choosing the right cooler for you. And with proper care and the right tips for keeping your items cold, your backpack cooler will be your trusty companion on all your future outdoor escapades. So go ahead, pack your cooler and embrace the wilderness with the assurance that icy refreshments are always within reach. Ice ice baby!
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