The Ultimate Guide to Selecting the Best Cooler Tote for Your Cooling Needs

Are you tired of soggy sandwiches and lukewarm drinks ruining your outdoor adventures? Look no further, as we have the ultimate guide to finding the best cooler tote for all your chilling needs! Whether you're planning a picnic in the park or a beach getaway, a reliable soft cooler is a game-changer when it comes to keeping your goodies crisp and refreshing. Join us as we dive into the world of soft cooler buying advice, and discover how to elevate your outdoor experiences to a whole new level of coolness!

Advice for Buying Soft Coolers

Our Thoughts on Soft Coolers: Practicality and Best Uses

Before we delve into the details, it's important to note that soft coolers come with certain compromises. Unlike hard-sided models that can keep food and drinks cold for days (or even weeks), soft coolers are not designed for extended cooling and have a more limited capacity. They are typically smaller, with around 30 liters of space at most. With this in mind, soft coolers are not the best choice for multi-day trips. Instead, they are ideal for weekend getaways, day trips to parks or beaches, tailgating, water activities, and quick errands like grocery shopping. They can also serve as a supplemental cooler when camping with a larger group and you need extra storage for food and drinks.

Soft coolers (lined up in front of REI tent)A selection of our preferred soft coolers

It is important to differentiate between collapsible and rigid soft coolers. In our experience, collapsible models like the Hydro Flask 20 L Insulated Tote are more versatile and functional than their thick and rigid counterparts like the Engel HD20. Flexible models lack drainage ports and do not compress down for storage when not in use, but they provide better insulation and are easier to carry. Rigid coolers, on the other hand, are lighter and more portable but have lower durability, insulation capabilities, and overall capacity.

Soft coolers (rigid Engel HD30 and ORCA Walker Tote)Rigid coolers like the Engel HD30 and ORCA Walker Tote take up more space

Sizes of Soft Coolers (Capacities)

It is 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 coolers are listed in quarts. It is also important to consider whether or not the capacity estimate includes the space for ice. The largest soft cooler on our list, the RTIC Soft Pack Cooler, can hold up to 30 12-ounce cans with ice. The smallest, Cotopaxi's Hielo 12L Cooler Bag, can fit around 12 cans without ice or 8 cans with ice. Typically, soft coolers with space for around 18-24 cans with ice strike a good balance between size, weight, and portability.

Soft coolers (size comparison)The Hydro Flask Insulated Tote (left) can hold approximately 10 cans with ice

Ice Retention and Cooling Capabilities

As mentioned earlier, soft coolers are not known for their ice retention. Most soft coolers can only keep contents cold for a day or two under ideal conditions. Several external factors, such as air temperature, frequency of opening the cooler, exposure to sunlight, and the ice-to-food ratio, affect how long the contents stay cold. To maximize performance, it is recommended to pre-chill the cooler by filling it with ice for a few hours before use. When on the go, replace melted ice with pre-chilled packs or fresh ice at the optimal ratio along with your food and drinks.

Soft cooler (ice and beverages inside REI Co-op Cool Haul)Most manufacturers suggest a 2:1 ice-to-food ratio

Manufacturers often provide a "claimed ice retention" specification for their coolers, although these numbers should be taken with a grain of salt. Actual ice retention times in real-world use are typically half of the claimed times. It is important to consider your specific circumstances when assessing ice retention capabilities.

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

Weight and Portability

Soft coolers have a clear advantage over hard-sided coolers when it comes to weight and portability. Most soft coolers weigh between 2 to 4 pounds, with larger models weighing 7 pounds or more. The heaviest model on our list, the YETI Hopper M30, weighs 7 pounds, while the lightest models 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 enhance portability and make it easier to carry the cooler.

Soft cooler (carrying YETI Hopper M30 into van)The YETI Hopper M30 can feel heavy and bulky with food, drinks, and ice

Construction and Durability

Durability varies among different soft coolers, with denier (D) being a useful measurement of fabric thickness. Rigid models like the YETI Hopper M30 and Engel HD20 (both 840D) are extremely durable and can withstand sharp gear without showing signs of wear. RovR's new TravelR 30 is also highly durable with a tough TPU base and welded seams. Softer models like Hydro Flask's 20 L Insulated Tote, Cotopaxi's Hielo 12L Cooler Bag, and REI Co-op's Pack-Away 24 may be less robust but are still well-built for most casual outdoor activities.

Soft cooler (YETI Hopper M30 closeup of base)The YETI Hopper M30 is undeniably durable and long-lasting. The price of a cooler often reflects its quality. Cheaper options like the AO Coolers 24 Pack Canvas, Coleman 24-Hour 16-Can Cooler, and Arctic Zone Titan Deep Freeze may feel less sturdy than more premium models. However, they may still be suitable for occasional use. Those who plan to use their cooler frequently and in rugged conditions may benefit from investing in a higher-quality cooler.

Soft cooler (carrying AO Coolers 24 Pack Canvas)The AO Coolers 24 Pack Canvas is reasonably well-built for its price.

Waterproof Soft Coolers

While many soft coolers have highly water-resistant zippers or openings, very few are fully waterproof. One exception is the ICEMULE Classic, which has a dry bag-like exterior with a roll-top closure that can be fully submerged in water. This makes it suitable for water-intensive activities like kayaking. The ICEMULE cooler also floats. RTIC's Soft Pack Cooler is another semi-waterproof option. Although not fully waterproof, its tough shell and leakproof design can withstand being submerged to a certain extent.

Price: Budget vs. Premium Soft Coolers

Soft coolers vary significantly in price, ranging from affordable options like the Coleman 24-Hour 16-Can Cooler ($26) to premium models like the YETI Hopper M30 ($350). Spending more usually results in increased durability and quality. Premium models like the YETI Hopper M30, Engel HD20, and OtterBox Trooper 20 have thick and durable exteriors that can withstand long-term use. However, even the cheaper options on our list are decently built and suitable for casual use.

Soft coolers (premium Engel HD30 and YETI Hopper M30)Two of the most premium soft coolers on the market: Engel's HD30 and YETI's Hopper M30

When it comes to ice retention, the difference between expensive and budget-friendly soft coolers is not significant. Therefore, it may be challenging to justify spending a premium price for a cooler that offers only slightly better performance. If budget is not a concern, it may be more worthwhile to invest in a high-quality hard-sided cooler, which offers better cooling capabilities and overall performance.

Soft coolers (carrying REI Cool Haul and Hydro Flask Insulated Tote)Affordable options 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 can greatly impact convenience and performance. Styles vary among models. For example, the YETI Hopper M30 has a magnet-equipped opening that requires effort to keep open while loading and unloading. Zipper-equipped coolers like the RTIC Soft Pack Cooler and Engel HD20 require force to operate the zippers, but their designs offer excellent leak resistance.

Soft cooler (magnetic opening on YETI Hopper M30)The YETI Hopper M30 has a strong magnetic opening.

Roll-top closures, as seen on the ICEMULE Classic, and zipperless designs secured with Velcro, like the Arctic Zone Titan Deep Freeze, provide easier opening and closing. However, they may not seal as tightly as zippered designs and may offer less insulation.

Soft coolers (different opening styles)Opening styles vary considerably and have a significant impact on convenience and insulation.

Carrying Straps and Handles

Soft coolers are known for their ease of transportation compared to hard-sided coolers. Most soft coolers come with padded straps and grab handles for comfortable shoulder or hand-carrying. Premium models often have well-cushioned straps, such as the YETI Hopper M30, RTIC Soft Pack Cooler, and Engel HD20. Budget models may have simpler strap systems, like those from AO Coolers, Coleman, and Arctic Zone. While not as comfortable for long-distance carrying, they are still portable and suitable for short distances.

Soft cooler (carry handle on ORCA Walker Tote)We appreciate the sturdy carry handle on the ORCA Walker Tote.

Backpack Coolers

For ultimate portability, soft-sided backpack-style coolers are the best choice. These coolers resemble hiking daypacks and feature shoulder straps, padded back panels, and exterior pockets for additional storage. Backpack coolers are lightweight and easy to carry, but they provide less insulation compared to hard-sided coolers. For example, the Hydro Flask 20 L Day Escape can keep ice frozen for up to 36 hours. Backpack coolers are also relatively expensive given their modest storage capacity and performance. However, if you anticipate walking long distances to your destination, investing in a backpack cooler might be worth it.

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

Additional Features of Soft Coolers

Pockets and Organization

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

Soft cooler (phone in front pocket of ORCA Walker Tote)The generous front pocket on the ORCA Walker Tote is useful

External Attachment Points

Many soft coolers, such as the YETI Hopper M30 and REI Co-op Cool Haul 24, have daisy chain webbing on the exterior for securing additional gear. This feature is useful for keeping valuables like keys easily accessible. The Arctic Zone Titan Deep Freeze has a stretchy bungee system for securing lightweight jackets or small towels.

Soft cooler (daisy chain webbing on YETI Hopper M30)External attachment points are convenient for securing extra gear.

Other Features

Some soft coolers have integrated bottle openers and vacuum ports. The Engel HD20, Arctic Zone Titan Deep Freeze, and REI Co-op Cool Haul 24 come with bottle openers. The Engel HD20 also features a unique vacuum valve that allows you to remove excess air to maximize insulation power. The ICEMULE Classic has a similar valve system that involves adding air for improved cooling and buoyancy, as well as removing air for compressing the cooler for storage. The Arctic Zone Titan has a shelf for separating hard and soft items, while the REI Cool Haul 24 has a removable inner liner that allows the shell to be used separately as a tote.

When it comes to choosing the best cooler tote, there are countless options available on the market. However, by considering factors like insulation, durability, and capacity, you can narrow down your choices to find the perfect soft cooler that meets your specific needs. Whether you're heading to the beach, planning a picnic, or simply looking for a convenient way to keep your drinks cool on-the-go, investing in a high-quality cooler tote is essential. So, take your time, do your research, and make a decision that will ensure you have an unforgettable summer filled with icy refreshments and enjoyable outings. Cheers to finding the perfect cooler tote and enjoying the great outdoors!

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