Travel: Switching Paths

In the realm of preserving ice and endurance, traditional hard-sided coolers are at the forefront. However, for those who don't require a week's worth of provisions kept cold, a soft-sided cooler can serve as a viable alternative. When compared to their hard counterparts, soft coolers are significantly lighter, easier to carry, and frequently offer substantial cost savings. From robust waterproof choices to collapsible designs that facilitate effortless storage, we present a breakdown of the leading soft coolers of 2023. For additional background information, please consult our comprehensive comparison table and buying advice below. If portability is not your primary concern and you instead prioritize cooling capabilities and durability, we have also compiled a list of the finest hard-sided coolers.

Our Team's Soft Cooler Selections

Best Overall Soft Cooler

1. RTIC Soft Pack Cooler 30 Can ($150)

Capacity: 30 cans (with ice)

Weight: 4 lbs.

Other sizes: 12, 20, 40 cans

What we appreciate: A well-constructed and resilient soft cooler that offers exceptional value for its price.

What we don't: Only available for purchase online; lacks some features found in the YETI Hopper M30.

The finest soft coolers are lightweight for easy portability, capable of maintaining contents cold for a day or two, simple to clean, and capable of enduring regular usage and abuse. RTIC's Soft Pack Cooler 30 Can ticks all these boxes, combining commendable insulating properties and practical features within a rugged, high-quality package. On the exterior, you'll notice a noticeably thick and sturdy nylon shell that imparts structural integrity. The interior boasts 2 inches of closed-cell foam insulation, which performs admirably during day trips or weekend excursions. Furthermore, the Soft Pack Cooler is buoyant, making it an excellent choice for water-based activities such as rafting and other aquatic sports.

However, no cooler is flawless, and after testing the RTIC Soft Pack, we have a couple of grievances. First, like many soft coolers, opening the RTIC requires significant effort and two hands, although the zipper is robust, highly leak-resistant, and ensures effective cold containment. Our second complaint pertains to the simplistic organizational layout, which consists of only a single front pocket, limiting the cooler's versatility for picnics and when carrying smaller, non-perishable items. Finally, RTIC exclusively sells their coolers online as a direct-to-consumer brand, meaning you cannot physically examine the Soft Pack before making a purchase. Nonetheless, we consider these downsides relatively minor, and they do little to detract from an overall impressively well-rounded and well-built cooler. Check out the RTIC Soft Pack Cooler 30 Can here.

Outstanding Ice Retention in the Best High-End Soft Cooler

2. YETI Hopper M30 Soft Cooler ($350)

Volume: 26 cans (including ice)Weight: 7 lbs.Additional Sizes: NoneWhat We Appreciate: Impressive ice retention for a soft cooler and impeccable attention to detail.What We Dislike: Very expensive and excessive for most users.

YETI stands as the premier manufacturer of coolers and is credited with revolutionizing the high-end market of rotomolded coolers. However, their soft-sided models are equally commendable, maintaining the qualities that have made the brand immensely popular throughout the years, such as unparalleled attention to detail, excellent ice retention, and a sleek appearance. The top-of-the-line M30 exemplifies this, integrating a thick layer of closed-cell foam insulation with a sturdy and durable exterior that instills confidence while being highly resistant to snags and tears. During our testing of the Hopper M30, we were also impressed by the robustness of its opening, which utilizes powerful magnets to securely close it, complemented by quick-release buckles to prevent any leakage during transportation. Another noteworthy feature is its accessory-friendly exterior, enabling effortless attachment of add-ons like their Rambler Bottle Sling or SideKick Dry Gear Case (available separately). 

Unfortunately, YETI's soft coolers do not offer significant savings compared to their hard-sided counterparts. In fact, the Hopper M30 retails at a premium over their similarly sized Tundra 35. Undeniably, the Hopper is considerably lighter than the Tundra (weighing approximately 13 lbs. less) and considerably more portable, but it falls short in terms of ice retention capabilities. Furthermore, although the M30's magnet-equipped opening is undeniably robust, it is also rigid, making loading and cleaning tasks laborious and time-consuming (we prefer the wraparound zipper found on their smaller Hopper Flip models). Finally, even when empty, the M30 remains large and bulky, lacking the compressibility of softer and more malleable options like the Hydro Flask 20 L Insulated Tote or REI Pack-Away 24 below. Nevertheless, the YETI brand holds a formidable reputation, and the Hopper M30 serves devoted day trippers and weekend adventurers who prioritize portability, durability, and excellent cold retention.Explore the YETI Hopper M30 Soft Cooler

Finest Affordable Soft Cooler

3. AO Coolers 24 Pack Canvas Cooler ()

Volume: 24 cans (including ice)Weight: 2 lbs. Additional Sizes: 12, 36, 48 cansWhat We Appreciate: Sleek and straightforward design that performs admirably for day trips.What We Dislike: Canvas construction is less durable and water-resistant compared to many alternatives here. 

For budget-conscious individuals seeking a no-nonsense, portable soft cooler for day trips, the AO Coolers 24 Pack Canvas is an ideal choice. Priced at (on Amazon at the time of publication), you will acquire a compact and easily transportable design, equipped with a functional zipper that spans the length of the cooler, as well as a spacious exterior pocket to store an additional layer of clothing or valuables. While it may not offer extended ice retention (AO advertises a maximum duration of 24 hours) or exceptional capacity (up to 24 cans) when compared to its competitors, the AO Coolers 24 Pack Canvas excels during short ventures to the beach or park, providing just what you need, without any unnecessary features.

By opting for the AO Coolers 24 Pack, what are the sacrifices you make? Initially, the canvas construction—while suitable for various casual applications—falls significantly short compared to the more premium soft coolers mentioned here in terms of durability, water resistance, and ability to retain cold. There is also a compromise in terms of carrying comfort: the shoulder strap is very basic and lacks the necessary padding and support for longer distances. Additionally, the 24 Pack is fairly basic and lacks features such as daisy chain webbing or external attachment points for accessories. However, despite these drawbacks, many people will find them acceptable considering the AO's affordable price, which is why we endorse it as the top budget choice of the year.

For those in search of the best insulated tote, we present the Hydro Flask 20 L Insulated Tote. With a capacity of 20L (approximately 10 cans with ice) and weighing only 1 lb. 5.1 oz., this tote offers a lightweight and inexpensive option for short day trips. Other sizes available include 8L and 35L. The key advantages of this product are its lightness and affordability, making it ideal for activities such as road trips, grocery shopping, visits to farmers markets, and short outings to the park or beach. It also compresses easily for storage, is simple to clean (just a wipe down of the liner), and features a waterproof and durable exterior that withstands regular use.

Nevertheless, it is important to manage expectations when it comes to designs like the Hydro Flask. As an "insulated tote," its capacity is limited (around 10 12-oz. cans with ice) and it is only able to keep its contents cold for up to 4 hours (the shortest duration on our list, although our testing confirmed this estimate to be fairly accurate). In other words, the Hydro Flask stretches the definition of a "cooler." However, for many individuals, it will prove to be a more practical and useful choice for day-to-day activities compared to larger, heavier, and more expensive alternatives like the YETI Hopper M30 or RTIC Soft Pack. Hydro Flask also offers a larger 35-liter version, priced at and weighing 1 lb. 10.4 oz.

View the Hydro Flask 20 L Insulated Tote here.

Top-rated Backpack Cooler

5. Hydro Flask 20 L Day Escape ($200)

Storage Capacity: Can hold up to 36 cans without ice.

Weight: Weighs approximately 2 lbs. 10.1 oz.

Other Size Options: No other sizes available.

Positive Features: An elegantly designed and sturdy backpack cooler that ensures comfort during long-distance carrying.

Negative Features: The opening is small and the exterior storage space is limited.

When it comes to portability, backpack-style coolers are unmatched. Many of these coolers, like the Hydro Flask 20 L Day Escape, resemble regular daypacks. In terms of comfort during transportation, the Day Escape backpack cooler boasts well-cushioned shoulder straps that provide excellent support, even when loaded with ice, food, and beverages. Additionally, the handles at the back and sides make it convenient to put on or take off the cooler. Noteworthy features include a waterproof exterior that withstands rugged use and lash points on the outside for securing the cooler to a kayak or boat. We are particularly impressed by the smooth-operating zipper that requires minimal effort to open, creates a reliable seal, and is easy to realign if it becomes misaligned. Overall, we are highly impressed by the sleek and versatile design of the Day Escape, which solidifies its position as the best backpack cooler of the year.

Are there any drawbacks to the Hydro Flask Day Escape? Firstly, the opening is on the smaller side, making it challenging to fit larger items like egg cartons through the top (wraparound designs, as seen with the RTIC cooler, perform better in this regard). Secondly, the cooler does not feature any zippered storage compartments. However, the lash points and water bottle pocket on the sides should be sufficient for most users. Lastly, the cooler lacks a hipbelt for redistributing weight onto the hips. Nevertheless, since most people will not be carrying their coolers for longer distances, this is not a significant issue (backpacking packs are the better alternative for that purpose). For short trips to your favorite picnic spot or fishing location, the thoughtfully constructed and attractive Day Escape backpack cooler offers impressive insulation performance. If you prefer not to utilize the shoulder straps, Hydro Flask also offers the Day Escape in 18-liter and 26-liter versions, which resemble their Insulated Tote but offer superior insulation capabilities. Discover the Hydro Flask 20 L Day Escape

Finest Collapsible Soft Cooler

6. REI Co-op Pack-Away 24 Soft Cooler ($50)

Storage Capacity: Can accommodate up to 24 cans with ice.

Weight: Weighs approximately 1 lb. 12 oz.

Other Sizes Available: 6-can and 12-can options.

Positive Features: An incredibly affordable cooler that can be compactly folded for convenient storage.

Negative Features: Average ice retention and susceptible to condensation buildup.

One reason why many people choose soft coolers over hard-sided models is because of their collapsibility, in addition to their weight and portability. The appeal is obvious: when not in use, collapsible designs like REI Co-op's Pack-Away 24 can be folded down almost completely flat for easy storage, rather than taking up valuable space in your garage. The Pack-Away measures only 1 inch in height when stowed, and it comes with functional clips on the side that allow you to compress it down or switch between different shapes, such as a cube or a tote. Notable features include its lightweight of just 1 pound and 12 ounces, a wide-mouth opening for quick loading and access to the interior, a seam-sealed and easy-to-clean liner, and the convenience of top handles or a detachable shoulder strap for portability. All of this is encompassed in a reasonably thick polyester and nylon shell that is both recycled and bluesign-approved, demonstrating REI's commitment to sustainability.

However, there are some drawbacks to the highly collapsible design of the REI Pack-Away. Firstly, its durability is not as impressive as that of more premium and weather-ready models like the RTIC Soft Pack and YETI Hopper M30, making it less suitable for activities like water sports or boating. Secondly, while the ice retention is stated to be 32 hours, it may only last for a single day or even less in hot summer temperatures. Lastly, some users have reported condensation buildup in the liner, although this is not uncommon among leakproof designs. Despite these downsides, it is important to remember the reasonable price point of the Pack-Away 24. Its combination of compressibility, easy access, and value make it our recommended choice for the best packable design of the year. [Link to REI Co-op Pack-Away 24]

Best of the Rest

7. ORCA Walker Tote ($225)

- Capacity: 18 cans (with ice)

- Weight: 3 lbs. 9.6 oz.

- Other sizes: None

- What we like: Easy to access, highly durable, and versatile size.

- What we don't: Relatively limited feature set.

ORCA's Walker Tote fills a unique niche in the soft cooler market. It offers a smaller and lighter option compared to high-capacity models like the RTIC Soft Pack and YETI Hopper M30, while also providing better ice retention and more structure than minimalist and packable models such as the Hydro Flask Insulated Tote and REI Pack-Away. During testing, we were impressed by the functional and well-rounded build of the ORCA Walker Tote. It offers great portability through a cushioned shoulder strap or a thick handle, which secures the two sides in place with magnets. The interior is well-insulated, ensuring contents stay cold throughout the entire day, and the exterior boasts a sleek and durable design with good structure, thick materials, and a sturdy base for added protection. The wide zippered opening provides a secure seal and makes it easy to access the contents.

So why didn't we rank the ORCA Walker Tote higher? The main reason is its relatively basic feature set, which consists of only one front pocket. Although the pocket is waterproof and can accommodate items like large smartphones, keys, and other small valuables, we wish ORCA had included additional attachment points on the outside of the cooler. It's worth mentioning that ORCA's standard Walker collection does offer daisy-chain webbing and D rings along the front for securing extra gear and accessories, but it comes at a higher price ($250 for the 20-can model) and features a wraparound zipper that is more difficult to open. Despite the limited organization, the Walker Tote remains one of the most versatile options on our list and is currently the go-to choice for short day trips. [Link to ORCA Walker Tote]

8. Engel HD20 ($200)

Storage Capacity: Can hold 24 cans with ice. Weight: 3 lbs. 8 oz.Additional Size: Also available in a 30L option that can hold 48 cans.What we appreciate: One of the most durable designs in the market.What we find lacking: May be too sturdy for most purposes.

YETI’s highly-regarded Hopper M30 is the top choice in the premium soft cooler sector, but Engel, a Florida-based company, offers a competitive alternative at a significantly lower price with their HD20 model. For a remarkable $150 less than the M30 (although with a slight decrease in storage capacity), the HD20 features a welded construction (unlike most competitors that are sewn) that effectively seals in cold and minimizes leaks. It boasts a noticeably robust 840-denier shell and a TPU film that reinforces the front and back. The cooler can be easily carried using the thick handles or the nicely padded shoulder strap. In a thoughtful touch, Engel has included an integrated bottle opener, which is quite uncommon in the soft cooler market and has proven to be useful on multiple occasions.

Engel has clearly prioritized ice retention with their HD collection, incorporating the welded construction, a sealed zipper, and a vacuum valve on the side that allows you to remove excess air before use. When testing the larger HD30 model (which is practically identical but currently in short supply), we were pleasantly surprised by how well the cooler sealed, considering the zippered opening. However, the ice did not remain frozen for as long as expected. Engel states that the cooler's ice retention is three to four days, but in our testing in Utah, the ice only lasted for about 48 hours. It is worth mentioning that opening the cooler requires a significant amount of force: the zipper is noticeably stiff and needs lubrication to move smoothly (Engel includes a small tube with the purchase), and the buckle-equipped "wings" on the sides add to the effort. Nevertheless, this sturdy design enhances leak-proofing, making the Engel HD20 an excellent choice for water-based activities such as kayaking, paddle boarding, and rafting. View the Engel HD20 here

9. YETI Hopper Flip 12 ($250)

Storage Capacity: Can hold 13 cans with ice. Weight: 3 lbs. 1.6 oz.Other sizes available: 8 and 20 can options.What we like: A lighter and more accessible alternative to the M30 mentioned above. What we find lacking: Limited capacity and still quite expensive.

YETI's Hopper M30 is the epitome of soft coolers, but its excessive build and high price tag may not suit everyone's needs. Introducing the Hopper Flip 12, a lighter, more affordable, and more approachable option that still retains many of the features we love about the M30. Similar to its pricier sibling, the Hopper Flip 12 utilizes the durable and tear-resistant DryHide shell, provides effective insulation with thick closed-cell foam, and includes YETI's HitchPoint grid for easy attachment of accessories like a bottle opener or a dry gear case. Unlike the M30, however, the Hopper Flip 12 is extremely easy to load and unload thanks to its well-designed opening with a zipper. This wide opening is fully leakproof and offers nearly unrestricted access to your food and drinks.

Presenting the YETI Hopper Flip 12 at a price of $250, it's safe to say that it doesn't really offer great value. Comparatively, the top-end Hopper M30 is rather expensive, but the Hopper Flip can only accommodate about 13 12-ounce cans with ice, which is significantly limited in terms of capacity. If you're looking for a substantial $100 savings, the RTIC's Soft Pack 30 provides more than double the storage space without compromising much in terms of quality. On the other hand, Engel's HD30, which is $10 cheaper than the Hopper Flip 12, can hold a whopping 48 cans. To be fair, the Hopper Flip 12 is suitable for a beach outing or a quick paddling session after work, but the high price tag and small capacity push it to a mid-range position.

Moving on to the ICEMULE Classic Medium 15L, it's priced at and offers a capacity of 12 cans with ice. Weighing in at 2 pounds, this cooler is highly durable and completely waterproof, making it a perfect choice for water-related activities. The Classic series from ICEMULE is packed with great options, and the Medium 15L variant stands out for its convenient size, making it ideal for short trips or all-day adventures. It comes with a strong and well-padded strap for comfortable crossbody carrying, and its solid construction resembles that of a dry bag, ensuring it can handle all the rough treatment it might encounter in outdoor settings. Water sports enthusiasts will appreciate the air valve near the top, which allows for adding extra air to increase buoyancy (although we haven't personally tested its floating capabilities when full). Moreover, when it's time to pack up, the valve serves the purpose of releasing air to roll up the cooler for easy travel.

One thing to note is that, in order to save weight and materials, soft coolers like the ICEMULE Classic lack structure. While this allows for compression with the roll-top closure, it can feel a bit disorganized if not loaded correctly compared to other soft-sided models. This design choice also results in slightly less insulation, although it still offers a commendable 24 hours of ice retention, which is quite impressive in this category. The 15L size may be on the smaller side, but the 12-can capacity is sufficient for most day trips (although ICEMULE does offer a larger 18-can variation for ). However, the standout feature of the ICEMULE Classic is its value. It offers solid performance and functionality while being competitively priced, making it a worthy mid-range contender.

Next up is the Hydro Flask 20 L Carry Out, priced at and offering a capacity of 38 cans without ice. Weighing 2 pounds and 8.3 ounces, this cooler presents a nice balance between price and overall performance. While it may not be the most aesthetically appealing or feature-packed option, it still holds its ground.

Introducing the third addition to our list of Hydro Flask designs this season is the 20 L Carry Out Soft Cooler, which strikes a balance between their Insulated Tote and backpack-style Day Escape mentioned before. Available at just , the Carry Out offers the largest capacity among the options, capable of holding 38 cans (without ice). With its convenient wraparound zipper, accessing and cleaning the cooler is a breeze. In terms of insulation, the Carry Out performs admirably for its price—it can keep ice frozen for up to 24 hours, a significant improvement of 20 hours compared to the Insulated Tote and only 12 hours less than the pricier Day Escape, which costs $110 more. Additionally, like the premium Day Escape, the Carry Out is constructed with a robust and water-resistant (600D) exterior and features welded seams, preventing spills and splashes. It also includes a handy front stash pocket and webbing loops to attach Hydro Flask's Dry Storage accessories, making it an excellent value for its price.

Overall, the Hydro Flask Carry Out occupies a favorable middle ground in the soft-sided cooler market. While it may be slightly more expensive than budget alternatives from brands like AO Coolers, Coleman, and Arctic Zone, it surpasses them in terms of overall quality and cooling capabilities. On the other hand, for superior insulation and additional storage and features, you may consider investing in higher-end options such as the YETI Hopper M30 or Engel HD20. These choices, however, offer a more modern aesthetic and greater colorway options compared to the Carry Out. Nevertheless, considering the price point, it would be unfair to be overly critical, as the Carry Out delivers fantastic value for your money. If you are seeking a similar but smaller option for personal use or short day trips, Mountainsmith's $50 Cooler Cube is worth exploring.

Moving on to another contender, the RovR Products TravelR 30 Soft Cooler, available at a price of $250, proves to be an impressive addition. With a capacity of 28 liters and weighing 4 lbs. 7 oz., the TravelR 30 offers more features and a higher-quality construction when compared to the aforementioned RTIC Soft Pack. Unlike the RTIC, RovR does not disclose the TravelR's ice retention specific. Nevertheless, RovR retains the durability and attention to detail that made their RollR collection highly regarded in the wheeled cooler category. Similarly, the TravelR is exceptionally well-insulated thanks to its closed-cell foam and utilizes heavy-duty materials for added longevity. The cooler shares certain features with the RTIC, such as waterproof zippers and padded, removable shoulder straps. Overall, the TravelR represents another well-designed and premium offering from RovR Products.

In terms of differences between the RovR TravelR 30 and the RTIC Soft Pack 30, the former is superior in terms of durability due to its burly TPU base and welded seams. Additionally, the TravelR offers more comprehensive features, such as an external webbing system for securing extra gear and an antimicrobial liner to maintain freshness for extended periods. However, it lacks an external pocket for smaller valuables. It's important to note that the RovR comes with a significantly higher price tag—$100 more than the RTIC Soft Pack. While the price increase is substantial, the TravelR is certainly a compelling addition to the market and is undeniably one of the most aesthetically pleasing soft-sided coolers available. It is also designed to accommodate RovR's KeepR, an insulated picnic basket with adjustable inserts for wine bottles, cups, utensils, and small food containers.

To explore the RovR Products TravelR 30 in greater detail, click here: RovR Products TravelR 30 Soft Cooler

13. Arctic Zone Titan Deep Freeze 30 Can ()

Storage Capacity: 30 cans (excluding ice)Weight: 3 lbs. 10.2 oz.Other Sizes Available: 9, 12, 16, 24, 48 cansPros: More bang for your buck compared to the AO Coolers 24 Pack mentioned earlier.Cons: Fails to impress in terms of quality and ice retention.

Similar to the AO Coolers 24 Pack Canvas, the Arctic Zone Titan Deep Freeze 30 Can truly stands out when it comes to its value. For an incredibly competitive price of on Amazon, this cooler offers a spacious capacity of 30 cans along with unique and practical features that are perfect for quick visits to the beach, local state parks, or even longer weekend getaways. A notable highlight is the lid, which requires no zipper and easily flips open, providing effortless access to your food and drinks. It secures shut through a convenient Velcro flap. Additionally, the cooler comes with a plastic "shelf" that effectively separates hard items like cans from softer foods such as sandwiches and fruits. The exterior design is also well thought out, featuring ample zippered storage compartments, a separate mesh pocket on the side, a built-in bottle opener, and a top bungee system that allows you to secure items like an extra layer or a towel.

However, while the interior of the Arctic Zone Titan Deep Freeze is extremely accessible, its zipperless design does have one drawback: it does not seal in cold air as effectively as other competitors, including our recommended budget pick, the AO Coolers 24 Pack Canvas. Arctic Zone claims a three-day ice retention for their cooler, but many users suggest that it can only maintain its chill for a day, particularly in hot summer temperatures. Additionally, the overall build quality of the Deep Freeze is compromised due to its lower price point. The cooler feels somewhat cheap, and the thin plastic liner, in particular, seems vulnerable to potential cracks over time. Nonetheless, it would be hard to find a better combination of features and affordability. For those who prefer a different style, the Deep Freeze is also available in roll-top, backpack, and wheeled options.Check out the Arctic Zone Titan Deep Freeze 30 Can here

14. OtterBox Trooper 20 ($140)

Storage Capacity: 28 cans (excluding ice)Weight: 6 lbs. 8 oz.Other Size Available: 16 cans (12 qts.)Pros: Large opening, sturdy base, and reliable structure.Cons: Expensive, heavy, and latch mechanism can be finicky.

The OtterBox Trooper 20 is a direct competition for ORCA's Walker Tote, aiming to strike a balance between superior build quality, durability, portability, and functionality. During our initial experience with the Trooper, we were immediately impressed by its generously sized opening, which securely closes using a latch mechanism and provides quick and convenient access to food and drinks. Another practical addition is the solid and heavy-duty base, which evokes the durability of hard-sided coolers (though it cannot be used as a seat like some hard coolers can). Completing the set of features, the Trooper offers a water-resistant exterior pocket for storing small valuables, a built-in bottle opener, and a food-grade liner that is incredibly easy to clean.

Having said that, the finer particulars of the OtterBox Trooper 20 are not as meticulously arranged as we anticipated. Despite our admiration for its size and functionality, we observed that the closure latch is noticeably temperamental. The plastic construction is susceptible to warping and flexing when exposed to extreme temperatures, which can cause difficulties in opening and closing the cooler. Additionally, the compatibility of the accessory mounting system with only a few minimally useful add-ons is questionable. Furthermore, the claim of ice retention for up to three days seems overly ambitious. In favorable weather conditions, we estimate that it could last for approximately a day or two at most. Finally, the OtterBox stands on the heavier and pricier end, weighing 6 pounds 8 ounces and priced at $250. However, it is currently being offered at a considerable discount of $140. If you can take advantage of the lower price, it is highly likely that you will not be disappointed. Nevertheless, at the full manufacturer's suggested retail price (MSRP), we believe that most individuals would be happier saving some money by opting for the aforementioned ORCA or one of the lighter and more collapsible designs.

Discover the OtterBox Trooper 20.

15. The REI Co-op Cool Haul 24 ($130)

Capacity: 24 cans (with ice)

Weight: 4 lbs. 7.5 oz.

Other sizes: 12, 18 cans

What we appreciate: Respectable performance and features for the price.

What does not impress us: It lacks distinguishing features.

REI has a talent for striking a balance between performance and affordability, and they have done it once again with the Cool Haul 24. Priced reasonably at $130, this cooler offers a compact design that occupies minimal space in a car's trunk or backseat. Its top and side handles, along with the adjustable shoulder strap, provide excellent portability. The durable yet soft nylon shell keeps the weight relatively low. Similar to many competitors with soft-sided coolers, the REI bag includes daisy-chain webbing for securing additional gear, and it even comes with a convenient bottle opener. Cleaning is effortless since the inner insulated box can be detached from the outer shell. The shell itself can also be used without the liner as a tote.

Where does the Cool Haul 24 fall short? In a highly competitive market, standing out is a challenging feat. For instance, the AO Coolers 24 Pack Canvas boasts the same capacity at a lower price of approximately $45, although the REI cooler provides better cooling capabilities. On the premium end of the spectrum, brands like YETI, RTIC, and Hydro Flask offer highly insulating and more durable options albeit at a significantly higher cost. Nonetheless, as a reliable and affordable choice for small group outings, it is difficult to find fault in the REI Cool Haul. Note: It is also available in smaller models of 12 and 18 cans ($100 and $110, respectively) for those seeking a personal cooler for work or short day trips.

Explore the REI Co-op Cool Haul 24.

16. Cotopaxi Hielo 12L Cooler Bag ($105)

Storage Capacity: Can hold 12 cans without ice

Weight: 1 lb. 9 oz.

Other sizes: None

What we appreciate: Excellent compactness and stylish design in an environmentally-friendly package.

What we find unfavorable: A bit expensive for its features.

The Hydro Flask 20 L Insulated Tote mentioned earlier is our top choice for a small soft cooler for day trips; however, the Cotopaxi Hielo 12L is a popular alternative that excels in a few areas. First, it has impressive styling with vibrant and eye-catching designs, which is a signature of Cotopaxi products (bonus: each cooler has a unique color scheme). Second, it is made partly from repurposed materials, indicating Cotopaxi's commitment to being environmentally responsible as a climate-neutral, Certified B Corporation. Lastly, the Hielo stands out with its zippered roll-top closure that is secured by a buckle, allowing for easy and quick packing even when it is fully loaded.

Where does the Cotopaxi Hielo 12L fall short compared to its competitors? While we appreciate its fun design and sustainability focus, it is not great value for the price of $105. For $40 less, the Hydro Flask Insulated Tote offers a thicker and waterproof exterior (although the Cotopaxi's liner is waterproof, the outer fabric is not). Additionally, the Hydro Flask has an external pocket for small valuables like keys, whereas the Hielo only has a side pocket for water bottles, which may be less practical for many users. Furthermore, we prefer the standard straps of the Insulated Tote compared to the messenger bag-style shoulder strap and single grab handle of the Hielo, as they make it easier to carry when fully loaded. Lastly, it's important to note that neither cooler stands out in terms of ice retention. In summary, the Hielo is somewhat expensive considering its features, but it remains a lightweight, compact, and attractive option for enjoying afternoons at the park or beach. Check out the Cotopaxi Hielo 12L Cooler Bag here.

17. Coleman 24-Hour 16-Can Cooler ($25)

Storage Capacity: Can hold 16 cans

Other sizes: 9, 30 cans

What we appreciate: The most budget-friendly cooler on our list.

What we find unfavorable: Not optimized for high performance.

Soft coolers can be quite expensive, as evident from the YETI Hopper M30 priced at $350 mentioned earlier. However, if you only plan on using your cooler for a few weekends during the summer, a budget option like Coleman's 16-Can Soft Cooler Bag can definitely get the job done at a fraction of the cost. It's important to note upfront that the Coleman cooler offers the least in terms of performance compared to the other options on our list. In simple terms, don't expect exceptional ice retention or durability. However, if you set realistic expectations, you likely won't be disappointed: the Coleman cooler will adequately keep your food and drinks cold for the day and will certainly surpass its $25 price tag.

What caused the Coleman 24-Hour Cooler to come in last place? Although many users have noted that the price delivers better cold retention than expected, it still falls short in terms of overall performance and build quality when compared to other affordable options like the AO Coolers 24 Pack and Arctic Zone Deep Freeze Titan. In addition, it lacks the features found in the rest of the group, with only a single front pocket for storage and no leak-proofing in the liner. To be fair, the Coleman is the most affordable option on our list, but we believe that frequent outdoor enthusiasts who engage in activities more than a few times a season would be better off spending a little extra.

Check out the Coleman 24-Hour 16-Can Cooler on Amazon.

Soft Cooler Comparison Table

Cooler Price Capacity Weight Other Sizes Ice* RTIC Soft Pack Cooler $150 30 cans (with ice) 4 lbs. 12, 20, 40 cans 24 hours YETI Hopper M30 $350 26 cans (with ice) 7 lbs. None Unavailable AO Coolers 24 Pack Canvas 24 cans (with ice) 2 lbs. 12, 36, 48 cans 24 hours Hydro Flask Insulated Tote 10 cans (with ice) 1 lb. 5.1 oz. 8, 35L 4 hours Hydro Flask 20 L Day Escape $200 36 cans (without ice) 2 lbs. 10.1 oz. None 36 hours REI Pack-Away 24 $50 24 cans (with ice) 1 lb. 12 oz. 6, 12 cans 32 hours ORCA Walker Tote $225 18 cans (with ice) 3 lbs. 9.6 oz. None 24 hours Engel HD20 $200 24 cans (with ice) 3 lbs. 8 oz. 48 cans 72-96 hours YETI Hopper Flip 12 $250 13 cans (with ice) 3 lbs. 1.6 oz. 8, 20 cans Unavailable ICEMULE Classic Medium 12 cans (with ice) 2 lbs. 6, 9, 18 cans 24 hours Hydro Flask 20 L Carry Out 38 cans (without ice) 2 lbs. 8.3 oz. 20 cans 24 hours RovR Products TravelR 30 $250 28L 4 lbs. 7 oz. None Unavailable Arctic Zone Titan 30 cans (without ice) 3 lbs. 10.2 oz. 9, 12, 16, 24, 48 cans 3 days OtterBox Trooper 20 $140 28 cans (without ice) 6 lbs. 8 oz. 16 cans 72 hours REI Co-op Cool Haul 24 $130 24 cans (with ice) 4 lbs. 7.5 oz. 12, 18 cans 65 hours Cotopaxi Hielo 12L $105 12 cans (without ice) 1 lb. 9 oz. None Unavailable Coleman 24-Hour 16-Can $25 16 cans Unavailable 9, 30 cans 24 hours

*Editor's note: The duration mentioned represents the claimed ice retention time. In real-life usage and depending on specific circumstances, we have found these times to be significantly lower. More information is available in the "Ice Retention and Cooling Capabilities" section below.

Expert Advice for Choosing a Soft Cooler

Our Analysis of Soft Coolers: Functionality and Best Applications

Before delving into the nuanced details, it's crucial to acknowledge that soft coolers have inherent compromises. While hard-sided models excel at maintaining low temperatures for extended periods, soft coolers are not designed to keep contents cold for more than a few days at most. In addition, they are generally smaller than their hard-sided counterparts, typically offering a maximum capacity of around 30 liters. As a result, soft coolers may not be the best choice for multi-day trips. Nevertheless, they are ideal for weekend getaways, day trips to the park or beach, tailgates, afternoons on the water, and quick errands like grocery store runs. They can also serve as a valuable supplement to larger hard-sided coolers, providing additional space for extra food or beverages when camping with a larger group.

Moreover, it's essential to distinguish between collapsible and rigid soft coolers. Based on our experience, we have found that flexible and packable models such as the Hydro Flask 20 L Insulated Tote outperform thick and inflexible options such as the Engel HD20 in terms of versatility and functionality. Not only do flexible models lack drainage ports for disposing of excess water, but rigid designs also fail to compress for storage when not in use, which is a primary advantage of soft coolers. Furthermore, rigid soft coolers do not retain ice for as long as hard-sided coolers and generally come with a higher price tag, raising the question of why not invest in a similarly priced hard cooler instead. Although rigid options like the Engel still offer superior portability compared to hard coolers, it's crucial to consider their decreased durability, insulation capabilities, and overall storage capacity when weighing your alternatives.

Rigid coolers like the Engel HD30 and ORCA Walker Tote occupy a significant amount of space.

Soft Cooler Sizes (Capacities)

It's important to note that not all coolers measure interior capacity in the same manner. Some use cans as a unit of measure, while others use liters, quarts, or gallons. In the case of soft coolers (hard-sided models are usually measured in quarts), "cans" is the most widely used unit of measure. Throughout this article, we have predominantly used this measurement when available. However, discrepancies arise, especially when considering whether the estimated capacity includes space for ice. We have made efforts to clarify this in our descriptions and comparison table above, but it is crucial to bear this distinction in mind when shopping for a soft cooler.

For reference, the largest option mentioned above is the RTIC Soft Pack Cooler, which has the capacity to hold up to 30 twelve-ounce cans with ice. On the other end of the spectrum, Cotopaxi's Hielo 12L Cooler Bag is the smallest option, estimated to accommodate up to 12 cans without ice (~8 cans with ice) by Cotopaxi. From our experience, soft coolers with a capacity of roughly 18-24 cans and the inclusion of ice strike a balance, offering sufficient space for day trips or weekend road trips. These designs are manageable in terms of weight and portability while preserving space in your vehicle or garage.

The Insulated Tote from Hydro Flask (on the left) has the capacity to hold about 10 cans with ice.

Ice Preservation and Cooling Abilities

As previously discussed, soft coolers typically have subpar ice retention capabilities. In ideal circumstances, they can only keep their contents cold for a maximum of one or two days. Various external factors, such as air temperature, frequency of lid opening, exposure to sunlight, and amount of ice used, greatly influence their performance (most brands recommend a 2:1 ice-to-food ratio). To achieve optimal results, it is advisable to pre-chill the cooler by placing ice inside for a few hours prior to loading it. When you're ready to go, replace the ice with pre-chilled packs or fresh ice at the recommended ratio along with your beverages and food.

Most cooler manufacturers suggest a 2:1 ice-to-food ratio in their products. Some manufacturers provide a "claimed ice retention" specification in their product descriptions (however, YETI is an exception). According to our list, ice retention times can range from as little as 4 hours for the Hydro Flask 20 L Insulated Tote to three or four days for Engel's HD20 (although 24 hours is the typical standard). It is important to note that these manufacturer-provided specifications should be taken with a grain of salt, as there is no established and standardized testing method. In our experience, most of the claimed ice retention times seem quite exaggerated, possibly due to extremely favorable testing conditions, such as keeping the cooler indoors with the lid closed in cool temperatures. As a general rule, we suggest expecting approximately half of the claimed ice retention time in real-world usage, with slight variations depending on your specific circumstances.

Useful cooling tips can be found inside the Cool Haul 24 by REI Co-op.

Weight and Portability

One significant advantage of soft coolers over hard-sided models is their lighter weight, making them much easier to carry. A quick look at our comparison table above reveals that most options weigh between 2 to 4 pounds, with the larger and more sturdy designs weighing 7 pounds or more. As a reference, the heaviest model on our list is the YETI Hopper M30 at 7 pounds, while the Hydro Flask 20 L Insulated Tote (1 lb. 5.1 oz.) and Cotopaxi Hielo 12L Cooler Bag (1 lb. 9 oz.) are the lightest collapsible designs. Additionally, comfortable shoulder straps and grab handles greatly enhance portability, as we explain in more detail below.

When not filled, the YETI Hopper M30 weighs in at 7 pounds, which can make it feel bulky and heavy once it's loaded up with food, drinks, and ice.

Construction and Durability

Soft coolers can vary greatly in durability, and one way to distinguish between different models is to look at the measurement of fabric thickness, known as denier (D). The YETI Hopper M30 and Engel HD20 (both 840D) stand out as rigid designs that are at the top of the pack. These coolers have tough exteriors that instill confidence, especially when handling sharp objects, and they have proven to hold up well during testing without showing much wear and tear. Another standout in terms of durability is RovR's new TravelR 30, which features a burly TPU base and welded seams that give it a tough and hardwearing feel. On the other hand, softer and more flexible options like Hydro Flask’s 20 L Insulated Tote, Cotopaxi's Hielo 12L Cooler Bag, and REI Co-op’s Pack-Away 24 are less sturdy and may be more susceptible to damage over time, although they are still reasonably well-made for most casual outdoor uses.

YETI's high-end Hopper M30 is unquestionably sturdy and long-lasting. Furthermore, it's worth noting that there is often a correlation between price and build quality. Options like the AO Coolers 24 Pack Canvas, Coleman 24-Hour 16-Can Cooler, and Arctic Zone Titan Deep Freeze have noticeably cheaper construction and components compared to their more premium counterparts. While these options can serve adequately for casual day trips and infrequent use, avid outdoor enthusiasts who plan to use their cooler regularly, especially around water, will likely benefit from investing in a higher-end model.

The AO Coolers 24 Pack Canvas provides decent construction for its price.

Waterproof Soft Coolers

Many of the aforementioned coolers feature highly water-resistant zippers or openings, but only a few have fully waterproof designs. One exception is the ICEMULE Classic, which has the shape and exterior of a dry bag, complete with a roll-top closure that can be fully submerged in water. This makes it an excellent choice for activities such as kayaking or paddleboarding, where it may come into contact with a significant amount of water. Additionally, it floats, providing added peace of mind in rough conditions. Another option in this category is RTIC’s Soft Pack, which, while not technically fully waterproof, boasts a tough shell and a leakproof design that should hold up well if it happens to take a dip.

Price: Budget vs. Premium Soft Coolers

The price range for soft coolers varies significantly, starting at just $26 for the Coleman 24-Hour 16-Can Cooler and going up to $350 for YETI's top-of-the-line M30 model mentioned above. So, what does spending more money get you? As we mentioned earlier, durability and cost often go hand in hand, with high-quality designs like the M30, Hopper Flip 12, Engel HD20, and OtterBox Trooper 20 featuring impressively thick and rigid exteriors that can withstand long-term use. That being said, even the cheapest options on our list are reasonably well-made and will suffice for a day at the beach or packing a lunch on the go, making them a compelling choice for many.

Engel's HD30 and YETI's Hopper M30 are two of the most luxurious designs available in the market. However, when it comes to soft-sided coolers, the difference in ice retention between models is not significantly large. This makes it difficult to justify spending a premium amount on an expensive model. While these high-end designs offer the convenience of portability without compromising on quality, they are not a worthwhile investment for most people. If budget allows, it is advisable to opt for a hard-sided cooler instead. Although it may add weight, the improved cooling capabilities and overall performance are worth the tradeoff for many.

Affordable options like the REI Cool Haul and Hydro Flask Insulated Tote have their own appeal.

Opening styles and closure systems play a significant role in the convenience and performance of a soft-sided cooler. Different models have varying styles. For example, the YETI Hopper M30 has a magnet-equipped opening that is rigid and requires effort to keep open while loading and unloading. Some zipper-equipped models, like RTIC's Soft Pack and Engel's HD20, also require force to operate the zippers. However, the RTIC's wraparound design makes it easier to keep the lid open, and both styles are usually leak-resistant.

Some of our favorite opening styles include the roll-top closure on ICEMULE's Classic and the zipperless design on Arctic Zone's Titan Deep Freeze, which can be secured with strong Velcro. However, it should be noted that these styles may provide less of a seal than zippered designs and are more prone to leaks. Despite this, many people may prefer the added security, insulation, and leak-proofing of a more robust opening.

Carrying straps and handles are another important aspect to consider. Soft coolers are easier to transport compared to hard-sided ones. They usually come with padded straps and thick grab handles for easy carrying over the shoulder or by hand. Premium models, such as YETI's Hopper M30, RTIC's Soft Pack Cooler, and Engel's HD20, have excellent cushioning along the straps. Budget-friendly options like those from AO Coolers, Coleman, and Arctic Zone may not be as comfortable for long distances, but they are still portable and suitable for short walks from your car. Backpack coolers like the Hydro Flask 20 L Day Escape are the most manageable, with full harnesses that can be worn like a regular daypack.

The intertwined carry handle on the ORCA Walker Tote, which is secured with magnets, is something we find quite appealing. When it comes to portability, nothing beats the soft-sided backpack-style coolers. These designs draw inspiration from hiking daypacks and share features such as shoulder straps, padded backpanels, and exterior pockets for additional storage. While they may lack the insulation power of hard-sided coolers, backpack coolers like the Hydro Flask 20 L Day Escape are still quite capable of keeping ice frozen for up to 36 hours. However, it's important to note that backpack coolers tend to be relatively expensive compared to their modest storage capacity and overall performance. That being said, if you often find yourself traveling over half a mile to your favorite picnic spot or fishing hole, investing in a backpack cooler may be worth it. For a more in-depth look at the best backpack coolers, be sure to check out our article.

Moving on to additional features of soft coolers, let's talk about pockets and organization. Soft coolers come in various shapes and designs, but many include at least one exterior pocket where you can safely store small valuables like your phone, wallet, or keys. We've found these pockets to be incredibly useful, whether we're spending a day at the park or enjoying some time at the beach. It's even better when these pockets are water-resistant, providing extra protection against splashes or rain. Some models that include functional stash pockets are the RTIC Soft Pack Cooler, ORCA Walker Tote, and Arctic Zone Titan Deep Freeze.

Another useful feature of many soft coolers is external attachment points. For example, coolers like YETI's Hopper M30 and REI Co-op's Cool Haul 24 feature daisy chain webbing on the outside, allowing you to secure extra gear. We've found this space to be perfect for keeping valuables like keys within easy reach (using a carabiner) and we particularly admire the stretchy bungee system on the Arctic Zone Titan Deep Freeze, which makes it convenient to secure a lightweight jacket or small towel on top.

Additional attachment points are beneficial for securing extra equipment. Other notable features to consider include built-in bottle openers and vacuum ports for adding or releasing air. Among the options mentioned above, the Engel HD20, Arctic Zone Titan Deep Freeze, and REI Co-op Cool Haul 24 come with bottle openers. The HD20 also includes a unique vacuum valve that allows you to remove excess air for maximum insulation. ICEMULE's Classic has a similar valve system, but it functions by adding air for improved cooling and buoyancy.

There are a couple of other features worth mentioning: the Arctic Zone Titan has a shelf for separating hard and soft items, and the REI Cool Haul 24 has a removable inner liner that allows you to use the shell separately as a tote.

Engel's HD models come with a convenient bottle opener.

In addition to the features mentioned above, many soft cooler manufacturers offer compatible accessories that can be attached to the exterior of their coolers. For example, Hydro Flask's 20 L Day Escape has thread-through points for securing their Dry Storage Bags. YETI offers accessories such as the SideKick Dry Gear Case and the Molle Zinger for attaching a multitool or bottle opener.

Most of us are used to using crushed ice in our coolers because it's cheap and easily available. However, crushed ice melts quickly and needs to be replaced frequently, especially when exposed to direct sunlight. This can lead to waterlogged food and a messy cooler. To prevent these issues, we recommend using dedicated ice packs instead. Major brands have their own ice pack designs that work well in their coolers. They are more expensive initially but can be reused without having to drain melted ice. Another option is using blocks of ice, which melt more slowly but take up more space. Avoid using dry ice in soft coolers as it can damage the interior.

For many applications, we prefer using ice packs in our soft coolers.

When purchasing a soft cooler, it's important to consider the length of the warranty. Most soft coolers come with a one-year warranty, although some offer three to five years. YETI, ORCA, and Hydro Flask are examples of brands with longer warranties. However, it's important to note that these warranties typically cover defects and not damage from regular wear and tear. REI Co-op offers a full refund or replacement within one year of purchase for members (90 days for non-members). Keep in mind that warranties may vary for hard-sided coolers compared to soft-sided ones.

ORCA offers a generous 5-year warranty on their soft coolers.

We have focused solely on soft-sided coolers in this article, which are suitable for simple and portable use. However, if you're going on multi-day trips, hard-sided coolers offer several advantages. They have better ice retention, are more durable, and come in larger capacities. Many hard coolers also have drainage systems and lockable lids. While hard-sided coolers are heavier, bulkier, and more expensive, they provide better overall performance. Popular designs include RTIC's Ultra-Light lineup, YETI's Tundra series, and OtterBox's Venture collection.

Hard coolers are generally larger, more durable, and better at retaining ice than soft models.

For more options and considerations specific to hard-sided coolers, you can refer to our article on the best coolers.

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