Ultimate Guide to Choosing the Best Backpack Cooler for Your Hiking Adventures
When it comes to hiking, having a backpack cooler can make all the difference in keeping your drinks and snacks chilled and refreshing throughout your journey. But with so many options to choose from, how do you know which one is the best? This article will guide you through the top backpack coolers for hiking, taking into account factors like storage capacity, additional features, and materials. From the Camelbak Chillbak 30 to the Hydro Flask 20L Day Escape, we will provide in-depth reviews and recommendations to help you make an informed decision. Join us as we delve into the world of backpack coolers and discover how to choose the best one for your next adventure.
How We Tested
Our team extensively tested a wide range of backpack coolers in various environments over several months. From the mountains to the beach, we assessed factors such as ice retention, weight, materials, and carrying comfort to narrow down the options available in the market. After rigorous testing and carrying numerous drinks and snacks, we have determined the best backpack coolers. Here are a few of our current favorites:
Camelbak Chillbak 30
- Material: TPU
- Weight: 4.5 pounds
- Capacity: 24 cans, 6 liters water, 15 pounds ice
Camelbak's first venture into backpack coolers has quickly become our favorite. With its rectangular shape, detachable internal food shelf, and comfortable, padded shoulder straps, the Chillbak 30 offers exceptional functionality. It keeps items cold for over 72 hours when properly closed. However, its standout feature is the water reservoir zippered compartment, which allows you to keep everyone hydrated on your adventures.
RTIC Backpack Cooler
- Material: Polyester
- Weight: 8 pounds
- Capacity: 20 cans and a bag of ice
As an affordable alternative to high-end brands, the RTIC Backpack Cooler is both capable and comfortable. It can hold 20 cans and a bag of ice, keeping them cold for multiple days. The cooler's zipper top opening provides easy access to the contents, and its welded seams ensure complete waterproofing and buoyancy.
Hydro Flask 20L Day Escape
- Material: 600D polyester
- Weight: 3 pounds
- Capacity: 36 cans without ice
The Hydro Flask Day Escape offers sleek design and a capacity of 22 liters. It features woven loops on the front for attaching the Dry Storage accessory, perfect for keeping small essentials secure. This backpack cooler can also be used as a regular backpack and is suitable as a carry-on for hiking adventures.
IceMule Classic Medium
- Material: 1,000-denier ripstop tarpaulin/vinyl/nylon
- Weight: 1.75 pounds
- Capacity: 12 standard cans, including ice
The IceMule Classic Medium is a smaller and more portable option compared to the heavy-duty IceMule Coolers Boss. It offers a capacity of 15 liters and can comfortably carry your snacks and drinks for a day trip. Its roll-top closure and single strap design make it easy to carry and suitable for board or boat trips.
REI Co-op Cool Trail Pack Cooler
- Material: Recycled nylon, polyester
- Weight: 3.25 pounds
- Capacity: 31 liters
The REI Co-op Cool Trail Pack Cooler is a unique blend of a hiking backpack and a backpack cooler. It offers a 50/50 combination of insulation and carrying capacity. The contoured hip belt and adjustable shoulder straps ensure comfort, and the cooler insert can be easily removed when not needed.
Coleman Xpand Cooler Backpack
- Material: Nylon, TPU
- Weight: 2.86 pounds
- Capacity: 30 cans
The Coleman Xpand Cooler Backpack is an ideal choice for casual trips, such as your child's soccer games or day trips to the beach. It offers a spacious capacity for holding snacks and drinks. Despite its affordable price, it provides reliable cooling performance and is a great addition to any adventure.
Pelican Dayventure Backpack Cooler
- Material: Double Coated 840D TPU
- Weight: 3.3 pounds
- Capacity: 13 Liters Dry / 5.5 Liters cooler
The Pelican Dayventure Cooler stands apart from other backpack coolers with its versatile design. It features two distinct compartments—a bottom section for carrying six-packs and a rolltop section for additional cold storage or other belongings. The breathable straps and back panels ensure comfortable carrying even on long hikes.
Built NY Welded Soft Cooler
- Material: Polyester
- Weight: 10 pounds
- Capacity: 36 cans plus ice or 32 pounds of ice
The Built NY Welded Soft Cooler offers a combination of style and functionality. It is similar to the Large Welded Cooler recognized in our Best Coolers of 2019 list but with added straps for backpack carrying. The large front pocket provides extra storage space for accessories, and the molle straps feature a convenient bottle opener.
Corkcicle Eola Bucket Bag
- Material: Neoprene
- Weight: 2.06 pounds
- Capacity: 12 cans, or 8 cans and 2 wine bottles
The Corkcicle Eola Bucket Bag stands out for its design and functionality. With its padded and adjustable straps, it offers comfort while keeping your drinks and snacks cold. Its capacity allows for 12 cans or a combination of cans and wine bottles, making it suitable for various outdoor activities.
The Best Backpack Coolers: Detailed Reviews & Recommendations
Most Comfortable: Hydroflask Day Escape
- Capacity: 20 liters
- Weight: 2.6 pounds
- Insulation Test: 48 hours
- The Hydroflask Day Escape is very comfortable to carry.
- It is waterproof.
- Features a mesh pocket for added convenience.
- Does not have a hip belt.
- Relatively more expensive than other backpack coolers.
The Hydroflask Day Escape is considered the "most portable" option among the best small coolers. In terms of comfort, it outperforms other backpack coolers during testing. Its unique shape, with a wider frame and less depth, keeps the weight close to your body compared to traditional cooler designs. The backpack provides sufficient structure to support heavier loads. However, it lacks a hip belt, so it's recommended not to overload it for more extended hikes. It also features a convenient haul handle, not commonly found in backpack coolers, for easy storage at home.
The extra padding and wide frame of the Hydroflask Day Escape make it exceptionally comfortable to carry. Laura Lancaster Apart from its comfort, the Hydroflask Day Escape excels as a backpack cooler. It is fully waterproof and keeps ice intact for up to forty-eight hours in insulation testing. The inclusion of an outside mesh pocket adds convenience for storing small items or holding a trail beer while on the go.
Most Versatile: RTIC Soft Pack
- Capacity: 20 liters
- Weight: 3.7 pounds
- Insulation Test: 48 hours
- The RTIC Soft Pack can be carried as a typical soft cooler or a backpack.
- It is easy to organize.
- Less comfortable compared to other backpack coolers.
- Bulky for storage purposes.
If you're unsure about the necessity of a backpack cooler, the RTIC Soft Pack Backpack Cooler is a great compromise. It offers the convenience of a backpack cooler along with the user-friendly structure of a typical soft cooler, complete with haul handles. Unlike other backpack coolers that vary in size based on their contents, the RTIC Soft Pack maintains its shape consistently. While this makes it easy to find items inside, it may sacrifice some comfort during carrying, as the weight is further away from the body, potentially affecting balance.
The RTIC Soft Cooler Backpack shares many characteristics with the other soft coolers in the RTIC lineup. Laura Lancaster
Best Insulation: Icemule Jaunt
- Capacity: 9 liters
- Weight: 1.5 pounds
- Insulation Test: 72 hours
- The Icemule Jaunt is an affordable option with a lightweight design.
- It features a roll-top for space-efficient storage, a zip pocket at the front, and exceptional insulation.
- No padding at the back panel.
- Not fully waterproof.
For hikes in hotter climates, the Icemule Jaunt serves as the perfect backpack cooler to keep your lunch and snacks at an optimal temperature. While it may not be visually striking, it offers impressive ice retention, lasting up to 72 hours in testing. Despite its compact size, it has sufficient space for drinks and food for two individuals. The inflatable insulation, roll-top closure, and lack of rigid structure allow for easy packing and storage.
While the straps on the Icemule Jaunt are padded, there is no padding or shaping along its back panel. Laura Lancaster However, the Icemule Jaunt could benefit from additional storage pockets on the sides to accommodate other hiking essentials. Due to its lack of internal structure and back panel padding, extra care is required during packing to avoid objects poking into the back. The roll-top closure, while efficient for space-saving, doesn't provide the same level of waterproofness as zippered models, as it may leak when inverted for more than a few seconds.
Best Value: Icemule Pro Large
- Capacity: 23 liters
- Weight: 3.2 pounds
- Insulation Test: 48 hours
- The Icemule Pro Large offers generous capacity at an affordable price.
- It features a padded back panel and a roll-top closure.
- Less comfortable for carrying compared to other models.
While the Icemule Boss receives much recognition for its day pack-like appearance, the Icemule Pro Large shouldn't be overlooked as it provides significant insulation at a fraction of the price. It maintains ice for 48 hours, making it suitable for weekend camping or boating trips. Although not entirely waterproof, proper care should be taken to keep the cooler upright, especially when ice begins to melt.
A valve on the Icemule Pro can be used to inflate the insulation chambers for some added oomph, and then deflate again for storage. Laura Lancaster While it lacks a substantial hip belt for carrying larger, heavier loads that the Pro's capacity allows, it does feature a padded back panel that helps alleviate the load over shorter distances. Despite its seemingly oversized appearance, the Icemule Pro can be easily packed down, thanks to the roll-top closure and deflatable insulation.
What To Consider When Buying A Backpack Cooler
Consider how long you need to keep food and drinks cold when selecting a backpack cooler. High-end brands like Yeti and IceMule offer longer ice retention, but they come at a higher price. On the other hand, more affordable brands like Igloo and Arctic Zone may not retain ice for as long. It is important to evaluate whether you need extended ice retention or shorter cooling periods.
If you plan on carrying your backpack cooler for an extended period, it is crucial to choose one with supportive and comfortable padding. Look for models with hip or chest belts to distribute the weight and reduce strain on your shoulders. However, if you only anticipate short walks from your car, a hip belt or padded straps may not be necessary.
Backpack coolers come in different sizes, so it is essential to consider your capacity needs before making a purchase. Determine the amount of food and drinks you plan to carry, keeping in mind that ice cubes occupy a significant portion of space within the cooler.
Decide whether you require additional features like pockets and dry storage compartments. Pockets can be useful for storing personal items such as phones, wallets, keys, and water bottles. If your backpack cooler will be your sole carrying item, having pockets for organization can be convenient.
Backpack coolers are available in two main types: boxy and stiff coolers, and flexible soft-sided coolers. Boxy coolers have a flat bottom, making it easier to load and store food and drinks. However, they can be less comfortable to carry. Soft-sided coolers, like the Hydro Flask Day Escape and REI Cool Trail Pack, are more comfortable to wear as backpacks, but they may be slightly less convenient to load cans into.
How To Pack A Backpack Cooler Like A Pro
Kieran Kreevy, an International Mountain Leader and backcountry chef, shares tips on preparing your backpack cooler and its contents for a superior outdoor experience.
To maximize cooling efficiency, use ice blocks and ice packs as your main sources of cold. Fill any empty space with ice cubes. It's important to pack your backpack cooler as full as possible to prolong its cooling performance. If there is enough space, pre-cooling the backpack cooler in the fridge or freezer can be beneficial.
Ensure that all items you plan to put in the cooler are properly chilled. Keep in mind that even in freezing conditions, food left in direct sunlight can spoil quickly. If you're bringing meat, opt for fish or beef instead of chicken or pork as they are less prone to spoilage. Pre-cutting raw chicken and freezing it before transport can help prevent contamination.
Insulated containers can provide extra assurance that ingredients won't get warm. They are especially useful for carrying temperature-sensitive items like ice cream. Preparing food in advance can also save cooking time and reduce the amount of waste you need to carry. However, remember to properly dispose of items that do not decompose quickly, such as banana peels.
Loading your backpack cooler properly is crucial, especially when carrying delicate ingredients like leafy greens and fresh berries. Keep these items separate from ice and cool blocks to prevent freezing. Additionally, grouping cold goods separately (drinks, snacks, meal ingredients) helps maintain the cooler's temperature and reduces the need to search through an open cooler, which can let cold air escape.
How Long Should Ice Last In A Cooler Backpack?
The duration of ice retention in a backpack cooler depends on factors such as the cooler's insulation, outside temperature, and frequency of opening. Ice can last anywhere from 12 hours to 7 days. High-quality hard coolers generally offer the longest ice retention, while soft coolers may only maintain ice for a day in warm conditions.
In conclusion, when it comes to choosing the best backpack cooler for your hiking adventures, there are plenty of options to consider. From the spacious storage capacity and additional features of the Camelbak Chillbak 30 to the durability and insulation of the RTIC Backpack Cooler, each cooler offers its own unique advantages. Whether you prefer the sleek design of the Hydro Flask 20L Day Escape or the versatility of the IceMule Classic Medium, there is a backpack cooler out there to suit your needs. So pack your cooler like a pro, keep your beverages ice cold, and embark on your hiking journey with confidence, knowing that you've got the best backpack cooler by your side.
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