Ultimate Guide to Finding the Ideal Cooler for Lakeside Getaways: Unveiling the Best Options for On-Water Chilling
Looking for the best cooler for lakeside getaways? Look no further! We've scoured the market and put together a comprehensive list of the top 5 floating coolers that are perfect for keeping your drinks chilled while you soak up the sun. But that's not all! In this article, we'll also share our findings on other coolers we tested, reveal the best inflatable cooler, discuss the pros and cons of using floating coolers, provide soft cooler buying advice, and even highlight the best on the water and the best with low ice options. Get ready for a refreshingly cool adventure!
Top 5 Floating Coolers
1) Airhead Aqua Oasis – Best Overall
The Airhead Aqua Oasis is a fantastic floating cooler option. It is made of durable nylon material and features a lockbox-insulated design that keeps your drinks cold. The cooler is leak-proof and can hold up to 24 12-ounce cans in its detachable main compartment. Additionally, it has six convenient floating drink holders with numbered cup holders. It also has a sundries holder for goggles or sunscreen and comes with an adjustable shoulder strap. Attach multiple inflatables to it and enjoy a cheaper, convenient cooler option.
2) Big Bobber Floating Cooler - Best Value
The Big Bobber floating coolers are incredibly lightweight and versatile. They can float in any body of water and remain steady even when you're carrying them on a boat. These coolers have a unique design that resembles bombs but provides a blast of ice-cold beer on the inside. They are insulated and can hold up to 12 cans, keeping your drinks cold all day. If you enjoy tubing and kayak adventures, the Big Bobber is the perfect gift for you or your loved ones. It is affordable, easy to carry with its built-in handle, and can withstand sharp objects.
3) Intex Mega Chill II - Best Budget
The Intex Mega Chill II is one of the most popular floating coolers available. It has a massive capacity and can carry up to three cases of cans or bottles, which is equivalent to 72 12-ounce cans. You can easily attach it to an Intex tube and tow loads of beverages. Additionally, if you detach the insulated lid, you can use the cooler as a base for a standard 48-quart cooler. The Intex Mega Chill II offers a bigger capacity, six built-in cup holders, and three air chambers for safety. It also has the advantage of being easily attachable to a boat.
4) CrekKooler Floating Cooler
The CrekKooler Floating Cooler is a unique option for those who enjoy watersports and kayak trips. It is designed like an inflatable kayak and floats effortlessly in the water. Made of sturdy blow-molded plastic with two inches of insulation, this cooler can retain ice for up to two days. It can easily hold 30 12-ounce cans or 20 lbs of ice in its watertight dry storage compartment. Consider buying two for your kayak trips—one for drinks and the other for keeping your items dry. The CrekKooler is aerodynamic and can even be used on frozen lakes. Choose from various colors, including yellow, tan, white, and blue.
5) IceMule Pro XXL
The IceMule Pro XXL is a high-quality floating cooler option, albeit on the pricier side. It is incredibly durable, well-insulated, and watertight. This cooler does not require inflation, as it consists of heavy-duty tarpaulin material and a valve to fill the lining with insulating air. It has an ergonomic backpack design, making it perfect for hiking and water adventures. The IceMule Pro XXL comes in different capacities, ranging from storing 18-ounce cans to 36 cans. It offers features like a thicker inner layer, weight-distributing sternum strap for comfort, and leak-proof zippers.
Other Coolers We Tested
Igloo EcoCool Hard Cooler
The Igloo EcoCool Hard Cooler impressed us with its overall design and easy-to-grip handles. However, we noticed that the top did not close securely, which could result in spills if the cooler is knocked over.
Coleman Sportflex Soft Sided Wheeled Cooler
The Coleman Sportflex Soft Sided Wheeled Cooler features convenient pockets for storage and easy-to-open zippers. However, we found that it leaked water from the zipper when tipped on its side, and it did not retain the cold temperature well.
Polarbox Pop 21qt Cooler
The Polarbox Pop 21qt Cooler has a retro design and is easy to open with one hand. However, we experienced water leakage when we tested it, even though the lid seemed secure. Furthermore, the lid did not fit well when the cooler was full of ice.
Best Inflatable Cooler
Airskirts Inflatable Cooler
The Airskirts inflatable cooler is an ideal choice for those with limited storage space. It can be deflated and easily stored in a small carrying bag. Once inflated, it is rigid and strong, able to support the weight of a person. Made of PVC fabric, with air trapped inside its walls, it provides good insulation. It can keep ice cold for a full day, making it perfect for outings. While it is not the cheapest option, its portability makes it worth it.
Pros and Cons of Using Floating Coolers
Before considering floating coolers compared to other popular non-floating cooler brands, it is important to understand their advantages and disadvantages.
- Lightweight: Floating coolers are designed to be lightweight, making them easy to transport wherever you go. This is especially important when the cooler is fully loaded with ice, food, and drinks.
- Portable: Most floating coolers can be deflated when not in use, allowing for easy storage. They take up minimal space and are much more convenient than hard plastic or soft-sided coolers.
- Cost-Effective: Floating coolers are generally more affordable compared to high-end coolers. They are made of materials such as rubber and gaskets, rather than premium metals and plastics.
- Limited Ice Life: Lightweight floating coolers may sacrifice some cooling performance. They are often made of less-insulated materials and have thinner walls, resulting in shorter ice life.
- Limited Storage: While most floating coolers have small capacities, there are larger options available. However, if you require a cooler for a large group, a floating cooler may not be sufficient.
Soft Cooler Buying Advice
Our Thoughts on Soft Coolers: Practicality and Best Uses
Before delving into the specifics, it's important to note that soft coolers have certain limitations. Unlike hard-sided models that can keep food and drinks cold for days or even weeks, soft coolers are not designed to maintain cold temperatures for more than a few days at most. They are also generally smaller in size, typically offering around 30 liters of capacity at the largest. With these factors in mind, soft coolers are not ideal for extended trips. Instead, they are best suited for weekend getaways, day trips to the park or beach, tailgating, boating, or quick errands like grocery shopping. They can also be a useful addition to larger hard-sided coolers, providing extra space for food and drinks when camping with a larger group.
A lineup of some of our favorite soft coolers
In addition, it's important to differentiate between collapsible and rigid soft coolers. In our experience, flexible and packable models like the Hydro Flask 20 L Insulated Tote are more versatile and functional than thick and rigid options like the Engel HD20. Not only do collapsible models lack drainage ports to remove excess water once ice has melted, but rigid designs also cannot be compressed for storage when not in use. Rigid coolers also do not retain ice as long as hard-sided models. Despite these drawbacks, rigid soft coolers tend to be more expensive. This raises the question of why not simply buy a similarly priced hard cooler instead. While rigid designs like the Engel are still lighter and more portable than hard coolers, it's important to consider the trade-offs in terms of durability, insulation, and overall capacity when making a decision.
Rigid designs like the Engel HD30 and ORCA Walker Tote take up a lot of space
Soft Cooler Sizes (Capacities)
It's important to note that not all coolers measure interior capacity in the same way. Some use cans as a unit of measure, while others use liters, quarts, or gallons. Soft coolers are commonly listed in cans, while hard-sided models are generally listed in quarts. The largest option mentioned above, the RTIC Soft Pack Cooler, can fit up to 30 12-ounce cans with ice. On the other hand, the smallest option, Cotopaxi's Hielo 12L Cooler Bag, can fit up to 12 cans without ice or around 8 cans with ice, according to Cotopaxi's estimates. In our experience, most frequently used soft coolers offer space for approximately 18-24 cans with ice, which is suitable for day trips or weekend road trips. These coolers strike a good balance between size, weight, and storage space, making them manageable and space-efficient.
Hydro Flask's Insulated Tote (left) can hold around 10 cans with ice
Ice Retention and Cooling Capabilities
As mentioned earlier, soft coolers are not known for their ice retention capabilities. In ideal conditions, these coolers can keep contents cold for a day or two at most. Various external factors such as air temperature, lid opening frequency, exposure to sunlight, and ice-to-food ratio can affect performance. To maximize the cooling effect, it's recommended to pre-chill the cooler by filling it with ice for a few hours before loading it up. When you're ready to go, replace the ice or use pre-chilled packs along with your drinks and food, following the recommended ice-to-food ratio provided by most brands.
Most manufacturers suggest a 2:1 ice-to-food ratio
Most cooler manufacturers include a "claimed ice retention" specification in their product listings. However, it's important to approach these claims with some skepticism, as there is no standardized testing method for ice retention. In practice, we have found that the claimed ice retention times often seem exaggerated, possibly due to favorable testing conditions. As a general guideline, expect to get approximately half of the claimed ice retention time in real-world use, depending on your specific circumstances.
Helpful cooling tips inside REI Co-op's Cool Haul 24
Weight and Portability
One clear advantage of soft coolers over hard-sided ones is their significantly lighter weight, making them easier to carry. Most soft coolers weigh between 2 to 4 pounds, with larger designs reaching around 7 pounds or more. The heaviest model on our list, the YETI Hopper M30, weighs 7 pounds, while lighter collapsible designs like 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 options. Comfortable shoulder straps and grab handles enhance portability, which we discuss in more detail below.
The YETI Hopper M30 can feel heavy and bulky when filled with food, drinks, and ice at 7 pounds empty
Construction and Durability
Durability varies among soft coolers, with denier (D) being a useful measurement of fabric thickness. Rigid designs like the YETI Hopper M30 and Engel HD20 (both 840D) offer excellent durability and can withstand sharp objects. RovR's new TravelR 30 also stands out with a tough TPU base and welded seams that enhance durability. Softer and more malleable options like Hydro Flask's 20 L Insulated Tote, Cotopaxi's Hielo 12L Cooler Bag, and REI Co-op's Pack-Away 24 feel less rugged but are still well-built for most casual outdoor use.
The YETI Hopper M30 is exceptionally robust and long-lasting
It's worth noting that price and build quality often go hand in hand. Cheaper options like the AO Coolers 24 Pack Canvas, Coleman 24-Hour 16-Can Cooler, and Arctic Zone Titan Deep Freeze may have lower-quality construction and components compared to more premium models. While these options are sufficient for occasional use and day trips, those who plan to use their cooler regularly, especially around water, will likely benefit from investing in a higher-quality cooler.
The AO Coolers 24 Pack Canvas offers decent construction for its priceWaterproof Soft Coolers
Many soft coolers feature highly water-resistant zippers or openings, but few are fully waterproof. One exception is the ICEMULE Classic, which has a dry bag-like shape and exterior with a roll-top closure that can be submerged in water. This makes it ideal for water activities like kayaking or paddleboarding. Additionally, it floats for added buoyancy. The RTIC Soft Pack Cooler also falls into this category, as it has a tough shell and leakproof design that can handle being submerged.
Price: Budget vs. Premium Soft Coolers
The price range for soft coolers is significant, from as low as $26 for the Coleman 24-Hour 16-Can Cooler to as high as $350 for the YETI Hopper M30. Higher prices generally correlate with better durability and build quality. Top-tier models like the M30, Hopper Flip 12, Engel HD20, and OtterBox Trooper 20 have thick and rigid exteriors that can withstand long-term use. However, even the cheapest options on our list are decently built and can fulfill the purpose of a day trip or packing lunch on the go.
Two of the most premium designs on the market: Engel's HD30 and YETI's Hopper M30
Furthermore, the difference in ice retention between soft-sided models is not significant, making it harder to justify the expense of a premium, high-priced model. While these top-tier designs offer portability without compromising on quality, they may not be worth the investment for most people. If budget allows, it's often more beneficial to opt for a hard-sided cooler. Although hard coolers are heavier, they offer better cooling capabilities and overall performance, which can outweigh the weight difference.
Affordable designs like the REI Cool Haul and Hydro Flask Insulated Tote are appealing
Opening Styles and Closure Systems
The opening style and closure system of a soft-sided cooler greatly impact convenience and overall performance. Different models have various styles. For example, the YETI Hopper M30 has a magnet-equipped opening that requires effort to keep open while loading and unloading. Some zipper-equipped options, like the RTIC Soft Pack Cooler and Engel HD20, require substantial force to operate the zippers. However, these styles are often resistant to leaks.
The YETI Hopper M30's strong magnetic design is challenging to keep open
Roll-top closures, like the one found on ICEMULE's Classic, and zipperless designs secured with Velcro, like Arctic Zone's Titan Deep Freeze, are easier to open and close. However, they offer less insulation and are more prone to leaks than zippered designs. Ultimately, the choice between usability and security, insulation, and leak-proofing depends on personal preference.
Opening styles vary considerably and impact convenience and insulation capabilities
Carrying Straps and Handles
As mentioned earlier, soft coolers are significantly easier to transport than hard-sided coolers. They come with padded straps and thick grab handles for carrying over the shoulder or by hand. Premium models often have well-cushioned straps, as seen with the YETI Hopper M30, RTIC Soft Pack Cooler, and Engel HD20. Budget options with basic strap systems, such as those from AO Coolers, Coleman, and Arctic Zone, may not be as comfortable for long distances but are still reasonably portable for short walks. Backpack-style coolers, like the Hydro Flask 20 L Day Escape, offer the easiest portability with full harnesses that can be worn like a standard daypack. More details on this topic can be found in our article on the best backpack coolers.
We appreciate the secure carry handle on the ORCA Walker Tote
For ultimate portability, consider soft-sided backpack-style coolers. These coolers resemble hiking daypacks, featuring shoulder straps, padded backpanels, and exterior pockets for additional storage. Backpack coolers are lightweight, easy to carry, and can be packed down when not in use. However, they do not offer the same level of insulation as hard-sided coolers. The Hydro Flask 20 L Day Escape, for example, is rated to keep ice frozen for up to 36 hours. While backpack coolers tend to be pricier considering their storage capacity and performance, they are worth the investment if you need to walk long distances to your destination. For more information, check out our article on the best backpack coolers.
Backpack-style coolers offer ultimate portability
Additional Soft Cooler Features
Pockets and Organization
Many soft coolers have at least one exterior pocket for storing small valuables such as phones, wallets, or keys. These pockets are incredibly useful for keeping track of belongings during outdoor activities. Water-resistant pockets offer extra protection against splashes or rain. Some models with functional stash pockets include the RTIC Soft Pack Cooler, ORCA Walker Tote, and Arctic Zone Titan Deep Freeze.
We love the generous front pocket on the ORCA Walker ToteExternal Attachment Points
Several soft coolers, such as the YETI Hopper M30 and REI Co-op Cool Haul 24, feature daisy chain webbing on the outside for attaching extra gear. These attachment points are convenient for keeping valuable items like keys easily accessible. The Arctic Zone Titan Deep Freeze stands out with its stretchy bungee system, which allows for securing lightweight jackets or small towels on top.
External attachment points are useful for securing extra gearOther Features
There are a few other notable features to consider, such as integrated bottle openers and vacuum ports. The Engel HD20, Arctic Zone Titan Deep Freeze, and REI Co-op Cool Haul 24 come with built-in bottle openers. The Engel HD20 also includes a unique vacuum valve for compressing the cooler for storage or boosting its insulation power. The ICEMULE Classic has a similar valve system that allows for adding or removing air to enhance cooling capabilities or compress the cooler for storage. Additionally, the Arctic Zone Titan features a shelf for separating hard and soft items, while the REI Cool Haul 24 has a removable inner liner that can be used as a separate tote.
Best On the Water
These bucket-shaped coolers are specially designed to fit on the front of Bote paddleboards like the Aero Breeze (7/10, WIRED Recommends). However, they can also be used in various other settings where conventional coolers may not fit. Their circular shape enables them to fit in tight spaces. They are durable and come with a handle, making them easy to carry. With tie-down points, you can secure them to any object. While I have mainly used them on paddleboards and in canoes, I have seen them strapped to the back of a jetski, and they held up well.
★ Alternative: Depending on your watercraft, the Yeti Hopper Flip 12 ($250) might be a better choice. I love this Yeti cooler for its wide mouth and heavy zipper that never sticks. The Hopper Flip 12 can stand upright, and with a width of 14.25 inches, it is perfect for securing to the top of a paddleboard or bike rack with bungee cords. It features both a grab handle on top and a shoulder strap, providing multiple attachment points for a small dry bag or a pair of flip-flops.
Best With Low Ice
Double-walled vacuum insulation is the technology that keeps your iced coffee cold in a travel mug. However, this type of insulation is typically only structurally stable in a cylindrical shape. Oyster, a Norwegian company, has managed to transfer this technology to a rectangular cooler called the Tempo. The Tempo features an aluminum body that is incredibly efficient at retaining temperature. It can keep food and drinks just as cold as plastic or foam coolers while using less than half the amount of ice. The design of the Tempo results in very thin walls, with sides that are only about an inch thick, which is half the thickness of most plastic coolers. This makes the Tempo more compact, and when opened, its interior is surprisingly spacious. The lid can be securely closed using two brackets. By undoing both brackets, you can completely remove the lid, or you can undo just one bracket to use the other as a hinge. The handle can be snapped on or removed entirely, and it can be replaced with a strap if desired.
With a 5-gallon capacity, the Tempo can hold half a gallon of milk, a couple of quart containers of pasta salad, a six-pack of cans, some loose produce, and a couple of cold packs. If you prefer a liquid diet while on vacation, it can accommodate 36 cans of your preferred beverage. The price of $500 may be higher than most people are willing to spend on a cooler. However, if you value a compact and powerful cooler and are willing to pay a premium for it, rest assured that the Tempo delivers excellent performance that justifies its price. After keeping a tightly packed Tempo with perishable items and two freezer packs in the backseat of a car for five hours and then on the floor of a cabin for three hours, a can of Spindrift soda still felt and tasted as cold as if it had spent that entire time in the refrigerator. —Michael Calore, Senior Editor
In conclusion, if you're planning a lakeside getaway filled with fun and relaxation, choosing the best cooler is essential. After testing several options, we have compiled a list of the top 5 floating coolers that will keep your drinks chilled while you soak up the sun. Additionally, we have explored other coolers and provided buying advice for soft coolers. Whether you prefer an inflatable cooler, the convenience of low ice consumption, or simply the best option for on-the-water activities, we've got you covered. So, grab your favorite beverage and enjoy a refreshing lakeside retreat with the perfect cooler by your side.
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