Ultimate Guide to Finding the Perfect Soft Cooler for Concerts
Looking for the best cooler for concerts? Look no further! Whether you're gearing up for an epic outdoor music festival or a laid-back picnic in the park, having a reliable soft cooler is an absolute must. But with so many options on the market, how do you choose the perfect one? Well, we've got you covered! In this article, we'll walk you through the key things to consider when buying a cooler, from strap design to ice retention, and share our expert tips on finding the ultimate soft cooler that will keep your beverages chilled and your party going strong. So, let's dive in and ensure you have the coolest cooler in town!
Factors to Consider When Purchasing a Cooler
When purchasing a cooler, it is important to take into account its size, including both its overall dimensions and capacity. On average, mid-size coolers measure approximately 25 x 15 x 14 inches and have capacities ranging from 30 to 50 liters (equivalent to around 35 to 55 cans, plus ice). If you are hosting large gatherings or events and need a cooler that can hold 200 or more cans, larger models like the Orca 140 Quart Cooler are a great choice. For more intimate occasions such as picnics, boating, hiking, and day trips, smaller options like our recommended beach day cooler, the Pelican 20 Quart Elite Cooler, are ideal.
Hard-Sided vs. Soft-Sided
Most coolers have hard-sided construction as it is generally believed to be more effective in keeping things cool. Moreover, larger coolers require a rigid exterior to facilitate carrying by two people. Hard-sided coolers are typically made of plastic and often undergo rotomolding to enhance durability and temperature retention. Our top pick for tailgating, the Lifetime 65 Quart High Performance Cooler, and our overall best pick, the Yeti 65 Tundra Cooler, both boast hard-sided designs. However, there are also soft-sided coolers that are equally capable of keeping drinks cold and preventing ice from melting. Additionally, coolers with textile exteriors tend to have better scratch resistance.
Lastly, it is crucial to consider the portability of the cooler. Large coolers can weigh almost 70 pounds when empty, which means they become significantly heavier when filled with drinks and ice. If you opt for a cooler with wheels and an extendable handle, it becomes easier to move around. However, if your cooler does not come with wheels, it is advisable to enlist the help of a friend to assist with lifting and carrying. Backpack-style coolers like our chosen option, The Get Out Cooler Bag, and soft-sided designs like the Yeti Hopper M30 Soft Cooler, often feature padded straps to provide enhanced comfort during transportation.
Advice for Buying a Soft Cooler
Our Opinion on Soft Coolers: Practicality and Best Uses
Before we delve into the details, it's important to note that soft coolers come with some compromises. Unlike hard-sided models that can keep food and drinks cold for days on end, soft coolers are only designed to keep contents cold for a few days at most. They are also generally smaller than hard coolers, typically offering around 30 liters of capacity at most. Due to these limitations, soft coolers 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 great addition to a larger hard cooler, providing extra storage space for food and drinks when camping with a larger group.
A lineup of some of our favorite soft coolers.
Additionally, it's important to distinguish between collapsible and rigid soft coolers. In our experience, flexible and packable models like the Hydro Flask 20L Insulated Tote are more versatile and functional than thick and rigid options like the Engel HD20. The collapsible models lack drainage ports and don't compress down for storage, but they are lighter and more portable. However, they don't retain ice as long as hard coolers. Although they tend to be more expensive, it's worth considering the durability, insulating capabilities, and overall capacity when deciding between collapsible and rigid designs.
Rigid designs like the Engel HD30 and ORCA Walker Tote take up more space.
Soft Cooler Sizes (Capacities)
It's important to note that not all coolers measure interior capacity in the same way. Some use cans, while others use liters, quarts, or gallons. Soft coolers are typically measured in cans, while hard coolers are measured in quarts. The largest soft cooler can fit up to 30 12-ounce cans with ice, while the smallest can fit up to 12 cans without ice (~8 cans with ice). Most frequently used soft coolers offer space for around 18-24 cans with ice, which is perfect for day trips or weekend road trips. These coolers are manageable in terms of weight and portability and won't take up much space in your vehicle or garage.
Hydro Flask's Insulated Tote (left) can fit around 10 cans with ice.
Ice Retention and Cooling Capabilities
Soft coolers don't perform as well as hard coolers when it comes to ice retention. They can typically keep contents cold for a day or two at most, depending on external factors such as air temperature, lid opening frequency, sunlight exposure, and ice-to-food ratio. Most manufacturers provide a claimed ice retention time, but it's important to take these times with a grain of salt as they may not accurately reflect real-world usage. In general, expect to get approximately half of the claimed ice retention time. Pre-chilling your cooler and using the recommended ice-to-food ratio will help maximize cooling performance.
Most manufacturers recommend a 2:1 ice-to-food ratio.
Weight and Portability
Soft coolers have the advantage of being significantly lighter than hard coolers, making them easier to carry. Most soft coolers weigh between 2 to 4 pounds, with larger designs weighing 7 pounds or more. Comfortable shoulder straps and grab handles enhance portability, and models like the YETI Hopper M30 are known for their excellent cushioning. The lighter weight of soft coolers makes them more suitable for long-distance carrying.
The YETI Hopper M30 can feel heavy and bulky when filled with food, drinks, and ice.
Construction and Durability
Durability varies among soft coolers, and a good indicator of quality is the denier (D) measurement, which indicates fabric thickness. Rigid designs like the YETI Hopper M30 and Engel HD20 have tough exteriors that hold up well to regular use. Softer and more malleable options like the Hydro Flask Insulated Tote and Cotopaxi Hielo Cooler Bag are less burly but still suitable for most casual outdoor uses. Keep in mind that price often correlates with build quality, so spending more may result in a more durable cooler.
The YETI Hopper M30 is robust and long-lasting.
Price: Affordable vs. High-End Soft Coolers
Soft coolers vary significantly in price, ranging from budget options starting at $26 to high-end models costing $350 or more. Spending more generally results in better durability, with premium designs like the YETI Hopper M30 and Engel HD20 offering thick and rigid exteriors. However, even the cheaper options on our list are decently built and suitable for casual use. If you're looking for a soft cooler for occasional use, the cheaper options will suffice. If durability and performance are a priority, investing in a higher-end model is recommended.
Engel HD30 and YETI Hopper M30 are premium designs on the market.
Opening Styles and Closure Systems
The opening style and closure system of a soft cooler greatly impact convenience and performance. Styles vary between models, with some featuring magnet-equipped openings like the YETI Hopper M30, which require effort to keep open while loading and unloading. Many zipper-equipped options, such as the RTIC Soft Pack and Engel HD20, require force to operate the zippers but are resistant to leaks. Other styles like roll-top closures are easier to open and close but provide less of a seal. Consider your priorities of convenience, security, insulation, and leak-proofing when choosing the opening style.
The YETI Hopper M30 has a strong magnetic design that is difficult to keep open.
Carrying Straps and Handles
Soft coolers are designed to be easy to carry, with padded straps and grab handles. Premium models like the YETI Hopper M30, RTIC Soft Pack Cooler, and Engel HD20 offer excellent cushioning along the straps. Budget designs may have more basic strap systems but are still decently portable. Consider the comfort of carrying over long distances when choosing a soft cooler.
ORCA's Walker Tote has a secure and intertwined carry handle.
Soft-sided backpack-style coolers offer ultimate portability, borrowing features from hiking daypacks. These backpack models are lightweight and easy to carry, but they have less insulation power than hard coolers. They are particularly useful for longer walks to picnic spots or fishing holes. However, backpack coolers tend to be more expensive for their modest storage capacity. Consider investing in a backpack cooler if you anticipate walking longer distances to your destination.
Backpack-style coolers offer the ultimate in portability.
Additional Soft Cooler Features
Pockets and Organization
Soft coolers often include at least one external pocket for storing small valuables like phones, wallets, or keys. These pockets are incredibly useful for keeping track of belongings during outdoor activities. Water-resistant pockets provide extra protection against splashes or rain. Consider models like the RTIC Soft Pack Cooler, ORCA Walker Tote, and Arctic Zone Titan Deep Freeze, which offer functional stash pockets.
The front pocket on the ORCA Walker Tote is generous.
External Attachment Points
Many soft coolers have daisy chain webbing or stretchy bungee systems for securing extra gear. These attachment points are useful for keeping valuables like keys within reach. Models like the YETI Hopper M30 and REI Co-op Cool Haul 24 feature attachment points.
Daisy chain webbing on the YETI Hopper M30 provides attachment points.
Other features to consider include 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 includes a unique vacuum valve to maximize insulation power. The ICEMULE Classic and REI Co-op Cool Haul 24 feature valve systems for adding or releasing air. The Arctic Zone Titan has a shelf for separating items, while the REI Cool Haul 24 has a removable inner liner for versatile use.
Tips for Purchasing a Soft Cooler
Choose the Right Size for Your Needs
Soft coolers are generally smaller than hard-sided coolers, but they come in a variety of sizes. Consider what you plan to put inside and where you will be taking it. Smaller options are great for hiking and picnics for two, while larger options are necessary for feeding a whole family or providing refreshments for a soccer team.
Cooler capacities are often measured in liters or cans. Keep in mind that a 24-can capacity means the cooler can only hold 24 cans without any additional items, such as ice. If you add ice, it may only fit 16 cans.
Consider Your Temperature-Retention Needs
Many soft-sided coolers excel at keeping ice intact on hot days, sometimes for more than 24 hours. While this feature may be necessary in certain situations, if you only need your cooler to keep pre-chilled items cold for a few hours during a day trip, you may not even need to use ice.
Think About Portability
Hard-sided coolers are typically designed for short-distance carrying by two people or even with wheels. However, soft coolers are often smaller and meant to be carried by one person, potentially over longer distances. When choosing a soft cooler, carefully consider its portability.
For example, a heavy and bulky option may be difficult to carry over one shoulder. Backpack-style coolers are often the most comfortable, and they are usually compact and foldable, making them easy to pack inside another bag.
Frequently Asked Questions
- How should I pack a soft cooler?
- Should I choose a soft cooler or a hard cooler?
- How much should I spend on a soft cooler?
It depends on what you are putting inside. Unlike regular hard coolers, which require double the volume of ice compared to drinks, soft-sided coolers are best packed strategically to maximize space. Arrange items carefully to fit as much as possible. If you are packing drinks and food, place the drinks at the bottom to prevent them from crushing sandwiches and fruit. If you are going on a short outing, you can skip the ice and use pre-chilled items or add a couple of ice packs.
Soft coolers are great for day trips and short outings because they can retain temperature for several hours. They are also smaller and often come in backpack or tote forms, allowing for easy carrying over longer distances. On the other hand, hard coolers can retain ice for longer periods, making them ideal for camping and multi-day trips. Large hard coolers are also suitable for hosting barbecues and events where you need to keep drinks cold for a larger group.
Soft coolers can range in price from $25 to $300. More affordable designs are usually smaller and less durable, while pricier options are larger and better at keeping contents cold. However, you can find high-quality soft-sided coolers with spacious capacities for around $100.
Almost all the coolers we tested had removable straps for cross-body carrying and handles for shorter distances. However, some models featured adjustable straps, although they were not as easily removable as the detachable clips found on the REI Cool Haul, OtterBox Trooper, and Yeti Hoppers coolers. Other models, like the REI Cool Trail Split Pack, are designed to be worn like a backpack and have permanent straps. The choice of strap design depends on personal preference. We appreciated the option to completely remove cross-body straps, as seen in the Yeti models, and even tuck in longer handles, like those on the REI Cool Haul flip-top cooler.
The primary purpose of a cooler is to keep beverages and food cold. When choosing a soft cooler, you are likely looking for both convenience and durability. Most brands highlight their ice retention rates in their product descriptions. The quality and amount of insulation in the cooler's design determine its ice retention capabilities. Higher-quality insulation leads to longer-lasting ice and colder contents. For tips on maximizing ice retention, you can refer to Yeti's guide on keeping it cold.
How We Tested Coolers
Our editors selected 48 coolers to test firsthand in the lab. We evaluated their design, insulation, durability, portability, capacity, and overall value. To assess the design, we thoroughly examined each cooler, measuring their interiors and exteriors and considering their appearance.
To determine real-life capacity, we filled each cooler with 12-ounce drink cans to see how many it could hold. We then replaced a few cans with ice and assessed portability and weight by lifting and carrying the coolers. For durability testing, we even dropped the coolers from tables.
To measure cooling abilities, we recorded temperatures right after adding ice and checked again after two and 24 hours. We also measured the amount of ice at each check-in and looked for leaks. Afterward, we drained and cleaned each cooler. For specialized models, we conducted additional sub-tests, such as assessing maneuverability for wheeled coolers, testing comfort when carrying with straps, and evaluating whether larger coolers could be used as seats for tailgates. Based on these criteria, we determined the best coolers of 2023. Additionally, we tested the chosen coolers at home for six months to evaluate their performance in real-life scenarios. The findings from these tests have been incorporated into this article.
In conclusion, when it comes to finding the best cooler for concerts, there are a few key factors to keep in mind. From considering the strap design for easy transportation, to ensuring superior ice retention and insulation, it's essential to choose a soft cooler that can hold up to the demands of a lively event. By following our expert tips and advice, you can confidently make a purchase that will keep your drinks chilled and your spirits high throughout the concert. So, don't let the summer heat dampen your experience - invest in a top-notch cooler and let the good times roll!
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