Ultimate Guide to High-Quality Coolers with Side Pockets: Find the Perfect Blend of Portability, Functionality, and Durability
When it comes to keeping your favorite beverages cool and refreshing during those hot summer picnics or camping trips, having a high-quality cooler is a must. And if you're tired of constantly rummaging through your cooler to find that one essential item, then a cooler with side pockets might just be the perfect solution for you. In this article, we will take a closer look at the best coolers on the market that come equipped with side pockets, ensuring not only excellent functionality and portability but also easy access to your essential items. From assessing their portability, weight, and functionality, to examining their ice retention and insulation capabilities, strap design, durability, and leakproof features, we will provide you with all the information you need to make an informed decision. So read on to discover what to look for in a soft cooler that offers side pockets, and learn more about why these coolers are a game-changer for outdoor enthusiasts.
Best of the Rest
We utilized the Orca Walker Cooler ($220) for our tailgating adventures at trailheads following hikes and park BBQs. This cooler proves to be exceptional for single-day trips. Our team was particularly impressed by the tough 840-denier textile exterior, which is highly durable and resistant to damage.
The insulation consists of a metal-coated plastic blend that effectively preserves the ice and perishable items. We loved the soft interior liner and the waterproof zipper that prevents any leaks from the top.
Although the two side handles are not the most comfortable to grip, and we would prefer them to be positioned differently from the attachment points for the shoulder straps, the center magnetic handle provides a smooth and convenient grip. However, when the handgrip is detached into two separate pieces, it becomes uncomfortable to hold.
Based on our ice retention test, the Walker Cooler can keep ice frozen for up to 70 hours. Additionally, this cooler has the capacity to hold 20 12-ounce cans.
We also tested the Orca Walker Tote ($197), which is equally well-made but features a slightly different style. It maintained the ice for nearly 28 hours. For more information, refer to the full review.
- Size: 14.5″ x 11″ x 13.25″
- Capacity: 33 L
- Weight: 1,633 g (3.6 lbs.)
- Ice retention test: ~3 days
- The waterproof top zipper and seams ensure no leaks
- Convenient small stretch exterior pocket
- Bungee cords to secure items
- The magnetic split handle is uncomfortable when divided as two straps
Hydro Flask Day Escape Soft Tote Cooler
The Hydro Flask Day Escape Soft Tote Cooler ($150) offers a sleek, lightweight, and durable design. We utilized this cooler for our park BBQ adventures and were pleased with how comfortable it was to carry over the shoulder.
The waterproof 600-denier polyester shell exterior is easy to clean. The zipper is completely watertight with welded seams, ensuring no leakage. However, one-handed zipper operation can be challenging, and we often needed to use the side handles to open or close it.
During our ice retention test, we observed significant condensation on the exterior of the cooler. The ice melted at a slightly faster rate compared to other coolers, lasting for about 60 hours, but still surpassing the brand's stated 36-hour performance. The Escape cooler has a capacity of accommodating 24 12-ounce cans.
- Size: 12.2″ x 20.5″ x 7.8″
- Capacity: 18 L
- Weight: 1,134 g (2.5 lbs.)
- Ice retention test: ~2.5 days
- Comfortable tote straps for shoulder carrying
- Waterproof zipper
- Completely leakproof cooler
- The exterior pocket is great for a phone but lacks a zipper for security
- No integrated pockets
The Mountainsmith Sixer ($35) served as an excellent lunchtime cooler for our Colorado-based electrician and mountain biker tester. They packed it with a canned drink, sandwich, fruit, and chocolate. The cooler's shape and size made it easy to fit into a cluttered work truck.
Both the interior and exterior of the cooler are easy to clean, and we appreciate the vintage look. The haul handle is ergonomically designed and comfortable to grip. However, ice melted quickly on hot days, and with limited space in the cooler, food items can become moist. Nevertheless, the seamless liner effectively contained the water and remained leak-free.
Based on our ice retention test, this cooler can keep ice frozen for 25 hours. This cooler has the capacity to hold one dozen 12-ounce cans.
- Size: 11″ x 11″ x 6″
- Capacity: 12 L
- Weight: 499 g (1.1 lbs.)
- Ice retention test: ~25 hours
- Two tote straps comfortably slide over the shoulder
- Perfect for park concerts
- Zippered interior mesh pocket inside cooler lid for utensils
- Two flat pockets on the side
- We would prefer a more durable lightweight removable shoulder strap
- The cooler's bottom absorbs moisture
- The lid's zipper is not waterproof
Igloo Pursuit Tote
The Igloo Pursuit Tote ($120) successfully kept our sparkling water, hummus, pepperoni, peppers, and arugula fresh during our car camping trips and while crewing the Hardrock 100. Its lightweight design and flexible fabric made it easy to carry from the van to the hotel porch.
The cooler can accommodate a significant amount of items or be compressed for storage. Its slim shape prevents bouncing around and ensures comfortable shoulder carrying.
We particularly appreciate the exterior front zipper pocket. However, we found the side mesh water bottle pockets flimsy and prone to snagging. Additionally, the wide rim of the top entry, although providing easy access, made it challenging to dry out the cooler.
In terms of ice retention, this tote is a reliable option for running errands and short trips, but it's recommended to cool the bag before use. According to our ice retention test, this cooler can preserve ice for 40 hours. It can hold up to 30 12-ounce cans.
- Size: 22.4″ x 3.7″ x 15.7″
- Capacity: 21 L
- Weight: 907 g (2 lbs.)
- Ice retention test: ~1.5 days
- Two tote straps comfortably slide over the shoulder
- Padded removable shoulder strap
- Ice melts quickly in a hot vehicle or under sunny conditions
- The top zipper is not waterproof and can leak
- A fair amount of condensation appears on the cooler's exterior
REI Co-op Cool Haul Soft Cooler
Our team enthusiastically praises the REI Co-op Cool Haul Soft Cooler ($100), which proved to be a reliable companion during our whitewater rafting trips on Colorado's Gunnison River, car camping escapades, and while crewing the Hardrock 100. This cooler is well-suited for a duo.
The cooler's external ripstop nylon material is exceptionally sturdy and easy to clean. The insulated polyester liner inside the cooler is removable and durable. It can be effortlessly pulled out for cleaning.
When it comes to ice retention, this cooler performed admirably under sunny conditions and exceeded the capabilities of other coolers in our test. The sealed seams prevent any leakage. The two-way zipper provides convenient top access, and the cube shape allows it to fit into tight spaces on boats or in truck beds.
Based on our ice retention test, the REI Co-op Haul can keep ice frozen for up to 60 hours. To provide perspective on its size, this cooler can hold one dozen 12-ounce cans.
- Size: 14″ x 11″ x 11″
- Capacity: 15 L
- Weight: 1,415 g (3.12 lbs.)
- Ice retention test: ~2.5 days
- Included daisy chain webbing and bottle opener
- Interior zippered pocket inside the lid keeps food items above the ice
- Strong and smooth side and top handles
- Helpful cooling tips listed inside the pack's lid
- The cube shape may bounce off your back when using the shoulder strap
- The top zipper is not waterproof, so caution is needed to prevent leaks
- The exterior front pocket lacks a zipper to secure items
KULA Soft Cooler
The 5-gallon KULA Softy Cooler ($240) stands out with its unique and fun shape. It has a round design with a zipper top, while still maintaining excellent construction quality. Despite its playful appearance, the exterior is heavy-duty. However, the cooler remains relatively lightweight for easy portability.
For those seeking a smaller option, there is a 2.5-gallon variant, which is more suitable for individual or small-group day outings or to fit into compact vessels like SUPs.
According to reviews, the ice retention of this cooler is impressive even during road trips in 90-degree Texas heat, offshore fishing trips, and full-day boating in Florida's hot and humid conditions. The ice remains usable even on the following day.
- Size: 15.25″ x 14.5″
- Capacity: 18 L
- Weight: 2,041 g (4.5 lbs.)
- Ice retention test: Unavailable
- Ample daisy chain attachment points
- Stylish design
- Does not fit or fill angular corners
- The zipper can be difficult to pull, but there is included lubricant for assistance
- Some users desire an extra inch of height for fitting a bottle of wine
Soft coolers are designed with ease of transport in mind, offering features such as backpack straps, cross-body straps, adjustable handles, and lightweight materials. In comparison, hard coolers typically have sturdy handles but are bulkier and heavier than their soft counterparts, making them more difficult to carry and transport.
As mentioned previously, hard coolers are constructed using heavier and more durable materials, resulting in a greater overall weight compared to the fabrics utilized in soft coolers. When considering the weight category, it's clear that soft coolers emerge as the winner. This is particularly advantageous when engaging in activities such as rafting or using a motorized vehicle, where weight is less of a concern. Soft coolers provide better portability and are ideal for carrying over longer distances without much strain.
The lightweight nature of soft coolers allows for a more versatile range of functionality. They are compact in size, making them easy to store in boats, fit snugly in the back of cars, and pack for outings at parks or the beach. Soft coolers are highly effective when you need to quickly pack a few sandwiches and drinks for a post-hike break or bring extra snacks for a mid-afternoon concert.
On average, soft coolers are more affordable than their hard cooler counterparts. For instance, if you're considering a Yeti Cooler, the soft-sided options recommended in our Best Camping Coolers guide are priced lower than the hardsided Yeti Tundra or Yeti Roadie, which are our top picks.
If price is the main factor guiding your decision between a soft-sided or hard-sided cooler, take a look at the Coleman Xtreme cooler we recommend in our Best Camping Coolers guide. It provides up to 5 days of ice retention and is priced the same, if not lower, than most of the soft coolers featured in our guide.
We conducted side-by-side testing of various soft-sided coolers in Western Maine.
In a close contest, the Yeti Hopper M30 emerged as the winner in terms of best and longest ice retention, closely followed by the REI Cool Haul and REI Cool Trail Split Pack. However, it's worth noting that both REI options showed slight water leakage, while the Yeti Hopper M30 maintained a watertight seal.
The primary purpose of a cooler is to keep your food and beverages cold. When considering a soft cooler, convenience and resilience are typically the key factors in play. Most brands prominently display their ice retention rates in their product descriptions—for example, 10 hours of ice retention in direct sunlight at 80 degrees. In our article, we provide both the manufacturer's claims and our own trial results for ice retention in a table at the beginning.
The key to ice retention lies in the quality and amount of insulation incorporated into the soft cooler's design. Naturally, higher-quality insulation comes at a higher price, but it also ensures longer-lasting ice and consistently cold contents.
For tips on maximizing ice retention, take a look at these guidelines from Yeti.
Nearly all the coolers we tested featured removable straps for cross-body carrying and handles for shorter distances. However, a few models, such as the Hydro Flask Carry Out cooler bag, had adjustable straps that were not as easily removable as the detachable clips on the REI Cool Haul, OtterBox Trooper, or Yeti Hoppers. The REI Cool Trail Split Pack, on the other hand, is designed to be worn like a backpack and has permanent straps. Ultimately, which strap design is preferred is a matter of personal choice. We particularly appreciated the ability to completely remove the cross-body straps, as demonstrated by the Yeti coolers, and the option to tuck in the longer handles, similar to the REI Cool Haul flip-top model.
When it comes to soft coolers, storage options are highly valued. Many of the top soft coolers featured in this article come with side pockets and front pockets for storing cell phones, wallets, straps, or even a change of clothes. While pockets may not be as critical as ice retention or capacity, they undoubtedly add convenience to the overall user experience.
It's essential for the exterior of your cooler to be as rugged as your adventures. Look for coolers made from abrasion-resistant materials like high-denier nylon (such as the 600-denier Hydro Flask Carry Out) or the waterproof and durable Hypalon found in Yeti Hoppers. In addition to sturdy materials, reinforced straps, robust zippers, and strong handles are integral features that ensure long-lasting durability.
We extensively tested soft coolers side-by-side during road trips, canoe trips, picnics, and more from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
To ensure we only reviewed the best coolers for our snack-packing adventurers, we conducted extensive research to identify the most popular candidates in the soft cooler market. We grouped the top contenders into 6 categories: Best Overall Soft Cooler, Best Soft Cooler for Boats, Best Soft Cooler for Picnics and the Beach, Best Backpack Cooler, Best Soft Cooler for Road Trips, and Best Budget Soft Cooler. These 6 winners received positive reviews across multiple platforms, including reputable sources such as Outdoor Gear Lab, People, and Popular Mechanics. Additionally, these coolers received high praise and recommendations from everyday users on platforms such as REI, Walmart, and Amazon. We also used FakeSpot to verify the authenticity of reviews and ensure they were not falsified or tampered with.
Following a thorough review of these third-party sources, real customer feedback, and our own expertise in testing these soft coolers, we narrowed down our list to the top 6 best soft coolers.
To compete in each category, each soft cooler had to meet standardized criteria. The winners had to be affordable, durable, possess excellent ice retention, and remain leak-free.
From there, we further refined our criteria based on specific needs. For example, when determining the Best Backpack Cooler, we prioritized comfort for carrying during hikes without compromising on ice retention or leak prevention.
We conducted side-by-side testing of various soft coolers in Western Maine.
The vast array of soft coolers available on the market can be overwhelming, and we wanted to give lesser-known brands a fair chance. To achieve this, our testing focused on key features, aesthetics, and reputation. We narrowed our criteria to these 6 points:
While not critical for a short picnic outing, ensuring your cooler remains leak-free during an all-day affair or a road trip is crucial. Some of the coolers we tested excelled in this area and demonstrated exceptional leak resistance even when subjected to vigorous shaking. However, there were coolers that leaked when placed on the ground or tilted on their sides. We rigorously tested coolers in various positions to identify those that maintained a secure seal and those that exhibited leakage.
Although we couldn't test every size of every soft cooler brand, our aim was to evaluate the medium or larger sizes whenever possible. Our top picks include products that come in a range of sizes to accommodate different group sizes, activities, or available storage space.
What You Should Know About Soft Coolers
Why Buy A Soft-Sided Cooler?
The size and lightweight construction of soft coolers, along with additional features such as padded handles, bottle openers, or backpack straps, offer greater flexibility compared to traditional hard-sided coolers. Soft coolers are particularly suitable for activities like picnics in the park during the summer or day hikes.
Unlike hard-sided coolers, soft coolers with pliable sides can be easily stored when not in use. Many soft coolers can be collapsed for storage purposes after being emptied and wiped clean.
What To Look For In A Soft Cooler
A soft cooler with wheels is easier to transport compared to one with only handles.
When shopping for a soft cooler, it's essential to look for leak-resistant or waterproof closures. Additionally, coolers with closed-cell foam insulation should be prioritized over those that utilize other cooling methods. A puncture-resistant exterior material is also crucial to withstand casual or more intense abuse.
While additional features like external pockets for carrying utensils are a plus, they should not compromise cooling capability or durability.
How Much Ice Should I Use?
To assess the best soft coolers, we filled each one with ice to determine how long the ice would last.
According to our research and experiments, an ideal ice-to-food ratio in a cooler, by volume, is two parts ice or ice packs to one part food. For example, if you're chilling a gallon of milk, you should use two gallons of ice to maintain its coolness. Using more ice allows for better food preservation over an extended period.
To preserve food for more than 24 hours, a combination of ice chunks and ice chips is recommended. The chips provide immediate cooling, while the chunks ensure long-term freshness for your food.
How Can I Keep My Cooler Cold Longer?
- Pre-cool your cooler: If you store your soft cooler in a hot garage, bring it indoors to reach room temperature. This will prevent wasting ice in an attempt to lower the cooler's temperature.
- Avoid using melting ice: Ice that is already melting won't keep your soft cooler as cold as fresh ice straight from the freezer. The same applies to ice packs.
- Keep it in the shade: When traveling, keeping your soft cooler in the shade whenever possible is an effective way to prolong the coolness of your food and drinks.
- Keep it closed: Opening your cooler as infrequently as possible helps maintain colder temperatures inside for a longer duration.
Can I Use Dry Ice In A Soft Cooler?
While most soft coolers function best when cooled by ice packs or cubes, dry ice can also be used in many of them. Dry ice provides lower temperatures than regular ice and is an excellent choice when you need to freeze items such as ice cream or meat rather than just chill them.
Aside from its colder temperature, the main advantage of dry ice is that it evaporates as it warms up instead of melting, eliminating the need to deal with water puddles.
However, there are a few downsides to using dry ice. It doesn't last as long as regular ice, and as it constantly emits carbon dioxide, it's best to store it outdoors or in a well-ventilated area.
In most cases, the recommended method is to place dry ice at the bottom of the cooler, wrapped in newspaper, with items requiring freezing or extra cold temperatures on top. Items that only need to be chilled can be placed closer to the top of the cooler.
In conclusion, when it comes to choosing the best high-quality cooler with side pockets, there are plenty of options to consider. From portability and functionality to durability and leakproof design, each aspect plays a crucial role in making the right choice. While factors like weight and ice retention may take precedence for some, others may prioritize the availability of different sizes and capacities. Ultimately, finding the perfect soft cooler boils down to personal preferences and needs. So, before you embark on your next adventure, make sure to keep these key points in mind and invest in a cooler that will keep your drinks cold, your food fresh, and your outings memorable.
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