Unlock the Secrets to Finding the Ultimate Insulated Cooler Bag

Looking to keep your drinks and snacks cold on the go? Look no further! Whether you're planning a beach day, a picnic in the park, or a road trip, finding the best insulated cooler bag is essential. With so many options out there, it can be overwhelming to choose the perfect soft cooler that meets all your needs. But fear not! In this article, we'll provide you with expert advice and insider tips to help you navigate the world of soft coolers. Get ready to discover the ultimate companion for all your cooling needs!

Advice for Buying a Soft Cooler

Our Perspective on Soft Coolers: Practicality and Best Uses

Before delving into the details, it's important to understand that soft coolers have their limitations. Unlike hard-sided coolers 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 most. Due to these limitations, soft coolers are not the best choice for long trips. However, they are ideal for weekend getaways, day trips to the park or beach, tailgating, boating, or quick errands like grocery shopping. They can also serve as a complementary addition to a larger hard-sided cooler, providing extra storage space for food and drinks when camping with a larger group.

Soft coolers (lined up in front of REI tent)A lineup of some of our favorite soft coolersAdditionally, it's important to differentiate between collapsible soft coolers and rigid soft coolers. In our experience, collapsible models like the Hydro Flask 20 L Insulated Tote are more versatile and functional compared to thick and rigid options like the Engel HD20. Collapsible models lack drainage ports to remove excess water after ice has melted and cannot be compressed for storage when not in use (a major advantage of soft coolers). Additionally, they do not retain ice for as long as hard-sided coolers. Collapsible models are generally more expensive as well, which raises the question of why one would not simply purchase a similarly priced hard cooler. While rigid designs like the Engel are still lighter and more portable than hard coolers, it's important to consider the trade-off in terms of durability, insulation capabilities, and overall capacity when making your decision.

Soft coolers (rigid Engel HD30 and ORCA Walker Tote)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. In the case of soft coolers, "cans" is the most commonly used measurement (hard-sided coolers are generally listed in quarts). In this article, we have used the can measurement whenever available. However, there may still be some discrepancies, particularly concerning whether or not ice is included in the estimate. We have made an effort to clarify this in the write-ups and comparison table above. It's important to keep this distinction in mind when shopping for a soft cooler.

For reference, the largest option mentioned above is the RTIC Soft Pack Cooler, which can hold up to 30 12-ounce cans with ice. The smallest option is Cotopaxi's Hielo 12L Cooler Bag, which can fit up to 12 cans without ice (approximately 8 cans with ice according to Cotopaxi's estimation). Based on our experience, many of the most commonly used soft coolers offer space for around 18-24 cans with ice. These designs are suitable for day trips or weekend road trips, manageable in terms of weight and portability, and do not take up excessive space in your vehicle or garage.

Soft coolers (size comparison)Hydro Flask's Insulated Tote (left) can fit around 10 cans with ice

Ice Retention and Cooling Capabilities

As mentioned earlier, soft coolers are not as effective at retaining ice compared to hard coolers. Most soft coolers can only keep contents cold for a day or two in ideal conditions. Various factors influence ice retention, including the ambient temperature, frequency of lid openings, exposure to sunlight, and ice-to-food ratio (most brands recommend a 2:1 ratio). For optimal performance, you can pre-chill your cooler by filling it with ice for a few hours before loading it up. When you're ready to go, replace the pre-chilled packs or ice with fresh ones at the recommended ratio, along with your drinks and food.

Soft cooler (ice and beverages inside REI Co-op Cool Haul)Most manufacturers recommend a 2:1 ice-to-food ratioMost cooler manufacturers provide a "claimed ice retention" specification in their product listings (although YETI is one major brand that does not). The times listed in our article range from as low as 4 hours for the Hydro Flask 20 L Insulated Tote to three or four days for Engel's HD20 (24 hours is generally the standard). However, it's important to approach these claims with caution, as they often seem overly optimistic due to exceptional testing conditions (such as keeping the cooler closed indoors in cool temperatures). In practice, you can expect to get approximately half of the claimed ice retention time in real-world scenarios, give or take a bit depending on your specific circumstances.

Soft cooler (cooling tips inside REI Cool Haul)Helpful cooling tips inside REI Co-op's Cool Haul 24

Weight and Portability

One significant advantage of soft coolers over hard-sided models is their lighter weight and increased portability. As shown in our comparison table, most soft coolers weigh between 2 to 4 pounds, while the largest and more robust designs can weigh 7 pounds or more. For instance, the YETI Hopper M30 is the heaviest model on our list 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 options. Additionally, soft coolers are equipped with comfortable shoulder straps and/or grab handles for easy transportation. Premium models often have well-cushioned straps, such as the YETI Hopper M30, RTIC's Soft Pack Cooler, and Engel's HD20. Although budget-friendly designs might have simpler strap systems, like those from AO Coolers, Coleman, and Arctic Zone, they are still reasonably portable and adequate for short walks from your car. Backpack-style coolers, such as the Hydro Flask 20 L Day Escape, offer the easiest portability and can be worn like a regular daypack (more details on these below).

Soft cooler (carrying YETI Hopper M30 into van)Weighing 7 pounds when empty, the YETI Hopper M30 can feel heavy and bulky with food, drinks, and ice

Construction and Durability

Durability varies among soft coolers, and a good way to distinguish between models is by looking at the denier (D) measurement, which indicates fabric thickness. Rigid designs like YETI's Hopper M30 and Engel's HD20 (both 840D) are among the most rugged. These designs have tough exteriors that provide confidence even when in contact with sharp objects, and they have shown little signs of wear during our testing. RovR's new TravelR 30 also stands out with its sturdy TPU base and welded seams, which contribute to a highly durable feel. 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 feel less rugged but are still reasonably well-made for most casual outdoor activities.

Soft cooler (YETI Hopper M30 closeup of base)YETI's top-end Hopper M30 is undeniably robust and long-lastingAdditionally, it's worth noting that price and build quality often go hand in hand. Budget options like the AO Coolers 24 Pack Canvas, Coleman 24-Hour 16-Can Cooler, and Arctic Zone Titan Deep Freeze generally have a lower-quality feel compared to more premium models. While these budget options may suffice for casual day trips or occasional use, those who frequently use their coolers outdoors, particularly near water, will likely benefit from investing in higher-quality options.

Soft cooler (carrying AO Coolers 24 Pack Canvas)The AO Coolers 24 Pack Canvas is reasonably well-made considering its priceWaterproof Soft Coolers

While many soft coolers offer highly water-resistant zippers or openings, very 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 completely submerged in water. This makes it ideal for activities like kayaking or paddleboarding where it may come into contact with a significant amount of water. It even floats, providing added assurance in rougher conditions. RTIC's Soft Pack also falls into this category. While it is not fully waterproof, its durable shell and leakproof design should hold up well in case of accidental submersion.

 

Price: Budget vs. Premium Soft Coolers

The price range for soft coolers is quite broad, ranging from as low as $26 for the Coleman 24-Hour 16-Can Cooler to $350 for the top-end YETI M30. The higher price tag is generally associated with increased durability, as seen in models like the M30, Hopper Flip 12, Engel HD20, and OtterBox Trooper 20, all featuring thick, rigid exteriors that withstand long-term use. However, even the more affordable options on our list are reasonably well-made and will serve the purpose for beach days or picnics on the go, which may be sufficient for many consumers.

Soft coolers (premium Engel HD30 and YETI Hopper M30)Two of the most premium designs on the market: Engel's HD30 and YETI's Hopper M30Furthermore, unlike hard coolers, the difference in ice retention between soft coolers is not significant, making it challenging to justify the premium price tag for increased cooling capabilities. Though these high-end models have their appeal for those seeking the portability of soft coolers without sacrificing build quality, most users will find it more worthwhile to invest in a hard-sided cooler if their budget allows. While hard coolers may be heavier, the improved cooling performance and overall functionality outweigh this drawback for many consumers.

Soft coolers (carrying REI Cool Haul and Hydro Flask Insulated Tote)Affordable options 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 cooler significantly impact convenience and overall performance. These styles can vary significantly between models. For instance, the YETI Hopper M30 has a magnet-equipped opening that is extremely rigid and requires significant effort to keep open while loading and unloading items. In fact, opening the YETI can be so challenging that there are dedicated YouTube videos providing tips on keeping it propped open (including using your own elbow for support). Many soft coolers with zippers, such as RTIC's Soft Pack and Engel's HD20, also require substantial force to maneuver the zippers. However, the RTIC's wraparound design makes it easier to prop the lid open, and both zipper styles are generally resistant to leaks.

Soft cooler (magnetic opening on YETI Hopper M30)The YETI Hopper M30's strong magnetic design is difficult to keep openA couple 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 secures closed with strong Velcro. However, it's important to note that while these styles are easier to open and close, they provide a less secure seal compared to zippered designs (meaning they are more prone to leaks), and they often do not insulate as well as a result. Ultimately, many individuals are willing to sacrifice some usability for the added security, insulation, and leak-proofing of a more robust opening system.

Soft coolers (different opening styles)Opening styles vary considerably and have a significant impact on convenience and insulation capabilities

Carrying Straps and Handles

As mentioned previously, soft coolers are much easier to transport than hard-sided coolers. In addition to their lighter weight, they typically come with padded straps and thick grab handles for solo carrying over your shoulder or by hand. Premium models often have well-cushioned straps, as seen on the YETI Hopper M30, RTIC's Soft Pack Cooler, and Engel's HD20. Budget options with simpler strap systems, such as those from AO Coolers, Coleman, and Arctic Zone, may not be as comfortable for longer distances but are still reasonably portable and suitable for short walks from your vehicle. Backpack-style coolers, like the Hydro Flask 20 L Day Escape, offer the easiest handling with full harnesses that can be worn like a regular backpack (more details on these below).

Soft cooler (carry handle on ORCA Walker Tote)We appreciate the intertwined carry handle on the ORCA Walker Tote secured with magnets

Backpack Coolers

For ultimate portability, soft-sided backpack-style coolers are the way to go. These designs draw inspiration from hiking daypacks and feature shoulder straps, padded back panels, and external pockets for additional gear storage. Like traditional soft coolers, 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 coolers. For example, the Hydro Flask 20 L Day Escape is rated to keep ice frozen for up to 36 hours. Backpack coolers tend to be more expensive considering their relatively small storage capacities and all-around performance (the Day Escape is an average-priced option at $200). However, if you have to walk more than half a mile to your favorite picnic spot or fishing location, the investment may be worthwhile. For more information, refer to our article on the best backpack coolers.

Soft cooler (clipping sternum strap on backpack cooler)Backpack-style coolers offer ultimate portability

Additional Soft Cooler Features

Pockets and Organization

Many soft coolers come with at least one exterior pocket for storing small valuables like phones, wallets, or keys. In our experience, these pockets are incredibly useful for keeping track of belongings during day trips to state parks or beach outings. Water-resistant pockets are particularly desirable as they provide an extra layer of protection against splashes or precipitation. Some models that feature functional stash pockets include the RTIC Soft Pack Cooler, ORCA Walker Tote, and Arctic Zone Titan Deep Freeze.

Soft cooler (phone in front pocket of ORCA Walker Tote)We love the generously sized front pocket on ORCA's Walker ToteExternal Attachment Points

Numerous soft coolers, including the YETI Hopper M30 and REI Co-op Cool Haul 24, feature daisy chain webbing on the exterior to secure extra gear. This area is useful for storing valuable items like keys within easy reach (by using a carabiner, for example). We particularly like the stretchy bungee system on the Arctic Zone Titan Deep Freeze, which makes it effortless to secure a lightweight jacket or small towel on top.

Soft cooler (daisy chain webbing on YETI Hopper M30)External attachment points are great for securing additional gearOther Features

A few additional features to consider include integrated bottle openers and vacuum ports for adding or releasing air. The Engel HD20, Arctic Zone Titan Deep Freeze, and REI Co-op Cool Haul 24 come with built-in bottle openers. The HD20 also includes a unique vacuum valve that allows you to remove excess air before use to maximize insulation performance. ICEMULE's Classic has a similar valve system, but the process involves adding air to enhance cooling capabilities and buoyancy or removing air for compact storage. Two notable features are the Arctic Zone Titan's shelf for separating hard and soft items and the REI Cool Haul 24's removable inner liner, which allows you to use the shell separately as a tote. 

In conclusion, when it comes to selecting the best insulated cooler bag, it's crucial to consider the specific needs and lifestyle of the user. Whether it's for a weekend camping trip or a day at the beach, a soft cooler that offers durability, insulation, and ample storage capacity is paramount. By taking into account the factors such as size, material, and insulation technology, one can make an informed decision and ensure that their drinks and food stay chilled and ready for enjoyment, no matter the adventure ahead. So don't settle for subpar coolers that leave you with lukewarm beverages or melted ice – invest in a top-quality insulated cooler bag and experience the convenience and satisfaction of having your refreshments perfectly chilled whenever and wherever you want them.

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