The 10 Best Soft-Sided Coolers

Apr 14, 2020

Category: Gear

Whether it’s to preserve perishable foods or simply to keep drinks nice and cold on a hot sunny day, mobile coolers are immensely helpful, must-have items for the majority of camping, tailgating, and outdoor enthusiasts. And while hard-sided coolers do generally offer more strength, have the possibility of being vacuum-insulated, and can be used for seating or an impromptu table, they’re markedly less travel-friendly than coolers of the soft-sided variety. Not only are soft-sided coolers lighter, but they typically offer more versatile carrying options, can be carried into the backcountry on foot, and can easily be crammed into spaces hard coolers couldn’t when packing, as well as compact collapsed forms when not in use.

So, while they lack the rigid protection and structural integrity of their hard-shelled cooler counterparts, soft-sided coolers can nonetheless be equally hardwearing, if made using the right construction techniques and materials. For this reason, it’s particularly important to buy the right model when shopping for a soft-sided cooler, as the lower-quality specimens not only afford inferior cooling properties, but are also flimsier, cheaply manufactured, and overall far more prone to tearing or otherwise failing while out in the field. So, with this in mind, we’ve dug into our archives, pored over dozens of product releases, and scanned the market, determining what’s out there to help bring you this guide to the 10 best soft-sided coolers.

Soft Cooler Qualities

How to determine the best from the rest

Materials: The quality of a soft cooler largely boils down to the materials used to make it (and the construction techniques used to piece them together). What separates the worthwhile bags from the rest are materials being utilized such as hardwearing high-denier nylons, PVC, and TPU. It’s also important to see if an item’s materials have been given any coatings or treatments that may further fortify the cooler.

Construction: Liquids are heavy, so consequently you want a vessel designed to carry food and drinks to be extremely durable and well-made, which is why a soft-coolers construction is of such immense importance. You’ll want to keep an eye out for soft coolers with multi-seam (and box-stitched) stitching, and heat and laser-welding, and reinforcements. These areas (combined with materials) also determine how durable a cooler is, which is important as there’s a vast spectrum of fairly delicate to extremely rugged coolers out there.

Insulation/Cooling Properties: Different soft-sided coolers offer varying levels of cooling. The areas to hone in on here are the insulation materials and technologies being used, as they will play the largest role, followed by design, and then construction. Not only is the specific type of insulation being used of upmost importance, but so too is the construction techniques, liners, and shells used in conjunction with said insulation, as these aforementioned areas will greatly influence how effective a given cooler’s insulation is (or isn’t), as different coolers offer different cooling abilities, ranging from a few hours, up to the better part of a week.

Size: Just like hard coolers, soft-sided coolers come in all shapes and sizes, from personal lunchbox-sized vessels to massive multi-hundred liter units capable of accommodating things like large deep-sea fishing catches. You’ll want to consider your intended application, how much food and/or drinks you’ll be taking, the duration of your trip, and the climate to help determine the right size.

Mobility: As previously mentioned, mobility is one of, if not the greatest advantage offered by soft-sided coolers. Not only do you want to focus on size and weight, but it’s also crucial to consider the handles or straps that a cooler has, as this will play a pivotal role in how portable it will be. The same goes for buckles, tie-downs, and other features that will bolster a cooler’s carrying or transportation options.

Storage: One of the major benefits of soft-sided coolers is that most of them can be broken down or folded up for compact storage or transport, unlike hard-sided coolers. For city-dwellers or overlanding enthusiasts with limited space, this can be an important factor. If this area concerns you, as well, then be sure to check into the collapsibility of a cooler before making your purchase.

Manufacturer: While there are (very) seldom exceptions to the rule, the vast majority of the time you can rest assured that you’re getting a solid, well-made product when you buy from a reputable manufacturer with a history of quality goods. Sticking with a gear company or outdoor brand that you trust can be particularly helpful with soft coolers, as overall quality will largely determine your experience with the product.

Polar Bear Coolers 24 Pack Original Nylon Soft Cooler

A straight-forward no-frills, tote-style soft cooler, this unassuming-looking Polar Bear product packs some impressive features, like 1,000D nylon outer shell reinforced via double-hemmed and anchor-stitched seams. Opening the cooler’s super heavy-duty YKK #10 weatherproof zippers reveals its extremely-durable anti-microbial, FDA food-grade, double-TPU-coated nylon interior liner. Separating the nylon liner and interior is 1” 10-gauge high-density foam insulation that can keep ice frozen for up to 24-hours, even in over 100-degree heat. Offered in five different colors and available in 6, 12, 24, or 48-can sizes (as well as an 18-can backpack version) — all of which also include room for anywhere from 2 to 20lbs of ice — the cooler also comes equipped with a side zippered-pocket that Polar Bear offers custom logo or monogram printing on.

Purchase: $90

IceMule Pro Insulated Backpack Cooler Bag

With incredibly rugged and transportable backpack-style coolers, IceMule has become a popular brand amongst outdoor enthusiasts, and though the company does offer more robust, feature-laden models, we’re particularly fond of Ice Mule’s streamlined and minimalistic Pro Cooler. Ultra-rugged and featuring the Florida outfit’s proprietary MuleSkin ET exterior shell and equally-hardwearing MuleSkinEV interior, the 33-liter Pro Cooler packs enough real-estate to adequately accommodate a 24-pack of cans and enough ice to keep them cold for a full 24-hours — a feat made possible by the use of the brand’s Thick PolarLayer foam insulation and a “TriFold DriTop” that traps in cold air and blocks out the heat. The cooler’s IM valve also not only allows it to be tightly compressed and rolled up when not in use, but the valve can also be used to inflate the completely waterproof cooler, giving it additional insulation as well as enough buoyancy to float.

Purchase: $130

Otter box Trooper Soft Cooler

Combing the best elements of hard and soft-sided coolers, the lightweight, soft-sided, rigid-form Trooper 12 Cooler is fitted with a hardtop with a latch-down, one-hand-operable, wide-opening panel. Combined with a rigid, heavy-duty base and top-shelf insulation, the cooler is capable of keeping ice frozen for as much as three day’s time. Bestowed with the same rugged nature and immense protection offered by Otterbox’s iPhone cases, the Trooper 12 is IP65 leakproof, resistant to chemicals and punctures, has heavy-duty DuraFlex hardware, and TPU-coated nylon construction. Backed by a lifetime warranty, the Trooper 12 also has a built-in handle and a 2” padded carrying strap. Fitted with an accessory-mounting system for (separately-sold) peripherals like Colorado company’s Drybox 3250 Series, the Trooper 12 is also sold with an Otterbox gated keychain multitool with an integrated bottle opener and seven different-sized hex drivers.

Purchase: $145

Snow Peak Soft Cooler 38

A generously-sized 38-liter soft-sided cooler adorned in the Sanjo City brand’s signature colors, the Snow Peak Soft Cooler is a well-designed and well-crafted piece of gear with a trick up its sleeve in the form of an interior bestowed with an aluminum-coated lining. The metal-lined inside enables the cooler to better reflect away heat and thereby maintain low temperatures for longer periods of time, giving it an edge over traditional insulated cooler linings. Also offered in 11 and 18-liter sizes, the cooler’s exterior is comprised of a polyvinyl siloxane nylon and is outfitted with zippered closures and adjustable padded carrying handles. And, like the majority of the outdoor-focused company’s wares, the Snow Peak Soft Cooler is protected by the brand’s lifetime manufacturer warranty.

Purchase: $150

ENGEL HD30 Waterproof Soft-Sided Cooler Tote Bag

With soft-sided coolers, the utilization of high-end materials and construction techniques don’t just allow for extremely rugged items, but can also make for some incredibly-performing offerings like ENGEL’s HD-30 Waterproof Soft-Sided Cooler Tote Bag. Featuring an 840D shell with a thermoplastic polyurethane-laminated front and back and closed-cell foam insulation, the HD-30 is entirely welded rather than sewn, allowing it to keep ice frozen for as much as four-and-a-half days, even in 90-degree temperatures. Available in four color combinations, the HD-30 is an early adopter of ENGEL’s patent-pending “Vacuum Valve,” that can be used to inflate, or deflate air from between the cooler’s interior and exterior layers. The award-winning HD-30 also has heavy-duty hardware, buckles, and bottle opener, and a padded carrying handle and ergonomic shoulder strap.

Purchase: $200

BUILT New York Welded Cooler

Another high-quality soft-sided cooler benefitting from ultra-durable fully-welded construction, this Built New York offering earns its spot on this list as a durable lightweight cooler capable of storing 18 cans along with an accompanying 10lbs of ice — cargo that can remain cold for as many as three days on account of the cooler’s FREEZE LOCK insulation which is an inch-thick on the sides and 1.5” on the bottom. Built atop an abrasion-resistant EVA bottom, this cooler sports a 1,000D polyester shell with a double-thermoplastic polyurethane-coated exterior, and heavy-duty box-stitched and reinforced carrying handles. And, on top of featuring a bottle-opener, the bag’s rolltop opening can also be left with the mouth of the bag open, allowing it to act as an impromptu party/ice bucket.

Purchase: $200

Hydro Flask Unbound 18L Soft-Sided Cooler

Part of Hydro Flask’s Unbound series, this cooler was designed as a durable item, made to stand up to vigorous adventure while still being light enough to be carried for days at a time. The lightest, durable cooler in its class, the sub-three-pound Unbound Series’ 18L Soft Cooler Tote calls on the same “TempShield” technology that’s used in Hydro Flask’s popular vacuum-insulated water bottles to keep contents cold for up to two days. A long lifespan is insured by the cooler’s waterproof 420D nylon shell, watertight YKK AQUASEAL zippers, welded seams, and compression-molded self-standing base. Though, should something happen to the cooler, Hydro Flask stands behind it with a five-year warranty. Sold in a plethora of fun monochromatic colorways, the cooler also features carrying handles, shoulder straps, and four welded nylon tie-down loops that together afford a bevy of carrying and mounting options. Capable of storing 34 cans, this 18-liter cooler’s hinged easy access top makes for convenient loading, unloading, and cleaning as well.

Purchase: $260

Pelican Elite Soft Cooler

A durable lightweight alternative to traditional hard-sided coolers that’s more than 50% lighter (compared to premium hard coolers), Pelican’s Elite Series offers heavy-duty-levels of protection without the added bulk or weight. The cooler features 840D double-coated TPU construction that houses high-density closed-cell foam insulation that keeps drinks cold or ice frozen for up to two days, making it the perfect cooler for weekend camping trips and getaways. Made in the USA, the cooler is also 100% waterproof, with a dual-buckle locking system and a 100% leakproof TIZIP zipper. Also sold in one and two-dozen-can sizes, other amenities found on the Pelican Elite Cooler — which in this, its largest size, can house 48 cans or 8 bottles of wine — include compression-molded anti-slip base, stainless steel tie-downs, and bottle opener, FDA approved food-grade material liner, a padded shoulder strap, and an included three-year warranty.

Purchase: $280

Yeti Hopper M30 Soft Cooler

In 2019, YETI introduced the Hopper M30, taking a fan-favorite cooler and, at the request of their customers, giving the item a new wide-mouth opening which utilized YETI’s then-new “HydroShield Technology” to deliver a clever magnetic two-fold closure arrangement that replaces the traditional zipper-secured configuration found on most other soft-sided colors. Other noteworthy elements and updates on the cooler included YETI’s puncture, UV, and mildew-resistant DryHide Shell and ColdCell (closed-cell) insulation, the former of which provides ample protection while the latter guarantees an ice-cold interior. Good for carrying 20 canned beverages, the M30’s construction relies on radio-frequency-welded seams that afford a fully waterproof exterior and leakproof liner. Offered in several color schemes, the Hopper M30 is also equipped with a myriad of webbing and stainless steel buckles that allow for a wide range of strap/tie-down and carrying options.

Purchase: $300

Stash C75 Inflatable Rigid Cooler

Offered the same robust level of protection provided by a hard-sided cooler, while still capable of breaking down into a highly-compact form for convenient storage or transportation when not being used, the C75 Inflatable Rigid Cooler blends hard and soft-shelled items to deliver an ultra-premium cooler that offers the best of both worlds. Made from military-spec, UV-protected vinyl on the outside supplemented with a polyurethane-reinforced, nonslip, bottom, the C75 is extremely durable, and is equipped with a bevy of heavy-duty D-rings so the cooler can be firmly secured down on vessels or while in transit. The cooler also includes a case and a high-volume pump for easy-inflating, regardless of where your adventures take you.

Purchase: $399

The 15 Best Camping Coolers

On the hunt for a cooler that isn’t confined to soft-sided models? Well be sure to check out our guide to the best camping coolers for more than a dozen of the sector’s finest food-chilling offerings.

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