Life’s a lot easier during the summer months, unless it is game day and you end up with warm, skunky beer because you chose the wrong soft-sided cooler to take to your tailgate party. Not only will your friends disown you, but no self-respecting craft beer maker will fill your growler ever again once the word gets out. You could forego this whole scenario altogether, choosing an ordinary ironside cooler, but then you lose the portability, and you’re a drinker on the go with places to go and lagers to imbibe.
Insulation is the name of the game when it comes to your soft cooler. A couple hunks of foam might do the trick if you pack in enough ice, but to keep the most picky beer fresh, you need a cooler that holds the cold without bleeding out or dripping like a sieve. You also need to look at the seams, since that’s where much of your cold is going to be lost. Lastly, since you’re going to be carting it around, it can’t be made from wicker or cheap plastic. You want something that can stand the test of time. That’s why we bring you and your ales and stouts the 8 best soft-sided coolers around.
Coleman 16-Can Soft Cooler
Pro: Completely removable liner
Con: Capacity is shockingly small
Twofer: There’s no reason you need to choose between a hard and soft-sided cooler with this offering from Coleman. The squishy outside hides a hardened interior that both adds rigidity to the overall structure of the cooler and gives you the sturdier insulation of a standard without quite as much weight. Heat welded seams and a PEVA liner with anti-microbial properties give this lots of marks in the win column, though it is a bit heavier with a lower capacity than many of its siblings.
OAGear Cooler Sports Pack
Pro: PEVA liner and bottom board
Con: Small straps and body
Mountain Man: Forget a hiking backpack that will let you tote along a suspended tree tent and a whole pizza oven. Go for the cooler bag intended to fit on your body for those arduous climbs and the celebration as kind of the hill. Able to take 20 cans plus ice, along with some energy bars in the side and front pockets, this is the escapist survival pack for the prohibition apocalypse.
Igloo 36-Can Square Marine Ultra
Pro: Large capacity
Con: Zippers made of weak, shoddy material
Water Wizard: Built for use on the high seas, this uses 1.1-inches of extruded closed cell foam to keep out not only heat, but water that can create mildew and microbial growth inside of the cooler. Any of the Igloo Marine line is good, including their true soft-side snap case, but this square model with its stiffer sides and hardware built to withstand the corrosive bombardment of salt water is as tough a customer as you’ll find outside of Captain Phillips. You can dump it overboard and so long as it’s zipped up, won’t leak inside or out.
AO Coolers Soft Cooler
Pro: Folds down or expands as needed
Con: Breaks down during hard use
Expansion Packer: The AO Cooler is a clone of the Polar Bear Cooler listed below. That isn’t to say it is a ripoff, as it can stand on its own merits. If you want something a little less expensive that isn’t quite as sturdy, but still damn good, then the AO should be your budget soft cooler choice. The ends will fold in and out in an origami style to expand and contract whether you’re taking a sixer out into the yard or a full suitcase to the lake. You’ll get a guaranteed 24 hours worth of ice retention even in 100+ degree weather, though the seams tend to bleed a bit.
Polar Bear Coolers
Pro: Come in a variety of sizes
Con: Almost no exterior pockets
Most for the Money: Yes, it looks like a camouflage diaper bag, but that won’t matter one whit when you can keep ice solid for nearly two full days. Packed to the brim with open cell insulation and a waterproof lining, this doesn’t give up cold easily. Though closed-cell foam is typically better for holding in cold and resisting water, which is why it is used in wetsuits, we found that with the combination of the 1,000-denier Cordura nylon exterior and vinyl inside, the Polar bear used the open-cell foam effectively and the price at a reasonable point.
The Backpack Cooler Chair
Pro: Canvas back and seat
Con: Awkward to carry when loaded
Sloth Pack: Ok, so portability isn’t exactly the watchword for this particular item, but for unrivaled comfort, there’s nothing better. Never again be the guy stuck on the stump or sitting on the bumper. Do your drinking in style with innovative camp chair turned unrepentant drunkard. Weighing only 13 lbs. when unfilled, the cooler chair has straps for lugging it around and can carry a full 24 pack or up to 35 lbs. worth of food. Includes an integrated table/armrest with cup holder.
Sea Angler Gear Insulated Soft Cooler Bag
Pro: Only weighs 5 lbs.
Con: Insulates against water better than heat
The Bag Man: Sea Angler has made their bones designing equipment for salty dogs who need their gear to stand up to harsh conditions as they seek out the deadliest catch. Based proudly out of South Carolina, these are always made in the USA using only the finest materials. The outside is UV protected PVC vinyl that is strictly impermeable when it comes to water. Each seam is welded shut so water can’t escape, leaks can spring, and there’s nowhere for heat to seep in. The handy shoulder strap is comfortable and the heavy-duty zippers don’t break or snag even after months of abuse.
Pro: Keeps ice for more than a day
Con: Extremely expensive
The Ice Man Cometh: Here’s the soft sided cooler that separates the men from the men with warm beer in their cooler. Just any old satchel can stand up to an hour on the porch, but what do you do when you’re going to be spending untold hours in a car on your way to the Super Bowl at the University of Phoenix Stadium? Well then, you need a full inch of ColdCell insulation on every side along with an inch and a half of coverage on the bottom and HydroLok zippers with a DryHide shell.