The Best Soft Coolers of 2021 | GearJunkie

2022-03-11 10:14:52 By : Ms. Amanda Guo

August 26, 2021 |  By Morgan Tilton

A soft cooler is a lightweight, easy-to-transport solution for preserving fare on road trips, boats, campouts, trailheads, and park picnics. Here are our favorite iceboxes for the outdoors and adventure.

We’ll always have a spot in our gear closet for a hard cooler, but soft coolers have proven an equal utility. These designs weigh less, and are easy for one person to grab and quickly transport from the deck to the truck bed. There’s a broad range of sizes and softness — some of these designs are actually very rigid, stout, and stackable. Others are fully collapsible and pliable, and we celebrate the space-saving option for storage.

For day-long roams, weekend adventures, road trips, or running errands, these soft coolers kept our provisions chilled and fit the bill. For more information about soft coolers, check out our buyer’s guide and FAQ at the end of this article. Otherwise, scroll through to see all of our recommended buys or jump to the category you’re looking for:

The OtterBox Trooper 20 Cooler ($250) bummed us out at first because it lacks a comfortable handle on the lid like its littler discontinued version. But it aptly redeemed itself as hardy, dependable, and easy to operate.

We took this cooler on a two-person, 3,400-mile road trip from Colorado to Washington for ski mountaineering followed by ocean surfing. Then we linked up river surf spots through Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, camping along the way.

The cooler was hauled in and out of the open truck bed countless times, faced torrential downpours, withstood sunshine, didn’t collapse under other stacked gear, and sat in mud at camp. The cooler didn’t take up too much space in the backseat, either. When posted up, we used the cooler for day trips. But on the road, we packed it full of beverages and snacks.

This cooler’s size, shape, and rigidity are convenient. The wide opening is appreciated for quick, easy access. The leakproof seal prevented melted ice from dripping out, and no rain seeped inside during storms.

The flat backside wall alleviates bounce when we’re using the shoulder strap. We appreciate the water-resistant exterior pocket, which is easy to open and close. We miss the top handle, but the two side grab handles are robust and ergonomic.

We were surprised how well the cooler retained ice despite being out in the elements, due to the premium thermal insulation. The heavy-duty base also increased the chill factor while stabilizing the cooler during transport and beneath items. The staunch base also allowed us to set the cooler on variable ground and was easy to clean.

According to our ice retention test, this cooler is capable of holding ice for up to 78 hours, which is what the brand claims. To put the size in perspective, this cooler could fit 28 12-ounce cans.

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We took the YETI Hopper M30 Soft Cooler ($300) on a Southwest Colorado road trip to Hardrock 100 to race volunteer and car camp. We also used the cooler for picnics at the park.

The shoulder strap is really comfortable to slide over the shoulder, doesn’t slip around, and holds the cooler close to your side to prevent bounce. The exterior high-density fabric shell feels tough and is resistant to punctures as well as mildew. It’s a bonus that it doesn’t sweat like a few of the other soft coolers.

We were blown away by the power of the HydroShield closure, which uses magnets to create a leak-resistant seal along the top. No water can exit the tote. When the cooler is open, the mouth is wide.

We also give kudos to the closed-cell foam insulation of the tote. For the ice retention test, the cubes melted after 4 days. Inevitably, we had to be strategic with how we packed things, due to the tall, slim shame. This cute cooler could fit 20 12-ounce cans.

We have two critiques. There are two buckles that snap across the magnetic closure, and we wish those were more adjustable and easier to operate. If the cooler is really packed to the brim, we can’t close them. Then, we’d love to see YETI upgrade the cooler with an attachment system that keeps the magnetic closure open when you’re loading the cooler.

As is, the closure slams shut unless you have two hands on — but then you can’t grab your foodstuff. The powerful closure is also an issue for cleaning the cooler and letting the inside dry and air out. The only thing we could find that would keep the cooler open was a 5-pound water jug, and two people were needed to get it inside the cooler.

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The Arctic Zone Titan Deep Freeze Bucket Tote ($45) is a great budget cooler that keeps our ice cold for long durations. A trio took the cooler fly fishing on Colorado’s Gunnison River, carrying along water and various canned beverages. The temps that day hovered around 80 degrees.

Despite being left in the car for a full day following the river outing, the cooler still had ice and felt cold. That well-founded retention is thanks to the brand’s blend of proprietary insulation, interior radiant barrier, and thick base made of three layers of SuperFoam. We also found the water- and stain-resistant exterior very durable. The inside was easier to wipe clean.

The shape and weight feel easy to move around, and the handles are comfortable. We appreciate all of the pockets to help us keep odds and ends organized. There are two zippered pockets, including one that fits a phone, and two huge broad mesh pockets.

According to our ice retention test, this cooler is capable of holding ice for up to 70 hours. This cooler could fit two dozen 12-ounce cans.

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One of our favorite products was the Snow Peak Soft Cooler ($160). Even given the large size, it was still very comfortable to transport, due to the malleable, soft walls. With the simple, wide handles Velcroed together, we could sling the cooler over our shoulders when it was fully loaded.

A hard cooler this size would require two hands to move. The flexible walls allow us to flatten and fold the cooler for easy storage, saving us space in a tight apartment.

The exterior is made of synthetic plastic and nylon, so it’s not resilient for a rugged whitewater trip but is suitable for basecamp. There’s ample space to carry multiple meals for several people. The insulated walls have an interior aluminum coat that helps trap cold air, and the ice retention is adequate for single- and two-day adventures.

The cooler did well on a weekend road trip to climb Colorado’s Colorado’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains and camp out but wouldn’t be able to retain ice for long durations. Our ice retention test corroborated that experience, showing the cooler is capable of holding ice for nearly 2.5 days.

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The Mountainsmith Takeout ($25) accompanied us on a standup paddleboard session down Colorado’s Slate River, a mellow run sans whitewater. This cute cooler carried and chilled several cans of microbrews and several sparkling waters. We also use it day to day on drives to bring along lunch, snacks, and beverages.

The design is super lightweight and felt comfortable to carry around. It was easy to sling over our shoulders with the removable strap. The material dried surprisingly fast after it wetted while paddling. This design is too small for an all-day adventure, but for a lunchbox or outing, it’s great. And the wide shape allows easy access to the grub inside the cooler.

According to the ice retention test, this cooler can retain ice for 21 hours. To put the size in perspective, this cute cooler could fit six 12-ounce cans.

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If you have limited storage space, consider the REI Co-op Pack-Away Soft Cooler ($50). This origami-inspired design collapses and folds flat when it’s not a cube or a tote. When transformed into a box or bag shape, the cooler is light, nimble, and malleable. No other cooler would’ve fit into the awkward floor space behind our seats.

We loaded the Pack-Away into our jeep for navigating Colorado’s high-altitude Alpine Loop, a 65-mile route that circumnavigates old mining roads through the San Juan Mountains. The cooler held lunch meats, cheese, veggies, dark chocolate, and seltzer waters. The weather got rowdy with bouts of rain and hail between sunshine.

Overall, we found the cooler durable, given it’s made with a tough polyester shell and abrasion-resistant nylon bottom. It also had decent ice retention. The size and insulation is ideal for a single day out. According to the ice retention test, this cooler can retain ice for 57 hours and fit 24 12-ounce cans.

We used the Orca Walker Cooler ($220) for tailgating at trailheads after hikes and park BBQs. Ultimately, this is an excellent cooler for single-day adventures. Our team was most impressed by the 840-denier textile exterior, which is tough and doesn’t get banged up.

The insulation is a metal-coated plastic blend, which did a solid job of preserving the ice and goods. We love the soft interior liner and the waterproof zipper that prevents any leaks from the top.

The two side handles aren’t the most comfortable to grab, and we wish they weren’t adjacent to the shoulder straps’ attachment points. The center magnetic handle is smooth and nice to grab. But when the handgrip is detached into two separate pieces, they’re not comfortable to grasp.

According to our ice retention test, this cooler is capable of holding ice for up to 70 hours. This cooler could fit 20 12-ounce cans.

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The Hydro Flask Day Escape Soft Cooler Tote ($150) is a super-streamlined, lightweight, and durable design. We used this cooler for park BBQs and love how comfortable it was to slip over our shoulders and carry.

The exterior is made of a 600-denier polyester shell that’s waterproof. The zipper is completely watertight with welded seams, so leaking isn’t on the menu. We noticed the zipper is hard to pull one-handed, and we typically need to counter-pull the side handles to open or close it.

We were surprised to see the cooler’s exterior sweat quite a bit during the ice retention test. The ice melted at a faster rate compared to other coolers, lasting for about 60 hours, but well above the brand’s 36-hour stamp. This cooler could fit 24 12-ounce cans.

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The Mountainsmith Sixer ($30) was a great cooler for lunch on the go. Our tester, a Colorado-based electrician and mountain biker, packed it with a canned drink, sandwich, fruit, and chocolate. The cooler’s shape and size were easy to fit in a messy work truck.

Inside and out, the cooler is easy to clean. It seems durable, and we like the vintage look. The haul handle is ergonomically sound and comfortable to grab. However, our ice melted fast on hot days, and with minimal room in the cooler, the food can get wet. But, the seamless liner did hold the water and showed no sign of leaks.

According to the ice retention test, this cooler can preserve ice for 25 hours. This cooler could fit one dozen 12-ounce cans.

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The Igloo Pursuit Tote ($80) preserved our bubbly water, hummus, pepperoni, peppers, and arugula while car camping and crewing Hardrock 100. It was easy to carry around from the van to the hotel porch. We most appreciated the lightweight design and malleable fabric.

We could stuff lots of goods inside or squish down the cooler for storage. The slender shape doesn’t bounce around and feels smooth to carry over the shoulder.

We really like the exterior front zipper pocket. But we wish the side mesh water bottle pockets were hardy like the rest of the cooler — they felt flimsy and easily snagged. Also, we loved that the top entry opened wide and had a two-way zipper, but the wide rim made drying out the cooler a challenge.

Ultimately, due to the ice retention, this tote is a solid option for errands and small trips but be sure to pre-cool the bag before use. According to the ice retention test, this cooler can retain ice for 40 hours. It can fit 30 12-ounce cans.

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Our team loudly applauded the REI Co-op Cool Haul Soft Cooler ($100), which was a dependable tool for whitewater rafting Colorado’s Gunnison River, car camping, and crewing the Hardrock 100. We found the size was good for a duo.

The cooler’s exterior is made with stout ripstop nylon that easily wipes down. Inside, the insulated polyester liner is durable and removable. It’s super easy to pull out and clean.

While adventuring, this cooler did a noteworthy job of preserving ice in sunny conditions and exceeded the capabilities of other coolers we tested. The seams are sealed to prevent leaks. A two-way zipper provides easy top access, and the cube shape nicely slides into tight spaces on a boat or in the truck bed.

According to our ice retention test, this cooler is capable of holding ice for up to 60 hours. To put the size in perspective, this cooler could fit one dozen 12-ounce cans.

We wanted the team — and especially our anglers — to love the unique Hobie Soft Cooler Fish Bag ($125), but the design let us down in more ways than one.

On the positive side, the cooler is conveniently shaped to fit inside the bow recess of a boat. We took this cooler out boating, fishing, and standup paddleboarding at Taylor Reservoir in the Elk Mountains of Colorado.

The materials are high-quality with closed-cell foam insulation, a vinyl-coated polyester exterior, and snazzy YKK zippers. We liked the two muscular handles. But without a shoulder strap, it wasn’t ideal to transport the cooler more than short distances.

Unfortunately, the seams leaked water all over the rig before we even got to the water’s edge, and then drained within only a couple of hours of use. We saw the same results during our ice retention test — on a wood floor.

Our other grievance is the zipper only goes around halfway, stopping at an awkward spot that limits access and ability to clean the inside of the cooler. Plus, the zipper isn’t waterproof. So, when you grab one of the two handles to carry the cooler, it leaks all over the place.

Ultimately, the ice retention is not as dependable as other coolers, in part because the cold water all drains out. According to our ice retention test, this cooler is able to hold ice for nearly 45 hours.

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We took the aesthetic Fishpond Blizzard Soft Cooler ($100) out fly fishing with two anglers. The compact cooler was full of brews, sparkling water, and lunch food. We really liked the touch of the side rope handles — they’re smooth, tough, and easy to grab and hold.

We also appreciate the two broad pockets on each side. One has a zip closure for security, and the other latches via Velcro.

The lid has a small pop-up Velcro door to provide easy access when the cooler is zipped shut. We wish that small entrance was a tiny bit bigger. It’d also be great to see the door and lid closures upgraded so they don’t leak.

The cooler’s multilayer insulation didn’t keep the ice very well, and the waxed canvas is stylish and soft but soaks up water and gets heavy. According to our ice retention test, this cooler is capable of holding ice for close to 45 hours. It could fit one dozen 12-ounce cans.

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Choose a soft cooler based on the storage capacity and type of support you need for the load. A super malleable product like the Snow Peak Soft Cooler might not be the best for carrying dozens of heavy cans compared to a more rigid design like the YETI Hopper M30 Soft Cooler.

The larger the group, the more cargo space you’ll need. The soft coolers in our guide range from the Mountainsmith Takeout, which can fit six cans, to the 38L Snow Peak Soft Cooler. Most of our choice soft coolers are either larger — 30 to 38 L — for group multiday trips or more compact, ranging from 12 to 19 L.

Most soft coolers are simple with a central insulated compartment for food and beverages. A handful have an interior zippered compartment inside the lid.

Various exterior pockets are available on some designs, including streamlined fabric and mesh pockets with no closure or bungee straps. Other coolers have external pockets with a Velcro latch, zipper, or waterproof zipper for security.

The weights of soft coolers are typically reflected by their size and capacity. The smallest design in our guide is the Mountainsmith Takeout, which is less than a pound. The heaviest soft cooler is the 7-pound YETI Hopper M30 Soft Cooler, which has a 30L capacity and the best ice retention.

Even the heaviest soft cooler in our guide is lighter than a hard cooler. For comparison, the YETI Tundra 45 Cooler is 23 pounds, and the RovR Products RollR 45 is more than 37 pounds.

Soft cooler totes are long, slender, and streamlined against your side. They’re comfortable to carry over a shoulder. However, taller coolers get trickier with access to buried items, so you have to be mindful when packing the cooler.

Soft coolers that are wider or more bucket-style are easier to access, as far as finding a specific item. But, they can feel more cumbersome to carry over a shoulder. Coolers like the OtterBox Trooper 20 Cooler with a broad, flat surface that rests against you can help absorb that swing and bounce.

Boxier coolers can be easier to stack — as long as the walls and base are rigid — while sleeker coolers can more likely slip behind a seat in your car. Shorter, more compact coolers are easier to fit in tight spaces on a boat.

A soft cooler’s materials include the exterior, insulation, interior liner, and handles. A range of top closures exist. The most common are waterproof and leakproof zippers or non-waterproof and leakproof zippers.

We pay attention to that variable to know if a cooler needs to always be upright. Some unique closures include the powerful magnetic seam of the YETI Hopper M30 Soft Cooler and clasp of the OtterBox Trooper 20 Cooler, which don’t allow leaks. Welded seams also help prevent leaks.

Soft coolers may have shoulder straps — which are typically removable — buckles, attachment points, and interior or exterior pockets. Some pockets have durable, waterproof zipper closures, but many are not weather-resistant or secured with a closure.

The quality of materials influences the waterproofness, durability, insulation value, and whether or not the face fabric produces condensation. The materials also determine the comfort, breathability, support, and overall cost.

Handles and straps are constructed with a variety of materials. Some are more ergonomic, comfortable, and durable than others.

Most soft coolers have side or top handles, two straps that swing up to secure together above the cooler, or a removable shoulder strap. A bunch of designs have a combination of handles and straps, too.

In our testing, we found the side handles of the Fishpond Blizzard Soft Cooler and OtterBox Trooper 20 Cooler were stalwart and comfortable to grab. We liked the wide, soft material of the two swing-up straps on the Snow Peak Soft Cooler.

The handles on the Hydro Flask Day Escape Soft Cooler Tote tote were a great length and easy to slide over one shoulder. We also appreciated the comfortable cushion and traction of the shoulder strap on the YETI Hopper M30 Soft Cooler.

We completed our ice retention test with controlled variables. Each soft cooler was stationed indoors around 65 degrees, shaded, and filled with the same ratio and type of ice.

For a variety of conditions, the soft coolers in this guide provide enough cooling power to serve a range of recreation needs.

When you use a cooler outside, many factors influence a pack’s ice retention, including frequency of opening the cooler, direct sunlight, and ambient temperature. For instance, the REI Co-op Cool Haul Soft Cooler preserved ice for 60 hours during our test but only for 18 hours during one toasty car camp trip.

The prices of soft coolers in our guide range from the $25 Mountainsmith Takeout, which is the smallest cooler, to the $300 YETI Hopper M30 Soft Cooler with top-shelf ice retention.

The price of a soft cooler is reflected by the size, durability, quality of materials, design features, and ice retention.

Additional features on soft coolers include hard clip points, daisy chains, webbing straps, and bungee cords for carrying extra gear. Some packs also include a reflective logo or bottle opener.

Many soft coolers do not have tie-down points, which would be a good feature for river or motorcycle trips.

Our team has developed cooler guides for several years, objectively testing dozens of soft, hard, and backpack coolers in the field from whitewater raft trips to fly fishing adventures. For this soft coolers guide, we examined the most popular, highly acclaimed, and bestselling products with diverse capacities, ice retention ability, and price spectrum.

Our crew took these coolers through a myriad of conditions from summertime park BBQs to camping in Colorado’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains and road-tripping to ski mountaineer in the Pacific Northwest.

We also performed a controlled in-house ice retention test to verify brand claims. For the experiment, we filled each pre-cooled cooler approximately 70% with fresh, frozen cubed ice and set them in a shaded, dry indoor space at a steady average of 65 degrees.

We periodically checked, making notes regarding melt rate, condensation, and leaks. Each reported time is based on when 100% of the ice converted to water.

This data provides a benchmark. But when traveling outdoors, these controlled variables disappear and the ice will likely melt faster.

There’s utility for both designs. Hard coolers are more durable and stout and have a larger size range, given they can hold more weight without collapsing. Hard coolers can also preserve ice for longer durations. If you’re going on a weeklong car camping trip with limited access to ice, it’s advantageous to have a hard cooler for fresh food.

On the other hand, a soft cooler is a preferred choice for being lightweight, easy to carry — especially for one person — and simple to transport. The compact sizes are great for picnics, day trips, overnight camping, and grocery shopping. Another benefit is some soft coolers are collapsible, so they occupy less space in storage than a hard cooler.

For road trips, you can separate daytime beverages and snacks into a soft cooler, which limits opening of the hard cooler and preserves ice.

If the cooler’s seams are not welded and leakproof, they can leak. Soft coolers can also leak through the lid closure if the zipper isn’t waterproof or the clasp isn’t leakproof.

Some soft coolers are superior at ice retention, which is generally reflected in the price tag but not always. Some pricier coolers offer adequate ice retention mixed with other qualities like durability and capacity.

In our side-by-side ice retention test, the soft cooler that retained ice the longest was the YETI Hopper M30 Soft Cooler at a whopping 98 hours. The next chilliest soft coolers were the OtterBox Trooper 20 Cooler, which reached 78 hours. It was followed by the Arctic Zone Titan Deep Freeze Bucket Tote and Orca Walker Cooler, which held ice for 70 hours. The lowest ice retention recorded was 21 hours for the small Mountainsmith Takeout.

In daily adventures, melt speed slightly fluctuates based on the frequency of opening the cooler, how long it’s open, ambient heat, and direct sunlight. A bunch of other variables influence ice retention too, including the type and quantity of ice, extra space in the compartment (which decreases effectiveness), and if the cooler was pre-chilled.

For most soft coolers, dry ice will burn the interior materials. Instead, you should use freshly frozen cubed ice, ice blocks, or reusable ice packs.

For the longest-lasting ice retention and cooling capability, aim to use a 2:1 ratio of ice to contents. You can quickly pre-chill your cooler with a sacrificial bag of ice a few hours before loading it up, especially if the cooler was stored in a hot place. Or, bring the cooler inside a cool room to lower the temperature the night before use.

The type of ice makes a difference. Block ice and fresh cubed ice from freezers are denser than chipped ice or crushed ice from ice machines. If you get super strategic, you can use a mix of block ice — which melts slowly — and cubed ice — which cools down the container quickly.

As the ice melts, it’s ideal to retain the ice water, which helps the other ice stay cold. Limit your access to the cooler because opening it up releases the cold air. Keep your cooler in the shade to prolong that low temperature. If you’re under direct sun, toss a towel or blanket over the cooler to help alleviate a heat spike.

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Staff Writer Morgan Tilton is an adventure journalist specializing in winter sports coverage, travel narratives, and outdoor industry news. A recipient of nearly a dozen North American Travel Journalists Association awards, when she’s not recovering from jungle expeditions or doing field research in far-out villages she’s usually trail running, mountain biking, river surfing, or splitboarding in Colorado’s San Juan and Elk Mountains, where she grew up and lives today.

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