The Best Soft Cooler Review
Which soft cooler is the best? To find out we took five of the top rated and most popular models available and compared them side-by-side. First we ran them through an objective ice retention test, comparing how long each model could hold ice. Then we packed, carried, dragged, zipped, and drained each one over the course of several months of real world testing. We rated each model on the metrics of insulation value, portability, durability, and ease of use. We awarded the models that stood out and compiled detailed product reviews for each, hoping to help you make the right choice. Read our full review below to see our findings.
Read the full review below >
Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
Best Overall Soft Cooler
YETI Hopper Two 30
Best Bang for the Buck
Polar Bear Coolers 24 Pack
Top Pick Award for Long Distance Carrying
Ice Mule Pro
Analysis and Test Results
Soft coolers, put simply, are bags made to keep things cold. However, not all cold-keeping bags are created equal. There are simple, small models just as suited to being a lunch box as a six-pack caddie, and then there are the luxury models with all the bells and whistles one would expect of a high-end product. But the question of "which one is the right one?" comes down to what you are really looking for, what you need, and where you are going to go with it. We set out to look at the whole range, from the most common to the fanciest, to see how they compare and stand up to all the abuse our testers could throw at them. In the process, our testers were able break down the category and put together some solid recommendations and observations.
Like everything, there are different uses for different products, even within a category such as soft coolers. While any of them will get your brews to the game, some are better suited than others for a day out in rugged terrain, and some are better made for a day in the park. We decided to take a look at the whole range to see what we could find out.
To gain more insight into the decision-making process, see our Buying Advice article.
While all insulating bags share similar traits, some offer more specialty uses and features that expand their range of usability. There are three primary styles that we came across in our testing.
These models resemble familiar lunch-boxes and have removable liners to make cleaning easy and shoulder straps for comfortable carrying. This style is perfect for carrying your sandwich, veggies, and juice to the office or the cafeteria, but won't carry enough to feed a family.
The simple, common shoulder bag style is ideal for the everyday user who wants to comfortably carry enough food and drink for a group. These models are made of flexible materials for easy storage when not in use and have shoulder straps for comfortable carrying. Bags in this style come in a wide range of prices, from extremely affordable to high-end specialty models.
The high-end models in the shoulder bag category that come with some serious insulation power to keep your whatevers cold and protected for impressively long periods of time. These models will last forever but also cost much more than the budget models.
Lastly we have backpacks made for a longer carry, ideal for those days when you have a posse heading to the climbing crag or the swimming hole and someone has got to carry the beer (your posse will be psyched!)
All these styles have pros and cons, and some work better in certain applications than others. Whether you are heading down to the beach for the day or hauling food and drink back to base camp, there is bound to be something on the market that suits your needs.
Size is certainly a question you will need to consider. All of our choices, with the exception of the Ice Mule Pro, were measured in number of cans they can hold. Aside from giving us a window into what the manufacturers assume you are going to put in them, it helps us gauge the comparative sizes based on the 12 oz can.
Our sizes ranged from 16 cans in the Coleman model:
to 24 cans on the Polar Bear and AO models:
up to 30 cans in the Yeti:
It should be noted that these "can capacity" assessments include various amounts of ice, usually specified by the manufacturer in pounds or ounces rather than actual volume, but they do provide a rough size estimate.
The Ice Mule Pro Large is given a 20L capacity and that is said to translate to 18 cans plus ice, to give you a comparative idea here.
Testers found that you could play around with that can number. For example, if you were pulling an already chilled 24 pack out of the fridge, you could certainly fit more than 24 cans in most of these if you were willing to skimp on the ice. The Yeti Hopper 30 is the largest in "can capacity" but we still found the Ice Mule Pro to be the largest when it came down to simple usable internal space.
Criteria for Evaluation
In order to get the best picture of what could and could not, be done with the various products selected for testing, we used a series of evaluation metrics in order to rate each model next to each other. Each metric, and testing measures to quantify them, were designed and performed with overall performance in mind. In total we looked at five different criteria.
Hard Cooler Review, "cooler is a misnomer, it would be more accurate to call them keepers." This is true in the sense that none of these insulated bags will actively chill anything. What they will do, with varying degrees of success, is keep your food and drink / anything else you want to keep cold, cool for longer periods than otherwise possible without some sort of insulation. Each product tested has differing amounts and types of insulation that are more or less effective than the others, and varying closing mechanisms to help them achieve that goal.
While it is true that size does effect overall insulation value, thermodynamics dictate that heat will dissipate more slowly from a larger volume and conversely a larger volume of cold material will absorb heat slower, thus warm more slowly; i.e. the pile of snow left by the plow after winter, the larger it is the longer it lasts. However the size of your ice chest should be chosen based on your intended application, and with the exception of the lunchbox-sized Coleman 16-Can, all our test models were of roughly similar size.
We wanted to look at just how well our selection of products performed at the task for which they were created. Insulation value is the result of a number of different factors. In coolers it boils down to the type of insulation and the amount / thickness of that insulation. As a general rule, the more insulation the more keep cold power your ice box will have. The quality of modern insulation varies slightly by type, but for the most part they are all pretty on par with each other.
In order to test insulation, all the products in this category were subjected to a head-to-head ice retention test. Each model was packed with only a seven-pound bag of cubed ice and placed in the same un-insulated, unlit shed. Every 24 hours we peeked in each one and weighed the remaining ice. All had some ice left at 24 hours. The Coleman, which is the smallest in our test, was out of ice by 48 hours. Only two made it to 72 hours with ice intact. We were particularly impressed with these two models when it came to insulation. Unsurprisingly, Yeti, the industry leader in high-end coolers, came through on top with 13 ounces of ice remaining at the 72-hour mark in the Yeti Hopper 30. However, coming in at an amazingly surprising second place is the Polar Bear Coolers 24 Pack, which held onto nine ounces of ice for 72 hours, which is very close to the result of the significantly more expensive Yeti. This result alone was enough to earn the Polar Bear a Best Buy Award.
Another major factor that contributes to the effectiveness of cold keeping is the closure system. Models like the Ice Mule Pro have a roll top more reminiscent of a dry bag, while other models have zippers of various effectiveness. For example, the Yeti Hopper 30 boasts a burly waterproof zipper, while the AO Coolers 24 Pack Canvas Cooler and the Polar Bear 24 Pack have the more familiar standard zipper you might find on something like a ski jacket.
Each of these have drawbacks, but some change the insulation value more than others. During our tests we found the Yeti Hopper 30, with its combination of thick insulation and a sealed zipper, to be the most effective, followed by the underdog Polar Bear 24 Pack. These two had the winning insulation combo to get the job done.
This, aside from insulation, might be one of the most important factors in choosing a soft cooler, or any product really. It may be the coolest thing ever, but if it doesn't last, what's the point?
Durability is a serious question. We approached it in several different ways. Our first approach was simply using the cooler as it will most likely be used by your average consumer. We wanted to see if the product could withstand simple everyday usage. Our next scheme was to go above and beyond ordinary use and abuse the coolers to see what they could handle. Generally this meant throwing them around, dragging them on the ground, packing, emptying, repacking, and bouncing them around in trunks, truck beds, and anything else we could think of.
To back up a bit, overall durability comes down to a few simple qualities: the material it is made from, the construction style and manufacturing, and the components (zippers, buckles, straps, etc.). Our test models were made from various materials. The lower end models used light to mid-weight nylon or canvas with middle-of-the-road zippers and regular construction in terms of stitching or heat welding. The higher-end more expensive models were made from heavy rubber, had burly zippers and components, and much more robust construction. All of these aspects affect the overall durability and lasting power.
The Coleman 16-Can performed the poorest when it came to durability, but it is also the least expensive of our test lineup. The lightweight nylon and the average construction aren't made for the long haul. However, the Coleman wasn't designed with the backcountry hardcore user in mind.
The Yeti Hopper 30 and the Ice Mule Pro performed the best in our use and durability tests. They have exteriors of heavy rubber and are built to last. They are examples of coolers made for a particular purpose, and they performed as such.
Our other two models, the Polar Bear 24 Pack, and the AO Coolers 24 Pack Canvas Cooler performed very similarly in this department, with the Polar Bear edging slightly above the AO for durability.
Ease of Use
Aside from insulation and durability, how easy it is to use the darned thing? This is an important question. The ability to open and close, stuff things in there, get things out, clean it, and carry it around are all important considerations. Again, the intended use comes into mind. Questions of: what do you want to do with a cooler, and where do you want to go with it? factor into ease of use distinctions.
Starting out with how easy it was to open and close various models, we looked at the differing closure methods. Zippers are pretty standard. The wide mouth zippers found on the Polar Bear 24 Pack and the AO 24 Pack were extremely easy to get into and pull items out of. They were also easy to open wide and took very little effort to hold open. The Yeti Hopper was slightly more difficult to get in and out of. Primarily due to its beefier construction and smaller zipper, testers found it more difficult to hold open as well as get larger items into or out of the cooler. But its extra tie down points, daisy chain, and its many handle options earned it a higher ease of use score. The Ice Mule Pro, with its wide mouth roll top, was the easiest all around to open and get in and out of. The Coleman 16-Can was also very easy, given its more traditional lid rather than a straight zipper. The ease of access issue also played into how easy the coolers were to clean. The easier it is to get into, the easier it is to clean, as a rule. The next thing we looked at was how easy each was to carry around. This all plays into portability.
Getting back to the "Where do you want to go with it?" question, let's discuss portability. Inevitably you will be carrying something around in your cooler, otherwise why would you have it? These insulated bags are designed to be moved around. However, one must again consider the intended use. Are you looking for something that you can take from your car to the beach? Down the street to a friend's? Or do you want something you can comfortably carry five miles in to your secret fishing hole? Testers looked for features in all our test models aimed at the ever important carry. Most of our test models have a shoulder strap and carry handles. This is great for shorter distances and most uses, like car to picnic table, but on longer hauls a shoulder strap can be a drag. That said, not all shoulder straps are created equal. More padded straps like that found on the Yeti Hopper made slightly longer carries a little more bearable where less or non-padded straps like those found on the AO 24 Pack and the Colman 16-Can were significantly less pleasant to carry for any significant distance.
Other models are made precisely for the longer distance carry. The Ice Mule Pro was made for carrying comfortably. Equipped with backpack straps and a padded, ventilated back panel, testers found they could take the Ice Mule out for multi-mile treks comfortably.
Accessories are less of an important purchasing consideration or performance metric and are more of a cool or increased usefulness feature. Soft coolers by nature are pretty minimalist, leaving little room for add-ons. Additional straps or bottle opener attachments add some convenience, but don't affect the overall usability.
At first glance, soft coolers all seem the same. A bag, some insulation, some sort of way to close and carry it, and we're done. But the world of these products is as varied as that of any other gear category. Specialty models made for hiking, high-end models made for serious cooler needs, standard models that are more like a lunch box, and everything in between. While reviewing these products, testers went out of their way to imagine what the everyday, the unique, and the serious gear user and abuser might use them for and do those things: trips into the desert, long hikes, dinner parties, and BBQs. We hauled these products there, cold beer as our cargo, and put all our test products through their paces. In doing so we were able to compile one of the most comprehensive reviews of soft coolers available. We were able to separate the various coolers by five different rating metrics and, hopefully, compile enough information to help inform your purchasing decisions. See our Buying Advice article for some tips on how to choose the best model to fit your needs.
— Andrew Schurr
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