The best backpack coolers let you stray from the beaten path or trek down a sandy beach while also letting you carry more cold beverages than you can with a regular soft-sided cooler.
In fact, you might be surprised at how much easier it is to lug cold drinks to your favorite swimming hole when you have a backpack cooler. Better yet, a good backpack cooler will inspire you to take ice-cold beverages with you on hikes, and when you arrive at your destination, an ice-cold beverage is hard to beat.
Of course, you don’t have to hike with a backpack cooler . . . but backpack coolers do give you two free hands for hauling lifejackets, beach towels, standup paddle boards, fishing gear or sun shades on your way from the parking lot to the boat or beach. If you’re the family pack mule, a backpack cooler has the power to become transformative gear.
What about ice retention? The best soft-sided coolers will hold ice and keep your beverages cold for well over 24 hours when properly packed. Your low-end, entry-level coolers won’t usually last a full day — and they’ll leak. If you overload them, the seams might rip. On the other hand, if you go easy on your gear and load with fewer beverages and more ice, you can get decent results that are in line with the purchase price.
We recommend that you invest in the best gear you can afford. Because everyone has different expectations and budgets, we usually try to include a few of the best entry-level options in our “best” gear picks, too.
Here is the quick list of our current favorite best backpack coolers for 2018:
YETI Hopper Backflip 24
OtterBox Trooper LT 30
Hydro Flask 22 L Soft Cooler Pack
Engel Backpack Cooler
Polar Bear Coolers Nylon Backpack Cooler
Coleman Maverick Ultra Backpack Cooler
Igloo Outdoorsman Gizmo Backpack
Barebones Living Backpack Cooler
10 Best Backpack Coolers 2018
1. YETI Hopper Backflip 24
To create the YETI Hopper Backflip 24, YETI super-sized its excellent Hopper line of soft coolers and added backpack straps. The result is a durable, well-insulated soft cooler you can load up with 20 cans of beer or soda — and still have plenty of room for ice. As a backpack, the YETI Hopper Backflip 24 carries surprisingly well. Despite its boxy-looking shape, it’s comfortable. The straps are plenty durable (so you can overload this cooler without fear) and they include a sternum strap that lets you snug everything up and keep your load stable. The Backflip even comes with a removable waist strap if you’re heading over some rough terrain. The lid flips completely open to give you easy access to the interior. The burly zipper is waterproof and typically requires two hands to use, but it’s tough enough to let YETI add a grab handle to the top of the lid — very few soft coolers have handles on the lid itself. As it is, you’ll appreciate this handle because it’s balanced in the center of the cooler, making it easy to load this cooler into a boat or even just move it out of the sun.
There is something special about the dry-bag design of the ICEMULE Pro — it’s dirt simple and easy to use, but it’s also very well engineered. The overall quality inside and out is fantastic, and the price is great, too. In fact, the ICEMULE Pro has one of the best price-to-value ratios of any soft-sided cooler. As for ice retention, it competes very well with the other coolers on this list, and it comes in three sizes, Large, X-Large, and a massive XX-Large (we prefer the Large the most). As a backpack, it rides great and the shoulder straps are plenty cushy. In case you’re not familiar with dry bags, you simply fold over the top of the bag three times and clip the sides together. The result is a stable, maintenance-free waterproof seal that will last for years. Oh, one more thing: ICEMULE also makes the ICEMULE BOSS, which adds three pockets and additional lashing points and can carry more than 60 pounds of weight. If you’re looking for the most badass backpack cooler, the ICEMULE BOSS is for you.
The OtterBox Trooper LT 30 is huge, awesome and ingenious. Not only does it do very well with ice retention, it’s big enough to handle extra ice to help you stretch performance over multiple days. As a backpack, we had some initial concerns — it’s big and boxier than the YETI noted above, so how would it carry? It carries very well. We credit the wide straps made with some sort of high-end neoprene-like material. Incidentally, the non-backpack Trooper 20 is one of our favorite soft coolers ever, and the larger Trooper LT 30 doesn’t disappoint either. It features a wide-mouth design that you can open up with just one hand. The clasp system makes a leakproof seal . . . . and let’s say this again, can be opened and closed with one hand. If you’re the guy sitting next to the cooler, you’ll appreciate not having to set your sandwich down while you nab a drink for your buddy. That’s not all, though: The shoulder straps are smart, too — a single shoulder strap is attached to the backpack straps. After you use the backpack straps, the shoulder strap is tucked closely to the top of the pack. When you grab this shoulder strap, it rises up and sucks the backpack straps close to the body of the pack, out of the way, leaving you with a handy shoulder strap. When you put the pack on your back, the shoulder strap sucks back down out of the way. So cool. Last of all, remember that big, boxy shape? The Trooper LT 30 sits upright most anywhere and it’s super easy to load. It has tie-down points, two pockets and a bottle opener. If you’re looking for a big backpack cooler that boasts awesome ice retention and super usability, the OtterBox Trooper LT 30 is for you.
The ORCA Podster hits a backpack cooler sweet spot in size, durability and overall quality for day trips. It’s designed to hold 12 cans with 7.5 pounds of ice, giving you a great balance of ice retention paired with good capacity — but if you’re a partier or planning on overnight trips, you should error toward one of the larger backpack coolers above or go with the larger original Orca Pod. It has a self-standing oval design made with excellent closed-cell foam insulation and a sweet food-grade quality liner. The outside is packed with plenty of lashing points for attaching extra gear pockets and for lashing it down on boats or ATVs. It’s waterproof and leakproof. The backpack straps are adjustable to help you get the Podster situated for comfortable carry, and it has an adjustable sternum strap, too.
Just released this year, the new “Unbound Series” Hydro Flask 22 L Soft Cooler Pack is a natural extension of the popular Hydro Flask insulated bottles and food container lineup. The Hydro Flask 22 L Soft Cooler Pack is waterproof, mostly freestanding, and boasts one of the most streamlined designs available today — but it’s not exactly minimalistic, either. The 22 L Soft Cooler Pack has two zippered pockets as well as a stretchy mesh side pocket that will hold a Hydro Flask drink bottle (or other bottles, of course). Hydro Flask took the overall design a step farther, though, by adding more insulation to the base to help prevent cold loss. While many backpack cooler manufacturers shy away from saying how long they will keep items cold, Hydro Flask is willing to put a number on it: Up to 48 hours. If you want that kind of performance, don’t skimp on ice and start out with cold beverages. Oh, one more thing: Hydro Flask also introduced a Soft Cooler Tote, which its also one of our favorite best soft-sided coolers.
Engel makes some of the very best roto-molded hard coolers, and the company doesn’t skimp out on its soft-sided coolers, either. The aptly named Engel Backpack Cooler blends a handy satchel-like design with backpack straps, making it a versatile choice for those not ready to go all-in on the backpack design. More importantly, the insulating capabilities of the Engel Backpack Cooler are impressive. Engel uses a 1-inch thick layer of closed-cell foam but also includes a reflective foil radiant barrier liner. Engel says the radiant barrier reflects the sun’s long-wave heat radiation . . . either way, Engel is willing to claim its Backpack Cooler will hold ice for up to three days under typical conditions — as long as you’re utilizing a reasonable ice-to-can ratio. As for versatility, you get multiple pockets and carrying straps. Capacity is about 24 cans.
It’s hard to go wrong with the Polar Bear Nylon Backpack Cooler. It has cushy straps and a nicely padded back, and the nylon exterior is plenty rugged. You get multiple mesh pockets for water bottles or car keys, as well as a zippered stash pocket. The capacity is rated at 18 cans with 10 pounds of ice. Polar Bear Coolers is particularly proud of its proprietary antimicrobial liner, which is tough and made from FDA-approved materials. In addition to the backpack straps, Polar Bear includes two top handle straps that give you another well-balanced option for moving around a fully-loaded cooler. If you like the overall Polar Bear Backpack Cooler design but want a fully leakproof and waterproof version, check out the Polar Bear H20 Waterproof Backpack Cooler.
The Coleman Maverick Ultra Backpack Cooler has one of the lowest price points on this list, but it’s a surprisingly good backpack cooler. It has a 20-can capacity (less with ice). It uses closed-cell foam for insulation. The backpack design is fairly small, so if you’re looking for a more nimble cooler, this is a good option. It has two side mesh pockets, a zippered stash pocket and it includes a bottle opener. The zippered lid isn’t waterproof. The overall construction is more durable than we were expecting, frankly, but we wouldn’t expect this cooler to survive a summer of serious abuse without needing some Gear-Aid Aquaseal for repairs (all outdoor adventurers need to keep some Aquaseal handy). Back to the Coleman Maverick Ultra: As a very affordable day tripper backpack cooler, it’s pretty good. We used it on a hot spring day on a 16-mile bike ride around a lake and it kept eight drinks cold with just a couple of reusable ice packs over six hours.
Igloo makes a lot of entry-level soft coolers, and we think the Outdoorsman Gizmo Backpack is the company’s best backpack cooler. It has multiple stash pockets, including a padded slim back pocket suitable for a beach book or magazine. It’s not waterproof, so like the Coleman Maverick mentioned above, it’s best used with ice packs rather than ice itself. At this price point, we particularly like the sternum strap — but you probably don’t want to overload any entry-level backpack cooler on a regular basis.
The Barebones Living Backpack Cooler aims at an understated style that errors toward straightforward functionality. If you want a backpack cooler that doesn’t look like it’s the child of a white water raft, the Barebones Living Backpack Cooler might be for you. While you could take it off the beaten path, the target audience seems to be more picnic in the park than tubing trip to the river. Still, it has a removable inner liner, a bottle opener zipper pull, rust-resistant hardware, and a sturdy base. It will hold up to 20 cans without ice.