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The best soft coolers blend usability with durability and insulating properties — but the best soft-sided cooler is not the one that has three more ice cubes remaining after a multi-day ice retention test. When we test and review soft coolers, our first priority is usability.
The best soft-sided coolers should work well at the beach, on the boat, in your vehicle and in the wild.
Consequently, our soft cooler review process focuses on usability in real-world situations — and this is precisely why readers trust Man Makes Fire gear reviews and gear guides. We understand that you care about the form factor and how it will fit your lifestyle.
Other key criteria we consider for recommending the best soft-sided coolers includes price-to-value ratios and ruggedness. After using and testing soft coolers at the beach, on the river, while camping and day tripping, we’ve learned that rugged soft coolers bring peace-of-mind when you’re off the beaten path.
Do you want to lose a great day if your cooler fails?
Because no one wants to lose a day because of a gear failure, we focus on rugged coolers that can take abuse — at all price points. We believe it’s important to make recommendations based on price and value. For instance, we don’t expect a $60 soft cooler to be as rugged as a top-of-the-line expedition-ready soft cooler — but it might still be an awesome value.
The result of our cooler testing and evaluation process is that your best soft-sided cooler might not be the most expensive option — it might be the best overall blend for the kinds of things you do.
Most people use soft coolers for shorter trips. You don’t need your ice to last three days if you’re packing for a single day on the river.
So, balance. That’s what we look for in the best soft-sided coolers, and that’s what the smartest cooler buyers look for, too. In case you’re wondering — and we know that some of you are: The best soft cooler for ice retention is the Engel HD30. For handy tips on ice retention and keeping drinks cold in any soft cooler, check out our ice retention recommendations at the end of this guide.
Best Soft Coolers 2020
Some manufacturers produce multiple soft-side cooler versions that have similar features and build quality but may also have slightly different design features. Technically, many of these versions should also make a “best” list, but most readers prefer to see a bit more variety, so we only recommend the models we appreciate most.
YETI Hopper Flip 18
Best overall soft cooler
Size options: 8, 12, 18, 24
YETI has been the cooler market leader for years, and it’s not just because the company has the biggest marketing budget: YETI produces some of the best, highest quality thermally efficient coolers. If you want a rugged soft cooler that will hold ice for days, YETI needs to be on your shortlist. YETI makes several soft coolers in different sizes and shapes, and our favorite all-around version is the YETI Hopper Flip 18. It’s big enough to hold 20 cans of beer or soda, yet it’s small enough to fit most anywhere. The “flip” over lid makes it super easy to load up with food and ice. The wide open lid also makes it easy to get food out of the cooler.
The YETI Hoppers are completely waterproof due to the high-quality Hydrolok waterproof zipper. The rugged shell is puncture-resistant while the strong fully-sealed liner is made from FDA-approved food-grade material. The insulation is closed-cell rubber foam, which gives the cooler its ability to hold ice for multiple days. You also get plenty of lashing points for strapping the cooler down to ATVs, rafts or boats.
Any cons? The only con is that you need two hands to unzip the YETI Hopper Flip series coolers. Still, buy the YETI Hopper Flip 18 for fantastic durability and insulating properties.
You might know OtterBox from its ultra-rugged smartphone cases. We’ve been OtterBox fans for years, so we jumped at the chance to check out the OtterBox Trooper 20 soft-sided cooler when it first came out (full review here). The OtterBox Trooper boasts a similar build quality to the YETI but it has a totally unique lid design. You can open the OtterBox Trooper 20 lid with just one hand, even in the dark. So cool. The lid seals pretty well, too. We could fill the Trooper 20 with water and flip the cooler over without water leaking out. The fully-sealed interior is stout, and the insulation overall is thick enough to help the soft-sided Trooper keep its shape.
The front includes a small pocket large enough for a few odds and ends, your keys and/or plastic eating utensils, wet wipes or napkins.
For even more cooling room, check out the OtterBox Trooper LT 30 — it has a similar build quality but shifts the design to a clamshell-style closing (and sealing) lid that you can still open and close with one hand. Plus, to help you handle heavier loads, the Trooper LT 30 is a backpack-style soft-sided cooler. It’s just as awesome as the Trooper 20.
Size options: 12-can ‘Blizzard’ and 32-can ‘Ice Storm’
We had no idea we were going to love the Fishpond Ice Storm cooler as much as we do: The Fishpond Ice Storm uses a waxed-canvas exterior fabric that just oozes style without being pretentious. In fact, the Fishpond Ice Storm cooler might be one the best overall buys you can make in a soft-sided cooler: It’s rugged, the design is flexible and usable, and the cost is far less than the most expensive options on this list. Sure, the Fishpond Ice Storm won’t hold ice as long as the YETI or OtterBox above, but it does pretty darn well — and makes drinking beer even more enjoyable because it looks like a human being actually designed the thing and put it together.
Fishpond’s core audience is usually made up of fly fishers, but the Ice Storm cooler is a true cross-over product. Better yet, the Ice Storm is big without feeling bulky — it can easily hold 32 cans with ice. But in our tests, we could fit more: full review here. The smaller Fishpond Blizzard Soft Cooler can handle 12 cans with plenty of ice, plus it has a flip-open door in the lid for easy access. It’s best for day trips or impromptu trips to your buddy’s house when you’d rather bring your own beverages than drink the stuff in his fridge.
ICEMULE takes a simple design and turns it into a soft cooler that’s an absolute joy to use: The ICEMULE Pro series is basically an insulated dry bag with backpack straps. So why does it get so much love? The price is more than fair, the insulating properties are surprisingly good, it’s comfortable to carry when full, and it’s waterproof and floats. If that weren’t enough, its IM Airvalve lets you add air to increase the insulating properties — or suck air out to make it flat for easy storage. It’s not a gimmick — it works great, especially when you opt for the larger X-Large or XX-Large versions. The roll-top closure system works just like dry bags, so you’ll have to use two hands. Still, if you want a simple and rugged soft cooler, the ICEMULE Pro is far better than its simple looks would lead you to believe.
Engel has been a cooler powerhouse for years, and the company’s expertise shines through with the Engel HD30. It’s surprisingly lightweight when empty, but it’s also super durable, waterproof, and fantastic at keeping things cold. The construction is almost entirely welded together rather than sewn, which means there are no tiny little needle holes in the exterior to let heat slip into the insulating interior. When it comes to insulation, Engel takes nearly the opposite approach from ICEMULE — instead of offering a valve that lets you add air to create a thicker insulating layer, as in the ICEMULE Pro, Engel lets you take your vacuum hose and suck air out of the cooler’s sides and away from its closed-cell foam insulation. This stiffens the soft-sided structure of the cooler and ensures that warm air heated by the sun on the outside of the bag doesn’t mix with cooler air on the inside.
Check out our full HD30 review for more detail. The HD30 holds up to a whopping 48 cans with ice, while the smaller HD20 holds up to 24 cans with a 2:1 ice ratio.
If you want an understated cooler that flies under the radar by masquerading as a stylish tote, you want the Hydro Flask Unbound Series of soft coolers. Best known for its super popular insulated bottles and food flasks, Hydro Flask’s 24 L Insulated Soft Cooler Tote is the go-to cooler for Hydro Flask fans. What’s best about the Hydro Flask Soft Cooler Tote is its streamlined design. The compression molded base makes it easily freestanding. The liner is FDA food-grade and the zipper is waterproof. It’ll hold about 24 cans. A couple small exterior pockets will hold your keys or smartphone.
The tote handles make it easier to carry one-handed but — like most of the coolers in this guide — Hydro Flask includes a padded shoulder strap when you need an extra hand or have a fully loaded cooler to haul. No surprise here: Hydro Flask also makes a backpack model, the Hydro Flask 22 L Soft Cooler Pack. Both are covered by a whopping 5-year warranty against manufacturer defects.
The ICEMULE Traveler adds splash of urban style to the ICEMULE soft cooler lineup, but it’s packed with outdoor-ready features. Let’s start with the rugged waterproof zipper. It’s burly and works well, but it also comes with an ingenious design: The zippered opening pops open wide and stays open until you close it. ICEMULE calls it a “Bowhead Top.” Fantastic feature. Of course there is more — ICEMULE’s claim to fame is its backpack coolers, so it should be no surprise that ICEMULE created backpack straps for the Traveler, too. Surprisingly, the removable backpack straps are very comfortable, even when you’re hauling a heavy load.
After extensive testing for our ICEMULE Traveler review, we also found ourselves reaching for the Traveler when we needed to pack dry foods and even just slightly cool food for impromptu picnics. The rigid sides help protect bags of chips . . . and make sure your sandwiches don’t overheat on the beach. And when it’s time to pack a full-size watermelon, this is the cooler we reach for.
Grizzly is another high-quality roto molded hard cooler manufacturer that has started making soft-sided coolers. The Grizzly Drifter 20 has multiple pockets, including a vertical pocket pouch that doubles as a cup holder for those times when you have an open beverage and need a place to stow it or even carry it with the cooler itself. The lid has a strap system that will let you stow a jacket, shirt or stack of paper plates. You get plenty of lashing points for boat or ATV/UTV use.
Interestingly, Grizzly has opted to use a removable waterproof roll top liner instead of a liner sealed to the exterior foam insulating case. The key benefit, of course, is being able to remove the liner for easy cleaning. All-in-all, the Drifter 20 is fairly stout with an excellent overall build quality. Check out our full Drifter 20 review for more detail.
We find ourselves reaching for it most when we want a simple cooler to ride inside the pickup or SUV with us for easy access to drinks and snacks. It fits on the floor or on seats, and while the zipper isn’t waterproof itself, it’s easy enough to open with one hand.
The REI Co-op Pack-Away 24 Soft Cooler is the most packable soft cooler we’ve seen for 2019 — it folds flat but then transforms into a standard box shape with a couple of cool folds. You can leave the REI Co-op Pack-Away 24 Soft Cooler in the trunk of your car or under the seat in your pickup, and then boom, it’s ready when you need it. REI makes a few different Pack-Away versions, but we like the 24-can option, which can hold 24 cans with 10 lbs. of ice.
While the insulation isn’t as robust as most other picks on this list, the REI Co-op Pack-Away 24 Soft Cooler is very affordable and will still keep your drinks cold for up to 32 hours. The liner is food-grade, seam-sealed and leakproof — just keep the cooler upright because the zipper itself isn’t waterproof.
If you’re on a really tight budget, go with a Coleman cooler. All of the Coleman soft coolers, including those with hard plastic liners, are good coolers for the price point. In general, we’d much rather invest in a Coleman cooler than any other department store brand or knockoff cooler. We like the Coleman 24-hour 30-Can Cooler, as well as the 30-Can Soft Cooler with a hard, removable liner.
While we’re talking about Coleman coolers, the Coleman Maverick Ultra Backpack Cooler is surprisingly great — we took one on a full-day bike ride around a lake and it fit well enough and kept our drinks cold. None of these coolers are the kinds of coolers you can abuse for years, but hey, if you need something affordable and plan to use a little extra ice, we like Coleman.
There is no getting around the fact that waterproof zippers can be hard to pull, so YETI created a soft cooler without any zippers — the YETI Hopper M30. Instead of a zipper, you get a full-length magnet. It’s ingenious, for sure, and likely took a bit of engineering and testing to get right. It pulls apart easily but snaps closed as soon as you let go, which keeps your lid closed and warm air outside. To close it for travel, you fold the top over once and latch it with two quick-release buckles.
The YETI M30 is big, but because it’s narrow, it’s easier to carry over your shoulder than most cube-shaped coolers. Any cons? You still need two hands to open the magnetic closure. Because the magnet always wants to close, you’ll learn to brace the bag open with one hand while you find your drink with the other. Tip: For loading and unloading contents, we usually prop a bottle or can sideways in the gap to hold it open.
If ice retention is critical for you, make sure you start with cold beverages and cold ice. If you take a bag of ice that’s already melting and throw it over 20 cans of room-temperature beer or soda, you’re going to melt most of your ice just to cool down warm cans or bottles.
If you must start with warm cans, plan on adding fresh ice somewhere along the way on your trip. Last of all, use more ice than you think you need if keeping things cold is your priority. We often use ice packs for short day trips but load up with more ice for longer trips. YETI recommends a 2-to-1 ice-to-can ratio, and Engel has similar recommendations.
We also recommend that you choose a soft cooler size that’s a bit larger than you think you want so you can accommodate more ice to get the results you’re looking for. YETI, OtterBox, ICEMULE, and ENGEL work particularly well when you have at least twice the ice as food contents.
Finally, choose a light color, like white, silver or grey because it has a better chance of reflecting a bit more sunshine than darker colors. If the outside shell absorbs slightly less heat, you might get a few more slivers of ice before you pull out the last drink. Of course, we’re fans of color, so we’d rather go bold in pretty much every choice available. To each their own.
More Notable Soft Coolers
These soft-sided coolers are also very good — they could have made the top 10 on someone else’s list. We have to draw a line somewhere, but like we said, these are also great soft coolers. They are particularly worth checking out if one of our top 10 just didn’t sing to you.
RTIC SoftPak — RTIC is the cooler manufacturer with the reputation for offering YETI-competing coolers at a much lower price, and in fact, ran into some trademark infringement issues with YETI. Meanwhile, RTIC has dealt with the problems and offers both hard and soft coolers at lower price points.
The Engel HD30 soft cooler holds ice the longest compared to other rugged soft-sided coolers we’ve used. Of course, there are many real-world variables in usage. The Engel HD30 has super thick insulation and a zippered opening that remains mostly shut when it’s unzipped, which reduces the impact of warmer air when you’re reaching for a cold drink. A cooler with a larger opening is less efficient for ice retention . . . but could be far more user-friendly.
Who makes the best soft cooler?
YETI makes the best overall soft coolers. This, of course, is a bit subjective, but YETI does make a variety of very rugged and waterproof soft coolers that all function very well. Some competing coolers have different features, shapes, lid designs, and costs, but the overall effectiveness and price-to-value ratios of YETI soft-sided coolers is hard to beat.
What soft coolers are comparable to YETI?
While YETI produces some of the very best soft-sided coolers, other manufacturers like Engel, ICEMULE, Hydro Flask, and OtterBox also make excellent soft coolers. Coleman makes the best low-price, budget-focused soft coolers.
Are soft coolers any good?
High-quality soft coolers are best used for day trips, picnics and short camping trips. When packed with 2/3 of the volume with ice, soft coolers can usually retain ice and remain cool for 24-48 hours in real-world usage. It’s best to pre-chill contents before packing and keep a soft cooler out of direct sunlight.
Are Hard or Soft Coolers Better?
For longer trips that require cold food and drink storage for two or more days, hard-sided coolers are better. In addition, hard-sided coolers come in larger sizes and are more durable. On the other hand, soft-sided coolers are lighter and are easier to carry. Choose soft-sided coolers for 1-2 day outings and hard-sided coolers for 2-7 day trips.
Hard Cooler Recommendations
If you’re looking for a small cooler and you’re not sure whether you want a soft or hard cooler, we’re big fans of the YETI Roadie 24 — read our full YETI Roadie 24 review to learn why.
If you need a full-size hard-sided cooler recommendation for longer trips, try the ultra-rugged line of Cabela’s Polar Cap Equalizer Coolers — read our full Cabela’s Polar Cap review here.