The last time you hauled your cooler to that spot at the game or your outdoor party, you really needed your hands for other things. Instead, you struggled to carry the cooler and had to walk back for everything else. It’s not that you don’t love your full-sized cooler. It’s just that sometimes, you need your hands free.

Backpack coolers offer you a lot of functionality when you just need to carry supplies for the day or possibly the weekend. They help you keep your hands free and move easily wherever you need to go. If you don’t know where to start, we’ve got our favorite picks for best backpack cooler. Plus, we’ve answered some questions you may have about how to choose. Let’s take a look.

Why Should I Have A Backpack Cooler?

Your full-sized cooler is excellent to anchor a party, but when you’re mostly mobile, it’s a pain. Sure, you could get a smaller hard-sided cooler, but you still have to carry it with your hands, preventing you from handling other things. Need to keep your toddler in a death grip across the parking lot? Backpack cooler. Need to haul a beach chair, umbrella, towel, bag full of essentials like sunscreen, and your favorite book? Backpack cooler.

Higher end coolers will be insulated enough to hold ice for at least 24 hours or possibly more. These aren’t your typical soft-sided coolers. They’re built for performance, keeping your items cool all day long with no issues or sometimes for the entire weekend. It’s great for those quick trips or for sweltering heat when you don’t want a wet mess with a cheap cooler.

How Do I Choose My Backpack Cooler?

Backpack coolers aren’t all equal. There are a few different things that are important to your choice, so let’s take a look at a few things you need to consider before your purchase.

Materials

Cheap coolers are made of simple polyester with simple insulation. They’re full of weak spots in the insulation that allow cold to escape, leaving you with a leaky mess at the end of the day. Newer coolers use better materials designed for performance. Polyester coated with TPU creates a tear and puncture resistant exterior that can better hold insulation without weak spots. It’s also water resistant, helping protect your contents.

Insulation should be a closed cell material like rubber. This insulation is more efficient at keeping in the cold and absorbing those temperatures without allowing leaks. If you can get heat sealed seams instead of stitching, you could actually use ice on the interior without leaks. The inside lining should have some sort of coating to help resist bacteria, mold, and mildew.

Reinforced straps using a herringbone weave or other type of secure design. Straps are traditionally a weak point on a cooler, so makes sure those are strengthened. The zipper should be watertight if you can manage it because that should seal in the cold and make it possible for the cooler to last more than a day.

Design

Most backpack coolers aren’t exactly ergonomic, and they aren’t intended to be. Instead, they’re designed to make it easier to pack and retrieve items without having to unpack the entire cooler. A wide opening makes that less awkward because you’ll end up needing that one juice box in the bottom if you don’t pay attention.

Zippers should be heavy duty and glide through to open. If they zip all the way around, it can make it easier to get everything. If you don’t have a zipper opening, a hinge can also allow you to reach contents and pack more efficiently while sealing the opening when you’re finished.

The straps should be padded to help distribute the weight of the cooler better across your entire back instead of falling solely on pressure points. Since you lose some storage just by size alone, having outside storage can be an excellent option for wrangling smaller items. It’s best to have at least one exterior pocket for storage.

Size

If you have only yourself to deal with, a cooler that packs around 12 cans with ice could be plenty to cover you through the day. Keep in mind that if you’re packing only drinks, a two to one ratio of ice to cans should be sufficient.

Backpack coolers can get much larger to account for more people and more things, but you should consider how heavy it can get. The weight of the cooler when it’s upacked is a critical component in determining the size because you’ll need to account for the weight of the cooler itself in addition to the contents.

Price

Higher end coolers can be pricey. Here’s the thing, however. How much money have you spent over the years on cheap coolers, replacing them every few months when the zipper tears or you get a puncture? Probably a lot. Investing in a pricier cooler can save money in the long run because you invest once and possibly have it for a lifetime.

If budget is the biggest concern, there are some alternatives to higher end coolers that you can go for, but we really believe that if you can swing it, it’s best to go ahead and invest in a well-made, high-end cooler that can follow you year after year. The good news is that the backpack cooler may not be as expensive as your larger, roto-molded cooler.

How Do I Care For My Backpack Cooler?

You should never use a harsh cleaner on your cooler because it can degrade the UV protective surface over time and cause issues with the interior materials. Instead, wipe down any grime with a soft, damp cloth. If you need more help, use a mild soap such as a simple dish detergent that can help cut through grease.

Make sure any moisture is completely dry before you store your cooler for the long term so that mold or mildew don’t have a chance to grow inside. Even with coated interiors, prolonged exposure to moisture can still cause mildews to form.

Avoid storing your cooler in direct sunlight or out in the elements so that it doesn’t cause issues with the lining or break down any seaming. Keep it in storage away from exposure and away for any kind of extreme temperature changes.

Should I Prep My Backpack Cooler Before Use?

Hard-sided coolers often benefit from having some prep before use, but generally, soft-sided coolers don’t need any preparation. However, since soft-sided coolers are getting better, it may be a good idea. Here’s how you do it and why.

Closed cell insulation often absorbs the ambient temperature of the room over time, so if your cooler is in storage in your warm garage, it could be warm when you put ice or cold packs in. Until the insulation cools down, it’s going to rob your cold pack of those cold temperatures and reduce the cold time.

The night before, fill your cooler with cold packs or ice (if it’s compatible) and close the lid. The next morning, drain any excess water and top off with ice or refill with fresh cold packs. The temperature should be ideal and allow you to go for the whole day or longer.

The List

Our favorite coolers are excellent options for a simple afternoon out or even a weekend with the guys. They’re durable and never leak. Most might be quite an investment, but once you take the plunge, you’ll be glad you did.

Top Pick – Otterbox Trooper 30

The Otterbox Trooper LT 30 is one of our favorite coolers on this planet. It has a wide hinged mouth and plenty of space to pack for a weekend, all while fitting on your back comfortably. It features a 30-quart capacity and spots to mount accessories to the front, allowing you to customize what you want to carry. Plus, it includes Otterbox’s trademark bottle opener right on the front.

The exterior material is tear-resistant nylon with a TPU coating. It’s waterproof and puncture resistant as well. It holds in several layers of closed cell, rubber insulation for a cool that can last up to three days with the right preparations. Inside, a food-safe lining with antibacterial coating helps reduce mold and mildew and keep down odors. The seams are also watertight so you can pack without stuff leaking down your back.

The base is reinforced to protect from abrasive wear and tear and to help it stand upright when you aren’t carrying it. It also includes duraflex hardware for traditionally weak spots such as tie downs. The straps are also reinforced.

It has a one-handed opening mechanism that seals the bag completely when closed. The carry straps have two inches of padding to help distribute weight. It comes with Otterbox’s lifetime warranty against defects, so you never have to invest in a cooler again after this one.

Pros:

  • customizable exterior storage
  • extra wide, one-handed operation opening
  • 30-quart capacity
  • long cold capacity

Cons:

  • nowhere to stow straps when not carrying
  • only one size option

Runner Up – Yeti Hopper Backflip 24

The Yeti Hopper is a classic soft-sided design, and when Yeti added straps, we were sold. It features the same things you love about the Hopper – durability, cold retention, and convenience – all while freeing up your hands.

It features Dryhide, a durable exterior material that resists tearing and punctures. Inside, a food grade safe liner with heat-sealed seams prevents leaks, but liquid and air. The insulation is industrial grade, closed cell rubber foam to give you cold storage of several days. It has a waterproof and leak proof zipper that won’t pull or get off track, locking in the cold for days, yet remaining easy to operate.

The outside has Molle webbing for attaching accessories however you like. It holds 24 cans of beer or about 25 pounds of ice by itself and weighs just over five pounds completely empty. The mouth opens wide, so you can see what you’ve got inside and have space to maneuver.

The shape of the pack is great for carrying, but it’s less efficient for packing. You have to stack things on top of one another because it’s tall and narrow. Yeti prioritized easier, ergonomic carrying over packability, here. You get almost the same space, but it’s not quite as convenient as the Otterbox in our opinion.

Nevertheless, it performs excellently, and if you prefer a streamlined carry, the Yeti style may work better for you than the Otterbox above. Plus, the removable chest and hip straps help distribute weight better while the shoulder straps are more comfortable to stow.

Pros:

  • Molle webbing offers customizable storage
  • lightweight when empty
  • more ergonomic carrying potential
  • long ice retention rates

Cons:

  • only one size
  • packing isn’t as convenient

Best Affordable Alternative – RTIC Backpack Cooler

RTIC’s construction is very similar to the way the Yeti is designed but at half the price. It features a durable nylon exterior that’s puncture resistant and so waterproof that it will float temporarily if you drop it in water. The interior is food safe lining with heat sealed seams.

Commercial grade, closed cell insulation helps keep contents cold for several days while a truly waterproof zipper helps stop any air leaks that can compromise the integrity of your cold storage. It has a 35 quart capacity and webbing on the front to attach carabiner style storage or accessories.

The shoulder straps are padded and help distribute the weight across shoulders instead of just on pressure points. Plus, a chest and hip belt help you position the backpack when it’s filled to the brim. These aren’t removable, unfortunately.

The webbing isn’t as efficient as Molle, so the Yeti wins out here. Plus, permanent chest and hip straps are a bit inconvenient when you don’t need them and can create a trip hazard when the cooler is on the ground. Other than that, it’s a great alternative to Yeti’s price tag.

Pros

  • affordable (half the price of comparable bags without sacrificing performance)
  • waterproof (and floats)
  • wide-mouthed opening
  • webbing on the front for accessories

Cons:

  • webbing isn’t as convenient as Molle for most people
  • hip and chest belts aren’t removable

Best Convertible Cooler – Engel Backpack

Engel’s backpack cooler can convert from a backpack to a simple shoulder carry for those of you who need some flexibility. It has a cold retention time of three days and uses a rugged 500 denier ripstop material, making it puncture and tear resistant. The zipper is airtight, creating a lock against both liquid and air leaks that can compromise temperatures inside.

Its design is wider, allowing for easier maneuvering getting packed and getting things back out. Engel welds all seams in every cooler they make, so you never have to worry about leaks. It has a reflective barrier on the interior to help repel any exterior heat coming from the sun or another source of heat (beach sand, for example).

It holds about 23 quarts and weighs four pounds when empty. The ice retention rate is for typical conditions, making it also one of the most efficient coolers we have on the list. We still prefer the way the Otterbox or the wider mouth Yeti opens, but this cooler is excellent for those who prefer a classic, bag style cooler.

Pros:

  • long cold retention
  • heat reflective barrier
  • convertible straps
  • welded seams

Cons:

  • mouth isn’t very wide
  • very narrow

Best Personal: Orca Podster

Sometimes you just need something for yourself, and that’s where the Orca Podster comes in. It’s a smaller version of the Orca pod but features all the same performance materials as the Pod. It has an 840 double denier exterior material with a TPU coating that prevents tears and punctures. Plus, it’s completely waterproof.

The interior uses welded seams and a food-safe liner for complete cold retention. Commercial grade, closed cell foam insulation seals in temperatures while the airtight zipper prevents leaks from the top. The lining is also antibacterial, resisting odors, mold, and mildew.

It holds around 3.5 quarts, making it perfect for a personal cooler. It’s not very ergonomic to carry, but the flip-top mouth allows easy access to everything inside without having to unpack to get to the bottom. It’s quite an investment, but you’ll only have to buy a personal cooler once, and you’re set for life.

Pros:

  • small size is excellent for everyday carrying
  • durable exterior
  • Molle webbing on the surface
  • long cold retention times.

Cons:

  • the shape isn’t ergonomic
  • no waist strap.

Final Thoughts

Backpack coolers offer you a way to get your contents to your site without having to use hands or waste your time taking multiple trips. They’re convenient and flexible, giving you far more options for when and how you can take the cooler. There’s a time and place for your full sized, roto-molded cooler, but sometimes you just need something that can travel just as quickly as you do. A backpack cooler fills that gap.

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