The last time you carried your full sized, roto-molded cooler, you threw your back out, didn’t you? Did you have to beg your friends with pizza and beer the same way you did when you moved houses, only this time it was to help you get your cooler positioned?
We love a heavy duty, hard-sided cooler for those all day, all weekend, all week events, but when you just need to get something quick to an impromptu boat trip or an afternoon pickup game, that’s the last thing you want to haul around.
A soft-sided cooler is a great option for those who want something flexible and easy to carry. Without all the weight, you’re freer to move around and won’t have to worry about how your cooler will fit. We’ve put together a list of our top picks for best soft-sided cooler and answered a few questions you may have about what to look for in your soft sided cooler. Let’s take a look.
Why Should I Have A Soft Sided Cooler?
If you’ve already got a full, hard-sided cooler, you may not be so convinced you need a second, smaller cooler. You do.
A soft-sided cooler is more easily stored. You can find them in all kinds of shapes and dimensions, ones that fold, and ones that hang up. You can also decide if you want a removable liner that can handle ice and remove when you need softer sides to squish into a smaller space.
Soft-sided coolers have come a long way since your lunchbox days. Some of our top picks can hold the cold for several days while others at least 24 hours. Some can take ice in different forms. Some have plenty of storage on the exterior to make up for losing some interior storage when you downsize.
Soft-sided coolers free up your hands to carry other things. Most have handles along with a shoulder strap that adjusts to fit most body types. Others can convert to a backpack for even more convenience to carry. The best ones convert to different carrying methods with the option to stow any straps out of the way when the cooler isn’t being transported.
How Do I Choose My Soft-Sided Cooler?
If your cooler isn’t durable, it’s nothing more than a cheap lunchbox. It will disappoint you in the end. Here are a few things you should always consider when investing in a quality soft-sided cooler.
The exterior of coolers takes a beating, so a durable material is essential. Most soft-sided coolers worth buying use a high denier material such as polyester or nylon to prevent punctures and tears. Other options include blends that mimic wetsuits, ballistic style materials, and TPU coated material.
The interior should be a food-safe plastic, preferably with an antibacterial coating that helps it resist mold and mildew. This layer will also help prevent odors from sticking to the material. If the interior insulation is a closed cell variety, particularly from rubber, are excellent insulators without adding a bunch of bulk to the cooler itself.
A substantial weak point in soft-sided coolers is the zipper, which can leak. Waterproof zippers help protect the contents of the cooler, but they also seal the interior, locking in the cold and increasing your ice (or cold) retention rate. They should be durable enough to handle heavy use.
Coolers featuring reinforced bottom and lid material are built to withstand a variety of conditions as well as further insulate the contents from the heat of the ground (or truck bed or boat) and heat that hits the lid from the sun overhead. Coupled with waterproof zippers and closed cell insulation, this design can often get you as many as three to five days of ice retention even with a soft-sided cooler.
Heat sealing or welding seams instead of stitching can help prevent leaks, both in moisture and temperature. Better made coolers have no seaming that can wear over time or allow small bits of melted ice and cold air to escape. These usually come at a premium, but if you need as many days of ice retention that you can get, they’re a must.
Coolers that have wide mouth openings help you reach everything inside without having to fumble around or remove items on the top to get to the bottom. Many soft-sided coolers are a little top heavy, so finding one that stands easily on its own gives you flexibility with placement because you won’t have to prop it next to something to keep it upright.
Once again, make sure that the carrying options are ones you’ll actually use. Coolers with padded, reinforced handles and nothing else may look cute, but if you’re carrying everything else with you, they’re just inconvenient. Likewise, if you have a bad back, you may not be excited to carry a shoulder strap that throws off your center of gravity. A backpack could be a better choice.
The price of well-made coolers may be higher but consider what you’re trading when you go a cheaper route. You end up replacing coolers far sooner than you would if you invested in a better-made option.
Higher end coolers use materials and design methods intended to keep your cooler in top shape for as long as possible. Soft-sided coolers don’t last as long as hard-sided coolers do just because of the softer material, but that doesn’t mean you’re stuck replacing your soft-sided cooler every season. Upgrading in price often means getting years more use out of your cooler.
The money you save buying a cheap cooler could be lost as you replace those cooler again and again due to weak hardware, punctures in the exterior material, and poor insulation, not to mention how much food you lose when your ice retention rate is only a few hours. We recommend finding a good balance between your budget and the quality of your cooler while considering the kind of abuse you put a cooler through when it’s in use.
How Do I Care For My Soft Sided Cooler?
Even though they’re made from softer materials, you can’t just throw them in the washing machine. In fact, you shouldn’t ever use a washing machine to clean your cooler. Instead, wiping the exterior with a soft cloth should do the trick to remove any dirt or grime.
If you have stubborn grime on the interior or exterior, a wet, soapy cloth could also work. Make sure the soap is mild, such as plain dish soap, and never use a bleach product unless the product specifically asks for it.
Store your cooler in a protected place away from sunlight and extreme temperatures. If you have to stack it, make sure it doesn’t have anything on top that can slowly crush it over time. Also, make sure your cooler is entirely empty and dry before putting it away, so it doesn’t grow mold and mildew over time. There’s only so much an antibacterial layer can do.
Should I Prep My Soft Sided Cooler Before Use?
Higher end hard sided coolers often benefit from preparation to get maximum ice retention rates, but we find that most people store their soft-sided coolers inside a temperature controlled house and so prepping is less necessary.
For cheap coolers, it isn’t worth it because insulation doesn’t hold temperatures for very long. If you’ve upgraded to a soft sided cooler that has a much higher retention rate, you should make sure that your cooler is stored in a cool place to kickstart that ice retention estimation.
If you store your higher end cooler in the garage, it could benefit from the same type of prepping that your hard-sided cooler needs. Insulation absorbs ambient temperature over time so consistent warm temps can raise the temperature of your cooler’s insulation. Put in ice, and the insulation melts it faster until it reaches cold temperatures again.
To combat this, fill your soft-sided cooler with ice or cold packs the night before and close the lid or opening. IN the morning, drain off any moisture and top off with fresh ice or cool packs. Your cooler should give you better cold retention.
Our list includes some higher end coolers with fantastic cold retention rates despite soft sided materials. They’re durable and made from materials that can withstand not just casual use but that weekend fly fishing in the middle of nowhere. They all have multiple options for carrying and come in a few different sizes. Let’s take a look.
Our Top Pick: Yeti Hopper
The Yeti Hopper is a tough soft-sided cooler that comes in five different sizes and three different styles to fit both your capacity needs and your budget. Our favorite is the backpack style BackFlip 24. All their coolers feature high denier “dryhide” shell that resists tears, punctures, and UV rays.
The interior uses closed-cell rubber insulation for superior cold retention. The zipper and seams are waterproof, preventing both moisture and temperature leaks as well as protecting the contents from terrible weather conditions.
All the sizes and styles have Molle loops on the front to help with storage and accessories, and all but the bag have a wide mouth, flip style top that gives you easy access to all the contents. The Backflip features convenient shoulder straps and a hip belt to distribute weight evenly across your back. The others have handles or a padded shoulder strap for convenient, hands-free carrying.
These are not cheap, but they do offer you cold retention of several days in ideal conditions and with some preparation. They’re lighter than Yeti’s hard-sided coolers and are suitable for a variety of uses.
- multiple sizes and styles
- Molle loops
- waterproof zipper
- no larger sizes (24 can is the biggest)
Runner Up – Engel HD30
The Engel HD30 is entirely welded with no stitching, increasing both leak resistance and cold retention rates. In fact, under the right circumstances, you can get nearly five days of cold. The exterior is an ultra-durable 840 denier material coated in TPU for tear and puncture resistance.
The interior uses closed cell insulation for a thinner but more complete temperature seal, plus the same heat welded seams to prevent leaks. The zipper is watertight and heavy duty for extended use. It includes a padded shoulder strap to free up your hands, and the body has a unique vacuum feature that removes excess air for a tight seal when you need the absolute most cold retention possible.
It has a bottle opener on the front and comes in a 32 quart (or 48 can) capacity. Unfortunately, there aren’t any other size options with the HD30, but that’s a good medium capacity that should suit most portable cooler needs.
- high cold retention
- durable exterior
- watertight zipper with a vacuum valve
- one capacity size
- a little top heavy
Budget Option: Igloo Marine Switch
If you don’t need the absolute most in performance and budget is a huge factor, an excellent alternative to high-end coolers is the Igloo Marine Switch. It’s a convertible soft-sided cooler with both shoulder strap and stowable backpack straps.
There’s a deep front pocket for storage, and the exterior fabric is a high denier material that helps resist punctures and tears. The interior is a food safe lining with antibacterial layering that prevents mold and mildew. Cold retention is about 24 hours, which is respectable considering the price tag.
All hardware is noncorrosive and includes reinforced attachment points. It holds about 32 12 ounce cans overall with an ice ratio of two to one. The zipper isn’t waterproof, but it is durable and can withstand some heavy use. It’s top heavy, so you may be limited for where exactly you can store it, but overall, it’s a good budget option for casual use.
- convertible backpack style
- deep front pocket
- cold retention of about 24 hours (good for budget cooler, though)
- top heavy
Best Backpack: Otterbox Trooper LT 30
The Otterbox Trooper LT 30 has a unique backpack design that both stands on its own and has a wide mouth, doctor bag style opening with hinges on either side. This makes it easier to pack and prevents you from having to remove items from the top to reach all the way to the bottom.
It has a durable exterior material made with high denier, TPU coated nylon. It resists tears, punctures, and UV damage as well as remaining completely waterproof. The locking lid keeps out all weather and holds in the cold for up to three days.
All hardware is reinforced and corrosion resistant, made from Otterbox’s Duraflex material. They can withstand some abuse, and the entire cooler is suitable for more in-depth trips outdoors. It stands on its own, but the straps aren’t stowable.
- backpack style
- durable exterior
- wide mouth opening
- backpack straps aren’t stowable
- only one capacity available
Best For Ice: Grizzly Drifter
The Grizzly Drifter is a durable cooler that comes in two different sizes, 12 quart and 20 quart. The exterior material is a waterproof, ballistic polyester that also resists punctures and tears. It has an exterior pocket for storage, plus padded, reinforced handles and a removable shoulder strap.
The interior uses a food-safe liner with EVA insulation that increases cold retention without adding bulk. The design includes a watertight liner that can hold ice without leaks, then roll down to make storage for dry goods. It’s the perfect hybrid cooler for both ice and cold packs when you don’t want to make a massive mess with your melting ice.
The hardware is reinforced, and the shape is a full mouth design that allows access to all contents easily. It stands entirely on its own with no trouble and even includes a bottle opener on the exterior for the final touch.
- removable watertight liner
- helps organize both dry and cold storage
- good exterior organization
- only two sizes available
Soft-sided coolers are excellent alternatives to the bulk and weight of your traditional hard-sided cooler. They won’t hold cold for as long, but they will be more flexible for times when you don’t have the help or the energy to lug around your big cooler.
Smaller soft-sided coolers can still be durable and should include materials that can withstand some environmental abuse without coming apart. Hardware should be reinforced and corrosion resistant, and in the case of zippers, should be watertight to remove temperature leaks. Proper insulation is critical as well, so you keep your streamlined cooler without sacrificing too much cold retention.
Take care of your cooler by gently wiping away messes and make sure you store your cooler completely dry for the best results. Your soft-sided cooler should bring you years of enjoyment, no back pain in tow.