The 5 best soft coolers we tested in 2021 that actually keep drinks cold

Table of Contents: Masthead Sticky

  • Soft cooler bags are easier to carry than hard coolers, but it’s harder to find one that stays cold.
  • The best soft cooler is big enough for drinks and food, comfortable to carry, and keeps ice for days.
  • Our top pick, the Yeti Hopper M30, is large, stays cold, and is durable enough to last years.

Whether you’re going camping, to the beach, or to a picnic in the park, you need a reliable cooler. Though there’s still a time and place for a traditional cooler, soft cooler bags are a rising commodity – and for good reason. The best soft-sided coolers are lighter and easier to carry than their hard, rotomolded brethren. But they also don’t hold the cold for as long, and can’t fit as much as a bigger, hard cooler.

Because there’s so much variability, we tested the best soft coolers, including YETI soft coolers, on hikes, camping trips, fishing outings, and casual trips to the park. The best soft coolers can keep ice (and beer) cold for at least two days (realistically, if you’re opening it regularly), are comfortable to carry, and have enough room to fit all the snacks and drinks you want to take with you.

With dozens of hours spent testing, the following guide features our five favorites, all classified into categories they particularly excelled at – save for the Yeti soft cooler, which is our favorite soft cooler bag overall.

Here are the best soft coolers:

How we tested

hopperm30

Each soft cooler in this guide went through a series of tests across hikes, camping trips, fishing outings, and casual trips to the park to assess how well they stood up across these four categories: 

  • Capacity: The best soft cooler needs to have room for both all your drinks and food, as well as for the ice to keep everything cold. Some soft coolers come in dedicated sizes, which makes their capacity rating easier to judge, and also makes the shopping process simple: If you need more space, buy a bigger cooler. We also looked at how if the soft coolers offered storage for other essentials like smartphones, car keys, dry food, etc. 
  • Ice retention: A cooler bag is hardly reliable if it doesn’t live up to its namesake and keep ice for longer than a few hours. Thankfully, most modern coolers feature insulation technology that allows them to hold ice for several days — though we still put these claims to the test to see just how reliable each cooler’s ice retention actually was.
  • Portability: One of the hallmarks of a soft cooler is its portability. Be it via backpack-like straps, a pair of comfortable handles, or even a shoulder strap, it should be easy to haul around (even when full of ice, food, and drinks).
  • Value: Coolers of any variety can be expensive, and soft coolers are no different. However, the value of a soft cooler is more than just its sticker price and more so a combination of the three categories above and if it’s worth the investment. We always feel that it’s better to spend a little more on something that’s designed to last than to spend less more often on an inferior product. 

The best soft cooler overall

yetim30

YETI’s Hopper M30 tote-style soft cooler is the most durable cooler I tested (it will last years), plus it’s comfortable to carry, keeps ice frozen, and has a huge storage capacity. 

Pros: Sturdy, sleek, airtight

Cons: Heavy compared with some other picks (but that’s due to the quality insulation), stiff, expensive, may be overkill for casual day use

Some say Yeti coolers are overbuilt, and if you’re just looking for something to carry drinks to the beach a few days a year, you definitely don’t need to pay for this superior construction. But if you’ll be hauling the cooler on all sorts of outdoor adventurers, some of which will be multi-day, the higher price tag is worth it for Yeti’s durability and design.

Yes, it’s expensive, but before you scoff at the price tag of the Yeti soft cooler, let’s get something straight: Cheap soft cooler bags will keep your ice frozen but most fall apart after a few months. The Yeti Hopper M30 lasts literally years and years. 

The durability is real: I threw this cooler down a grip tape-lined set of stairs thinking it would lead to at least one abrasion. Nothing. I tipped it upside-down and left it that way for hours. Not a drip. I yanked, ripped, and pulled at the zipper in every wrong way with all my might. Not even the hint of a budge, and it was still airtight afterward.

What’s more, the brand offers a three-year warranty on Yeti soft coolers where many other manufacturers only offer one.

Aside from its durability, the Hopper also does an excellent job of keeping what’s stored inside chilled throughout the day, even in warm weather. Featuring the brand’s patented closed-cell foam, Coldcell Insulation, you can expect upwards of 15 to 20 hours of kept ice — give or take a few hours depending on how often you open and close it, if it’s left open for any amount of time, or if it’s sitting in direct sunlight.

Capacity-wise, it’s able to hold a surprising amount of both food and drink. Even when I stocked it with more cans my crew would need for a day out, there was still enough room to throw in a few sandwiches and some additional snacks. Its padded shoulder strap came is a lovely addition, making it more comfortable to carry when it’s full up and I was walking from car to campsite, hauling it down to the beach, or slinging it on my back while biking to the park. 

The bag itself is also fairly rigid and the zipper is quite tight if you’re not used to Yeti’s heavily-designed waterproof technology — so much so that you need two hands to do anything with it, which is the only remaining downside of the Hopper.

Read our full review of the Yeti Hopper M30.

The best soft cooler on a budget

aocooler

AO Coolers are less than a third of the price of our top picks, but they are still excellent at keeping food and drinks cold.

Pros: Affordable, thick insulation, durable exterior lining

Cons: Cheap zipper, inconsistencies in stitching

Budget coolers tend to have inferior insulation, weak stitching, or leakage issues, so we generally avoid recommending them. But AO Coolers buck the trend by offering relatively well-constructed options that are also affordable.

What makes its coolers particularly impressive is its 3/4-inch insulation and durable exterior lining, whether you choose the canvas, vinyl, or woven vinyl model. It’s worth noting that during testing, I could sometimes feel cool air escaping, but it wasn’t enough to cause my ice to melt at an alarming rate.

The AO Cooler size and capacity are best-suited for shorter outings like day hikes or picnics, so ice melt becomes less of an issue. That being said, if you take it on a weekend camping trip, you’ll probably need to replenish the ice once or twice — in my testing, this was especially true on hotter days.  

The stitching throughout isn’t the best and, out of the box, I noticed a few loose threads. These wouldn’t spell the end of the cooler even if they did go, but these inconsistencies and loose stitches, as well as the basic YKK zipper, do put it in a significantly lower category of durability than the Yeti soft cooler. At this price range, however, it’s the best soft cooler bag we’ve found.

If you’re just looking for a soft-sided cooler to keep sandwiches and drinks cool on your way to the beach or a picnic, this AO Cooler is the most worth your money.

The most versatile soft cooler

OtterboxTrooper

The OtterBox Trooper LT 30 is a sort of customizable Swiss Army knife of soft coolers, coming standard with an accessory mounting system while also offering a 30-quart capacity and insulation designed to keep ice for up to three days.

Pros: 30-quart capacity can hold plenty of ice and drinks for 2-4 people, padded shoulder straps make for easy transport, rugged and durable construction, accessory points allow for a wide variety of customization

Cons: May be bulky for on-the-go transport

From the brand well-known for its durable phone cases, OtterBox also makes a line of seriously impressive coolers, including a highly versatile soft cooler called the Trooper LT 30. Outfitted with accessory hooks that allow you to put everything on it from a bottle opener or dry box to tie-down loops or a hook for more gear, the Trooper LT is great for a wide variety of use cases. 

Following the brand’s standard approach for indestructible construction, the Trooper LT features a wide base that allows the soft cooler to stand on its own, a TPU-coated nylon exterior that’s puncture-proof, and a reliable clasp system that’s durable and leak-proof to trap the temperature in. The interior has a capacity of 30 quarts, which, during my testing, held a little more than a bag of ice (there’s even an ice-fill line drawn on, which I loved) plus a 12-pack of soda or beer, and a few chilled snacks. 

In my experience, carrying the Trooper LT was easy, even when full, as it comes with two padded backpack-like straps on the rear which can also turn into a shoulder strap if need be. Two exterior pockets can hold bottle openers or even a smartphone and have water-tight zippers for added security.

OtterBox lists the cooler as being able to hold ice for up to three days, which I found to be a close assessment. On a two-day camp trip, I was able to purchase just one bag of ice and it held up the entire trip, and on single-day hikes, there was very little water to drain after a few hours on the trail. 

Though I mostly used this on car camping trips or while hiking, its versatility allows it to work well while fishing, biking, or just hanging out in your backyard. It’s not exactly cheap, but this cooler isn’t going anywhere anytime soon and figures to be a durable addition to your outdoor kit for years. — Rick Stella, Health & Fitness Editor

The best soft cooler backpack

icemuleprocanvas

The IceMule Pro is lightweight, compactable, essentially waterproof, and it won’t break the bank.

Pros: Lightweight, fairly priced, stowable, features a burping valve to let out excess air, easy to clean

Cons: Insulation could be better

IceMule’s wonderfully-designed dry-bag-style coolers are insulated to the point of being just sufficiently padded to wear as a backpack without having precariously packed beer bottles digging into you. They’re also completely airtight thanks to the roll-top design, which eliminates the fail point of a zipper.

The IceMule soft cooler line has received a good deal of praise despite a few early hiccups with design, including torn inner lining, water getting between the exterior and interior linings, and a cheap, beach-ball-like air release valve.

As far as I can tell, all of these issues have been addressed and resolved, and having an IceMule Pro to zip back and forth between the dock and the apartment for fishing trips has been an absolute delight. And, when you’re not using it, it folds flat and stores easily. It also doubles well as a regular backpack.

The IceMule Pro soft cooler comes in either vinyl or canvas, and after having tested both, I feel a little more confident in and comfortable wearing the canvas. On the other hand, the canvas only comes in black, which may not be the best color for a cooler. 

Its insulation does leave a bit to be desired, though a lot of that can be attributed to how often I’d open or close the bag. IceMule rates the Pro as able to hold ice for up to 24 hours (and cold temperatures for as many as two days), but judging by how quickly the ice would melt while I used it, 24 hours seemed like a stretch. What this means is a little more water in the bag after a day’s use, and the need to re-up ice on days two and three if you’re camping.

The best multi-purpose soft cooler

REI Cooler Pack

REI’s Cool Trail Split Pack offers ample storage space for both chilled and dry food and beverages, making it the perfect day hike companion. 

Pros: An area for both chilled and dry goods, padded shoulder straps and back panel make for comfortable transport, features REI’s tried-and-true durable construction

Cons: Lacks the capacity of most dedicated soft coolers

Most soft coolers offer one area for storing and chilling your food and drinks. REI Co-op’s Cool Trail Split Pack blends the best of both worlds by featuring the ability to house both chilled and dry goods at the same time. 

It does this by splitting the pack into two sections: a cooler-like bottom for storing ice and anything that needs to be cold and a dry top for everything else (i.e. food, change of layers, smartphone, car keys, etc.). 

Because of that design, the Cool Trail Split Pack looks like a sort of boxy backpack, featuring padded shoulder straps, as well as a chest strap and a padded back panel for added comfort — something that was much appreciated while testing this on multi-mile hikes and longer-than-expected bike rides. The pack is manufactured out of recycled ripstop nylon (like what you’d find in REI’s tents) and a polyester interior, making it highly durable both inside and out.

In terms of performance, the pack was able to keep everything stored in the cooler section chilled for an entire day spent hiking or hanging at the park in the middle of summer. Ice would begin to melt throughout the day, and especially so when the cooler section was left open while taking a short break, but I never experienced any leakage, even if the pack was laid on its side or jostling around on my back. 

One minor drawback would be that the pack is good enough for nourishing maybe two or three people as its capacity is far smaller than others on this list. But with how much it makes up for that lack of capacity by offering a spot for dry good, it’s well worth the investment. — Rick Stella, Health & Fitness Editor

How to shop for a soft cooler

The best soft cooler for you is entirely dependent on how often you’ll use it and what you’ll use it for the most. If you’re just transporting your lunch to the office or bringing snacks to your kids soccer game, you don’t need to drop more than $100 and your main areas of consideration are ease of opening, size capacity, and comfort while carrying. 

However, fishermen, frequent campers, and hikers will probably want to look for a soft-sided cooler with these three features, plus one that will last a long time (read: durable) and is well-built to keep ice frozen longer. After all, a reliable soft cooler bag is the difference between grabbing a cold beer or soda instead of a lukewarm swill; having safely-chilled meat to grill up on a camping trip; or bringing home freshly-caught fillets or those that have spoiled in the heat on your boat.

Most often, anyone looking to buy a soft cooler wants closed-cell insulation. Open-cell insulation is basically polyurethane packaging foam; it’s lightweight, airy, and the air bubbles that form the insulation are loosely arranged, which isn’t terribly effective. Closed-cell, on the other hand, is a bit heavier and pricier, since the construction has individual air bubbles that insulate far better. But it’s the best design to keep ice (and whatever else is inside) cold. This is partly what makes coolers in the Yeti and Rtic tiers so much more expensive. Of course, we can’t deny that you’re paying for the name, too.

Check out our other cooler buying guides

yeti

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The 6 best headlamps of 2021, for hiking, camping, or doing housework

Table of Contents: Masthead Sticky

  • Headlamps offer a hands-free way of hiking or camping at night, and can also be used around the house.
  • The best headlamps should offer long battery life, fit comfortably, and have variable light modes.
  • Our top pick, BioLite’s Headlamp 330, is lightweight and comfortable, and has a sweat-wicking headband.

A headlamp is one of the most important pieces of anyone’s outdoor kit. Unlike an ordinary flashlight, which requires you to physically hold it in your hand, headlamps conveniently affix to your head to illuminate whatever’s in front of you. That could be a hiking trail, a dark campsite, or even under the hood of a car – no matter its use case, that convenience can’t be understated.

But not all headlamps are created equal. Some are designed specifically for, say, trail running, built to be lightweight on a runner’s head, while others are more robust, intended to pump out hundreds of lumens for several hours. And there are plenty more that are just useful enough to get the job done, which are perfect for stashing in a camp tote or in your car’s glove box.

As an avid camper for much of my life, I’ve long respected the value of a proper headlamp – it’s literally a night and day difference navigating a backcountry campsite in the pitch black as opposed to wearing a headlamp. But the same headlamp I use while backpacking differs from what I use while car camping, or what I grab to go biking or running. Needless to say, I’ve worn plenty of headlamps – some good, some awful, and many in between.

Just as my needs vary regarding the types of headlamps I need for the kinds of activities I enjoy, so, too, does the design and innovation native to what’s on the market. To find the best, I decided to field test a variety of headlamps from brands like BioLite and Ledlensder. Below are my six favorites, perfect for everything from camping and cycling to working around the house.

I’ve also included some tips on how to shop for a headlamp and what to keep in mind, as well as the testing methodology I used to narrow down which models ultimately made the cut.

Here are the best headlamps:

How we test headlamps

Best Headlamps (amazon; BioLite) 4x3

Each of the headlamps featured in this guide went through a number of tests to determine how well they compared across these four categories: Comfort, brightness, battery life, and value. Here’s how each category specifically factored into which headlamps made this guide:

Comfort: Since you’ll be wearing a headlamp on your head for what could be upwards of an hour or more at a time, it’s vital that the one you choose is comfortable. To test for this, we looked at the materials used in the headbands, how it felt to wear the headlamp for an extended period of time, and if it remained comfortable while doing normal tasks like setting up camp or even just walking around. 

Brightness: The best headlamps should have a number of variable brightness settings and some even allow for custom control over the size of the beam. What makes brightness settings so important is that you don’t always want a headlamp that’s on full blast the entire time you need to use it. Having the ability to toggle between a range of settings is an important feature.

Battery life: A headlamp is no good if its battery only lasts a couple of hours. Sure, you could buy one that takes batteries but you don’t want to be lugging around a bag of batteries everywhere you go with it (this is especially true for backpackers). 

Value: The exact value of a headlamp is dependent on how you intend to use it, but at the very least you should look for one that does well in the three categories above. And while there are decent budget options available (we’ve included one in our guide), buying the cheapest headlamp you find isn’t something we recommend doing. Often, it’s best to spend a little more on a product designed to last. 

The best headlamp overall

biolitelamp

No headlamp I’ve tested has been near as comfortable as the BioLite HeadLamp 330. With a balanced, comfortable fit and a sweat-wicking headband, it’s our favorite headlamp for any outdoor activity. 

Pros: Durable, moisture-wicking headband, balanced with light and battery in front and back, respectively

Cons: Doesn’t take AAA or AA batteries as backup, the lithium-ion battery is not removable (you can’t get a spare battery to take with you and swap out, but a power pack would fix that), 330 lumens is bright, but could be brighter (still, it saves on battery)

Headlamps may seem like lightweight, unrestrictive tools (or toys) but having those extra few ounces bobbing up and down on your forehead for several hours at a time takes its tolls. Not only are some of the heavier and more powerful options a literal drag, but they’re also annoying, even if you don’t realize it. I didn’t.

With the BioLite HeadLamp 330, its 330 lumens of output is a good balance between what most of us need to be able to see in the dark and how long the battery life lasts, which is a respectable 40 hours on the low setting and around 3.5 hours on high. It also makes a good reading light and avoids reflecting off the pages of your book or magazine to blind you.

I took the HeadLamp 330 fishing at night, hiking to camp, hiking just to hike, and generally just stumbling about in the dark behind my father’s woodshop, which is, for all intents and purposes, a treacherous deathtrap of wood and metal scraps. Yes, dearest reader, I take my job, and your safety, extremely seriously. I’m glad to report that, throughout the testing process, there was not a single visit to the emergency room.

In all seriousness, the best thing about the HeadLamp 330 is how well balanced it is. With the light in front and the battery pack in the back, you don’t feel the strain of a light and a battery pack dragging your forehead down.

The most notable spec about this headlamp is that the light and battery are separate, which puts a lot less weight on your forehead, and the light itself. The whole kit, I might add, weighs only 69 grams, or less than 2.5 ounces.

One common problem we see a lot with headlamps is that the joint where the light meets the base loses its threads or just breaks altogether, especially when the batteries are in the same pivoting unit as the light. BioLite does away with any such worry.

Speaking of pivoting, the light pivots up and down between four positions, which is, in my opinion, just enough. There’s also a red light, which makes it a lot easier for your eyes to readjust after you flick it off.

The small on/off button (gray, left of center) can be a little hard to find at first, but you’ll learn to love it because you’ll find that you won’t accidentally activate the epileptic test strobe in your hiking partner’s face, and it’s actually positioned right where you want to be (at least, if you’re adjusting it with your right hand). — Owen Burke

The best budget headlamp

Vitchelo headlamp

The Vitchelo V800 Headlamp is affordable and reliable, ready to illuminate objects both near and far even in adverse conditions.

Pros: Durable and weather-resistant, affordable price, white and red strobe functions

Cons: Easily turns on by accident, no floodlight setting

The Vitchelo V800 headlamp punches well above its weight. For a light that costs only around sixteen bucks, it has attributes you’d expect from a unit valued at double that price, or more. It has three brightness settings for its white light and a strobe feature, which can be valuable during an emergency when you want to be spotted by responders or when you’re assisting with emergency response and need to stay in touch with your team. The headlamp also has a solid and flashing red light.

Thanks to an IPX6 waterproof rating, this headlamp should be impervious to damage from rainfall or even a quick drop in a puddle or stream — just don’t wear it while you scuba dive. And at its low output setting, the white light can shine for up to 120 hours with fresh batteries, so you’ll have ample time to work, search, travel, or conduct other activities.

One reason I would not recommend this for a backpacker or camper is that the buttons are easily pressed by gear tumbling in your bag. A headlamp shining in a pack all day might mean dead batteries when you need it at night. That’s not much an issue when the unit is stashed in a nightstand or in your emergency prep kit, though — just make sure it’s not on when you close the drawer or the bag and you should be good.

The best high-power headlamp

Ledlenser H7R Signature headlamp

The H7R Signature from Ledlenser delivers up to 1200 lumens, has seven light settings, including an SOS function, and can even be controlled with Bluetooth via a smartphone.

Pros: Seven different light settings, including an SOS distress signal that blinks in Morse code, offers up to 1200 lumens, rated IP67 against water and dust, has Bluetooth capability with a compatible smartphone for custom light settings

Cons: Expensive

Just about any Ledlenser headlamp could slot into one of the categories in this guide, but the H7R Signature gets the nod thanks to its incredible light output of up to 1200 lumens. Now, of course, you likely won’t need that much power all the time, but when you do, it’s incredibly handy to have it at your disposal. 

The H7R Signature impresses across the board, too, not just regarding its power. It comes with an easy-to-adjust head strap that stays comfortable, even after prolonged use (though, it may start to feel a little heavy due to a heavy-ish, rear-mounted battery). It’s clear Ledlenser took the time to properly balance it, as well, so even if that battery is a little heavy, it never feels awkward or like your head has to tilt too far to one side.

One of the best features of the H7R is its 7 different light modes, which include Power, Low Power, Boost, Blink, Position, SOS, and Strobe. The SOS function is particularly interesting, as it flashes a strobed distress signal that sends an SOS in Morse Code when activated. Many of the other light modes, like Position and Strobe, are also designed to alert people of your position.

The H7R features a rechargeable internal battery, so you won’t have to worry about lugging any batteries along with it, and it’s also rated IP67 against dust and water. Bluetooth capability also allows the headlamp to be controlled and customized via a compatible smartphone.

Perhaps its lone downside, however, is the fact it costs $175. Though this isn’t a dealbreaker, it is a lot to spend on a headlamp. The H7R is designed to last for several years (if not upwards of a decade), so the investment is a sound one, especially if you’ll be using it often.

The best rechargeable headlamp

BioLite_HeadLamp750_Front

The Headlamp 750 from BioLite is as good as rechargeable headlamps get, offering up to 750 lumens of output, a fit that stays comfortable for hours, and a Run Forever mode that lets it operate as you charge it on-the-go.

Pros: Comfortable headband, 8 different light modes that can all be individually dimmed, Run Forever mode lets you charge it while it operates, low profile design

Cons: Expensive

The BioLite name is synonymous with quality portable lighting and its new Headlamp 750 continues that tradition in an impressive way. Much like our best overall pick, the Headlamp 330, the 750 takes traditional headlamp tech and adds more to it than you ever thought you needed. 

Want to charge it while you’re using it on-the-go? The 750 can do it. How about 8 different light modes, each with the ability to dim? It has that, too. The 750’s strength is in its versatility, and it’s the kind of headlamp that you’d want to bring with you on weekend camping trips, multi-day backpacking treks, the occasional nighttime hike, or literally anything — it works as well for getting under the sink or working on your car, too. 

As mentioned, the 750 offers up to 8 different light modes to choose from: Red flood, white spot, white flood, spot and flood, white strobe, 30-second burst, rear red flood, and rear red strobe. Not only will you be able to have complete control over what the headlamp illuminates and how it illuminates it, but you’ll also be visible to whoever’s around you. 

Then there’s its Run Forever feature that allows you to plug in a portable power bank to keep the headlamp charged even while it’s running. Though the idea of lugging around a power bank only to have it hanging off the back of your head doesn’t sound comfortable, sticking it into a backpack or opting for a lightweight battery pack is recommended. 

It’s also extremely comfortable. BioLite’s 3D SlimFit construction means the headlamp’s components are built into the band itself, reducing what can unnecessarily snag (and making it incredibly low profile in the process). The power unit built into the back of the headlamp also distributes its weight evenly to avoid it bobbing up and down on your head — something many headlamps have a hard time actually doing but the 750 seemed to do it well during our tests.

At $100, it’s certainly not a cheap headlamp but if it holds up as well as it did during our time with it, you likely won’t be spending much more on a headlamp for quite some time. It’s highly durable, comfortable wear, and packed with useful features for just about any use case. 

The best headlamp for cycling

Hleane Rechargeable LED Zoomable Headlamp

Wearing the Hleane LED Zoomable Headlamp is like strapping a headlight to your head with its maximum brightness setting of 1800 lumens.

Pros: Amazingly bright light, great price point, long operating life

Cons: Only two output settings and it’s rather heavy

The top setting of the GRDE Zoomable headlamp is so bright you won’t even use it in many situations. But when you’re on a bike at night and contending for space with cars and trucks, or while you’re pedaling your way down a mountain trail, you’ll love the awesome output power of this lamp. The 1800-lumen beam fully illuminates the trail or road far ahead of you, and it’ll be almost impossible for an oncoming motorist to miss seeing you.

This headlamp is heavier than I’d recommend for use by a climber or distance trekker but for the cyclist or for use on a shorter hike where gear weight isn’t much of an issue, it’s a great choice.

Its beam can be focused and adjusted to best suit the conditions ahead of you, though the limited brightness settings — which are high or low — are a drawback. This is not the light to strap on as you hide out in a hunting blind hoping to stay unnoticed by attentive wildlife, for example.

The GRDE headlamp can be operated using regular batteries but is also plug-in rechargeable, and can be juiced back up using a wall’s AC outlet, a car plug adapter, or a USB cable. It is rated to last for up to 100,000 hours of operating life.

The best headlamp for home projects

COAST_FL75

The Coast FL75 Focusing headlamp can throw 405 lumens of brightness but best of all, you can use its focusing ring to narrow or widen the beam. 

Pros: Bright and crisp light quality, easy to change the shape of the beam, clips for securing band to hat or helmet, extremely long beam throw

Cons: Limited brightness settings, short battery life, no strobe option

I own and often use a Coast FL75 and it’s my first choice for any project around the house I work on after dark — like cleaning the grill in the evening, checking on my scarecrow sprinkle set up, or adding some extra air to the tires of my bike.

Like all Coast lights, this headlamp creates a remarkably clear, crisp white light that makes it easy to see what you’re doing. It’s a great choice for illuminating anything that’s close at hand, though most people will likely be more interested in its long-distance throw capacity.

If you need to see objects or terrain more than 400 feet in front of you in a total darkness scenario, the Coast FL75 headlamp is a good choice. In fact, its beam is rated to stretch out 459 feet at its top 405-lumen output. Even the lowest setting of this light is still bright, rated at 53 lumens.

Here’s the thing: That’s a drawback, not an asset. This light’s low setting is far too bright for many uses, such as viewing a map or reading at night when you want to preserve your night vision and avoid disturbing others (or attracting attention to yourself). The Coast FL75 only has three output settings and they could reasonably be called Pretty Bright, Really Bright, and Whoa OK That’s Super Bright.

If you only plan to use a headlamp as you work, during power outages, or as you survey the scene of an accident as a first responder, then you probably don’t have the need for a dim setting but you do have the need for bright, crisp light. This one certainly offers that.

And, if you want something a little beefier, consider the FL85, with 615 Lumens and a 183-meter beam.

How to shop for a headlamp

First and foremost, a headlamp has to be bright enough for the task at hand. But the type of beam a light creates is every bit as important as its sheer lumen output. While the tendency is often to check the lumen rating of a headlamp and treat that like the most important metric for judging a headlamp, the type of beam is a better deciding factor than the intensity of the light alone. For example:

  • A cyclist needs a powerful lamp that throws a beam dozens of yards ahead, letting him or her see plenty of the roadway or trail.
  • Mechanic benefit from a wider beam pattern that illuminates a broad swath of the area close at hand.
  • If you’re camping, consider a headlamp with variable light settings, a red light option, and one that offers long battery life (especially for backpackers). 

You also have to consider features such as strobe effects, a red light option, battery life, and weight. The way those and other secondary attributes assist you in your hobbies or work should help you choose the headlamp best fit for you from our guide. 

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The 6 best kayaks for recreational use, sea touring, or whitewater kayaking

Table of Contents: Masthead Sticky

  • Kayaking is a great way to spend time on the water, be it paddling on a lake, riding river rapids, or going fishing.
  • Kayaks vary in design, with some intended for sea touring and tandem kayaking, while others are inflatable.
  • Our top pick, Dagger’s Stratos 14.5, is stable and easy to maneuver, and rides well in the ocean, on lakes, and in rivers.

As is the case with many other outdoor activities, kayaking can be as intense or as relaxing as you’d like. Whether you’re looking to enjoy a gentle paddle across a serene lake or an adrenaline-inducing ride through turbulent whitewater, the sport has something to offer just about everyone.

It also makes for an excellent form of exercise and is a great way to bond with friends and family in the outdoors. Kayaks can also be used in both wilderness and urban settings, providing unique perspectives on both environments.

I’ve been a fan of kayaking for as long as I can remember. From riding Class 4 rapids to casual paddles at my local lake, I’ve spent plenty of time learning what does (and doesn’t) make a good kayak. Thankfully, the good has more often outweighed the bad, and the current variety of kayaks fit a range of budgets and skill levels.

To help narrow down the best kayaks available, I’ve tested a number of models from top brands like Dagger, Oru, and Perception Kayaks. I’ve broken my selections down into a variety of categories based on the type of kayaking, so if you’re in the market for a new boat of your own, these are the models that should be on your shortlist.

At the end of this guide, I’ve also included some insight into how to shop for a kayak and what to keep in mind, as well as the testing methodology I used in deciding which models ultimately made this guide.

Here are the best kayaks:

The best kayak overall

 Dagger Stratos 14.5

A stable and maneuverable boat that excels on the open ocean but can also be used on lakes and rivers, the Dagger Stratos 14.5 provides outstanding versatility for paddlers of all levels of experience.

Pros: Stable, easy to maneuver, plenty of fun to paddle

Cons: Not the fastest kayak on the water

Because they’re designed for use on more turbulent waters, sea kayaks tend to be longer and narrower than other models. This helps improve not only their stability but their speed and tracking, too, making this type of boat easier to paddle even in rougher conditions. But their longer length can also make them less maneuverable, limiting their usefulness on other bodies of water.

That isn’t the case with the Dagger Stratos 14.5 as this is a boat that’s easy to control and paddle straight whether you’re in heavy ocean surf, on a calm lake, or floating along with the current of a river.

The versatility of the Stratos is one of its biggest strengths, making this a boat that’s equally well-suited for day trips on a local bay or extended multi-day outings along rugged coastlines. It features a large, comfortable cockpit, two watertight hatches, and bungee cord storage on the deck itself. This makes it easy to carry everything you need on the kayak, with ample cargo space for any adventure.

Surprisingly nimble and easy to paddle, the Stratos 14.5 doesn’t feel like a boat that’s more than14 feet in length. Beginner paddlers will find it offers a wide margin for error when it comes to perfecting their kayaking skills, while veteran kayakers will love how easy the boat is to maneuver, even in tight quarters. Despite its length, the Stratos can turn on a dime, and thanks to a built-in, adjustable skeg, it maintains its tracking with relative ease.

Ocean kayaks aren’t especially well known for their speed and the Stratos is no different. Compared to other models in this category, it isn’t exactly slow, but it also doesn’t compete with the shorter, lighter-weight boats that are purpose-built for use on lakes and rivers. Still, it’s easy to get this kayak moving and maintain a constant pace.

If you primarily find yourself kayaking on the ocean, you’ll find that the Dagger Stratos 14.5 is a fun, comfortable, and stable boat for use on those outings. But its ability to extend its use to other types of paddling helps separate it from the competition.

The best budget kayak

Perception Sound 10

The Perception Sound 10.5 is proof that you can buy a versatile, full-featured kayak without blowing your budget. 

Pros: Budget-friendly, versatile, stable, and customizable

Cons: Lacks features, slow, and heavy

As the popularity of kayaking has grown in recent years, the availability of high-quality boats that don’t break the bank expanded, too. Case in point, the Perception Sound 10.5 is a model that offers solid performance and versatility, at a wallet-friendly price. 

Designed primarily for kayak fishing, the Sound 10.5 is nevertheless a good all-around recreational model. It’s incredibly stable and offers straight tracking, making it feel right at home on lakes, slow-moving rivers, or calm coastlines. Because it’s a sit-inside model, it also provides good protection from the elements — the open cockpit is airy and comfortable in warm conditions, too.

The included seat is surprisingly supportive and adjustable, especially for a kayak at this price point. The boat comes with a large, open storage area that sits behind the paddler, although this compartment isn’t watertight and uses only bungee cords to keep its contents in place. The Sound 10.5 features two molded fishing rod holders built right into hits hull, along with sturdy grab handles at either end to help get it in and out of the water. 

To keep the cost of the Sound 10.5 low, Perception stripped away a few features, with the option to add them back in as needed. The boat has a dashboard that includes several mounting points, allowing the kayaker to customize it to fit their specific needs. This lends the Sound an extra level of versatility, allowing it to perform multiple roles. 

Make no mistake, the Perception Sound 10.5 won’t be the fastest or flashiest kayak on the water, but it does offer simple, reliable performance at a great price. For most recreational paddlers, this is a boat that fits their needs nicely, while still offering room to grow. Don’t let the inexpensive price tag fool you, this is a quality option for those who are looking for great value without the need for top-end performance. 

The best whitewater kayak

Dagger Mamba Creeker 8

Whitewater boats don’t come much more agile and quick than the Dagger Mamba Creeker 8.6, a boat that was designed to take on the most challenging rapids imaginable.

Pros: Stable, great for beginning paddlers, and highly reliable performance

Cons: Slow and ponderous

Unlike kayaks designed for touring, a whitewater boat is short, nimble, and incredibly maneuverable. Built to help paddlers negotiate fast-moving rapids, these models excel at winding their way through the wildest water imaginable and few can do it better than the Dagger Mamba Creeker

A mainstay in the whitewater world for years, the Mamba Creeker is a kayak that has a reputation for providing outstanding performance in the most demanding of conditions. Designed to operate in turbulent, shallow waters, the boat is incredibly buoyant, something that’s crucial to success for whitewater paddlers. This kayak also offers a high level of control, allowing its small body to deftly weave in and out of tight situations with surprising ease. 

The interior of the Mamba Creeker‘s cockpit has been designed to not only keep the paddler well protected but to help them maintain control at all times. Padding has been placed at strategic points — such as along the hips — in an effort to prevent bruising and soreness brought on by a particularly fast and furious whitewater run. 

Meanwhile, the seat’s positioned in such a way that it can best take advantage of the boat’s integrated leg lifters, which increases the amount of energy transferred from the paddler to the kayak itself, facilitating the quick turns that are an important part of whitewater paddling. 

The hallmark of the Mamba Creeker is its stability, something that helps to make this boat a good option for beginners. It also provides a high degree of versatility, making it useful in a variety of different whitewater settings. It’s even quite comfortable for this style of boat, which can sometimes feel cramped and confining. 

Its main drawback is that the Mamba Creeker isn’t a very fast boat and its aging design has allowed competitors to close the gap some. More experienced paddlers may find other models more to their liking, but it is difficult to beat this kayak’s steady, tried and true, all-around performance. 

The best tandem kayak

Old Town Dirigo Tandem Plus

Take to the water with your favorite paddling partner aboard the Old Town Dirigo Tandem Plus, a two-person kayak that’s lightweight, speedy, and very roomy. 

Pros: Fun, surprisingly agile, and stocked with lots of handy features

Cons: It’s heavy, even for a tandem, and it should come with a rudder

As the name suggests, a tandem kayak accommodates two paddlers, allowing them to paddle at the same time to propel the boat along. If those two kayakers work well together, a tandem model can be quick, agile, and efficient out on the water, making for a fun shared experience. The Old Town Dirigo Tandem Plus is the perfect example of just such a boat, combining a spacious design and a host of features that help elevate it above the competition. 

One of the more notable features of the Dirigo Tandem is that both cockpits are large, open, and extremely accommodating. This not only makes it easier for both paddlers to get in and out of the boat but also improves the level of comfort as well.

The included seats are nicely padded and easily adjustable, allowing both individuals to tune them to meet their own needs. Thigh pads provide additional support and protection, while adjustable foot pedals make paddling more efficient. 

Old Town outfitted the Dirigo with a number of additional features such as a dry hatch and integrated bungee cables for deck storage. There’s also a sealed glove box-style hatch for securing cell phones, cameras, or other important items, as well as built-in paddle holders, retractable handles for carrying the boat, and cup holders. 

Tandem kayaks aren’t always known for their versatility, but the Dirigo breaks with tradition in this area, too. Old Town put plenty of thought into its design and the ways it can be used. To that end, it’s managed to squeeze in a child-sized jump seat that can accommodate smaller members of the family, ensuring no one gets left behind. 

Additionally, the rear seat can slide forward, effectively changing the center of gravity and allowing this tandem to be paddled solo should the need arise. These seemingly minor changes make it easier for a paddling family to buy a single boat that everyone can use together. 

Tipping the scales at 72 pounds and measuring over 15 feet in length, the Dirigo can be a bit ponderous getting on and off the water — especially when paddling solo. The kayak also doesn’t come with a rudder (though you can add one to it), which would be a major help when trying to paddle straight in challenging conditions.

The best folding kayak

Oru Bay ST

Lightweight and easy to paddle, the Oru Bay ST is a folding kayak that performs like a traditional model but can be stored in a closet and transported to and from the water in a trunk. 

Pros: Very beginner-friendly, easy to store and transport, ingenious design, and just plain fun

Cons: Not as fast or efficient as a traditional kayak and has a learning curve when it comes to assembly. 

Thanks to vastly improved designs and better all-around build quality, modern-day inflatable and folding kayaks now rival traditional models in terms of performance.

Leading the way in this category is Oru Kayaks, a company that’s looked to the Japanese art of origami as a source of inspiration. The company’s Bay ST model in particular is a marvel of creativity and design, proving just how impressive a folding kayak can truly be. 

Built from a single sheet of custom-made polypropylene, the Bay ST— like all of Oru’s kayaks —folds flat and stores in a plastic box that somewhat resembles a large suitcase. When taken out of the box, it assembles in a matter of minutes, transforming into a touring kayak that’s both stable and durable with solid tracking. The entire process is simple, although you’ll need to do it a time or two before it becomes natural. 

Inside its closed cockpit, the Bay ST is roomier than you’d expect. It accommodates paddlers of up to 6 feet, 3 inches in height, with a bit of extra room left over for storage. Bungee cables on the deck store additional gear, such as a water bottle or dry bag, as needed. This makes the boat a great choice for shorter excursions or even day trips, but not necessarily overnighters.

The boat also performs the best on flat water lakes, gentle rivers, and a relatively calm ocean. For the most part, it’s best to avoid fast-moving rapids in this one.

Oru outfit the Bay ST with a seat pad and it also includes an adjustable back- and footrest. This gives the paddler the ability to somewhat tune the fit to meet their needs. Smaller paddlers will likely feel comfortable and right at home at the helm, although larger kayakers may feel a bit cramped.

The best feature of the Bay ST is its ability to fold down and store in a relatively small space. This makes it ideal for apartment dwellers or those who simply don’t want a larger kayak taking up space in their garage. Oru owners don’t need a kayak carrier on their car either.

The best recreational kayak

Wilderness Systems Pungo 120

An excellent all-around performer, the Wilderness Systems Pungo 120 is the recreational kayak made for casual paddlers, weekend warriors, and seasoned veterans alike. 

Pros: Quick, easy to paddle, very comfortable, and spacious

Cons: Jack of all trades, master of none

Built mostly for use on flat water and gentle rivers, recreational kayaks are designed to be comfortable, easy to paddle, and offer solid all-around performance. That’s exactly what you’ll get from the Pungo 120 from Wilderness Systems, although this model does plenty to elevate itself above the competition in this very crowded segment of the kayak market. 

Blending stability, speed, and maneuverability, the Pungo is a good choice for just about anyone who isn’t venturing out onto the ocean or running whitewater. Its wide body is comfortable, easy to get in and out of, and extremely accommodating.

It also tracks extremely well, maintaining a straight line across the water with minimal effort. This boat glides along so effortlessly that it makes it much easier to enjoy your natural surroundings — a major draw for kayaking in the first place. 

While most kayaks ship with a minimally padded seat, the Pungo comes standard with a model that provides an excellent amount of support and comfort. This makes for a much better experience out on the water, particularly when you spend hours at a time inside the cockpit. And when the seat is adjusted to work in tandem with the built-in foot pedals, it almost feels like the boat was custom-made specifically for you.  

Wilderness Systems supports the Pungo with a variety of accessories, allowing owners to customize the kayak to fit their needs. This gives you the ability to add things like deck pouches for additional storage, a dry box for protecting important gear, or a spray skirt to help keep you drier.

Aimed mainly at casual paddlers, the Wilderness Systems Pungo 120 is a kayak made for the masses. As such, it performs very well in a lot of different areas, although it isn’t especially outstanding in any of them. This may turn off more experienced kayakers looking for a more versatile experience, although beginners and intermediate paddlers will likely fall in love with it.

How to shop for a kayak

Unsurprisingly, getting the most out of any kayaking experience starts with having the right boat. Over the years, kayak designs evolved dramatically to the point where you can now buy highly specialized models purpose-built for a specific type of paddling. 

If you want to explore coastlines and paddle on the ocean, for example, a longer, more stable sea kayak is required. If gently flowing rivers and flat lakes are more your style, a more traditional recreational or touring kayak is what you seek. And if your goal is to make epic whitewater runs, you’ll want a shorter, more maneuverable kayak designed for those conditions. 

In addition to deciding what type of paddling you’ll be doing, there are a few other options to consider as well. For instance, do you want a more traditional sit-in model or a sit-on-top kayak? Sit-in versions tend to offer better performance and feature a closed cockpit that provides a measure of protection from the elements.

Conversely, a sit-on-top model leaves the paddler exposed but is often more comfortable, easier to get in and out of, and is better suited for warmer environments. 

For those who want to bring a buddy along on their paddling adventures, kayaks also come in tandem versions. These models feature multiple seats, allowing two people to share the same boat. Due to their increased capacity, they’re also longer and more stable than a single-person kayak and have the potential to be faster provided both paddlers work well together.

Tandem boats are great for people who know they’ll be kayaking together regularly, allowing them to buy just one boat they can share, rather than purchasing two single-seat models. 

What else to consider

The vast majority of kayaks available today are made from a hard plastic shell. This allows them to stay lightweight and provides exceptional levels of performance and buoyancy, although the rigid structure makes transporting and storing the boats a challenge. 

Inflatable or folding kayaks overcome those problems, however, with models available that can be stored in a closet or under a bed and transported in the trunk of a car. These types of kayaks tend to sacrifice a bit of performance in terms of speed and tracking but are a viable alternative for those shopping for a space-saving option.

How we test kayaks

Each kayak featured in this guide went through a series of on-water tests to see how well it performed across these four categories: Performance, versatility, durability, and value. Specifcally, here’s how each category factored into what kayaks made this guide:

Performance: How a kayak performs in the water comes down to how well a kayak handles in the water, how stable it is across a variety of water conditions, and how easy it is to steer, paddle, or pedal. Of course, some kayaks are more well-suited to specific conditions and ride styles, and those differences were certainly heeded during our tests. 

Versatility: A recreational kayak may not be the best in white water (or vice versa) but kayaks should still have some level of versatility to them — even if you are just in the market for a hyper-specific boat to do one or two things well. Each kayak has its limitations but the best can at least somewhat handle rides outside their purview.

Durability: Kayaks can take a beating, whether they’re getting thrown into the back of a truck or stored in a garage among throngs of additional gear. Because of this, boat durability is vital — you’d prefer the thing to last you at least a few years before you ever have to think about it running the risk of taking on water. 

Value: A sum of its categorical parts, value isn’t just an analysis of its price. Of course, that does matter but it’s always better to spend more on one high-quality kayak than to spend less on several shoddy boats.

Read the original article on Business Insider