- 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:
- Best soft color overall: Yeti Hopper M30
- Best budget soft cooler: AO Canvas Cooler
- Best versatile soft cooler: OtterBox Trooper LT 30
- Best soft cooler backpack: IceMule Pro
- Best multi-purpose soft cooler: REI Co-op Cool Trail Split Pack
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
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
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
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
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’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