A backpack cooler is a type of portable cooler designed to be carried like a regular backpack, but containing a large insulated space to store food and drinks. This allows the weight of the food to be evenly distributed across the shoulders, chest, and back, reducing muscle strain and giving you an easy, convenient way to keep food cold while carrying it.
Whether you are using a simple insulated tumbler or an entire portable cooler, keeping your food and drink fresh is an important function that makes long hikes, camping trips, road trips, and picnics much more enjoyable. The products below may help you start the shopping process. Continue reading to learn which essential features to look for to find the best backpack cooler for your next camping trip.
- BEST OVERALL: YETI Hopper Backflip 24 Soft Sided Cooler/Backpack
- BEST BUDGET: OAGear Backpack 20 Can Cooler
- BEST LIGHTWEIGHT: Coleman Soft Backpack Cooler
- BEST FOR HIKING: Carhartt 2-in-1 Insulated Cooler Backpack
- BEST SMALL: Igloo Daytripper Collection
- BEST LARGE CAPACITY: TOURIT Cooler Backpack 30 Cans
What to Consider When Choosing the Best Backpack Cooler
Before deciding on the best backpack cooler for outdoor traveling, these important shopping considerations may help you select a cooler that suits your needs.
Backpack coolers generally function in the same way as a standard backpack but with added insulation to keep your drinks and food at a cool temperature. However, some products are better suited than others, depending on the activity. Look for features that will help make the activity easier and more enjoyable, like a lightweight backpack cooler for climbing or a floating cooler for boating.
Long hikes, canoeing, and camping trips often involve carrying gear for long periods of time. For this type of activity, it’s best to look for a cooler with a padded back panel for comfort and a belt to better secure the backpack. Heading to the beach, going fishing, or just taking the boat out can put food at risk of getting wet. To help protect your snacks, it’s a good idea to find a backpack cooler that is completely waterproof or, at least, water resistant. This is a good feature for camping trips, too, where the risk of rain is ever present.
The material of a backpack cooler is separated into outer material (like ripstop nylon or polyester) that’s made for durability and protection, and an inner material (like foam or polyurethane) for insulation and leak resistance.
- Ripstop nylon is a heavy-duty material that can withstand being dropped, thrown, dragged, or hung. It’s water resistant and durable, making it a great choice for camping, hiking, and boating. The material resists tears, punctures, and UV radiation, ensuring that the straps don’t break in the middle of a portage.
- Polyester shares the same resistance to water, tears, punctures, and UV radiation, but it isn’t as effective. However, polyester is typically more lightweight and affordable, making it a great choice for common applications.
- Foam is a cheap, effective insulating material commonly used in backpack coolers. This lightweight product uses millions of tiny, closed-cell air pockets to slow the transfer of heat through the backpack.
- Polyurethane can be pressure injected into a rigid backpack cooler. This type of insulation is more effective at reducing the transfer of heat through the backpack than foam. However, it’s also heavier and more expensive than foam.
The capacity of a backpack cooler is typically provided by the manufacturer in a measurement system that uses the maximum number of cans the cooler holds as an indication of capacity.
- Small backpack coolers will usually hold between 12 to 16 cans. This is generally enough space for a couple of meals, snacks, and four to six drinks to fit comfortably.
- Standard backpack coolers have an average capacity of 18 to 24 cans, allowing for a full day of prepared food to be packed alongside two or three ice packs and six beverages.
- Oversize backpack coolers come with an extra-large capacity that exceeds 24 cans, with some products capable of holding up to 30 cans. These coolers are a good choice for long camping trips, though they may weigh too much for some hikes.
A backpack cooler is made to disperse the weight of the contents over the shoulders, chest, and back of the user in order to make it easier to carry. However, this doesn’t make the weight disappear, and if the backpack is heavier than the user can manage then a pleasant hike can turn into an exhausting challenge.
Compare the size of the backpack to the person who will be carrying it, ensuring the weight of the backpack and the weight of the contents are considered. Choosing a large capacity backpack cooler is great for a long camping trip, but filling these backpacks can quickly overburden the person carrying it. Consider getting a couple of smaller backpack coolers and spreading out the weight between more than one person.
As long as the size and weight of the backpack cooler are appropriate for the user, then carrying comfort is typically dictated by the back panel, shoulder straps, chest strap, and waist strap.
- The back panel of a backpack supports the weight of the contents while cushioning the back from hard cans, ice, and other items. Breathable padding in the back panel can also help circulate air so your back doesn’t get sweaty during a long hike.
- Straps are used to disperse the weight of the contents and secure the backpack to the user so the cooler doesn’t fall to the ground and spill everywhere in the event of trips or slips.
- Shoulder straps are the primary carrying tool on a backpack cooler. For this reason, they are usually designed with a significant amount of padding to help protect the shoulders and chest.
- Chest and waist straps are purely for security to ensure the bag doesn’t slip off of one shoulder as well as to prevent the weight of the backpack from shifting side to side.
Backpack coolers are made with a main insulated compartment to carry the bulk of the food and drinks, but some coolers include additional compartments, storage pockets, and dividers, making them better suited for organizing meals, drinks, and other items.
- One or more additional compartments will share the same insulating qualities as the main compartment but are usually smaller. This separate space helps prevent soft foods from being crushed by hard items, like bottles or cans.
- Storage pockets on the outside of the backpack cooler offer a great place for keeping keys, phones, and wallets because these pockets aren’t usually insulated. Some pockets are just simple mesh attached to the outside of the main cooler, but others are built into the actual fabric of the backpack to be used for things like cutting boards, cutlery, and fold-out cups.
- Dividers inside the larger compartments allow the compartment to be split up into easy-to-organize spaces. However, if the divider is getting in the way, it can usually be folded down or removed completely to open up space for larger items.
Our Top Picks
The products below were chosen for quality and price with a significant focus on the considerations mentioned above. Take a look at this list to find the best backpack cooler to help keep food and drinks cold and refreshing on the next outdoor adventure.
Store food and drinks safely inside the waterproof and leakproof cooler liner made of food-grade plastic and insulated with high-density, closed-cell polyurethane foam, which excels at keeping food cold by slowing the transfer of heat through the backpack. The compartment is secured with a waterproof zipper that won’t allow moisture to leak out or water to leak in.
The backpack cooler can hold up to 24 cans. It’s easy to lift with multiple handles and straps, including a top handle, two side handles, a back handle, two shoulder straps, a chest strap, and a waist strap. The padded shoulder straps are adjustable, while the chest and waist straps are both adjustable and removable. This backpack cooler also has a padded back panel and is made with a heavy-duty polyester that is resistant to mildew, punctures, and UV radiation.
Convenient doesn’t have to be expensive, and with this affordable backpack cooler, the convenience of a cool, refreshing drink is within easy reach. The backpack is made of heavy-duty polyester that is resistant to moisture, tearing, and punctures. The insulated compartment is lined with waterproof, food-grade plastic that prevents melted ice from leaking through the backpack.
The main compartment can hold up to 20 cans with ice or approximately 24 cans without the ice. The simple backpack design includes standard features like padded shoulder straps and outside pockets. Two side mesh pockets offer easy access to a water bottle or phone, and the front zippered pocket securely stores important items like keys or a wallet. The OAGear Backpack Cooler is available in five color options.
Reduce the strain on the shoulders, chest, and back with this lightweight backpack cooler that weighs just 1.1 pounds and has extra padding in the back panel, shoulder straps, and waist strap. The shoulder straps and waist strap can be adjusted to the ideal length to fit the user’s body and to help carry the contents over a long distance.
The main insulated compartment can hold up to 28 cans and has a flexible plastic liner that is completely waterproof with heat-welded seams. The liner has an antimicrobial treatment that helps prevent mold, mildew, and odors from forming. There’s also a zippered front pocket and two mesh side pockets for containing other essentials that don’t necessarily need to be kept cold.
A long hike deserves to be rewarded with a cool drink upon reaching the destination. With this hiking backpack cooler, there is space for up to 12 cans in the insulated base compartment. This compartment has a waterproof liner and a heavy-duty polyester exterior, with high-density foam insulation to ensure the food and drinks inside the compartment remain cold for up to 24 hours.
The backpack portion of this two-in-one product is ideal for holding clothing, nonperishable food, first aid gear, and emergency equipment. This backpack cooler also has a front zippered pocket to keep important items like keys or a wallet, and there are two mesh pockets that are great for water bottles.
Smaller backpack coolers, like the Igloo Daytripper Collection, are a great option for day trips, picnics, or the beach. The cooler is divided into a main insulated compartment at the top that can hold about 12 cans and a smaller insulated compartment at the bottom that has a capacity of three cans. This backpack cooler has a chest strap and two padded shoulders straps with a convenient bottle opener attached to one strap.
The main compartment can be split in half with the removable Velcro divider to prevent bottles of wine from clinking together. The backpack comes with a bamboo cutting board, stainless steel cheese knives, and a corkscrew, each of which fit perfectly into specifically designed storage pockets. Additional storage pockets on either side of the backpack can be used to carry extra supplies.
The TOURIT Cooler Backpack offers several different storage options for things like snacks, plates, utensils, keys, a phone, or a wallet. There are two mesh storage pockets on the sides of the backpack, one zippered pocket at the top of the cooler, and a front zippered pocket containing several smaller pockets for better organization.
The insulated part of the cooler is a single main compartment that has a large 30-can capacity. This compartment has a leakproof liner that keeps condensation and melting ice from leaking out of the cooler and prevents water from getting in. Between the liner and the tear-resistant polyester, there is a layer of high-density foam to help reduce the flow of heat through the backpack cooler. This backpack also has two adjustable padded shoulder straps with a built-in mesh pocket and bottle opener.
FAQs About Backpack Coolers
Read on to find answers to some of the most commonly asked questions about backpack coolers so you have all the information you need to keep your food fresh during a long hike or camping trip.
Q. How do insulated cooler bags work?
Insulated cooler bags can keep the contents of the bag cool using one of two common methods. Some backpack coolers will rely on a space between the outer layer and the inner layer to prevent energy dissipation, in a way similar to a double pane of glass on a sliding glass door or window. The second method is to insert a core layer of dense foam between the outer layer and the inner layer to slow the transfer of heat through the bag.
Q. Do you put ice in a cooler first?
No, ice or ice packs should be layered between the food, always keeping the ice on top for better cooling efficiency because cool air falls to the bottom of the bag. You should start packing a backpack cooler by layering food, drinks, and as much ice as you need (or as the cooler can hold).
Q. How long will ice last in an insulated bag?
On average the ice or ice pack in a backpack cooler will last between 24 to 36 hours. However, this timeline can be longer in cold weather or shorter if the ambient temperature is very hot, so it’s a good idea to regularly check on food supplies.