Packing food and drinks from home into a portable cooler saves money, is a greener alternative to a to-go meal, and keeps perishable items and beverages chilled all day long. Whether packing a meal for a day at the beach or a lunch for a workplace where a refrigerator isn’t available, a cooler will keep everything cold, fresh, and safe to eat. In addition, a cooler can help broaden menu and drink options when away from home.
The best small cooler provides portable refrigeration. Small coolers keep food cold and travel-friendly through insulation, a well-constructed design, and a convenient size. As the little siblings of standard coolers, small coolers provide similar features but with an emphasis on portability for ease of use, especially when space is limited.
Read on to learn about the features to consider when shopping for the best small cooler for your next quick adventure, and then explore some of the top-rated products on the market in a variety of categories.
- BEST OVERALL: Arctic Zone Titan Deep Freeze Zipperless Hardbody
- BEST BANG FOR THE BUCK: Coleman Excursion Portable Cooler
- BEST COLLAPSIBLE: CleverMade Collapsible Cooler Bag
- BEST HARD COOLER: Igloo The Boss Playmate Cooler
- BEST SOFT COOLER: RTIC Soft Cooler 20, Insulated Bag, Leak Proof Zipper
- BEST COOLER ON WHEELS: Arctic Zone Titan Deep Freeze 60 Can Rolling Cooler
- BEST COOLER BACKPACK: TOURIT Cooler Backpack 30 Cans Lightweight Insulated
What to Consider When Buying the Best Small Cooler
The main purpose of the best small cooler is to keep food and drinks cold for an extended period—but that time frame can vary depending on your plans. Buyers also need to consider a small cooler’s size, insulative properties, materials, compartment options, and several other qualities before adding one to their cart. Keep reading to learn more about the features to consider when selecting the best small cooler for your next adventure.
Small coolers are available in a few different types, allowing you to choose the best option for your plans.
- Lunch-style coolers are generally single compartment coolers meant to hold one meal or a few beverage cans. These are typically the smallest type of coolers, and they offer simplicity and convenience.
- Bag coolers are soft coolers that usually resemble tote bags. They range in size from lunch-style sacks to larger bags that carry snacks and drinks for multiple people. Bag coolers are very handy but can be more uncomfortable to carry long distances when heavy.
- Backpack coolers are well suited for picnics or hikes when users need to cover some distance before they stop to eat and drink. With two shoulder straps, backpack coolers offer excellent weight distribution, making them much more comfortable to transport.
Size and Capacity
The size of the cooler you choose depends on how you plan to use it. If it’s meant to hold your work lunch every day, the smallest cooler is likely the optimal size. For picnics or days at the beach, look for small coolers that can house enough drinks and food for several people.
When packing a cooler, it’s important to fill the entire empty space with ice since air pockets accelerate ice melt. With that in mind, a cooler that’s too large for the intended purpose will require more ice than is necessary for a midday meal or a quick adventure.
A cooler’s capacity is generally measured in quarts or the number of beverage cans it can hold. For conversion purposes, 1 quart is approximately enough space for one beverage can. Coolers with a capacity of fewer than 16 quarts are typically meant for personal use as they will hold only a few food and drink items.
Soft vs. Hard
Small coolers feature either a soft or a hard shell, with each type having its own pros and cons.
- Soft coolers are lightweight, as they’re typically made from fabric. Small coolers constructed with soft materials are usually collapsible, making them easy to store when they’re not in use. Soft coolers often feature compartments and pockets for separating items, such as a sandwich from a can of iced tea. These coolers tend to be more stylish, mimicking the look of a tote bag.
- Hard coolers offer a tough construction from materials like hard plastic or metal. They’re built to withstand heavy use and show minimal wear and tear over time. These coolers don’t collapse, using up the same space whether they are full or empty. Hard coolers made of one continuous piece of plastic are called rotomolded coolers, which are more leak-proof and waterproof than coolers assembled from multiple pieces.
Small coolers can be made from a variety of materials, including plastic, metal, fabric, and Styrofoam.
- Plastic coolers are strong and durable. This is the most popular material for a cooler and generally affordable. Plastic coolers usually provide a snug-fitting top that prevents heat from seeping inside.
- Metal coolers are also strong with a well-fitting lid but can be heavier due to the material. When left outside, metal absorbs more heat from the sun, which makes plastic a preferred choice.
- Fabric coolers are typically made from lightweight synthetics. Soft coolers constructed of fabric are suitable for day trips, but some designs may not keep ice frozen for as long as other materials unless the cooler has a superior insulation.
- Styrofoam coolers are common for a disposable option but may be wasteful if individuals are frequently purchasing new ones. These coolers are not meant for long-term use as they’re usually able to keep food cold for only a few hours.
Insulation is designed to keep heat outside of the cooler, rather than trap coldness inside. The cooler’s effectiveness comes down to the level of insulation. Coolers should be insulated on all sides, including the lid and base, for optimal heat resistance. Typically, the thicker the insulative layer, the colder the contents of the cooler will stay.
Insulation is generally a foam layer between the cooler’s inner and outer walls. Foam is used for insulation because it’s full of gas bubbles, which prevent effective heat transfer (unlike solids and liquids) to varying degrees. Foam insulation comes in either closed-cell or open-cell forms.
- Closed-cell foam is more dense and rigid. Most gas bubbles don’t come into contact with each other, minimizing heat transfer between molecules.
- Open-cell foam is lightweight and flexible. Many gas bubbles make contact, allowing for greater heat transfer and, as a result, less insulation.
In many cases, hard coolers (and some soft coolers) use closed-cell foam that provides better insulation. However, many soft coolers with open-cell foam still offer very effective insulation that can keep ice frozen for several hours.
Every time the lid of a cooler is opened, warmer outside air enters the cooler and slightly warms up the contents. Selecting a small cooler with additional compartments or pockets enables users to store perishable foods, dry goods, and beverages in separate locations. Additional compartments may also eliminate the need to pack another bag for utensils, napkins, plates, and other supplies.
Storage compartments and pockets for dry goods generally require less cleaning; however, some soft, small coolers have insulated pockets that need to be cleaned after each use. If you don’t have a need for additional compartments, choosing a small cooler with a single compartment may be the less time-consuming choice.
Ease of Cleaning
It’s important to clean a cooler after each use to avoid odors and the growth of bacteria—which is especially crucial if you use a small cooler to transport raw meat. Most hard coolers have single compartments that are easy to clean. Soft coolers with a protective or removable liner and stain-resistant exterior also make cleanup simpler. Some liners are treated to resist bacteria and mildew, but they should still be thoroughly cleaned after each use.
Most small coolers are quite easy to clean, requiring only a wipe down with a clean cloth and mild soap. Always read the care instructions for the cooler, as some brands may explicitly outline cleaning agents to avoid.
Whether you plan to carry a cooler for a short distance, transport a cooler on a long walk to a picnic site, or sit on the beach with a cooler full of beverages, the portability of the item is essential to consider, including the overall weight and the presence of handles or shoulder straps.
- Cooler weight varies from a few ounces to a few pounds when empty. Dense insulation may keep items cold, but it makes a cooler heavier. When filled, the cooler should be comfortable to carry without causing too much body strain.
- Cooler handles are available in a few different styles. Most often, small coolers include top-carry handles for transporting like a small suitcase. Handles molded into the body of the cooler generally last longer than those simply attached to it. Top-carry handles may feature additional gripping material or comfortable padding for easier transport. Side handles are less common but are available in some designs.
- Shoulder straps are an option on many models of small coolers, shifting the weight from the user’s hands to their shoulders. One or more padded shoulder straps make it more comfortable to transport the cooler for longer distances.
Our Top Picks
The best small cooler varies depending on the individual and the intended use. For a short picnic in the park, some users may value a small cooler with additional compartments over heavy-duty insulation. Others may find the need for a larger capacity and long-distance portability is most important. These top picks take all of the abovementioned factors into consideration, in addition to overall quality and value, in a variety of categories to ensure the cooler suits the activity.
Arctic Zone makes this small cooler a worthy companion for day trips, picnics, and short camping excursions. Using dual-layered, high-performance insulation that deflects heat rather than absorbing it, this cooler keeps food and drinks cold for a longer period of time—ice lasts for as long as 2 days. The cleverly designed interior features a hard, leak-proof plastic liner with a removable shelf to separate drinks from ice or to protect soft foods from damage.
Water- and stain-resistant fabric constructs the exterior of this soft cooler. It comes with a handy flip-open zipperless lid, two zippered front pockets, and two side mesh pockets. The durable exterior also resists cracks and punctures.
The removable liner makes it easy to clean the interior, and the exterior fabric wipes clean with a wet cloth. This cooler offers hands-free portability via a padded, anti-slip shoulder strap that centers the load weight for more comfortable carrying. It measures 12.25 inches by 8 inches by 12.25 inches and holds up to 16 beverage cans.
This Coleman small cooler hasn’t changed much over the years due to its popular combination of quality construction, portability, and affordability. Simple, strong, and reliable make up the design framework for this hard plastic cooler, making it a budget-friendly, long-lasting investment.
The cooler provides a single compartment, making it easy to pack in the morning and wipe clean at day’s end. Ice placed in the cooler will last the entire day, so food and drinks stay fresh, cold, and safe to eat.
Measuring 9.3 inches by 11.3 inches by 12.9 inches with a 9-quart (9-can) capacity, this small cooler is an optimal size for packing a lunch or keeping drinks cold at the beach. The durable hinges will hold up to repeated opening and closing of the lid, and the attached bail handle allows for comfortable portability with just one hand
Stuff this stylish, small cooler from CleverMade full of gourmet eats and a bottle of wine for a picnic or a day trip; once the cooler is empty, it collapses to a height of just 3 inches to save space. This cooler resembles a tote bag, but at 15.5 inches by 12 inches by 10 inches, it’s expansive enough to hold 30 beverage cans. The design features a solid board base, a sturdy wire frame, and an interior lined with three layers of leak-proof insulation, all covered in a durable polyester material.
This soft cooler keeps food and drinks cold for several hours, so it’s well suited for single-day adventures. Users can transport the cooler via either the padded shoulder strap or the top-carry handles (which also integrate a bottle opener). To clean, simply wipe the interior with mild soap and water and pat dry before storing.
A hard cooler that’s as durable as it looks (especially with the rugged diamond-plate texture), this small cooler from Igloo is built with proven quality. While soft coolers leave food vulnerable to anything that could fall on top of it, the strong plastic material of this hard cooler protects the contents from damage.
The single compartment with leak-proof insulation keeps ice frozen for up to 21 hours and also makes for easy cleaning at the end of the day. While this cooler isn’t fancy, it is highly effective at keeping food and drinks cold. It measures 14.57 inches by 10.63 inches by 13.78 inches and boasts a capacity of 14.5 quarts, offering plenty of room for a small meal or a variety of cold beverages.
Carry this cooler with ease via the handle that is molded into the tent-top lid for increased durability. A secure yet convenient push-button design swings the lid open for quick access to the contents.
The design and insulation of this soft cooler make it even more durable than some hard coolers. RTIC’s insulated small cooler keeps ice frozen for up to 5 days using a leak-proof, non-sweating structure with up to 2 inches of closed-cell foam on each side. Encased in a puncture-resistant and heavy-duty vinyl shell, food and drinks are secure and will stay chilly for trips that last several days.
With measurements of 14.6 inches by 14.6 inches by 11 inches, this small cooler provides a 20-can capacity. In addition to the main compartment, it features an exterior zippered pocket for dry items. Users have the option to carry this cooler via the side handles, the top-carry handles, or the shoulder strap. Wipe the cooler’s interior with a wet cloth and pat dry before storing.
Since some small coolers can become heavy, making them uncomfortable to carry, this cooler can be wheeled instead. This Arctic Zone soft cooler can carry the equivalent of up to 60 beverage cans—room for plenty of drinks and food for an outing with family or friends. The heavy-duty insulation includes a triple-layer foam base and an all-over radiant heat barrier that deflects heat. This cooler also features a leak-proof lining that protects against odors and stains, and it’s easy to keep clean by simply wiping down the interior compartment after every use.
This small cooler boasts some additional features on the durable nylon exterior as well. The expandable large front compartment is also insulated, helping users further organize their food and drinks, and the mesh side pockets offer even more places to contain dry goods. While this wheeled cooler offers easy portability, it also provides side handles and a padded shoulder strap for other carrying options. This cooler collapses for easy storage and measures 14.75 inches by 15.5 inches by 19 inches when fully open.
Strap on this TOURIT soft backpack cooler for an easy-carrying solution for hikes, biking excursions, and more. While some types of coolers that can hold 30 cans may become difficult to carry via a top-carry or side handles, this backpack cooler features a padded back and padded shoulder straps to distribute the weight, making it less taxing to haul around. Made from waterproof, durable fabric that’s ventilated, this backpack won’t leave users with a wet back from condensation seeping into their clothes.
The interior features an insulative high-density foam paired with a leak-proof liner for cleanliness. Pack hot or cold food inside, and the insulation will hold the food’s temperature for up to 16 hours. Measuring 13 inches by 7.5 inches by 15.8 inches and offering several additional top, front, and side compartments, this versatile backpack allows users to store plenty of food and drinks. When packing this cooler backpack, the manufacturer recommends using reusable ice packs instead of placing ice directly into the interior compartment.
FAQs About Small Coolers
A small cooler is a handy container to own for quick getaways or for the daily work grind. After selecting a small cooler, you may still have questions about usage and care. Check out some of the most frequently asked questions and answers below about small coolers.
Q. Can ice be kept in small coolers?
Yes. Many small coolers can handle free-floating ice; however, some soft coolers perform better with reusable ice packs. Check the manufacturer’s recommendations before purchase.
Q. How long can small coolers keep ice frozen?
It depends on the particular type of small cooler. Generally, hard coolers keep ice frozen longer than soft coolers, but it also depends on the quality of the design and the materials used to construct the cooler. Overall, small coolers can typically keep ice frozen for a few hours up to several days.
Q. Does a small cooler require cleaning?
Yes. It’s essential to clean a small cooler after each use to keep it smelling fresh and eliminate any bacteria that could lead to mold and mildew.