The cooler industry looks entirely different from how it looked 15 years ago. Some innovative brands came along and turned it on its head, producing heavy, very well-insulated hard coolers. While these coolers are tough (some can even withstand a bear) and keep beer cold for a week, they’re cumbersome and overkill for a day trip.
If looking for a lightweight food-keeping companion to take on your next day trip or adventure, check into the best soft coolers. These flexible, easy-to-carry coolers can handle drinks, sandwiches, snacks, and ice, so you can take the party everywhere.
- BEST OVERALL: RTIC Insulated Soft Cooler Bag
- BEST BANG FOR THE BUCK: Coleman Soft Cooler Bag
- UPGRADE PICK: YETI Hopper Flip Portable Cooler
- BEST COLLAPSIBLE: CleverMade Collapsible Cooler Bag Insulated Leakproof
- BEST WITH WHEELS: Coleman 42-Can Soft Cooler with Removable Liner
- BEST PERFORMER: ENGEL HD30 Waterproof Soft-Sided Cooler Tote Bag
What to Consider When Choosing the Best Soft Cooler
Before looking for the best soft coolers on the market, consider a few key characteristics. Keep reading to find a list of the most important considerations while shopping.
Soft coolers come in a wide range of shapes and sizes, ranging from standard coolers in several sizes, coolers that look like totes, and even backpack-style coolers to throw over the shoulders.
Give some thought to your favorite activities. To just hang out on a beach blanket in the sun, a tote-style cooler may do the trick. For a hiking or camping trip, a backpack cooler may work best to provide hydration and food.
The best soft coolers come in as many different materials as they do shapes and sizes. Finding one made with a material that’s lightweight, tough, easy to clean, and well insulating is key to soft cooler bliss.
In general, most of the best soft coolers have shells and liners made from a durable fabric like nylon or polyester. These materials are tough, strong, and easy to clean. On the other hand, vinyl coolers at the lower end of the price scale often are less durable. At the top of the cost spectrum, some companies use proprietary rubber-coated fabric to provide optimal insulation.
Size and Weight
While a “bigger-is-better” attitude dominates the hard-sided cooler industry, soft coolers are all about flexibility and ease of use. Having a particular size and weight in mind while shopping can help you choose the best soft cooler.
Most manufacturers quantify cooler sizes by 12-ounce can capacity, so deciding on a size can be simple. Choose between 8-, 12-, 20-, 30-, and 40-can capacities. A capacity of 20 cans seems to be the sweet spot; it accommodates some drinks, food, and a few ice packs.
Obviously, the larger the cooler’s capacity, the heavier it will be. Some heavy-duty coolers can weigh between five and seven pounds. Since a six-pack of beer often weighs around two pounds, a seven-pound cooler could be overkill for a day trip.
As manufacturers strive to beat their competitors, they’re creating better performing coolers, and the consumer sees the benefit.
Some soft-sided coolers can store ice for up to a week, which is nice to know for those occasional longer uses. It also provides a benchmark with which to compare coolers.
Keeping water in or out also is important, so finding a cooler made with a leak-proof and waterproof seal and materials may be an important determining factor. A cooler that you can accidentally drop off the side of a rowboat without soaking the snacks could be of significant importance. Similarly, if the cooler and a picnic blanket are stored next to each other on a road trip, avoid a cooler that might leak melted ice water all over the car seats.
A soft cooler won’t do much good if it can’t accompany its user on adventures. Portability is a big consideration, and how the manufacturer addresses that factor might have some bearing on the decision.
Smaller soft coolers don’t need many carrying options. A top-mounted handle or shoulder strap could work well enough.
Large-capacity coolers require a different approach. Consider backpack options and those with wheels and telescoping handles. Even for short hikes, these features make heavy coolers much easier to transport.
Some soft coolers may have extra pockets and flexible carrying options, while others have built-in features that make them more versatile.
A soft cooler that goes on a real adventure probably will be put in some precarious positions. For mounting on the roof of a car or to the back of a four-wheeler, many soft coolers feature nylon webbing for hooking them to bungee cords or tie-downs, keeping the brews from bouncing off on the way to the destination.
Other models collapse and pack into easy-to-store packages, perfect for storing in the trunk for grabbing cold foods at the grocery store. Some even fit into a backpack when empty, providing a bit of extra versatility if needed.
Our Top Picks
It’s time to start shopping for the best soft cooler. Keep the most important considerations in mind to make the best-informed decision possible.
For a quality soft cooler with plenty of modern features and long-lasting insulation, the RTIC Insulated Soft Cooler Bag is worth a look. This cooler holds up to 20 12-ounce cans of soda or beer, plus room for some ice. The 2-inch thick closed-cell foam can keep ice for up to five days.
RTIC designs their bags to be 100 percent leak-proof by using durable puncture-resistant materials, including a heavy-duty vinyl shell and special no-leak zippers. It’s lined with an antimicrobial liner to resist mildew. This cooler features a variety of ways to close and secure it as well as two side-mounted handles, a top-mounted handle, and a removable shoulder strap. The design includes clips and buckles all around the cooler to tie the RTIC to a vehicle rack or adjust the shoulder strap.
Coleman’s Soft Cooler Bag features a 30-can capacity and maintains ice for up to 24 hours in 90-degree weather. It also features heat-welded seams to prevent leaks and an interior antimicrobial liner. The cooler folds or rolls up into a tiny package when not in use.
The soft cooler bag has an adjustable shoulder strap, two side-mounted handles, and an exterior pocket for storing snacks that don’t need to stay cool. It features a top-mounted Velcro flap that allows access to the cooler’s contents without unzipping the entire lid and losing the cool air.
The YETI Hopper Flip Portable Cooler offers long-term ice-keeping, durable construction, and a proprietary design. The Flip Portable Cooler can hold a dozen 12-ounce cans, plus up to 15 pounds of ice. Ice stays frozen for several days.
YETI uses its proprietary materials in the Hopper’s construction, including HydroLok leak-proof zippers, a DryHide waterproof shell, ColdCell insulation, and a HitchPoint Grid for attaching accessories and tie-downs. Though it weighs three pounds, it comes with tough side- and top-mounted handles as well as an adjustable shoulder strap. Choose from a variety of colors.
With the CleverMade Collapsible Cooler Bag, it’s easy to keep a spare cooler in the trunk or with camping gear. This cooler’s polyester and PVA blend are lightweight but tough materials. The cooler can hold 50 12-ounce cans, with some extra room for ice. It features three layers of insulation and a leak-proof design.
The collapsible design may be CleverMade Cooler Bag’s best feature. The company uses patented SnapHinge hinges that click into place to provide structure but snap inward to fold the cooler into a tight package. It measures less than 3 inches thick when collapsed, making it ideal for keeping in the car for groceries.
Those on the lookout for a high-capacity cooler that can travel back and forth to outings with ease may want to check out Coleman’s Soft Cooler with Removable Liner and Wheels. This cooler has a 42-can capacity with heat-welded seams that help prevent leaks. It features a zippered front pocket for storing snacks and mesh side pockets for other gear like bottle openers and napkins.
This Coleman soft cooler has a telescoping handle, wheels, two side-mounted handles, and two top-mounted bungees for securing other items during transport.
The ENGLE HD30 Waterproof Soft-Sided Cooler features room for 30 iced-down 12-ounce cans, and it will keep ice frozen for more than four days. The cooler has two side-mounted handles and one top-mounted handle for easy carrying. It features a removable shoulder strap with plenty of clips and buckles. The ENGLE’s outer wall is made of TPU, a rubber/plastic combination, and it’s waterproof and leak-proof.
ENGLE builds an innovative, patent-pending vacuum valve into the HD30. This valve allows the exchange of air inside the insulation, removing warm air to maintain cooler temperatures for a longer time. Hook the vacuum hose to the valve, remove the air, and allow it to fill back up.
FAQs About Soft Coolers
Now that you know a bit more about the best soft coolers and have compared some of the top models on the market, you might have a few questions. A collection of frequently asked questions about the best soft coolers appears next.
Q. How long do soft coolers stay cold?
Most soft coolers can keep ice frozen for a day or two and remain cold for several hours after the ice has melted. The best models can keep ice frozen for as long as four or five days.
Q. Which soft cooler keeps ice longest?
A few models can keep ice frozen for four or five days, including the ENGEL HD30 Waterproof Soft-Sided Cooler Tote Bag.
Q. Do soft coolers absorb odors?
Some coolers absorb odors, but models are available with antimicrobial liners that help prevent odors and bacteria from growing. Waiting until the cooler dries to close or fold it also can help prevent odors.
Q. How do you clean a soft cooler?
First, let your soft cooler air out. Unzip it and prop it open, allowing any odors to escape and the cooler to dry. While you should follow the manufacturer’s recommendation for cleaning, generally speaking, simply wash your cooler with dishwashing detergent and dry it completely.