- Buyer's Guide
The Best Portable Soft-Sided Coolers for Summer 2021
Keen for cooler convenience without the weightlifting session? These functional and convenient soft-sided coolers are primed for portable summer fun…
Coolers are no longer an item that you have to replace each summer after destroying the previous iterations. Portable coolers in particular have become a necessity for many – whether you are a casual beachgoer or a serious adventurer. Traditionally, hard coolers were the trusty option for keeping your drinks cold and your food fresh. But over the last few years, there has been a renaissance of ingenious design that’s seen soft-sided coolers becoming a more viable option for many.
We’ve tested these soft-sided coolers over the last two months in a variety of situations – from lazy beach days to hikes, and from hot cars to long walks. There are literally hundreds of soft-sided coolers out there, and so with this round of testing, we tried to pick a selection that will answer the following questions best:
Comfort – Is this comfortable to carry when fully loaded?
Temperature Regulation – How long does this hold ice/keep produce cold for?
Construction – Will this stand the test of time over multiple summers?
There are a few tips worth mentioning before we get into the weeds – for any cooler to really perform exceptionally well (multiple days), you can do these things to help:
1. Chill: Use a sacrificial bag of ice the night before using a cooler, this will lower the temperature of the material and start your cooler at its coldest.
2. Salt: If you’re just putting drinks in the cooler, consider putting rock salt on top of the ice – it’ll lower the freezing point of the ice and help it stay colder for longer.
3. Insulate: Temperature management. If you can avoid putting your cooler directly on the ground (particularly at the beach) then your cooler won’t absorb heat. By placing it on a towel, you are essentially providing air conditioning!
4. Close: Keep it closed! Only have your cooler open when grabbing items from inside. Try to avoid leaving it open, ambient air temperature can have a rather dramatic difference.
5. Water: Don’t drain the water! Ice retention is a bit of a myth. Ice/water – as long as it’s cold – who cares!? Don’t drain the ice-cold water when it does begin to melt; it’ll consistently keep your items cold and help the remaining ice last longer.
These pointers aren’t necessary for your lunch trip to the beach, or arguably even for a day trip – but if you really want to maximize your cooling potential any mix of them will help!
The Outdoor King – YETI Hopper M30 Soft Cooler
Carryology Credential: Stylish and tough as nails. Innovative opening.
What you’ll like: Great color choices, accessory attachment points, good warranty service.
What you might not: Heavy when fully loaded. Lighter colors may mark easily.
Warranty: Three years
When coolers are mentioned in conversation, one brand often comes to mind – YETI. They made their start in coolers, and while they have expanded to other products such as drinkware and bags, they’re still renowned for their cooler prowess. Traditionally you may think of their robust, hard-sided, and bear-proof coolers. Those tanks have seen all corners of the wilderness and are favorites of outdoor enthusiasts.
However, a few years ago, with the help of some active ambassadors, they’ve made their way into soft-sided coolers. The first two iterations of the Hopper, while successful, had one point of contention – the zipper. While a watertight zipper is excellent for a duffel, for a cooler that is being opened multiple times a day, it’s a little more complex. So with their third iteration, the M30, YETI did away with the zipper and came up with an ingenious solution – magnets! More on that later.
Construction-wise, the M30 is burly. Made out of YETI’s DRYHIDE™ shell, it is resistant to mildew, punctures, and UV rays. This cooler can truly come anywhere and thrive. The COLDCELL™ insulation provides excellent insulation without the need for 2″ thick walls. Completed by the aforementioned HYDROSHIELD™ magnetic closure, this cooler is completely leakproof (welded seams) and can be tossed around without any concern for your precious cargo. The closure is reinforced by two buckles that can be cinched down for transport.
The MOLLE grid on both exterior sides of the cooler is a good spot to attach a multitude of accessories – I highly recommend the MOLLE Zinger – a retractable bottle opener that slots in nicely. You could easily attach your keys, a speaker, or a pouch – whether your own or one of YETI’s SideKick Dry pouches (featuring the same magnetic technology). The YETI M30 also comes with tie down points in case you are being extra boisterous with it on a boat, ATV, or any other vehicle!
In use, this was surprisingly comfortable. A padded and rubberized shoulder strap (with the smallest hint of stretch!) and the wedge shape of the M30 combine to align with your body well when carrying. It can hold a lot of drinks (around 20 cans with a 2:1 ice ratio) and does get heavy on longer walks when over one shoulder. But it can be carried cross-body, and I found it to be perfectly comfortable in that use case. The magnetic closure is impressive, but also very, very strong. So strong in fact that YETI created an instructional video with tips on how to pack! Once I’d tried a few times, I found the cans the most convenient way to load.
From a performance standpoint, there are no complaints with this cooler, it comfortably held ice and kept drinks cold for multiple days. After one weekend trip, I left the cooler in our garden (south-facing, exceptionally hot in the afternoon) and the contents were still cold on day four. Admittedly there wasn’t much ice left, but the drinks were still just as refreshing. We tested a summer-friendly King Crab Orange colorway, and while very good looking, I did notice that it marked up a little quicker than I anticipated, although the marks were easy to remove.
As expected from YETI, this is a high-performing cooler that can assimilate into a variety of tasks. For me, that’s the USP of this cooler. It’s big enough to be truly useful on a fishing or hunting trip, but small enough to be portable. Its design is robust enough to take a beating, all the while without looking too outdoorsy to take to a neighborhood BBQ. It’s certainly an investment piece from a financial perspective, but one you’ll be very happy with for years to come.
Environmentally-Conscious Picnic Pal – Cotopaxi Hielo 12L Del Dia Cooler
Carryology Credential: Recycled materials, excellent color choices!
What you’ll like: Lightweight, easy opening, eco-conscious.
What you might not: Small, doesn’t keep cool for extended periods.
Cotopaxi are at the heart of the thoughtful revolution in the outdoor industry. From their Do Good mantra, to their recycled fabrics, they are creating products that not only perform well, but will have a minimal impact while doing so. Their Hielo Del Dia Cooler is a 12L cooler perfect for an afternoon picnic in the park, or packing a few cold ones when heading to watch the game with friends. It is lightweight (1lb 9oz), and made from repurposed cutoffs from the Cotopaxi manufacturing process. A waterproof liner is surrounded by repurposed foam insulation keeping up to 12 12oz cans crispy and cold.
The wide mouth opening is excellent in use and makes it easy to get in and out quickly. This cooler is the perfect size for taking a few drinks to dinner, or a picnic lunch. Not only does this have the zipper closure, but it also has a roll-top with buckle so that you can adjust the height of the cooler based on your load size. This feature proved to be very useful, particularly when the cooler is close to empty on the return leg – you can shrink the footprint for easy transport! There is also a side water bottle pocket; I found this a little hard to use when the cooler is packed full, but a thoughtful addition to the design. As part of the Del Dia collection, each of these soft-sided coolers has a different aesthetic that is one of a kind!
Outdoor Warrior – OtterBox Trooper LT 30 Cooler
Carryology Credential: Built for anything!
What you’ll like: Robust construction, wide opening, included accessories.
What you might not: Fidgety latch system, slightly awkward shape.
OtterBox have brought their legendary toughness from technology to the soft-sided coolers game. Their Trooper LT 30 cooler is as tough as they come with a solid base and TPU-coated nylon exterior. Internally the food-grade liner surrounds a large 30QT cavity that can provide all the sustenance you might need for an adventurous weekend.
Aesthetically this is most certainly an adventure cooler with its rugged exterior and mountain embossed back panel. It has some useful features that make it stand out from others in the field such as the included bottle opener, or the two water-resistant exterior pockets that are the perfect spot for a phone, wallet, keys, and Koozies. It is exceptionally easy to load and unload thanks to the doctor’s bag hinged opening – the most convenient loading experience I had during testing – you can just prop it open and pack away. However, while the hinged feature aids opening, I found it to be restrictive on the closing. More than a few times I found myself having to adjust the cooler contents because of the hinge. Not a problem for drinks, but a few sandwiches were crushed while testing this cooler. You need to be aware of where you’re placing your items!
It held temperature very well on both a camping trip and a long weekend away, without needing to be refilled with ice. The latch system is leakproof (IP-65 rating!), and although a little cumbersome to use the first couple of times, once you have it down it feels incredibly secure and you’re confident when moving it around. The convertible backpack/shoulder carry system works well, although I wouldn’t want to use it for an extended period when fully loaded, as the hard base digs into your back over longer distances. I also wish the straps were a little more padded to enhance comfort in backpack mode.
The Duraflex® hardware is excellent and allows you to tie the cooler down, and add other accessories to the cooler. It will also withstand a lifetime of abuse. And even if for whatever reason it doesn’t, it is backed by the excellent OtterBox lifetime warranty. The Trooper LT 30 is an outdoor companion that you can rely on.
Sleek Tote Carry – Hydro Flask 18L Day Escape Soft Cooler Tote
Carryology Credential: Great all-rounder!
What you’ll like: Classic aesthetics, watertight, silent and self-healing TRU® Zip zipper
What you might not: Not the biggest, so you have to pack smart for a full day trip.
Warranty: Five years
Hydro Flask may be known for their water bottles, but that’s not all they have to offer! Their Day Escape™ soft-sided coolers are excellent all-rounders that find a perfect middle ground between portability and performance. The Day Escape™, in true Hydro Flask fashion, is built with high-quality materials and durable engineering.
The 600D shell is lightweight and waterproof, while the welded seams are worthy of an expedition-ready jacket. In tandem with the leakproof TRU® Zip zipper, this cooler is entirely watertight. While talking about the zipper, it would be remiss of me not to mention how incredible the TRU® Zip zipper is. Toothless, waterproof, self-healing, and dustproof, this zipper is silent and requires less force to open than other soft-sided coolers. It makes a big difference in use. It’s nice not to wrestle with a cooler sometimes, or to sneak another drink without the giveaway soundscape that some burly zippers have!
The Day Escape™ soft-sided coolers come in two sizes, 18L and 26L, and they are optimal sizes for a day out. The 18L I’ve been testing has come with us on fishing trips, been to backyard BBQs, and even escorted a few take-outs home from restaurants (one of the most underrated uses for coolers!). The slim profile makes for easy transportation via the adjustable crossbody strap, and the subtle aesthetics blend in.
Laser-cut welded gear attachment loops allow you to attach a multitude of accessories and also act as secondary carry handles. Woven loops also run down the spine of the cooler and are designed for their Dry Storage bags – which are excellent for your EDC when visiting any wet or dusty environments. The large tote-style handles provide comfortable carry by either hand or shoulder, another example of this being an excellent all-rounder. It is easy to use, and you want to grab it on your way out of the door! I’m often lumbered with cooler duty on our way to adventures and social events. But my wife often takes the lead with the Day Escape™!
From a performance perspective, it is advertised to keep your food and drinks cold for 36 hours, and I’ve found that to be pretty accurate in my testing. This sleek piece isn’t necessarily the cooler you’ll take to the backcountry for a long weekend in the wilderness, but it’s the one you might just take everywhere else.
Hands-Free Backpack Comfort – ICEMULE PRO™ XL 33L
Carryology Credential: Backpack carry!
What you’ll like: Great value for money, hands-free operation, comfortable even when fully loaded, and customizable insulation!
What you might not: This is a workhorse, and looks like it too.
Warranty: 90-day replacement guarantee
Looking for comfortable, tough, waterproof soft-sided coolers that you can carry hands-free? Look no further than the ICEMULE PRO™. ICEMULE have knocked it out of the park with this cooler for folks who have portability at the top of their cooler wishlist. The breathable foam back panel is very comfortable, even when fully loaded. And let me tell you this 33L model can hold a lot (approx 33 cans!) of food and drinks. The foam back panel is covered by a breathable mesh. I’ve found it to regulate temperature very well, even on the warmer days we’ve been having recently.
The straps too are padded with a breathable mesh and foam combo that forms to your shoulders as you bring the party with you. The shoulder straps also have a sternum strap for the days that you are packed to capacity. They claim to have designed this cooler ergonomically, and I believe them. I was pleasantly surprised at how comfortable this was when hiking with lunches and beers in tow. Not only does the backpack carry make it comfortable, but it also leaves you hands-free! For any adventures that require your hands to be available at a moment’s notice (whether that’s a hike to a dramatic vista or keeping children away from tripping hazards), it’s hard to beat the convenience of this cooler.
It also features a useful elasticated cord cinch on the front of the cooler. I found this to be a perfect spot for a coat or a towel. I’m sure plenty of other items would fit there too! Completely waterproof thanks to the roll-top and buckle closure, the PRO™ XL can even come on deep-sea adventures too! It has come with me kayaking and I can see paddleboarders and boaters finding many uses for this on escapades. The roll-top closure also lets you reduce the footprint of the cooler when not full, which is useful for traveling.
Robust MuleSkin™ means that the PRO™ XL is ready for years of adventurous abuse. And the lightweight PolarLayer™ insulation will keep your food and beverages cold for up to 24 hours. All of these features are excellent, but the air valve was a revelation for me.
There is a small valve on the left rear side of the cooler, that allows you to add extra air to the cooler. Much in the way a vacuum insulated cup works with layers of air, this helps enhance the insulation! You can top up quickly at any moment too! For those of you taking the cooler with you on the water, this obviously increases buoyancy. So you don’t need to worry about losing your lunch should the cooler find its way into the water! Pro tip – pack the cooler and then add the extra air from the valve. It helps with the comfort and insulation factor, as well as “filling” the gaps left between your items – it keeps them very stable while you move.
The other added benefit of this air valve is how it allows you to pack away the cooler, for either travel or storage. Much like a sleeping mat, you can pack this down close to completely flat by removing excess air. It fits well in the bottom of a suitcase or in the trunk of your car as an emergency cooler! It’s both impressive and useful to have a 33L cooler at your disposal without taking up too much room! The ICEMULE coolers use the same engineering in a multitude of sizes/patterns if the 33L Pro™ is too big, or backpack carry isn’t your style. I can’t say enough good things about the ICEMULE Pro™ XL. For $130 you are getting a high-performance cooler that can literally allow you to take your lunch and drinks with you anywhere, whatever the day holds!
These two products are unique in their own right. And while they aren’t full-sized soft-sided coolers like those listed above, they earn their place here for their innovative and thoughtful designs!
Cocktail Caddy – RovR KeepR
Carryology Credential: Cocktail-ready.
What you’ll like: Unique design, built-in ice bucket, perfect for socializing.
What you might not: No closure or insulation (yet!)
Warranty: Five years
I’d been waiting for this and I didn’t know it. I’m a bit of a Gin & Tonic fiend – my wife and I had a gin bar at our wedding, and I’m almost certain I’m basically pickled! One of the biggest issues with loving G&T’s is the hassle of transporting them. You can’t just throw a good G&T in a cooler like you can with beer; you have to bring all of the accouterment with you. The team at RovR have solved my concerns by making the perfect mobile bar.
Much like a medieval pail, the KeepR rests flat on its firm base and allows you to bring everything you may need for an evening of cocktails. It’s a modern-day picnic basket of sorts and boy do I love it. It all starts with the IceR – a 3L double-walled vacuum ice bucket that not only allows you to add ice to your drinks but also helps keep them cold too. This will hold ice for days, and lives in the middle of the KeepR. Around this, you’ll find four adjustable walls (attached by hook and loop) that can be moved to accommodate any array of utensils, cups, plates or in my case, tonic bottles.
The ingenious design is a breeze to use with its comfortable neoprene handle and puncture-resistant walls. My wife and I really enjoy the versatility of the design and how you can adjust it to your needs*. You really get three products in one. When you add all elements together, you have the KeepR. Take the IceR out and you have a mini cooler/ice bucket and a stand-alone grocery tote. Sleek, functional, and entirely unique – the KeepR is what it says on the tin.
*This summer, the good folks at RovR are also bringing out a companion cooler – the TravlR – which will be compatible with the KeepR and allow you to take it (and your cocktails!) on extended adventures.
Collapsible Tough Lunch Bag – YETI Daytrip Lunch Bag
Carryology Credential: Origami!? Yes, please!
What you’ll like: Foldable, tough, magnets.
What you might not: Expensive for a lunchbox. Not the biggest.
Warranty: Three years
As with their Hopper, YETI do not do things by halves – as shown here by this excessively engineered beauty. The Daytrip lunch bag is the Rolls-Royce of lunch bags. Not only does it look great (always available in a multitude of fun seasonal colors!), it performs excellently and has a unique collapsible design.
There are many ways to fold this lunch bag, and not only for storage, but for thermal efficiency too. YETI have designed the Daytrip with you in mind – some days we take all the leftovers from the fridge, while on other days we are just snacking. The Coldcell Flex™ insulation helps retain temperature (either hot or cold depending on your lunch habits). The magnetic Thermo Snap™ closure aids this to make sure your lunch is as you would like it. The MOLLE webbing and G-hook help you adjust the closure based on the size of your lunch, and also aid in temperature control.
While this isn’t the biggest lunch bag in the world, it does perform well in a variety of everyday situations: your daily lunch, your road trip snacks, or even a few beers (6-8 12oz cans and 4-6 16oz cans for those wondering). The quality, performance and versatility of the Daytrip make it a great addition to your EDC. It also folds very flat in your backpack when you’ve finished all of your…lunch.
Investing in a good cooler no longer requires a gym membership to move it. Or extra square footage in your basement/garage to store it. Soft-sided coolers have changed the perception of what a cooler can be, and more importantly how often we use them. We think that the soft-sided coolers listed above cover a whole gamut of lifestyles and activities. And more importantly, they keep the hot things hot and the cold things cold.