The Ultimate Hard Cooler vs Soft Cooler Roundup
Gone are the days when a styrofoam cooler bought from the gas station on your way out of town would cut it at a weekend campout. Enter the hyper-engineered, bear-proof, super coolers that will practically replace your refrigerator. Since Yeti began churning out behemoths of coolers in 2006, nothing else has come close to reverberating as thoroughly through the outdoor world and becoming a must-have item. This new breed of coolers ain’t cheap but having a cold beer is priceless, right? So now you’re ready to saddle up and buy one. But before you fork over your hard-earned cash for a precision-engineered ice cooling vessel, I’ve tested and reviewed some of the industry leaders in this Hard Cooler vs Soft Cooler roundup.
What’s changed in the cooler game?
Let’s start with the elephant in the room – what happened to your parents’ cooler, and why are these new ones so much more expensive? One word for you cowboy, “rotomolded.” Basically “rotational – molding” is a manufacturing technique where a mold filled with hot plastic is continuously rotated to ensure uniformity throughout the mold. This process allows for multilayered (i.e. insulated) walls to be manufactured in, and complex shapes to be produced as a single part.
Gone are the days when a styrofoam cooler bought from the gas station on your way out of town would cut it at a weekend campout.
What all this means for you is that these new coolers are now a heck of a lot more durable and insulated than your parents’ cooler could ever dream to be. But it’s not all sunshine and flowers in cooler land. Rotomolding is a more expensive process than how your parents’ injection molded coolers were made. But the manufacturing process is only part of the reason these new coolers cost 10 times as much as older coolers. The other half of this equation boils down to some good old-fashioned design and some fancy features.
Hard Cooler vs Soft Cooler
Here’s the big question: soft cooler or hard cooler. Hard coolers are what you think about when you think about a cooler. They’re big, heavy, rotomolded beasts, that keep your beer cold for over a week. These coolers come in sizes from 20L up to a massive 350L.
For a nice weekend in the woods, 50-70L is a good size to be looking at. At the larger end of the spectrum, your back gets sore at the mere sight of a cooler this large, so some of these coolers are now outfitted with wheels to make towing them to camp that much easier.
Soft coolers, as you might have guessed, have forgone rotomolding in favor of softer materials that are typically RF welded together. Soft coolers come in a variety of shapes and sizes less than 40L and they’re generally cheaper by a few hundred bucks than their hard-sided brothers. You’re not going to hold a week’s worth of food in a soft-sided cooler, but it will carry up to 30 beers.
Rotomolding is a more expensive process than how your parents’ injection molded coolers were made.
What you lose in insulation ability (they keep beer cold for a mere 2 days) you gain with “carry-ability”. That’s a big word I just made up that means that lots of soft coolers can now be carried as a backpack which makes schlepping your beer into the woods mighty easy.
While you might be tempted just to put a soft cooler on your back and call it a day, once you actually lug a hard cooler to camp you’ll be glad you did. The durability of hard coolers makes them great seats and tables. Some have cup holders built in. Others have trays that attach to give you more food prepping space. Still others have a beer opener. And once you’re done making your fancy dinner, toss everything back into the cooler and don’t worry about the local wildlife because these coolers are also bear-proof (as certified by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee).
The Big Test
These coolers are engineering marvels but at the end of the day you’re still wondering what will keep your beer cold the longest. The simple answer is that the more ice you put into them and the more shade you keep them in will yield better results. But knowing that you want a better answer than that, the coolers here were set outside for a week with a six-pack of beer and 5 lbs of ice in each. At the end of the week the temperature was taken inside the cooler and a beer was drank to verify the “coolness factor” of each cooler. Results of our study are noted below.
Note: there are a ton of coolers on the market so this list is by no means a definitive best guide but is meant to be a starting point and good snapshot for buying a cooler.
All coolers mentioned here were received as a sample from the manufacturer.
$220/ 24 Liters/ 25 Lbs
Cold beer test – 5 days.
If you’re a fan of nautical-themed drinks, then this Orca Cooler with its Orca tail-shaped lid latches, details, and cargo netting on the back is right for you. Seriously though, this cooler will hold 24 cans and keep them cold for nearly a week.
At 24 liters, 25 pounds is on the heavier side. However, the durable construction and theme to the Orca Cooler should make up for the weight. It’s at a sweet spot in size for a backseat cooler and will easily chill whatever you toss into it.
– Flexible handles
– Clever accents
– Exterior carry options
– Heavy for its size
$300/ 43 Liters/ 26 Lbs
Cold beer test – 10 days.
The honest truth about hard-sided coolers is that there isn’t a whole lot of difference between makes and models. That is until you get to OtterBox’s Venture Cooler. The 45 Quart model can hold a lot of beer and ice, 25 cans and 52 lbs respectively, is grizzly-proof, and is one of the easiest coolers to carry in this roundup, thanks to two burly side handles.
Where this cooler shines however is its modularity. Building on OtterBox’s experience making hard-shelled cases, this cooler comes equipped with a multitude of attachments that really make the Venture Cooler shine. There’s cutting boards, internal baskets, a drybox for the outside, cup holders…the list goes on. And on top of this all, those cans you’ve got inside will stay cold for nearly two weeks. Love it.
– Tons of accessories to build a custom cooler
– Excellent ice retention
– Accessories are not cheap
$399/ 60 Liters/ 45 Lbs
Cold beer test – 7 days.
You would be forgiven if you thought that the RovR RollR 60 more closely resembled a food truck than a cooler. With its 9-inch rubber tires, accessories ranging from cutting boards to Bluetooth speakers, and even an attachment to pull this cooler on your bike, this is hands down the most loaded cooler in this roundup.
However, all of the above doesn’t come cheap. At $400 (plus extra for each accessory) and weighing 45 pounds, you’re going to have to be dedicated to lugging your 60 cans and 20 pounds of ice around. This cooler will be overkill for most people, but for the right person, the RovR RollR 60 is pure rolling cooler gold.
– Lots of accessories to work with
– Wheels make hauling a breeze
– Can be towed behind a bike
$300/ 47 Liters/ 26 Lbs
Cold beer test – 11 days.
Like all Pelican cases, their 50QT Elite Cooler is the crème de la crème in terms of durability, construction and design. There’s nothing flashy about it (save for the neon green interior on the model tested), but it will keep your cans ice cold.
You’ll appreciate the four molded cup holders on the top as well as the 20 in/50 cm molded measuring marks on the lid. That said, with so many accessories dotting other coolers, you might miss an interior basket or divider. But, for a simple, extremely well built cooler, you can’t go wrong with the Pelican Elite.
– Excellent ice retention
– Built-in cup holders and rulers
– Bulky to carry
$350/ 65 Liters/ 29 Lbs
Cold beer test – 12 days.
The O.G. of this new breed of coolers. You can’t go wrong with the Yeti Tundra model. With the 65L model, you’ll be keeping 42 cans of beer nice and chilly, in a bear-proof insulated palace. There’s a few included accessories to help organize the interior, but besides that you’ve got a massive ice chest.
The dimensions of the Yeti Tundra are lower and wider than other models tested, which all are taller and narrower. You’ll find that the profile of the Yeti helps keep things more accessible. Additionally its handles, fastened from military grade polyester rope, make this cooler much easier to carry than any other one tested. If you’re into a tried and true cooler, look to the Yeti Tundra.
– Flexible handles and grips built into the cooler make carrying a breeze
– Included dry goods baskets
– Excellent camp table
– Gets dirty easily
$100/ 15 Liters/ 2 Lbs
Cold beer test – 17 hours.
While Dakine’s Party Block is one of the smaller coolers in this roundup, it’s one of the most fun to use on this list. Yes you can carry 18 cans of beer inside the cooler, but then there’s the Rambo-style belt that features four detachable koozies. You’ll be the life of the party with this thing.
At $100 you’re not having to break into your child’s piggy bank to buy this cooler. However, at this price point it’s not the most durable or insulated cooler on this list (only 1″ of foam insulation), but is plenty fine for a long day at the beach.
– Not over the top in price or ruggedness
– Koozie belt included
– Overall an excellent cooler for most people
– Will not keep ice cold beyond a day
$200/ 13 Liters/ 3.6 Lbs
Cool beer test – 55 hours.
Orca’s Podster is a very rubberized and ruggedized backpack cooler. Throw 7.5 lbs of ice and 12 cans into its ultrasonically double-sealed walls and you’ll be good for an entire weekend outdoors. MOLLE webbing adorns the outside of this cooler and a waterproof TIZIP waterproofs the entire bag.
You’ll appreciate how easy this cooler carries, thanks to a larger than normal back side and very padded shoulder straps. While some might find the camo colorway too aggressive, there’s a plethora of other colorways available. While the shape of the Orca Podster is unique, though a bit unwieldy when not on your back, you can’t complain too much because this cooler will keep your beer cold for over two days.
– Excellent ice retention
– Lots of attachment points with MOLLE webbing
– Difficult to carry at your side
$275/ 22 Liters/ 3 Lbs
Cool beer test – 40 hours.
Of all the coolers on this list, you’ll look the most, well, normal carrying around the Hydro Flask Unbound Cooler. It’s got a very discreet colorway, narrow shape, and numerous exterior pockets that make this cooler really work in an urban setting.
Volume-wise you’ll fit 24 cans inside which will stay cold for nearly two days. At first glance you’ll probably be surprised how long they stay cold because the insulation on this cooler is noticeably thin. But the Hydro Flask designers are some smart folks and know that cold air sinks so they have really padded up the bottom of the Unbound Cooler to keep that precious coolness in. All in all, this is a very sleek, well designed cooler.
– Excellent exterior pocketing
– Sleek colorways
– Feels a little flimsy when fully loaded
$280/ 24 Liters/ 5 Lbs
Cool beer test – 23 hours.
Of all the soft coolers in this roundup, you’ll find the Pelican SC24 to be the most durable. It’s stout, it’s sturdy, has tons of tiedown and attachment points, and a very functional shape. It’ll hold 24 cans and your life will be a breeze with its attached bottle opener.
However, at 5 lbs this cooler isn’t light and you might be a bit surprised that it will only keep your beer cold for less than one day. That said, thanks to its durability the Pelican SC24 is best viewed as a much lighter alternative to a hard-sided cooler than a full-fledged soft-sided cooler. And for that, you’ll like it.
– Small and rugged design
– Easily accessible
– Can’t be carried as a backpack
$300/ 24 Liters/ 5.3 Lbs
Cool beer test – 42 hours.
Though simple in shape and appearance, the Yeti Hopper BackFlip is one of the most dialed-in coolers you’ll find on this list. It’s waterproof, will hold 20 cans of beer, and oddly enough, is the only cooler on this list that has a top grab handle which you’ll find super useful when not wearing it as a backpack.
This cooler is heavy but is lined with some substantial insulation. You’ll also find its size to be perfect for fitting in a crowded trunk or on your back. Can’t go wrong with this cooler.
– Carries very well as a backpack or at your side
– First-in-class ice retention
– No exterior pockets
$300/ 28 Liters/ 7 Lbs
Cool beer test – 34 hours.
The OtterBox Trooper is the most interesting cooler on this list. You’ll find that it has managed to break the mold of what a cooler has to look like – an impressive feat considering every other cooler in this roundup looks the same! This new design has a very intuitive top opening, that can be opened with one hand. There’s a very large ice chest that will hold 24 beers. The exterior of the cooler has well designed backpack straps. A couple of waterproof pockets and a bottle opener adorn the front of the bag.
However, all of this functionality comes at a price – there’s a lot of fragile moving parts and this thing is heavy. In the world of oversized, bear-proofed coolers, the OtterBox Trooper feels a little delicate. That said, if you’re not into extreme camping this cooler will suit you just fine.
– Very functional design
– Excellent ice retention
– Heavy for a backpack
– Many moving parts