The Best Soft Cooler
After putting in more than 60 hours of research and performing a 24-hour ice-melt test on 15 coolers in the brutal Southern California sunshine, we’re sure that the AO Canvas Series 24-Pack Soft Cooler ($60) is the best soft-sided cooler currently available. In all the ways we measured performance—how cold it stayed, how easily it loaded, how durable it was against leaks, how comfortable it was to carry—this model stood shoulder-to-shoulder with coolers that cost twice as much. The AO Canvas Series Cooler can hold 24 cans with more than enough ice to keep it cool for more than 24 hours in most conditions.
If you can’t find our top pick, which AO calls the Canvas Series, look for the same 24-pack cooler in AO Vinyl Series 24-Pack Soft Cooler ($65). It’s essentially the same product, except that the exterior shell is totally waterproof, not simply water-resistant. Each one is waterproof on the interior, and all the other measurements—insulation, weight, size—are the same. The price is not identical, though. Expect to pay about $5 more for the vinyl edition.
Our pick in the previous version of this guide, the Polar Bear 24 Pack Cooler ($80), is no longer our favorite due to consistent problems with product availability. Still, it’s an excellent cooler in a category that boils down to two very similar products, and we’re splitting hairs deciding between the two of them.
In many ways, the Polar Bear is marginally better than the AO Canvas Series Cooler—its open-cell insulation is a little denser and a quarter inch thicker, its stitching a little cleaner, and it feels slightly more durable, both on its liner side and on its bottom surface. It even sits up a bit better when empty. Then again, our pick made by AO Coolers is often $20 cheaper, and these coolers are equals where it really counts: Over a 24-hour period, the Polar Bear and AO cooler are nearly identical in their ability to keep 9 pounds of ice frozen. If you happen to see the Polar Bear for less than the AO models (or if you can’t find them), go for this instead—you won’t be disappointed.
Table of Contents
Who’s this for?
The choice between a hard and soft cooler is not an easy one to make. Soft coolers can be extremely useful in the right situations. They are insulated enough to keep food and drinks cold (or hot!) for many hours, light enough to carry over the shoulder, and pliable enough to store in the back of your closet without taking up too much space.
However, hard coolers (read our full guide on recommended hard coolers here) will almost definitely outperform the best soft coolers on the market today. They are insulated better—our tests show that many of them will keep ice frozen for nearly a week—and far more durable. While researching this article, we came across countless forum conversations in which people bragged about their hard coolers lasting for years.
Despite these comparable shortcomings, soft coolers are becoming increasingly popular within maritime, off-road, and sporting communities. A soft cooler won’t scuff surfaces or bruise your shins when it slides along the bottom of a boat or falls off the back of an ATV. A soft cooler is easy to fill with groceries and lift from a trunk to carry home. And a good soft cooler will keep drinks and food cold, for a small family at the beach, all day long.
Additionally, many of the country’s concert arenas and sports stadiums prohibit you from bringing in a hard cooler when attending events, which leaves soft coolers as your only option for non-alcoholic drinks. (Note: So far as we know, only six baseball teams—Orioles, Giants, Mariners, Braves, Diamondbacks, and the Athletics—have “food-friendly” policies. So check with your local venue first before packing lunch).
If you’re camping, road tripping, going to a secluded beach, or don’t have time to make it home from the grocery as quickly as you would like, and you don’t want the hassle of hefting a hard cooler around with you all the time, then a soft cooler is an excellent product to consider owning.
How we picked
Between the new models that had appeared in the past year, fresh updates to old designs, and the availability issues that we’d seen on our first choice, we felt it’d be best to start from scratch with this 2015 update. We started by looking at reviews and testing from reputable sources. Of the reviews I found, many did not include testing across multiple models, and there were no reviews that focused specifically on soft coolers. Good Housekeeping wrote up a collection of all types of coolers, though I didn’t consider its list expansive enough to carry much authoritative weight. Cook’s Illustrated did a roundup of both hard and soft coolers (subscription required), but the list of test models was very short. Slate as well had a review from eight years ago, which was too out of date to be very useful.
The simple fact is that there isn’t a whole lot of consumer research geared specifically to soft coolers. So I went to boating forums, The Hull Truth, The Malibu Crew, and Powerboat Nation. I looked at online reviews, and double-checked our research from last year, to find all the coolers that people loved the most. The goal: I wanted to hold and use as many soft coolers as I possibly could to truly understand the category and the features that make a cooler stand out.
Using criteria that guided our previous testing, along with user comments on Amazon and in forums, I narrowed the search by looking for a short list of essential features. I wanted to see the coolers that were built well and resistant to liner tears. They had to be easy to load and carry around 24 cans with a minimum of 6 to 9 pounds of ice (roughly a single bag of prepacked ice from your supermarket). I considered the external hardware, shoulder straps, buckles, zippers, and fabric, all of which had to be comfortable to carry and sturdy enough to survive regular use in a boat, on an ATV, or sliding around in the trunk of a car. And naturally, I focused very closely on every model’s level of insulation. After starting with a long list of 27 contenders, I applied all of these requirements and narrowed the field to 19 models from 11 overall brands.
One thing to note on this category in general: There is a bit of controversy over the design you find on coolers like the AO and Polar Bear picks, as several manufacturers of similar models claim that the other companies copied their original design. In covering this topic, it was a challenge to find out who came out with the first actual cooler with a top zipper that folds along its sides when it’s closed.
But let’s just say that this type of cooler is the best design we’ve seen over the years (regardless of who thought of it first). It allows for a cooler that has a wide, easy-to-open top that can fold down compactly around its contents while, and this is the really important part, surrounding its inner chamber completely with insulation. It’s remarkable how many coolers we came across during testing that were missing insulation on some side of their body, usually the top or bottom.
How we tested
Though our testing showed that the coolers could usually maintain ice for more than two days, performance varied with the conditions—it could be improved by using more ice, keeping the coolers completely full, and pre-chilling the coolers and contents before loading them. In our initial testing, all our top performers tested very close to one another.
Here are our measurements of how much ice melted in a period of 24 hours, with the cups being the cups of melted water we pulled out of each cooler at the end of the test. We started with 9 pounds of ice, which we found contains about 17.25 cups of meltwater in total.
Beyond insulation, a durable liner is the second most important part of any cooler. This keeps the foam insulation dry; if that part gets wet, it loses most of its ability to insulate. That happens because water is an excellent conductor of heat, and air is a poor conductor of heat. The cooler’s foam, filled with many small bubbles of trapped air, creates a barrier between the things you want to keep cold and the ambient temperature outside.
The coolers also went on ordinary grocery runs. Both of our top picks were able to keep ice cream, milk, butter, and other dairy items cold with ice for two hours in the trunk of a car parked in a sunny California parking lot. The ice cream, while softer than when it came out of the supermarket freezer, was still solid enough to avoid funky freezer burn when I brought it home, which is very important indeed.
In the end, testing the durability like this didn’t really help us differentiate between coolers. Though some were built tougher than others, all our top picks stood up to the violence laid upon them. If I had to compare the relative overall strength of all the coolers, the Yeti and the Polar Bear Eclipse would come out on top, but neither of those became our final picks—all that extra strength comes at a disproportionate price for bombproof durability that most people don’t need.
The AO Canvas Series 24-Pack Soft Cooler is our pick for its decent insulation, good construction, reasonable price, and flexible, easy-to-carry design. The cheaper models we tested all performed significantly worse than this AO cooler, and none of the more expensive models performed well enough to warrant their significant increase in price.
Over 24 hours, the cooler produced 8 cups of meltwater from 9 pounds of ice, a measurement that was on par with the best coolers in our test. But at only $60, this model is at least $20 cheaper than the comparable performers in our test (and some others cost twice as much, or more). Its nearest competitor was our previous pick for this guide, an $80 model by Polar Bear—still an excellent cooler, if you can find it—but the AO cooler’s more consistent availability, better price, and almost equivalent performance make it our top choice.
Our pick’s materials were also comparable to those of the best coolers we found. It’s called the Canvas Series, but it isn’t actually made from canvas at all. It has a 600-denier nylon exterior that’s very similar to that of the Polar Bear cooler. While not fully waterproof from the outside, the Canvas Series is water-resistant. I took a broad piece of the exterior nylon fabric and soaked it under a spray faucet for several minutes until the top of the material had begun to absorb some water. During this test, the underside of the fabric remained dry throughout. Moving to the inside, there’s an internal liner of reflective Mylar, which also doubles as a moisture barrier between the nylon and the foam insulation that sits behind it.
If you need more robust protection against spills, waves, and rain, AO Coolers also produces two different vinyl-shelled coolers, The Vinyl Series and The Carbon Series. The first one is our choice as a runner-up if the Canvas Series is unavailable; both are more expensive than the Canvas Series. They aren’t completely waterproof, as water can still get into the inner chamber of the cooler through the zippers, which are not rubber-sealed. But the amount of water that could seep in this way is negligible, so we’re not worried about it. (The Yeti cooler was the only one we came across that was billed as completely waterproof.)
The cooler’s best design feature is one you will also find in pricier Polar Bear and StrongBags models. When it’s open, the bag stands erect like a grocery bag, which provides easy access for loading and unloading. Closed, the top of the bag zips across the middle with two YKK #8 zippers (the largest, and often considered the most reliable, zipper manufacturer in the world) and folds down on either side, compressing the bag into a rectangular brick. This shape allows for all sides of the bag to have equal insulation coverage when closed—a feature many cheaper soft coolers lack.
The insulation itself is a 0.75-inch layer of foam. Exactly what kind of foam is difficult to say. On several videos and in conversations with us, AO Coolers has claimed that it uses closed-cell foam in its products. But the feel of the foam insulation, which is spongy and pliable, gives it away as most likely open cell. Because of the insulation’s feel, I suspected that our AO Coolers pick had a slightly less dense open-cell foam than what’s found in the standard Polar Bear cooler. I was so convinced, in fact, that I took one of AO Coolers’s products and cut it open with a safety razor to take a closer look. (I also managed to cut myself quite deeply during the process because it was late and I was tired and ended up bleeding on most of the foam. Turns out it is open cell, and let’s just say it’s quite absorbent.)
Let’s talk about heat, insulation, and polyurethane foam for a minute. Heat, remember, can be transferred three different ways: conduction, convection, and radiation. Conduction is the transfer of heat through a solid (like when a spoon becomes hot after sitting in soup), convection is the transfer of heat through a fluid (including air), and radiation is the emission of electromagnetic energy (like sunlight).
Different types of insulation work in different ways to minimize heat transfer into the cooler. Open- and closed-cell foam act as insulators to reduce heat conduction, while fabrics and liners like coated polyurethane and reflective Mylar create a radiant barrier that reduces and reflects heat radiation.
Closed-cell foam is considered a better insulator than open-cell foam because the tiny bubbles of gas in closed-cell foam are independent from another. Air bubbles that do not share cell walls, in effect being insulated from one another, are better at reducing the overall transfer of heat through the foam. Closed-cell foam is also much more expensive to produce than open-cell foam. The resulting product is strong, very rigid feeling and typically weighs more than 1.7 pound per cubic foot with greater than 90 percent of its air cells closed to one another. Closed-cell foam is also water-impermeable—an ideal material for surfers’ wetsuits.
In contrast, open-cell foam is permeable to air and water like a sponge (which is why it is used in foam pillows, as it’s squishier and it breathes). But open-cell’s ability to insulate is greatly diminished when wet, since water permeates all of the open space and acts as a conductor of heat. In open-cell foam, the majority of bubbles (greater than 50 percent) share walls with one another. These foams are light and easy to compress, weighing around 0.5 pound per cubic foot.
According to our testing, over a long enough period of time, closed-cell foam will keep things cool for longer. But in the 24- to 48-hour range, there doesn’t seem to be a huge difference between using three-quarter inch of closed- or open-cell foam in a cooler. Except for cost, of course.
Everyone wants to claim that they use closed-cell foam in their coolers. And, after hours of research, you’ll have to trust us that there’s a lot of gray area in what is advertised as closed-cell foam and what actually is. If you’re wondering what kind of foam your cooler has, a good rule of thumb is to try and squeeze the foam together with your fingers. If your fingers can compress the foam more than 75 percent down, then you’re probably dealing with open-cell foam. If the foam feels denser than that and can’t be compressed very much at all, you’ve probably got your hands wrapped around closed-cell foam.
The AO cooler’s insulation is surrounded internally in a 0.7-millimeter lining of flexible polyvinyl carbonate (PVC). This PVC lining is a softer, more pliable material than what found in other coolers. It’s also easier than some others to clean, but we found during testing, and especially after the cooler was left open and empty in the sun, that the liner sometimes became almost too pliable. Polar Bear, for instance, has gone a different direction with its liner, using a more rigid thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU), which feels more hardy to the touch, even after time in the sun.
AO Coolers explained to us that it purposefully designed a more pliable liner to make it easier to clean and to resist puncture, and provided us with testing notes to back up the claim. AO tests its lining materials in a series of destructive ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) procedures run by an independent lab. We’ve reviewed these test notes and the the lining resisted roughly 50 pound force of puncture force and 25 pound force of shear strength at 0.253 inch, which is roughly a point about the size of the head of a pencil. Though we weren’t able to re-create this test ourselves without expensive machinery, the AO cooler’s lining did stand up to an awful lot of abuse at the hands of our testers. While I wouldn’t put a crushed, jagged-edged can into this (or any) soft cooler, AO Coolers’s linings are tough enough to resist most damage, except maybe an unlucky direct puncture.
Last year, we noted that the AO cooler’s lining had uneven seems that led to jutting corners. That has all been redesigned now, with an internally welded seem that meets at a T shape in the corner of the bag. All in all, it’s a much stronger corner than we saw last time.
I confirmed this by loading up the AO cooler (and all our top picks) with their full capacity of cans, which was basically true to the 24-can rating. Filled with cans, the AO cooler had enough room to comfortably carry 6 pounds of ice, which is plenty of ice for one day as long as your cans are already cold before loading.
After packing, I carried all the top picks around my apartment, then from the car to the beach, and from the car to the refrigerator. I learned, among other things, that I have two oddly protruding collarbones that make certain shoulder straps incredibly uncomfortable. You can also try to pass the shoulder strap over your head like a messenger bag, but this method can strain the muscles in your neck if you do it for too long. I don’t recommend it.
That being said, AO Coolers does a decent job of helping you out. Among the top performing soft coolers we tested, the AO Canvas Series Cooler has one of the better shoulder straps we came across. It’s 6 inches long by 2.5 inches wide, and made of a pliable rubber with ridged contours that should cover most people’s shoulders without slipping. While the strap covers a bit more surface area than the more expensive Polar Bear Eclipse, whose shoulder pad is deeply rounded on each corner, almost every shoulder strap we saw in this category could have been larger and had more padding. In fact, AO Coolers has a better shoulder strap, but the company reserves it for its more expensive Carbon line. And even it isn’t perfect!
We still haven’t seen a strap pad as comfortable as the now discontinued NRS Dura Soft, but any product that’s meant to be loaded with several pounds of ice and beverages should do everything possible to make it comfortable. Unfortunately, all of the straps on our top picks fall short of that ideal.
The Canvas Series also comes well recommended on Amazon, with 98 reviews averaging 4.4 stars. One reviewer, a D.L. Thompson, wrote, “I would recommend this cooler just on its beefiness alone though. Incredibly well made!” UTVguide.net and moabjeeper.com both wrote reviews recommending the AO cooler as their top pick. UTVguide.net called it the “strongest cooler on the market,” which is maybe overstating it, now that the ridiculously over-engineered Yeti Hopper exists, but you get the point. The AO cooler has plenty of fans and is worth the praise in our opinion.
Flaws but not dealbreakers
Coolers are measured by the amount of cans they can hold, but that isn’t really an exact unit of volume. With the AO, we weren’t entirely satisfied by its size, especially compared with the other 24-pack models in the test. While you can fit 24 cans in here with enough ice to last at least a day, it does fill up more quickly than our Also Great pick, The Polar Bear. The AO cooler measures about 9.5 inches wide by 17 inches long by 12 inches tall. Subtract the three-quarter-inch insulation and lining, and you have about 1,426 cubic inches of internal space, which if you’re stuffing cans and plenty of loose ice into the bag, like you might at a beach party or boat trip, is probably more realistic a space for 20 cans or so.
This is not to say that it’s too small to be useful—on several shopping trips, our cooler pick held our test load of groceries easily. But if you’re adding bulkier items, the AO’s size can be a problem again. Unlike other models we tested, which had adjustable cinches, the buckles on the side of the AO are not adjustable, so you can forget about trying to squeeze a little extra room out of the top once you close the zipper. You can forget the side buckles entirely and buy yourself a bit of extra space by closing only the zipper across the top, which will tent the bag a little. But you should know that you’re possibly forfeiting a bit of overall insulation when you do that, depending on how much you’ve overloaded the bag.
Just to be sure the 24-pack was the right size, we did a second round of testing with AO’s 36-pack cooler. (The AO coolers, like the Polar Bear coolers, range in size from a 12 pack to a 48 pack.) The 36-pack cooler was an absolute behemoth and, when loaded with 30-plus cans and ice, definitely too large for most people to want to carry very far. At that size, you’re beginning to buy coolers that are for using almost exclusively in or on a boat, car, ATV, etc. So, in spite of the tight fit, 24 cans it is.
As with all the top coolers we tested, we came across complaints online about AO Coolers leaking. It seems pretty much inevitable that with a mass-produced product meant to carry ice, food, bottles, and cans, that some are going to eventually leak. AO Coolers does offer a “leak-proof” guarantee. If the cooler leaks because of manufacture defect, or normal use or if the main zipper to the cooler breaks, AO Coolers will repair the liner and zipper. However, if your cooler is damaged by crushed cans, bottle caps, animals, dry ice, glass, or other uses that are not considered normal wear and tear (at the manufacturer’s discretion), then it is not covered by the warranty. AO will fix your cooler for a $25 fee, plus shipping, and four to eight weeks of time.
Last, one complaint about the strap was the weak looking all plastic hardware that clipped the strap into place. The clips didn’t feel that sturdy, and we weren’t sure how long they would hold up in real world conditions. There were a few Amazon comments saying the same, but overall most people don’t seem to have a problem with them. This will be one area that we will be looking at very closely though during long-term testing.
If our main pick, the AO Canvas Series 24-Pack Soft Cooler, is out of stock, the slightly more expensive AO Vinyl Series 24-Pack Soft Cooler for $65 is an easy substitute. The Canvas Cooler and Vinyl Cooler are nearly identical except for the external fabric, which in the Vinyl Cooler’s case is made from, well, vinyl. This exterior has a slight advantage in very wet environments, as it’s almost waterproof, whereas the Canvas version is simply very water-resistant. (This makes it a more popular option on the boating forums we visited.)
One drawback is that the shell seems to heat up faster in direct sunlight than the Canvas Cooler does. But in a comparison over a 24-hour period, we didn’t find that this made any measurable difference in the insulating properties of the cooler.
Our pick on this guide’s previous version was The Polar Bear Nylon 24 Pack, which is still an excellent choice if you can find it. Despite making very well-designed coolers, Polar Bear has had difficulty keeping its product in stock, as we’ve noticed consistently over the past year. The Polar Bear remains an enthusiastically recommended runner-up that performs as well as (and sometimes just a bit better than) our top pick. It has the same excellent insulation, the functional origami-like folding design, and an exterior shell of 1,000-denier Cordura nylon, which is as tough as the one on our pick. The main drawback, beyond availability, is the price—at $80, this option is usually a $20 increase.
Polar Bear’s liner, like the AO cooler’s liner, has been tested by independent labs and passes California’s Prop 65 test. Additionally, the TPU liner meets the standards set for phthalates by the US Consumer Products Safety Improvement Act of 2008 and passed in accordance with FDA regulations for rubber articles intended for repeated use.
The Polar Bear cooler is insulated by 1 inchof dense open-cell foam, which is a quarter inch thicker than the open-cell foam in the AO cooler. Like the AO model, that foam is sealed in an air- and water-tight compartment. To produce its coolers, Polar Bear utilizes high-step sewing machines to sew through all that foam and layers of liner and fabric, which allows for a slightly thicker layer of foam, according to Polar Bear’s owner, Strud Nash.
The Polar Bear has excellent seams along its internal liner, too. Last year, we found they were better than those on the AO cooler, but AO Coolers recently improved its design to match the Polar Bear’s craftsmanship. Now both coolers have very strong seams sealing their internal liners, so that’s a draw.
The Polar Bear Nylon also held the most out of any 24-pack cooler we tested with roughly 6 pounds of ice. When I pack coolers, I prefer to use a more haphazard method, throwing my cans and ice together as quickly as I can. For people like me, the Polar Bear Nylon swallowed 24 cans and just under 6 pounds of ice with surprising ease. With careful can stacking it’s possible that intrepid packers might figure out a way to get it to hold more. Though both the Polar Bear and AO Cooler have similar dimensions, the Polar Bear seems to have a bit more width and height than the AO cooler, which makes a remarkable amount of difference.
The Polar Bear Nylon cooler is shipped flat, to save on shipping cost. To restore it to its natural state, you have to fill it with hot water and let it sit for 10 minutes, which incidentally is a pretty effective leak test for a new cooler.
The Polar Bear has 431 reviews at Amazon with an average rating of 4.8 stars and is consistently one of the most popular and well-regarded brands on boating, fishing, and hunting forums. It was recommended by Carolyn Shearlock on the Boating Galley, who commends the cooler for its thick, open-cell foam insulation and heavy-duty build quality, with a specific focus on the Cordura canvas exterior and the rugged liner. Of course, she also made that recommendation when the Polar Bear cost only $55.
As with all the soft coolers we tested, the Polar Bear did have a few flaws. Fully loaded, the Polar Bear weighs 24 to 26 pounds. It’s not impossible to carry around, but like all soft coolers loaded with cans and ice, it’s not exactly fun to carry around either. The larger issue is not how heavy it gets, but how ridiculously small the shoulder strap and its pad is. Out of all of our models, the Polar Bear had the smallest shoulder pad by a significant margin. While it was okay enough to carry the bag a short distance, we found that after a while, the small pad would slip off our shoulder, making it pretty useless. Considering the incredible amount of thought that goes into the details of the Polar Bear coolers, the small size of the shoulder strap and pad feels like a surprising oversight.
The Polar Bear Eclipse 24 Pack – This is a new model from Polar Bear, and it’s very impressive if, at $150, price is no object. The Eclipse has the same design as Polar Bear’s previous models, but represents an improvement in nearly every component material. The Eclipse has metal hardware whereas the Nylon 24 Pack has plastic. The Eclipse comes with nylon carabiner loops for safe stowing anywhere, a YKK #10 splash guard zipper for extra insulation and water protection. Overall, the Eclipse was just as strong as the $300 Yeti Soft Cooler, but it was far easier to use than the Yeti and, by our testing, was better insulated. It’s also the only cooler we tested to be fully insulated on all sides by true closed-cell foam, which is also the only cooler on the market to do so since the discontinued NRS Durasoft Cooler. It’s this closed-cell insulation that allowed it to top out our melt tests, beating every other cooler we tested (if only marginally). It’s an excellent product, but even for half the price of the Yeti, the Eclipse is still too expensive for us to recommend for most people.
The Yeti Hopper 20 – This is the most expensive soft cooler we’ve ever come across. It’s $300 and packed to the gills with excellent materials and manufacturing techniques. If you want to show off, then this is the cooler for you. It comes with three trademarked components, apparently just for funsies. The Dryhide Shell, The Hydolok Zipper, and Coldcell Insulation. Outside magazine literally dragged this cooler behind a car for several miles and it came out with barely a scratch. Like the Polar Bear Eclipse, it uses a true closed-cell foam to insulate most of its bag. We say “most” because here’s the real kicker: It’s not completely insulated on all sides. The Coldcell Insulation stops about an 1.5 inches from the top and relies on the Dryhide Shell and other space age materials to do the rest of the insulating from there. Sure, it’s completely leakproof—but for $300 you should expect complete foam insulation all the way around your cooler.
The Kelty Folding Cooler, 35 Liter – This $50 cooler very nearly took top spot if not for a couple of design flaws. It doesn’t have any insulation on the top lid, and the shape of the cooler made it a bit awkward to carry when it was fully loaded, when compared with our top picks. The Kelty Folding Cooler, however, has some advantages. It’s built with a unique design that allows it to completely break down when not in use. It was the third soft cooler we tested that used closed-cell foam, and we had high hopes for its overall performance. Its lack of insulation on top, however, meant that it couldn’t keep things quite as cool for nearly as long as our top contenders. But we liked the overall design, the lid comes with convenient drink holders for your cans, it collapses down very compactly when not in use, and it uses decent quality materials like a 600-denier polyester lining and 330-denier polyester exterior fabric. It also comes with a metal bottle opener. All for a remarkably low price. If multi-day excursions weren’t in the works and you didn’t mind giving up some long term insulation, this is a lot of cooler with some interesting features for a very cheap price.
Ice Mule Coolers, 15 Liter – This open-cell insulated cooler has an interesting design, similar to that of a stuff sack you might use on camping. It’s really designed for the sporty crowd, paddle boarding specifically. It will float apparently, even fully loaded. It performed fairly well in our tests, though it’s light, open-cell foam insulation hindered it some. The Ice Mule is small and won’t carry as much or keep what it carries cold for as long as our top picks. In the end, this seemed like a good overall cooler for a more specific purpose than we could recommend for everyone. But if you’re looking for a good soft cooler for paddle boarding or to stuff in the back of a kayak, that also floats and will keep contents cold for a little less than a day, and don’t want to spend more than $60, then this is a good cooler for you—we just felt most people would prefer the superior insulating performance of our main pick.
Igloo Marine Ultra Square Cooler – Like Yeti, Igloo is known for making market-leading hard coolers. Unlike Yeti, Igloo created a soft cooler that costs only $50. The Igloo Marine Ultra is a lid-top-style cooler, similar to the Kelty except that its lid also has insulation, which completely seals in its internal compartment. Despite this, the Igloo, with only very light open-cell foam, still didn’t keep ice from melting all that well. For the same price we would suggest getting the Kelty, which performed better overall during our testing.
StrongBags Canadian Ice Flight Crew Cooler – StrongBags manufacturers bags specifically for pilots and flight crews. These are decent bags but, for $80, overpriced when compared against the top competition. Because they are shaped to fit overhead size restrictions they are also a bit smaller than our top picks. Despite having decent insulation, these coolers aren’t worth the extra price in our opinion when you can buy our top pick for $30 less.
StrongBags Glacier Flight Crew Luggage Cooler – Also $80 like the other StrongBags Canadian Ice Flight Bag, this model borrows the same folded origami structure of our top two picks but seems to use a less dense open-cell foam, which hindered its overall performance. You can, (unless you need a soft cooler specifically sized for overhead compartments) save yourself a bit of money and buy a bag that keeps things cool longer by buying either of our top picks.
L.L.Bean Tough Pack Cooler, 24 Quart – For $70, this sturdy-looking but ultimately poor-performing cooler should have had more. During testing, the L.L.Bean Tough Pack produced 9 cups of meltwater from 9 pounds of ice over 24 hours, a full cup more than our top picks. Its insulation, while thick, was less dense than many we tested and felt more like spun polyester than open cell foam. Its external vinyl and internal liner were cheap feeling compared to our top picks and it cost more than our top pick. L.L.Bean generally has a good name for quality products, but this cooler didn’t seem to live up to those standards.
Coleman 30 Can Cooler with Hard Liner – The $25 Coleman 30 Can Cooler comes with a internal plastic basket liner, which, while easy to clean, didn’t seem to help the cooler’s ability to keep ice cold. We were underwhelmed by the Coleman coolers in general. The Coleman models had thin insulation with very little density. You just aren’t going to get very good insulation for less than $40. Though advertised to carry 30 cans, we had trouble loading these coolers up to the full capacity. Additionally, this Coleman cooler performed poorly in our comparative ice melt tests producing 4.5 cups more meltwater than our top pick.
Coleman 30 Can Cooler with Removable Liner – Similar to the Coleman 30 Can Cooler with Hard Liner above, this Coleman model suffers from the same shortcomings as that model. There’s actually very little separating these two models except for aesthetics. These Coleman’s just don’t perform as well as our picks, for half the price you’re sacrificing more than half the performance. This Coleman model produced 5.5 cups more meltwater in 24 hours than our top pick during testing. We would suggest spending a bit more than that and upgrading to our top pick, the AO Canvas Cooler.
REI Personal Ice Box – For testing, we selected this smaller cooler to see what a personal lunch box-sized soft cooler would be like. In the end, this soft cooler was too small and too poorly insulated to recommend for anything except bringing lunch around with you. You could easily fit two REI Personal Ice Boxes into one of our top picks. If you’re looking for a smaller cooler, we’d suggest paying a bit more for better materials, denser insulation, and more durability, and buying the smaller sized 12-pack coolers from any of our top picks.
Transworld Durable Deluxe – Another soft cooler that’s really designed to be a lunch box. The $16 Transworld Durable Deluxe was the cheapest cooler we tested and its limited size kept it out of the running for real consideration for this article. Even then, as a lunchbox it was pretty underwhelming. The Transworld Durable Deluxe is neither durable or deluxe. It’s insulation was the thinnest we came across, in 24 hours the 9 pounds of ice we loaded into was completely melted. It was the only soft cooler we tested that had this happen. Additionally, the hardware on this cooler wasn’t built to give anyone confidence. You get what you pay for and with the Transworld Durable Deluxe you aren’t paying for much.
Photos by Caleigh Waldman.
Official Cooler ‘Ice/Beer Challenge’ (featuring soft-side Yeti Hopper), GearJunkie, July 29, 2014,
Product Review: Soft-sided cooler from AO Coolers product, UTV Guidehttp://www.utvguide.net/review_ao_cooler.htm
AO Cooler in Death Valley, Moab Jeeper Magazine, March 11, 2012,
Polar Bear Coolers Review, Live the Alaskalife, April 18, 2012,
Originally published: July 19, 2015