The Best Soft Cooler

The NRS Dura Soft Infinity Cooler is our pick for best soft cooler because of its great insulation, replaceable liner, and lifetime warranty from a company with a sterling reputation. And if you’re heading to a sporting event--or just plain tired of hauling around heavy coolers--a soft cooler is where it’s at. However, since NRS is no longer making this exact model we also recommend our runner-up pick, the $58 Polar Bear 24 Pack Soft Cooler. It has thick, well-designed insulation for keeping stuff cool and its rugged design makes it ideal for a variety of outdoor uses.

Last Updated: July 8, 2014
Unfortunately, NRS has discontinued our pick. While we work on refreshing this guide with a new pick, we recommend our runner-up, the Polar Bear 24 Pack Soft Cooler, in its place.

Also Great
Since the NRS cooler is no longer available, the Polar Bear is fairly similar with a simpler rectangular design.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $58.
I spent more than 25 hours researching and testing eight soft coolers to find the best in soft-sided insulation. The NRS Dura Soft Cooler is the best bet at $60, and while it is more expensive than some others, that cost translates to better insulation and design. It outperformed similarly sized soft coolers, keeping ice for 10 percent longer than the runner-up, and between 15 percent and 42 percent longer than other soft coolers we tested.

Why get a soft cooler?

Before you buy a soft cooler, it might be worth your time to consider whether you really need a small hard cooler instead (here’s our guide on hard coolers). Hard coolers will almost always outperform soft coolers based on the fact that they have stronger insulation (by using materials with high R-values like polystyrene or polyurethane foam). We’ll get into detail on different types of insulation later on.

When we tested larger hard coolers like the Coleman Extreme 5, we found they could keep ice around for nearly seven days under a wide variety of conditions. That kind of performance simply isn’t possible in a soft cooler.

In order to confirm how well soft coolers perform compared to a similarly sized hard coolers, we tested one called the Igloo Legend that got great reviews on Amazon and is available for $20. The Igloo Legend performed admirably and actually beat out our top pick by a few hours in ice retention.

But soft coolers still have a lot going for them. They are lighter, which means fewer pounds when hauling your drinks or food.

Soft coolers fold down, so it’s easy to find a space for them in the car on a road trip or in the closet when you’re not using them.
Soft coolers fold down, so it’s easy to find a space for them in the car on a road trip or in the closet when you’re not using them. They’re also easier to carry, as they flex with the body instead of banging against your hip or shin when you’re walking. It’s also important to consider that many places like baseball or football stadiums prohibit the use of hard coolers, which leaves you with soft coolers as your only option.

How we picked

We started by searching for any existing reviews on the topic, but couldn’t find many reviews that included testing, and there were no reviews specifically focused on soft coolers. Cook’s Illustrated did a roundup of both hard and soft coolers (subscription required), but the list of testers was very short. ConsumerSearch also rounded up some of the best-reviewed coolers, but their lists included mostly hard-sided models.

So we started looking for soft cooler models from scratch, browsing for ones that had great insulation, were comfortable to carry around, and were easy to clean. We scoured reviews online and perused boating and kayaking forums to find the coolers that people loved the most.

After our initial research, we rounded up a short list of the most well-liked for inspection. Similar to our review of hard coolers, we tested the top models by filling them with ice, measuring the meltwater, and returning the meltwater to the coolers every few hours over several days.

Our pick

In our insulation tests, the NRS Dura Soft Cooler was the best-performing soft cooler, keeping ice for just about 48 hours. The NRS Dura Soft Cooler is thoughtfully designed not only to keep things cold, but also to maximize comfort and repairability. NRS is a company known for producing quality products for kayakers, canoers, and anyone who wants to spend a day on the river. Unfortunately, NRS has discontinued our pick. Jump to the Runner Up section below for the cooler we’re recommending while we refresh this guide with a new pick.

One of the biggest surprises in our tests was that the quality of insulation isn’t just about its thickness, it’s also about the materials used. The NRS Cooler uses a combination of reflective insulated mylar lining, to keep radiant heat out, and closed cell foam, a strong insulator which is also impermeable to water.

The NRS Dura Soft Cooler (13 inches long by 9 inches wide by 13 inches high) weighs two pounds and has a volume of 14 quarts. It’s sold as a 30-can cooler but is slightly smaller than 24-can models from Polar Bear and AO Cooler. (Cooler companies insist on using cans as a surrogate for volume. It’s not standard and does not take into account the amount of ice you need to use to keep things cold and so varies considerably from brand to brand.)

…it’s an ideal size for a family of four for a day at the beach or a picnic at the park, but it’s not big enough for multi-day camping trips.
Still, it’s an ideal size for a family of four for a day at the beach or a picnic at the park, but it’s not big enough for multi-day camping trips.

Outside of its great insulation, the real standout feature of the NRS cooler is its replaceable waterproof liner. It’s the only model we tested with this feature. Given that soft coolers will take a beating in their lifetime, the first thing that’s likely to fail is its ability to hold water after the ice melts. This was one of the most consistent problems we read about on boating and fishing forums, even from higher-end brands like Polar Bear and AO Coolers (neither of which feature replaceable liners).

The replaceable urethane liner from NRS uses a “hook-and-loop” system (read: Velcro) which allows for easy removal and installation. This also allows the internal liner to be removed and cleaned with ease. If you’ve ever had a soft cooler, you know how quickly funk builds up; the removable liner makes the whole process a breeze because you can quickly take it out from the cooler itself and scrub it in the sink without getting the shell soaked. It also means that if water gets trapped between the liner and the insulation, it’s easy to drain and dry out.

insulating_linerFinally, because you can remove the liner, it’s possible to add extra insulation. One reviewer on NRS’ website explained that they cut “silver air-bubble duct insulation…to fit the floor and sides of [the] cooler between the inner liner and outer insulating layer, as well as in the mesh pocket on the inside of the lid. This adds significantly to the cooler’s R-value and will help it hold ice much longer.” You can find air duct insulation (one brand is called Reflectix) at most hardware stores and Amazon. (This also can be done to upgrade the insulation on hard coolers.)

Being able to replace the liner for the NRS Dura Soft Cooler also means that if it ever does spring a leak, it’ll be easy to fix (new liners cost between $6-$9 depending on the size). Keep in mind that to maximize the longevity of any liner you should avoid putting crushed aluminum cans, bottle caps, and anything with sharp edges inside.

When filled, a 14-quart cooler can quickly become burdensome, but the NRS remained comfortable even when weighed down, mostly because it had the best-designed carrying strap of the bunch, with thick neoprene to help soften the load. The carrying straps we didn’t like either had little to no padding or used hard plastic, which became uncomfortable when the coolers were full.

From top to bottom: AO Cooler strap, Polar Bear strap, and NRS Dura Soft Strap.

From top to bottom: AO Cooler strap, Polar Bear strap, and NRS Dura Soft Strap.

The overall build quality is excellent, featuring overbuilt zippers around the lid which make for easy opening and closing and a heavy-duty, rubberized bottom to minimize wear and tear and provide a platform into which you can compress and fold the cooler for easy storage. It also features a decently sized zippered front-facing fabric pocket (12 by 5 by 1 inches) and an elasticized rear mesh pocket (9 by 12 inches) for keeping non-perishables, as well as a mesh pocket on the inside lid that can be used to hold an ice pack.

candid_nrs_coolerWhile we couldn’t find any editorial reviews of the NRS Dura Soft Cooler, it was well-liked by reviewers over at NRS and on AustinKayak.com, where it averaged 4.6 stars. People especially liked the replaceable liners, good insulation, and great warranty, and many of the reviewers mentioned daily use, which is always a good sign.

The last area where the NRS cooler really stands out is the lifetime warranty, with many reviewers mentioning that when anything went wrong NRS was quick to send out a replacement after an email or phone call. This bested the one-year warranty from both AO Coolers and Polar Bear, and tied the warranty from L.L.Bean.

Flaws but not dealbreakers

Compared to the other coolers we tested, the NRS had few flaws. It only comes in one color (blue) and features a rather garish NRS logo emblazoned on the front. This isn’t a huge deal and probably won’t matter to most people, but it may bother those who would like to see more options.

Another issue is that, as mentioned earlier, it’s sold as a 30-can cooler when it should more accurately be described as a 24-can cooler (or smaller) given its volume and the need to account for ice. Nobody likes buying something that claims to have certain specs and finding out it’s not quite what they were hoping for.

Runner-up

Also Great
*At the time of publishing, the price was $58.
Since the NRS cooler is no longer available, the Polar Bear is fairly similar with a simpler rectangular design.
Our runner-up to the NRS Dura Soft Cooler is the Polar Bear 24 Pack Soft Cooler, which costs $58 and is one of the most popular soft coolers on Amazon with 178 reviews and 4.7 stars. It was also 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.

She did note, however, that even the 24-can cooler from Polar Bear can be too large for some, given how heavy it becomes once loaded down with ice and supplies. Tom Bartlett over at Slate also liked the Polar Bear’s cooling capabilities; he especially liked the bottle opener that comes attached to the zipper (which we found to be pretty flimsy). Another strong point of the Polar Bear is a clever design that uses a buckle and folded corners to create a rigid frame out of soft materials. This design also allows it to fold down flat, which makes for easy storage.

Though the Polar Bear shares similarities with the model from AO Cooler (they appear almost identical at first glance), we liked the Polar Bear’s design better, especially when it came to the quality of seams in the waterproof liner. In testing, the Polar Bear also edged out the AO Cooler in insulation quality by keeping ice for three hours longer. One downside to the Polar Bear is that it presented challenges when cleaning: It’s large enough that it won’t fit into some sinks.

If you can’t find the NRS Dura Soft Cooler, or you prefer the simpler rectangular design of the Polar Bear, we think it’s a worthy runner-up at $59. You can also find them in a wide variety of sizes and designs, including a backpack.

The competition

AO Coolers came in a close third behind the Polar Bear. Both brands produce nearly identical coolers at an identical cost of $59, with AO Coolers making the claim that they were the first to manufacture this particular type of heavily insulated soft cooler popularized by boaters. In testing, the AO Cooler had solid build quality, ample insulation of closed-cell foam (it kept ice around for 41 hours, seven hours less than the NRS), and a rugged liner.

The seams were uneven and had corners that jutted into the cooler itself, leaving them vulnerable to puncture or tearing…
However, the construction of the waterproof liner seemed suspect. The seams were uneven and had corners that jutted into the cooler itself, leaving them vulnerable to puncture or tearing (this coincides with many complaints we found online of their being leaky1). Additionally, when it first arrived, the interior of the AO cooler had an intensely plastic-smelling funk which hasn’t dissipated completely (most likely because they use vinyl for their lining, as opposed to the food-safe urethane in the NRS cooler). It also comes with an uncomfortable hard plastic carrying strap.

One of the most surprising findings during our testing was how poorly the L.L.Bean Family Pack Soft Cooler fared. It conked out 18-20 hours earlier than the other coolers we tested due to a lack of insulation in the lid and skimpy insulation throughout, demonstrating just how much of a range there is in soft cooler performance. With that being said, it did come with some of the best accessories of the bunch, like a comfortable carrying handle that snaps together as well as ample zippered and mesh pockets to store non-perishables. Overall, the L.L.Bean is better designed for very short trips or when organization is a priority over insulation.

Another surprise disappointment was the REI Picnic Cooler (which is no longer available on REI’s website). It sprung a leak within the first four hours of use and had an additional problem with water getting trapped between the waterproof lining and outer fabric and stiff bottom.

The California Innovations 24 Can Zipperless HardBody Cooler was well-reviewed on Amazon. It is a hybrid of hard and soft coolers, featuring a hard plastic liner that allowed for easy cleaning and reliable waterproofing but negated many of the benefits of a soft cooler. The zipperless lid also had problems closing reliably.

The Coleman 30-Can Soft Cooler was also well-reviewed on Amazon but had a paper-thin waterproof liner and other issues with overall build quality, including finicky zippers.

We also looked at but didn’t test the Ebags Crew Cooler II, which has great reviews on Amazon and eBags but is closer in size and function to an insulated lunch box designed for those in the aviation industry than a soft cooler. Like the NRS Dura Soft Cooler, it features a replaceable liner.

We also considered but didn’t test the T-Rex California Cooler, which was well-reviewed by Cook’s Illustrated (subscription required) but is so large that it requires wheels, is more expensive, only has a 90-day warranty, and is unreviewed by anyone else (even customers!). The company also recommends only using ice packs because loose ice could cause it to leak or deform—not a testament to its robustness.

Arctic Zone 30 Can IceCOLD cooler is another cooler from California Innovations that is well-reviewed on Amazon. But when we tested the more popular California Innovations Zipperless Cooler we were disappointed with the insulation and overall build quality. In addition, several reviewers remarked about a disappointing and uncomfortable fixed carrying strap.

The Igloo Maxcold Gripper 16-can cooler is more like a supercharged lunchbox than a cooler (even the 16-can size is significantly smaller than any others we tested), and has a few serious design issues, including a carrying strap that prevents you from opening the cooler when in use and a zipper that several reviewers mentioned broke repeatedly (even after being replaced).

The Thermos Element 5 24-can cooler features another hard liner and had issues with quality control, with several reviewers pointing out that older versions of the cooler had better insulation.

The Picnic Time Montero Insulated Tote is well-reviewed at Amazon, with many people commenting on its simple, functional design. However, several people (who rated it highly) pointed out that the inner liner wasn’t waterproof and that the tall, narrow design of the cooler made it difficult to pack.

How we tested

We tested the soft coolers by filling them with seven pounds of ice and measuring the amount of ice that melted over 48 hours. The coolers were kept at an ambient temperature between 70-75 degrees with equal sun exposure, and meltwater was weighed every few hours. Though our testing showed that the coolers could maintain ice for more than two days, performance could be improved by using even more ice or keeping the coolers full.

The coolers would also likely perform more poorly in direct sunlight on a summer day. Performance will vary based on conditions (temperature, humidity, amount of ice, etc.), and our test aimed to answer the question of which cooler had the best relative insulation.

Outside of insulation, we tested the coolers’ carrying straps by filling the coolers with cans and ice to see how they fared when loaded down with weight. Finally, we evaluated each cooler on ease of cleaning by scrubbing out each cooler after testing.

cooler_graphTest results

As mentioned in the introduction, the most efficient cooler was the Igloo Legend 24-Can Cooler as it was the only cooler to have any ice remaining at 48 hours. We included this model in the testing so we could see how our crop of soft coolers would compare against a similarly sized hard cooler.

The NRS Dura Soft Cooler (our main pick) came in as the best-performing soft cooler at just less than 48 hours of ice—four hours longer than the Polar Bear, seven hours longer than the AO Cooler, and 20 hours longer than the cooler from L.L.Bean.

What the results indicate is that the insulation in the NRS, AO Cooler, and Polar Bear coolers is, for the most part, very good, but that the NRS performed markedly better. That, along with an easy-to-clean, replaceable liner and a more comfortable strap, make it a clear top choice.

What makes a good soft cooler?

Types of insulation

The coolers we tested featured three types of insulation: open-cell foam, closed-cell foam, and a reflective mylar lining. It’s helpful to remember that heat 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). The three different types of insulation work in different ways to minimize heat transfer from the outside world into the cooler. Open-cell and closed-cell foam act as formal insulators and seek to reduce heat conduction, while the reflective mylar lining acts as a radiant barrier to reduce and reflect heat radiation.

Open- and closed-cell foam reduce heat transfer by reducing heat conduction. Closed-cell foam is considered a better insulator than open-cell foam because the tiny bubbles of gas in closed-cell foam don’t connect and therefore convection cannot occur (it’s also more expensive to produce). This is a boon because it makes closed-cell foam water impermeable (which is why they use it in a surfers’ wetsuits). In contrast, open-cell foam is permeable to air and water (which is why it is used in foam pillows; it’s squishier and breathes), but its ability to insulate is greatly diminished when wet. This is because water permeates all of the open space and acts as a conductor of heat. The Polar Bear cooler overcomes the limitation of open-cell foam by sealing it in an air- and water-tight compartment. However, if water were to leak into the foam, it could severely inhibit its ability to act as an insulator.

Radiant barriers like a mylar lining improve insulation by lowering the emissivity of heat radiation. Foil survival blankets, like the kind they give away after marathons, are one commonly known example of radiant barriers, and they work by reflecting back heat radiation generated by the body. In coolers, however, they reflect heat away from the internal compartment. Many homes come with a radiant barrier in the roof to reflect heat radiation from sunlight away from the house when it’s hot out.

The NRS Dura Soft Cooler takes advantage of the properties of closed-cell foam and couples them with a reflective mylar lining. Not only does it insulate against heat conduction, but it also reflects back radiant heat on a sunny day. It’s also very effective for aquatic sports because the closed-cell foam is impermeable to water and thus is not impacted when submerged or wet.

What else to look for

You want a comfortable carrying strap, padded handles, and a design that doesn’t deform or collapse when fully loaded.
While insulation is certainly one of the most important factors to consider with a soft cooler, it’s not the only one. In particular, it’s important to look for good design, usability, ease of cleaning, accessories, and weight.  Look for coolers that make it easy to load and unload stuff. That means good zippers and avoiding needlessly complicated closing systems like buckles. It’s also important to look for a cooler that’s comfortable to carry. You want a comfortable carrying strap, padded handles, and a design that doesn’t deform or collapse when fully loaded.

Something will likely spill and dry in the tough-to-get-to corners, so a great soft cooler should be easy to clean. Removable liners can be scrubbed in the sink while the body of the cooler itself can be dried separately, preventing mildew or other funk from developing.

What size cooler should I get?

Many of the soft coolers we tested came in a variety of additional sizes that ranged from much smaller to much larger. The decision to test coolers in the 24-30 can (14-18 quarts) range was driven by practicality and comfort. Any smaller and the soft cooler becomes a glorified lunch bag; any larger and it becomes unwieldy to carry–especially when loaded down with ice. (Though if you’re hoping to bring one to your favorite stadium, check their website for size limitations.) If you really need to keep food cold for a multi-day camping trip, you’re likely better off with one of our top hard cooler picks.

If you really want a larger soft cooler, NRS makes a 44-quart model (which is a little more than three times the size of the 24-can model) for $70. The larger model from NRS also has a replaceable liner, accessory pocket, and padded handles, but does not come with a carrying strap (presumably because when fully loaded it would be very difficult for one person to carry over a shoulder).

Care and maintenance

…a wipe-down with soapy water or some type of detergent will get rid of less potent smells…
Because soft coolers store food and other perishables, they may develop smells over time. They need to be cleaned with some regularity and stored dry. In general, a wipe-down with soapy water or some type of detergent will get rid of less potent smells, but it’s important to fully dry the liner before closing it up again so it doesn’t become mildewy. You can use a weak bleach solution or a paste of baking soda to evict any lingering odors. We especially liked the NRS Dura Soft because its removable lining allows for easy scrubbing at the sink. All other soft coolers we tested required a certain degree of wrangling, which made it especially difficult to get into corners where food and other nasty stuff can get trapped.

Wrapping it up

If you’re in the market for a soft cooler, the NRS Dura Soft Cooler is the one that you want to get. It’s comfortable to carry and excels at keeping things cold under a variety of conditions. And because it’s thoughtfully designed, user-repairable, and comes with a lifetime warranty, you’ll be able to use it for many summers to come.

Footnotes:

1. One point that elevates the AO Cooler over the Polar Bear is a “leak-proof” guarantee: If your cooler springs a leak, you can pay shipping and they’ll replace the lining for $12. However, this deal looks less attractive when you consider you have to pay for shipping, wait four to eight weeks turnaround time, and after the first year the charge could be up to $25 if they feel like it’s your fault. Jump back.

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Sources

  1. Coolers, Cook's Illustrated
  2. Coolers: Reviews, Consumer Search
  • Harvey

    great article, thank you

  • Cody Smith

    can we get more pics? nothing for scale to compare it. could be big as a house, or tiny, no idea with nothing to compare it to in the pics. Maybe put a coke can next to it? or just put it in a room full of stuff, on a chair, and take the pic from across the room. plz? great article, I want to buy it, if the right size.

  • Allensweep

    The Picture is so very good But After using it Cooler we have know it benefit and Loss .
    Please finds more info about use it Product>>>>>>>>>>>>http://lumahydraaustralia.com/

  • sidewinder3000

    THE LINK FOR AMAZON LEADS TO A PAGE WITH A SINGLE, ONE STAR REVIEW AND ONLY ONE COLOR (YELLOW) AVAILABLE.

    I was ready to buy one but this does not inspire confidence. The reviewer also made it sound like they got the wrong product. Can you guys work this out with Amazon?

    • http://thewirecutter.com/ tony kaye

      Something is definitely wrong here. We’re on it!

      • sidewinder3000

        Thanks. I’ll check back.

        • http://thewirecutter.com/ tony kaye

          Just passing along some info – they discontinued this style so in the meantime we’re rec’ing the Polar above, and revamping this guide soon!

          • sidewinder3000

            Thanks. I was actually so intrigued by your original review and reco, I found a retailer who still had some old inventory and bought one of last year’s NRS. (I usually buy straight from your links so sorry about that!).

          • http://thewirecutter.com/ tony kaye

            Glad you got the model you wanted!

  • http://scamper.com scamper

    No mention of BPAs, PVCs, or phthalates?

    • http://thewirecutter.com/ tony kaye

      This guide needs to be revamped. We’re in the middle of refreshing it. Will forward this along as feedback to our researcher. Thanks!

    • https://twitter.com/mhzhao Michael Zhao

      This is not so much of an issue when talking about things that store other things. If it were directly in contact with food, that would be different, but unless you’re storing raw fruits and veggies, that’s not gonna happen. Besides, at lower temperatures, leaching is much less of an issue

  • Tammy

    Do you guys have a review on small hard-sided coolers? I see one for large hard-sided coolers and small soft-sided coolers, but the small hard-sided seem to be missing. I need something small to keep in my car and I want it to be hard-sided so I can sit on it at outdoor events.

    • http://thewirecutter.com/ tony kaye

      Unfortunately, that’s all we have. This is the same one mentioned above (Polar)-

      http://thewirecutter.com/reviews/beach-and-pool-gear/#cooler

      I’ll forward this along!

    • Oliver Hulland

      The Igloo Legend 24-Can cooler is a small hard cooler that is great value. It bested our soft coolers in terms of insulation, and sounds like it would suit your needs. You can get them for between $18 and $25 at places like Ace Hardware or Amazon.

      • Tammy

        Thanks for the suggestion. I’ve seen them around, but didn’t really know how they compared. I’ll take another look at it :)