The Best Soft Cooler
After more than 30 hours of research plus ice-melt testing on eight models, the Polar Bear 24-Pack Soft Cooler is our favorite soft cooler available right now. It kept ice solid for 44 hours and outperformed all but one (now discontinued) soft cooler in our testing lineup. Its lightweight, origami-like structure uses open-cell insulation and a sturdy, waterproof liner to keep 24 cans plus ice cool without the bulk or weight of a hard cooler. It has a rugged design that folds down flat for easy storage.
After we found out or previous pick (the NRS Dura Soft Infinity cooler) was being discontinued, we did another sweep for better models. Nothing we came across had specs that compared to the coolers we had already tested, and the Polar Bear (previously our step up) was the only one we could get behind as a new pick. Even after monthly usage, the Polar Bear has held up very well over the last year.
Table of Contents
- Who’s this for?
- How we picked and tested
- Our pick
- Flaws but not dealbreakers
- A runner-up
- Care and maintenance
- What to look forward to
- Wrapping it up
Who’s this for?
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 thanks to stronger insulation caused by materials with high R-values like polystyrene or polyurethane foam. When we tested larger hard coolers like the Coleman Extreme 5, we found they could keep ice around for nearly seven days, 3½ times longer than the best soft cooler, under a wide variety of conditions. That kind of performance simply isn’t possible in a soft cooler.
However, soft coolers are much lighter than hard coolers, which means you carry fewer pounds when hauling your drinks or food. They fold down for compact storage. 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 and tested
The coolers we tested feature 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 insulators to reduce heat conduction, while the reflective mylar lining is 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 don’t connect, which reduces the ways heat could transfer. (It’s also more expensive to produce). This makes closed-cell foam water-impermeable—an ideal material for surfers’ wetsuits. In contrast, open-cell foam is permeable to air and water (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.
Radiant barriers like a mylar lining improve insulation by lowering the emissivity of heat radiation. Foil survival blankets, the kind given away after marathons, are one common example of radiant barriers; they work by reflecting heat radiation back into the body. In coolers, however, they reflect heat away from the internal compartment—like the radiant barrier you’d find in a building’s roof, which reflects the sun’s heat radiation from away from the interior.
Something will probably spill in the cooler’s tough-to-get-to corners, so a great soft cooler should be easy to clean. A removable liner is nice to have, as it can be scrubbed in the sink while the body of the cooler dries separately, preventing mildew or other funk from developing.
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.
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.
Once we had a short list of the most lauded models, we tested the soft coolers by filling them with seven pounds of ice, measuring the meltwater, and returning the meltwater to the coolers every few hours over several days to gauge how much ice melted over 48 hours. In order to confirm how well soft coolers perform compared to a similarly sized hard cooler, we conducted the same test with a rigid $20 Igloo Legend.
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 ease of cleaning by scrubbing out each cooler after testing.
Though the Polar Bear wasn’t the absolute top performer in our insulation tests, it came in a close second to the now-discontinued NRS Dura Soft (our previous pick), managing to keep ice solid for a respectable 44 hours—10% less than the NRS.
The Polar Bear cooler relies on an ample quantity of open-cell foam which, while not as efficient an insulator as the closed-cell foam used by NRS, still performs remarkably well. The Polar Bear cooler overcomes the poorer insulation values of open-cell foam by increasing its quantity and sealing it in an air- and water-tight compartment. (Of course, if water were to leak into the foam, it could severely inhibit the foam’s ability to act as an insulator.) In addition, the compressible open cell-foam used in the Polar Bear acts as great padding when carrying the cooler long distances, and means that it’s easier to collapse down for storage.
Though the Polar Bear shares similarities with the model from AO Cooler (they appear almost identical at first glance), we found that the Polar Bear’s waterproof liner had better seams. In testing, the Polar Bear also edged out the AO Cooler in insulation quality by keeping ice for three hours longer.
The Polar Bear’s shoulder strap and padded handles make it easy to carry. While we didn’t love the hard plastic shoulder pad, it works adequately to keep the strap from falling off your shoulder. It’s also easy to replace the included shoulder strap with one you may have at home.
Additionally, the Polar Bear has 266 reviews at Amazon with an average rating of 4.7 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. 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 (though we found it to be pretty flimsy).
Flaws but not dealbreakers
Compared to the other coolers we tested, the Polar Bear soft cooler did have a few flaws. The biggest downside is the lack of accessory pockets for storing utensils or other picnic essentials that you don’t want to get wet or stay cold. The Polar Bear has one small zippered pocket on the side and it’s only big enough for a few forks and a couple of napkins. We also didn’t love the carrying strap which features a hard plastic shoulder pad. Our favorite in testing had a wider, thicker piece of neoprene which made the weight more bearable. But as we mentioned earlier you can replace the included strap with a better one you may have at home.
The .52-mm vinyl liner on the Polar Bear is significantly thicker and feels more durable than the NRS’s. However, we read about Polar Bear coolers springing leaks due to broken bottles or sharp edges on aluminum cans on boating forums. Unlike the NRS, Polar Bear doesn’t offer replacement liners for sale. The liner also does not have Mylar’s reflective properties, though that didn’t seem to harm the Polar Bear’s performance much.
Given that the liner can’t be replaced by customers, we called up Polar Bear to find out more about their one-year warranty. They explained that if you accidentally puncture the liner in the first two years they’ll replace the cooler for $10-$15 depending on size. After two years, they give you the option of replacing the cooler for 50% of the retail price. 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. Finally, while leaking is never a good thing, it’s not the end of the world, especially if you use reusable ice packs or frozen water bottles instead of loose ice.
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. Like the Polar Bear cooler, we came across many complaints online about AO Coolers leaking. The company does offer 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 of turnaround time, and after the first year the charge could be up to $25 if they feel like it’s your fault.
Additionally, when it first arrived, the interior of the AO cooler had an intensely plastic-smelling funk which hasn’t dissipated completely. Still, the AO Cooler performed much better than models with cheaper insulation, and it’s an acceptable runner-up if you can’t find the Polar Bear cooler anywhere.
Our previous pick for best soft cooler was the now-discontinued NRS Dura Soft Infinity Cooler. It performed the best in our insulation tests, lasting four hours longer than the Polar Bear cooler. In addition, it had a user-replaceable urethane liner which made for easy repairs and cleaning, with several large pockets for storing utensils and other picnic essentials. While NRS is not currently producing these coolers, they did mention that they would be releasing an updated line in the next year which we will be testing when they become available.
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.
The 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.
Seattle Sports Frostpak is another simple soft cooler that a few people like on Amazon, but there are not many other reviews of this brand. Unlike the Polar Bear, you have to choose models with either a shoulder strap or a handle, not both, and none of them feature accessory pockets. Additionally, several reviewers complained about the quality of the zippers, problems with leaking, and someone mentioned that the insulation wasn’t as good as our top pick from Polar Bear Coolers.
Care and maintenance
What to look forward to
NRS should be coming out with their new Dura Soft line at the end of 2014. We’ll update this guide when we have a chance to check it out. The folks at Polar Bear also mentioned that they were releasing a new waterproof soft cooler with one inch of closed-cell foam sometime in October which should be even better at keeping things cold.
Wrapping it up
If you’re in the market for a soft cooler, the Polar Bear 24-pack soft cooler is the one you want to get. It’s great at keeping things cold, is rugged enough to take on almost any adventure, and folds down for easy storage at home.
Originally published: September 7, 2014