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.

Last Updated: September 6, 2014
After more than 30 hours of research and ice-melt testing on eight models, the Polar Bear 24-Pack is the best soft cooler we found. Ice stayed solid for 44 hours, outperforming all but one (now-discontinued) cooler. We like the origami-like structure because of its light weight, open-cell insulation, and sturdy, waterproof liner.
Expand Previous Updates
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.

The Polar Bear soft cooler has a lightweight, origami-like structure and space for 24 cans. It has a waterproof liner and open-cell insulation so it doesn’t have the bulk or weight of a hard cooler.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $59.

Also Great
The AO Coolers 24-pack soft cooler looks very, very similar to the Polar Bear, but ice melted three hours faster and the inner seams aren’t as well-constructed.
Our runner-up is the AO Coolers 24-pack Soft-Sided Cooler, which looks nearly identical to the Polar Bear from the outside. In our tests, though, ice melted three hours faster than it did in the Polar Bear, and the liner’s inner seams aren’t as well-constructed.

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?

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.

While insulation is certainly one of the most important factors to consider with a soft cooler, it’s not the only one.
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. 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 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.

Our pick

The Polar Bear soft cooler has a lightweight, origami-like structure and space for 24 cans. It has a waterproof liner and open-cell insulation so it doesn’t have the bulk or weight of a hard cooler.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $59.
The Polar Bear 24-pack Soft Cooler is our pick for its great insulation, rugged design, and ease of storage. Its insulation is covered with 1,000-denier Cordura nylon and a thick vinyl liner, the most substantial liner we tested. The exterior of the Polar Bear uses origami-like folded corners and two buckles to create a rigid frame out of soft materials. This clever design helps the Polar Bear retain its shape even when filled with bulky items and also allows it to fold down flat better than any of the other coolers we tested. (The cooler is actually shipped flat; to restore the shape you fill it with hot water and let it sit for 10 minutes.)

The origami folds buckle in to create a rigid structure.

The origami folds buckle in to create a rigid structure.

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 unfolds to store flat.

The Polar Bear Cooler unfolds to store flat.

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.

The Polar Bear kept ice for 44 hours, 4 hours short of the now discontinued NRS Cooler, but three hours longer than the AO Cooler, and 16 hours longer than the cooler from L.L.Bean. By comparison, though, the hard cooler we tested for comparison kept ice for longer than 48 hours.

The Polar Bear kept ice for 44 hours, four hours short of the now-discontinued NRS Cooler, but three hours longer than the AO Cooler and 16 hours longer than the cooler from L.L.Bean. The hard cooler we tested for comparison kept ice for longer than 48 hours.

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.

The 24-pack is a great size for a family of four for a day at the beach or an overnight camping trip, but it’s not big enough for multi-day camping trips.
As far as sizing, the 24-pack is a great size for a family of four for a day at the beach or an overnight camping trip, but it’s not big enough for multi-day camping trips. There’s enough room in the Polar Bear for four six-packs and plenty of ice, unlike the so-called 30-can size from NRS we tested, which is actually smaller in volume. However, one of the best features of the Polar Bear Soft Cooler is the diversity of sizes and colors (we recommend lighter colors to reduce the amount of light absorption). You can get them in a 6-pack, 12-pack, 24-pack, and 48-pack. For folks who will be traveling a lot or walking a long distance, the 24-pack backpack model, which costs $30 more, is a great option.

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.

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

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

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.

While very durable, the Polar Bear Cooler’s liner is non-reflective and can’t be replaced.

While very durable, the Polar Bear Cooler’s liner is non-reflective and can’t be replaced.

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.

A runner-up

Also Great
The AO Coolers 24-pack soft cooler looks very, very similar to the Polar Bear, but ice melted three hours faster and the inner seams aren’t as well-constructed.
The AO Coolers 24-pack Soft-Sided Cooler is remarkably similar to the Polar Bear and a natural runner-up. Both brands produce nearly identical models that cost $59, though AO Coolers claims that they were the first to manufacture this particular type of heavily-insulated soft cooler popularized by boaters. In testing, we found the AO Coolers model had solid build quality, ample insulation of closed-cell foam (it kept ice around for 41 hours, three hours fewer than the Polar Bear), and a rugged liner.

The jutting corners of the AO Coolers liner.

The jutting corners of the AO Coolers liner.

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.

Competition

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

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.
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. The Polar Bear’s thick lining can be inverted to aid in cleaning, but like most of the soft coolers we tested, it still required a certain degree of wrangling.

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.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $59.
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Sources

  1. Coolers, Cook’s Illustrated, July 1, 2011
  2. Tom Bartlett, Nice Ice, Baby: Which Cooler is Coolest?, Slate, July 4, 2006
  3. Carolyn Shearlock, Provisioning Cooler, The Boat Galley
  • 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 :)