The best soft coolers for chilling out in 2024

Here’s the hard sell: Soft coolers are versatile, lightweight options for keeping food and beverages cold on the go.

Best overall

RTIC Soft Pack Cooler on a plain white background.

RTIC Soft Pack Cooler

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Best backpack

YETI Hopper M Series Backpack on a beach

Yeti Hopper M20

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Best budget

Arctic Zone Insulated Tote Cooler Bag on a plain white background.

Arctic Zone Insulated Tote Cooler Bag

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Gone are the days of only finding small, flimsy, poorly insulated soft coolers. Now, a much wider variety of soft-shelled coolers rival their rigid counterparts in ice retention while offering a much more portable, versatile alternative. They range from compact lunch size to all-day capacity, with various carrying capacities to save your shoulders. So whether you are headed to the beach, keeping groceries cool for the drive home, or out in the woods where you’ll need a camping cooler, the best soft coolers keep your items cool and safe. 

How we chose the best soft coolers

When selecting the best soft coolers, we aimed to choose various sizes and carrying styles suitable for all sorts of activities and needs. Ice retention and durability were two of the most important factors, as a cooler isn’t much good if it doesn’t keep things cold. We also evaluated closure types, opening sizes, and any additional pockets or features that the coolers may offer. Finally, we chose coolers at various price points while still ensuring quality products across the board. 

The best soft coolers: Reviews & Recommendations

A soft cooler is the way to go if you’re looking for a lightweight cooler to keep things cold, whether taking tasty treats to a friend’s party, going short-term camping, or even taking your foldable kayak out. These options are ideal for various activities and situations, so you can find one below that fits your needs. 

Best overall: RTIC Soft Pack Cooler

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Specs

  • Capacity: 12 liters/20 cans (also available in 12, 30, or 40-can capacity)
  • Closure type: Zipper
  • Promised ice retention: 2 days 
  • Empty weight: 3 pounds
  • Dimensions: 13.5 x 13.75 x 15.5 inches

Pros

  • Good balance of price and quality
  • Floats
  • Available in multiple colors and sizes
  • Lots of handles

Cons

  • Outside pocket is small and tight
  • Narrow interior

The RTIC Soft Pack Cooler earns our top spot because it is reasonably priced while offering plenty of quality. It uses thick walls of closed-cell foam to keep things cool and is effective for a few days if you properly prime it. It features a removable padded shoulder strap, built-in carrying handles, and handles on the sides, offering plenty of ways to move the cooler around. 

This soft-sided cooler is quite durable. The exterior fabric is tear—and puncture-resistant, and the interior is puncture-resistant and waterproof to prevent leaks. The waterproof zipper also prevents leaks while keeping it sealed up tight to keep the cold air inside. The entire cooler floats, making it an ideal choice for any activities on the water. A small pocket on the front is the perfect place to store essentials, though it is a bit tight, so you won’t be able to store bulky things in there.

We really like the RTIC cooler’s wide mouth, making it easier to access your food and drinks. Unfortunately, the tall and narrow design takes some away from that easy access, but it’s still better than other options. It comes in four sizes and a range of colors, so you can choose one that best fits your needs and style. 

Best tote: Hydro Flask Day Escape Cooler Tote

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Specs

  • Capacity: 26 liters (also available as 18-liter)
  • Closure type: Zipper
  • Promised ice retention: 36 hours
  • Empty weight: 3 pounds
  • Dimensions: 10.4 x 23.9 x 14.97 inches

Pros

  • Lightweight when empty
  • Fully leakproof
  • Laser-cut gear attachment loops
  • BPA-Free
  • Comfortable strap

Cons

  • Exterior pocket is mesh with no zipper

You likely know Hydro Flask for its insulated water bottles, but it also makes some excellent coolers. The Day Escape Cooler Tote is a lightweight yet large soft cooler, offering a 26-liter capacity. It’s also available in an 18-liter size if you want something smaller. When empty, it weighs just three pounds. It’s rigid enough that it holds its shape when you are loading or unloading, but it can compress slightly when empty to save space. 

The zipper on the Day Escape Cooler is a TRU Zip zipper, which is toothless, silent, and IP67-rated to prevent leaks. Getting it started the first few times is tricky, but it slides smoothly after that. The interior features a food-grade liner and is BPA-free. It’s waterproof and free of any folds or tight corners that might trap debris or liquid, making it easy to clean. There is an exterior pocket, but unfortunately, it’s made of mesh, so it won’t keep debris out, and there’s no zipper to keep things secure. 

The exterior of this cooler bag is made of a 600D polyester shell, which cuts down on weight and is very durable. There are handles on the sides, an adjustable and padded shoulder strap, and carrying handles. I haven’t had to carry it terribly far, but it’s comfortable for a short trek to the beach, at least. Hydro Flask promises 36 hours of ice retention, which isn’t as long as other soft coolers but impressive for its being lightweight. I left stuff in it overnight, and it was still plenty cold the next day, even with a small amount of ice.

Best backpack: Yeti Hopper M20

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Specs

  • Capacity: 20 liters (also available in 12-liter capacity)
  • Closure type: Magnetic
  • Promised ice retention: Not provided 
  • Empty weight: 5.6 pounds
  • Dimensions: 9.9 x 15.3 x 18.1 inches

Pros

  • Waterproof
  • Unique magnetic closure
  • Very comfortable and easy to carry
  • Lots of attachment points

Cons

  • Top is challenging to buckle closed
  • Expensive

Even with padded shoulder straps, soft coolers can be a pain to carry. If you need to take a cooler on a hike, you’ll be grateful to have a backpack version. The Yeti Hopper M20 is the best backpack cooler available thanks to its range of features and level of quality. The straps are nicely padded, making it comfortable to carry even when loaded. There’s even a chest strap to keep is secure on your body even during serious hikes. Lots of attachment points allow you to add accessories or clip on keys or bottle openers and handles on the sides and top for extra carrying options.

One unique feature of the M20 is the leak-resistant magnetic closure instead of a zipper. It makes it easier to open and close without keeping on top of lubrication, and you don’t have to worry about the zipper breaking. It snaps closed audibly, so you can trust it’s sealed up. Then, you fold it and use the two buckles to lock it down. Getting the buckles closed is a little challenging, but pushing the air out of the cooler helps a lot. Plus, the whole thing is extremely durable and can withstand punctures, abrasions, and UV rays. 

As expected from a Yeti, it stays cold for a long time. We forgot to unload it after taking it to the beach and definitely did not properly prime the cooler beforehand (threw in room-temperature items and only two ice packs), yet there was still some ice a few days later. It will definitely stay cold for a long time with proper prep and the correct amount of ice. As you might guess, the Hopper M20 is expensive at around $300. But the durable design, comfortable backpack-carrying style, effective insulation, and magnetic closure make it stand out and worthy of our best splurge.

Best large capacity: Engel HD30 

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Specs

  • Capacity: 30 liters
  • Closure type: Zipper
  • Promised ice retention: 3 days
  • Empty weight: 4.5 Pounds
  • Dimensions: 22 x 12 x 18 inches

Pros

  • Comfortable shoulder strap
  • Large capacity
  • Durable
  • Vacuum valve aids in keeping things cold

Cons

  • Exterior pocket isn’t waterproof

The Engel HD30 is the way to go when you need lots of room. This soft cooler offers 30 liters of storage space yet weighs only 4.5 pounds when empty. Of course, as a larger cooler, it isn’t the easiest to carry, especially when packed full. But the shoulder strap is well padded, and the additional grab and side handles also give you carrying options. 

The Engel HD30 offers extremely effective insulation, keeping your food safe for up to three days. That’s partly thanks to the waterproof and air-resistant zipper that keeps the cold air in and warm air out. There’s also a unique vacuum valve, which allows you to use your household vacuum hose to suck out excess air between the insulation and outer waterproof layers.

The HD30 is incredibly durable and made of 840 denier fibers, which provides abrasion-resistant performance. There are six nylon daisy chains across the bag for attaching keys and other accessories, along with D rings near the top that can be used as tie-down points to keep it secure in the back of a pickup truck. A zippered pocket on the front is the perfect place to store a phone or some extra snacks, though it isn’t waterproof. 

Most durable: Yeti Hopper Flip 12

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Specs

  • Capacity: 12 liters (also available in 8 or 18-liter versions)
  • Closure type: Zipper
  • Promised ice retention: 3 days
  • Empty weight: 3 pounds
  • Dimensions: 14.3 x 10.7 x 12.0 inches

Pros

  • Extremely durable
  • Wide opening
  • Effective insulation
  • Floats

Cons

  • Expensive

Yeti is well known for its excellent coolers (like our best overall cooler with wheels), and the Hopper Flip is no exception. Available in 8, 12, or 18-liter capacities in a variety of colors, the Hopper Flip offers a wide opening for easy access and visibility. The wide opening and seamless interior make cleaning easier since there are no nooks or crannies to hide food or liquid. 

Both the interior and exterior are treated to be mildew resistant, extending the life of the cooler even if you forget to clean it out for a few days. The exterior withstands punctures, abrasions, and UV rays so that it will look nicer for longer, even with rugged adventures. It is waterproof and leakproof, with excellent insulation to keep your items cold for up to three days. 

The Hopper Flip features a well-padded shoulder strap for more comfortable carrying, as well as handles on the lid and sides. Daisy chains on the front and back make it easy to attach accessories or tie it down in your vehicle. As is true of all things Yeti, it is a premium product and on the expensive side. But you are getting a lot of quality and durability for that price, so we think it’s worth it for those who want a long-lasting, versatile, soft cooler (and that’s why the 18-liter size is the best overall pick in our best cooler bags). 

Best budget: Arctic Zone Insulated Tote Cooler Bag

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Specs

  • Capacity: 30 liters
  • Closure type: Zipper
  • Promised ice retention: 3 days
  • Empty weight: 1.78 pounds
  • Dimensions: 22.00 x 10.00 x 14.50 inches

Pros

  • Microban lining prevents odors
  • Very lightweight
  • More packable than other options
  • Affordable

Cons

  • Zipper isn’t leakproof

You don’t need to spend a small fortune to have a good soft cooler. The Arctic Zone Insulated Tote comes in under $40 but offers a 30-liter capacity with an exterior zip pocket. Despite the large capacity, it only weighs 1.78 pounds, making it the lightest soft cooler on our list. It isn’t rigid like some other options, so is somewhat collapsible, which may benefit some. 

The interior of this Arctic Zone tote measures 16.75 by 7.75 by 13.25 inches, which allows for some larger items. The interior lining is leakproof and features Microban antimicrobial protection to prevent odors should you forget to clean it out right away (or store stinky things in it). The base is extra thick so that the cold air doesn’t seep out, and it promises up to three days of ice retention. 

On the exterior you’ll find a padded shoulder strap with side carrying handles as well. A zippered pocket on the exterior stores keys and other essentials. Unfortunately, the zipper isn’t leakproof, and some report that it isn’t very durable, so it may not last as long as other coolers on our list. But the Arctic Zone Insulated Tote will get the job done if you just need a simple soft cooler that doesn’t take up much room for kids’ sporting events or car camping trips

What to consider when shopping for the best soft coolers

When shopping for a soft cooler, it’s important first to consider what you will be using the cooler for. A quick day trip has quite different requirements than a week-long vacation. Likewise, keeping some drinks cool is a lot different than keeping raw meat cold enough to be safe to eat. Knowing the primary purpose of the cooler will help you narrow in on the most important of the following factors: 

Capacity 

Choosing the right cooler capacity will ensure you have plenty of room for your food, drinks, and ice. Cooler capacity is frequently listed in reference to the number of cans it can fit. Some companies also list capacity in terms of quarts or liters. You’ll also want to keep in mind that the shape of the items you need to store in the cooler, as well as the shape of the cooler itself, will impact the practical capacity. 

What size is best depends on what you will be using the cooler for. You can get away with small coolers for short outings or lunch purposes, while multi-day trips will require quite a lot of room. 

Shape and structure

Nowadays, most soft coolers offer a rigid structure, keeping their shape even when empty. There are also collapsable coolers that allow you to pack them down. There aren’t a ton of options for these, but they are convenient for road trips or other times when space is limited. 

In terms of shape, some will offer a fully rectangular shape, which can make it easier to pack and access things at the bottom of the cooler. Others may have a narrower top compared to the base, making it difficult to access things at the bottom and limiting the size and shape of containers that can be stored at the top.  

Carrying style

Most soft coolers use a shoulder strap or hand straps for carrying. Ideally, the straps should have some padding, as even smaller coolers can get quite heavy when filled up. The shoulder strap works well for short distances, but can be challenging for walking a ways. If you know you’ll carry the cooler for longer distances, a backpack soft cooler may make more sense, as it distributes the weight more evenly and keeps the cooler out of the way while walking. 

Weight

While the soft cooler will inevitably be heavy when you fill it up, the empty weight is also important to consider. If it’s on the heavy side before you put things in it, that’s not a great sign. Weight becomes more important if you need to hike or walk with the cooler, so, in general, lightweight is better. 

Cutting down on weight does have a downside, though, usually resulting in less insulation or rigidity. There’s a balance to be had, to be sure. 

Compartments, extra pockets, and attachment points

Some (though not many) coolers will offer compartments inside to keep your items organized, which is helpful if you have lots of things to store. Certain offerings will also feature exterior pockets, making it easier to store items that don’t need to be in the cooler, such as utensils or even keys and phones. Finally, some utilize attachment points to attach items with straps or to connect accessories that you can purchase separately. 

Ice retention

Of course, none of the above features matter if the cooler doesn’t keep your items cold. Most manufacturers will promise some ice retention, but remember that those numbers are for very specific conditions. In the real world, how you prep the cooler, how often you open it, if there’s direct sunlight, and the ambient temperature will all impact how long the ice lasts. 

How much ice retention you need depends on what you use the cooler for. If you only use the cooler to transport your lunch to work or groceries home from the store, days’ worth of ice retention is overkill, and you’ll be spending money on something you don’t need. However, if you plan on taking the cooler on long camping trips or beach days in the hot sun, superb insulation for long ice retention will be a must. 

FAQs

Q: Are soft coolers worth it?

Broadly speaking, yes, soft coolers are worth it. However, it depends on what one you choose. Plenty of cheap, poorly made soft coolers are liable to leak or not keep your items. But on the flip side, many robust and effective soft coolers rival hard-sided coolers while offering better portability and versatility.

Q: How long do soft coolers stay cold?

How long a soft cooler stays cold depends on many factors. To start, each individual cooler and brand offers different levels of ice retention. How you prep your cooler, the ambient temperature and amount of sunlight, and how often you open the cooler all make a difference in how long things will stay cold. 

Q: How do I make my cooler hold ice longer?

To make your cooler hold ice longer, there are some steps you can take ahead of time and while using it. First, prechill your cooler by filling it half full with ice overnight or, ideally, a full day before you need it. Keep it out of the sun and in a relatively cool place while prechilling. Prechilling your food or drinks will also help. Putting warm items in the cooler will melt the ice faster. 

When it comes time to pack your cooler, try to use twice the amount of ice as the amount of food and drinks. Big blocks of ice will last longer than small cubes, but you can use small cubes to fill in spaces and minimize airflow. Alternating layers of ice and food or drinks will also help. Finally, be quick about opening and closing the cooler to keep the cold air in and warm air out and, when possible, keep it out of direct sunlight. 

Q: What size soft cooler do I need?

What size cooler you need depends entirely on what you are using the cooler for. If you are just packing a lunch for a short outing or for work, a mini cooler with a six cans-or-less (15 quarts or less) capacity will be plenty. For a casual day outing, anywhere from a 12 to 38 can capacity will be ideal. For a weekend trip, a cooler with a 16- to 50-quart capacity is best. For long weekend trips or large parties, 

Final thoughts on the best soft coolers

Gone are the days when your options for keeping things cool were flimsy insulated coolers, brittle styrofoam coolers, or heavy ice chests. There is certainly no shortage of high-quality soft coolers available these days, with options for just about every purpose under the sun. What is best depends on what you intend to store in it, where you need to take it, and how you prefer to carry it. 

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Abby Ferguson

PopPhoto Associate Editor of Gear & Reviews

Abby Ferguson is the Associate Editor for Gear and Reviews at PopPhoto, joining the team in 2022. She has been involved with the photography industry in various capacities since her undergraduate training at the University of Kentucky, with work ranging from client photography to program development and management of the photo department at Evolve, a vacation rental company. Education within the photography sphere has always been a big focus for Abby. She strives to help new and experienced photographers alike better understand the technology and techniques necessary to succeed within the medium.

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