April 14, 2021

The best soft coolers

  • The best soft coolers should have these features in common: Offer enough capacity to keep a variety of drinks and food chilled, properly distribute weight to make them comfortable to carry, and come standard with straps for easy transport.
  • The following guide features a selection of soft coolers from brands like Yeti and IceMule that performed well on multi-day camping trips, afternoons spent at the beach, or even short day hikes. 
  • Our top pick, the Yeti Hopper M30, is a highly-durable and easily-accessible soft cooler that’s as quality a product as there is in Yeti’s lineup — and it’ll be a staple in your outdoor kit for years.  
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If you spend any amount of time outside, it’s likely you have a cooler stashed somewhere around your home. Maybe it’s one of those tried-and-true Coleman coolers with its indistinguishable exterior texture or perhaps you have a few squeaky styrofoam ice chests laying around. No matter the form, they all provide the same function: Holding ice and keeping food and beverages chilled. 

But the design of traditional coolers (i.e. that hard plastic shell or shoddy styrofoam) often makes them unappealing for outings that take you beyond the tailgate of your vehicle or just into your backyard. Lugging a cumbersome cooler down even a modest hiking trail is hardly a pleasant experience, and it’s the kind of thing you do only once before thinking, “There has to be a better way.” 

Thankfully, there is, and that better way is a soft cooler. True to its descriptive name, a soft cooler maintains the ice-retention capability of standard coolers but in a more comfortable form factor. They’re smaller, yes, but they’re also more practical, especially for camping, hiking, fishing, or picnics at the park. Though there’s still a time and place for a traditional cooler, soft coolers are a rising commodity — and for good reason.

How to shop for a soft cooler

To the fisherman, a reliable cooler makes the difference between bringing home fresh fillets or wasting the catch as it spoils in the heat. At a tailgate party or picnic, a good cooler means cold beer and soda instead of dealing with warm swill. For campers, a cooler keeps food chilled and safe for days on end even when the nearest refrigerator is a three-day hike back out of the woods. The use cases can go on and on.

The cooler you chose is largely determined by how often you use it and what you use it for the most. If you’re just transporting your lunch to the office or bringing some snacks and drinks to the soccer field for an afternoon, there’s really no need to spring for something that runs $100 or more. However, fishermen, frequent campers, and hikers will probably want to invest in a long-lasting soft cooler like the indestructible and well-built models from brands like Yeti or IceMule.

Closed-cell insulation vs. open-cell insulation

If you’re buying a cooler for camping or you’re dabbling in van life, you’re probably going to want a cooler with some quality closed-cell insulation for keeping your groceries fresh. You’ll also want a smaller, auxiliary cooler for things you reach for often so that you’re opening your main cooler as infrequently as possible. 

Closed-cell insulation is a heavier, pricier material with tidier, more individual air bubbles that insulate far better. This is partly what makes coolers in the Yeti and Rtic tiers so much more expensive. Of course, we can’t deny that you’re paying for the name, too.

Open-cell insulation, on the other hand, is basically polyurethane packaging foam. It’s lightweight, airy, and the air bubbles that form the insulation are loosely arranged, which isn’t terribly effective.

With dozens of hours spent testing some of the top soft coolers on the market, the following guide features our five favorites, all classified into categories they particularly excelled at — save for the Yeti Hopper M30, which is our favorite soft cooler overall. 

Editor’s note: Click here for insight into our testing methodology.

Here are the best soft coolers:

Updated on 10/2/2020 by Rick Stella: Updated the intro and section on how to shop for a soft cooler, included a rundown of our testing methodology, added the OtterBox Trooper LT 30 as our pick for the best versatile soft cooler, as well as the REI Co-op Cool Trail Split Pack as our pick for the best multi-purpose soft cooler, checked the availability of all featured products, and updated the prices and links where necessary.