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With the official start of summer fast approaching, many people are gearing up to spend as much time as possible outdoors, whether that’s by picnicking, camping or going to the beach. And in addition to sunscreen and a beach towel, one thing you might want to bring with you on your outdoor excursions is a cooler. With a cooler, you can keep your food and drinks chilled for the duration of your outing — certain coolers can also double as tables or chairs, depending on how much weight they can hold. To help you figure out the best cooler for your needs, we spoke to experts about the most common types on the market — hard-sided coolers, soft-sided coolers and cooler bags — and detailed the benefits and drawbacks of each. Based on their guidance, we also rounded up some highly rated picks from popular brands like YETI and Igloo and from retailers like Amazon and Walmart.
SKIP AHEAD The best coolers to shop
How to shop for a cooler
There are many different coolers on the market today, and they differ not just in size and price, but also in the material they’re made out of and in their ability to keep drinks cold. Below, we highlighted some of the most important things to consider when shopping for a cooler or insulated cooler bag.
Coolers vs. cooler bags
Before you can shop for a cooler, you need to decide whether you want a cooler or a cooler bag.
- Cooler bags and cooler backpacks “are great if you want something more portable” since they are typically lighter and easier to carry, according to Devan Cameron, chef and owner of food-focused website Braised & Deglazed. “Cooler bags may be better suited for walking trips and picnics.”
- Coolers are typically larger than cooler bags, but they “will work better than cooler bags because they have more insulation,” Cameron explained. “If you’re planning a trip in the car, a hard cooler may be the best choice.”
What is the cooler made of?
Most coolers can either be categorized as soft-sided coolers or hard-sided coolers. “Generally speaking, soft-sided coolers are designed for portability and ease of storage, while their hard-sided counterparts are designed for durability, capacity and better overall ice retention,” explained John Junke, a moderator of REI’s digital community Conversations. It’s typically easy to differentiate between a soft-sided cooler and a hard-sided cooler: While a soft-sided cooler is often made of fabrics like nylon, polyester and vinyl, a hard-sided cooler is made of plastic.
Since soft-sided coolers aren’t made of rigid plastic, they are much lighter and therefore easier to bring to the beach or park. For the most part, a soft-sided cooler weighs only as much as what is inside of it. Because of this, they are also “easy to stash on a shelf in the garage,” Junke noted. Though every cooler is different, he added that soft-sided coolers are smaller and have “less ice retention” — but they are also comparatively more affordable. “If you are looking for a durable cooler that is lightweight and easily portable and don't need your ice to last more than 24 hours, then a soft-sided cooler is your best bet,” said Dylan Jacob, founder and CEO of BruMate.
Hard-sided coolers are typically larger, more invincible and “insulate food better” than soft-sided coolers, according to Cameron. Plus, Junke added that “you can use them as a seat or table.” Many of them are constructed via the rotational molding (or rotomold) process, which is a high-temperature, low-pressure molding process that produces “consistent wall thickness and strong outside corners” for increased durability, according to notable cooler brand YETI. “It creates advantages for coolers (and other products, like kayaks) because it allows for the even distribution of plastic in all areas of the cooler, particularly in areas prone to weakness, like corners or edges,” Junke said.
However, cheaper hard-sided coolers “are generally made with injection molding,” so they don’t keep items cold for as long, explained Jacob. “If you are looking for a cooler that will last a lifetime, go anywhere you go, and hold ice for days on end then you would want a rotomolded cooler, ” he added. A high-quality hard-sided cooler can cost as much as $300 or $400, depending on the brand and model.
How big is the cooler?
Pay attention to the size of the cooler you end up purchasing — this can affect where you can take the cooler and how much you can bring with you. Cameron noted that smaller coolers tend to be better for anyone who plans on moving the cooler around a lot. “Big coolers are very difficult to move around,” he said. Bigger coolers, however, naturally can hold more, and might be a good option if you need something for the house or for a road trip.
How long can the cooler keep drinks cold?
“If you’re using the cooler in a hot climate, you’ll want to think about how much ice retention your cooler has,” Junke said. “Additionally, knowing whether you are in a place where it is convenient to get more ice if needed is important.”
The best coolers to shop
Below, we rounded up the best hard-sided coolers, soft-sided coolers and cooler bags and backpacks based on expert guidance.
The best hard-sided coolers
Cameron said he’s a “big Yeti fan,” noting that the brand “specializes in rotomolded coolers” that come in “a variety of snazzy colors.” Though he did acknowledge that YETI coolers are on the pricier side, he said they are “well worth the purchase,” especially if you plan on using it often. According to the brand, this specific model can keep ice cold for days and is tall enough to fit standard wine bottles and soda bottles. The Roadie 24 Hard Cooler is the most portable of YETI’s hard-sided cooler options, but they also make larger coolers depending on your needs.
The RTIC Compact Hard Cooler is a good option for those looking for a personal cooler they can take fishing, camping or on a day trip to the beach. According to the brand, the rotomolded cooler has a 24-can capacity, can hold 25 pounds of ice and can keep ice cold for up to 10 days. Though it weighs 19 pounds with nothing in it, it has a stainless steel handle for transportation. This RTIC cooler has a 4.8-star average rating from nearly 400 reviews on RTIC’s site.
For larger outings, this Coleman cooler has a 54-quart capacity to hold up to 85 cans, according to the brand. Coleman also claims that it can keep ice cold for up to four days, even in temperatures as high as 90 degrees Fahrenheit. The cooler features steel handles on the side for transportation and a bottle opener, plus the lid can withstand up to 250 pounds. It has a 4.6-star average rating from more than 4,700 reviews on Amazon.
With two large wheels and a handle, this 50-quart cooler from REYLEO is a great combination of portability and durability. It has four cup holders molded into the lid to act like a table, plus a built-in bottle opener and fish ruler. According to the brand, the cooler has a 78-can capacity and can keep food and drinks cold for up to five days, but they suggest pre-chilling everything. It has a 4.5-star average rating from nearly 400 reviews on Amazon.
The best soft-sided coolers
RTIC’s Soft Pack Cooler features a heavy duty nylon shell that the brand claims is leakproof, sweatproof and lightweight. Inside the cooler, the bag features closed-cell insulation and an antimicrobial lining so mildew doesn’t build up. In addition to the 30-can size, the bag also comes in 8-can, 20-can and 40-can sizes. It has a 4.8-star average rating from nearly 1,300 reviews on RTIC’s website.
This soft-sided cooler from Igloo can hold up to 30 cans and can keep them cool for a full day, according to the brand. The bag, which comes with both a shoulder strap and top and side handles for easy transport, is waterproof and leakproof and has a 4.7-star average rating from 21 reviews at Walmart.
A relatively affordable soft-sided cooler option, CleverMade’s Collapsible Cooler Bag can hold up to 50 cans and has a load capacity of 50 pounds. It features three layers of leakproof insulation and is built with a wire frame and patented SnapHinges that offer support when the cooler is in use and make it easy to fold the bag down when it needs to be stored. The cooler bag has a 4.6-star average rating from more than 5,000 Amazon shoppers.
This 36-can soft-sided cooler has many of the features you’d find in a hard-sided cooler: It has a sturdy table top lid with four cup holders, a leakproof lining and three layers of SuperFoam to separate the cold contents of the cooler from the hot ground. The cooler has several exterior pockets and mesh pockets for snacks and other goodies and you can carry it using either the shoulder strap or the handles. It has a 4.6-star average rating from more than 600 Amazon reviews.
The best cooler backpacks
This soft cooler from YETI is a great alternative to the brand’s hard cooler if you’re looking for something more portable. The 20-can backpack, which uses YETI’s rubber foam Coldcell insulation to keep food and drinks cold, is lined with FDA-approved food-grade material that is waterproof and mildew-resistant. On YETI’s website, the Hopper Backflip boasts a 4.8-star rating from more than 1,300 reviews.
A good option for a small gathering, music festival or hike, CORKCICLE’s bucket bag can hold either 12 cans or eight cans and two wine bottles. The backpack straps are both adjustable and padded for comfortable travel, and it has an accessory pocket with a zippered closure to hold your phone, wallet and more.
This cooler backpack from TOURIT is both relatively affordable and relatively lightweight. According to the brand, it’s lined with a leakproof insulation material that can keep items cold for up to 16 hours, and it can hold up to 30 cans at a time. In addition to the main compartment, it also has two side mesh bottle holders, two large front zipper pockets, a zipper pocket on the lid and a mesh pocket on the padded strap. The backpack has a 4.8-star average rating from more than 7,200 Amazon reviews.
Hydro Flask, maker of the popular insulated water bottle, also makes a 22-liter cooler backpack that can keep items cold for up to 48 hours, according to the brand. Hydro Flask claims that the backpack is leakproof and waterproof due to YKK’s Watertight AQUASEAL zipper, welded seams and a durable nylon shell exterior. It has a 4.4-star rating from 64 reviews on Amazon.
Where to buy coolers
Below, we compiled some popular retailers with extensive cooler options spanning hard-sided coolers, soft-sided coolers and cooler bags.
- Arctic Zone
- Bass Pro Shops
- Dick’s Sporting Goods
- Home Depot