When ranked among the best coolers, soft coolers might be the next great sandbaggers of the outdoors. Seemingly flexible and vulnerable — once the squall, whitewater rapids, tree branches and creatures arrive — these so-called ‘softies’ ride out the proverbial storm while keeping the moveable feast safe, chilled and cushioned. MVPs.
Compared to the hard-shelled coolers of RTIC and Yeti, soft ice chests lack some glacial retention, animal-proofness and stackability but make up by being lightweight, cacheable and crushable. And soft cooler is a misnomer given many are substantial enough to pyramid other gear or tumble off the truck bed. While rigid coolers occasionally have wheels for smooth transport, soft coolers are easier to single-handedly grab over the shoulder versus heavier options.
So whether you are river rafting, SUPing from beach to beach, park BBQing, road tripping to ski volcanoes or trailhead tailgating, these coolers are stout enough to answer the call. Based on our own testing, this guide shares beta on the top choices for soft coolers that keep the goodies cold and portable. Check out all the need-to-know details, from volume and rigidness to ice retention, plus key features to help you pick the best soft cooler for your next adventure.
Best OverallRTIC Soft Pack Cooler (30 Can) Read More
Best UpgradeYeti M30 Soft Cooler Yeti Read More
Best on a BudgetREI Co-op Pack-Away 12 Soft Cooler REI Co-op Read More
Most Svelte CoolerHydro Flask Day Escape 26L Soft Cooler Tote Read More
Comfiest Carry HandleORCA Walker Tote ORCA Read More
Soft Shell vs. Hard Shell Coolers: What’s the Difference?
While both of these types of coolers are designed, in concept, to do the same thing — i.e. keep their contents cold for an extended period — there are some pretty important differences between them. The most obvious, for starters, is that hard shell coolers are far more rigid than their soft shell counterparts. Take, for instance, Yeti’s Roadie 24. This cooler is so rigid and strong that you can actually sit on it without any fear of it collapsing under you, even if you’re a larger person. By contrast, soft shell coolers cannot typically support more than a few pounds atop them.
While that seems like a leg-up for hard shell coolers, it does come with downsides. Hard shell coolers don’t offer any give, meaning they can’t expand or collapse, nor can they shimmy into spaces that might be a little too tight. Soft shell coolers, by contrast, often do offer all of those features. And some – like Carhartt’s Insulated 40 Can Cooler Backpack Tote — have so little structure that they can actually collapse quite easily between uses. That makes them, generally speaking, easier to store and transport. And that’s a pretty great trade-off for anyone limited on space.
It’s also worth noting that hard shell coolers typically offer better insulation overall, but that doesn’t mean that soft coolers are left in the dirt. If they’re made right, they can be nearly as effective at insulating over time. For instance, multiple versions of RTIC’s hard and soft coolers can keep ice frozen for literal days at a time. Typically, soft coolers that have less structure to them also offer lesser insulation, but the space-saving trade-off may still be worth it to many, and hard shell coolers make up for their lack of flexibility by offering the best insulation around.
Finally, while both of these cooler types can work with any kind of ice — be that bulk cubes or ice packs — bulk ice tends to work better with hard shell coolers (which often come with a handy drain to empty the water once you’re done) and soft coolers jive better with ice packs that won’t melt into a sloshy puddle at the end of your adventures.
How We Tested
There are a number of things to look for when shopping for a soft cooler, including capacity, packability, portability and — perhaps most importantly — ice retention and insulation. To discern the capabilities of these coolers, our testers loaded them with various types of ice (both bulk and packs), beverages, foodstuffs and more. And then they took them to task, bringing them along on adventures short and long, paying close attention to the aforementioned metrics to pass judgment.
Looking to hide some sandwiches and 85 cans of beer from a bear?Here are the most rugged, capable, ice-retaining coolers to take on your next adventure.