Best Soft-Sided Coolers For Chilled Outdoor Adventures In 2022
Easy to store, practical, and versatile, soft-sided coolers are one of those household essentials that are really handy to have around. From picnics in the park to long hikes where keeping your lunch cool is normally an uphill battle, a soft-sided cooler is a fantastically diverse product that makes carrying food and drinks a breeze, as opposed to other options such as the non-flexible hardshell cooler and backpack coolers.
With so many soft-sided coolers on the market though, it can be difficult to find the right one to suit your needs. To give you an insight into the best soft-sided coolers around, we have put together a helpful list of some of the best soft-shelled coolers for every occasion! These models retain ice for many hours and some even for days, and are sure to become your go-to for warm days on the water, your kid’s soccer game, and more!
- Editor’s Pick: ICEMULE Jaunt 15L Cooler
- Best for Lunches: Stoic Gear Sling Cooler
- Best for Multi-Day Outings: Coleman 16-Can Soft Sided Cooler
- Best Small Cooler: YETI Hopper TWO 30 Portable Cooler
- Most Durable: Pelican Elite Soft Sided Cooler
- Best for the Lake: AO Coolers Canvas Soft Cooler
- Best for Camping: Polar Bear Coolers Nylon Series Soft Cooler
- Most Leak-Proof: Coleman 30 Can Soft Cooler
- Best for Picnics: Arctic Zone Titan Deep Freeze Insulated Tote
- Best for Tailgating: Rawlings NFL Soft-Sided Cooler Bag
The Best Soft-Sided Cooler
As someone who spends both a lot of time on the water and in her van, I need a durable cooler with excellent ice retention, waterproofing and something that can pack as small or large as I need. The ICEMULE Jaunt 15L cooler is just that. This multi-purpose soft cooler is my favorite option for weekend van trips. I love the dry bag style that is easy to pack and roll. The 15L capacity is enough space to carry four days of perishables for me and my partner.
I use cold packs to keep my food cold; this cooler boasts more than 24 hours of ice retention and while I haven’t run a controlled test, that sure seems about right. After a few days, your food may not be ice cold, but it will still be fresh. My other favorite feature of the ICEMULE coolers is the accessories like the ProPack and Dry Bag, these allow you to pop in items that can’t get wet inside and then keep them in the cooler too so you aren’t stuck carrying multiple bags. One of the best, if not the best soft cooler on the market!
Dry bag style fold down
Front zippered pocket
Floats even when entirely full
More than 24 hours of ice retention
Collapsible design packs down small
- ModelJaunt 15L
- Weight1.6 Pounds
This model might be one of the smallest soft cooler bag options on our list, but it still carries a host of features and excellent ice retention. This nine-can cooler is perfect for solo beach days, but I used it to carry snacks to the boulders while rock climbing. I leave a larger cooler in my van and only take what I need with me for lunch in my sling cooler. The adjustable shoulder strap is easy to sling on crashpads, your back or another pack!
I love the side pockets, padded back, and compact size of this cooler. The only thing I might change is a bigger opening for the main compartment by allowing the zipper to come back to the far edge versus the current design. The PU-coated polyester exterior is water-resistant which is always a nice bonus, while the PEVA lining is easy to clean, which is a huge plus if you dislike cleaning.
Adjustable shoulder strap
Padded back for carrying
Insulated PEVA lining
PU-coated 60D polyester exterior
9 can carrying capacity
Zippered front loader, side stash pocket
- Weight14 Ounces
Designed by Coleman, the 16-Can Soft Cooler is a versatile soft-sided cooler with adjustable straps, making it a top choice for a portable everyday cooler. The cooler comes in multiple different sizes, with the 16-can size being the optimum size for days out; with handy additional side storage for snacks and gear in a similar way to golf coolers.
One of the most affordable soft-sided coolers on our list, this easy transport cooler isn’t without some top-notch features. The cooler is incredibly flexible with a removable hardliner, is leak-proof thanks to the strong zipping mechanism, and has antimicrobial properties that adhere to the FDA requirements. For a simple but practical cooler that is resistant to mold and mildew, the Coleman 16-Can Soft Cooler is a wonderful choice.
Adjustable straps for shoulders
Front pocket, two side mesh pockets, dry storage pouch
- Weight1.12 Ounces
Yeti soft coolers come with some pretty big brand recognition and let’s be real, they always back it up. This soft cooler tote is packed full of convenient features to make sure that your food and drinks are looked after and kept cool.
One of the most interesting features of the YETI Hopper TWO is its DryHide shell which is crafted using a high-density fabric that is resistant to mildew, damage from UV rays, and punctures. This waterproof cooler is insulated with rubber closed-cell foam, features a highly durable HydroLok Zipper, and comes with a Hitchpoint grid so it can be attached with ease to most things. If you need a strong cooler that can withstand even the roughest of adventures, the YETI Hopper TWO 30 Portable Cooler is one of the best soft coolers available. You may also be interested in some of the best ice packs for coolers from our list, so check them out.
Waterproof and leak-proof
Removable Shoulder Strap
UV ray protected
Bottle opener included
- Weight8.7 Pounds
If you want a truly hard-wearing cooler that is designed to stay secure and leak-proof through even the roughest of outdoor activities, the Pelican Elite Soft Cooler is one of the best options on the market. This highly secure cooler is equipped with an outer layer of double-coated TPU fabric, making it one of the strongest soft-sided coolers around. Its square shape makes it excellent for van living and car camping.
The durable features keep coming with this cooler; there’s a duel-lock buckle, solid side handles for easy carrying and exceptional closed-cell foam thick insulation. The cooler is dual-fastened with buckles and a heavy-duty zipper, with an additional external pocket for gear that you need quick access to. There are multiple sizes available, from 12-can to 48-can, making the Pelican Elite cooler a great choice for all manner of activities. Don’t forget to also check our guide to the top electric coolers for more great cooler options.
Closed-cell foam insulation
Outer TPU fabric layer (double-coated)
Leak-proof and waterproof
- Weight4 Pounds
In need of a cooler for hot and cold food? The Canvas Soft Cooler from AO Coolers is a versatile option for everything from outdoor activities to transporting food items to water sports. You can keep meat fresh and ice cold for hours before cooking on a camping stove or outdoor barbecue. The cooler is available in multiple colors and sizes, from the 12-can capacity cooler to the 48-can capacity cooler that will more than accommodate supplies for any style of adventure.
The main compartment is designed with a leak-proof liner using TPU fabric, while the external side pocket is ideal for dry items and any gear you may need while out and about. This cooler perfectly combines a lightweight design with advanced features, like the ability to hold ice for up to a period of 24-hours.
Removable shoulder strap
Very thick insulation (3/4 inch)
Suitable for hot or cold food
24-hour ice holding
Leak-proof TPU lining
- BrandAO Coolers
- Weight3 Pounds
If you’re looking for excellent soft cooler ice retention capabilities, the Nylon Series Soft Cooler from Polar Bear Coolers is a fantastic choice. With high-density foam insulation, this cooler keeps ice frozen for 24 hours or more in 100+ degree heat – perfect for beach trips, camping, hiking, hunting, and more!
Luggage-grade nylon has been used to both construct the exterior and interior of this awesome cooler, giving it durability and resistance to scratches and rips. It is able to easily withstand everyday wear and tear, it is an ideal choice for outdoor activities, coming in multiple sizes with the additional choice of a backpack style cooler. It is sweat-proof, leak-proof, and easily condensed thanks to the soft design and open-cell foam insulation. It also has a zippered front pocket that can be monogrammed or embroidered for personalization.
Exterior made from 1000D nylon
Holds ice frozen for 24+ hours
Interior made from TPU double-coated nylon
Adjustable shoulder pad
Open-cell foam insulation
- BrandPolar Bear Coolers
- ModelPB 240
- Weight3 Pounds
Featuring a simplistic but highly effective design, the 30-can capacity cooler from Coleman is a very practical choice for a handy cooler to pick up and go with ease. The multi-compartment design, with two mesh exterior pockets, a zipper pocket, and a main compartment, makes Coleman 30 Can Cooler a perfect product for carrying a variety of food at once.
The lining makes the cooler highly flexible, while the adjustable strap ensures that it’s convenient and easy to carry. Like many of the top soft-sided coolers, it is resistant to mildew and mold and is fully leak-proof for peace of mind when transporting. There are few better soft coolers that work so effectively yet keep things so simple in this price range. Make sure you also check our guide to the top-rated floating coolers.
Adjustable shoulder strap
- Weight2.61 Pounds
The perfect cooler doesn’t have to compromise style for effectiveness, which is something that the Titan cooler from Arctic Zone proves with ease. The elegant and minimalist design of the Titan cooler gives it a highly attractive appeal, making it an excellent accessory no matter what it’s being used for.
The design certainly sets this cooler apart, but there are plenty of excellent features to back it up. A Therma-Flect interior gives this cooler excellent insulation capabilities, especially alongside the additional Deepfreeze insulation. It also has antimicrobial protection and is water-resistant. To top it off, the cooler tote comes equipped with a cold block base with three layers, is very easy to clean, and is one of the most affordable coolers around! The only minor con? The zipper is not leak-proof. Be sure to also check out our list of the most reliable mini fridges for more great items like this.
Cold block base
Carrying straps, plus side straps
- BrandArctic Zone
- Weight1.6 Pounds
If you’re a fan of NFL, then this Rawlings NFL Soft-Sided Cooler Bag from Coleman is going to be a winning choice. The cooler is compact, with a 16-can capacity that makes it a fantastic choice for storing your drinks before the big game. No matter which team you support, there is going to be a matching cooler in this collection to fit your needs!
Despite its small size, the NFL Soft-Sided Insulated Cooler Bag boasts cold technology that will keep your drinks cool for 24 hours. With the addition of the antimicrobial liner made from foil, you’re never going to have to worry about having a cold drink at hand with this simple but effective cooler bag.
Padded shoulder strap
Branded NFL team logo
24-hour cold technology
Foil antimicrobial liner
- Weight12.3 Ounces
Why Trust Us
When it's nice out, you'll rarely find me inside. I spend the bulk of my time outdoors and a girl has got to eat and drink so my coolers are my right-hand man. Especially when I take off for a weekend in my camper van and end up far away from a grocery store or a fridge. I love soft coolers because of how easily they pack into my van when it's full of outdoor gear and I've got a couple of different soft-sided coolers for day trips, paddleboarding, climbing trips and more!
Who This Is For
This guide is for anyone looking for a soft-sided cooler for their next picnic, to haul their lunch in, for hiking and more. We have plenty of options that have features like a zippered pocket, shoulder straps, a waterproof zipper, backpack straps, and even extra pockets and compartments for dry goods.
How We Picked
We started with our favorite soft cooler bags, backpack coolers, and soft coolers that had been sturdy enough to survive the outdoor shenanigans we put them through. From there, we started digging into the Amazon best sellers list to why these coolers were so beloved.
How We Tested
As mentioned above, I spend a lot of time outside! These coolers have gone on weekend camping trips, climbing trips, paddleboarding, skiing and more! I almost always have a cooler with me in my van for all my weekend trips around the PNW.
Features To Look For In Soft Sided Coolers
Weight - One of the things that attract so many people to the soft-sided cooler is how much lighter they are than the standard hard-sided cooler. The difference is often so pronounced that, even if they’re heading out to a major get-together that might typically call for a big hard-sided chest, folks will try and get away with over-stuffing their softie, just so they don’t have to lug the big plastic cooler around all day. But even though hard-sided coolers will almost always weigh more than their soft-sided counterparts, most of the weight associated with a cooler comes from what you put inside it. The weight itself might, and perhaps should, play some part in determining which one is right for you, but if you stuff that Yeti Hopper to the gills it’s still going to be plenty heavy.
Bottom line: the weight of the cooler itself is definitely a consideration if you only plan on taking a few items with you. But if you plan on taking 18 drinks, various barbeque items, and more, then you’re going to be weighed down whether you take hard or soft coolers with you. Still, smaller soft-sided options might be easier to carry instead of requiring multiple people.
Capacity - As we have already alluded to, the soft cooler is not going to be able to accommodate as much as some of the bigger hard-sided coolers. That’s just one of the facts of life. So you really need to take some time and think about how many items you are likely to take along on a given excursion before deciding on a soft or hard-sided cooler. The shape and flexibility of a soft-sided durable cooler can allow you to take more oddly shaped items. If you’re a lone wolf who likes to go to the beach by yourself on hot summer afternoons accompanied by a few cold drinks and a sandwich or two, then there’s no need for a big, heavy hard-sided cooler. If, however, you never venture out without the family or a gaggle of friends, you’ll have to decide if you need the larger volume of the big hard cooler.
It could be that your group members all tend to bring their own refreshments and such to your various get-togethers. In which case the soft-sided should suit you just fine. Or it could be that you are the one who is often tasked with bringing the perishables while others bring the chairs, music, walk-in tent, and such. In that case, you’re probably going to want to bring a large hard-sided cooler. The other aspect of space that needs to be considered is how much space the cooler itself takes up. Soft coolers have a distinct advantage here in that even the largest are typically nowhere near as big as a standard hard-sided one.
Portability - One of the few unpleasant aspects of outdoor activities is that the activity itself is often a long march from where you park. Meeting friends at the beach on the 4th of July often means lugging the cooler half a mile or more from the car to the actual get-together spot. By the time you arrive, your back is howling and your arms are jelly. The soft-sided cooler is the hands-down portability winner. Just toss it over your shoulder and get on with it. Some soft coolers can be carried backpack style which makes things even easier. If you’re concerned that your backpack cooler won’t accommodate enough items for your group, then bring two. That way you can split the load between two people and no one has to sacrifice their back on the altar of recreation.
Some people will say “Why not just get a hard-sided cooler with wheels?” While that may seem like a nifty solution to the portability problem, have you ever tried rolling a fully loaded hard cooler across long stretches of powder-soft, red-hot beach sand?
Versatility - While hard-sided coolers have their place, one thing they are definitely not noted for is their versatility. They’re a big hard box that keeps things cold and that’s about it. It is you that must plan to accommodate them. Sure, some have wheels but as we just mentioned, there are limits to how useful wheels can actually be. Once you hit the beach with the big box you’re on your own.
Soft-sided on the other hand is all about versatility and accommodating you. Need something that’s not going to take up a lot of space in your car? They have you covered. Need something that’s easy to carry around? No problem, they’ve got your back. Many soft cooler bags can pack smaller and fold down to some extent until you need them. In fact, you have a variety of options for carrying soft coolers, including:
The shoulder bag - This is the most popular style of the soft-sided cooler. And it’s easy to see why. You just fling it over your shoulder and get a move on. This type of shoulder soft cooler bag cooler also tends to fold down to almost nothing when you’re not using it so you don’t have to come up with a special place to store it.
The backpack - The backpack cooler style is gaining in popularity because it distributes the weight evenly between your shoulders and back and therefore allows you to carry a bit more than you’ll want to carry with a shoulder bag cooler. If there’s a drawback to this type of cooler it’s putting it on and taking it off when it’s full.
The lunch box - These have been popular with students, office workers, and even tradesmen and women for years because, as their name suggests, they provide you with many more lunch options than the standard brown bag. The lunch box cooler is also perfect for that lone wolf type we mentioned earlier who likes to hit the beach alone or go to the park on the weekend with a good book, a couple of cool drinks, and a snack or two.
Pockets - People being people they don’t always bring things with them that have clearly defined ways of being transported. Either that or they bring so many things that their backpack, fanny pack, and other transportation methods are overwhelmed. Because soft-sided coolers are all about versatility and accommodation, however, there are plenty that have taken this matter into consideration and provide storage pockets that can be used to hold pretty much whatever you need them to hold.
Some of these storage pockets are located inside the cooler for things that need to stay cold and some are located on the outside of the cooler to hold things like sunscreen, sunglasses, snacks, your favorite book, and more. Some of these bonus pockets are zippered to hold your mobile phone, keys, and other valuables while others are mesh pockets that will hold a variety of knick-knacks that don’t otherwise have a place to stay. These additional pockets are another big reason people prefer the soft-sided cooler to the hard-sided cooler.
No sweating - It’s bad enough when you’re sweating on a hot summer day but when the cooler does it too, things can really get uncomfortable. Hard coolers are prone to sweating and that’s bad news for other things that must coexist with them in the trunk or the back seat. Soft coolers, on the other hand, are constructed in a way and with materials that discourage sweating. As such, they won’t leave a big sweat mark on your clothes after you put them down and they won’t leave your trunk or back seat smelling musty.
Ice retention claims - Generally, hard coolers are constructed with heavy-duty foam and have longer ice retention times. Soft coolers often have slightly lower ice retention times but this often is still 24 hours or more when you look at models with the best ice retention. I've personally found that a cooler bag with a 24-hour ice retention rating often lasts longer. Sure, your food won't be properly ice cold, but it will take quite a while to really spoil.
Soft-Sided vs Hard-Sided
Whether you’re heading to the beach for a day, heading to the state park for a weekend of camping, heading out on your boat for some fishing, or going to the park with your honey for a picnic, it’s important to be able to take everything you want and need to make the experience as pleasant and memorable as possible. This is why coolers have become so popular. In the days of yore, people were only able to take non-perishable items along with them on their agreeable excursions, hence “A loaf of bread, a jug of wine and thou.” Today, due to the invention of the portable cooling chest, we can still have our loaf of bread and jug of wine but we can also take along nice cold brewskis, chicken to barbeque, tuna salad sandwiches, and more.
The big question now is whether to use a soft-sided or hard-sided cooler to transport perishables to the site of your merriment. The issue has become increasingly blurred because, in recent years, soft-sided coolers have advanced by leaps and bounds and today they are giving traditional hard-sided chests a run for their money in virtually every department except size. As such, deciding whether you’re going to need a soft-sided or hard-sided cooler today often comes down to answering the question: “How do you intend to use it?”
For example, if you just want something to keep a few things cool for a few hours while you picnic in the park, there’s no need to have a big, heavy, hard-sided cooler. On the other hand, if you’re meeting your crew at the seashore to celebrate the 4th of July, chances are you’re going to want one of those big heavy hard-sided coolers to accommodate all the beers, sodas, waters, meats, sandwiches, and other perishables.
Soft-Sided Cooler FAQ
Q: Do soft coolers absorb odor?
A: Soft-sided coolers are less likely to retain offensive odors than hard-sided coolers. They’re also less likely to play host to bacteria and mold that could produce their own foul and/or musty smells than hard-sided coolers. This is due in large part to the different materials the soft cooler is made of compared to the hard-sided cooler. But while it is less common for a soft-sided cooler to end up smelling bad, it can and sometimes does happen. To get rid of any offensive odors, you’ll need to know the right way to clean your soft-sided cooler. Which we’ll go over next.
Q: How to clean a soft-sided cooler?
A: While they have their drawbacks, hard-sided coolers also have a few advantages over soft-sided coolers. One is that it will accommodate so many more items and another is that cleaning the hard-sided cooler (which needs to be done after every use) is a relative breeze. Just open the top, aim your garden hose and let the water fly. With the soft-sided cooler, you won’t typically need to clean it after every use but you should clean it periodically just to be sure it’s not entertaining any bacteria or potentially mold.
There’s a right way and a wrong way to clean the soft cooler and simply opening it and hitting it with the garden hose certainly qualifies as the wrong way. Below we’ll go over the steps normally involved in cleaning your soft-sided cooler.
- Remove food, food particles, dirt, or other debris from inside the cooler. Then take a damp cloth and wipe the entire inside making sure not to miss anything.
- After thoroughly wiping out the interior and letting it dry inspect it carefully for stubborn stains, mold, or any other unpleasant sights. If you see any, mix a bit of baking soda with some warm water and, using a clean cloth, wash out the inside again only this time with the baking soda solution. The cloth doesn’t need to be sopping wet, just damp. You don’t want to leave baking soda residue behind.
- Once you’ve removed any nasty stuff using the baking soda solution, mix a little bit of dishwashing detergent with water and wash out the inside again using a clean sponge. Make sure to get everything. Once you’re certain the inside is nice and clean let it air dry completely before putting it away.
Q: What’s the best way to pack a soft-sided cooler?
A: When packing, make sure you keep things that don’t need to be refrigerated separate. If you put your onions in the cooler with your other items, everything, including your cooler, is going to wind up with a nice onion scent before the day is over. That said, here are a few more tips about packing.
- Precool everything before it goes into the soft cooler. That is, make sure that everything that goes into the cooler is coming straight out of the refrigerator. They are not designed to cool things down, just to keep them cool
- Keep the cooler out of the direct sunlight. This is sometimes easier said than done but it’s important if you want the cooler to do its job as effectively as possible.
- Use ice packs to keep the interior cool rather than ice cubes. All standard ice cubes are going to do is melt and create a mobile bath for your perishable items. Cold packs will eventually warm up but they won’t make a mess when they do. And keeping your cooler free of dirty melted ice will also help prevent the growth of bacteria
Q: How long will a soft-sided cooler last?
A: We mentioned above, the hard-sided cooler has a few advantages over its soft-sided cousin. One of them not yet mentioned is the fact that you’ll probably be able to leave your hard-sided cooler to the kids when it’s finally time to go to that big campground in the sky. The same cannot necessarily be said for the soft-sided cooler.
A hard-sided cooler is able to last so long because its design is typically so simple: a rigid insulated box with a lid. That’s more or less it. With a soft-sided cooler, there are many more variables involved and the more moving parts, the more things that can go wrong and/or wear out. All the lifting, twisting, folding, sagging, and stuffing into the recesses of the trunk or closet that the soft-sided cooler endures takes a toll. The material begins to wear, zippers break, seams begin to come apart and the shoulder straps eventually become hard to bear. Even so, if you take care of the best soft-sided coolers they should last for many years before needing to be replaced. Just don’t expect that you’ll be able to include them in your will.
Q: Do soft coolers leak?
A: Most soft coolers do not leak and have features such as a waterproof zipper to prevent this. Any cooler can leak when beat down enough though so you do want to be careful with your cooler. But generally speaking, the answer here is no.