Soft coolers are lighter and more portable but can they compete in cold-retention with hard coolers? And which brand is best?
Last Updated Jan. 30, 2023.
Our former Best Buy by Coleman was discontinued, so we tested a few additional models to find a good inexpensive option. The Arctic Zone Titan Guide Series 36 Can Cooler is our new Best Buy.
Soft coolers are ideal for shorter trips or when you don’t want to lug a heavy hard-sided cooler. Often much lighter, soft-sided coolers still promise to keep food and drinks cool for days, if needed. Our winner, the Engel HD20 22qt Heavy-Duty Soft Sided Cooler Tote Bag, kept ice frozen for three full days. Our Best Buy, the Coleman 30-Can Portable Soft Cooler, Space Blue, kept ice frozen for two and a half days—great performance for a fraction of the price.
During the warmer months, there’s nothing better than sitting on a beach or in a park with a cold can of something refreshing and some chilled snacks to munch on. While we’ve previously tested hard-sided coolers, we decided to focus on soft-sided coolers, which promise to keep food and drinks cold without the heft and bulk.
All the coolers in our lineup held between 16 and 20 liters (and 23 to 36 cans, without ice packs). They were all lightweight (the heaviest weighed 6.5 pounds—nearly 20 pounds less than our favorite hard-sided cooler) but still had enough insulation to keep ice frozen and its contents cool for a few days. The soft coolers came in two shapes: box-shaped and tote-shaped. To open a box-shaped cooler, you unzip the lid on three sides and flip it open. To open a tote-shaped cooler, you unzip the single, straight zipper that runs across the top.
In addition to testing soft coolers on their own, we also compared their performance with those of insulated shopping totes and hard coolers. On the whole, we found that the soft-sided coolers we tested kept things colder longer than an insulated shopping tote, but not quite as long as a large hard-sided cooler. This makes them ideal for a day at the beach or a few days of camping, but not for longer trips or when just running a few errands (where insulated shopping totes really excel). The best models were extremely portable and kept ice frozen for three days—impressive for a soft-sided cooler. Here’s what separated the best from the rest.
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Sarah is an assistant editor for ATK Reviews who is deeply passionate about anchovies and sourdough bread.