It’s the time of year where at least once a week we're eating on-the-go. But isn’t that what summer is all about? Little League games, outdoor summer concerts, afternoons on the lake, picnics in the park, snacks by the pool. Good times are had by all—until someone brings a cooler that doesn’t keep the food cold or is a pain to schlep around or (gasp!) leaks. Sure, you can buy coolers everywhere from the corner store to Costco, but it’s hard to know which will hold up and actually keep the food cold. That’s where we come in. I tested seven coolers from the crème de le crème to the common to figure out what held up the best.
For this test, I kept the parameters to soft coolers with shoulder straps—not the hard plastic varieties that you load into your car for tailgating or keep in your backyard for a summer dinner party. That is, I tested coolers that were meant to be used on the go and could be carried on foot to the beach or the park. Here’s what I found.
What goes great with a picnic? A chilled glass of wine. Here are the best vessels for subtly enjoying your favorite drink in the great outdoors.
Overall Best Soft Cooler for the Money: Polar Bear Nylon Line 12 Pack
This cooler kept all of my drinks and food cold for over 12 hours outside in the hot summer sun. The hardware is well constructed, and the zipper even comes with a bottle opener—a real added bonus. The interior is made of FDA–approved food grade liner which made me feel good about throwing loose apples into the bag. The interior wiped out super easily, as well. The bag is slim but roomy, so it doesn’t take up too much room in the car and it comes with a removable shoulder strap. The cooler is comfortable to carry and, at around $60 at the time of this review, it's a perfect mid-price point cooler that's well-designed, if lacking the fancier materials of our luxury option. The only downfall is the nylon exterior seems to attract dirt, but it’s easy to wipe off with a wet cloth.
A Luxury Pick That's Worth the Splurge:
This cooler is modern and sleek and really in a league of its own. It definitely has the most curb appeal of any of the coolers I tried. The ice melted faster in the BUILT cooler than in the Polar Bear, but it still kept food and drinks cool for the same amount of time—and there was no leaking. It also has the same FDA-approved food grade lining as our top pick.
The exterior is made from a material similar to a white-water raft (read: waterproof and durable) so this would be the perfect cooler to take to the beach or on a boat—plus, it cleans easily. The seams are also welded so rips and tears aren’t a concern.
It has the capacity to hold more ice (or more stuff) than the Polar Bear cooler (it can hold 18 cans and 10 pounds of ice), so it would be no problem to stick a bottle of wine in there standing up and you can fit a feast of picnic supplies. The bag has a wide mouth, making it perfect to prop open and let picnic goers reach inside easily for drinks. However, that added capacity also meant added weight, making this one of the heavier coolers we tried. It is also takes up more space. That being said, if you are willing to spend some extra cash on a cooler that's durable and will last you for infinite summers, this is a great pick.
An Inexpensive Cooler That Gets the Job Done: Coleman Soft Cooler Bag
For a cooler under $25, the Coleman works well. It doesn’t have all of the fancy features of the other coolers we tried (although it does have a Velcro top hatch for easy grabbing), but it managed to keep things ice cold for close to eight hours. It has an antimicrobial lining and the outside wipes off easily. It may not do so well in the rain because it’s made of thin mater but can hold its own for a Little League game, picnic at the park, or quick afternoon outing.
How I Tested
I turned my back deck into a cooler testing zone. I filled each cooler with the same amount of ice and then put in equal amounts of water bottles, other beverages, fruit and sandwiches. I did this on a few different hot days. The coolers varied a bit in size, so I filled only to the maximum capacity of the smallest cooler, leaving room in some of the others. Although I would regularly fill our coolers with reusable ice packs and not always regular ice, I wanted to make sure to test for leaking too. I also took the full coolers for a walk to see how heavy they were and rubbed dirt on them to see how easy they were to clean.
The Factors I Looked For
Does it keep our drinks and food cold?
Duh. What’s a cooler that doesn’t cool? I checked on our coolers every few hours to see how cold the items remained and if the ice stayed solid or if we had drinks floating in water.
How heavy is it?
Putting a bunch of cans or bottles into a cooler can definitely impact the weight so I lifted them and walked with them to make sure I wasn’t going to break my back before I got to the beach.
What’s the design like?
Call me vain but if I am dishing out money for a cooler I want to make sure it looks good and is functional. Does it have good, solid hardware? Additional shoulder straps? Fun features? Curb appeal?
Does it clean easily?
If I'm throwing this cooler on the grass, in the sand, or on concrete, I want to make sure I can wipe it off and pop it back in the car without getting it dirty. I also wanted an interior that was easy to wipe clean of food leaks or stains.
Soft coolers range in price from $15–$200+, so I wanted to make sure that I truly found the best soft cooler for the money.
Other Coolers We Tested
I also tested the AO Cooler; it performed well but the similarly priced Polar Bear beat it out due to its food-safe lining. Although AO offered a bit more padding, it didn’t make the insides any cooler.
I had high hopes for the RTIC cooler but, after about 6 hours, it leaked. Based on reviews I am not the only one with this experience. The cooler ($16) came in a fun pattern but also leaked after 8 hours.
The PackIt Bag were great in theory because you just throw the whole bag in the freezer, no ice required. However, it lost out pretty quickly, leaving our drinks room temperature at best by the end of the day.
For a great overall portable cooler that's affordable and reliable go with the Polar Bear. For longer outdoor days on the beach or a boat, go with the more expensive, durably-designed BUILT cooler. Finally, for quick jaunts to the park or a kids' soccer game, the Coleman will keep your seltzer cool and save you some serious cash.
Originally Appeared on Epicurious