Cooler bags are great backup coolers, excellent for when you need to haul some things but don’t want to prep or drag around a large cooler. A bag is versatile and easy to carry, a lot lighter and more comfortable than hard sided coolers, and you can keep them within arm’s reach wherever that may be.
Cooler bags should be in your supplies list but what makes them so different than hard-sided coolers or standard soft-sided coolers? If you’re hoping for the same retention rate as hard side coolers, you’ll be disappointed, but use them for what they’re best at, and you’ll never look back.
We’ve put together a list of our favorite cooler bags to help you find the one you need. Plus, we’ve answered some questions you may have about why to invest in a cooler bag and how to choose. Let’s break it all down in our best cooler bag review.
How Do I Choose A Cooler Bag?
Cooler bags need to be portable most of all. The bags help you carry things without tying up one of your hands, so almost all can be taken across a shoulder easily. Aside from portability, here are a few other things to consider.
The most durable cooler bags use an exterior material with a high denier count in polyester, nylon or a blend. They’re tear and puncture resistant and help prevent the bag from degrading under UV exposure (that afternoon on the lake, for example). Some are TPU coated for complete waterproofing.
The interior of most durable cooler bags is usually some kind of food safe EVA lining although there are a lot of possibilities for the material beyond that. Heat sealed seaming is essential to prevent leaks and lock in temperatures.
The best insulation is closed cell material, usually a rubber blend, that avoids adding bulk to the walls of the cooler but still maintains the internal temperatures. A watertight zipper will also lock in the cold to help you get at least a day or two of ice retention. Top of the line cooler bags use materials that secure in the cold for three to five days on average.
Reinforced, padded straps and handles round things out. It’s also pretty essential to have exterior storage to be able to wrangle all your accessories and maybe some other essentials like keys or a cell phone. If there’s no storage, having loops or Molle fabric could be an excellent way to personalize storage.
Most cooler bags have a slimmer profile so they can be carried along with other things. This reduces your interior storage, but cooler bags aren’t necessarily intended to last you all weekend long. Most are afternoon carries or there for an emergency. If you’re transporting food on a long car trip, for example, this is where a cooler bag comes in handy.
Bag style openings keep in cold temperatures but prevent easy access at times. You’ll need to stick with cold packs to give you the most interior room. Heat sealed seams are a must as is reinforced stitching on all handles and straps.
Common weak points are zippers and stitching, so heavy duty materials integrated into the design will prolong the life of your cooler. Some budget cooler bags cut corners here, but you’ll end up spending more replacing bags sooner.
Again, outside storage is going to be key here because you’re probably carrying a lot of stuff with your cooler bag and consolidating the accessories will really help you get where you need to go. Pockets, both zippered and mesh, plus loops for adding accessories can help you keep your things together without sacrificing valuable interior space.
What Are The Benefits Of A Cooler Bag?
A cooler bag is portable and easy to store. What it lacks in capacity or sheer ice retention, it makes up for in ease of use. Cooler bags are designed to go with you wherever you need whether it’s just you or a group.
You can stuff them into your car on a long trip to help keep your drinks cold along the way. They can pack some food for the afternoon if you’re at the zoo or park. When you’re done with the contents, they can easily stow away, or at least not add any extra weight as you’re carrying all your gear out.
They’re best for weekend day trips, road trips, and day to day cooling needs. They’re also best if you just don’t want to hassle with a giant cooler and don’t have the manpower to carry a big roto-molded cooler. Also, if you’re walking any further than 20 feet from your car, a cooler bag could be the best option.
What Are The Downsides Of A Cooler Bag?
You’re going to lose some in storage in exchange for the lightweight weight body. Cooler bags aren’t built to store food for five for the entire weekend or to carry everyone’s beer while you’re at the beach. They’re more personalized and the bigger your cooler bag gets, the heavier and more cumbersome it gets as well. That may not work for you.
You’re also going to lose some cold retention because soft-sided coolers just aren’t built to hold up the same way your rotomolded cooler is. That also translates to durability. Some soft-sided coolers are beasts and can last a long time, but they’ll still fall apart well before your rotomolded cooler. As long as you know what you’re getting when you invest, you’ll be fine.
How Do I Care For My Cooler Bag?
Cooler bags need to be stored dry to prevent mold and mildew from attaching to the interior. Even top of the line coolers with antibacterial liners can’t stand up to constant moisture, so be sure your cooler is completely dry after every use.
The interior and exterior can be wiped clean with a soft cloth, or if you need extra power, you could use mild dish soap. You shouldn’t put your cooler bag in the washing machine no matter how tempted you may be because the agitation can cause tears in seaming and damage to the lining.
Also, be sure you empty your cooler of any food or old drinks and never put your cooler in a place where it’s constantly exposed to sunlight or the elements while it’s in storage. This can drastically reduce the lifespan of your cooler.
Do I Need To Prep My Cooler Bag?
Bags that use closed cell insulation, particularly rubber, could benefit from preparation before you head out. If you’ve kept your cooler stored for long periods of time in the back of your car or your garage, the insulation has absorbed some of the warmer temperatures and could take some time to cool back down. With a soft-sided cooler, that few hours can make a huge difference.
To prep your higher end cooler, put cold packs or ice in the night before and leave it to sit closed or zipped up the night before. It can absorb the cold and be ready to go in the morning. Just drain any excess water, wipe out condensation and you’re ready to go.
Coolers that don’t have premium, closed cell insulation don’t always need prepping because your cold retention may not be enough to warrant the hassle. If you need the cold to last as long as possible, it never hurts to prep the cooler the night before, but it isn’t as crucial as it is with roto-molded coolers.
The Best Cooler Bags
We chose our favorite cooler bags based on their ice retention rates as well as durability. We also looked at little details such as outside storage and carrying. We want your cooler to balance those things with having enough storage to carry what you need, but it should also be lightweight. Let’s take a look at our list to find your next bag cooler.
Our Top Pick – Yeti Hopper
The Hopper is an ultra-durable cooler bag option with a high ice retention rate and some exterior storage. The Dryhide shell is puncture and tear resistant and stands up well to UV exposure. The interior food safe liner is antibacterial, and both exterior and interior materials resist mold, mildew, and odors.
Yeti uses closed cell rubber foam for thin yet effective insulation. The zipper is waterproof and helps seal in cold temperatures while keeping the contents safe from sand, wind, and water. The exterior has a few Molle loops to attach accessories, and the handles are reinforced.
There’s a clip-on shoulder strap, and it integrates six D-ring tie downs for when you need to secure it. The mouth isn’t very wide, so you may have trouble getting things at the bottom of the cooler easily, but it will keep everything chilled for at least a few days under the right circumstances. The material will need some time to break in, but it’s still very stiff at first. The upside is that this cooler should last a long time.
It weighs about 5.5 pounds empty and can hold about 23 cans with a 2:1 recommended ice to can ratio.
- ultra durable
- long ice retention rate
- molle storage
- stiff fabric
Runner Up – Grizzly Drifter 20 Quart
Grizzly’s soft-sided cooler is a well-organized cooler with a removable, waterproof liner and a ballistic style polyester exterior. The molded lid and base are durable, offering protection at common cooler bag weak spots while the heavy duty, the large zipper is waterproof.
It has multiple pockets, including an integrated drink pocket across the front, and a dry storage pouch on the interior of the lid. The shoulder strap is comfortable with reinforced stitching, and it unclips when not in use.
It can carry up to 20 quarts, and with the roll down waterproof liner, you can put in ice and still keep things like sandwiches away from the moisture. It’s a unique concept that increases your choice for both cold production and what you can pack inside the bag. They also sell replacement liners if something happens to yours.
- removable, waterproof liner
- plenty of storage organization
- good ice retention rates
- boxy for a bag cooler
- removable liner takes getting used to
Best Budget Option – Igloo Switch Marine Backpack
Igloo’s convertible bag and backpack style cooler has reinforced insulation to keep ice contents for up to 24 hours without needing a refill. It uses a 600 denier TPE coated polyester blend with corrosion resistant hardware. There are pockets for external storage and mesh straps to convert it into a backpack.
The interior uses Igloo’s MaxCold insulation for 25% more cold retention than the standard Igloo soft-sided cooler. It’s taller than it is wide, so you may have trouble getting things packed and keeping it from tipping over. However, considering that it’s less than $100, it should be plenty cold for light use.
It stores easily and weighs less than two pounds when empty. The backpack straps can be stowed in a pocket in the back when it isn’t in use to prevent tripping, or just to make it easier to carry with the included handles. It’s not going to last in extreme weather, but it’s an excellent budget alternative for casual use.
- highly affordable
- converts to backpack
- plenty of external storage
- top heavy
- awkward to pack
Best Extra Large Option – Otterbox LT 30
Otterbox’s extra large cooler can hold up to 30 quarts but does so in such a way that packing and carrying are really easy. It converts from handles to a backpack and features an extra full, medical bag style opening (frame with a hinge on either side) that allows you to pack and find things easily despite its large size.
The exterior uses a TPU coated nylon that’s puncture and tear resistant. It has external hardware for hanging accessories plus a bottle opener right on the front. All hardware including tie-down points is Duraflex, a resilient and robust type that won’t break down with environmental stress.
Thermal insulation and a waterproof latching system help keep contents cold for up to three days under the right conditions. It’s not readily available in many places yet, but it is worth the effort to find it and the extra expense. It’s big, but probably the most convenient extra large cooler bag you could find.
- unique design allows for maximum reach
- converts to backpack style
- accessories mount on the front
- heavy when empty
Best Ice Retention – Engel HD30
Engel’s HD30 is an extreme performance cooler that has an ice retention rate of up to four and a half days. It uses a durable 840 denier material with TPU coating on the front and back that’s tear and puncture proof plus highly resistant to degradation from UV rays. It holds 32 quarts and weighs about five and a half pounds empty.
Engel doesn’t sew any of the seaming for this cooler. Instead, everything is heat welded creating a true leak-proof seal with strength to last nearly a lifetime. The zipper is leakproof and doesn’t require any oiling or maintenance. Closed cell insulation provides a thin wall but prevents cold from escaping.
One excellent feature is a vacuum seal function. Once you pack your cooler, you can remove any excess air to help further lock in cold and rocket those ice retention rates to almost five days. It’s perfect for long road trips when you need your food to stay fresh for the longest amount of time possible, and you aren’t going to be opening the lid anytime soon.
- vacuum seal option
- fully heat welded seams
- on the heavy side
Getting a bag cooler gives you a lot of flexibility for where you can take and where you can store your cooler. You trade some functionality in terms of space, but you get back the use of your hands and no pain in your back. They’re lighter than standard roto-molded coolers and give you a lot more options for when and how to carry them.
Keep in mind that cooler bags won’t have as much space and may be inconvenient to see what’s inside once you get everything stuffed in there. If you’re packing only drinks, or you plan to take all the food out once you get to your destination, you may have an easier time with them. If accessibility is important to you, choose one of the wide mouth options above, like the Otterbox, and that problem could be less irritating.
Having a portable cooler as a backup is a great way to meet your needs without taking up all the space or begging for help to move your cooler. Our top picks are light, can carry enough for you and maybe a couple of others, have sturdy exterior materials and enough ice retention to get you through at least today, and in the case of the Engel, four days from now. Lighten your load and still get your drinks ice cold. Win-win.