Your buddy has an enormous cooler sitting in the back of his truck and every time he has to unload it, your back spasms. Maybe you’re the one with the massive cooler, and the thought of taking it on a long weekend with you makes you scream. You need a portable cooler and fast.
Not every cooler situation calls for a giant cooler. Sometimes you need one for personal use or for a road trip. You may need one for you and the kids for the baseball game or that picnic outside. Portable coolers are great stand-ins when you need enough for the afternoon or just for yourself and don’t want to burden your buddies once again with moving your 100-pound full sized cooler.
We’ve got our list of top picks for the best portable cooler chosen based on durability, ice retention, and robust design. We’ve also answered a few questions you may have about how to select a portable cooler. Let’s take a look.
How Do I Choose A Portable Cooler?
We’re so glad you asked. Portable coolers are a lot like full-sized coolers in materials and design, just miniaturized. Let’s look at a few things you need to consider when you’re deciding on your portable cooler.
Hard Sided Or Soft Sided
Portable means different things to different people. For some, a hard-sided cooler protects contents and offers a barrier between sometimes delicate contents (game, bait, fish, for example) and the elements.
A soft-sided cooler offers a reduction in overall weight, making it much more convenient to carry, and stores more easily when not in use. Soft-sided coolers frequently come with storage on the front for smaller items and have comfortable, padded handles and shoulder straps. Some are even backpack styles, freeing up your hands completely.
The downside of hard sided coolers is that they’re heavier than average. Even a personal sized cooler can sometimes weigh 30 pounds or more just empty, making it quite a load to carry with ice and other contents. They also don’t always store as well if you need it to squash in with other things in the back of your SUV.
The upside is your cooler protects the contents completely and often functions as a second seat in a pinch. They’re usually bear proof and have ice retention rates of anywhere from five to ten or more days depending on the design.
The downside of soft-sided coolers is that you usually experience a sharp reduction in ice retention. Higher end soft-sided coolers are good for around three or so days with some outliers giving you five. They also experience wear and tear at a higher rate than hard sided coolers. They don’t protect contents as well as hard-sided coolers, and none of them are going to be even remotely bear proof.
The upside is the weight reduction, ease of carrying, and the ease of storage. They’re just far more portable than any hard-sided cooler regardless of the style. They’re often more comfortable to tote around and have better storage organization than hard sided coolers.
The most efficient hard-sided coolers are roto-molded with thick walls of at least two inches. Roto-molded coolers are stronger, with fewer weak spots that can allow temperature inconsistencies. They’re crack, and UV resistant, and many are built to last a lifetime.
The interior should have a food-safe liner that resists mold and mildew or odors. The insulation should be thick, commercial grade and preferably pressure injected to ensure absolute, even coverage with no weak spots. Hardware should be reinforced to account for common weak spots for hard-sided coolers, including latches and hinges, and preferably rust resistant.
Soft-sided coolers that have high denier count materials or TPU coated materials like nylon will last the longest and be puncture and tear resistant. Closed cell insulation made from something like rubber will ensure a much longer ice retention rate even for a soft-sided cooler. Look for comfortable and reinforced handles and straps, and zippers should at least be watertight to account for the environment.
Overall, portable coolers need to be easy to carry. The design of the handle for hard-sided coolers makes a big difference. Some have molded-in handles, which are very sturdy but require you to use both hands to transport the trailer. Others have stainless steel handles with a grip to make it easier to carry with one arm.
Soft-sided coolers have both handles and shoulder straps. Some are backpacks, which we think are the most convenient to carry, but not always the most convenient to organize or pack. Some are even convertible from hand to shoulder to backpack carrying.
Portable coolers need to have logical storage whether in the form of clean interiors and wide openings that give access to everything that’s inside. It should have a lid that seals completely and preferably with latches to protect the contents.
Soft-sided coolers should have zippers that protect the ice retention and keep out water and warm air. The opening should also be wide enough to see everything inside. Flip top styles are great for seeing everything inside, for example, while purse styles aren’t.
You don’t have to spend a significant amount on a portable cooler, but let’s be honest about some of the higher end coolers on the market. They perform better. They last longer. Consider how hard you are on your cooler and think about how much money you spend replacing your cooler every year or two when the handles break or the exterior cracks. If you’re hard on your personal cooler and use it a lot, it may be time to upgrade to the big leagues.
If you pull your personal cooler out every six months and it stays protected in the garage otherwise, you may be able to get away with a cheaper version because you just don’t use it that much. Think in the long view about this and decide if you want to invest in something that will last more than a season or two.
How Do I Care For My Cooler?
The best way to care for your cooler is to keep it away from the elements when it’s not in use. Each time you store your cooler, make sure that you don’t leave moisture or old food inside that can damage the interior.
Cleaning your cooler is necessary but avoid using harsh cleansers that can damage the interior and exterior. Ideally, a mild dish soap, soft rag, and warm water are all you need to keep surfaces clean and refresh your cooler.
Avoid storing your cooler in direct sunlight because UV rays can do a number on the finish. Soft-sided coolers are particularly susceptible to harsh rays, so be sure you store it in a protected place.
How Do I Prep My Cooler?
Roto-molded and high-end coolers sometimes need some prep work before you can get those sky-high retention rates. Soft-sided coolers with high end closed cell insulation could also benefit from preparation. Sometimes, people are disappointed by the cold retention from their coolers, when all they really needed was some thoughtful preparation to get those ideal numbers.
Insulation stores the ambient temperature of the room, so if your cooler has been in storage for a while, you may be disappointed to see melted ice if you just throw it in and go. Instead, fill the cooler with ice the night before, so the insulation cools down, and drain excess water the next morning. Top off with fresh ice, and you’re ready to go.
If you carry your cooler every day, you may not need to do this step each time. Also, if your garage is already cold, it may not be necessary either. It’s really to pull down temperatures inside the cooler when you’re cooler has been sitting in warm storage for a while.
The Best Portable Coolers
Our best portable coolers picks are intended to get you from point a to point be without all the hassle of a full-sized cooler. They fit well in your car and aren’t a million pounds. They’re big enough to carry enough for you and maybe a friend, or a few cans for the two or three of you (or juice boxes if that’s where you are in life).
Our Top Pick Soft Cooler- Pelican Elite Soft Cooler
This is the top of the line, ultra-durable, end-all of personal coolers in our humble opinion. It’s highly portable, 55% lighter than comparable hard-sided coolers, and completely waterproof. It has handles and a padded shoulder strap plus a front zippered pocket for storage.
The exterior fabric is a durable TPU coated nylon that’s UV and puncture resistant and waterproof. The heavy-duty zipper locks out all water and keeps temperatures inside consistent. The interior uses a food-safe liner that’s heat sealed to avoid leaks. Insulation is closed cell rubber for excellent ice retention.
It will keep your food cold for several days, and the smallest size (12 cans) weighs just three pounds. You can also upgrade to a 24-can or 40 can size. Strap buckles on the two largest sizes also double as bottle openers. It could use more exterior storage, but the durability and performance of it keeps us from complaining too much.
- ultra durable
- completely waterproof
- puncture resistant
- disappointing exterior storage
Our Top Pick Hard Cooler – Grizzly 15
The Grizzly 15 cooler is an easy to carry a roto-molded cooler with a soft shoulder strap that we think is way more comfortable than what most hard sided coolers have (stainless steel or reinforced plastic handle). It has a capacity of 16 quarts and weighs about 12 pounds when empty.
It uses a roto molded plastic exterior for robust performance plus two inches of pressure injected, commercial grade insulation to keep contents cold for over a week under the right conditions. The hinges are molded, overlapping tabs linked with a pin for a never fail latching system. Front latches are durable and interchangeable.
Grizzly coolers are certified bear-proof with the locking system in place, and they come with a lifetime guarantee against manufacturing defects. It comes with a dry goods tray so you aren’t stacking everything on top of the cooler and it functions as an impromptu seat.
- soft shoulder strap
- dry goods tray
- premium, tough materials
- no internal organization
Best Budget Alternative Soft Cooler – Coleman 24-Hour 16 Can Cooler
The Coleman 24-hour cooler line is a soft-sided cooler with enough insulation to keep your contents fresh for up to 24 hours. It uses an antimicrobial layer to resist mold and mildew, plus stave off odors. The exterior is a tear-resistant ripstop fabric that should hold up to minor wear and tear well.
The interior has heat welded seams to prevent leaks, plus a generous main compartment to store your cold packs and food and drinks. It’s an excellent mid-size for personal use or for two or three people for a short time.
It holds about 24 cans, which is plenty for you or you and a friend, plus a pocket on the outside for smaller snacks or other accessories like your keys. There’s no handle, but the shoulder strap is padded and very comfortable. Plus, it costs less than $20.
- highly affordable
- plenty of storage
- heat sealed against leaks
- not as durable as some other options
- ice retention is only 24 hours
Best Budget Alternative Hard Cooler – Igloo Quantum 12
Igloo’s hard cooler uses a cool riser design to lift the contents away from the ground surface to protect better against temperature loss. It uses molded plastic that’s lightweight for a hard-sided cooler plus a dry storage compartment in the lid for things like your cell phone and your keys.
It uses a solid one and a half inches of insulation, but the top doesn’t have latches to lock in the cold as you’re transporting. It does fit down inside the body of the cooler to help create a seal, but be careful when you’re moving it around.
The body itself is molded so that it curves to you as you’re carrying it for more comfort. The handle is reinforced plastic, but it may have a shorter shelf life than some of the ultra-tough straps with our other coolers. This is a good option if you need a cooler for occasional use because it’ll set you back less than $50.
- highly affordable
- plenty of dry storage
- the molded body is more comfortable to carry
- ice retention is low overall
- no latches for the lid
Best Backpack – Orca Podster
The Podster is a unique circular, soft-sided cooler carried backpack-style. It holds 14.25 quarts and has a flip top that allows easy access to all the contents inside. It uses durable, high denier exterior fabric that’s puncture and UV resistant as well as closed cell foam for complete insulation.
The interior is leak proof with EVA reinforcement on both the lid base and the cooler back for extra protection in common weak points. It has an ice retention rate of several days with proper preparation and ultrasonic welding seals all seams much the same as whitewater rafts.
It has plenty of Molle webbing on the front to add plenty of accessories storage for all your peripherals. The shoulder straps don’t tuck away when not in use, but they’re padded and very comfortable to keep your hands free to do other things.
- backpack style frees up your hands
- ultrasonic welding to prevent leaks
- Molle webbing
- shoulder straps get in the way during use
A portable cooler is a lot like your regular cooler, only smaller and easier to carry. It’s great for a backup cooler when you don’t need your giant one, or if you need a day to day cooler that you can always carry by yourself. Portability was at the top of the list for these coolers, and most of them offer different ways to haul them around without sacrificing what you love about a hard sided or soft sided cooler.
Our favorite coolers all have good ice retention rates in the case of the budget options and outstanding ice retention for our top picks. They’ll make sure your contents are chilled whether sitting in the back of your truck or boat or on your shoulder through your beach day or fishing trip.
They’re perfect for when you’ve only got your own manpower to carry your things, and you need your hands (mostly) free. Stop begging your friends to carry your cooler. Stop getting roped into hauling something the size of your car. Carry a portable cooler and show everyone a better way.