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With warmer weather upon us, outdoor picnics and barbecues are on the table once again. But schlepping a loaded-up traditional cooler on an uphill hike or bike ride really isn’t a plausible option. A good backpack cooler, however, will keep your cargo cold and comfortably supported on your back, evenly distributing the weight between your back and hips for an easier way to carry your food and drinks to your beach or camp site.
What to Look For When Shopping For a Backpack Cooler
Where Will You Be Using It? A chill day barbecuing at the lake is entirely different than a hike through thick woods. For tougher hikes, a durable backpack that can stand up to rain, roughness, and being knocked around is a must. More leisurely journeys may not require the same levels of extreme durability, but you’ll still want something that keeps your contents cool and protected.
Weight: Look for bags with cushioned straps, which make carrying a pack better for your back; a lumbar support also helps your posture remain in an ergonomic curve, preventing pain from slowing you down. Comfort is a huge factor too, particularly if you’ll be hauling this load uphill. Consider what you’ll be carrying and how long the trip is. A packed-to-the-max bag with 30 beers plus food can still put enormous stress on someone with a small frame, no matter how great the ergonomics are.
Drinks and Food: Drinks can quickly get heavy, especially with ice, and you’ll need something that’s designed to carry that weight (built-in or attachable bottle openers are a nice touch too). Food can also easily spoil after hours in the hot sun, so be sure your pack can handle the heat from the outside and keep its cool on the inside. Food can also get messy after being jostled around on a hike, so an interior liner that’s easy to clean is a huge help if things get gross in there. Some models even absorb impact, which is great if you’ll be carrying glass or other fragile items.
Easy Access: A good-quality zipper is your biggest defense against anything unwanted getting inside, and a wide opening ensures easy access when you need to grab something quickly. On the exterior, a zippered, waterproof pocket is handy for carrying important items like credit cards and cash. Hooks and straps can also be really convenient to attach the items you know you’ll be needing at a moment’s notice. When you finally set the pack down, being able to remain upright on its own makes grabbing items a little easier once the cookout has started, instead of it constantly collapsing and spilling the contents.
We’ve picked our four of our favorite packs here to help you find the right one for your next adventure.
1. Coleman Soft Backpack Cooler
Don’t let its low-tech, classic backpack look fool you – the Coleman is ready to carry whatever you can throw at it (or in it).
Coleman is an absolute legend among the camping community, and has been making quality tents, stoves, sleeping bags and coolers for more than 120 years. This pack is no different.
Two insulated compartments keep your contents cool, cozy and secure. The main one is BPA and phthalate-free, and features heat-welded seams, to prevent any melted ice from leaking out everywhere. The smaller compartment is ideal for storing snacks and other gear you may need on the trail. Together, they’re roomy enough to hold up to 28 cans when stretched to the max.
Straps are all around, making it easy to grab and go. The convenient bungee cord on the front is perfect for any items you need to grab frequently and easily, like a trail map, a poncho, or hand-wipes.
PROS: Roomy, for a medium-sized backpack. Doubles as a regular backpack too, for traveling, school, or everyday needs.
CONS: Keeps stuff cold, but not frozen. The side and front pockets can be very tight when the main one is filled.
2. SEEHONOR Insulated Cooler Backpack
The SEEHONOR is lightweight and ready to be loaded up.
The main compartment is fully insulated with thick PEVA liner on all sides, and can hold about 30 cans when filled. The horizontally-opening zipper at the top ensures that no liquid seeps out and creates a mess on the outside of the bag (or on your clothes).
The exterior is made from an ultra-durable, heavy duty nylon that’s resistant to rips, tears and scratches. It also features fully-adjustable, cushioned shoulder straps for comfortable carrying, so your whole crew can take turns hauling it.
Pockets are plentiful, but not in excess, and there’s room on the outside for anything the inside won’t fit. This is a perfect pouch for hiking, fishing, or outdoor day trips.
PROS: Durable both inside and outside, comfortable carrying, and plenty of interior space to hold everything if you angle it in correctly.
CONS: The zipper on the front pouch can sometimes get stuck when rounding the corners.
3. TOURIT Lightweight Insulated Backpack Cooler
The TOURIT is lined with a vinyl, waterproof interior that keeps your drinks and food refrigerator-level cold for hours. It holds somewhere between 20-30 cans, with enough room left over to stuff some sandwiches in there too.
It’s convenient to clean, as the inner lining flips out to easily wipe down. There are also plenty of extra pockets for anything else you may need on your big day out, such as sunscreen, bug spray, wallet and keys.
This is really more of a lined backpack than a true cooler, and works better for a day on the boat or at the park rather than a difficult outdoor hike.
PROS: Weight is much more evenly distributed than a traditional cooler, making it better for your back.
CONS: While leakproof, the company still recommends that it’s better to use the ice packs instead of actual ice.
4. YETI Hopper Backflip 24 Soft Sided Cooler
One of the largest bags on our list, this cooler is convenient to carry, and nicely distributes the weight – ideal for trips when you’ll be shlepping it for long periods of time.
The interior is plenty roomy, and can hold about 20 cans worth. Yeti uses a closed-cell rubber foam to keep the cold in, and in our experience, it works way better than regular soft coolers, controlling condensation to keep things cool. The inner liner is made from an FDA-approved food-grade material too.
The cooler’s exterior also lets you attach accessories such as a bottle opener, making it much easier to grab instead of digging deep into the bag.
Don’t be afraid to carry this through torrential rain, harsh sun, or a neck-high river: the “Hydrolock” zipper is one of the world’s best and toughest, forms a tight seal and prevents any leaking, and the outer shell itself is made from high-density fabric that’s resistant to water, punctures, mildew, even the sun’s UV rays.
PROS: Ready to be roughed up by the elements while keeping your food and drinks safe and dry. Modern, contemporary look and finish.
CONS: Make sure the zipper is closed all the way, and tightly. Even a little open gap can cause unwanted leakage.