Coolers are great, but if you’re going on foot for long periods of time, dragging a cooler or carrying it by hand just aren’t comfortable. That’s what make backpack coolers so ideal, as you can strap them on your shoulders and let your back carry all the load.
Sure, they typically don’t carry as much ice and refreshments as regular coolers, nor would you want one on your back when you’re hiking to the top of a mountain. Using them also keeps you from carrying as much gear, since you can’t strap on a regular backpack. If cold drinks are a priority where you’re going, though, we’re sure your friends will be more than happy to piggyback any gear you can’t carry on their own bags.
Whether you’re trekking to a great spot a few minutes off the trail, kayaking to a nearby island, or going off to a secluded section of the beach, a backpack cooler should make for an excellent way to bring cold drinks and chilled snacks along. It’s why over the past couple years, we’ve seen an increase in the brands that decided to jump into the category.
Here are some of our favorites.
Ice retention has long been the problem with soft coolers, which make them unsuitable for extended stays in the outdoors. While IceMule doesn’t exactly detail how long their top-of-the-line backpack cooler can keep ice, reviews are glowing in that regard, with consumers claiming it manages to keep some ice after being out three to four days in the field. Of course, the actual retention will depend a lot on the prevailing weather (and summer will be hot), but we have no doubt its 3cm closed-cell foam insulation can keep things chilled well through the weekend, making this an excellent option when you plan on being out for more than a day.
With 30 liters of capacity allowing it to keep a generous amount of ice along with 24 cans, it has enough room for a weekend’s worth of refreshments, too. Add in the multi-strap suspension system that makes carrying it a considerably easier affair and the IceMule Boss just might be the best option available in the category.
YETI HOPPER BACKFLIP 24
With its boxy and tall profile, YETI’s backpack cooler is not the most discreet in the category. Suffice to say, everyone knows it’s a cooler, especially with the big YETI branding out front. As with their rotomolded ice boxes, this one’s built-to-last with a thermoplastic fiber shell and a food-grade liner that keeps leaks away, along with closed-cell foam insulation to ensure it retains ice for more than a day. If you use a 2:1 ice-to-drink ratio, it can hold 20 cans and keep them chilled well until the next day, although you can probably load more drinks if you put less ice for just a few hours of use. Padded shoulder straps, a chest strap, and a waist belt ensure stability at the heaviest weights, while a hard top lid lets you use it as a table for setting down drinks, too.
OTTERBOX TROOPER LT COOLER
Like YETI’s backpack cooler, there’s no way to disguise this as anything but an ice box on your back, with its unusually wide profile and semi-rigid build. That design, though, makes it viable for carrying as both a backpack and a shoulder bag, all while providing you with a wide mouth opening for easy access to the contents of its 30-quart chamber. It has enough insulation to keep ice for up to three days, so you can use this for weekend getaways, while a solid, heavy-duty base lets you stand it upright anywhere you decide to camp. There’s even an integrated bottle opener, just in case you don’t have enough of those.
REI CO-OP COOL TRAIL SPLIT PACK COOLER
Sometimes, you don’t want to give up the ability to carry gear in exchange for some cold refreshments. You want both. This backpack cooler from REI is built for those moments, as it’s a two-part pack with a regular storage chamber on top and a removable cooler insert on the bottom. When mixed with six pounds of ice, the cooler insert vows to keep 12 cans cold for up to 40 hours, while the top unit offers enough space to let you keep a day’s worth of gear. The best part? You can remove the cooler insert to use the whole thing as a regular backpack, too.
HYDRO FLASK UNBOUND SOFT COOLER PACK
It looks like a nondescript daypack. You know, the kind you picked up randomly in a Walmart because it looks about the right size for taking on day hikes, an afternoon at the beach, or a day of gallivanting with friends. A 22-liter compartment provides enough room to hold a dozen or so cans, along with a heaping of ice, which should be enough drinks to keep a small group happy for the few hours you’ll be spending outdoors. The best part about this? It’s quite a good-looking bag that you probably won’t mind using an actual backpack when the need comes up.
CORKCICLE EOLA BUCKET BAG
Possibly the smallest cooler on this list, Corkcicle’s bucket-shaped ice box can only fit 12 cans (or a few bottles) with ice, but will keep them cold with its healthy amount of insulation. With a profile that tapers towards the top, it’s very stable, too, allowing you to set it down a table without falling over. It’s the kind of thing that will be a huge hit for outdoor festivals, along with the occasional picnic in the park with your friends.
PELICAN DAYVENTURE BACKPACK COOLER
Similar to the REI Co-op Cool Trail Split Pack, the Pelican Dayventure is divided into two distinct sections – a bottom unit and a top unit. Both are leak-proof, water-resistant, and adequately insulated, so you can use either for your day-long chilling needs. From what we can tell, though, the bottom unit, which fits a six-pack along with ice, is the hardcore cooler of the pair, with the top unit serving as a backup, in case you need more room to chill food and drinks. That’s because the top unit can also be used as dry storage, allowing you to use this for a day hike with designated places for your gear and refreshments alike. The base unit is compression-molded, by the way, allowing the whole thing to stand upright when set down on the ground.
It looks more like a bucket than a cooler. And you will be tempted to sit on it like a stool because of that (you shouldn’t, you’ll destroy it). If you can withstand the temptation, the Orca Podster offers a great way to carry a small amount of refreshments for the day. Sure, it won’t fit more than a dozen or so cans with ice, but it holds ice nicely, it’s easy to carry (shoulder straps with cross-chest T-strap), and has a generous amount of MOLLE webbing outside, allowing you to attach pouches and other storage items to hold all your other gear.
COLEMAN SOFT BACKPACK COOLER
The best thing about Coleman’s soft-sided cooler is the fact that it completely looks like a regular backpack. It’s every bit as ugly as many of the backpacks you see in schools every day, too, which makes it completely unremarkable, whether you use it to bring in chilled beers to the park, the beach, or the local sports stadium. The main compartment houses the cooler area, which boasts heat-welded seams, antimicrobial lining, and enough room to hold up to 28 cans, while a large pocket out front provides dry storage for any gear, snacks, or supplies you need to bring along.
IGLOO OUTDOORSMAN GIZMO BACKPACK
One of the best-looking backpack coolers we’ve seen, Igloo’s mid-sized Outdoorsman Gizmo boasts the ability to keep up to 20 cans properly chilled all day using the integrated MaxCold insulation. Multiple pockets on the front, sides, and back provide dry storage for your gear, while padded straps allow you to carry it very comfortably. Do note, Igloo’s backpack coolers have a reputation for tearing at the straps when subjected to too much weight (i.e. folks that like to pack it to the brim), which is a shame since it offers some of the best insulation in the category. To keep that from happening, make sure to use the sternum strap to distribute the load, which should ease some of the pressure put on the shoulder straps. Alternatively, you could reinforce the straps at the seams, in case you have access to someone who can do the sewing.