Best Backpack Coolers

Updated September 2020
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BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We only make money if you purchase a product through our links, and we never accept free products from manufacturers. Read more  
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.Read more 
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Why trust BestReviews?
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We only make money if you purchase a product through our links, and we never accept free products from manufacturers. Read more  
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We only make money if you purchase a product through our links, and we never accept free products from manufacturers. Read more  
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.Read more 
How we decided

We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.

22 Models Considered
6 Hours Researched
1 Experts Interviewed
197 Consumers Consulted
Zero products received from manufacturers.

We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.

Buying guide for best backpack coolers

Last Updated September 2020

There are few things better than a cool drink after a strenuous hike. Of course, you don’t have to be the adventurous type — enjoying a cold soda while lying on the beach is pretty good, too! The challenge is keeping your drinks (or food) cool while you’re traveling. That’s where a backpack cooler comes in.

For many years, hard-sided coolers have been the answer. They’re efficient, and you can get plenty of stuff inside, but did you ever come across one that was easy to carry? Fortunately, we now have backpack coolers that offer the perfect combination of performance and comfort. Just load up, strap on, and away you go!

However, with all kinds of different sizes, styles, and materials, it can be difficult to know which is best for the kind of outdoor activities you prefer. That’s where BestReviews comes in, with our selection of tried and tested recommendations and a thoroughly researched buying guide that answers all your questions.

It’s tempting to buy a large backpack cooler, but bear in mind the actual weight you’ll be carrying. A dozen standard soda cans add an extra 9 pounds on your back, not counting the ice!

Key considerations

Style

There are three main styles of flexible cooler: soft, bag, and backpack.

Soft coolers: These are similar to traditional hard-sided coolers but more flexible and include both handles and a shoulder strap. A soft cooler is easier to carry than a hard-sided model, but it isn’t really designed for much more than moving food and beverages from house to car or car to picnic spot.

Cooler bags: These are like rucksacks. Usually of modest capacity, a cooler bag is easy to throw over your shoulder to carry. Some of these are made without zippers or seams, so they’re not only waterproof but will actually float. They’re ideal for kayakers who can tow one behind the boat!

Backpacks: These are what we’re concentrating on here. They offer the greatest variety in terms of size and function, and they’re designed to go pretty much anywhere. At a minimum, they offer good shoulder straps to support the weight. The best have a full harness for maximum weight distribution and comfort and even a suspension system. A cooler backpack can be carried day after day, as you would expect from any top camping or hiking backpack.

Size

Physical dimensions are sometimes given, but the size of a cooler backpack is most often rated by the number of standard 12-ounce beverage cans it can hold. The smallest backpacks carry 6 or 8, but the biggest hold up to 40! There are often separate areas for food items that don’t need to be chilled and other gear, so it’s worth investigating the different configurations available.

Weight

The weight of the backpack cooler is something people tend to overlook — until they try to pick up a fully loaded cooler! The backpacks themselves are usually quite light, somewhere between 1 and 3 pounds. However, a standard 12-ounce can of soda weighs at least 12 ounces (that might sound obvious, but some are heavier). A regular wine bottle weighs over 2.5 pounds.

For example, 24 soda cans add 18 pounds on your back, plus the ice or cold packs. It’s not a lot for serious hikers, and good backpacks should distribute it well, but it’s still worth thinking about. There’s no point in carrying more weight than you need to.

Structure

When you look at backpack coolers, you’ll notice that some seem to have rather hard sides and some look soft, like an ordinary backpack. This is mostly due to the ice section. A few have hard plastic liners that are usually removable. There are even one or two backpack coolers that are solid enough to sit on, which is much more puncture resistant (important when the ice starts to melt). Most backpack coolers are either a semirigid “bucket” or a soft bag. These are often more comfortable to carry, and, indeed, most of the largest backpack coolers are the soft kind.

Insulation

You would think that insulation would be a big deal; after all, the better it is, the longer your backpack contents will stay cool. However, insulation adds bulk. What’s equally important is how the ice compartment is sealed, and the zippers in particular, because letting the cold out and warmer air in is how your food and drinks get warm. It’s an area that needs careful checking if you want to keep things cold for more than a day. A lot of the top-rated backpack coolers do let you know about the materials used, and while keeping ice cold for 24 hours is common, some claim up to five times that long.

DID YOU KNOW?

You can find instructions online to convert your ordinary backpack into a cooler, but when you factor in the material cost, time, and likely durability, we think a purpose-built budget model is a better choice.

Features

Storage

Small items: The addition of outer pockets, either zippered or webbed, is great for carrying bits and pieces. We’ve seen as many as ten provided.

Gadgets: Several backpack coolers also have specific spaces for phones and tablets. The linings are separated, so there’s virtually no danger of leaks between sections. And several offer connectivity for your portable gadgets. There are Bluetooth speakers and power bank options, too.

Clothing: Corded areas can be useful for attaching a sweater or waterproof jacket.

Dry food: One manufacturer not only provides a separate dry food storage area but also includes a bamboo cutting board!

Wine: Some backpack coolers have divided compartments for wine, so two bottles don’t bang together, and many are supplied with a bottle opener.

EXPERT TIP

When it comes to backpack coolers, air is not your friend. To prolong performance, double-check that you close it properly every time.


Staff  | BestReviews

Accessories

Ice that’s carefully packed around your food and drink containers will keep them cold, but if you don’t want that fuss (and the melted water to get rid of later), there are several easy-to-use alternatives that some backpack cooler makers recommend. Depending on the composition, these may freeze colder and stay cold longer.

Reusable bags: Cool It Ice Packs
Supplied in a pack of six, these 10 x 9-inch bags contain a nontoxic gel. You add water to activate it, and then freeze. They stay cool for up to 12 hours.

Slim ice packs: Kona Ice Packs
Sold in pairs or fours, these slender 13 x 10-inch packs freeze in just 25 minutes (there are no figures for how long they stay cold). The manufacturer says they are an “environmentally friendly, nonhazardous, water-based solution that can achieve temperatures lower than ice.” They are also BPA-free and FDA approved.

Large ice pack: Yeti Ice Reusable Cooler Pack
Available in 1-, 2-, or 4-pound blocks, these come from a well-known cooler maker. They’re designed to be used on their own or in addition to natural ice. They’re particularly tough, nontoxic, and food safe.

Backpack cooler prices

Inexpensive: You can buy a good, cheap backpack cooler — what you might call a day pack — for not much more than $25. They can have good capacity but perhaps aren’t the most durable.

Mid-range: There are lots of choices between $30 and $50, including many different sizes and plenty of versatility. Most people will find the backpack cooler they need in this price bracket.

Expensive: Those that top $50 offer high levels of ice retention, are particularly tough, or float. To some degree, there’s a premium for some of the top brands. They can go as high as $300, and that doesn’t necessarily get you the greatest capacity.

EXPERT TIP

Although these backpacks are mainly focused on keeping your food and drink cool, it’s always useful to have extra pockets or webbing for carrying other gear.


Staff  | BestReviews

Tips

  • Cool your backpack before you go. Whenever possible, cool your container with a bag of ice a couple of hours before your trip.
     

  • Use cold ice. It sounds odd, but there can be a 30° difference between ice that’s been in the freezer a week and recently frozen water. If it’s wet, it’s too warm.
     

  • Use more ice. The recommended ratio is two parts ice to one part food or drink. If you can, use a block of ice in the bottom (it thaws more slowly), ice cubes packed around your cans or containers, then another block on top.
     

  • Keep your backpack cooler as full as possible. It restricts the air inside. Only open the cooler when necessary.
     

  • Add zipper tags. If you’re into serious adventuring, zippers with extended tags are easier open when you’re wearing gloves or your hands are cold. If your backpack cooler didn’t come with any, it’s usually possible to add your own. Short lengths of bootlace are quite effective.

Other products we considered

If you don’t see your next cooler in our matrix, here are a few more for you. The IceMule Classic Backpack Cooler is part of an extensive, high-quality collection, and it claims to be the world’s coldest soft cooler. It’s available in six colors and is 100% waterproof — in fact, it floats.

The Super Real Business Backpack Cooler is unusual in that it can carry up to a dozen cans and comes with rechargeable, removable stereo speakers. It’s Android and iOS compatible — perfect for cool drinks and cool music on the go!

Yeti is one of the leading names in coolers, and the Yeti Hopper Backflip 24 can carry all the food and drink you need for a full day’s hike. It’s rugged, leakproof, and waterproof, and it has efficient weight distribution thanks to waist and chest straps. It’s not cheap, but it is superbly made.

Leakproof and waterproof are not the same thing. Leakproof applies to the inside. It means melting ice won’t run down your back. Waterproof refers to the outer shell. It won’t let the rain in.

FAQ

Q. How long does a backpack cooler stay cold?
A. There are so many variables here that it’s almost impossible to say, and in fact some manufacturers don’t give details. Those that are specific vary considerably. It can be 24 or 48 hours or even several days. Customer feedback is worth checking, because it’s information that comes from real-world experience.
 

Q. How do I clean and store my backpack cooler?
A. Fabrics can usually be wiped clean, the same as any backpack. Food usually shouldn’t be put directly into an ice hopper; it should be packaged so the hopper itself can just be left to drain. A little dishwashing detergent in warm water can be used if necessary. Before storing, make sure everything has dried naturally to prevent mildew — don’t use direct heat like a radiator or hair dryer. Unless the manufacturer says differently (always read the instructions), your backpack cooler should be fine hanging in a closet or stuffed in a drawer if it’s foldable.
 

Q. I’ve read that dry ice is best in a backpack cooler. Is that true?
A. Dry ice (frozen carbon dioxide) is colder than frozen water, so it will keep things cooler longer. However, its use depends on the ice container. Hard-shell buckets are usually fine. It’s not recommended that you use dry ice in soft models because it can actually burn a hole in the liner.

Other Products We Considered
The BestReviews editorial team researches hundreds of products based on consumer reviews, brand quality, and value. We then choose a shorter list for in-depth research and testing before finalizing our top picks. These are the products we considered that ultimately didn't make our top 5.
The team that worked on this review
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    Bronwyn
    Editor
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    Digital Content Producer
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    Web Producer
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