With the outdoor season quickly approaching, it’s probably time to do a little problem-solving. Namely, how do we get all of our refreshments and food to our site? You could go with the old pain in back cooler but there is a better way!
Backpack coolers are a thing and they are much easier to deal with and far more convenient than a standard cooler. But that begs the question of what makes a good backpack cooler and what exactly are the best ones out there. We are here to answer those very questions!
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Top 5 Backpack Coolers (Summary)
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For more detailed and complete product reviews on benefits and features, keep reading.
What Makes the Best Backpack Cooler?
Many of the considerations of what makes a great backpack cooler are the same as picking a great hiking pack. There are a few points that are specific to a backpack made to carry ice. Here are the things you want to look for:
1. Ease of Carry
Much like any pack that may hold a good deal of weight, it needs to be comfortable. Most cooler packs are not intended to be carried for mile after mile so things like a waist belt are pretty rare. You still want some basic features like a flat back and padded straps.
You will need to pay attention to how much you pack to make carrying manageable. The more comfort features a pack has, the farther you will be able to carry it without pain. Just because it seems like a frivolous expense to add a bit of comfort doesn’t mean you should disregard it. This is one of the most important factors to keep in mind.
Much like your favorite hiking pack, you want to get the right size backpack cooler. What you will need for yourself is much different than what you would need for a group of 4.
Packs come in many sizes and determining overall size can be difficult. Some will go by liters, others by cubic inches, and many will simply tell you how much food and drink they can carry. While we have attempted to break down the sizes in this article, it’s worth doing research on any other product to understand how it compares.
You should also keep in mind that people have a tendency to use all the space they can. Getting a larger cooler will mean it is often filled to capacity with things you may not use. It may weigh much more and be harder to carry for no real reason.
What you plan to do and where you plan to go can have a huge impact on what pack is right for you. If you are going for a few days you may need more. If you are taking a long hike, having a smaller pack with less weight will be easier to deal with.
The complicated aspect of your activity is that most people don’t want a cooler for just one occasion. They may take it fishing where walking is less or on a family day hike where you will need more provisions and be carrying it farther.
Consider your situation and lifestyle. Pick a cooler based on what activity is most common for you. If you are unsure, likely a larger pack is probably right as long as you understand the limitations mentioned in the previous section.
4. Budget and Value
If you are the type that is outside all summer, getting a good pack that will hold up definitely makes more sense. If you only go hunting a few times a year, you may be able to get by with something a little cheaper.
Spending more often accomplishes three things. Ice will last longer and food will stay colder in a better pack. The pack is larger and will carry more. And finally, a more expensive pack is likely to be more durable and have a better warranty.
Spend as much as you can to get a good pack but no one can rightfully tell you how much you should spend. You know your budget and needs better than anyone. However, there is often far more long-term value in a more expensive and better quality pack.
5. Ice Lifetime
The whole point of a cooler is to hold ice and the technology is finally in place to produce standard coolers that can keep things cold for more than 5 days. While a pack cooler will not come close to this, some of the better ones will hold ice up to 2 days or a little more.
The longer a cooler holds ice, the more expensive it will be every time. That said, maybe you don’t need a cooler that will hold ice for 50 hours. If you are a day tripper, you can save yourself a little money if you keep your expectations realistic.
9 Best Backpack Coolers 2020
1. Yeti Hopper – Best of the Best Backpack Cooler
The fact that Yeti comes in at number 1 should be no surprise. They are very well known and respected for their outstanding ice chest coolers, why would a pack cooler be any different? The moment you pick one up you can tell the quality is superb!
The Yeti Hopper features a dry-hide shell that is waterproof, mildew-resistant, resistant to UV rays, and food safe. This, combined with the hydrolok zipper give you the toughest possible combination. The straps, carry handle, and waist belt are constructed of a Cordura strapping that can easily take the load of full pack.
For insulation, the Hopper uses a closed cell foam that is denser and more rubbery than most soft coolers. This means longer ice time and colder drinks all day long. Depending on the weather, you can still expect a little ice to remain as much as three days later.
Carrying this pack is very similar to carrying any regular pack. The straps and back are padded for comfort. It has a removable chest and waist strap. The waist strap could use a little padding for longer trips but it is otherwise perfect.
With enough size to fit an entire case of soda and ice, you won’t lack for capacity. You can pack a lunch, dinner, and drinks for 4 with no issue what so ever. If you want top of the line, the Yeti Hopper is it!
- Long ice holding time
- Good capacity
- Very durable
- May be harder to carry for thinner people
2. Pelican Elite – Runner Up Best Backpack Cooler
It may not have been surprising how good the Yeti was but it is surprising just how close the Pelican Elite comes to beating it. It may fall just a hair short on some small details but this gives Yeti a run for their money in the Backpack Cooler world.
The outer layer of the Pelican is a super strong 840D TPU that is double coated for water retention and heat dissipation. It also makes the cooler very puncture resistant. It uses a very similar zipper design but with added straps to take the pressure off the fragile parts. All the strapping is the same Cordura. One difference in construction is the rigid bottom compartment on the Pelican which is great for storing things you don’t want to be crushed.
The insulation feels about the same as the Yeti and is almost as good at making ice stretch. You can still get more than a day out of this cooler in the right conditions, just not quite as long as the Yeti. This is still an astounding length of time to hold ice.
The straps on the Pelican are better with more padding and a better alignment with the shoulder. It does have a chest strap but no waist strap. If you are loaded heavy, this can present some small issues. For shorter trips or with less weight, you may never notice.
With a total capacity of 17 liters it is right with the Yeti on capacity. Where the Pelican separates into two compartments, it does hold a little less. The tradeoff is there is little chance of your sandwiches being crushed by a soda during your travel.
- Incredible durability
- Decent capacity
- Good ice holding
- Comfortable to carry
- No waist strap
3. Polar Bear Solar Bear – Best Small Backpack Cooler
While they may not be very well known in the cooler world, Polar Bear is likely to become quite well known for their backpack coolers. Not only do they have a ton of built-in quality but they are a very handsome design that looks more like a backpack than your run of the mill cooler pack.
As far as construction, it’s hard to beat the Solar Bear with its luggage grade TPE nylon exterior, Cordura webbing, and rock-solid construction. All of the fittings are YKK including the huge #10 waterproof zipper. With expert design and stitching, this is one of the strongest zippers you are going to find.
Polar Bear has used very dense and quite thick insulation and a food grade anti-microbial liner in their pack. Not only does this keep everything cold but it keeps it safe and free of any contaminants. It’s easy to clean and guaranteed to keep ice more than a day even at 100+ degree heat.
Carrying this pack is a breeze with its excellently padded shoulder straps. A waist belt would be a nice addition but it’s not missed too much with the smaller capacity of the Solar Bear. There are additional side pockets and a mesh front pocket for extras but this pack is made for speed.
With a size of only 13 liters, this isn’t a family pack. You can get enough for a picnic for a family of 4 but on extended trips, this is more a two-person setup. You can easily pack a dozen cans or water bottles plus ice and lunch. Even loaded like this, it carries well thanks to the design and a reinforced bottom that pulls the pack in tight to the body.
- Great construction
- Awesome ice capacity
- Somewhat small
- Carries very low
4. Engel Coolers Prym 1 – Best Midsize Backpack Cooler
If you want a good cooler with a lot of space, the Engel may very well be the best cooler for you. It has all the space you need along with solid construction and the famous Engel attention to detail. It may fall middle of the pack in our ratings but it is still one of the best cooler packs made.
To keep weight down, Engel has gone with a lighter 500D polyester but added a rip-stop outer shell. It may not be quite as puncture resistant but it will never tear with anything remotely like a normal load. The fittings including the zippers are all durable with waterproofing where needed. Even the side pouch has a solid zipper that will likely never break.
For insulation, the Engel uses a full 1-inch of closed cell foam insulation. This is among the most insulation of any cooler out there and with the increased size of the Engel, this is needed! A days’ worth of ice is about all you can expect but that is sufficient for most people.
The novel thing about the Engel is its versatility of carrying. It has a handle, shoulder strap and backpack straps. The pack straps are very well padded but they carry a little more awkwardly than a pack with more standard dimensions. As it stands, the Engel Prym 1 holds a massive 23 liters which will hold a full case of soda with enough room for a ton of ice and a meal or two.
- Great capacity
- Versatile carry methods
- Decent construction
- Not as comfortable to carry
- Bulky feel
5. IceMule Pro – Largest Backpack Cooler
Based on the super effective dry bag design, the IceMule Pro is a very durable and exceptionally large backpack cooler. The construction is simple but highly effective at keeping water in and everything cold. There are three different sizes available from the merely large to the massive.
The construction is the same between models with a treated MuleSkinTe exterior with welded seams and nylon webbing. There are no zippers to spring a leak, instead IceMule uses a roll down and clip system. This is a classic system that is proven to be watertight in any condition.
The insulation is IceMule’s own foam core but with the added ability to inflate it slightly for even better insulation. The end result is a cooler that can keep everything cold for far over a day and probably as much as two in the right conditions.
The one issue with the IceMule is the shape. A rounded bag does make carry a little more difficult as it presses into the back. That said, the straps are excellent with great padding and a broad, supporting surface.
The smallest IceMule is still 23 liters while the largest is a massive 40 liters. That is enough to hold two full cases of soda. You will want to be careful how you load it. A 40-liter pack cooler can hit 60 pounds easy. Really, it’s probably best suited for shorter trips rather than a long trek. If used this way, you can provide for a whole family plus some out of the largest IceMule.
- Huge capacity
- Simple design
- Great insulation
- Not as comfortable to carry
- Capacity can be too much
6. Mier Backpack Cooler – Most Comfortable to Carry
For another attractive cooler option, the Mier cooler stands above most. Not only does it have a very stylish look but it’s a very good cooler overall for a very attractive price. It may not be as large as the rest but that doesn’t detract from its performance as a small cooler.
The body of the Mier is a laminated TPU that resists damage and puncture very well. The zippers are all watertight and solid. With none of the weight of the cooler on them, they will likely last forever. The internal is a BPA food safe material that cleans easy.
For insulation, Mier uses a cold cell foam that is very thick. This keeps drinks cold and prevents this close-fitting cooler from freezing you on your trip. All told, you can expect a bag of ice to last about a day in this cooler and likely not much more due to the size more than the construction.
At just 12 liters, this is a small cooler that is perfect for biking and other active pursuits. The shoulders are exceptionally padded and the pack carries comfortably with its oval shape. It has a zipper pocket for things that don’t need to stay cold and an overhead compartment for anything you don’t want to be submerged in icy water.
The Mier is advertised as holding 18 cans and while it can do this, 12 is probably a more realistic number. This allows plenty of room for ice and some snacks or a full lunch. While it may not top our list, when it comes to value, this is a definite contender.
- Carries very well
- Quite durable
- Somewhat small
- Zippers are very tTight
7. Igloo Marine Backpack Cooler – Best Bang for your Buck
As we move toward the budget end you can still get a great cooler at a great price. If you opt for the Marine model by Igloo you will get probably the best looking cooler out there. Based on their very successful and effective Marine line, it may fall a little short of that level of performance but not by much!
This uses a thinner and lighter 600D TPE rather than the 850 used by most companies. This does make it a little easier to puncture but you will never tear it. Take a little care and it will last for years! The zippers are a little lighter too but still waterproof and durable enough to hold up. The effect of the lighter weight construction is a pack that weighs only 2 pounds.
The internal construction uses the same MaxCool insulation as other Igloo products that have been very successful for them. In this backpack model, the insulation is thicker and will hold ice for a 24 hour period at least. The interior is anti-microbial for safe use and easy cleaning.
This pack carries much more like a backpack than most other models. It can hold up to 33 liters but weighs a ton when fully loaded. You may want to moderate how much you carry. The straps are comfortable enough if you can handle the weight but you can pack up to 70 pounds in this easily if you don’t watch it.
You can, if desired, fit two whole cases of pop in this cooler with enough ice to keep it cold. If you keep your weight down a little, you will find this to be an exceptionally comfortable cooler pack to carry. It does have a chest strap but no waist belt. That would help but even without, it does a good job.
- Great styling
- Carries ddecently
- Large capacity
- Light weight
- Thinner materials
- Can weight you down
8. Mojecto Backpack Cooler – Best Budget Mid-Size Cooler
Mojecto is a small company that produces only soft body coolers and they are truly pushing the whole industry with a variety of fabrics and styles unseen anywhere else. But that is not why they are well known. They are well known for producing exceptional coolers at very budget-friendly prices.
The external of their backpack style is made of an outlandishly strong 1000D polyester. This surrounds the insulation and a PEVA liner. The Mojecto uses large, durable zippers and double stitching to round out a tough and rugged design.
The insulation is just about as innovative with a very thick, high-density foam that covers the already heat sealed liner. Treated right, this will hold ice for as long as any cooler in its price range and probably longer than most.
When it comes to comfort, this pack has it. The padding on the straps is exceptionally good. It will hold 21 liters total between its two independently insulated pockets. It has a number of external pockets for added storage and still looks like a regular backpack in the end.
The one downside of this cooler is that it is not intended for ice but for cool packs. You can always make your own but you should not put exposed ice or water in this cooler. Do this and it will last you for years!
- Very durable materials
- Great size
- Well designed
- Requires ice packs
9. Coleman Soft Backpack – Best Budget Small Cooler
Sometimes you don’t need a huge amount of space for a day hike or sorter outing. Sometimes you just need a reasonably sized pack that you can trust to do the job. The Coleman pack is perfect for hunters, fishermen, day hikers, or those just wanting to enjoy the outdoors for a short time.
The external part of the pack is a ripstop nylon that looks like any other pack but is very durable. It can easily take the weight of what you will carry in this pack without issue. It has a durable, anti-microbial liner inside and leak-proof zippers all around.
For insulation this uses the standard Coleman soft insulation. This has been a trade secret for years but it is some form of layered closed cell foam. Regardless of what this uses, you will get plenty of ice time for any shorter trip. Easily a day’s worth if you set it up right.
The Coleman carries exceptionally well. Probably better than most any pack. Part of that is its smaller size. It only holds about 9 liters in total. Should be enough for a couple of people for a day trip but not a family sized pack unless you are just planning on being out for a few hours.
For most people, this is likely all the pack they need but there is something to be said about a pack that carries more. You have to fit your gear to your lifestyle. If the Coleman fits it is a very good pack and for an even better price!
- Very comfortable
- Holds ice decently well
- Less ice time
- Small size
Tips and Tricks on Using Backpack Coolers
- To make your ice last longer and keep things cool for the long haul, pre-chill everything in your fridge before putting it in the cooler. You can almost double your time with this little trick.
- Color makes a difference. Though most coolers only come in dark colors, they will absorb heat more readily. Opt for a lighter color if your pack will be sitting in the sun for long periods of time.
- You can keep your ice in large backs to prevent it from leaking out onto items you may not want wet. Get good quality zipper bags that are strong and durable.
- If you are going to refill your cooler outdoors, don’t add everything at once. This raises the temperature more inside the cooler and will melt your ice faster.
- Ice ratio is the key to cooler success. Most companies recommend a 2:1 ratio. In a pack you can go a little less than this but you want to stay close. Cold packs can decrease that ratio even farther.
- There are tons of tutorials online on how to make your own cool packs. IF you are A DIY person, look around and find one that fits with your abilities and needs. You can even make large ones that will fit perfectly in your pack.
A lot of progress has happened from the old steel coolers with uncomfortable handles that were all the rage back in the 1970s. The addition of wheels and other comfort features has made coolers much easier to manage.
With today’s ultra-modern materials, the backpack cooler has moved it forward to the next step. They are far easier to manage than a large box cooler and will perform almost as well. If you haven’t tried one out yet, you should!