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Published Mar 24, 2023 3:00 PM
Today’s modern backpack coolers for the outdoors solve a fundamental problem campers, hikers, and fishermen and women have struggled with for years: keeping your drinks and food cool without carrying a bulky, hard-sided cooler for miles into the wilderness. Old school coolers just aren’t great for lengthy hikes. Plastic coolers are cumbersome, heavy, and awkward to carry for long distances. Fortunately, today’s cooler backpacks have better insulation and can even retain ice longer.
Before you buy something for your next backcountry camping trip or a day of fly fishing, check our picks for the best backpack coolers that will make your outdoor adventures a lot more enjoyable.
How We Picked the Best Backpack Coolers
When selecting the best backpack coolers, we considered our own hands-on experience with many of these brands. We also looked at other important factors when deciding which cooler is best for each scenario. Mainly we considered the following:
- Materials: What is the cooler made from? Is it durable? Is it sustainable? Waterproof?
- Storage Capacity: Just how much can the cooler hold? Is it strictly for food and drink, or can it be used as a regular backpack?
- Ice Retention: How long is the cooler rated to hold ice?
- Value: How budget-friendly is this backpack?
Best Backpack Coolers: Reviews and Recommendations
Best Rated: Yeti Hopper M20
- Dimensions: 18” x 9.9” x 18”
- Weight: 5.6 pounds
- Capacity: 36 cans (without ice)
- Extra loops for accessories
- Comfortable straps
- Can hold over 20 pounds of ice
- Recent recall undermines some trust
Yeti continues to make some of the most stylish coolers on the market with consistent performance to boot. The M20 is a great choice for anyone who needs excellent storage capacity from their pack. It has a can storage capacity of 36. That will be a little less when you add ice, but that’s still a lot of drinks and food that you can pack into the woods. The M20 is also a great choice for carrying accessories thanks to the accessory loops on the straps.
This is a great all-around cooler for fishing, hiking, or the beach. The downside is that you are paying extra for that Yeti cooler name. There was also a recent recall on this cooler due to faults with the magnetic closure which have undermined our trust in their products just a little. To their credit, Yeti offered replacements to anyone who purchased an older model. Models sold from January 2023 onward have fixed this problem.
Best Insulated: Ice Mule Boss 30L
- Dimensions: 12.5” x 9” x 25”
- Weight: 6.6 pounds
- Capacity: 24 cans (without ice)
- Excellent ice retention
- Dry storage pockets are handy
- Comfortable to carry
- Storage space is reduced by insulation
Most backpack coolers don’t have compartments that are designed for multi-day ice retention. However, the Boss 30L is the exception. It has some of the thickest polar plus insulation on the market. All that insulation reduces the storage capacity, of course, but this is the one to consider if you are looking for something for a multi-day camping trip. It can also function as a regular backpack in a pinch.
We like this cooler for surf or pier fishermen because it has two dry side pockets and a large front pocket—great places to safely stow a cell phone, camera, or other electronic device you don’t want getting wet. There are also loops for holding a pair of pliers, a net, gaff, or other fishing accessories. Our only knock against it is that it is a rather expensive cooler. However, it’s just right for those who need something a little more rugged with excellent ice retention qualities.
Best Soft: Engel Roll Top
- Dimensions: 14” x 9” x 20”
- Weight: 3.5 pounds
- Capacity: 24 cans
- Simple design with easy access
- Generous storage capacity
- Vacuum vale is a nice added feature
Not many soft coolers have the generous 25-quart storage capacity of the Engel. This cooler has a very simple roll-top design and welded seams that help to keep the cold trapped inside and makes the cooler leakproof. The closed cell foam insulation allows for two to three days of ice retention.
We like this cooler for anyone who is rough on their gear. The outer shell is built of 840 denier fabric that will stand up to a real beating if you toss it on the ground, in a truck bed, or wherever. As a bonus, this cooler has a feature many other competitors do not: a vacuum valve that allows you to suck the air out and improve the efficiency of the insulation. It’s a nice little feature to have for a multi-day camping or kayak trip.
Best for the Beach: RTIC 20 Can Backpack Cooler
Best for the Beach
- Dimensions: 14.49” x 16.97” x 21.5”
- Weight: 8 pounds
- Capacity: 20 cans and a bag of ice
- Water- and leakproof
For those who love the sand between their toes. The RTIC features a welded design with a zip-top to seal your food and beverages in the cold. It’s long enough to store a full-size wine bottle. We like this one for anglers too for the simple fact that it will float. No more worries about losing an expensive cooler over the edge of a pier or from your boat. That $170, this cooler packs in many of the leakproof features of a brand like Yeti at a fraction of the cost of other options on the market.
The only real downside to this cooler is the zipper, which a fair amount of customers say has issues with sticking. Most report they needed to lubricate it to make it easier to pull and to keep it from sticking. For the price point, that’s a small problem to overcome.
Best Budget: Bass Pro Shops Coldsnap Latch
- Dimensions: N/A
- Weight: N/A
- Capacity: 20 cans and 10 pounds of ice
- Latch seal opens with one hand
- Waist belt and sternum strap
- Quality YKK zippers
- Some users may not like the ridigity of the lid
There are cheaper backpack coolers on the market, but not many that offer the same capacity as the Coldsnap Latch. This cooler has a rather unique lid as far as backpack coolers are concerned. It is a rigid plastic with a single large snap that opens the interior for easy access. There is a bottle opener and some nice mesh side pockets for a little added value. Bass Pro Shops included some large, quality YKK zippers that are large, and easy to operate, and set this cooler apart from some of the others on this list. You should have no issues with these zippers getting stuck.
Some other nice features include a waist strap and a chest strap to help keep the cooler more secure during a difficult hike. For $129, this cooler offers a great deal of value that make it great for general purpose outdoor uses.
Best Storage Capacity: Ice Mule Xtra Large 33L
Best Storage Capacity
- Dimensions: 14” x 11” x 24”
- Weight: N/A
- Capacity: 24 cans
- Extremely large capacity
- Air valve for added insulation
- Easy to access contents
- May not hold ice as long as other options
The Ice Mule Pro Xtra Large is the cooler for anyone who is looking for larger storage capacity. At 33L, this cooler will hold up to 24 standard 12-ounce cans with ice. This makes it an excellent choice for anyone who plans to take enough food and drink for the entire family. The roll top design makes everything in the large storage compartment easy to access quickly.
Ice Mule added an air valve to this model to help with the insulation this one provides. However, the downside to this cooler is that it may not retain ice as long as some of the other models on this list. We see this one as a great day hiking or boating option for larger groups.
Do you put ice in a backpack cooler?
Some people prefer to use reusable freezer packs for their backpack coolers simply because it avoids the mess of having melted ice in the bag. However, plain ice works fine in most cases too so long as your pack is waterproof and leakproof.
Do backpack coolers leak?
Some backpack coolers may leak. However, so long as the seals are properly made and the right materials are used, most coolers of this type should stay leakproof. Most of today’s modern backpack coolers are built to be waterproof.
What is the difference between a thermal bag and a cooler bag?
Cooler bags are made to keep food and drink cold. Thermal bags are built to keep them warm. Most outdoor enthusiasts are going to want a cooler for camping scenarios.
What to Consider When Choosing a Backpack Cooler
The cooler you choose is usually best reflected based on how you plan to use it. Everyone wants the best ice retention, but you don’t need something that will keep for several days if you only plan to take your cooler to the beach occasionally.
If you are planning to do some serious hiking with your cooler, you’ll want to get something with the best padded straps. Your shoulders will thank you when the straps aren’t cutting in with the bulk of twenty pounds of ice in the back. The interior of the cooler must also be reinforced to be waterproof. The last thing anyone wants is to feel cold melting water down their back from a leaky cooler.
Final Thoughts on Best Backpack Coolers
Despite the recent recall, there is no doubt Yeti sets the standard when it comes to outdoor coolers. The M20 remains the best in the business when it comes to ice retention and storage options. That said, we believe all the backpack coolers on this list are a solid choice for anyone looking to carry their food and drinks to their next wilderness adventure.
Why Trust Us
For more than 125 years, Field & Stream has been providing readers with honest and authentic coverage of outdoor gear. Our writers and editors eat, sleep, and breathe the outdoors, and that passion comes through in our product reviews. You can count on F&S to keep you up to date on the best new gear. And when we write about a product—whether it’s a bass lure or a backpack—we cover the good and the bad, so you know exactly what to expect before you decide to make a purchase.
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