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The Best Backpack Coolers for Outdoor Excursions

Jun 06, 2023Jun 06, 2023

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These eight coolers are built to ride on your back. Fill ’em up and get moving to the perfect picnic destination.

Backpack coolers are ideal for summer adventure. You stock up on six-packs, cans of wine and some snacks, then load it with ice to carry on your standup paddle board, the back of your Jeep — or just on your shoulders as you walk into that secluded little lake you stumbled upon last year.

Now, straps on coolers are not a new thing — but comfortable, padded ones with extra bands to secure the pack to your waist are relatively novel. While we likely wouldn't want to hike Mt. Baker or Mt. Washington with any of these cooler backpacks, we wouldn't mind kayaking to a small island and setting up camp for the night with all our preferred beverages. They’re easier to carry than hard-sided coolers and allow you some creature comforts (half and half! cheese! yogurt! eggs! butter!) without the issues that car camping can bring.

Storage capacity in backpack coolers ranges from five liters all the way to 30 — and the capacity you choose ultimately depends on how many people you're packing for. If you've got a group of six heading out for a beach day, you'll want around 20–30 liters to pack multiple drinks, snack options and ice for you and your friends. If you're packing lunch for your kid's soccer game, you probably don't need more than 10 liters (unless you want some extra goodies in there for yourself). Think through how many people will be in your group, and plan from there.

As with any outdoor products worth their salt, the best backpack coolers don't just keep things cold — they also come with functional and thoughtful features like extra pockets, daisy chain webbing to strap on corresponding accessories, and dedicated water bottle pockets. Many backpack coolers also feature padded shoulder straps for comfortable carrying, internal organization or custom ice packs that are built to nest into the cooler with ease.

Backpack coolers are functional, but are they durable? Well, today's soft-sided beverage haulers are as close to indestructible as things can get. Many are made with polyester shell fabrics and feature anti-microbial liners to keep things from getting funky. Welded seams are the industry standard: they keep water out and help the backpack float in case it falls out of the boat during a rough ride. Many backpack coolers come with mesh pockets for easy packing and cleaning, and some even feature UV-protective coatings to help withstand fading and fabric breakdown.

Our staff tested a wide selection of backpack coolers over many months, in a wide variety of environments. From the mountains to the beach, we looked at features like ice retention, weight, materials, carrying comfort and more to filter through the many options on the market.

After carrying many drinks and snacks through the wild, we determined the best of the bunch. Here are a few of our favorites right now.

With its rectangular, rigid walls, detachable internal food shelf and comfortable, padded shoulder straps, Camelbak's first foray into the world of backpack coolers has quickly become our favorite. Our tester used hers carrying snacks down to the beach, in the cab of her truck on a road trip and on numerous camping trips.

While the ice retention is solid (72-plus hours, if it stays closed), that wasn't necessarily the standout feature — it was the group-oriented design of the backpack that really put it over the top. The Chillback comes with a water reservoir zippered compartment, which means along with the beers and sandwiches inside, you can also keep everyone hydrated on adventures.

Sure, the whole unit is a little heavy — especially when full — but the padded shoulder straps help ease the load. Besides, after a full day of adventuring, it's likely to be much lighter after all the snacks are gone.

RTIC's wallet-friendly alternative to Yeti's tough-as-nails backpack cooler is capable, comfortable and rich with features. The Backpack Cooler can hold 30 cans and a bag of ice, and keep them cold for multiple days (if you're mindful about opening and closing). The zipper top opening makes it easy to access food and drink inside, and the welded seams make the pack 100-percent waterproof, as well as buoyant in water. (It floats!)

At 22 liters, the Day Escape is slightly smaller than both the Yeti and the Otterbox coolers but is the sleekest of the three. The woven loops on the front of the cooler easily attach the Dry Storage accessory, which can hold and protect small essentials. In a pinch, this one also works as a regular backpack. It can even serve as a carry-on if your hiking adventure extends past an airplane ride.

The heavy-duty IceMule Coolers Boss also made our list for Best Coolers, but if you’re looking for something slightly smaller and more comfortable to carry in addition to a board or on a boat, this 15-liter Classic Medium is for you. The roll-top and single strap make this cross-body bag extremely portable. If you’re spending the day picnicking at the park or the beach, this bag will carry all the snacks and booze you need.

While many backpack coolers focus on the cooling aspect of the equation, and less about the carrying component, REI took it into its capable hands to create a 50/50 blend of hiking backpack and backpack cooler. The result is a well-equipped, easy to carry insulated backpack with a lots of wins and a couple misses. The contoured hip belt and shoulder straps are padded and adjustable (the hip belt can accommodate a 46-inch waist), and the cooler insert can be completely removed from the pack, if you want it to be a standard hiking pack part of the time.

It's not fully leakproof, and the capacity and temperature retention isn't as high as other options (10 pounds of ice or 20 cans cold for 40 hours). But overall, if you like hybrid items and want to be able to mix things up, REI has you covered.

Coleman's backpack cooler is ideal for your kid's soccer games, day trips to the beach or something to stash everyone's snacks in on a road trip. At less than 50 bucks, it's a fraction of the price of its competitors, but that does come with a sacrifice in performance. However, if you're going on a casual trip and just need to keep some snacks and drinks cold, this is a great addition to any adventure.

Two distinct compartments on this Dayventure Cooler provide more versatility than any other backpack on this list. The 13-liter bag has a bottom section ideal for carrying six-packs, and then the rolltop works as more cold storage — or a place to stuff a change of clothes, pots and pans or a towel for an easy overnight. We like the breathable straps and back panels that keep this cooler airy while you carry.

This Built NY rolltop backpack is very similar to the Large Welded Cooler we recognized in our Best Coolers of 2019, just with more straps and a way to carry on your back. The large front pocket offers storage for extra cords, batteries, wallets and phones, while the molle straps above feature a bottle opener, which is always, always handy.

When we tested out this padded, adjustable cooler bucket bag, we were pleasantly surprised by how cold everything stayed. It's likely the smallest of the bunch, but also the best looking. Black camo is our pick: fill it with 12 cans or a couple of wine bottles, plus cans, and you’re good to go into the wild.

Weighing in at 7.5 pounds, this cooler is disguised as a backpack, with plenty of storage to go with it. The cooler performs surprisingly well thanks to a three-centimeter closed-cell PolarLayer XT insulation foam. The suspension system used to carry it makes it a comfortable carry whether you’re hiking into the perfect camp spot or just going from the house to your car.

Reviewers love the waterproof pockets and the near-unlimited amount of food this backpack can handle. It is more expensive than Hydro Flask's and Yeti's soft side cooler backpacks, but it comes with lots of extra pockets to make carrying the rest of your gear more feasible.

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