Our recent test of hard coolers showed that there are sufficient differences in performance and price. In that December 2005 report, a $68 and a $445 cooler tied for best ice retention (slowest melt rate). Motivated to see whether such differences might also exist among soft-sided coolers, we procured nine models from seven companies.
Most are of the popular 24-can size, meaning you can cram 24 twelve-ounce cans of soda or beer into one of them. As we examined each, we were surprised to learn that some companies allow extra room for ice, and others don’t. So a 24-can capacity doesn’t necessarily mean you can keep 24 cans cold.
Hard vs. Soft
The principal advantage of a hard cooler is its ability to hold ice for up to five days, more or less, depending on model, contents, ambient temperature, and how often the lid is opened. Downside: Theyre bulky and difficult to stow.
Soft-sided coolers collapse to a fraction of their full shape, and so when emptied can be squished, lashed (some have straps just for this purpose), and jammed into a locker. But its not a perfect world, of course, and the shortcoming of soft-sided coolers is that they don’t retain ice nearly as long as hard coolers. In fact, most won't keep ice in hot sun more than six to eight hours. Whereas hard coolers have capped spigots to drain melt water, soft-sided coolers do not.
Nearly all of the soft-sided coolers we tested have shells made of nylon, though type and quality varies. Some have heavy, high-denier nylon that is very tough and abrasion resistant; others are made of thinner ripstop-type nylon.
Manufacturers report that one of the most common warranty issues is puncture of the plastic, watertight inner liner. This would allow water to drain into the outer shell, and ultimately out through sewn seams. So stow the corkscrew in a side pouch.
The more detailed, and in some cases expensive, coolers have features like zippered pockets and mesh pouches for carrying silverware, napkins, and even cell phones.
Because the primary purpose of a cooler is to keep contents cold, measuring the melt rate of ice makes it possible to quantify performance. For the test of hard coolers, we drained melt water and measured the amount in a graduated container. Soft-sided coolers, however, have no drains, so the more logical means of measuring ice melt is to place a block of ice in a mesh bag and periodically remove the block for a weight measurement. So thats what we did. Testers filled plastic bottles with one gallon of water and froze them; frozen, each bottle weighed 8.5 pounds. The caps were removed and holes punched on the bottom and around the sides so melt water could easily escape. Each hour, testers removed the ice blocks, weighed them, and recorded their findings.
Beyond the ice retention performance, each of the nine coolers were evaluated for their design, construction, and overall utility. Some, like the California Innovations Music Cooler and 50-can Roller Cooler, were so different from the rest that direct comparison was difficult.
Zero Degrees Expedition
This cooler, sold at Boaters World as the ATE Expedition, has zippered side pockets plus a zippered front pocket and a mesh pouch in front of that. The zippers have cord extensions and plastic grippers. Theres a padded shoulder strap, and carrying handles with a padded hook-and-loop closure. The shell is red and gray 600-denier nylon, and inside is 5/16-inch insulation. A magnetic quick-grab door allows you to dive into the coolers contents without going through the annoying business of unzipping the entire top. (Have we lost all patience?)
The inner liner has one welded seam. A divider might facilitate organization of contents…or just take up valuable space. The bottom is rubberized for traction and easy cleaning. The cooler collapses and is held compact by straps with hook-and-loop closures. The Expedition holds 24 cans but has no room for ice.
Bottom Line: It is well-made with quality fabric and attractive colors, plus bonus pockets. It also was a top performer in the ice melt test.
The Arctic Zone Stowaway Cooler is made by California Innovations, which is based in Toronto, Canada-go figure. The 24-can cooler we examined looks more like a kids lunch box, especially because of the chartreuse front panel. The shell appears to be a tightly woven, ripstop-type nylon with no beading or reinforcing seam detail. There is a zippered front pocket. The inner liner has four welded seams. Other features: zippered top, and adjustable shoulder strap/carrying handle. The cooler folds flat and is held collapsed with a strap and hook-and-loop closure. It holds 24 cans but has no room for ice.
Bottom Line: The Zero Degrees, at just $6 more, is a much better buy, in our opinion.
Polar Bear Cooler
Made of red 1000-denier nylon, the Polar Bear has a rectangular shape, like small carry-on luggage. Size is nearly twice that of the others, except the Ice Bear and CI Sport roller cooler. The Polar Bear holds 24 cans plus two bags of ice, according to the company. Wed say one bag. It has carrying straps with a padded handhold that folds over with a hook-and-loop closure. Padded shoulder straps can be configured for single shoulder or backpack style. The straps also can be configured for tie-down or for securing to roller luggage. It comes with instructions and photos. The lid zipper has a bottle cap opener, and theres a thermometer built into one strap buckle. Extra storage is limited to a zippered front pocket. This cooler comes compressed for shipping; to regain original shape, the instructions say to fill it with hot water and let stand for five minutes.
Bottom Line: The Polar Bear is well made and versatile. It has a slow melt rate, but is expensive.
Very similar to the Polar Bear in terms of size and shape and shell, the Ice Bear is made of ocean blue, 600-denier polyester, and has -inch foam insulation. It holds 24 cans and at least one bag of ice. Theres a condensation barrier to prevent sweating. The PVC liner has one long seam across the bottom, like the Polar Bear. Stainless steel snaps at both ends of the zipper snug down the cooler into a somewhat smaller size, again, same as the Polar Bear. Warranty covers defects in workmanship. For $10 the company will replace a broken zipper and punctured liner, the most common repairs.
Other features: adjustable shoulder strap, carrying handles with fold-over, padded, handhold, and zippered front pocket. Different colors and styles are available online.
Bottom Line: The Ice Bear is well made. It is similar to the Polar Bear and is priced similarly. However, it lacks the double-strap backpack carrying configuration. Its melt rate was slightly faster than that of the Polar Bear.
Unlike the other eight coolers, the Thermos has a rigid plastic insert, basically a square tub. Insulation is multi-layered Isotec, which the company says, Keeps cold 18 hours. Features include a quick-access opening in the lid with hook-and loop-seal, a zippered lid, and a zippered front pocket with mesh pocket inside. The shell is dark blue nylon. The Classic holds 24 cans with room for a small amount of ice.
Bottom Line: It has quality construction, but it is not collapsible. However, at $13, its a bargain.
California Innovations Music Cooler
The CI Music Cooler has a built-in AM/FM mono radio and speakers. It can accept input from a CD/MP3 player via a jack and cable stowed in the radio pouch player. It runs on a single 9-volt battery. The shell is blue and gray nylon. Other features: telescoping antenna and adjustable shoulder strap. It is collapsible and is restrained by hook-and-loop straps. Square shaped, it holds 24 cans but no room for ice.
Bottom Line: Good construction. Radio is clever…if you want it. The top performer in the ice retention test.
CI Sport Rolling Cooler
Twice the size of the others, the CI Sport has a handle that extends 7-1⁄2 inches, short for comfort, but still more convenient than carrying. How much do 24 cans weigh? More than 20 pounds. The shell is dark blue and gray nylon. By undoing two straps, you can remove the cooler and just use the roller frame. It has an insulated and zippered front compartment, and an easy-access opening in the lid with hook-and-loop seal. The liner is seamless. An insulated divider also can be used as a shelf to separate goods. Adjustable padded shoulder strap. The label claims it Holds ice for more than 60 hours. Where? In Alaska?
It has six layers of insulation, including high density Superfoam and Therma-Flect reflective barrier. It holds 24 cans with room for a small amount of ice. You must pull out the front legs of the rigid roller frame to keep the cooler from toppling forward. We got our test sample direct from the manufacturer. When we tried to find prices online, this model couldn't be found. Instead, retailers seem to prefer the 54-can model #71540, which appears to be virtually the same, except for the addition of two can holders in the cover.
Bottom Line: Heavy because of roller frame wheels. Good quality. Larger than others. Melt rate was among the fastest.
This backpack model is blue and white nylon and PVC with a plastic inner liner with welded seams. There are two mesh side pockets and a third nylon pocket with flap for a cell phone. Theres a zippered front pocket and inside the lid is yet another storage pouch. For normal carrying theres a sure-grip handle. Interestingly, the bottom is a rigid plastic, which the promo literature says makes for easier cleaning. And that is true, compared to a fabric bottom. The sloped top makes zippering with 24 twelve-ounce cans a very tight fit. No room for ice.
Bottom Line: Well made, with plenty of extra storage. Priced high, especially considering its melt rate.
Igloo MaxCold 24
This dark blue and gray, nylon and PVC cooler is distinctive because of its two drink holders. Say youve rowed your dinghy ashore for a beach picnic. No worries about placing the cans or bottles in the sand and having them fall over-don’t you hate it when the last beverage gets wasted like that? Instead, just park your drink in the cooler holders. Other features include an easy-access lid hatch with hook-and-loop closure, front-zippered pouch and rear pocket, and adjustable shoulder pouch. The plastic liner has welded seams. It holds 24 twelve-ounce cans, but theres no room for ice.
Bottom Line: Nicely made, but like the West Marine, price and melt rate are double strikes against it.
In the ice melt test, we took the first reading after three hours and then every hour thereafter for a total of nine readings. The results are ranked in the table. Finishing a very close second in the ice-retention test, the $20 Zero Degrees is a bargain. Its well made and holds ice well. And it has all of the important features, like padded shoulder strap, quick-grab door, and extra storage pockets. The Polar Bear is one of three larger coolers tested (Ice Bear and CI Sport being the other two). Its also well made, but at $50 is more than twice the price of the Zero Degrees.
The surprise of this evaluation was the CI Music. It actually had the best melt rate of all nine. Though we like the feature-rich Zero Degrees better, the $30 CI Music is a good value.
Also With This Article
“Value Guide: Soft-Sided Coolers”
Igloo, 713/584-6900, www.igloocoolers.com
Polar Bear Cooler Co., 888/438-7924, www.polarbearcoolers.com
The Ice Bear, 949/581-8507, www.theicebear.com
Thermos, 847/439-7821, www.thermos.com
Zero Degrees / ATE Expedition, (Pint Size Productions), 800/544-918349
California Innovations and Arctic Zone, 416/590-7700, 800/722-2545, www.californiainnovations.com