Features June 1, 1998 Issue

In The Market For A Cooler? The Softsides Win For Convenience

Among the softsided coolers, we like the Igloo Quick & Cool for its insulating power and the California Innovations for its clever design.

Given evidence that beer making has been around some 10,000 years, keeping a frosty one cold has been a challenge for a long time. Cool caves and cisterns followed by dank, below-grade cellars and wood ice houses were the best methods that pre-refrigeration man could come up with. In situations without the benefit of electricity, we haven’t really advanced much beyond that basic notion of insulating a cool space. The one great leap ahead over the millennia has been to make that space portable.

Portable coolers and ice chests have become almost standard equipment on boats. For boat owners stowing a hot day’s worth of comestibles or icing a fish on the way in, they’re a must. Functionally, coolers are about as simple as a useful gadget can get—a box with some ice in it. The better the insulation surrounding the box, the longer the contents stay cold. Plastic foam, a common house insulating material, is the standard insulation for most coolers. Stiff foam is fragile and porous, so coolers require liners, usually hard plastic shells.

Hard vs. Soft
One problem with hard boxes is that once you’re done with them, they don’t go away. Especially on a boat, they take up more than their fair share of room. A fairly recent next step in the evolution of the cooler came about through the development of durable, waterproof fabrics and flexible foam insulation, such as the kind used as sleeping pads by campers. The collapsible, softsided cooler provides most of the advantages of smaller hardsided coolers plus the added advantage that they fold for storage.

Hardsided coolers have very little limitation on size other than reaching a point at which they cease to be portable. (The largest marine coolers hold 320 quarts and have mounting kits that tie them down to the deck.) Given the load bearing limits of fabric seams, however, softsided coolers have an upper weight limit at which they’re bound to sag or even split. The largest soft cooler we’ve seen, the California Innovations 72, can hold 72 12 -oz. cans, plus ice.

Most softsided coolers have nylon, PVC (polyvinyl chloride) or some other plastic-coated fabric exterior for easy cleaning and flexibility, and smooth, plastic interior liners that resist mildew and stains and wipe up easily. To avoid winding up with meltwater, these softsided bags often are used with handy hard or soft packs of liquid that is frozen in a home freezer and placed in the bag when needed.

In testing soft coolers, we wanted to know a couple things. First of all, can they keep food cold long enough— a minimum of six hours—to be practical for bringing along on a boat for a day? Then we wanted to see how they measured up against one another. There are more than a half-dozen brands and dozens of models on the market. As nearly as possible, we picked comparable capacity coolers— ones that can hold 24 to 36 12-oz. cans, plus ice. We compared them for price, construction, features and ability to keep their cool on a hot day. Then we also wanted to know whether they held their cool as well as a similar-sized, popular and well-known brand of hardsided cooler. We chose the Igloo Legend 24 for that.

Ice Plus Insulation = Cold
The heat-resisting capacity of a cooler comes through several factors, the most obvious being the thickness of the insulation. Because most coolers don’t list the thickness, when comparison shopping, pinch the walls to feel which is thicker. It’s a simple way to tell which will keep cooler longer.

Typically, soft coolers have a 1/4" of foam, with a water- and heat-resistant interior lining. Liners can get pretty techie, with exotic materials and layering. For instance, Thermos boasts a line of higher-price coolers, which we didn’t test, with a thermal-reflective, waterproof inner liner, a double-layer lining of foam, totaling almost a 1/2" thickness of foam, with another waterproof barrier between them. California Innovations has a specially coated liner that makes their coolers dual purpose: they’ll also keep foods warm.

The other factor that will influence heat infiltration are the coolers’ closures. Soft coolers generally have zippered tops, hard coolers have lids. Gasketed, latched lids seal down tight. Flaps over the zipper may help reduce heat passage, but a zipper can’t seal as adequately. Also, when a soft cooler is tipped, liquids can leak out, making a mess.

The big plus for soft coolers comes when they are not in use. As the accompanying photograph of the California Innovations cooler shows, some models fold up into neat little, briefcase-like packages. Others are not quite so cleverly designed, but still crush down into space-saving bundles. When cruising, that’s very convenient for stowing the cooler away until you need it. A hard cooler can be used for dry storage when not in use, but basically it’s a big box that clutters decks or takes up valuable room.

Some soft coolers try to have it both ways—a hard inner plastic liner and a softsided exterior. Why? While this may make them better insulators, they’re no longer collapsible, which seems to defeat their purpose. A soft, fabric exterior may be esthetically more pleasing, and may have some convenient sewn-on pockets for openers and the like, but if it won’t collapse, you might as well buy a hardsided cooler, which should hold ice longer. Given the basic cold-retaining advantages that a hardsided cooler like the Igloo Legend in our test offers, we wouldn’t choose the hybrids, such as the popular Arctic Zone line and the Pak Chest, even though they did hold ice longer than most of the true soft coolers in our tests.

Another great advantage offered by soft coolers is their portability and shape variations. Like a backpack or a canvas sack, softsided coolers can have attached carry handles and shoulder straps and uninsulated outside pockets for added storage convenience. There is no need to tie the church key down. Coleman’s Hip Hugg series has a contoured fit for easy carrying against the hip. The Thermos 24 is shaped like a big padded purse, a form that works particularly well for tall containers, such as liter-size soda or wine bottles.

What We Tested
We scoured the shelves of marine hardware, department and sporting goods stores to collect seven different models of soft coolers around the 20-quart size. The brands and models we tested were the Arctic Zone 30 ($19.99), California Innovations Thermalwhiz 36 ($29.99, discounted to about $20), Coleman Hip Hugg 26 ($14.50), Igloo Quick & Cool 24 ($33.49/$14.96), Northpole 24 ($11.99), Pak Chest ($29.95), and Thermos Classic 24 ($18.56/$14.99).

Then we also picked up the hardsided Igloo Legend 24 model ($33.99/$16.99). Most major brands of softcoolers also have a line of hard coolers. (Surprisingly, the market leader, Arctic Zone, does not.) We wanted to get an idea of whether the convenience of the soft cooler comes at the price of more rapid heat loss, which one would expect.

How We Tested
The primary function of a cooler is to keep the inside cold even though the outside temperature may be high. Because the cooling is supplied by the ice in the cooler, a cooler’s job is also to keep the ice inside from melting for as long a time as possible.

We compared the effectiveness of each cooler’s insulation by filling them with a mixture of water and a large block of ice (between about 5 and 8 pounds), and measuring how fast the ice melted. We let all the coolers stand for an hour to allow the ice to cool the water to a uniform 32°F. Performing the test in this manner insured that the temperature inside the cooler would be held at that temperature, with no “hot spots.” Every hour for the next six hours we pulled out the ice, which was held in a plastic mesh bag for drainage, and weighed it. We tested all the coolers at the same time, outdoors, during a warm summer afternoon, with temperatures ranging from a a high of around 85° to a low of about 70°. Variations in temperature affected all coolers equally.

Ice-melting rates are not simply a matter of cooler insulation. Larger coolers will generally allow ice to melt more rapidly, simply because of their greater surface area. At the same time, they also can hold more ice, increasing the length of time that the contents stay cool. As such, a more realistic comparison can be made by dividing the rate of ice melting by the capacity of the cooler.

Results: Losing Their Cool
At the end of seven hours in the summer heat, all of the soft coolers still had ice left in them. In other words, given enough ice, they’ll keep food and drink cool and fresh long enough to be useful for a day on the water.

The basic ice melting rates for the soft and hybrid soft coolers were the following: Arctic Zone, .45 pounds of ice per hour; California Innovations, .52; Coleman Hip Hugg, .50; Igloo Quick & Cool, .43; Northpole, .57; Pak Chest, .27; and Thermos, .57. The hardsided Igloo Legend lost its ice at the rate of .3 pounds per hour. The clear winners were the Pak Chest and the Igloo Legend. But the results are deceiving. The Pak Chest has a completely hardsided interior with a softsided surrounding it, except the hard lid. Like the Pak Chest, the Arctic Zone has a hard interior liner, except on top, which has a soft, zippered lid.

If you are simply lugging ice and don’t care about the collapsible aspect or other factors discussed below, you’d have to go with the Pak Chest or the Igloo Legend, basically the hardsided coolers. Among the true soft coolers, the Igloo Quick & Cool held its cool the longest, but the variation among all the soft coolers was small.

The more meaningful ice melting rate per hour per quart capacity tells a somewhat different story. Comparing cool retention as a factor of capacity, we found the following: The Arctic Zone lost ice at the rate of .02 pounds per hour per quart of capacity; California Innovations, .02; Coleman Hip Hugg, .03; Igloo Quick & Cool, .02; Northpole, .03; Pak Chest, .01; and Thermos, .03. The Igloo Legend lost ice at the rate of less than .02 pounds per hour per quart of capacity. On a capacity basis, two true soft coolers, Igloo Quick & Cool and California Innovations, lost ice at a rate very close to the hardsided Igloo Legend and the hybrid Pak Chest and equal to the hybrid Arctic Zone.

While the Pak Chest did very well in the ice melting test, it does not feel well-made. The poor quality, twist-on plastic top looks like it would invite someone to sit on it and would easily break. The cylindrical shape fits nowhere conveniently and, as a hybrid cooler, it doesn’t collapse for easy transport and storage. It has no straps or handles either. The Arctic Zone is better made, but again, because of the hard interior liner, it can’t collapse. We’d stick with a true hardsided cooler that will hold its cool longer and will stand up to more punishment.

It seems nobody wants to own up to the Northpole cooler. We purchased it at Bradlee’s, a large discount chain, and then tried to track down the maker. Bradlee’s denied they even carried it, and the company listed on the label didn’t have a phone number. It performed weakly and is poorly made. It’s cheap, but not worth the money.

The Igloo Quick & Cool is well made. It has a double-zippered top for full access and a half zippered lid for easy access without letting too much cold out. A dry storage pocket is conveniently zippered into the lid and an outside pocket as well. At $20 at Walmart, it’s an excellent value.

The California Innovations Thermalwhiz combines high quality construction, excellent thermal properties, and a clever design. The cooler collapses down virtually flat, with Velcro straps to hold it together. And the insulation material does double duty, keeping foods hot or cold. You can use it during the day to keep drinks and sandwiches fresh and at night you can bring carry-out food back to the boat to keep it warm. It’s a superior product and value.

Contacts- Arctic Zone, Outer Circle Products, 860 West Evergreen Ave., Chicago, IL 60622; 800/722-2545. California Innovations, 4211 Yonge St., Ste. 610, Willowdale, Ontario, Canada; 888/413-2665. The Coleman Company, P.O. Box 2931, Wichita, KS 67202; 800/835-3278. Igloo Products Corp., P.O. Box 19322, Houston, TX 77224-9322; 800/324-2653. Pak Chest, 4 Sport & Play, P.O. Box 9428, San Diego, CA 92169; 800/938-3838. The Thermos Company, 300 N. Martingale Rd., Ste. 250, Schaumburg, IL 60173; 800/831-9242.

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