May 19, 2022

athens-Travel

For splendid leisure

Best Backpack Coolers (Review & Buying Guide) in 2022

19 min read

The dads of yore could have really used a backpack cooler. In my mind’s eye, I still see the old man struggling on scorched sand — lugging metal folding chairs, thick canvas totes, and a hard case cooler. He lumbered beyond a quarter of a mile on those humidity-soaked summer days with sweat amassing from a scornful brow. He would responsibly set up the family’s basecamp with veins like McDonald’s straws pumping through muscled forearms. His sweat dripped to the sand, forming dark spots like islands around our newly claimed speck of earth. These memories make the lauded comedian Jim Gaffigan’s punchline ring true when he says “why is Dad always in such a bad mood?” In stark contrast to the struggles of the past, today’s fathers can place the heavy burden of six-packs and bologna sandwiches square on their shoulders via the innovative backpack cooler. 

The backpack cooler has changed the game for our ability to bring the party to wherever you go.  Why complete a strongman walk every time you want some ice-cold IPAs in the park? Task & Purpose was able to get my hands on the best lineup of backpack coolers available. So, I set out on a vision quest to find which cooler keeps my beer the frostiest, provides the most comfort and still has the durability to last for years to come. After concluding my tests, it’s apparent my son will reminisce on how effortlessly I hauled the family cooler without breaking a sweat, grinning ear to ear, and ready to take on the next adventure.

Methodology

Having deployed in almost every aspect of Naval Warfare, as well as being an avid outdoorsman, I have an idea of what materials and designs are built to last and perform. I took all that knowledge and came up with a list of the best backpack coolers available today. 

I started my search with trusted brands like Yeti, Coleman, and Igloo. Then, I rounded out the list with some surprises like Icemule, RTIC, and REI — companies you may not recognize as backpack cooler makers. This list has a litany of capabilities, running the gambit from day-use to full-on backcountry adventures. To surmise, I chose the gear that has a good track record and those I would personally want.  

For this review, I tested every backpack hands-on and pitted them against each other to really find out which backpack reigned supreme. If these packs advertised certain capabilities like waterproofing or ice retention, I put them to the test. Every person’s needs in a backpack cooler are different, so I made sure to let you know exactly which pursuits the backpack excelled at to narrow your search.

When I unboxed this beast, my initial thought was she certainly lives up to the mule namesake — ugly enough for half of its genetics coming from an ass. After testing, I found the other half of its DNA hidden under the donkey exterior, where performance capabilities were equal to that of a champion thoroughbred.

The Icemule Boss is noticeably larger than others tested, and coated with the durable muleskin 1,000-denier shell with welded seams that protect against the gnarliest weather. An insulation foam combined with an air valve (you blow into which also makes it buoyant) provides the ultimate in ice retention we tested. The Boss uses a roll-top closure like a dry sack which makes getting in and out of the pack easier than a zippered cooler. Side and front waterproof pockets, MOLLE webbing, an overbuilt handle, anchor points, and a bungee system adorn the tough exterior shell, giving it the capability to truly take on whatever insane scenario you could dream up where cold brews are needed.

When it comes to actually strapping the pack on, padded mesh shoulder and hip straps, coupled with an adjustable chest strap, provide all the security and as much comfort I expect while carrying any semi-rigid form. It was the heaviest of all packs tested, but its durability and waterproofing tip the scales back into the Icemule’s favor.

The Boss essentially laughed at my little camping trip where I tried to put it through some paces. The cooler not only held ice the entire weekend, but it also lasted over five days. The waterproof pockets kept my keys and notebook dry during some late-night rainfall. I eventually strapped the pack on for a 10-mile gravel road bike ride, and it was noticeably heavier and more cumbersome than others tested, and to be honest, the Boss is better-suited for foot travel while forging rivers in a thunderstorm.

The pack unfortunately comes in at a price point of $350. I have concluded through testing that I want a backpack cooler to be a cooler first, and a backpack second. While a more modestly priced cooler pack can do all the things the Icemule offers, the Boss’s performance in ice retention, durability, and ease of use put it at the top of our list. So, if your life’s goal was to hike in 24 of the coldest beers possible to an indigenous tribe of the Amazon rainforest — without question, this is the backpack cooler to take
.

Product Specs


  • Capacity:

    24 cans with 10 pounds of ice

  • Weight:

    7.12 pounds

  • Closure:

    Tri-fold roll-top

  • Color options:

    Light tan Best use: River floats, fly-fishing, backcountry frat party

PROS

Unbeatable ice retention technology

More dry storage than you can shake a stick (or really cold beer) at

Ultra-durability and weatherproofing for any adventure

CONS

Not for the meek, it’s a big heavy-duty oversized pack

Looking at your bank account while sipping ultra-cold beer

Won’t win a beauty pageant (more like best in show at the fair)

My first impression of the Igloo Ringleader was that it’s tough to tell if this pack is even a cooler. The olive drab and black exterior gives off ALICE pack vibes, but the feel of the material, straps, and zippers are more akin to a kid’s school backpack. That being said, I really love this pack. It has suddenly upped my fatherly game becoming the best dad pack I have found to date. Perfect for a day at the ball field or park, you will hardly even notice you’re carrying around a cooler because this thing is so comfortable. At a price point of just $60, you would be hard-pressed to find anything as capable in that same price range.

Igloo lined the main interior with its MaxCold insulation and closed that compartment with a drawstring and flap-style lid that buckles in the front. Adorned on the sides are two insulated zippered pockets for dry storage. On the front is an additional zippered pocket with a mesh liner and a bungee system for additional dry storage. Shoulder straps are thinly padded mesh with multiple attachment points and hell yes to the bottle opener sewn into it. A light removable chest strap is provided, as well as a thin nylon handle to pick the bag up with. The bottom is a black, slightly more durable plastic, that seems waterproof enough. All in all, you get the makings of a rugged look with a hidden cooler and some functionality for everyday life.

While I would not recommend this pack for backcountry use, it is perfectly suitable for my suburban-dad life. There is enough space to carry the family’s lunch and beverages, to include a few extra suds for mom and dad. While the ice retention was the worst we tested, it will still be able to keep everything cold enough for day use. On top of perishables, you still have room in the dry storage compartments for diapers, wipes, change of clothes, and the ability to bungee on a blanket or towel for an emergency diaper change situation. Ok, you get it — I’m a dad, but seriously, this is a capable little pack.

I took this pack to the base pool and track for a little duathlon action. I packed up a lunch, water, swim gear, toiletries, a towel, and a couple of beers (just because), dumped some ice from the fridge on top, and was on my way. There is an incognito feeling when wearing this pack. As I stuffed the perfectly-fitting cooler into the small gym locker, a rush of happiness surged through me, realizing only I knew a few adult spirits were quietly sitting on ice, awaiting my completion of the day’s event. After a short swim and heart-pumping intervals around the oval, I hauled the pack to the truck where I enjoyed a nice little tailgate picnic with some cold brewskies to boot.

While not the most durable pack on the list, the Igloo Ringleader Rucksack just kicks ass for the gray man in the crowd. You can effortlessly pack out cold hops and treats without the attention of an overpriced status symbol on your back. That is why —hands down — Igloo wins the best value of all backpack coolers tested.

Product Specs


  • Capacity:

    24 cans with 10 pounds of ice

  • Weight:

    1.99 pounds

  • Closure:

    Drawstring and buckled flap lid

  • Color options:

    Olivine

  • Best use:

    Taking the kids out

PROS

Too cheap not to have in your arsenal

Plenty of storage for the day

Classic rucksack looks make it unrecognizable as a cooler

CONS

Say goodbye to ice, and hello to a satchel of water after just 30 hours

Questionable durability for any venture beyond the local playground

I first started seeing RTIC products show up at the local Walmart, and I didn’t pay them much mind as they appeared to just be a Yeti knock off. I was pleasantly surprised after weeks of giving the RTIC backpack cooler the business in the wild to learn it not only matches the Backflip Hopper 24 in almost every category we tested, but also surpassed it in some — most notably, in the wallet. They’re reasonably priced at $180, and currently running 10 percent off for military and first responders.

The RTIC stands noticeably taller than most we tested for the 30-can version we tested. It uses a zippered flap lid style opening that is watertight when fully shut. The cooler is a foam insulation that ranked third in our ice retention test behind the Icemule and Yeti. Shoulder and chest straps are padded mesh providing comfort and heat release for long hauls. Additional carry points are sewn into the sides, as well as handles to carry the cooler atop the lid which are Velcroed together. There are four plastic D-rings on the sides and front to affix carabiners or a longer shoulder strap. Finally, a bungee system is adorned to the front — a spec of backpack coolers I have grown to love for affixing small camp chairs or blankets. In the box, you also get a sticker, instructions, and zipper lube.

Under regular camping use, the RTIC stood toe to toe with the Yeti. Ice retention and total capacity are virtually identical. I give the nod to RTIC in comfort with its extra padding on the straps. The Yeti lacks dry storage while the RTIC provides a nice bungee system. I would say the RTIC is large, and a little cumbersome for doing something like biking or scrambling over large rocks — leave that to the smaller packs on the list. Overall, this is an excellent option in the mid-range price zone that will certainly improve your camping, beach, or hiking experiences.

Product Specs


  • Capacity:

    30 cans with 10 pounds of ice

  • Weight:

    5.17 pounds

  • Closure:

    Zippered flap lid

  • Color options:

    Black, tan, blue-grey

  • Best use:

    River floats, beach outings

PROS

Great ice retention

Plenty of carrying capacity

Durable for whatever you throw at it

CONS

No dry storage pockets

No MOLLE attachment areas

This is not your grandpa’s camping cooler. Coleman has applied its vintage styling and performance to the modern backpack cooler of today. Colored in its unmistakable evergreen, Coleman’s backpack is a great companion to the campsite or beach. While small in stature, there is plenty for one or two people carrying picnic essentials. The ultra-thick insulation and TPU liner kept ice for 51 hours based on our testing of regular use in camping conditions.

The shoulder straps and backing have a lightly padded mesh, which are near the bottom of quality on this list. When I loaded up the pack with its maximum beer capacity, the straps were digging into my shoulders and the bottom was very uncomfortable on my lower back. Additional carrying straps that Velcro together are available to lug it around old-school. The same inch-and-a-half webbing of those top straps is sewn onto the front of the backpack, providing some MOLLE-like attachment areas. Coleman sewed in a bottle opener to the webbing because we all know the intended use for this piece of gear. Two four-inch mesh stretchy pockets adorn the left and right laterals of the cooler. A threaded bungee is on top, giving you enough extra cargo space to carry blankets and compact chairs. Rounding out the specs is a front pocket that my hand cannot fit into and is hard to get even a single piece of paper in or out of, rendering it useless.

I took the Coleman 24 Can Cooler Backpack up to Williamsburg, Virginia on the first sunny spring day for a one-day mountain bike trip. I bottomed out the cooler with a couple of Igloo ice blocks and then threw beer, a sandwich, a half-drank Gatorade, and snacks on top. I dumped enough ice from the fridge’s ice maker to get in all the remaining nooks and crannies. My immediate thought was this cooler is small, but the perfect size to fuel my gnar shedding and have cold brews when I was done. I made a note of appreciation for the square flat bottom and the cooler’s ability to stand up straight in the back of the SUV.

Some Amazon review complaints were that it was hard to zip. To me, the zipper feels well-made and sturdy. Dry and wet storage is limited in Coleman’s offering, and it is not the backpack cooler for supplying a little league team of kiddos with drinks and snacks for the ballgame. Most bearded coffee drinkers wearing Carhartt beanies would however approve of this cooler. That’s why this pack won the nostalgia award for reminiscing memories of quality camping gear and developing new products for today.

Product Specs


  • Capacity:

    14 cans with 10 pounds of ice

  • Weight:

    2.77 pounds

  • Closure:

    Square zipper flip-top

  • Color options:

    Forest green

  • Best use:

    Day hikes and short outings

PROS

Compact size goes anywhere your adventure takes you

Thick insulation keeps things cold for multiple days

Webbing for extra attachments, a Velcro handle for easy lifting, and lightly padded mesh straps

Bungee on the flip lid to carry a blanket or minimalist camping chair

CONS

Very limited capacity for cans, mesh side pockets are ok but front pocket is unusable and a complete waste

Bottom of the cooler digs into your lower back when fully loaded

Zipper is not leakproof and spills water onto you when you bend over

My first impression unboxing the Yeti Hopper Backflip was that of quality and ruggedness. Sometimes you get what you pay for, and Yeti’s look and feel are impressive. By merging the Hopper Soft Cooler line with their recent foray into backpacks, Yeti has created a slimmer and taller cooler that bodes well as a backpack. Included in the purchase are zipper lube and detailed instructions for use. Yeti claims the pack is leakproof, so I filled it with a gallon of water, turned it upside-down, and left it overnight. Aside from some moisture-wicking at the zipper fabric, it was bone-dry beneath the cooler.

The pack is minimalist in nature, with just four attachment strips adorning the front and sides, along with four sturdy one-inch webbed lifting handles. The cooler compartment is large enough to accommodate most anything you’re trying to haul. It did feel like it was overkill when I loaded it up for a day, fueling myself through an early morning swim and afternoon run workout. I barely used up a quarter of the space for all the liquids and food I needed. This included an ice block and about three pounds of ice. The cooler is tough, has superior coldness, and is still fairly comfortable to wear.

The situational crux is deciding if the price is a valid investment for something that really has a niche application. The ideal use for this backpack cooler is bringing a lot to the party when the party involves multiple river crossings. To compete with the Icemule Boss, Yeti would have to throw in the sidekick attachment for free to gain some waterproof dry storage. However, for my family and personal use, the Backflip meets my expectations for a backpack cooler.

Product Specs


  • Capacity:

    24 cans with 10 pounds of ice

  • Weight:

    5.42 pounds

  • Closure:

    Square zipper flip-top

  • Color options:

    Charcoal, aquifer blue, coral, harvest red, highland olive, navy, sagebrush green

  • Best use:

    Fishing excursions, faraway picnics, hot beach days

PROS

Extremely tough

Dryhide shell provides excellent durability

100 percent leak-proof zipper does not spill water out Really good ice retention lasting three days under normal camp use

More than enough space to nourish a family of four for multiple days

Strong webbing for attachments and removable hip and chest straps

CONS

No dry storage

Expensive at over $400 for most colorways

No vented or cushioned padding on the straps and backing

Hitchpoint grid system doesn’t accept MOLLE packs

REI’s Cool Trail Pack Cooler is a 40-liter pack that forgot it’s a cooler. It almost seems like REI designed a day pack and at the last-minute thought “you know, a cooler would fit really well in this pack!” The thickly padded and fully adjustable hip belts, shoulder straps, and backing are second best in comfort behind the Igloo Ringleader Rucksack. At a maximum beer capacity of 49 brews, it also provides the most space for wet and dry storage of any pack tested. If your goal is to take cold beer to the furthest stretches of trail imaginable, this is the backpack cooler for you.

The cooler is beyond a bargain for how much it brings to the beach, park, or camp outing. I took this pack camping and tested it on the trails while hiking with my son. Despite the non-square bottom, the pack stood up on its own on the table. It was packed with an ice block on the bottom and then filled to the brim with beer, most of our camp food, and finally topped with 10 pounds of ice. The ice retention is not great with the Trail Pack, only holding cubes for 36 hours under normal camp use conditions. When I took off on trails is where the Co-op really shined. It felt just like any rucksack or large overnight camping backpack I had worn. With all the extra storage options, I was able to place my son’s water bottle and trail snacks into the convenient side pockets. Somehow, a pint of whiskey made its way into the side pockets as well — cheers REI!

While hiking, I noticed some water leaking from the bottom of the pack, dripping onto my legs. This was due to the soft cooler insert spilling water into the pack as I leaned over to remove rocks from my four-year-old son’s poor choice of trail shoe — croc’s. I had told him prior to stepping off to put his boots on, so either have kids who actually listen to you or you run the same risk of spillage that occurred to me when hiking with REI’s backpack cooler.

Product Specs


  • Capacity:

    35 cans with 10 pounds of ice

  • Weight:

    3 pounds 3 ounces

  • Closure:

    Drawstring under the lid, removable soft cooler with zipper

  • Best use:

    Long distance hikes to remote desert parties

PROS

Heavily padded hip belt and shoulder straps

Superior dry storage areas

Removable soft cooler, doubles as a day pack

Front lash straps allow for easy blanket or camp chair attachment

CONS

Chest strap easily pops off and it’s hard to get back on

Non-leak proof soft cooler insert spills into the pack when you lean over

Types of backpack coolers

There are a lot of choices nowadays, as every cooler and backpack company seems to make a foray into the backpack cooler market. For us, you can break these packs into two basic categories to narrow your search: waterproof and recreational backpack coolers.      

Waterproof

These are the top-of-the-line coolers with the capability to endure white rapids and have the necessary tie-down anchors to keep them in place. With these types of packs, you can traverse rivers and endure anything mother nature can throw at you, all while retaining ice at a premium rate, and keeping whatever’s inside safe and secure.    

Recreational

These are built to fuel you for the day’s adventure. The non-waterproof nature of them makes them more comfortable to wear, but their durability also takes a hit. Not worrying about possibly being submerged in water, they cater to the population that is taking a trip to the park, beach, or trailhead that isn’t so worried about keeping things cooled down for days on end.      

Key features of backpack coolers

Ice retention

In the event you’re trekking the Mojave desert, ice retention could mean life or death. However, I have found that for most day trips, if my ice melts over the course of having a great time, it performs just as intended. When choosing the right cooler, ask yourself how hard is it going to be to get more ice? Is having ice necessary to complete your endeavor? If the plan is to head to the backcountry and rough it for three or four days, the only way to keep ice is with a superior pack that is going to cost more money.       

Size

Backpack coolers tend to tell you how many cans they can hold with 10 pounds of ice. They have different models with the usual suspects of 20-, 24-, and 30-can models. We tested a wide variety on this review to give you an idea of what size may work for you. 

Shape 

The shape of the cooler pack actually ended up being a bigger factor than I had anticipated.  The more rigid coolers (quite frankly) just don’t ruck very well, but they perform well in the ice retention test. The softer coolers form better to your body and are generally much easier to lug around for longer infills, but at a greater loss of ice over time. The longer and narrower backpacks provide a lot of comfort as well, but reaching down into them can be a struggle. My best advice is to find something that works for your body type, and deal with the ease of use when it’s time to pop a top.        

Dry storage

Consequently, on any trip you’re going to need more than ice-cold liquids. Dry storage is your compass for ensuring a successful venture. Backpack coolers have many options when it comes to stowables, and I implore you to choose one with opportunities to pack out more than perishables. Having safe storage of your phone and camera on a long trip could be the buying difference in some cases.             

Weight

Backpack cooler weight is important because carrying beverages and ice is already heavy. I also found there is some correlation between ice retention and weight. Here is the weight breakdown for the coolers we tested.

Pricing considerations for backpack coolers

Budget

There are plenty of choices out there under $100 dollars if you know what you are looking for.  On our list, the Igloo Ringleader Rucksack Back Cooler, Coleman 24 Can Backpack Cooler, and the REI Co-op Cool Trail Pack Cooler are all in this price category and are excellent choices for entry into the backpack cooler realm. Performance dropped for the budget backpack coolers in durability, weatherproofing, and ice retention. Besides that, we were impressed with their capability. If your activities aren’t that extreme, I would recommend picking a cooler in this range. 

Mid-range

Between $100 and $250 is where the RTIC Backpack Cooler lies, and it rules this price range.  At these price points, you begin to get the weatherproofing we’d expect from harder cased coolers. The RTIC is much cheaper than the Yeti, and basically handled everything we threw at it. Unless you are going for certain aesthetics that only premium models offer, the RTIC is this gear reviewer’s choice.     

Premium

When the adventure requires a greater level of trust between you and your gear, this is where you should be shopping. The Yeti Backflip Hopper 24 and the Icemule Boss are going to be serving ice-cold beverages whatever the weather throws at you. At the premium level over $250, you are getting a really reliable backpack with a superior cooler. The blending of these two worlds is key, and the higher-priced packs simply performed better.          

FAQs on backpack coolers

You’ve got questions. Task & Purpose has answers.

Q: What should I look for in a backpack cooler?

A: Based on my experience, you should look for something that functions as a cooler first and backpack second. After that, consider comfort and ruck-ability. That means you can trust your cargo is going to get there as cold as possible.    

Q: Can you put ice in a cooler bag?

A: Yes, stuff as much ice as you can fit into your backpack cooler. A cooler bag is going to need some sort of cold apparatus to maintain temperature, so ice bricks or ice packs are another great option because you won’t have to worry about leaks. A frozen water bottle works great as well.    

Q: How do you keep your cooler cold the longest?

A: Pre-chilling the cooler is a necessary first step. Get your cooler into the cold garage, actually place it in the fridge or freezer, or sacrifice a bag of ice placed inside. Once chilled, line the bottom with ice bricks, then ice and your food or drinks, and finally top off the contents with more ice bricks. Pre-freezing your perishables will prolong the coldness in your cooler, too.

Task & Purpose and its partners may earn a commission if you purchase a product through one of our links. We independently evaluate gear by putting products in the hands of subject matter experts. The products we test may be purchased by Task & Purpose, our staff, or provided for review by a manufacturer. No matter the source, our testing procedures and our assessments remain free from third-party influence. Learn more about our product review process.

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