Why a Cooler Backpack Is My New Favorite Travel Essential
For all of life's little (and big) adventures, take this top-rated soft cooler backpack for a spin.
I’m always on the move. You can typically find me at a festival in the park or on a quest to find an elusive ingredient at the farmers market. When I moved into a downtown apartment two years ago, I started walking way more and began to eliminate more trips in the car as I adapted to my new neighborhood.
This meant I also had to get smarter about portable storage. There’s nothing quite like attempting to carry a week’s worth of groceries uphill in 90-degree heat. After a few of these misadventures left me with runny cream cheese and smashed loaves of bread, I started researching cooler backpacks and ended up spending most of the summer testing them.
While there are dozens and dozens of soft coolers on the market, finding a true cooler backpack can be a bit more of a chore. The first time you crack open a cold beverage at camp or the beach, or when hunger suddenly strikes in the car, you’ll find it was a worthwhile endeavor. Their insulating properties help them keep food and drinks cold for hours, while their portability means you can take them anywhere.
Whether you're headed to the pool, beach or park, these soft, insulated cooler bags and rugged, hard-sided coolers are quick to pack, easy to tote and super stylish.
Most cooler backpacks on the market come in a few different sizes, with the most common size being around 15 to 30 liters for a medium backpack (which can hold about 20 to 40 cans) or 50 liters for a large backpack. Medium-sized cooler backpacks are perfect for day trips, picnics and pool days, while larger options are great for long camping trips or beach days with big groups. Remember that if a backpack has a can capacity listed, the listed capacity is often without ice, so you may want to go for something bigger depending on your needs. When shopping, also look for watertight seals and how long the backpack can keep things cool. Keep in mind that frequent opening and closing of the backpack, especially in hot weather, will affect how long it takes the ice to melt.
I put three cooler backpacks to the test: the Hydro Flask Day Escape, the RTIC Backpack Cooler and the MIER Roll-Top Backpack Cooler. I took them on road trips, to the beach, on picnics and to the grocery store, plus put them through two more structured tests:
Ice Test: I filled the backpack coolers with ice and drinks, and left them on the patio on a hot summer day to see which stayed cold the longest.
Watertight Test: I filled the cooler backpack with water, closed the zipper and flipped the backpack upside down to check for leaks.
With a 30-can capacity (plus a bag of ice!), the RTIC Backpack Cooler keeps drinks and snacks cold for 36 hours. The zipper's water-tight seal ensures you don't need to worry about spills on your adventures. It features extra padding on the back and lumbar area for a comfortable, hands-free fit, and also also comes equipped with two carrying handles on each side for even greater portability.
The zipper's watertight seal ensures you don't need to worry about spills on your adventures. I filled it with water and turned it upside down, even shook it, and it didn’t leak. This also helps with the backpack’s cooling properties; while the RTIC backpack and Hydro Flask Day Escape backpack both shared this feature and kept ice frozen and drinks cold for around the same amount of time, but I found that the MIER cooler backpack leaked and the ice melted first – its Velcro, roll-top design actually works against it in that regard.
I like the top-loading design of the RTIC backpack cooler — once unzipped, it flips up like a traditional cooler, so the inside has ample space for stacking cans and small containers of food. This also makes it easy to pack and easy to open and close while you’re on the go compared to the Hydro Flask backpack, which is smaller and has a narrow opening, or the MIER backpack, which you have to roll up and buckle each time.
One thing that I and other reviewers on RTIC's website noted is that because of the design and placement of the zipper, you really need two hands to open it. That means reaching over the backseat on a road trip to grab a drink is going to require a bit more effort than the smaller Hydro Flask backpack, which has a more narrow opening on top of the backpack. I think the trade-off of getting a little bit more storage space inside the backpack is worth it, though.
You may find the RTIC backpack cooler zipper a little stiff at first, but it gets easier to use over time; the backpack also comes with a small bottle of lubricant to help loosen it up. The empty backpack is also easy to clean and dries quickly. I wipe it clean with either soap and water or a paper towel and a little bit of alcohol. It’s already endured plenty of spills and so far it hasn’t left any lingering odors.
The RTIC backpack’s weakness is that it doesn’t have any extra pockets, but the addition of pockets could make it bulkier and more difficult to carry. (And keep in mind that when full the backpack is very heavy.) Even without the pockets, it’s a great backpack that I can see gracing many beach trips, farmers markets and pool days.
Speaking of pools, there's one promoted feature on the RTIC cooler I couldn't resist testing — it floats. Since I didn't have any water-based activities planned, I took it down to my pool. After wading through the shallow end of the pool with the backpack, much like a mother teaching their child to swim, I am delighted to report that it does float. You can see in the image below that it floats on its side; since when closed the zipper is on the backside, it would make it difficult to open if you were in the water. For that reason, I wouldn't consider this a "true" floating cooler that you could float down the river solo, or keep in the pool, but you don't have to worry about it if falls into the water. The mesh straps and padding get pretty damp, but dry quickly, especially in the hot sun.
HOW IT STACKS UP
The Hydro Flask Day Escape is a great backpack with excellent insulating properties that you would come to expect from the Hydro Flask brand, but with a smaller size and higher price point (it's the most expensive on the list), you get more backpack for your buck with the RTIC. That being said, if you don't need a lot of room and are looking for something slim and super-portable, this may be the better pick for you.
Though significantly less expensive than the RTIC and Hydro Flask soft coolers, the MIER Roll-Top Backpack Cooler doesn't have a true watertight seal and doesn't keep beverages cool as long. Its roll-top design leaves a lot of space for all your drinks and snacks, but reopening and closing it can become a bit of a chore, especially if you're at the pool or beach where multiple people might be frequently trying to fish drinks out of it. It does have one thing its peers don't: pockets!