Whether you're preparing for an outing with the family and want to store everyone's lunches, or you're heading to a massive rager and need to transport a full case of beer, backpack coolers are the most convenient solution for carrying food and drinks while keeping them cool and fresh. We compared 15 backpack coolers based on their cooling ability, storage space, comfort, and durability. At the end of the day, there's no debate that the Polar Bear Coolers Nylon Backpack is the best backpack cooler. It can keep contents cold for over 24 hours, and it's got enough space to fit lunch for the entire family – or a full 18-pack of beer, depending on your priorities! Article Summary
Whether you’re about to trek up some local mountains or just heading outdoors for the day with a group of friends, storing food and drinks can be a real issue. Unless you feel like canned goods or MRE’s, you will undoubtedly need to find a solution to keep your lunch cool and fresh. While most people just stuff their backpack with a few ice packs and hope for the best (we’ve all been there and done that), there are actual insulated backpack-style coolers designed for these exact situations.
Backpack coolers are one of those beautiful creations that have you pounding your head against the wall going, “Why the heck didn’t I think of that?” As the name implies, these products literally take the insulated concept of a cooler and combine it with the carry-style design of a backpack, giving you an easy-to-carry pack that can hold everyone’s lunches or a full case of beer – all while keeping your contents ice cold throughout the day.
Backpack coolers might have only come around in recent years, but there are already a ton of different options and designs to choose from. Do they all work the same? Like with any type of cooler product, the answer to that is an unfortunate ‘no.’ Some can keep ice solid for several days, whereas others will only keep your food cool for a couple hours.
In search of the best backpack cooler, we compared 15 packs that are commonly used by outdoors specialists. First and most importantly, we looked at designs and materials to see what level of insulation each pack was really offering. After reorganizing our list based on which models offered the longest cooling times, we verified sizes to figure out which options could fit the most food and drinks (we had to make sure they could fit a full case of beer, right?). The three backpack coolers we’ve chosen below not only offer extra-long coldness and a ton of storage space, but they’ve been proven effective in various conditions and environments, making them perfect for any situation.
The best backpack cooler overall
In every outdoors forum on the internet, if you’re looking for the best backpack cooler, everyone’s first response is the Polar Bear Coolers Nylon Backpack. After hours of comparing different options, we’d definitely have to agree. There are several things that make this model worthy of being our top pick, but most importantly, it offers the best combination of storage space and cooling power.
Compared to most other cooler backpacks, this one is definitely on the larger side of the scale. It measures 12″ x 7″ x 18″ which means that you will have more than enough room to store several days worth of food – or a full 18-pack of beer, depending on your priorities! The design of the is extremely practical too; it is fairly boxy in nature, which makes storing items inside much easier. The entire back side of the packs is padded with thick foam for additional comfort. On top of that, they have covered portions of the padding with mesh, allowing your back to have some ventilation. If you’re concerned with style, the Polar Bear cooler comes in a variety of different colors including black, red, navy, and even camo
There are two ways you can carry this backpack. Polar Bear Coolers included the standard back straps, which are well padded and come with adjustable buckles. However, they also included a top side carry handle. The entire thing is made of pretty rugged 1000D nylon that makes it extremely durable to wear and tear, and there is even a locking mechanism on the main compartment zipper that prevents it from opening up on accident. Hardware is made by YKK, so you know that the zippers and buckles won’t give out on you no matter what.
Once you open it up, you will find that the cooling compartment is lined up with a TPU double coated nylon, which is one of the safest options out there at the moment. On top of that, this material is also FDA approved. Behind the liner, there is a layer of high-density foam which is what insulates the content of the backpack. In terms of performance, you are looking at a minimum of 24 hours of keeping any frozen content from melting. Depending on the conditions and environment, many people have been able to stretch this timeframe even further.
When it comes to quality, in terms of both material and performance, the Polar Bear Coolers Nylon Series is the best backpack cooler you can get. The quality does come at a price, but based on how well this thing works and how long it will last (it’s covered by a lifetime warranty), we think it’s a great value.
A more casual-looking alternative
Compared to the Polar Bear backpack, the Coleman C003 Soft Backpack Cooler is a more stylish design but is also quite a bit smaller, which can be both a benefit and a drawback. However, there’s a lot about this backpack which makes it a great choice for casual users.
Looking at the C003 from a distance makes it look just like any other backpack. As a matter of fact, the choice of colors, which include khaki and gray combined with red details, make it fairly attractive. Coleman has designed this with two main storage compartments, one being much larger than the other. On top of that, there is a small outside compartment where you can stick a bottle of water for easy access.
The straps are padded and fairly comfortable, although a bit more padding wouldn’t hurt. However, one cool thing about this pack is that it comes with waist straps. When you load it up to the brim, that waist strap combined with properly adjusted shoulder straps makes the use of the C003 fairly comfortable. Speaking of comfort, the entire back side as well as the straps, are lined with a soft mesh material, which allows your back and shoulders to breathe.
The size of the pack is approximately 19″ x 6″ x 12″. This might be a little on the smaller side compared to our top pick, but in practical terms, you can still store around 20 cans rather comfortably. There are some conflicting reports of this backpack being able to hold 28 cans, but after further investigation (comparing sizes and talking to customers), we found that this is only the case if you are really jamming them in as tightly as possible (which isn’t recommended).
The insulation and protective lining Coleman offers with C003 is also pretty good. We are looking at a heat welded, non-toxic thermal insulation in the main compartment, which allows you to use any kind of ice packs or even ice itself if you choose to. The lining that comes into contact with your contens is antimicrobial in nature, meaning that it eliminates odor, mildew, and mold.
The best thing about this pack is just how affordable it is. Those looking for a low-profile backpack cooler for more casual use will probably find the Coleman C003 to be a perfect solution. On the other hand, if you need something that can get you through a more serious trip out in the wild, our top pick will be a far better choice.
A simple smaller pack
OAGear’s Ultimate Backpack Cooler is designed completely different from our top two picks, and while it isn’t quite as impressive as the other two, it still had a good enough score to land our third spot. This backpack was designed to prevent heat from penetrating the inside of the cooler compartment. If you ever worked with any soft coolers of any kind, the principle is pretty much the same. However, this pack from Outdoor Active Gear offers a lot more than your regular soft cooler does.
OAGear’s Ultimate is pretty well designed. They have essentially gone for the maximum space possible without compromising comfort. The back portion of the pack is padded with both sealed and breathable surfaces. Having three distinct mesh areas ensures that your back will have fairly good ventilation. The straps are a similar story. The padding is fairly thick, but not to a point where it impedes your movement. Mesh webbing also ensures that your shoulders will have at least some ventilation.
Depending on how much food you are preparing to store in the backpack, the lack of a waist strap may or may not be an issue. The fact that they have decided not to include one in the design can be explained by looking at the dimensions of the pack itself. The Ultimate is 12″ x 14″ x 10″, which makes it fairly compact. On the plus side, that makes it easy to carry around; but on the negative side, that means you don’t have as much room to store things.
The backpack itself is made of fairly durable and rugged polyester that comes in plain and rip-stop segments. Honestly, considering the price of the pack, the materials are much better than we would usually expect to see. Speaking of which, this pack is also water resistant. Temperature is maintained thanks to a double heat sealed PEVA layer, and the compartment lined with this material is a pretty average size, as mentioned above. You can place about twenty standard cans of your favorite drink inside, along with ice or ice packs.
While it doesn’t quite have the cooling power or the storage space of our top two picks, the OAGear Ultimate Backpack Cooler is still a great choice for those looking for a simply designed pack at a good price. You can definitely expect this to keep food and drinks cool throughout a single day, but any longer than that you may run into issues.
How we picked our top three
Even though coolers are often considered to be a fairly basic type of product, there are definitely those that work and those that don’t. Because of that, and because of the varying nature of what you’re keep cold (food, drinks, snacks, etc.), we applied a strict set of rules during our selection process. Obviously our most important factor was to make sure the pack could keep content cold and fresh, but there are also other aspects that models had to meet to make our top three.
The performance of a backpack cooler can be measured by its ability to keep your food and drinks cold. That is the main function behind any type of cooler product, isn’t it? Different designs tend to solve the warming issue in different ways, but no matter which way they chose, it has to last. We measured each backpack’s cooling abilities two ways. First, we checked the brand’s specifications (duh), but second, we cross-referenced our findings with numerous user reviews to see whether each pack was actually performing as the manufacturer claimed it would. Some models sadly didn’t quite live up to the hype, but our top three were right on par with their advertised abilities, with the Polar Bear pack often lasting even longer according to users.
The design of the backpack is largely going to determine what kind of use it can support. Some are better for casual use around some basic hikes, while others are ready to handle any type of rugged adventure you throw at it. We tried to cover both ends of the spectrum when choosing our top three by checking the quality of the materials as well as the padding each design provides. The materials tell us how durable the pack will be for the long term, whereas the padding gives us a good idea of how comfortable the pack will be to wear around. Our top three each offered highly-durable materials as well as various assortments of comfort padding and mesh linings for breathability.
The amount of storage space is always something to look at with any type of backpack and any type of cooler, making it especially important when you’ve got a product that combines the two! Since the size that fits your needs largely depends on where you are going and how much food you need to take with you, we made it our goal to offer a variety of dimensions. Our top pick is probably as large as you will want a backpack cooler to be, easily accommodating space for several days worth of food meant to feed more than one person. On the other hand, we have also included smaller packs meant for personal use as well as shorter trips with your friends and family.
Things to consider before buying
We’ve selected a top three based on material and performance requirements, but choosing the best backpack cooler for you will depend on a few more personal choices. We’ve highlighted the important things to consider below so that you choose the perfect cooler for your needs.
How do you plan to use your backpack cooler?
How you plan to use your backpack cooler would be the first important question to ask yourself. Let’s put it this way: if you are going on an extended hunting trip, chances are you will want a more dedicated cooling system that can keep contents fresh for several days at a time. On the other hand, if you are just packing lunch to eat on a local hike, your choice is much more forgiving. By clearly defining the main use you have in mind, you’ll be able to find the perfect fit.
On a similar note, ask yourself what are the consequences of losing all of your food due to your backpack failing? If you can fix the issue by going to a nearby fast food joint, then you can pick just about any model you want. However, if the loss of that food means that you won’t eat for a couple of days, investing into a more secure setup might be worth it for you.
How much storage space do you really need?
Determining the right size of the cooler is far more important than most people think. You need to have a pretty decent idea of how much food you will need to pack on average. That means counting the number of people the pack is meant to accommodate, or the amount of beer cans you’ll want to be able to carry (let’s be honest here, a lot of people are just buying these suckers to store beer!).
With regards to size, there is another aspect that needs to be mentioned. It is always recommended to use some kind of ice packs in order to maintain low temperatures in your backpack. Ice packs come in various shapes and sizes, but you still need to factor in the space these things take. The last thing you want to do is try to jam an ice pack into a cooler that’s already filled to the brim. That is just a recipe for disaster.
Consider your budget
Backpack coolers can vary widely in price – and the worst part is, in most cases, the price is not at all reflective of the performance. Some packs are well into the $100+ range and can barely offer the cooling ability of a model under $40. With that said, the opposite is true as well. We’d recommend picking a cooler based on its size and abilities instead of price, but we do understand that everyone has different budgets. Consider how much you want to spend and whether or not a more expensive model really offers enough value to make it worth your purchase.
A piece of advice when packing your cooler
When you are packing food for a longer camping trip or whatever outdoor activity you have in mind, there are a few things you might want to consider. Do your best to pack foods which are not perishable. Not only does a can of tuna make your life easier, but you won’t have to worry whether or not your backpack cooler is doing its job perfectly.
Another golden piece of advice is to pack only the food you need. We aren’t talking bare minimum, but a comfortable amount that won’t leave you hungry out in the wilderness. By over packing with food, you are essentially risking two things. One is fatigue from having to lug all that extra weight around, while the other has to do with the performance of your cooler.
Wrapping it up
For some, backpack coolers are a piece of gear that is only going to be used once or twice a year. For others, it’s a whole different story. Choosing the best backpack cooler for your needs is going to depend on what you have in mind for that cooler. The top models we’ve chosen offer the best quality in terms of materials and performance, and each comes in different sizes which should allow you to find your ideal amount of storage space. Before buying, be sure to ask yourself exactly how much storage you’ll really need – the last thing you want to do is have too little space and be limited, or have too much space and have to lug a massive pack around.