During an outdoor adventure, nothing beats having cold drinks and fresh snacks at your fingertips—that’s when a backpack cooler stocked with fueling refreshments can really come in handy. “[It helps] keep my energy levels high while hitting the trails or capturing the perfect sunrise shot,” Carl Broadbent, a hiking guide and travel writer at Travel Spock, tells SELF. Just like a trusty daypack that enhances your treks, the best backpack cooler will become your ultimate summer companion.
What to Look For in a Backpack Cooler
Backpack coolers come in a number of different styles and functions, so the best choice truly comes down to personal needs and preferences.
The size of your backpack cooler matters, so take into account the number of people you’ll be accommodating during the length of your outing. For shorter trips or solo adventures, a compact cooler around 10 to 15 liters might be sufficient. But if you’re planning a day-long excursion with friends or family, consider opting for something a bit larger, like in the 20 to 30 liter range.
The heart of any good backpack cooler is the insulation—it’s what sets it apart from a standard pack. But the quality of insulation can vary dramatically between products, and often plays a large role in determining the price. Some bags are designed with closed-cell foam to provide multiple days of ice retention, but these products can be a bit dense and heavy. Others are built with open-cell foam, which is more lightweight and flexible, but can generally only keep out heat for one day.
A well-organized backpack cooler can make a world of difference in your outdoor adventures. Look for one that has multiple internal sections to help you keep things tidy and easily accessible. (Bonus points if it has external mesh pockets for stashing water bottles or essentials like sunscreen.) Beyond convenience, it’s also a matter of safety: “Compartments prevent the weight from shifting within the backpack, which helps you keep stable footing and spares your muscles and joints from unnecessary strain,” Gavin Dawson, PA-C, a wilderness EMT with Global Emergency Medics, tells SELF.
Consider how you’ll use the backpack cooler and how far you intend to carry it. After all, when you’re on the move, you don’t want to worry about achy shoulders or general discomfort. Will you use it to lug some drinks and lunch to the beach, or are you hiking five miles for a lakeside picnic? If you’ll be traveling any significant distance, “a backpack cooler with a well-padded back panel is crucial for reducing pressure points, plus adding an extra layer of comfort and support against the sharp edges or extreme temperatures of your items,” says Dawson. “This, in turn, improves your physical performance by allowing you to concentrate on the task at hand.” Tip: Look for padded (and adjustable) shoulder straps and a sternum strap to stabilize and better distribute the weight.
Backpack coolers come with different levels of waterproofing. Many heavy-duty products, like the RTIC 30L and IceMule Boss, have welded seals so they’ll keep all water out (and in). Whereas soft-sided coolers, like the Coleman and Tourit, are mostly waterproof, but will leak through the zipper if you aren’t careful. For a day at the park, you probably don’t need something top of the line—but if you want it to bob alongside your tube during a river float, go for one that has full waterproofing.
The best backpack coolers
As a seasoned hiking guide, I’ve had my fair share of experiences with backpack coolers. To help you find the best options, I curated some of my top picks and spoke with fellow outdoor enthusiasts about their favorites—including some from highly-rated brands like Coleman, Camelbak, and Hydro Flask.