What Are the 5 Best Portable Coolers?

You’ll be surprised how far we’ve come from the blocky, cumbersome ice coolers of yesteryear

Jul 22, 2015
Outside
Outside Magazine
What Are the 5 Best Portable Coolers?

Your party won't have "the goods" unless you have some way to get them there and store them. That's where these coolers come in.    Photo: Photolyric/iStock

One of summer’s great delights is a cold one after a hot journey, and the age-old practice of stashing a frosty beer at the bottom of your backpack is a spur and reward for finally making camp. There are, of course, do-it-yourself schemes for thermoregulating a bottle of your favorite IPA: wads of aluminum foil or Ziplocs full of ice that tend to burst all over everything. There are also bulky rotomolded chest coolers, which are great—if you have a car to haul one around.

The push for portability has led designers to create lightweight cooler bags, backpacks, and beer hoppers that promise to get you far off the trailhead with enough provisions to share. Some have padded backpack straps for the long haul (maybe not a thru-hike, but definitely a multimile scramble with 50 pounds of food and ice). Look for rugged, high-denier exteriors; water-resistant covers and waterproof seals; and long-lasting insulation schemes, such as an inflatable air gap between food and the hot temps sure to arrive soon. 

IceMule Pro Cooler X-Large ($120)

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  Photo: IceMule

Capacity: 24 cans
Ice Retention: Very good (more than 24 hours)
Exterior Dimensions: 20 x 14 x 11 inches
Volume: 31.7 quarts
Weight: 5.5 pounds

Some coolers are big. Some are portable. IceMule is both—massive and eminently easy to carry—and possesses an incredible insulating ability. It looks like a dry bag with beefy, ventilated backpack straps. But with just a few breaths into a small valve on the bag, you create an air buffer between the 1,000-denier tarp material and the payload to keep it cold for well over a day. (Choose from a range of sizes and special versions for keeping fish.) One downside: Unlike a traditional cooler, you can’t just flip the top open to grab a brew; it has to be rolled tight each time to retain the cold. But there’s also a hidden bonus: The more you drink, the smaller it gets.

Blackburn Local Cooler Saddlebag Pannier ($80)

blackburn-local-cooler_h.jpg
  Photo: Blackburn

Capacity: 12 cans
Ice Retention: OK (less than 12 hours)
Exterior Dimensions: 16 x 14 x 4 inches
Volume: Approximately 16 quarts
Weight: 3.5 pounds

Blackburn’s Cooler Saddlebag—an instant tailgate party for cyclists—provides an insulated bike carrier for a six-pack, a couple bottles of white, or a picnic lunch. We like little details like the sturdy bottle opener mounted to the side and the interior mesh pockets for utensils. The 210-denier exterior is also water resistant in case of sudden downpours. 

Evrgrn 24-Pack Backpack Cooler ($75)

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  Photo: REI

Capacity: 24 cans
Ice Retention: Good (up to 24 hours)
Exterior Dimensions: 18.5 x 13 x 7.5 inches
Volume: 25.9 quarts 
Weight: 2.7 pounds

The Backpack Cooler is part of a new series of REI-designed products called Evrgrn that are all made to work together. The front pocket fits a small bamboo tabletop with stubby legs ($70) and a roll-up rug for crashing out on the beach ($65). The backpack has a waterproof insulated liner that’s removable. Available May 26 in gray or blue. 

BevPod ($34)

bevpod-cooler_h.jpg
  Photo: BevPod

Capacity: 10 cans
Ice Retention: OK (8 hours)
Exterior Dimensions: 13 x 11 x 3 inches
Volume: About 6 quarts
Weight: 3 pounds

As of this writing, BevPod exists as a Kickstarter campaign that promises to fill an important niche: a thin, flat cooler that holds a six-pack inside a backpack. It fits easily in a freezer, comes with a reusable ice pack, and saves space on your journey. BevPod does seem a little heavy at three pounds, and it seems to trade insulating capacity for a small package. But Denver-based engineer Scotty Allen has already made his crowdfunding goal, so if you plunk down $34 now, barring a crowdsource flameout, you should get the CD-case-shaped pod in September.

Mountainsmith Sixer ($22)

mountainsmith-sixer-cooler_h.jpg
  Photo: Mountainsmith

Capacity: 6 cans
Ice Retention: OK (4 hours)
Exterior Dimensions: 9 x 11 x 6 inches
Volume: 10 quarts
Weight: 12 ounces

Coke may have invented the six-pack 90 years ago, but Mountainsmith has given it a home. The Sixer is our way to carry the essentials, whether we’re talking six bottles, 12 cans, or a couple of sandwich pouches. The zippers never get locked up, and the waterproof liner never pees on the rest of your gear. The thin foam insulation is admittedly skimpy, making the Sixer good for a day trip with a midday picnic. Comes in ripstop teal or heavy (19-ounce) hemp.*

*Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Mountainsmith Sixer cost $25 and had oversized #10 YKK zippers.

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