What is the Best Soft Lunch Cooler?


When people typically think of coolers they think of large plastic coolers that are intended to hold large amounts of ice and items.  However, likely the most commonly used application for coolers is for personal use to pack daily lunches.  Sure, these soft lunch coolers don’t fit the usual mold of a cooler.  They aren’t large, plastic, and they don’t hold a ton of items but they are coolers nonetheless!  So what are the best soft lunch coolers?  While these products won’t have the multi-day ice life of their larger counterparts, they can still have a pretty significant variance in performance.  This includes ice life, durability, convenience, and the huge range of features that they come with.  When analyzing soft lunch coolers you have to look at them slightly different than you would a normal full-sized cooler.  Keeping an item chilled for 2 days might not be a big priority, but a comfortable handle and easy storage ability might be. So what makes a soft lunch cooler good or bad?  Before we break down the individual metrics and how they are catered to lunch coolers we have listed our top choices for convenience in the table below.

Best Soft Lunch Coolers

 Igloo Marine Ultra Soft Cooler BagAo CarbonColeman Soft
igloo marine ultra soft cooler bag thumbnailao carbon thumbnailcoleman soft cooler thumbnail
Our Rating4 star3 star3 star
Price by Volume (Amazon)$$$$$$$$$$$$
Ice Life36-48 hours12-24 hours6-10 hours
Our Full ReviewLinkLinkLink

What to Look for in a Soft Lunch Cooler

Ice Life

As mentioned above, having extremely long ice life isn’t a huge priority.  However, you still want a product that will keep your items cold until lunch time or whenever you typically eat.  This not only includes sitting on your office desk but also in more demanding environments such as construction sites where it may be very hot and offer little protection from the sun.  Because of this, it is important to find a lunch cooler that can perform well in all environments.  When talking specific amounts of ice time, we have found that 12-hour ice life is typically plenty but there will be some variance depending on your particular environment and how often you access contents inside the soft lunch cooler.

Portability

Since you will be transporting a lunch cooler to and from work on a daily basis, it is important that it be very portable.  Many people will have to fit their lunch cooler into a restricted spaced such as a cabinet or locker, so having a cooler that is easily stored is a huge pro.  It is also good because you don’t have to worry about carrying around a huge, heavy cooler to and from work every day.

Storage Size

soft lunch cooler storage areas

Sure, a soft lunch cooler doesn’t need a huge amount of storage space but it still needs to have enough for your food, drinks, and any necessary ice or ice packs you have.   In addition, since size and bulkiness are much more important with lunch coolers, having adequate storage space while still being easy to transport becomes a bigger issue.  This is typically accomplished through efficient insulation and quality construction that allows for adequate storage space without resulting in a large and bulky product.  You will find that many soft lunch coolers are very clever in how the incorporate various storage pockets and areas into their products.  Many people will be amazed at just how much stuff they can store in some of these!  In regards to specific storage sizes, we have found that 20 quarts or less is usually an adequate amount for an individual’s lunch needs.

Durability

When considering durability for soft lunch coolers, we have to approach it differently than we would a normal plastic cooler.  Most lunch coolers aren’t going to be able to handle extreme environments like some of the premium hard plastic or metal coolers, and it would be overkill for them to be.  However, since it will be much more mobile than a normal large cooler it does have unique areas that need to be up to the task.  These include the handles, zippers, and Velcro areas since they will be used often.  That being said, it still is important that proper manufacturing processes and high-quality materials are used so as to help avoid any potential cuts or scrapes that could occur on the fabric.

Various Accessories

Side pockets and external storage areas are very important on soft lunch coolers.  Many people want to be able to store all of their items in the lunch cooler, not just food-related.  That’s why many lunch coolers and totes have actually been designed to resemble conventional backpacks or totes.  They offer plenty of storage areas (often non-insulated) for your other items.  Whether or not this is important to you will vary from person to person but it is something that needs to be considered.  You will also see a lot of comfort-related features on soft lunch coolers such as padded shoulder straps and easy grip handles.  This is because the design intent is that you will be carrying these products around a lot, so having something that is comfortable is quite important.

Price

Obviously, the costs associated with these products are quite important.  Since these lunch coolers typically are made of lower-quality materials (compared to many premium coolers) and don’t have the extreme requirements and size of many conventional coolers the prices are a bit lower overall.  However, the cost in dollar per storage quart can be quite high since they don’t store nearly as much.  It is still important to shop around for the best price you can find, however. So now that we have gone over a few considerations that we recommend you consider in your next lunch cooler purchase, let’s go over our favorite choices.  These products do well in most categories, and should be good choices for anybody in the market for a new lunch cooler.  Click on any of the links below to go to our more thorough full-page review for each cooler.

Igloo Marine Ultra Soft Cooler Bag

igloo marine ultra soft cooler bag reviewOur Rating: 

4 star

This product will have some of the best cooling life of any of the soft tops you will come across.  To add to this, it also looks great and has plenty of additional features that make using it very easy.  That being said, there are apparently a few manufacturing shortcuts that were taken (likely to decrease the price) and if you use this a lot it might start to wear out sooner than you had hoped.

Pros: Incredibly good insulation for a soft-side, multiple carrying methods, easy-access top, looks awesome

ConsA bit bulky and heavy, weak zippers and shoulder strap

Read Our Review of Igloo Marine Ultra Soft Cooler Bag

Ao Carbon

ao carbon series cooler reviewOur Rating:

 3 star

We love the styling of this product.  The cooling ability is alright and overall the toughness is acceptable for a soft-sided bag.  It isn’t as clever in utilizing the available volume for storage, however, and the asking price is a bit higher than we would like to see.  It’s still not a terrible choice, however.

Pros: Waterproof, multiple carrying options, strong fabric, very attractive

Cons: A bit large for what it carries, not many external features, a bit expensive

Read Our Review of Ao Carbon Cooler

Coleman Soft

coleman soft cooler reviewOur Rating:

 3 star

We like the overall styling queues of this product, and the manufacturing is of high enough quality to warrant a few seasons of use.  Coleman also did a good job of utilizing the available space so you can fit a lot of things into this for the size.  We do with it had a bit more insulation, however, as the ice life is lower than we would like to see and it may affect its functionality some.  If you can find this product on sale it is still a good buy.

Pros: Look great, a lot of places to store items, plenty of sizes to choose from

Cons: Air easily escapes, exaggeration on how much you can actually store

Read Our Review of Coleman Soft Cooler

Igloo MaxCold Hard Top Gripper

igloo maxcold hard top gripper cooler reviewOur Rating:

 3 star

Another acceptable product with decent looks.  The cooling ability is also more than enough for a typical lunch goer and it is surprisingly mobile for what it can carry.  There are a couple of noticeable weak points in construction, however.  In particular the zipper is prone to breaking.

Pros: Acceptable job at keeping items cool, easy to carry, modern styling

ConsZipper can get stuck easily and there is only one of them, not enough additional features

Read Our Review of Igloo MaxCold Hard Top Gripper

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