To Hard Or To Soft? How To Choose Between A Soft Sided Cooler And A Hard Sided Cooler

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Let's discuss the soft-sided vs hard-sided cooler dilemma. 

We’ve all faced that dilemma at some point, where we have to decide what kind of cooler to buy and there is a sea of options lying before us. We stare into the abyss, the abyss stares into us, and it sees just how confused we are.

Okay, that may have sounded a little dark, but it demonstrates how difficult it can be to make a choice when you have a plethora of options before you.

It’s one thing to have a ton of options when all you’re looking for is a soft sided cooler or a hard sided one.

If you’re an avid reader of our reviews then you probably already know that there are plenty of options either way and it’s easy to get caught up in all the analysis paralysis.

That said, imagine what happens when you’re trying to decide between hard sided coolers and soft sided coolers and have to deal with all the options on both sides of the street.

Today, we’re going to try and help you out of that conundrum.

Soft Sided vs Hard Sided Cooler

The most important determining factor when deciding between a soft sided cooler and a hard sided one is how you plan on using the cooler in the first place. Sure, both do the same job: they keep things cool.

However, there are a lot of other things involved, like what things you want to keep cool, how long you want to keep them cool for, and in what context you would like to keep them cool. All of these questions matter.

soft cooler or hard cooler

Perhaps the best way to gain some perspective and make a better choice is to have an in-depth look at what each type of cooler is used for and what are their unique characteristics.

Soft Sided Coolers: Daily Basis

best soft coolerThese coolers are highly versatile and perfect for use on a daily basis. This is the kind of cooler you take with you to the sports field, to the gym, to work, to school, to your fishing trip for the day, the golf course, and so on.

They’re called soft coolers because they aren’t made of hard plastic. However, we like to think of it from a slightly different dimension.

They’re also soft-sided coolers because they are perfect for the “soft” side of your life; the side that doesn’t need a heavy-duty cooler designed to withstand the harshest conditions and keep your food and drinks cold for the longest time.

That said, there are a few unique characteristics that all soft sided coolers have:

Soft Coolers are Lighter

Soft-sided coolers are much lighter than hard-sided coolers. The exterior is typically made of fabric or vinyl and weighs much less than the rotomolded plastic you see on hard sided coolers.

They are also much smaller on average, meaning they have a smaller capacity than hard-sided cooler. Most of the weight will come from what you pack the cooler with.

With such little weight, lugging a soft-sided cooler shouldn’t be hard work and that’s part of the reason why they are so perfect for everyday use. That brings us to the other unique characteristic you will find with soft-sided coolers.

Soft Coolers are Highly Portable

orca soft sided coolerThis is a great draw for soft sided coolers. Part of it is because they are lightweight. The other reason why they are so portable is the fact that they come with handy shoulder straps.

A soft sided cooler looks like a regular back pack on the outside. You can carry it around like you would a rucksack or a back pack and the weight will be evenly distributed on your shoulders.

Unlike hard sided coolers, which typically need you to have some kind of vehicle for long distance transportation, soft sided coolers will go with you pretty much anywhere. Since they are strapped to your shoulders, they also leave your hands free to carry anything else you might need to carry. That is what makes them so convenient.

Soft Coolers are Easy to Store

A soft sided cooler has one little benefit that you won’t find in a hard sided cooler: it is collapsible. A hard sided cooler has a rigid shape that remains as bulky as it is whether there is anything in the cooler or not. That means you will need a large space to store the cooler in whether it is empty or full.

A soft sided cooler, on the other hand, can easily be folded or rolled up for storage, which means it will take up a lot less space when empty than when full.

 Examples of Soft Sided Coolers we have reviewed:

Hard Sided Coolers: Adventure Ready

Hard sided coolers are the other side of the coin. They are a great option if you’re going to be rugged environments or need a cooler that will last you especially long when you’re going on those extended trips. Here are some of their characteristics.

Hard Coolers have better Ice Retention

K2 Cooler BuildHard sided coolers have much better ice retention than their soft sided counterparts. This, of course, depends on the brands you’re comparing (check K2 on the picture). However, if you compare brand for brand, the hard sided cooler will have much better ice retention than its soft sided cousin.

Hard Coolers have much greater Capacity

Soft sided coolers are designed to be light and portable. That means they will naturally have a limit to how much they can carry. Carry too much and it will begin to look impractical to carry a soft sided cooler on your back. A hard sided cooler, on the other hand, has no such limits.

Soft sided coolers, because they are designed to carry drinks for the most part, will typically be compared on the basis of how many cans of beer they can carry. Hard sided coolers, on the other hand, are designed to carry both food and drinks for extended periods and will have much greater capacities. You should therefore go for a hard sided cooler if you have greater capacity requirements.

Hard Coolers are more Durable

Pelican ProGear Ice ChestHard sided coolers are more durable than soft sided coolers because of the fact that they are made from hard, rotomolded plastic. They can therefore withstand much more rugged environments than soft sided coolers. So if you spend a lot of time out in the wild, you should go for a hard sided cooler.

 Examples of Hard Sided Coolers we have reviewed:

If you're looking for the best bang for your buck, you might want to check out our full list of cheap roto-molded coolers.

Hard vs Soft Coolers – Conclusion

As you can see, the decision boils down to your needs. Factors such as capacity requirements, extended trips, environmental conditions, and ice retention requirements should help you figure out which cooler is best for you. That said, make sure you go for good cooler brands (like Yeti, Pelican, Orca) whether you want a hard cooler or a soft cooler.


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Greg’s a co-founder of and author of 100+ product reviews and comparisons on this website. When not at work, Greg’s an avid sportsman who enjoys running marathons, loves snowboarding, hiking and discovering new single tracks on his bike.

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