Whether you’re setting out for a few hours of fishing in calm waters or a day-long trip down a river, few things are more important than a reliable store of food and drinks to keep your energy up.
With the dozen different ways, your rations could get ruined while out on your kayak, such as getting spoiled by the heat or taking a spill into the water, having the right container is essential. So in this buyer’s guide, we’ll be taking a look at the best kayak coolers on the market in 2021.
What sets a kayak cooler apart from a regular one?
To put it simply, a good kayak cooler is one that can keep its contents safe and fresh despite the rugged conditions out on the water. And since there are a lot of different things people do while out kayaking, there’s a wide variety of different kayak coolers as well.
Given the wide range of purposes these coolers are used for, it would be a misconception to think that there’s a single cooler that’s best across the board. Rather, different models excel in different circumstances.
To find the best kayak cooler for you, you’ll need to consider how you plan to use it. You might end up with different coolers for different activities, and that’s nothing to worry about. After all, the most important thing is keeping whatever’s in the safe.
While we do have some specific recommendations which we’ve listed below, we’ll also walk you through some of the main things to consider when choosing a cooler. This way, even if we missed a few models, you’ll be able to find one that suits you best.
Table of Contents
- What sets a kayak cooler apart from a regular one?
- A Quick Look at the Best Coolers for kayaking
- Reviews of The Best Kayak Coolers 2021
- 1. Yeti Hopper Flip 12 – Best Soft Cooler for Solo Kayaking
- 2. ORCA 20-quart cooler – Best Hard Cooler for Solo Kayaking
- 3. RTIC Soft Pack 30 – Large Soft Cooler that Does Not Sweat
- 4. ORCA 58-quart cooler – Best Large Hard Cooler for Kayaking
- 5. Arctic Zone Titan Deep Freeze Zipperless Cooler – Best Kayak Cooler for Budget-Conscious Users
- 6. ICEMULE Pro backpack cooler – Best Rolling Cooler
- 7. Engel USA Cooler/Dry Box – Affordable Kayak Fishing Cooler
- 8. Intex Mega Chill II – Best for Tubing
- 9. CreekKooler Floating Cooler – Best Floating Cooler for Kayak
- 10. CleverMade SnapBasket – A Collapsible Cooler Bag
- How to choose a kayak cooler - Buyer's Guide 2021
- Final Notes
A Quick Look at the Best Coolers for kayaking
Before we dive into our reviews, here’s a list of what we came up with. Each of these coolers has something to recommend it over the others, whether it’s superior performance in one aspect or features that make it particularly well-suited to certain activities or situations.
Ice Retention (days)
*For model tested; other sizes are available
Reviews of The Best Kayak Coolers 2021
1. Yeti Hopper Flip 12 – Best Soft Cooler for Solo Kayaking
The Yeti Hopper Flip 12 is a high-end soft case portable cooler. It’s on the small side, with the “12” in its name standing for the dozen cans of beer or other drinks it can hold.
The Hopper Flip 12 touts the same assurances as other Yeti products. It’s durable, stylish, mildew- and waterproof, compatible with a range of Yeti accessories, and capable of storing “ice for days,” as the tagline goes.
That last point is something of an exaggeration, as taglines tend to be. Ice stays solid in the Flip Hopper 12 for a full day with ease but generally melts toward the end of the second day. Their Yeti Ice packs can improve this performance, though they cost a lot given the relatively small boost they provide.
That said, this mini kayak cooler’s insulation is good enough to keep its contents cold for a day, even under direct sunlight.
Where this model really shines, though, is in its portability. With the volume at just under a foot cubed, it’s the perfect size for day trips, especially if you like to go it alone on the water.
The build design of the Hopper Flip 12 is great for carrying around. The soft exterior won’t bruise you even if carried close to the body. You can attach a carrying strap for greater ease of use. A mounting rack on the broader face allows you to attach other Yeti accessories, like a waterproof carrying case, so you can store electronics on it, as well.
Despite this inconvenience, the cooler provides good value overall—though at a steep price. Although in most cases “expensive” is relative, Yeti’s price point is far enough above average to bear mentioning. This cooler will cost you.
Overall: Best Solo Soft Cooler
With its compact and versatile frame, the Yeti Hopper Flip 12 is a great choice for short adventures taken alone. It’s extremely portable and durable while being easy to handle—and with some accessorizing, it can provide storage for both rations and equipment.
Its compact frame also makes it a good choice for fishing.
2. ORCA 20-quart cooler – Best Hard Cooler for Solo Kayaking
If you’re in the market for a small or solo-use cooler but want something with a hard shell, then the Outdoor Recreational Company of America (ORCA) 20-quart cooler is your best bet.
ORCA is another high-end cooler brand, well-known for the quality of its products. Its cooler lineup has somewhat fewer options than its counterparts in Yeti—the two are often considered rivals of a sort—but it ORCA sets itself apart with certain qualities in design and construction.
The ORCA 20 quart cooler is the smallest of the brand’s lineup. It’s just over a foot long, slightly smaller in its other two dimensions and capable of storing around 15 standard cans with ice. This particular model sports a steel handle, which is not found in larger sizes.
All the ORCA coolers sport top-quality design: they’re durable, easy-to-use, and they look great.
But what really sets this brand apart is its insulation.
While most coolers, even among high-end brands, have two-inch walls, ORCA’s lineup has walls three inches thick. This added material has significant effects on insulation and ice retention times. On top of that, its lid features a cold-sealing gasket, to make sure that cold air stays inside and hot air keeps out.
While most other coolers manage to keep ice up to two to three days, ORCA coolers can manage around four to five days in good conditions. It’s not quite the seven days that some ORCA fans tout, but it’s still a good deal longer than any of the alternatives.
This added insulation does weigh it down quite a bit, though. ORCA products are consistently heavier than their counterparts in the same size range. This is especially relevant in smaller coolers designed for solo hobbyists, but at 17 pounds, the ORCA 20 quart cooler is still very portable.
Overall: Best Solo Hard Cooler
The ORCA 20 quart cooler is the best small-size hard cooler you can get. While hard coolers aren’t quite as portable as their soft counterparts, they make up for it in ruggedness and durability (and serving better than improvised tables).
If you’re looking for a cooler to use on short trips, by yourself or with a small group, the ORCA is among your best choices. It’s a bit pricey, but a bit cheaper than the alternatives from Yeti.
3. RTIC Soft Pack 30 – Large Soft Cooler that Does Not Sweat
RTIC Soft Pack is a generally reliable line of soft cooler bags. They’re solid all around and fairly affordable, making them easily our top choice among the best kayak cooler bags.
The Soft Pack is available in three sizes: 20, 30, and 40. We’ve chosen the middle size because we find it’s just right in its capacity, able to fit 30 standard size cans. That said, the points in our evaluation hold true for the other sizes; just choose one that fits your needs.
If you’re looking for a soft cooler, you’d generally want it to be lightweight and easy to transport—the usual reasons people pick them over hard shell types.
In these regards, the RTIC Soft Pack doesn’t disappoint. While the 30 is somewhat heavy at around four pounds, that’s still lighter than most models its size. The weight is there for good reason, though: the Soft Packs come with a reinforcing lining that helps them retain their form despite their size.
And what about ease of transport? The Soft Pack clears this as well: with a pair of grab handles as well as a carrying strap, the Soft Pack is easy to move from house to car to boat and everywhere in between. A series of hoops running on the broadside also lets you attach accessories and other containers.
It’s worth noting that the handles, straps, and hoops aren’t as durable as one might hope, considering they’re stress points. If anything about this cooler is likely to wear out from use, it’s these.
What really sets this apart from the competition, though, is its ice retention.
RTIC claims that the Soft Pack can keep ice for up to five days. This is true, with emphasis on “up to.”
That’s nothing to scoff at.
Overall: Best General-Purpose Soft Cooler
With its remarkable ice retention and overall build quality, we readily recommend the RTIC Soft Pack series to anyone looking for a general-purpose cooler bag. The 20 and 30 are great for medium-sized groups, while the 40, while bulky, is great for large groups or especially long trips.
The only real limit here is that there are no super portable or personal-size options, like the Yeti Hopper Flip 12.
4. ORCA 58-quart cooler – Best Large Hard Cooler for Kayaking
Looking for a high-capacity cooler that’s a bit more solid?
Much like its smaller counterpart, the ORCA 58-quart cooler is an excellent example of a high-volume hard cooler.
This ORCA is remarkable for much the same reasons. It’s built to last, it provides great value for its price, and, most of all, it has unbeatable insulation.
There are some people who hold that the size of a cooler affects how long it can keep ice in it. More ice means more mass, which means a longer chill—or so goes one argument. But tests have shown that this isn’t quite the case.
What really affects ice retention is how much ice is present relative to the overall capacity of the cooler. If there’s more air in a cooler relative to the ice, more heat from the air transfers into the ice, melting it. That’s what you have to watch out for.
That said, with proper ice levels, the ORCA 58-quart cooler can readily retain ice for as many as five days.
Overall: Best High-Capacity Hard Cooler
If you’re looking for a cooler that keeps things cold and keeps them safe, without much qualms about the bells and whistles, then this could well be the cooler for you. With solid construction and ORCA’s unrivaled insulation design, this model stands out in its category.
5. Arctic Zone Titan Deep Freeze Zipperless Cooler – Best Kayak Cooler for Budget-Conscious Users
You might have noticed that we’ve mentioned zippers a few times in other entries—especially how hard it usually is to open or close them all the way.
If you’ve ever found yourself wanting a soft case cooler but not wanting to deal with clunky zippers, then you’re apparently not alone. There are enough of you out there that Arctic Zone designed a cooler along those lines.
The Arctic Zone Titan Deep Freeze Zipperless Cooler is a medium-capacity (30 cans) soft case cooler whose lid doesn’t rely on zippers, which most soft coolers use. (Contrary to the name, though, there are some zippers; they’re just not used for the lid.)
The Titan Deep Freeze Zipperless performs solidly in most respects. Its soft exterior is supported by a durable frame. It features a smart shelf, which can keep a few drinks near the top for easy access. A padded carrying strap makes transport a breeze and side compartments allow for extra storage. The signature flip-and-latch lid is, of course, much easier to open than a zippered one.
But there’s got to be a catch, right?
Overall: Best Zipperless Soft Cooler
It is, admittedly, a niche recommendation—but far be it from us to complain about people who know what they want.
If you’re looking for a high-quality soft cooler and don’t want to deal with the hassle of stubborn zippers, you should definitely consider this one. Granted, you should be ready to accept that it won’t keep contents cool for quite as long.
6. ICEMULE Pro backpack cooler – Best Rolling Cooler
If you’re the type who has kayaking as just one of many activities on a single trip, you might not have the luxury of lugging around most of the coolers on this list. Even small-sized ones can weigh heavily on your shoulder after a while.
The ICEMULE Pro provides a solution to this problem with its backpack-style design and lightweight build.
The ICEMULE Pro is a medium-size cooler, though, after a few hours on the road with it, you might be led to think otherwise. With a pair of shoulder straps that fasten across the front, this cooler is a lot easier to move with than others in its category.
Its carrying capacity isn’t anything to shrug your shoulders at either. It’s big enough to fit 30 cans. The roll-up top means that you can close it quite snugly over that, while also having fairly easy access to the contents.
The cylindrical shape and compact frame make it easy to stow the bag in your kayak when you’re out on the water. The larger models can be strapped to the deck instead.
If there’s one aspect the ICEMULE Pro struggles with, it’s insulation. Thanks to the lightweight build an unconventional opening, it doesn’t control temperature quite as well as other coolers. It’s capable of retaining some ice up for up to two days, but its best performance only holds up for just over one day. Compared to other soft coolers, the ICEMULE Pro doesn’t offer a lot by way of other functions, either; no extra pockets or cup holders here.
Overall: Best for Portaging, Overland Treks
If your kayak adventures feature a lot of trekking or hiking—either to get to the next shoreline or as an end in itself, you may want to consider the ICEMULE Pro. While its insulation won’t last as long as other coolers, its ease of carrying more than makes up for this if you walk a lot.
7. Engel USA Cooler/Dry Box – Affordable Kayak Fishing Cooler
The space constraints on board a kayak can be especially difficult when it comes to fishing, what with all the equipment there is to carry. Engel’s line of kayak fishing coolers/dry boxes with built-in rod holders are a welcome solution to this problem.
Engel isn’t quite as well-known as Yeti and ORCA, but it has a solid following among outdoorsmen. Its lineup of coolers is built to be compact, sturdy, and efficient with space. For easier use while on outdoor adventures, they feature add-ons like the aforementioned fishing rod holders, as well as carrying straps.
It’s worth noting that Engel emphasizes the “dry box” function in the name of this particular product line. While they also produce dedicated coolers in their Deep Blue series, their cooler/dry box line is designed to be a hybrid series good for the road—if not quite as dedicated to insulation.
The tradeoffs can be seen in ice retention. Engel dry boxes retain ice for somewhat shorter periods than dedicated high-end coolers. Usually, this means around two to two-and-a-half days. It’s not a big difference, but it’s worth noting nonetheless.
Another point in Engel’s favor is its relatively low cost. An Engels cooler/dry box will cost you around one-half to one-third of the price of a similarly-sized model, depending on which exact types you’re comparing. Considering its performance is a close match, that makes it a good choice for those who don’t prioritize prolonged ice retention.
Overall: Best Cooler for Kayak Fishing
You must’ve seen this coming, right?
The Engels series is a great choice if you’re looking for a cooler that can also help with managing your equipment. The smaller sizes in the lineup are particularly good, since they’re more compact—even more space to keep everything from bait to lures to spare materials.
8. Intex Mega Chill II – Best for Tubing
Are you more into tubing than kayaking? Or does your group prefer relaxed days on calm water?
If these describe your situation—or if you’re just looking for a lightweight, inexpensive cooler to drift along with you on the water—then the Intex Mega Chill II may be the option for you.
Like other floating coolers, the Mega Chill frees you from having to worry about the limited space on board your kayak. As an inflatable floating cooler, it also largely spares you the trouble of figuring out how to pack it in your car or store it at home.
When inflated, however, the Mega Chill II is four feet long and almost as wide, making for some considerable capacity. It can hold 48 quarts or, in practical terms, 72 standard size cans. On the outside, it has six cup holders for easy access to opened drinks. Plastic handles also make it easy to handle or to secure ropes.
That said, while it has some serious capacity, this cooler’s really built for more leisurely purposes. While it can go over fairly rough water without bursting or tipping over, its shape contributes quite a bit of drag.
Some people get around this by putting another cooler inside. It’s a bit circuitous, but if you already have a cooler and just want to get it to float, this may be a viable solution for you (after all, the Mega Chill II is far from expensive).
Overall: Best Tubing Cooler
If you’re looking for a floating cooler for leisurely water activities, then the Intex Mega Chill II is for you. Lightweight but with great capacity, it’s a great solution with a very compelling price point.
And while it’s not incapable of handling rough water, it’s still not as durable as other coolers on the market. Also, take note of its shorter ice retention span.
9. CreekKooler Floating Cooler – Best Floating Cooler for Kayak
Floating coolers get around the usual space constraints that come with most kayak coolers. As you might expect, though, having a free-floating cooler introduces a range of other problems and considerations.
We’ll get to those in a while. For now, it’s worth noting that the CreekKooler Floating Cooler is a standout in its category, circumventing most of the common design problems in coolers of its type.
The CreekKooler Floating Cooler is just over three feet long and sports a 30-quart capacity. Its oblong shape is vaguely reminiscent of a kayak, as well, and this design keeps its top well above the water at all times. The cooler takes full advantage of this, offering a wide, easy-to-use opening and four cup holders topside. The bottom is flat enough to balance it on a surface, which makes it viable for use out of the water, too. A pair of handles, used for carrying it or attaching ropes to it, round out the external features.
The model’s design also helps it in one area most floating coolers struggle with: handling in the water.
Unlike many other coolers, this one rides the water with ease. Its boat-like shape means it adds minimal drag to your kayak and it would take really rough waters to tip it over.
Finally, while the CreekKooler is somewhat more expensive than other floating coolers, its superior handling and durability make it well worth the price for those who need those features.
Overall: Best Kayak Cooler That Floats
If you want to hit the water without worrying about the space constraints of your kayak, then this cooler is for you. With its excellent handling and durability, it will follow you wherever you row.
It’s an especially good choice for anglers and outdoorsmen, who’ll best be able to maximize its performance in rough waters. It can also serve as a reliable live well for long fishing trips.
10. CleverMade SnapBasket – A Collapsible Cooler Bag
Have you ever found yourself thinking that hauling a cooler along was a pain—after all its contents had been finished?
Collapsible coolers provide all the functions of a standard cooler with the added benefit of folding for easy carrying or storage when empty. The CleverMade SnapBasket takes this sort of clever thinking and runs away with it, offering a lot of little perks that add up to an attractive package.
The SnapBasket, as the name suggests, snaps open or closed, which lets you fold it for easy storage; it goes from a foot tall when expanded to 2.75 inches folded. The collapsible frame is covered by a rip-stop fabric, which is sturdy enough for most uses, even outdoors. The interior lining is loosely attached to the frame, making it easy to clean and keeping the storage process simple.
On top of this, there are a number of little details that make this worth picking up. Padded grips on the straps—two on the side, one on top-make it easy to handle and carry. A zippered pocket on the front and a mesh pouch on the back let you store other small oddments in it. Finally, a bottle opener on one of the carrying straps adds a final touch of convenience.
The SnapBasket fits 50 standard size cans. It’s considerably cheaper than most high-end counterparts, but not the cheapest collapsible you’ll find—though its quality and features make it well worth the price.
Overall: Best Collapsible Cooler
If you want something that’s easy to store and transport (and don’t like the idea of an inflatable cooler), then this is would be a great choice.
The CleverMade SnapBasket is particularly great for day or overnight trips, where you’re expecting to bring supplies one way, but not necessarily on the return trip. Like other lightweight coolers, it could probably stand vigorous activity, but wouldn’t be the best for it.
How to choose a kayak cooler - Buyer's Guide 2021
If you’ve been struggling with a less-than-satisfactory cooler for some time, it can be tempting to go straight to the top-of-the-line models. While we sympathize with you—a lot of them are quite impressive—remember, it always pays to be thorough.
Below are a few questions worth asking about each cooler that catches your eye. You can use this as a checklist when going through your options.
Where will you be taking it?
By which we really mean, what sort of activities will you be doing with it?
If you’re planning short trips on calmer waters or even just idle afternoons in a lake or pond, then a soft-shell cooler will probably get the job done. You might even choose an inflatable cooler that floats in the water beside you.
On the other hand, if your trips involve fast currents and churning waters, then you’ll probably want something more rugged, which you can strap securely into your kayak.
If you do a lot of portaging in between trips, you could even find some hybrid coolers, so to speak, which have hard shells or casing, but are designed for easy carrying or wearing around the body.
What are you storing in it?
In a similar vein, the items you intend to bring on your trip will determine what sort of cooler you should bring.
While most people store rations-both food and drink-in their coolers, it’s quite common for people to use them for other things, too. As they’re designed to protect whatever’s inside them, they’re a popular choice for storing photography equipment or even fishing catches.
Most product descriptions and reviews list coolers by volume. If you’re storing perishables, take into consideration the volume of ice or other coolants you’ll need. Be sure to look up details on their insulation, particularly how long ice lasts, to get the right calculations.
How will you store it?
There are two points to consider here: how you store it in your kayak and how you store it when not in use.
Most coolers are designed for onboard use, so you’ll need one that fits your kayak. Look up dimensions in addition to a simple volume. A closer fit between cooler and kayak may make it easier to secure, so keep that in mind, especially if you’re into more vigorous activities.
And remember that unfortunately, all adventures must come to an end. You’ll have to keep that cooler somewhere when you’re not out on the water. Choose one that can fit reasonably into your storage space at home.
What other features do you want or need?
There’s limited space in a kayak, so many coolers, mainly ice chests or hardshell coolers, are designed to fulfill other roles in addition to storing materials. Some have fixtures on the outside that can hold other equipment, such as bottles, small containers, or fishing rods.
In other cases, the external features are more for transport. There are many backpack-style cooler bags these days that make for an easy transition from kayaking to overland trips.
How often will you use it?
Whether you’re out on the water a few times each year or a few times each month makes a huge difference.
The more frequently you use your cooler, the more durable it has to be. Models with hard shells or durable frames are best suited for frequent use.
That said, even if a cooler looks solid, pay attention to particular stress points. Strap handles, and any protruding or moving parts will wear out quicker than the rest of the cooler. If you’re buying a model that features any of these, try to find out if they held up well for other buyers.
Do you like it?
Sure, it might sound cheesy, but if you’re getting a cooler, it should be one you like in a general sense.
Of course, functionality trumps looks any day, but if every time you look at your cooler, you feel a twinge of discomfort, it’s going to put a damper on your trip. Kayaking is to be enjoyed, after all, so find a model that does the job and suits your tastes.
Besides, with all the choices out there-all the colors, designs, and materials—there’s no reason to settle for anything less.
Like we said at the start, the biggest factor in choosing a kayak cooler should be how you plan to use it. While a love of kayaking might bring hobbyists together, there are a lot of other activities that get wrapped up into kayaking trips-and everyone takes things at their own pace.
While our recommendations are based on considerable research and use, it’s always a good idea to ground decisions in your own experiences. Ask friends about their experiences with coolers. Make a checklist of your own pain points and preferences.
These might lead you to choose one of our top picks for its intended specialization. Or they might lead you to pick something we’ve recommended, but for surprisingly different reasons.
Either way, the range of options is wide-so go with your kayaker’s spirit and explore them fully.
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