Soft vs. Hard Cooler: What’s the Difference?

Soft vs. Hard Cooler: What’s the Difference?

Of all the decisions in the world that you would think might be easy decisions, what cooler to buy should be a remarkably easy one… right?

Yet, if you have ever truly shopped for a cooler, you know that this couldn’t be further from the truth. It seems so alluring to just grab the first cooler that fits in your trunk and walk away, but you could be dooming your camping trip before it starts.

There are dozens of options for coolers everywhere you go. Depending on the size, style, and ideal function of each type of cooler, you can get a cooler that is perfectly customized to your needs.

When it comes to choosing a traditional cooler, there’s one main question: hard or soft sides? While the decision may seem rather small and inconsequential, it is actually one of the largest factors that can set your cooler choices apart.

Here at Patriot Coolers, we consider ourselves experts in all heating and cooling options for the backcountry trekker and the weekend tailgater. Today, we’re here to share what we’ve learned.

What’s the difference between hard and soft coolers? Is one better for cooling than the other? Do they keep things cold for the same amount of time?

Here is everything that you need to know about the differences between hard and soft-sided coolers:

What Are Soft-Sided Coolers?

Let’s start by diving right into our first category of coolers, soft-sided coolers. Soft-sided coolers are exactly what they sound like — any type of cooler made with soft, malleable, flexible sides.

The best soft-sided coolers like our Softpack Coolers are made of a durable, puncture-resistant nylon material that is pleasing to the touch yet strong enough to stand up to day-to-day wear and tear. Our coolers then use a closed-cell insulation material to maintain cold temperatures and keep your drinks cold and ice frozen.

Have you ever raised a glass of what you thought was ice-cold water to be met with lukewarm water? If you felt disappointed, you weren’t alone; research from 1997 proved that the chilled (or heated drinks) helped reduce the unpleasant sensation of dehydration faster than lukewarm water. Keeping your water chilled is a must-have for a trip of any kind.

What Are Hard-Sided Coolers?

Hard-sided coolers are made with hard, typically plastic, sides that are rigid, won’t bend and are designed to withstand the elements. So, hard-sided coolers are exactly what they sound like, but there are still some critical points to make, namely, what the hard-sided cooler is made from.

At Patriot Coolers, to make our coolers, we rely on a process called rotomolding. Rotomolding is a highly-technical process that creates hollow products. Water sports fans might have kayaks or canoes made through rotomolding; bikers might thank rotomolding for their helmets.

Thanks to the rotomolding process, our Hard-Sided Coolers are far more durable than other plastics on the market, providing additional insulation for an ultra well-sealed and chilled cooler.

Major Differences Between Hard and Soft-Sided Coolers

Now we’re going to break down how hard and soft-sided coolers differ. Plus, we’ll cover the advantages and disadvantages of both and how each can augment your life.

Differences in Cooler Size

The first major difference between hard and soft-sided coolers is the most noticeable: size.

Soft-sided coolers tend to be much smaller than hard-sided coolers. Hard-sided coolers can be massive, with our largest hard-sided cooler featuring 50 quarts of storage space, supported by carefully-engineered mixes of polymers.

Soft-sided coolers, on the other hand, have much less thick and strong walls, limiting the overall size that they can be. Most soft-sided coolers will max out in the 20-quart volume range. However, small can be mighty; these design choices are very intentional. Smaller, less rigid coolers are ideal for short trips where comfort and packing economics are key.

Let’s discuss more.

Differences in Cooler Weight

Here is where soft-sided coolers shine; these lightweight coolers are a much more portable option. As the lighter, smaller option, soft-sided coolers can be taken on the go, along for a hike, to the gym, office, or for a bike ride. On the flip side, many hard-sided coolers will require a vehicle to transport because of their size and weight.

Soft-sided coolers play this up to their advantage. For example, the Backpack Cooler is equipped with padded shoulder pads so that it is even easier to cart around on wild adventures.

Differences in Cooler Insulation

Due to the extra thickness of the walls and lid of a hard-sided cooler, they offer superior insulation compared to their soft-sided counterparts.

You can rely on your soft-sided coolers for several hours of insulation, whereas a good hard-sided cooler can keep ice from melting for a few days.

In general, the more insulation that you have surrounding something, the better insulated it will be. The 50QT Hard Cooler can keep your ice frozen for up to ten days.

Differences in Cooler Durability

While soft-sided coolers, particularly ones like our Patriot Coolers Softpak Coolers, are designed to withstand wear and tear, the beating that our rotomolded hard-sided coolers can take is unmatched.

Our hard-sided coolers are bear-resistant. Blocking bears’ access to human food and resources isn’t just critical for our survival; it’s imperative for their survival as well.

Both hard and soft-sided coolers are incredibly durable, but for long camping trips, large outings, and intense outdoor activities, hard-sided coolers are going to handle the job better than any other cooler that you can find.

What Are the Best Uses for Hard and Soft-Sided Coolers?

Now that we’ve reviewed the basic elements of hard and soft-sided coolers, it’s time to discuss which cooler will serve you best.

Soft-sided coolers are going to be ideal for day trips, tailgates, and other single-day or several-hour events. Soft-sided coolers are also great for heading to the gym or office, school, on a hike or bike ride, on a fishing trip, or wherever else you might go.

Hard-sided coolers are better for larger gatherings, like providing snacks for a kids' sports team, long camping trips, or family reunions. If you need something that lasts for several hours (or days) and holds a large capacity, hard-sided coolers have your back.

The Patriot Difference

At Patriot Coolers, we wanted to create coolers that could stand up to the rigors of the battlefield to give our Veterans and you a cooler that you can count on. We are inspired by the United States Veterans in all that we make and do. Our coolers are instantly recognizable by their 13 stripes and 50 stars and most importantly, part of every purchase goes to supporting Veterans.

Soft vs. Hard Coolers: Takeaways

Hard and soft-sided coolers are the two most common categories of cooler that you’ll have to choose between. Understanding the differences will prepare you to choose the best option for your needs.

Hard-sided coolers are usually made of plastic (or our Patriot Coolers ultra-durable rotomolded plastic) to provide long-term cold storage and one-of-kind durability. Soft-sided coolers are typically made of a durable nylon shell holding foam insulation, which is lighter and more portable.

You really can’t go wrong with either option; both will keep drinks cold for the long haul; just choose the option that fits best with your lifestyle. Or better yet, get one of each, so you’re always ready for what comes. “Be prepared” is a great motto for a reason.


Why do some drinks taste better when they are cold? | BBC Science Focus Magazine

Rotomolding and polyethylene composites with rotomolded lignocellulosic materials | Sage Journals

Storing Food - Bears | US National Park Service

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