For most situations, it’s usually a better idea to choose a hard-walled cooler. It keeps ice far longer, holds up better to abuse, and serves as a functional stool you can sit on when you need to rest your legs. That’s why we bring out the hard coolers when we party at the tailgate, when we camp in the outdoors, and when we need a place to stash the fish we catch.
If that’s the case, how, then, did soft coolers manage to carve a place in the market?
While hard coolers ticked a lot of the right boxes, they do bring plenty of downsides along with those rigid walls. For one, they’re heavy, with those thick insulated panels resulting in plenty of weight. Their fixed shape also means they can’t be collapsed after use, ensuring they’ll take up a lot of space, whether you’re bringing them back home in the car or stowing them away in the house.
Soft coolers, on the other hand, are usually designed to carry like shoulder bags or backpacks, making them a whole lot easier to bring to a picnic site and carry to a nearby camp. Plus, you can fold them and stash them in a smaller space, much like an ordinary bag. That’s because soft coolers tend to be constructed like regular bags, albeit with a little more insulation and some reinforcements. Still, they tend look more like bags than coolers, making them a far better choice when you’d rather not look like you’re carrying two dozen cans of ice cold beer.
Those discreet looks are among the primary reasons why most people use soft coolers when packing lunch for work. Nobody wants to come to the office looking like they’ve stocked up on a six pack for happy hour, after all. With a soft cooler in tow, you can keep your lunch chilled without having to leave it in the pantry fridge, all while looking you’re carrying nothing but a regular bag.
It’s those exact reasons that make the Barebones Pathfinder one of our favorite soft coolers around.
Possibly the cleanest, most refined-looking soft cooler we’ve seen, it looks more like a compact camera bag than a functional ice box for carrying food and drinks. Seriously, we’d totally expect whoever’s carrying this thing to pull a DSLR out of there, rather than a six-pack of their favorite libations. And, yes, we think you can definitely use this to carry a camera for those times you’re not packing any food or drinks.
Aesthetically, the Barebones Pathfinder has a boxy profile that brings to mind its potential for camera bag use. That same profile, of course, makes it ideal for carrying cans and bottles, along with stacking several food containers inside the main compartment. Whether you need to carry some food on a long drive, bring some drinks to an outdoor festival, or pack lunch for the office, this thing should make a handy go-to bag for each of those occasions.
The Barebones Pathfinder Cooler can hold up to 16 12-oz. cans, as well as a six-pack of long neck bottles. That leaves it at the perfect size for bringing your own supplies at a tailgate, as well as for packing some much needed refreshments during day hikes and afternoons running errands around town. Do note, it measures just 12 x 8 x 9 inches, so we’re thinking if you load this with 16 cans, there’s very likely no room left to accommodate any amount of ice. Realistically, you probably need to load this with 12 or less to get those drinks properly chilled.
With insulated panels on all sides (including top and bottom), the cooler is capable of retaining ice for up to 24 hours. While we wouldn’t push it to try to keep food fresh overnight, it should handle most day trips with veritable ease, ensuring you can rely on it when packing for the beach, the park, or the nearby hiking trail.
The insulated waterproof liner, by the way, can be zipped off and removed from the bag, making it easy to clean any time food or drink gets spilled. And, yes, you can simply wash it down (preferably with warm water) to clean and wipe off to dry before reattaching to the cooler, allowing for dead-simple maintenance. That same lining comes with anti-microbial coating (it won’t develop odors), too, so it’s perfectly safe to wait until you get home before you actually clean it, while a durable construction ensures it won’t rip or tear from brushing against the contents.
A semi-rigid internal frame and a reinforced base ensures it can protect fragile contents (like glass bottles) from breaking, while a flexible design allows it to go along with your movements, so it carries just as comfortably as any ordinary bag. Do note, this isn’t designed to collapse and pack down like other soft coolers, although it’s pliable enough around the corners to squeeze into tight spaces when empty without sustaining any damage. Other features include polyester nylon construction, genuine leather trims, rust-resistant hardware, external storage pockets with a magnetic closure, and an integrated bottle opener right on the zipper pull.
With its ability to insulate for the good part of a full day, its lightweight build, and bag-like convenience, the Barebones Pathfinder should make a great choice for anyone interested in keeping food and drinks chilled for several hours. It won’t outperform a similarly-sized hard cooler on any metric by any stretch of the imagination, although it should serve as a more suitable solution for a whole lot of situations all the same.
When you don’t want a cooler scuffing the deck of a boat or an ATV, for instance, then a soft cooler makes for a smarter option than a hard-walled alternative. With a zippered lid that fully opens, it’s just as easy as any hard cooler to fill up with contents, too. For concerts and sporting events, most hard coolers will get an immediate thumbs down right at the security gate, while this thing has a good chance of actually getting waived through, unless the venue has a strict policy about bringing food and drinks inside (at which point, you might want to pretend it’s a camera bag by stuffing small camera gear on the exterior pocket).
Available now, the Barebones Pathfinder is priced at $45.