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12 best cool bags that are perfect for picnics

Keep your perfect spread chilled with one of these portable coolers

Zoe Phillimore
Friday 01 July 2022 12:52
<p>Choose from cooling backpacks and foil lined lunch boxes to ensure you’re prepared for any outdoor outing</p>

Choose from cooling backpacks and foil lined lunch boxes to ensure you’re prepared for any outdoor outing

The great British picnic season is upon us. From Wimbledon and Glyndbourne to school sports’ day and the beach – us Brits love an occasion to crack out a picnic. And this week marks British Picnic Week, so it’s time to crack out the big guns/cool bags…

Nothing mars a picnic more than sweaty sandwiches (and wasps, wasps are the actual worst). Most of us have had the disappointment of dutifully putting together a wonderful picnic – cocktail sausages and Pimms aplenty – only to open the picnic a few hours later to find everthing’s got a little steamy.

But fear not, picnic lovers, we’ve been testing the best cool bags to find the ones that keep things icy fresh. And we’ve got a few hacks for you.

When choosing a cool bag, check the materials. Ideally you want a heat-radiant material on the inside. This material tends to look a bit like tin foil, and it’ll help keep the cool air in. If you can find one that’s antimicrobial, all the better for keeping food fresh not funky.

Look for a cool bag you can carry. Check the handles are comfortable to hold or sling over a shoulder (many are padded) and that when full they don’t become insanely heavy to carry. Size of your bag will be important here.

There are a few different types of cool bags, as well as as many sizes as you can handle. There’s the standard holdall, which you carry in your hand. Then there’s backpacks, totes and even wheely ones you pull behind you. Think about how you’ll use your cool bag most – if it’s hiking or when carrying a lot of stuff, go backpack. If it’s more genteel then a tote or holdall will be just the ticket.

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How we tested

We took to the fields, festivals and frivolities of summer with our cool bags in tow. We packed them high and we packed them good. On our mission we were looking for how cool they kept the food, the capacity of the bag and how easy it was to carry. We gave extra points to style and extra functionality. Here’s the ones that didn’t lose their cool…

The best cool bags for 2022 are:

  • Best overall – Eleanor Bowmer miami shells picnic cooler bag: £29.95, Johnlewis.com
  • Best for hikers – Quechua isothermal backpack 20l: £24.99, Decathlon.co.uk
  • Best for quality – Joules cool bag bee print: £25.95, Joules.com
  • Best large backpack – Lakeland insulated backpack cool bag 20l: £34.99, Lakeland.co.uk
  • Best collapsing cool bag – VonShef 22l navy large cooler bag: £19.99, Vonhaus.com
  • Best for accessories – ProCook insulated picnic backpack: £49, Procook.co.uk
  • Best small cool bag – Thermos eco cool dual lunch kit: £15, Thermos.co.uk
  • Best premium cool bag – Fortnum & Mason eau de nil: £40, Fortnumandmason.com
  • Best backpack – Vonshef 18l cooler backpack: £21.99, Vonhaus.com
  • Best large-capacity cool bag – Next bronx wheelie cool bag: £36, Next.co.uk
  • Best for durability – Life of Riley waxed canvas cool bag: £79, Lifeofriley.co.uk
  • Best for bottles – CaddyO bottle chiller: £39.99, Cellardine.co.uk

Eleanor Bowmer miami shells picnic cooler bag

Best: Overall

Rating: 10/10

This cool bag is ex-shell-ent. The pink and lilac Eleanor Bowmer print got us lots of compliments from envious picnickers. We loved that it was easy to pick out in a crowd of blue cool bags which picnic was ours. The nylon shoulder strap isn’t going to win any awards for comfort, but it was fine for a short lug. The handle is more padded, with Velcro to keep the padding in place. The bag kept our picnic perfectly chilled. There’s a great capacity on this bag – there was plenty of space for a full picnic for a family of five in there.

Quechua isothermal backpack 20l

Best: For hikers

Rating: 9/10

This is a very comprehensive yet lightweight cool bag. The isothermal feature should keep food cool for seven hours without the need for an ice pack. Obviously you’d need to chill your food first, but this is handy as it means you don’t have to lug heavy ice packs around with you. We loved the mesh pockets inside, which meant our drinks bottles stayed upright and leak free. There are two zipped pockets too, one of which is in the main compartment. This meant we could keep meat and non-meat items separate. Comfy padded straps, a chest strap and loops for your thumbs make this a very comfy wear, even when fully loaded. A great one for those who like an off-the-beaten-track picnic.

Joules cool bag bee print

Best: For quality

Rating: 9/10

British, outdoorsy and stylish, we feel Joules is very much a brand to get involved with at a picnic. It certainly didn’t let us down with this bee-print number. The bag has a very decent capacity, and kept our picnics pretty cool with the help of ice packs. Everything screams good quality with this bag – the handles and shoulder strap are soft (no nylon here, thank you very much), and the buckles are sturdy. This bag will go and go, and look very smart while doing so.

Lakeland insulated backpack cool bag 20l

Best: Large backpack

Rating: 8/10

A very decent main section lined with heat-radiant fabric kept our picnics and drinks icy fresh. We liked that the opening came to half way down the bag, which meant we could easily access everything in there without having to empty the entire bag. There is also a front pocket, which is also lined with heat-radiant fabric – this is a real rarity in cool bags, we’ve found. The same goes for two side pouches for water bottles. The straps are padded and comfy, but this is by no means a hiking backpack like the Quencha.

VonShef 22l navy large cooler bag

Best: Collapsing cool bag

Rating: 9/10

Despite it’s 22l capacity, this bag squashes down entirely flat. This makes it great for chucking in a suitcase if you’re planning beach picnics on your holidays, or just for fitting in overflowing kitchen cupboards (we speak with an expert authority on the latter matter). There is just one section to this cool bag, so it’s not the best for keeping different foods separate. But it is lined with heat-radiant fabric, so our picnic was kept nice and chilled throughout a leisurely picnic. The metal frame and handle make it quite easy to carry too, as you can loop it over your arm, while the foam pad on the handle makes it a bit more comfortable.

ProCook insulated picnic backpack

Best: For accessories

Rating: 9/10

This cool bag has everything you need to get a classy picnic started. The front pocket includes four sets of cutlery, a bottle opener, wine glasses, four plates and a chopping board. We know what you’re thinking, and no it’s still pretty lightweight. The main pocket has enough room to keep a picnic for four chilled, and it did keep things pretty cold despite not having the foil-style lining. The navy and striped design means it looks very smart, while padded straps make it fairly comfortable to carry.

Thermos eco cool dual lunch kit

Best: Small cool bag

Rating: 8/10

Perfect for a solo picnicker, or if you’re taking your packed lunch to the next level, this cool bag is one of the smallest we tried. It has two compartments – a largeish one that has more than enough space for a whole meal if we’re honest. And then a bottom compartment, which you could use to stow your ice pack, or just to keep food separate. It’s made from eight recycled PET bottles, and is insulated with foam and wipe-clean fabric inside. We found this bag is great for food on the go, if you have a tribe of snack-crazed kids like us.

Fortnum & Mason eau de nil

Best: Premium cool bag

Rating: 9/10

In the hallmark duck-egg blue of Fortnum’s comes this very handy holdall. There’s a really good capacity in this cool bag – plenty of space for strawberries, salads, sandwiches and the essential Pimms. We loved that the lining of this bag has a Fortnum’s print – it’s such a nice touch. On a more practical level, the two internal pockets were useful for keeping food separate and there’s an elastic strap for holding a bottle upright. There’s also one external pocket, which isn’t insulated but handy for corkscrews and that kind of thing.

Vonshef 18l cooler backpack

Best: Backpack

Rating: 9/10

This gets a huge two thumbs up from us. It’s got a sensible capacity, so we weren’t tempted to overpack and make it too heavy to carry. The straps are comfortable and actually wick away sweat (gross, but essential on a hot summer’s day). The main section has an opening that lets you access everything easily, and is lined with heat-radiant foil fabric. This claims to keep everything cool for four hours, but when we chucked in an ice pack it went for a lot longer. The front pocket isn’t insulated, but it’s handy for cutlery and the all-essential bottle opener.

Next bronx wheelie cool bag

Best: Large-capacity cool bag

Rating: 8/10

If you want to supersize your picnic, this is the cool bag for you. It’s designed for six people, and thankfully has wheels to save your back. The huge-capacity main section is lined with heat-radiant fabric, as is the large front pocket. This kept our picnic lovely and fresh. Side handles helped us hoik it into the car boot when it was full. The telescope handle and gliding wheels made this cool bag extremely useful – and the envy of everyone else in the park.

Life of Riley waxed canvas cool bag

Best: For durability

Rating: 7/10

This cool bag is really smart. It’s made from wax canvas on the outer, which makes it look very Barbour-esque. It feels incredibly hardwearing and well made – this really is a bag for life. As you would hope, looking at the price tag in comparison to some others in this round-up. The leather zip knots and a handle really up the ante on this bag. The heat-radiant material on the side, and insulated walls kept our picnic at a chilled temperature throughout a lengthy afternoon in the park.

CaddyO bottle chiller

Best: For bottles

Rating: 7/10

If you want to cut out the superfluous food and focus solely on the drink, look no further than this handy carrier. Inside is a bottle chiller – pop this in your freezer for four hours and then stick it back in the bag. Then this cool bag will actively chill down your wine. We found we needed a lot of real estate in our freezer for the bottle chiller, but aside from that this was brilliant. A sturdy base means that it stays upright if you have an open bottle inside. And the carry handle has a little pocket with a waiter’s friend in it – we liked this touch a lot.

Cool bag FAQS

How to pack a cool bag

When packing your cool bag, pack ice packs (try to avoid ice, it melts more quickly and turns your picnic into consommé) at the bottom. Chill all your food before you pack it. Do not put a hot pasta salad in there hoping it’ll cool down – it will just make your picnic tepid. Close your bag every time you’ve finished dipping in, and store it in the shade if you can.

The verdict: Cool bags

We loved the Eleanor Bowmer cooler bag. It brought fun and chilled food to all the picnics we took it to. If you’re looking for something less bright, then we were incredibly impressed by the smart VonShef backpack. Want something bigger? Go for the Next Bronx if you are feeding a crowd.

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