12 volt Refrigerator vs. Cooler

Maybe you’ve heard of portable, 12 volt refrigerators. Maybe you haven’t. All the cool kids are using them. One might even say, a portable 12 volt fridge is an essential piece of the overlander’s kit. Nobody wants to be left out, so I’m going to quickly explain why you want need a 12 volt portable refrigerator in your vehicle for camping, off-roading and plain old road trips.

When I first heard about portable refrigerators, I thought the concept seemed a bit excessive. You know, like, do I really need such a thing when I can just use my trusty old Coleman cooler? The answer is yes, I could have stuck with that old cooler and been just fine. I did. For years. Reason being, portable refrigerators, while excessive as a concept, carried with them a truly excessive price tag. Most still do.

Until recently, there weren’t many brands selling these things. Two big players ruled the market: ARB and Dometic. They still do. But, several Chinese manufacturers caught wind of the American desire to keep food cold while traveling and started making them…for a much more reasonable price. For instance, this ARB model costs $1,011.56 while the competing model by Dometic costs $1,099.99. Don’t get me wrong, these are very high-quality products and the Chinese versions aren’t going to be as rugged or durable. But, just how rugged and durable does a refrigerator need to be?

This is the fridge I own. Review coming soon.

Well, however durable $339.00 get’s me, that’s how rugged and durable I need my fridge to be. So, yeah, the portable, 12 volt refrigerator is much more accessible now. Even still, is it really necessary? Until I bought mine and used it, I would have said no, but now that I’ve seen how the other half lives, I’m sold. Think about this: some people are still dropping $399.00 on a Yeti cooler. Poor souls don’t even know about portable fridges. But now you do.

There will always be a need for the old-school cooler and they serve their purpose. I’m comparing the trusty family cooler to the 12 volt fridge for the following use cases: camping, off-roading and road trips. If you’re hanging out on the beach all day, a cooler is better. Planning on catching a 2 foot bass? Cooler for sure. Keeping transplant organs cool during transport? Actually, the fridge might win this one.

Let’s talk pro’s and con’s of the portable 12 volt refrigerator.

What’s Good?

Everything stays dry.

No more reaching deep into the slush-filled ice box for the package of bologna only to discover the cellophane is punctured, it’s filled with water and slimy. Not to mention, your cooler is now contaminated with meat juice. No need to keep a towel nearby to dry your hand off after grabbing a wet can of Pabst Blue Ribbon. With a 12 volt fridge, everything stays cool, and most importantly, dry. This truly is the biggest benefit. With a portable fridge, you can enjoy that bologna sandwich and PBR with none of the wetness.

No more trips to the store for ice.

With a portable refrigerator, there’s no longer a reason to stop at the local gas station and spent $5 on frozen water. I’m not going to pretend there’s any savings to be had here, ice is cheap, but it’s one less stop to make before your outing.

You’re no longer on borrowed time (sort of).

Ice melts. Yep. The food in your cooler is on borrowed time and eventually, you’ll have to make another ice run or the contents of your cooler will start to cultivate penicillin. On day 3 of your camping trip, you’ll have cooler anxiety. Should those hot dogs look that pale? Should we eat this lukewarm ground beef? Why is the shredded cheese so soft?

A fridge is (slightly) lighter.

Once filled with food, drinks and ice, a standard cooler can become back-breakingly heavy. Lugging all that weight into the truck can be a real pain. A portable fridge isn’t exactly light, but, because you’re not filling it with ice, it’s a bit easier on the old back.

You don’t need as much capacity.

Similar to the reason above, because you’re not filling it with ice, you don’t need as big of a refrigerator as you do a cooler. It’s amazing how much food you can fit into a 55 quart refrigerator. With much of the space taken up with ice, you’ll need a much larger cooler to fit the same amount of food.

What’s Bad?

You have to keep it powered.

This is the number one drawback of owning a portable refrigerator vs. a cooler. Remember that bit I mentioned above about cooler anxiety? Yeah, we’re trading that for battery anxiety. There’s no free lunch, especially if you want to keep it cool. In order to keep your 12 volt fridge running, you’ll need a constant 12 volts of power or a wall outlet. If you’re on a road trip, or off-roading, this is no problem because your vehicle can keep the fridge powered while you drive without depleting your truck’s battery. When parked, things get tricky.

If your vehicle power outlet allows you to keep using power with the vehicle turned off (most don’t), you’re good for a few hours as these refrigerators draw very little power. They also have a shut-off mechanism that won’t allow the fridge to kill your battery. But, if you’re camping for any length of time, you’ll need some means of keeping power flowing to the fridge. This can get expensive.

Personally, I use a Jackery Explorer 500 to keep my fridge powered. I plug the Jackery into my Land Rover’s 12 volt outlet so it charges the power unit while driving. The fridge is plugged into the Jackery, so when I turn the truck off, the fridge sips power from the Jackery. This works well for about 24 hours or so. I plan to buy the Jackery solar panel so I can use the sun to power the whole shebang on extended trips.

Power is expensive.

Okay, so here I am telling you about how affordable a portable refrigerator is. My current unit cost me $339.00 which is great. What’s not so great is that I spent $500.00 on the Jackery to keep it powered for about 24 hours. And, If I want to keep it powered on long camping trips, I’ll probably end up forking over another $300.00 for a Jackery solar panel. That’s a lot of money, even for a low-cost fridge. I still maintain the cost is worth it. And, that power unit is good for other things as well.

Larger coolers are in a league of their own.

If you’re feeding an entire Cub Scout den, small army or providing beer for a 3 day bachelor party, a portable fridge isn’t going to cut it because it just won’t be big enough. While a fridge has more capacity because there’s no need for ice, there is a limit to how big they actually get. For some occasions, a massive cooler can’t be beat.

If it fails, your food will go bad.

As with any modern electronic device, things fail. If your 12 volt refrigerator compressor gives up the ghost on day 1 of a 5 day remote overlanding trip, you might have to resort to hunting prairie dogs because your food will be spoiled. And, on top of it, maybe the fridge doesn’t fail, but your expensive portable power station does. Either way, there’s risk involved and you might starve. Or, just have to go back to town for some canned goods.

The Big Fat Conclusion

Even cheap, portable, 12 volt refrigerators aren’t actually cheap. By the time you purchase the fridge, a power unit and a solar panel to keep it all running, you’re in the hole for nearly a grand. A cooler – a good cooler – can cost a few hundred dollars and it won’t incur electronic failures. It’s trusty, reliable and affordable. Clearly a cooler is better.

Nope. I would rather pay the price for the 12 volt refrigerator (and I’m cheap). Not having to deal with melting ice, wet food and trips to the convenience store is worth the cost for me. When I come home from a trip, all of my food is still good and goes right back into the home refrigerator, dry and unspoiled. I like that.

By donniefitz2

Family guy, software nerd, photographer and a gear-head.

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