How to choose a camping car fridge or cooler
There's nothing quite like kicking back in your camp chair and taking in the serenity with an icy cold drink in your hand. What's more, fresh food cooked on the campfire or camp stove is going to beat canned or pre-packaged food hands-down every time. And all you need to make this happen is a decent cooler or camping car fridge.
If you're new to camping, or looking to upgrade your existing setup, knowing how to choose the right camping fridge or cooler for your needs can be a bit of a minefield. Size, weight and power are all important considerations, but first up you'll need to work out whether you're better off with a 12v fridge or a cooler.
Do I need a cooler or a car fridge (12v fridge)?
A car fridge will give you far greater control over temperature, along with the option of a freezer, in addition to keeping things cold for extended periods without having to top it up with ice.
While all this functionality is great, it does come at a fairly significant cost. So, while car fridges are worth their weight in gold for those who actually need that next level of functionality, the added cost often isn't worth it for casual campers.
A good quality cooler can keep things cold for up to a week (in optimal conditions) without needing to be topped up with ice, which for many of us is ample - especially considering a quick trip to a service station will see us stocked up with ice. However, for serious 4WD adventurers who are planning to get off grid for extended periods, a car fridge is a must-have.
Which camping car fridge is best for me?
If you are heading off on a big trip or regularly like to venture off the beaten path, a car fridge will ensure you have fresh food and cold drinks no matter where you decide to set up camp. But when deciding on the best fridge for your needs there are a few things you'll need to consider.
Dual zone vs single zone
Dual zone simply means the fridge has two compartments that can be run as a fridge and a freezer at the same time. Some models will also enable you to convert the whole unit to a fridge or freezer by removing the internal divider. Single zone units, as the name suggests, only have one 'zone' so can only be run as a fridge or a freezer at any one time.
If you do opt for a single zone, one option is to run it as a freezer and freeze your ice in it. You can then use the ice to keep a separate cooler as a 'fridge'.
Most camping fridges will run on 12/24V power, and many will come with a 240V transformer so you can plug it into mains power whenever possible. You'll also need to think about your power source when your car's not running such as rechargeable batteries, solar panels or a generator.
It's also a good idea to look at the power efficiency of your fridge, which is measured in amps per hour. As a guide, most decent camping fridges will use around 1-2 amps per hour. Keeping your power consumption as low as possible will help reduce the drain on your batteries which is super important when you're parked up for several days at a time.
While most well-known brands will be reasonably efficient, there are a few things you can do to increase the efficiency of your camping car fridge further.
- Use a cover: Many camping fridges will come with a removable cover. Using this cover whenever you can help keep the fridge cool as well as reducing damage when you're on the road. If your unit doesn't come with a cover there are many after market versions available.
- Use freezer bricks: Your fridge will use less power when it's full, as solid objects help to retain the cold. Using freezer blocks to fill up your fridge when it's getting empty is a great way to reduce power consumption.
- Park in the shade: This might seem like a no-brainer, but it's always worth remembering to keep your fridge out of the sun whenever you can as this can make as this can make a real impact on power consumption.
- Turn it off overnight: If the temperature drops where you're camping, switching your unit off overnight can help reduce power consumption - just make sure you've got some freezer blocks in it to help keep the temperature low.
Which cooler is best for me?
If you're not headed off grid for extended periods, it's more than likely a cooler is all you need for keeping your food and drinks cold when you're camping. But bear in mind, coolers (also called ice boxes) are not all created equal, and it pays to consider what kind of cooler will best meet your needs before making a purchase. While an inexpensive hard or soft cooler will perform perfectly well for picnics and barbeques, if you're wanting to keep things cold for more than a day or two, these kinds of coolers often won't go the distance.
A good quality ice box will feature refrigeration grade insulation and a heavy duty, moulded plastic body with a sealable lid to trap the cold air inside and the hot air out. Look for reputable brands such as Dometic, and your food and drink will be kept cool and fresh for anywhere between three and six days without having to top up the ice.
What size camping fridge or cooler is best?
When it comes to the size of your camping fridge or cooler, bigger isn't always better. An unnecessarily large fridge or cooler will take up more room in your car, more ice or power to keep it cool and be more cumbersome to move around.
When you're working out what size is best for you, think about how long you're likely to use it for at any one time - are you planning to be away for months at a time or are you just looking for something to get you through the weekend?
As a general guide, a 40-50 litre fridge or cooler will usually suffice for one or two people, whereas families will usually want something 65 litres or over.
Look for solid construction
Even if you're not planning a wild off-road adventure, you'll want your cooler or camping fridge to be able to withstand the bumps and knocks that will inevitably come with use. To ensure your unit is up to the tasks you've bought it for, check for durable construction, strong hinges, and the like - a decent fridge should be able to take the weight of someone standing on it.
Also consider whether the casing material is right for your applications. For example, a high-grade plastic is a good choice for touring as it is durable but has a little give so will absorb the jolts and impacts of dirt roads and trails. Metal is suitable for rugged applications but can be heavy, whereas fibreglass is great for boating and marine environments as it is strong and won't corrode in damp, salty environments.
No matter what kind of camper you are, if you're away for more than a couple of days the ability to keep your food and drinks cold is an absolute necessity. Whether it's a powered camping fridge or a quality cooler, having fresh food and cold drinks on hand can really take a holiday up a notch.
Once you've found the right unit for you, all that's left to do is stock it with everything you need, throw it in the car and get ready for the good times. Happy camping!