Camping Fridges & Coolers Buying Guide
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.
Ice-cold drinks and your favourite foods can be enjoyed anywhere with a cooler, ice box or camping fridge. Whether you're camping, caravanning, boating, fishing, relaxing on the beach, having a picnic or party or doing a long drive, it's always better with the refreshments you love. This buying guide will walk you through how to choose the best portable fridge, cooler or ice box for your needs.
- What Is The Best Camping Fridge?
- What Size Camping Fridge Do I Need?
- How To Power A Camping Fridge
- Types Of Camping Fridges
- Coolness & Toughness
- Safety & Convenience
- Determining The Quality Of A Camping Fridge Or Freezer
- Do I Need A Cooler Or Car Fridge?
- Which Camping Car Fridge Is Best For Me?
- Which Camping Cooler Is Best For Me?
What Is The Best Camping Fridge?
Everyone's different, and like many things in life, the best fridge for one person might not be the best for the next. The best portable fridge for you depends on your particular needs. Here are a few important questions you will need to ask yourself:
- What you'll use it for (camping, fishing, parties, picnics, festivals, the beach or lunch?)
- Where you'll be using the fridge (how hot or cold it will be where you're going?)
- How long will you be using it for at a time (a few hours, days or weeks at a time?)
- How far away from supplies you'll be (close to shops or in the middle of nowhere?)
- How much space is there in your car (for the fridge and all your other gear and bags?)
- How much control do you want over the temperature (cold or just cooler than outside?)
- Where do you want to store it when camping (inside your 4WD or in your campsite?)
- How easy do you want it to be to empty and clean it (both essential to avoid mould)
- How long do you want it to last (for a few short trips or for many years of camping?)
What Size Camping Fridge Do I Need?
The size of the portable fridge you need depends on factors such as how many people it needs to store food and/or drinks for, how many days or weeks worth of meals it has to hold and whether it's going to go in a big 4WD or a smaller car. A camping fridge's size is measured by how many litres it can hold and also by how many cans it fits:
To work out what fridge size you'll need for camping, you will need to measure the dimensions of the boot of your car or tray on the back of your truck (you'll need a 12V socket in your ute tray or boot too). It might help to list everything it needs to fit such as drinks, food, fishing bait and catches. Also keep in mind that the bigger the camping fridge is, the longer you can go without having to get more supplies from the shops, the more space it takes up in your car (leaving less space for everything else) and the heavier it will be to move around (especially when it's full of food and drinks).
How To Power A Camping Fridge
How do you power a camping fridge? Well, there are a few different ways, so think about how you'd prefer to power yours. The three main ways are:
- Electricity: The 240V power point at your powered campsite (or using your generator).
- Solar: Panels collect the sun's energy and can power the external battery a compressor fridge runs off during the day.
- Battery: A 12V battery in your 4WD (use a dual battery so you don't kill the car battery).
It is best to compare how much power different camping fridges use and how fast they drain your battery. Drawing 3 to 4 amps per hour drains a battery faster than a fridge drawing 1 to 2 amps. Remember that you'll need a battery charger if you're running the fridge off a 4WD 12V battery. When it's a sunny day, remember that a fridge in a hot spot works harder to stay cold, which chews through your battery. And finally, always store your camping fridge somewhere shady and cool (preferably not in a hot car).
Types Of Camping Fridges
There are two types of camping fridges:
- Fridge/freezer: Can be used as a fridge or as a freezer (but not both at once).
- Dual fridge and freezer: A big two-in-one with separate fridge and freezer sections.
The method that keeps what's inside cold also divides fridges into two other camps:
Two-Way Compressor Fridges
The most efficient (but noisier) option. They can be powered in two ways: 240V electricity or 12V battery and the speed of the motor adjusts according to the temperature. They are the best option in extreme weather conditions, driving down bumpy roads and 4WDing.
Three-Way Absorption Fridges
They are good for caravans as they are quieter (but less efficient). They can be powered in three ways: 240V electricity, 12V battery and LPG gas. Gas is the most efficient (100%) so the best way to power a fridge on long camps. 240V is the next most efficient (90%), and a 12V battery is the least efficient (70%). For safety reasons, gas should only be used outside and never inside a caravan. If your 12V car lighter plug can't handle the current, get an electrician to fit a wire. They also must be kept level otherwise they won't perform as well (so not suited to 4WDing).
Aside from camping fridges, there are also a few other options for keeping your food and drinks cool:
- Thermo Cooler: Maintains what's already cold (or hot) relative to the surrounding temperature. Connects to and is powered by a car battery, so perfect for people who drive a lot. You can't set a specific temperature so it's best for drinks, snacks or one meal.
- Ice Box: Ice blocks, cubes or packs keep food and drinks cold for hours or a few days.
- Cooler: A soft cooler is light and easy to carry (or wheel along), perfect for drinks and snacks. A hard cooler is great for parties, picnics and fishing and doubles as a seat. It can also be used without ice to store all your non-perishable pantry food.
- Spinchill: It spins a bottle or can around in your ice bucket so it's chilled in 1 to 7 minutes.
Coolness & Toughness
What a camping fridge freezer, cooler or icebox is made from determines how cool and tough it is.
More insulation keeps things cooler for longer and uses less power. Compare the type of cooling technology and its benefits (see Type section above): Absorption, Thermoelectric and Compressor. Some come with a cover for extra insulation to keep everything cool, and if you choose a fridge without a cover then consider investing in one. Vents will allow heat to escape, so more vents mean more efficient cooling, and also make sure there's enough space around the vents for air to flow freely.
- Plastic: Some models are made from polypropylene plastic, one of the most durable plastics you can buy.
- Metal: Longer lasting than plastic but also a lot heavier and can rust.
- Fibreglass: Soft so can crack easily but won't absorb odours so great for fishing.
Check to see if the fridge's lid can withstand the weight of someone sitting on it, and also find out if/how you can buy replacement parts if needed one day.
Safety & Convenience
Different camping fridges and coolers have different features for extra comfort and convenience such as
- Fixing Kit: Secures the heavy fridge in your car for safety if there's an accident.
- Wheels: Makes moving the cooler around when it's full much easier.
- Battery Protection: Automatically turns off the fridge before your car battery dies.
- Drain Plug: A plug you can pull out to drain the water instead of tipping it over.
- Slides: Slide in and out of the car with the fridge on top so it's easy to access.
- Digital Display: Makes it easy to set and see the thermostat temperature.
- USB Port: A handy plug socket that can be used to charge everyone's phones.
- Wi-Fi Connectivity: So you can see and control the temperature using your phone.
Determining The Quality Of A Camping Fridge Or Freezer
When you're weighing up which fridge or cooler to buy, think about quality versus cost. Camping coolers are usually a lot cheaper than iceboxes and camping fridges. Some iceboxes have refrigeration-grade insulation and a unique seal design that keeps ice solid for 5 to 10 days, so they're worth the investment if you're camping for more than a couple of days at a time. When it comes to how much you should spend on a fridge, cooler or icebox, remember that if you're only using it for a few hours at a time, a cheap one should do the trick. A camping fridge with an excellent compressor uses power efficiently (so it won't chew through your battery as fast) and will be reliable for many camping trips. Also factor in the cost of any accessories you might need such as a cover for insulation, a fixing kit to keep the fridge secure in your car, a dual battery system or additional wiring for your car. You get what you pay for, so think about how many years you want it to last for. If you want ice-cold drinks and great food on camping trips for years to come, it's worth spending a bit more on a good-quality fridge.
Do I Need A Cooler Or Car 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 the grid for extended periods, a car fridge is a must-have.
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 to 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 helps 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 Camping Cooler Is Best For Me?
If you're not headed off the grid for extended periods, it's more than likely a camping cooler is all you need to keep your food and drinks cold when you're camping. But bear in mind that 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 camping cooler will perform perfectly well for picnics and barbeques, if you want 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 Dune 4WD 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.
Find The Best Camping Fridges, Freezers & Coolers At Anaconda Today
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. Before you head out though, make sure you check out our Adventure Centre for more exciting destinations that you can visit with your friends, family and loved ones. If you liked our list of camping hacks, then you might also like some of our other helpful articles such as:
- Why Every 4WDer Needs A 12v Fridge
- 5 Main Features & Why You'll Love The Dune 4WD Fridge Range
- Dual-Zone Vs Single-Zone Dune 4WD Fridges
- myCOOLMAN Fridge/Freezer Size Buying Guide