Spend lots of time outdoors – camping, fishing, or at weekend music or sporting events – and you'll soon be after more than just an esky to keep your food and drinks chilled. You're probably looking for a portable fridge that can run from both your car battery and a normal electricity connection, or even off LP gas.

Portable fridges (also known as camping fridges) don't come cheaply. And there are a few different types – you'll need to understand how each of them work before you part with the cold, hard cash.

Compressor, absorption or thermoelectric?

How you intend to use the fridge will determine what type you'll need.

Compressor portable fridge

These models operate in the same way as your home fridge. They run on a 12V battery or from 240V AC mains electricity, usually by using an AC adaptor. This type is the best option for most people.

Pros
  • Generally work better than the thermoelectric or absorption types.
  • Stay cold under a wide range of ambient temperatures.
  • Much less of a drain on a car battery during normal running.
Cons
  • Setting the temperature and maintaining it once the ambient temperature changes can be problematic. Food can freeze or become too warm if you don't change it.
  • You may need to buy an AC adaptor separately if it doesn't come with one.
Scenario – regular campers

The Marshall family like to hit the road as often as they can and find a spot to pitch their tent. They sometimes stay in caravan parks or camping grounds with powered sites, but not always. They've set up their car with a dual battery system and wired a compressor camping fridge into the second battery. That way power is provided to the fridge without causing car-starting hassles. George is also a keen fisherman and uses the fridge to store his bait – and any day now, the big haul from his fishing trips.

Absorption portable fridge

If you're keen to connect to gas, an absorption model is your only option. It doesn't have a motor and this type needs to sit level and have a heat source, which can be from a car battery, mains electricity or LP gas.

If you're camping for a prolonged period or you're in a remote location, being able to use gas as the power source can be handy.

Scenario – remote campers

The Princes are serious campers who like nothing better than to spend time in fairly remote locations. They find an absorption fridge best suit their needs. They make sure everything is cold first at home before they set off, and then run the fridge/freezer off the car battery while getting to their destination. Once there, they switch over to LP gas. If they're travelling on rough and hilly roads it doesn't work very well, but it's better than nothing, and it works well once they've stopped and have set it up level.

Thermoelectric portable fridge

This type is really designed for short-term refrigeration or keeping warm. They generally have limited cooling ability and are a substantial drain on the car battery. They are quite noisy and are about the size of a small insulated cooler.

When we've tested these types in the past, we've found none of them were able to maintain a temperature that's adequate to store hot food safely.

As for their cooling abilities, we've found some are unable to cool to an adequate temperature once the external temperature gets to about 25°C. So on a hot summer day, a thermoelectric portable fridge probably isn't going to be up to the task of keeping your food and drinks cool. An esky with ice or ice bricks may be more effective for a few hours at least.

Don't be tempted to add ice to a thermoelectric cooler as manufacturers warn against it.

Scenario – weekends spent outdoors

The Marriott family spend their weekends driving from one sports ground to the next, following the sporting endeavours of their three children, and they find a thermoelectric fridge suits their needs. They live in a temperate area and like to have cool water in the car for the kids to drink. They also live 20 minutes out of town and like the convenience of storing their milk and other perishables in the fridge for the trip from the shop to home.

What to look for in a portable fridge

Compartments

Think about what you're likely to put into the fridge and whether you need a fridge or freezer, or a model that can be both at the same time.

Size

The fridge needs to be able to fit in your car with enough space around it for ventilation while still leaving room for your bags and other things you'll need to cart along with you. Check the storage volume of the fridge and whether it'll hold everything you're likely to want to put in it. If you'll need to move it around, be sure to check how much it weighs as well as considering the load inside.

Temperature zones and evaporator position

Check the location of the evaporator or cooling surface, as any air around it is likely to be warmer. Read the instructions to see if there are different temperature zones or compartments.

Battery drain

If you're likely to run the fridge often when your battery isn't being charged, consider how much current it will draw. Five amps is quite high and one amp is quite low. Also, consider the inbuilt battery protection if you'll be using the main car battery to run the fridge – look for a model that cuts out and in again at a fairly high voltage to prevent the battery going flat. Alternatively, run the fridge off a second battery. Thermal covers are also available for extra insulation, which may help conserve battery power.

Off-road use

Make sure the manufacturer recommends the product for off-road use, and that it has good tie-down points and can handle hills. You could also consider shock-minimisation options for the fridge, such as a foam base for it to sit on.

Controls

Check how easy the controls are to set initially, and to adjust as conditions change in order to maintain the right temperature.

Baskets

Removable baskets may be easier to use than one deep compartment that you have to reach into and search for things.

Cost

Compressor models $600–$2000

Absorption models $350–$1300

Thermoelectric models $40–$300