Portable camping fridge buying guide
Compressor, absorption or thermoelectric – which portable fridge is best?
Chilling out when you're out and about
A portable camping fridge is a powered mobile cooling system that typically runs off your car's 12-volt electrical system to keep your food and drinks cold (or frozen) indefinitely. It's more expensive than a cooler or Esky, but you'll never need to worry about replenishing your ice again.
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Caravanning around Australia calls for a larger capacity and more features than shorter camping adventures where compactness and manoeuvrability may be more important. How many people will your portable fridge need to service? Will it stay in a vehicle, be used 24/7 as an overflow fridge at home, or only be switched on a couple of times a year?
Large fridges mean greater capacity, but higher current draw, and they'll take up more space in your car. With a whole family plus gear already onboard, a fully loaded fridge could push your car over its gross vehicle mass (GVM). Expansion inserts are also available for some fridges, clipping onto the top for additional capacity when you need it.
Sizes are listed in litres, but this can be hard to visualise so we've included a universally recognised unit of measure – cans of drink.
- 25L & under – 27 cans Essentially a powered cooler, these compact fridges are suitable for keeping lunch cold in a work truck for you and your offsider. They're also a good option if you need to keep medicines refrigerated and close to hand.
- 35L – 47 cans Ideal for a weekend away for two, or a whole week if you're flying solo.
- 40L – 60 cans The most common or 'standard' size, 40L fridges are great for two or three people for a long weekend.
- 50L – 72 cans Suitable for a whole week adventure for two, or a long weekend for a family.
- 60–65L – 106 cans A good size fridge for a family of five, or providing sustenance for your sporting team. There's plenty of room to keep the team's half-time oranges on ice, but consider the space it takes up in your vehicle, and the weight.
- 80L+ – 120 cans Plenty of space for a week away with a big group, but size and weight may be a serious consideration. You could be better off sharing the load between smaller fridges and separate vehicles.
Two-way fridges run on electricity, three-way fridges can run on either electricity or gas. So which is better?
Two-way (compressor) portable fridges
Two-way fridges use the same compressor technology as your home fridge, though they're designed to run on a 12-volt battery as well as mains electricity. They're best for most applications because they're designed to run off your car's electrical system without drawing too much current, but can be switched to 240 volts in powered campground sites or in your home.
Unlike gas fridges, compressor models mean regular battery charging so they may not be the best choice for a month in situ, but they'll tick along happily with a small solar panel setup.
- Good performance, even in hot cars and high ambient temperatures.
- Some can double as freezers.
- Work on uneven terrain or inclines.
- Can be run from a solar panel for out-of-vehicle use.
- Designed for efficient, low current draw running off your car battery.
- Setting a consistent temperature when ambient temperatures change can be tricky.
- Compressor noise may be noticeable in quiet campsites.
- Batteries must be charged regularly or your fridge will stop.
- If running off solar, it will turn off overnight.
- AC adaptors may need to be purchased separately.
Three-way (absorption) portable fridges
Three-way fridges run on LPG as well as 12 or 240 volts, and use gas flow heat exchangers not compressors. They're quiet, but they don't perform as well as compressor fridges, and must be kept level to operate.
Three-ways come into their own if you're spending a long time in a remote location as one LPG cylinder can keep your fridge frosty for weeks – well beyond the capacity of a battery setup.
- The most versatile in terms of power sources.
- Run for several weeks on a single gas fill.
- You may not need a complicated dual-battery system.
- Almost silent.
- Must be level to operate, so not suited to constantly moving around.
- Inefficient when running on 12 volts and will rapidly drain batteries.
- Require good ventilation, so not ideal for tightly sealed caravans.
- Don't allow you to set a temperature, but instead will cool to a certain amount below ambient. Fine for mild weather, but not for temperature extremes.
- Don't perform as well as compressor fridges.
What about thermoelectric?
Thermoelectric fridges don't cool as well as other types and draw substantially more current. We've tested these in the past and found none could maintain safe food temperatures in anything but the mildest conditions, so they're only suitable for keeping pre-chilled drinks cool on the way to weekend sports or on a short drive home from the shops.
- If you're just keeping your lunch cold then you won't need freezer capability, but it's essential if you're away for more than a day or two.
- Dual-compartment fridges give you the luxury of a fridge and freezer in one and are the most convenient.
- Some clever single-compartment fridges can also do double duty by using a baffle between frozen items on the bottom and fresh food on the top. While not as convenient, you'll have more space overall as there's no dividing walls.
- You can also team a single compartment model with a cooler for the same effect by freezing ice bricks in the fridge overnight to keep drinks cold in the cooler the next day.
Portable camping fridges aren't cheap – expect to pay around $800–2000 for a 40–55L two-way, or $350–1300 for a three-way fridge.
Remember to factor in the cost of accessories like covers, mounting hardware, dual battery systems and other vehicle modifications to help you get the most out of your fridge.
Look for a portable fridge with low current draw, especially on 12 volts. This is a direct indication of how long your battery will last and how long your fridge will run for at your campsite, or in a parked vehicle. Five amps is quite high and one amp is quite low. Remember, vehicle temperature can climb rapidly, so your fridge will be working extra hard if you're parked in the sun with the windows up.
Consider a portable fridge's inbuilt battery protection, especially if you're running your fridge off your starting battery – look for a model that cuts out at a fairly high voltage to keep your battery from going flat. Deep cycling a regular car battery by using a portable fridge can reduce its life considerably, not to mention leaving you stranded, so you may want to install a dual-battery system for regular fridge use. Remember to factor this into the total cost of your fridge.
If you'll use your fridge at home then consider its impact on your electricity bill and look for an energy-efficient model. Portable fridges don't require an energy star rating, and they're mainly designed for 12-volt use, so even though they're small they may use as much power as a full-sized fridge. Consider a larger primary fridge instead and save the portable fridge for the weekend.
Check your fridge has the correct connector for your vehicle. An Anderson type plug is ideal, but you may need to have one installed. Many portable fridges come with a cigarette lighter plug to fit your vehicle's accessory socket, but these plugs aren't ideal for high current draw applications like fridges. They can even unplug when you hit a bump, turning your fridge off completely.
Robust mounting hardware is essential to prevent your fridge tipping over on sharp corners or becoming a projectile in an accident. Look for sturdy mounting points to keep your fridge in place, and make sure there's corresponding tie-down points in your vehicle.
If you take your outdoor adventuring seriously (let's face it, if you're buying a portable fridge then you do), then you may want a dedicated mounting kit, and there's a variety of OEM and aftermarket mounting kits available for most fridges. Make sure kits are compatible with both your fridge and vehicle, and that it's easy to attach and remove your fridge when you get home or into camp. A fridge slide can make accessing fridges easier, and a drop slide makes it an absolute breeze – especially if your 4x4 has been lifted. You could also consider shock-minimisation options such as a foam base.
Look for thick walls and insulation as this can reduce load on your compressor. Also consider outer casing materials – metal is durable but conducts heat more readily than plastic. Optional thermal covers provide additional insulation.
Your fridge needs to be able to withstand the rigours you're going to subject it to, so look for durable construction, strong hinges and tough casings. A quality fridge should be able to take the weight of someone standing on it.Portable fridges are also made with a variety of casing materials, so consider what's right for your application – metal is tough and suitable for heavy duty applications, plastic can flex a little so it's a good choice for touring, and fibreglass is strong and impervious to corrosion, so it's ideal for marine applications.
The compressor is the heart of your fridge, so choosing a fridge with a good one should keep you in business for many years. Look for portable fridges with name-brand compressors like SECOP (Danfoss), Sawa, Fuji or Waeco.
Vents and evaporator position
Check the location of evaporators and cooling surfaces and consider the location of vents and fans – these will need good airflow for your fridge to function properly, so make sure they're not going to be obstructed in your vehicle.
Check how easy the controls are to set and to adjust in order to maintain the right temperature when conditions change.
Removable baskets make accessing things in a deep or single-compartment fridge easier. Look for baskets that are easy to clean.
A cover can help keep your portable fridge insulated so it works more efficiently, reducing your current draw and providing scratch protection. Check if covers are available to suit your fridge, and ensure covers don't obstruct controls, vents or access. Check if a cover comes as standard or must be purchased separately.
Spare parts availability
Even the best-made portable fridge may break down, and you'll probably be far from home when it happens. Look for brands with a national distribution network and a good reputation for after-sales support as this means spare parts are more likely to be readily available. Don't dismiss smaller brands out of hand though – many of them provide great after-sales service and bend over backwards to get you back on the road again.
If you've got a custom 4x4 setup then why not add a custom portable fridge? Going bespoke means freedom to choose sizes, shapes, mounting options and even thermostat types to suit your specific requirements, just like the rest of your vehicle. A one-of-a-kind camping fridge may be more affordable than you think, and gives you campfire bragging rights.