Keeping your food cold on a camping trip is a necessity. You might get away with a cooler of ice for a few days, but it won’t be long before your ice melts and you’ll need to run into town. That’s fine if you’re camping in the city, but it can be a serious pain in remote camping spots. Thankfully there’s another solution! You might want to check out a 12 volt camping fridge.
Are Camping Fridges Worth It? Yes a camping fridge is worth it if you’re on the road for a few days at a time. They’re convenient, much lighter than a cooler, and capable of keeping food for extended periods of time. Plus you won’t have to deal with replacing ice and worrying about your food getting soggy. Keep in mind that they’re more for traveling on the road than using at the actual site.
There are a bunch of different camping fridges that you can choose from, so how do you know which one is right for you? You really need to think about your individual camping needs and figure out what kind of power source you’ll have nearby. There’s no reason to buy a camping fridge if you don’t have access to power. Keep reading to find out a few of the most important purchasing decisions and I’ll go over a few of my favorite camping fridges.
Are Camping Fridges Worth It?
You should definitely consider picking up a camping fridge if you plan on doing a lot of traveling. Just keep in mind that they’re designed more for keeping food/beverages cold while traveling in the car. They draw a lot of power and you won’t get more than 2-3 days worth of food inside.
It will drain your vehicles battery fast when the engines not running. On longer trips you’ll either need to use a generator, propane refrigerator (RV Setup), or pay special attention to your cars battery. Plan on bringing a generator to run during the day so you don’t have to worry about draining your cars battery.
You can plug it into the vehicle overnight if you make sure the coolers already cold and you wake up early to start up the car. It’s still a risky situation, so make sure you have a way to jump the car if you accidentally drain the battery.
Personally, I would use a regular cooler while camping and the 12 volt fridge while travelling to/from the campsite. That’s the only way to get your drinks really cold and you’ll still save some money on ice. Having ice cold beer all night is worth the $2-3 on a bag of ice.
- Lighter Than An Ice Filled Cooler: You’ll save a lot of weight without all that water/ice in your refrigerator.
- Great For Medications: I picked up my first camping fridge back in the mid 90s when my father went on insulin. He needed to keep his medicine refrigerated while we traveled. I never went back after realizing how nice they are for storing food.
- More Room For Food: There will be more room for food since half your cooler won’t be filled with ice/water. You can fit a weekends worth of food for 3 people in a 20 quart fridge and a weeks worth in a 40 quart.
- Reasonably Priced: A high quality insulated cooler will be about the same price as an entry level camping fridge. Plan on spending $200-300 on the typical budget camping fridge (check out thermo-electric camping fridges on Amazon). More if you want to buy a propane absorption fridge(which I recommend).
- No Watery Mess: I almost always end up with soggy food when I put it in an ice filled cooler. Containers leak and you always end up with some kind of mess. That doesn’t happen with a camping fridge.
- No More Ice: Ice really isn’t all that expensive, but I hate driving into town every morning for ice. I bought one of those fancy fake Yeti Coolers from Walmart, but I would still need to drive into town once or twice on a week long trip.
A Few Downsides You Need To Consider
There are 3 main downsides to using a camping fridge. They’re great on short camping trips when you have access to power, but you won’t be taking them into the backcountry.
- Expensive: Plan on spending at least $200 on a camping fridge. They last forever so it’s a great investment, but it will take a while to make up the ice savings. I’ve been using the same fridge I bought in the 90s.
- Provide Power: I don’t care how careful you are, you will accidentally drain your car battery at some point. Some days you’ll get 12 hours of life on your truck and others you’ll get 6. It all depends on how hot it is outside and how jam packed the cooler is.
- Small Capacity: Don’t plan on fitting a 24 pack of beer and all your food for the weekend in a camping fridge. You can maybe fit 6 drinks and 2-3 days worth of food. I only store my meat, dairy, and medicine in my fridge.
I recommend bringing a larger ice filled cooler to store the bulk of your beverages and anything that can get a little wet. That will save a lot of space in your cooler and guarantees you’ll always have a cold beer.
Different Camping Fridge Types
There are 3 main types of camping fridges, but most people will want to stick to an absorption fridge. This is the typical refrigerator you’ll find in most camping trailers and small RVs.
- Absorption Fridge: The typical RV/Van/Trailer camper will want to buy a propane absorption fridge since they require the least amount of power. It’s basically a dorm mini fridge that doesn’t drain your battery. I use this propane version, but you might want to save some money on a 110/12 volt version. You won’t drain your battery with the propane, but they’re expensive.
- Thermoelectric Fridge: These are the tiny cooler looking refrigerators that you see at tailgate parties. They’re all basically the same so buy whichever one fits into your price range (check them out on Amazon). Thermoelectric fridges are portable and easy to use, but they don’t get that cold. These are great for meats/cheese, but I wouldn’t want to chill beverages with one (ice is better).
- Compression Fridge: This is your typical mini fridge that you’d use in a house. These can only be used if you’re powering it with a generator or have electric hookups on the campsite.
Buy An Absorption Fridge For RVs and Campers
An absorption fridge works on propane, 110V power, and can even plug into your cars 12v cigarette lighter. I picked up this 3 Way Propane fridge for my van camper. They’re not cheap so be prepared. The only downside is you need to setup a permanent propane setup or hook it into a portable 20lb tank. It also needs to be perfectly level so pay attention to where you park.
You can save some money by not getting a propane version, but you risk draining your vehicles battery. My parents have one of these Smad Absorption Fridges and they really love it. They keep it on their RVs counter when traveling to parks without electric hookups. This is a great option if you don’t want to deal with propane.
ThermoElectric Cooler Fridges
I’ve been taking an old therm-o-electric Marlboro cooler tailgating since the mid 90s. It’s just like carrying a regular cooler but you don’t need to fill it with ice. They’re light, last forever, use very little energy, and don’t take up a ton of space. Plus they’re by far the cheapest camping fridge costing $200-300 (check them out on Amazon).
They really don’t use all that much power. It’s basically like leaving a radio running in your car. A few hours isn’t a big deal, but I wouldn’t let it run all night long. Wake up early and make sure you run the car for a bit before bed.
However, there’s one major downside to thermo-electric coolers. They don’t get very cold! Mine gets down to about 50° F, which is great for food, but terrible for drinks. Your food won’t get wet/soggy so that’s a major plus, but It’s basically like drinking room temperature beer and water. So I would definitely fill up a small cooler with ice for drinks if you plan on going this route.
This is basically your typical household refrigerator. These can only be used with a gas/propane generator so tread carefully. You don’t want to go with a compression fridge if you’re camping in a tent. Plan on being up all night with a noisy generator and picking up ice in the morning because you’re sick of it.
How Do I Power My Camping Fridge?
There are 3 main options for running a camping fridge. You can either run it off a 110 volt outlet (typical wall outlet), 12 volt DC receptacle (car cigarette lighter port), or use propane gas tanks with absorption fridges. I’ll go over each of these options but I’d either get a generator or buy a propane absorption fridge. \
12 Volt DC Receptacle
A 12 volt DC receptacle is just a fancy name for your cars cigarette lighter port. This is the most common power source for camping coolers. Simply plug the provided cable into your cars cigarette port and you’re good to go. You can usually plug these coolers into a typical wall outlet as well.
The main problem to using 12 volt is that it draws power from your car, which will drain your battery. That’s not a big deal while driving, but it’s not a great option for camping overnight. It will take a few hours to drain your battery, but you’ll need to be careful. The best practice is to leave the cooler plugged in while driving and unplugged overnight. Consider buying a generator to power the fridge on longer camping trips.
AC Power (Standard Outlet)
This is the most common option for RVers since you can plug in the refrigerator into a standard 110 volt outlet. You basically have three options when going this route. Plug into the campsites hookups, use a small generator, or plug into a cars inverter(drain the battery). A quiet gas/propane generator is probably the best way to go.
Almost every camping fridge will have the option to run off of a standard wall outlet. It’s great because you can use the fridge anywhere, but it draws a lot of power.
Some of the more expensive 3-way absorption fridges run off of propane gas, 110 volt or DC. This is definitely the way to go if you plan on camping in a small RV or camper van. Simply hook up the fridge to a 20lb propane tank and you’re good to go. The only downside is the fridge needs to be perfectly flat, but they’re easy enough to level.
Tips For Using A Camping Fridge
A camping fridge is pretty straightforward, but you still want to follow a few tips to improve the performance of your fridge. Remember that most camping fridges aren’t all that powerful so you’ll have to keep a few things in mind. Here are some useful tips to get the most out of your camping fridge.
- Don’t overload the fridge. It takes a long time for a camping fridge to cool down so try to avoid stuffing it to the brim. Fill the fridge 1/2-3/4 full and slowly add additional food once it’s reached the correct temperature.
- Store food in the freezer the night before your trip. You want everything to be cold so the fridge doesn’t have to work as hard. It takes a few hours to lower the temperature from room temperature to chilled.
- Keep beverages on ice. I don’t know about you, but I want my beer/drinks to be ice cold. A camping fridge can only get down to about 50°F. That’s a safe temperature for food, but drinks will taste warm.
- Don’t use the car battery to power the fridge. Your car battery will drain fast. It’s basically like running a radio in the car. Unless the cars running it will be dead in 2-3 hours. Run it while driving the car and switch over to a generator once you get there.
- Keep the cooler in the shade so it doesn’t have to work as hard
- Give hot food time to cool before putting it in the cooler.
Can I Use Any Mini Fridge Camping?
You might be able to get away with a mini fridge on a day trip, but they draw a lot of power. Just think about your power needs before bringing a fridge. Does your site have electric hookups or would you need to bring a small generator?
A mini fridge will drain a car battery fast! I used to take a small mini fridge tailgating for Ohio State Football games when I was younger. It would drain a battery in less than 30 minutes so I would hook it up to a small generator and leave it in the bed of my truck. Unfortunately that’s not always possible when you’re camping. You don’t want to leave your generator running all night long, keeping up the neighbors.
Camping coolers are designed with additional insulation and use less electricity. Just make sure the you get it cool while the cars running and only shut your car off after the cooler is already chilled. You should get at least 12 hours of run time out of that type of setup.
Just make sure you turn on your car a few times throughout the day so the battery doesn’t die. You might want to bring an external car jumper just in case!
Why Ditch The Cooler Completely?
There’s no substitute for a large hard sided cooler! Things like water, soda and beer do so much better on ice. I usually put everything that can get wet on ice and toss most of the food in the refrigerator. Things like lettuce, vegetables, meat, and dairy are better off in the refrigerator.