Best 12 Volt Portable Refrigerator Freezer For 2017
You really love to go camping. You love to go for days on end into the wild with your Jeep. Or you are having an all-day tailgating party at the stadium. Maybe you have a big family to feed for a weeklong tent camping trip, and a cooler just isn't going to hack it with the ice melting all over your food.
You're in luck! Now there is such a thing as a true 12-volt portable refrigerator in today's market and it might just be your new best friend.
RVers, overlanders, and day trippers have all benefitted from having a small portable refrigerator in their vehicles. Sure, a 'regular' cooler or a 12-volt cooler might do the job and a 12-volt portable fridge might seem like overkill. It all depends on your needs.
The only type of TRUE portable refrigerator is one with a compressor. There are absorption coolers and thermoelectric coolers that may act like a refrigerator in that they also use an outside power source to work, but the temperature inside the unit cannot be controlled like a true compressor portable refrigerator freezer can.
If you’re looking for a portable refrigerator that can actually keep meat and other foods at refrigerator temperatures for days at a time, then you must go with a compressor style portable refrigerator. These 12-volt units serve as portable refrigerator freezers which mean you can set the temperature and it will keep food cool (or frozen) just as the fridge in your house does.
Some of these 12v refrigerator freezers (or coolers) come only with a DC plug (cigarette lighter style). If you want to plug into A/C power, you will have to buy a separate AC cord.
Know this: a compressor style portable refrigerator is not cheap. However, having one sure can enhance your camping or car trip experience and avoid food getting ruined by an inferior type of cooling system.
12-Volt Portable Refrigerators Compared
The Best 12-Volt Portable Refrigerator Reviews
We broke down refrigerators into a few different categories so you can find the one that will best meet your criteria. These include the best overall 12-volt portable refrigerator freezers, the best dual zone refrigerator freezers, and the best 12-volt coolers. Each of these serve a different need, so let's get to reading and find out which best suits your needs!
For more information on these portable fridge freezers, read our guide on portable refrigerators found below the reviews.
Portable 12-Volt Refrigerator Guide
There are times when an ice cooler will do the job you need. There are also times when you need food to be cooled for longer than an ice cooler can accommodate. In cases like these, you need a portable electric cooler or refrigerator. When it comes to portable cooling systems, there are three basic types of powered units that you can choose from:
Knowing the difference between the three is the key to getting the right one for your needs. Let's start with compressor refrigerators.
Portable Compressor Refrigerators
Portable compression refrigerators are different from any other type of portable 'cooler' in that they work exactly like your home refrigerator by using a compressor to control the temperature.
Pros Of A Compression Refrigerator
- Minimal power consumption
- Compressor allows you to put the temperature where you want it
- Functions when level or on an incline
- May be used as a fridge or a freezer
- Works the best out of the three types
Cons Of A Compression Refrigerator
The portable compressor refrigerator is the only true refrigerator of this bunch. You can set the temperature on these so they can act as a fridge OR a freezer, and after using it a few times, you can easily figure out how to keep food at a temperature that meets your needs.
By using a partition properly in a dual zone 12 volt refrigerator freezer, you can set it to freezing but have the partition block enough cold to make the other side cool enough to keep foods from spoiling.
These compressor units are usually able to be set to a specific temperature and are not so affected by the outside temperature. However, if the outside temperature changes, the temps inside your fridge CAN be affected, so setting a temperature and leaving it can be problematic.
These units run off of DC power, so you can run it off of your car or RV battery. They are pretty power efficient so they don't use a lot of battery power. Of course the hotter it is outside, the harder your fridge will have to work. The harder it works, the more battery power it will use.
Today's compressor units are very energy efficient. They may consume less than 1 amp/hr. Much like a home refrigerator, these compressor units don't run ALL the time. They cycle on and off to regulate the temperature inside. The hotter it is outside, the more they will have to run. Therefore, if you are using it in warm areas, it might be a good idea to get its own dedicated battery to power it to avoid draining your vehicle's battery.
Know that most of today's units come with a sensor that will stop using power from a battery once it is reaching a certain low voltage level so you aren't left stranded. If you will be using it a lot, a separate, dedicated battery for your refrigerator is a good idea.
If you do get a separate battery, you need something that will recharge it. You could use solar, or recharge it using a portable generator. Either way, you are looking at an even higher price point unless you already have the means to recharge the battery.
These units are little noisy. It's not bad but you will hear it when it's plugged in, similar to the way you would hear your fridge in your house, only quieter. Usually they fire up and you will hear the compressor for the first minute or two, then after that they will quiet down.
Another benefit of a portable compressor refrigerator is that it will function properly whether it is level or if it's on an incline. An absorption cooler will NOT function properly unless it is totally level.
We highly recommend this type of refrigerator over any other type if you are needing refrigeration for over a day or two.
Portable Absorption Refrigerators
This type of fridge can run off of three types of power: AC, DC or LP gas. This might make it seem like the ideal candidate, but before you jump, read on.
Pros Of An Absorption Refrigerator
- Can run off of multiple power sources
- Very efficient when running on gas
Cons Of An Absorption Refrigerator
- Will NOT function properly unless totally level
- Cannot set a temperature
- Can only cool to about 30 degrees below ambient temperature
- Uses ten times the electric power of other portable units
This type of refrigerator uses TEN TIMES the power that a compressor refrigerator uses. If you are running this off of your vehicle battery, you might be in for a jump-start. If you get this type, you will definitely want to have a dual battery system so you can run it strictly off of a dedicated battery. In this case, you must have a way to recharge this battery, so take that into consideration as well.
They DO run very efficiently on gas. Remember, you either have to bring an ample supply of gas with you or you need to be able to refill along your route. This type of cooler must be vented if you are using it on gas. Make sure you have adequate space for this.
Absorption refrigerators can only go as low as around 30 degrees below the outside temperature. Not so good in extreme heat- anything over 80 degrees.
This type of refrigerator needs to be TOTALLY level to function properly. This means that when you arrive at your campsite, if your unit is staying in your vehicle, it has to be totally level. This is not always possible.
We haven't found an absorption refrigerator on the market that is available that truly portable. They tend to be more sized like a college refrigerator. Therefore, we don't recommend this type as a portable unit.
Many refrigerators that are built-in to RVs are absorption refrigerators.
Portable Thermoelectric Coolers
This kind of cooler is not a very good candidate for keeping food safe long-term. It's best for just keeping goods cold on the way home from the store or keeping a dish warm. They just don't cool well enough and don't give you the best control over the temperature.
Pros Of A Thermoelectric Cooler
- Good for one-off uses, one day total
- They can cool AND warm. However, they cannot keep food heated at a high temperature, nor cool and warm at the same time.
Cons Of A Thermoelectric Cooler
- Pretty worthless in temperatures over 77 degrees Fahrenheit
- Uses a lot of battery power
- Unable to set a temperature/tends to be too cool or too warm for your needs
This type of unit will create a major drain on your battery and they are quite noisy. During testing, they have failed in keeping food adequately warm enough to store hot food safely.
After reaching about 77 degrees outside, these units are unable to keep your food and liquids cool.
It is not recommended to add ice to this type of cooler.
This type of plugin cooler typically eats up 3-5 amps of power. These 12-volt coolers are only able to cool to a certain amount of degrees below the outside air temperature. Therefore the warmer it is outside, the warmer the inside of the cooler will be, and will typically only be able to cool to their lowest temperature when the outside air temperature is below 77º Fahrenheit (25º C). Because you cannot precisely control the temperature inside of a 12v cooler, they generally tend to be either too cold or too warm for your needs.
On a positive note, the thermoelectric cooler can also be 'reversed' so that it makes food warm. Temperatures cannot get much higher than around 150-degrees, so it is not ideal for long-term storage of warm foods.
This cooler is best for day trips when you don't need food to be cool for very long. However, if you don't need to be able to keep food warm, a regular ice cooler usually does the same job just as well for less money.
Price Ranges Between Portable Coolers & Refrigerators
Besides just the compressor aspect, there is one other big difference between 12-volt coolers and true compressor style portable refrigerators. The price.
A typical high-quality thermoelectric 12-volt cooler will likely cost you around $100 – $300.
A good compressor-based 12V refrigerator can range from the mid hundreds of dollars up to over a thousand dollars. If you really need a 12V compressor refrigerator and not just a cooler, it's worth it for what you get. If you only need a day's worth of cooling for some beverages and sandwiches for your picnic, a cooler is the way to go.
Decide what you will be mostly using your unit for, then you can decide whether you really need a true portable refrigerator with a compressor, or if you can get by with a thermoelectric 12v cooler.
Having a portable refrigerator is extremely handy if you need to keep your food safe and cold for extended periods of time. They are great for off-roading and to have extra storage space in your RV for longer trips off the grid. Maybe you have a huge family and need to bring along enough food to feed everyone.
Now you have the tools to decide what portable refrigerator will work best for you. Whatever you pick, just make sure you get out there and use it.
Camp on, Addicts!