Portable Refrigerator Guide: Find The Perfect Small Fridge

(Camp Addict does NOT accept payment from any company to review or endorse their products.)

There are many times that a portable refrigerator freezer could benefit your life. 

This page will teach you the differences between:

  • a portable refrigerator (with a compressor)
  • a portable absorption refrigerator. 
Portable Refrigerator Reviews

You will also find out which type of portable 12-volt refrigerator will be best for your particular needs.

Do you really need a true refrigerator or will an absorption cooler suffice?

Want to know which portable refrigerator is the best? Click the button below to read our portable refrigerator reviews.

Portable Refrigerator Guide

There's a bit to learn about portable fridges and freezers, including the three different kinds and what exactly is the difference between an electric cooler and a refrigerator.

So let's get to the learning!

Is It A Cooler Or A Refrigerator?

RVers, Overlanders, and day-trippers have all benefitted from having a small portable refrigerator in their vehicles.

Let's make sure we all know- the only type of TRUE portable 'refrigerator' is one that has a compressor. 

If it doesn't have a compressor, it is a 'cooler'. 

Sure, an ice cooler or a 12-volt cooler might do the job and a 12-volt refrigerator might be overkill.

It all depends on your needs.

There are absorption coolers and thermoelectric coolers that may 'act' like a refrigerator in that they also use an outside power source to work.

Dometic TC-14 Tropicool portable cooler plugs

However, the temperature inside the unit cannot be controlled like a true compressor portable refrigerator freezer can.

Perhaps you are going Overlanding with friends

Then you are looking for a portable refrigerator that can keep meat and other foods at refrigerator temperatures for days at a time.

These 12-volt units serve as portable refrigerator freezers which mean you can set the temperature and it will keep food cool (or frozen) for the duration.

 Just like your home refrigerator can.

Some of these 12-volt 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.

Which is Cheaper?

Know this- a compressor refrigerator is going to be much more expensive than an absorption refrigerator.

This is due to it having a compressor and having the ability to adjust the temperature to your exact specification.

No, compressor refrigerators are 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.

There are times when an ice cooler or an absorption cooler will suffice.

Three Types Of Cooling Systems

There are times when your food needs 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 portable 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

Dometic CF-25 portable car refrigerator

Portable compression refrigerators are different from any other type of portable 'cooler'.

How?  

They work exactly like your home refrigerator by using a compressor to control the temperature.

Pros and Cons 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
  • Price

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.

After using it a few times, you can easily figure out how to keep food at the temperature you need.

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.

Therefore, setting a temperature and leaving it can be problematic. 

Portable Fridge home page 3

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.

This will avoid draining your vehicle's battery.

If you will be using it a lot, a separate, dedicated battery for your refrigerator is almost a requirement. 

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. 

Dometic CFX-28 12v fridge freezer open

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, now you are looking at an even higher price point unless you already have the means to recharge the battery.

These units are a 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.

Want to know which portable refrigerator is the best? Click the button below to read our portable refrigerator reviews.

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 and Cons of an Absorption Refrigerator:

  • Can run off of multiple power sources
  • Very efficient when running on propane
  • Will NOT function properly unless totally (or very close to) 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 than what a portable 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 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 consider that 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.

Dometic CF-50 portable refrigerator interior

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 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 truly portable.

They tend to be 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 and Cons 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.
  • Pretty worthless in temperatures over 77 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Noisy
  • 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.

They are also 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.

It 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. 

Who Needs a 12-Volt Portable Refrigerator?

A 12v refrigerator can have many different use scenarios, a few of which are shown below.

But the best part of a portable mini fridge is that it doesn't have to be used just one way.

Use it in your house as an AC/DC refrigerator in the den.

Or take it along on the occasional road trip where you want to have your own food so you don't eat out so much.

As cliché as this sounds, the possibilities of how you can use a 12v mini-fridge are virtually endless.

  • Camping - You may be looking for a camping refrigerator to keep your food cool as you enjoy a bit of the outdoors. This can either be a supplemental 12v RV refrigerator or a portable mini fridge you keep in the car while you sleep in a tent.
  • Road Trip - A portable car refrigerator may be just what you are looking for to bring along with you on that great road trip across the country. Or you may just need a car fridge to transport your contribution to the weekly pot luck at grandma's house across town.
  •  Trucking - You may be looking for a semi-truck refrigerator to store food as you criss-cross the country. A 12-volt refrigerator for trucks can mean bringing healthier foods along with you, or just a place to keep your favorite beverage cool.
  • Cabin - Need a battery-powered refrigerator for your little cabin in the woods that you spend the occasional weekend at? A 12-volt mini-fridge may be exactly what you need to keep to bring along the necessary supplies for that perfect breakfast on the deck overlooking the lake. Sigh...

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.

Price.

A typical high-quality thermoelectric 12-volt cooler will likely cost you around $100 – $300.

Stack of 100 dollar bills

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.

Want to know which portable refrigerator is the best? Click the button below to read our portable refrigerator reviews.

Conclusion

What is going to work best for you depends on your needs and habits. 

You now know the difference between having a compressor unit and an absorption unit and the pros and cons of each. 

A good cooler/refrigerator can make a wonderful addition to your RV life, Overlanding, or everyday lifestyle habits.

If you are looking to get one, you can read our 12-volt portable refrigerator reviews to find the best ones on the market.

Camp Addict Kelly
Kelly Beasley

Kelly Beasley is co-founder of Camp Addict and loves sharing her enthusiasm for the RVing lifestyle. As a full-time RVer since May 2015, Kelly's playful writing style helps make learning about the sometimes dull subject of RV products a bit more interesting.


Marshall Headshot
Marshall Wendler

Camp Addict co-founder Marshall Wendler brings his technical expertise to help explain RV products in an easy to understand fashion. Full-time RVing since April 2014, Marshall loves sharing his knowledge of the RV lifestyle.

  • Thank you for your brief explanation of the differences on refrigerator/freezers and coolers. You have helped me decide on compressor units. I live fulltime in an a class motorhome and my tow-behind is a Jeep.

    I just have to decide on the size, brand source for the product.

  • I’m curious what size refrigerator you would recommend for a micro camper conversion in a mini van. I was thinking a dual zone would be nice and it’s just me, not a family to feed. Im thinking something that could fit the passenger floorboard until I have a passenger.

    Any size and brand reccomendedations? Also some seem not allowed to ship to Ca where I am in LA

    • Hey David,

      Ah yes, the famous ‘what size do I need’ question. You know, the one where I answer, ‘it depends’.

      And it really does depend on your own personal situation. How long do you want to go without grocery shopping? Do you normally use a lot of refrigerated food, or are you a dried goods and canned goods type of eater?

      So, yeah, I cannot give you any idea what size portable refrigerator you need because it’s a very personal question.

      I have a 7 (or maybe it’s an 8?) cubic foot refrigerator and it’s perfect. Except when it’s not (I want to buy a lot of produce or otherwise don’t expect to be near a grocery store for 2+ weeks). And I have friends who have a much smaller fridge and they make it work. You adapt to whatever size you have.

      I don’t know how you are doing the conversion, but if you have a decent sized battery/solar setup and a decent sized inverter, you could go the dorm fridge route that runs off 120-volts. They are a lot cheaper, but do require a more extensive electrical setup.

      If you only have 12-volts to use, then you will need to get a 12-volt portable refrigerator.

      You can see our recommendations here.

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