Portable units are a great option for adventurers with multiple vehicles or where vehicle space is limited. While cheaper car coolers from big box stores may look the part, for a fraction of the price, do not fool yourself into believing that they are similar in any way. Portable fridge freezers from manufacturers are designed with durability, efficiency, and longevity in mind. Prices start around $600 and climb into the $2,500 range as size and features expand. To be quite honest… an overland fridge is probably the coolest piece of gear in any serious camp kitchen.
Things to consider…
- The duration and number of people on the trips you typically take
- What really needs to be refrigerated (consider keeping things like extra soda outside the fridge until other items are consumed)
- Will you use a portable fridge freezer alongside a traditional cooler like a Yeti
- Do you need a fridge? A freezer? Both?
- How and where will the unit be mounted (multiple vehicles or single vehicle, hard mounted or on a fridge slider, in a small difficult to access space or in a large van or SUV)
Things to look for…
- Ability to operate on both household electricity and 12-volt car power (AC/DC compatible)
- Easy cleanup
- Low running current (below 3 Amps is best, 3-4 is acceptable)
- Danfoss or Swing Compressor
- Low voltage auto off
- Interior lighting
- Able to operate on an incline (most are good for 30 degrees or so)
ARB is among the best-known names in the off-road industry, and their line of fridge freezers are likely the most ubiquitous. Customer support and parts availability should be above average. ARB also offers a wide range of accessories like covers and fridge slides.
ARB 12V Fridge Features and Specs
- 3 Year Warranty
- Available in 35 Liter (37 Quart), 47 Liter (50 Quart), 60 Liter (63 Quart), and 78 Liter (82 Quart) Capacities
- Secop Compressor
- Internal LED light
- Fruit and dairy compartment
- Removable lid
- Zinc steel exterior (powder coated)
- Drain plug
- Solar and generator compatible
- Integrated battery protection system
Engel is based out of Jupiter Florida and offers an unbelievably wide range of products (soft sided coolers, RV built-in refrigerators, roto-molded coolers to name a few). The prior generation ARB fridge was actually a rebadged Engel.
Engel Fridge Features and Specs
- 2 Year Warranty
- Available in 22 Quart, 34 Quart, 40 Quart (marine model), 43 Quart, 64 Quart, and 84 Quart Capacities
- Solar power compatible
- UL Approved
- Offers a “combi” model (separate fridge and freezer compartments)
- Engel Swing Motor Compressor
Originally developed to meet the medical vaccine storage demands of the World Health Organization, National Luna provides some of the best portable refrigerators available. They are designed and built in South Africa. They are beautifully made as well as efficient and durable. However, that come with a price tag much higher than their competitors. Expect to pay around $1,600 for their smaller unit and as high as $2,600 for their largest units.
National Luna Fridge Features and Specs
- 3 Year Warranty
- Headquartered, engineered and built in South Africa
- Vast selection of sizes (40-125 Liters)
- Offers “combi” models (separate fridge and freezer compartments)
- LED lighting
- Recessed monitor and controls
- Stainless steel body
Waeco / Dometic
In most countries, this line of fridge freezer bears the Waeco name, but in the US you will find the units marketed as Dometic fridge freezers. You have probably heard the Dometic name if you’re familiar with Airstreams, Winnebagos, or similar recreational vehicles. Their portable fridge freezer units are typically significantly cheaper than their Engel or ARB counterparts. The CFX models are reportedly more robust than the CF line they replaced.
Dometic 12 volt Fridge Features and Specs (CFX)
- 3 Year Warranty (5 years on compressor)
- Detachable lid
- Waeco compressor
- USB port on CFX models
- Polypropylene Construction
- Swap the CFX’s hinges from one side to the other
- Some models have an available Android/iPhone App
SnoMasterUSA offers a great fridge at a great price. They’re also one of the best looking 12 volt portable refrigerators you’ll encounter. SnowMaster wraps their quality componentry in a stainless steel cladding that makes passersby take a second look. We have to admit the stainless exterior is what caught our eye at Overland Expo. Beyond looks, they also offer some incredible kits; complete with fridge cover, bottle opener, wireless remote, and more baskets than the competition.
Speaking of the competition… SnoMaster offers a ton of variants. They have a ton of sizes, compartment configurations, and multiple product lines. They even offer a SnoMaster console fridge that sits comfortably between the seats of some 4×4’s. But, if we were forced to choose just one Snowmaster Fridge it would be the CL56D C60D (pictured above). It’s a perfect size for most rigs, and offers dual zones in a size smaller than competing dual zone options.
SnoMaster Fridge Features and Specs
- Wide Range of Sizes and Configurations
- 5 Year Compressor Guarantee
- Proprietary Compressor
- “Honeycomb Pattern” Case Hides/Resists Scratches
- Stainless Steel Locks, Hinges, Latches
- Multiple Baskets
- Low Voltage Shutoff
- Available Low Profile Models (18.5″ Tall)
- Lid Open Alarm
- Low Current Draw (about 2.5 to 5 amps)
12v Fridge Accessories & Upgrades
There are quite a few ways to make life even easier after you purchase the 12v refrigerator. From sensors to slides there is something to fix almost any perceived shortcoming. Here are just a few of the best accessories for the hub of your overland kitchen.
Fridge Tie Downs
Securing your fridge should be a no brainer. It’s kind of heavy, and when loaded with cold cuts and cold ones it’s even heavier. There’s no reason to skimp here… this is a safety issue. You take precautions to keep your overland fridge from taking flight.
Plus pretty much every manufacturer makes a tie down kit. Or you can DIY one of your own. That’s what we did in the Land Cruiser. We used short L-Track anchor points and cargo straps to strap our ARB fridge down to our DIY drawer system. It was pretty affordable, and our fridge slide has a bit of slop… so bypassing the slide tie down points stopped any squeaks and rattles.
There are some downsides to our DIY method. The biggest is that we have to remove the straps to use the slide.
Some manufacturers also offer mounting plates. Engel makes a really nice one that looks super clean in applications where a slider isn’t necessary.
Overland Fridge Sliders
If you’re adding a fridge to the back of an SUV, you should budget for a slider. When we first put ours in the 100 Series, we had to remove the lid from our fridge to gain access. It was just too tall perched above our drawer system. Now, a hard to access fridge is great if you’re on a diet… but it’s terrible when you’re trying to prepare a meal. We got a [easyazon_link identifier=”B071JSLTWV” locale=”US” tag=”s0b9420-20″]Dometic Fridge Slide[/easyazon_link]because it was ultra affordable. However, if money were no object we’d have one of the drop down models like the one from Eezi-Awn. Either way though; a fridge slide at any price is a great upgrade.
One last Land Cruiser tidbit… before this goes from a fridge buyer’s guide to a 100 Series feature. We didn’t really need a remote thermostat initially. The rear window reflected the ARB control panel’s current temperature reading. That was great… until we realized that temperature inside a 12v fridge varies, and that the reading isn’t incredibly accurate. The fridge’s sensor is located in the bottom of the unit near the cooling element. Which makes readings colder than the average temperature inside the fridge.
To remedy this shortcoming is to pick up a remote sensor (some are wireless.. some are not). Almost every manufacturer offers one, but there are other options available. For example, we’re fans of Sensor Push. This is a Bluetooth sensor that measures temperature and humidity, then sends it to an app on your smartphone. Not only does the app provide current readings it will graph minute by minute readings for a very, very long time. That might not seem very impressive to those of you who aren’t data nerds, but if you are some pretty cool “experiments” an ensue. For example; you could test how well a transit bag insulates.
Wiring and Battery Monitoring
One of the accessories a lot of people skip is a wiring kit. We did. But, that’s not always a good idea. It’s definitely not smart if you’re connecting the fridge to a socket that is “hot” only when the key is in the ignition switch. It’s also a good idea to upgrade wiring because, chances are, a wiring kit will be more robust and reliable than the factory cigarette lighter. Most 12 volt fridge manufacturers offer a kit, but you can assemble one on your own with a little know-how and some free time. This also lets you add outlets (like USB ports or multiple cigarette lighter receptacles).
If you do upgrade the wiring… you can also include a inline voltmeter to monitor the battery. It’s not necessary by any means. But, it is nice to see where you are regarding state of charge. Like every other accessory we’ve mentioned… many manufacturers offer an inline monitor. But, if you’re handy with electrical tools and such, you can definitely add your own.