Home Gear Cooler vs Fridge: Which is right for you?
Cooler vs Fridge: Which is right for you?

Cooler vs Fridge: Which is right for you?

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Chilling Out! Fridge vs Cooler?!

Overlanding has more in common with tailgating than most would think. Once the destination is reached, the task at hand turns to unpacking, setting up, and (more often than not) preparing food. Most overland vehicles are equipped to carry a wide variety of supplies and tools to allow extensive travel off-road and on trails; one of these key pieces of equipment is the cooler or fridge. But how do you decide between expedition cooler vs fridge?

Let’s consider both and look at some popular options.

COOLERS

Portable and Versatile

Expedition Cooler vs Fridgeexpedition cooler vs fridge

Coolers have evolved considerably in the past decade. YETI kicked off the modern cooler trend with hyper insulated coolers, which keeps drink and food cold for 3-4 days. This heavier duty style has many different brand choices, from the aforementioned YETI, Pelican, ENGEL, Coleman, etc. These systems use a series of foam insulation and therm-molded plastic to retain coldness for much longer than your dad’s carry handle cooler. Prices can range between $40-$200 dollars for Colemans, and $300-$800+ for YETI coolers (depending on the size).

Most of these products use heavy duty O-Rings, latches, and purge valves to keep hot air out and cool air in. This means ice can last 2-3 days before completely melting. It can last even longer if you pre-chill the cooler before adding ice or cold packs.

Usage is Everything

A key factor in retaining internal temperature is minimizing the amount of times the cooler is opened and closed. For those who go the cooler route, we suggest having a two cooler system. One for meats, vegetables and other perishables, and a smaller second cooler for beverages and items that are accessed frequently. When the second cooler loses its ‘omph’, a single bag of ice is all that is needed to recharge it. (Assuming you are able to hit a small store or gas station during your journey.)

*Note from Corrie: We use 2 28 qt Coleman Xtreme Coolers: one in the back of the rig, and one for the easily accessible items. The second one fits in the back seat. You can’t argue with the price point and they do a great job!

Cooler #1 is for meat, veggies, eggs and other perishables we don’t need while driving.

The advantages of a cooler are that they can be easily loaded or removed from a vehicle, stored outside in the elements, and moved around your campsite. Most have spots for tie downs to be easily lashed or anchored into the storage area of your truck or SUV. They require no electricity and never really require maintenance. They can even be used as a step to reach up onto a roof rack if needed, and as an additional seat or food prep surface.

You’ll want to keep in mind that coolers create condensation as the ice melts, so don’t leave your eggs in the paper carton.

FRIDGE

Ice-cream on Demand

Expedition Cooler vs Fridge
Photo Credit: Isaac Marchionna

The other option is a fridge/freezer system such as ARB, National Luna, Dometic, SnoMaster, etc. Whatever brand you consider, they’re all a scaled down version of what you have in your kitchen. They are full refrigerators and require electricity to operate. Because of this you’ll need a constant hot 12v port to properly install  a fridge. These systems typically range in price from $600-$1000+.

Technical detail: Most vehicles shut off power to the 12v sockets when not in use, which would cause your fridge to unintentionally defrost. (No one wants their 3rd night steak to go bad.)

A wide assortment of food can be carried in a vehicle mounted fridge/freezer as long as power is supplied. You don’t have to add more ice or worry about food becoming soggy, or frozen foods melting. This allows for a wider variety of foods to be carried to an off-road/on trail campsite.

For daily use, even when not at the campsite, having a car fridge means cold drinks when stuck in traffic or snacks after a long day around town.

The one downside is power consumption; most fridges will typically run for 5-7 days before turning off from low voltage. Almost all quality fridges will shut down rather than drain a battery.

Volume and Capacity

Expedition Cooler vs Fridge
Photo Credit: Isaac Marchionna

The one commonality between these two systems is that the amount of storage space is smaller than the space they take up. Most are typically in the 40 to 50 qt range. This sounds like a lot, but for a long weekend you’ll find yourself running out of space quickly.

Expedition Cooler vs Fridge: Splitting Hairs

If you want to sleep in your rig and go on 3 – 4 day trips, we recommend cooler. If you regularly do trips longer than a week, and sleep outside the rig, a refrigerator is a GREAT option!

So which one is best? Ultimately, you don’t NEED either, but it makes the experience of exploring outdoors that much better. It elevates the trip beyond dehydrated food and bottled water. As with all gear, either choice has strengths and weaknesses. Your budget + desired comfort level + duration on an adventure will inform you more than any product review.

And besides, nothing is better after a long day on the trail trail like a cold drink or a nice fresh steak. How it gets there is up to you.

 

LawnDart

Professional Pixel Pusher and Camera Herder. Isaac is a long time crafter of images, and occasionally the randomly coherent written sentence. Believer that life is short, and making the most of the time you have.

Comment(45)

  1. I run a single group 27 deep cell marine battery in my Land Cruiser. That single battery handles ALL the chores….. winch, lights, rear winch, fridge/freezer, commo gear, etc. And I have had zero issues. (So far… knock on wood) I am preparing to put a 100 watt solar panel on my roof rack, just need to find one that I like. From what I’ve read/heard 100 watt’s is a perfect size for taking care of “everything” you may need to run! Fridge, coffee pot, radios, lights, etc.

  2. I love my ARB Fridge, it does a fantastic job keeping my food cold and was a huge help during Hurricane Irma when my power was out… I didn’t have to throw away food!

  3. I would go with the fridge setup.  I'm looking at putting solar panels on the roof rack for constant voltage.  I have a dual battery system already.  Anyone familiar with doing this kind of setup?

    That’s the way to go. We’re running a Snomaster 82d Expedition dual zone fridge freezer in our 80 series. I have a dual battery setup with an 80watt solar panel on the hood. Works pretty good![emoji1303]

    Sent from my iPhone using OB Talk

  4. I run a single group 27 deep cell marine battery in my Land Cruiser. That single battery handles ALL the chores….. winch, lights, rear winch, fridge/freezer, commo gear, etc. And I have had zero issues. (So far… knock on wood)  I am preparing to put a 100 watt solar panel on my roof rack, just need to find one that I like. From what I’ve read/heard 100 watt’s is a perfect size for taking care of “everything” you may need to run! Fridge, coffee pot, radios, lights, etc.

    100watt renogy kit on Amazon is the way to go. Comes with the panel, mounts, cables and charge controller. [emoji1303]

    Sent from my iPhone using OB Talk

  5. Really happy to see this discussion, I've been torn between cooler or fridge. I've see coolers (45 cubic non yeti) work just fine and able to hold ice for about 15 days. I'm not sure if I want to spend the money for an ARB fridge when I'm only out for 2 weeks at a time. If I was living out of my rig full time I'd use the fridge for sure.  I'm hoping for more information and input from other members before I make the purchase

  6. oh, fridge of course, no question. put a 100W solar panel on the roof and 90Ah in the back, and you’re good to go for a week if not more without firing up the engine ..

  7. I would go with the fridge setup.  I'm looking at putting solar panels on the roof rack for constant voltage.  I have a dual battery system already.  Anyone familiar with doing this kind of setup?

    that's what I have on my Xterra,.  Had my first low voltage issue last weekend.  4 days in northern maine in mostly rainy, cloudy weather and I didn't start of the weekend with topped off batteries 🙂 I'm only running 60 amp hours worth of battery capacity, which I didn't expect to be enough.–actually surprised how long I went without any issues.  I'll up that next time the batteries I use are on sale.

  8. I imagine the vast majority of people that would choose a cooler, even for a weekend getaway, are ones that haven’t experienced the bliss of a fridge. I have a NL 50 dual zone, and haven’t given the investment a second thought. It’s a complete game changer.
    We also use it when not on the trail or camping. As a “beer fridge” for get togethers, day trips, drive in movie, and emergency cold if our power goes out.
    And yes, you give up some of the storage room compared to its physical size, but you do the same with ice in a cooler.
    With a 90ah battery and 100w solar in our trailer, we can go almost indefinitely keeping our food cold.

  9. I would love a fridge, but just can't get around the price. I want to spend that on other upgrades. Ice is sometimes a pain, that will be helped with a quality cooler. I have spent weeks on the road and over 20 nights in the rtt this year and more planed this year. I will be getting a quality cooler and hope that will do the job for extended periods away from resources. I know fridge is the answer but I want to spend it elsewhere.

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  10. Peer pressure finally caught up to me at Expo East and now I’m the owner of a Dometic CFX 40 fridge. I joke about the peer pressure (*cough cough* @outwardbound) but it really just makes sense when you think about all the use you could potentially get out of the fridge and the amount of money you'd end up spending on ice. I'm so glad to be mostly done with ice and I think its almost funny how the new fridge and my Tundra 65 compare. Completely empty the fridge is only 10lbs heavier than my Yeti but that difference quickly disappears with ice. External dimensions are similar but internally the CFX 40 is a good bit larger than the Tundra 65 once you add ice. Using the 'cans' comparison the Yeti holds 39 while the Dometic's number is 60. One of the biggest things that I'll be glad to be done with is pulling things out of the ice and then having to dig the hole back out to put that item away. A real pain with a full cooler. My biggest sticking point was power. I have to give thanks to @outwardbound for alleviating that concern and showing me just how efficient and how easily it can be managed. The Outback isn't exactly 2 battery friendly so I'll be running a power pack and a Renogy 100w suitcase solar panel. Good riddance ice.

  11. After years of service, my Coleman cooler (barely in shape) got replaced by a RTIC 45 that was on sale (only reason i got one, and nope, won't touch a Yeti!).  The problem i have is that a 45qt cooler loses most its space from the ice.  I also use dry-ice for my long trips. Very effective, but not cheap.

    So now i have a (cheap used) 45qt fridge.  It is slimmer than the cooler and fits perfectly at back of my jeep.   If anything, i may want to add a small soft-side cooler for the beach.

    Only problem is you will gain more friends since they know you have cold beer stashed in your fridge.

  12. I use a fridge for food and a yeti for beverages, cocktail ice and backup just in case I ever have a fridge issue in the middle of nowhere. After using the fridge a lot over the last year I will never not have one. I would  pay twice as much for it now that I know how much nicer it is to have one. I have several yeti coolers that are great for drinks, fish, etc… but food gets wet in any cooler eventually and wet food sucks. Also, the more a cooler is opened the quicker the ice goes. I don’t mind too much about sorta cold beers swimming in icy water, but I don’t like sorta cold food swimming in icy water. Consistently cold and dry food that is easily organized in the two baskets that came with the fridge makes my trips so much nicer. I typically pack an emergency sixer in the bottom and I easily have enough room for several days of food for two people. The fridge necessary for a typical trip for me is much smaller than the cooler I use to need for the same stuff because of all over the room used up by ice. When I get back from a trip I easily pull the two baskets out of the fridge and put the leftovers back in the house fridge and don’t have to wonder if the mayo stayed cold enough or have to throw away a bag of cheese that was half full of water, etc… I typically work on my own stuff and build what I can to save money here and there, but the fridge is definitely a permanent luxury in my truck that is worth every penny.

    Sent from my iPhone using OB Talk

  13. Peer pressure finally caught up to me at Expo East and now I’m the owner of a Dometic CFX 40 fridge. I joke about the peer pressure (*cough cough* @outwardbound) but it really just makes sense when you think about all the use you could potentially get out of the fridge and the amount of money you'd end up spending on ice. I'm so glad to be mostly done with ice and I think its almost funny how the new fridge and my Tundra 65 compare. Completely empty the fridge is only 10lbs heavier than my Yeti but that difference quickly disappears with ice. External dimensions are similar but internally the CFX 40 is a good bit larger than the Tundra 65 once you add ice. Using the 'cans' comparison the Yeti holds 39 while the Dometic's number is 60. One of the biggest things that I'll be glad to be done with is pulling things out of the ice and then having to dig the hole back out to put that item away. A real pain with a full cooler. My biggest sticking point was power. I have to give thanks to @outwardbound for alleviating that concern and showing me just how efficient and how easily it can be managed. The Outback isn't exactly 2 battery friendly so I'll be running a power pack and a Renogy 100w suitcase solar panel. Good riddance ice.

    Glad I could help.   I still use both depending on the requirement.  But my fridge pretty much stays in the truck all the time, plugged in or not.  The efficiency and low-cost of them makes ownership easy. If someone is willing to drop HUNDREDS of dollars on a Yeti cooler, then a fridge isn't out of the question given a 40L  dometic, or an amazon special Whynter fridges are pretty affordable.  And nearly every brand has a high-efficiency compressor and the tech to prevent battery drain.

  14. ARB 35 qt is one of the best kit investment I ever made. Use the heck out of it. 3 weeks camping in Norway and we always had cold drinks and fresh meats. And it’s not just when overlanding.  Annual block party – combined with my goal zero for power and I storing everyone’s food for the grill.  (as long as there’s room for my beer). Same at the company BBQs. Annual wine run to Italy (8 hour drive for me) I pick up some  cheese and good salami and keep it cold overnight and for the drive home. Mother in-law  fridge broke. ARB as an interim solution until the new one was delivered.

  15. Peer pressure finally caught up to me at Expo East and now I’m the owner of a Dometic CFX 40 fridge. I joke about the peer pressure (*cough cough* @outwardbound) but it really just makes sense when you think about all the use you could potentially get out of the fridge and the amount of money you'd end up spending on ice. I'm so glad to be mostly done with ice and I think its almost funny how the new fridge and my Tundra 65 compare. Completely empty the fridge is only 10lbs heavier than my Yeti but that difference quickly disappears with ice. External dimensions are similar but internally the CFX 40 is a good bit larger than the Tundra 65 once you add ice. Using the 'cans' comparison the Yeti holds 39 while the Dometic's number is 60. One of the biggest things that I'll be glad to be done with is pulling things out of the ice and then having to dig the hole back out to put that item away. A real pain with a full cooler. My biggest sticking point was power. I have to give thanks to @outwardbound for alleviating that concern and showing me just how efficient and how easily it can be managed. The Outback isn't exactly 2 battery friendly so I'll be running a power pack and a Renogy 100w suitcase solar panel. Good riddance ice.

    I bought my 65 at OXW. What a great price, right? I can't wait till next year, Im going to get another one, smaller. Im thinking the 50.  Also thinking a small small one for inside the truck.

    I haven't had a problem with power. I don't know about others, but the Dometic has a shutoff when the amps get to low it won't run anymore. That way you can still start your rig. And with the insulated cover they run a surprisingly small amount, even in the Arizona desert heat!!

    Mine will run for at least 24 hours without running the battery down to where the fridge hits its safety switch. I haven't had the rig parked that long yet. Eventually I do want a house battery and solar though.

  16. I'm a cooler guy. I like to keep things simple, lightweight and inexpensive. We largely camp at campsites where we can usually freeze 2l bottles of water. Two of these keeps everything cool, fresh and dry for 3 or 4 days in our Coleman. As for beer cooling, a bucket of water and a wet towel over the top works well.

  17. When it comes to fridges do you find that like a home fridge they add heat to the cabin of your?
    Right now I’m fine with my twin cooler system.
    The only travel fridge I’ve been in close contact with was a gift from an in-law. We never could get it to cool anything down far enough to keep even soda cold. It was also noisy.

  18. When it comes to fridges do you find that like a home fridge they add heat to the cabin of your?

    Right now I'm fine with my twin cooler system.

    The only travel fridge I've been in close contact with was a gift from an in-law.  We never could get it to cool anything down far enough to keep even soda cold. It was also noisy.

     

    I don’t seem to get a noticeable amount of heat from my fridge but it’s in the bed of the truck under the shell. What you are probably talking about is a 12v cooler, they work completely differently than an actual refrigerator and will usually barely keep already cold stuff cool. An actual 12v portable refrigerator has a high efficiency compressor and typically can be set low enough to use as a freezer, mine goes to -8. The fan is noticeable but not noisy, if I was sleeping right next to it I would maybe consider replacing the fan with one of those super quiet computer fans, but otherwise it’s not bad. Once you have a refrigerator on the trail you will have a hard time using ice for food. Dry and consistently cold food, less space, etc… I used mine yesterday for a Costco run and needed to do some other errands before heading home.

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  19. I took my Yeti 65L (I think that’s the size) in the back of my 2016 ‘taco TRD Offroad in June with no topper,on a ten day trip from Southern Indiana to Telluride, CO. On that trip we never put ice in the cooler after leaving home…not once. It kept everything cool for ten days. I had questioned whether the investment was worth it. It proved to me it was. The only drawback was that it took up a lot of space.

  20. I don’t seem to get a noticeable amount of heat from my fridge but it’s in the bed of the truck under the shell. What you are probably talking about is a 12v cooler, they work completely differently than an actual refrigerator and will usually barely keep already cold stuff cool. An actual 12v portable refrigerator has a high efficiency compressor and typically can be set low enough to use as a freezer, mine goes to -8. The fan is noticeable but not noisy, if I was sleeping right next to it I would maybe consider replacing the fan with one of those super quiet computer fans, but otherwise it’s not bad. Once you have a refrigerator on the trail you will have a hard time using ice for food. Dry and consistently cold food, less space, etc… I used mine yesterday for a Costco run and needed to do some other errands before heading home.

    Sent from my iPhone using OB Talk

    Ah that makes sense. That 12v cooler just didn't perform. Right now my trips are under 5 days so the dual Coleman coolers are fine. We freeze bottles of water so we end up with fresh cold water as they melt and our food stays dry. Since we don't drink beer, or much soda, we usually don't need to refresh the drink coolers ice during the trip. 

    The frig seems more like a nice to have for what I'm doing. I don't have to manage extra power requirements from it. But in return I do have to manage cleaning and drying the coolers after each trip.

     

    What is the weight difference between a ARB and say a fully loaded Colman Extreme?

    Member 8127

    Oh, I wonder where this goes!

  21. Pros and cons for a fridge summed up
    Cons – Fridges are expensive and you will need to consider a 2nd battery
    The end.

    Seriously if it wont break you to buy a fridge it will be worth your money, but you will have to think about adding more power capacity, other than that a rotomold cooler is a fine choice if you do your homework for food prep and ice retention.

  22. One other thing i always remember being a hassle with cooler.  We would normally have some food that we didn't end up cooking, typically those steak nights turning to a noodles night since that's all the time you got to prep food.  By the end of the trip, my dry-ice is done, and the ice/cooler starts to become a slushy mess.  By the time we get home, all that uncooked food goes to trash. 

    Fridge solved all that 🙂

  23. One other thing i always remember being a hassle with cooler.  We would normally have some food that we didn't end up cooking, typically those steak nights turning to a noodles night since that's all the time you got to prep food.  By the end of the trip, my dry-ice is done, and the ice/cooler starts to become a slushy mess.  By the time we get home, all that uncooked food goes to trash. 

    Fridge solved all that 🙂

    I really like being able to put everything back in the house fridge after a trip and knowing that it’s all still safe to eat, not a wet mess, and if it’s late getting back I just leave it on and unload it when I get around to it, sometimes the evening after getting back.

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  24. Ah that makes sense. That 12v cooler just didn't perform. Right now my trips are under 5 days so the dual Coleman coolers are fine. We freeze bottles of water so we end up with fresh cold water as they melt and our food stays dry. Since we don't drink beer, or much soda, we usually don't need to refresh the drink coolers ice during the trip. 

    The frig seems more like a nice to have for what I'm doing. I don't have to manage extra power requirements from it. But in return I do have to manage cleaning and drying the coolers after each trip.

     

    What is the weight difference between a ARB and say a fully loaded Colman Extreme?

    Member 8127

    Oh, I wonder where this goes!

    The weight would probably be about the same or less but I never weighed either. I do know that my 43qt fridge is a little smaller than the 75qt yeti I used to use to haul the same amount of food since you don’t need to have room for ice.

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  25. Any issues running a fridge (Dometic CFX-65DZ) in the back of a truck bed that doesn't have a cap?  Any concerns with rain or snow to the fridge electronics?

    Yes, i think most i've looked into, including Dometic, say to keep away from the elements.

  26. The vast majority of my trips are less than 5 days.  I use a cooler.  I freeze a 24 bottle case of water instead of carrying ice.  It keeps the cooler a lot less messy.  I pull out several every morning to carry in the cab.  I drink them as they thaw.  I will still have frozen bottles after 4 days, even with a crappy cooler.

    The key is that I cool everything  before putting it in the cooler.  I interleave the frozen water and pop, putting the food on top.  No more messy draining the cooler and having soggy food.

  27. I would take fridge over cooler any day.  you have to account for the ICE that also takes up space . I have 6 Yeti cooler for our boat . they are for fish mainly and open and close quite frequently . I would love to have freezer so i can fit more fish and no ice.

    also long live solar power that can extend your outing. yes expensive but way more pragmatic .

  28. I vote for the fridge, as well. Nothing like having cold food at the end of day 3, and it hasn’t been soaking in ice water all day. It was hard to justify the cost until I owned it and took the first 2week trip with it. ARB 50 qt.

  29. I have a Norcold fridge/freezer in our Sportsmobile. It is awesome. I have 200 watt solar panels that charge the house battery and run the fridge. Like others have said, ice takes up a lot of room in a cooler.

  30. I bought a dometic 35 qt off amazon this summer, paid about the same as a yeti knock off. Love it! That being said I won a yeti knock off from one of my vendors. So the fridge gets my food and the cooler gets my drinks. It nice not seeing my hamburger floating by my beer. Having  a full size van helps as I have more then enough room for both. I wouldn't have been able to do that with the Scout. If I go back to Storm response work Ill move the 35 qt to my service truck and get a larger one for my van.

  31. My dometic was just north of 350, 35 qt. only got to use it a few times but worked well so far.  I have twin yellow tops, with a sol to keep them separate never had a problem with voltage.

    I'm with John.  Can anyone explain why are these fridge's are just short of a thousand dollars?

  32. I'm with John.  Can anyone explain why are these fridge's are just short of a thousand dollars?

    It's not just the cost of the fridge. It's the batteries, changers, solar panels and so on needed to run the thing, plus the additional weight you need to carried this kit as well. For me the moto, "keep it simple and keep it light" is key.

  33. It also depends on the type of trips, I rarely stay more than 1 day in the same spot. I was a cooler guy until I bought a Snomaster twin fridge freezer, I have a split charge and a 80A battery. This runs my camp lights and fridge and I don't think I will ever go back to a cooler. All in it cost $1000 and around 3 hours to fit.

    If I'm staying longer than 1 day I make my own ice by freezing bottles in the freezer compartment while driving which I move to the fridge compartment when camped and it acts like a powered cooler, with this we stopped for 3 days without needing extra power and our 80amp battery was still able to power.

  34. My dometic was just north of 350, 35 qt. only got to use it a few times but worked well so far.  I have twin yellow tops, with a sol to keep them separate never had a problem with voltage.

    At a price point under $400.00 I can see the benefit.   That being said, I drink whiskey with ice and water as an evening drink, so need a cooler, anyway.

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