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.
Portable and Versatile
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!
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.
Ice-cream on Demand
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
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.