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Camping Cooler vs Portable Refrigerator

If you do a lot of camping, the question will come up: “Should I upgrade my cooler or buy a portable refrigerator?”

The answer is more than just a cost analysis. Camping coolers and refrigerators each have their own benefits and disadvantages. This article should give you a better idea of what to look for and help you make a decision.

Cooler vs Refrigerator Pros and Cons

Camping CoolerPortable Refrigerator
Cheaper More Expensive
Minimal Ongoing Cost Requires Power
Less Temperature Control Full Temperature Control
No Freezer Option Greater Temperature Range
Lighter Heavy
Easier To Clean Harder To Clean
No Ongoing Maintenance Some Maintenance Required
Longer Lasting Shorter Lifespan

Price

Price is the most obvious difference between the two. The most advanced camping coolers will cost a couple hundred dollars at most. On the other hand, portable refrigerators regularly approach the thousand-dollar range. And the price doesn’t stop there.

Camping coolers use ice and insulation to stay cool. Ice doesn’t last forever – you have to continually add to the supply. But ice is significantly less expensive than an electrical system.

Portable refrigerators need to be powered with solar panels, household AC power, or 12v DC power from your car. None of those methods come cheap. The most energy efficient refrigerators still draw 1.3Ah or more. That doesn’t sound like much, but it will easily consume a solar panel or two which quickly adds to the price tag.

Temperature Control

Portable refrigerators take the cake when it comes to temperature control. Dual-zone models can hold a freeze. All it takes is the press of a button or the twist of a knob to set your food to the perfect temperature. Some models even come with the ability to control temperature with your phone.

There are some steps you can take to better control a cooler’s temperature. But anything you do will pale in comparison to a portable refrigerator. Consider how long you’ll be camping. Modern coolers have come a long way since the advent of foam boxes. Some can keep ice cold for over a week!

Tips to keep your cooler cold longer:

  • Fill it up as much as possible
  • Minimize opening and closing the lid
  • Keep it sealed tight when shut
  • Place it in the shade
  • Don’t drain the water
  • Use block ice rather than cubes
  • Use twice the ice as contents

One thing we will say about coolers is that if you’re not careful you can easily end up with all of your food floating in a sloppy mess. You need to stay on top of waterproofing your food or utilizing coolers with wire baskets.

Maintenance

To keep the contents of a cooler cold longer than a few days, you have to continuously fill it with ice. That sounds a little cumbersome, but it’s the only thing you need to worry about aside from keeping it clean.

Portable refrigerators come with a host of intricacies. Not only do you have to maintain the fridge, but you have to look after your power source as well.

It’s common to power a portable refrigerator with solar panels. When using solar, you have to keep track of the panels, battery power and correct wiring. Most refrigerators have a low battery cut-off setting, but if you’re not careful you can risk damaging your batteries which is another expense.

Refrigerators have so many moving parts compared to a cooler. There are simply more things that can go wrong. Here are a few things you may not have thought of:

  • Refrigerators need ventilation
  • Damage will occur if they operate at a steep angle
  • They aren’t waterproof
  • Control panels can break
  • Lightbulbs can go out
  • Dust and debris can inhibit the compressor

Overall, a good cooler can last practically forever. A refrigerator will break down over time.

Weight

Portable refrigerators weigh a lot more than a cooler, even when it’s filled with ice. Yes, they are portable in a “take it anywhere” kind of sense. But most people aren’t hauling their refrigerator around very much. Typically, the fridge will stay stationed in the vehicle or right outside the campsite.

Conversely, you can take a cooler on a canoe through a river without a second thought. They welcome a plunge into a lake compared to the damage caused to a refrigerator.

We find the weight and portability of a cooler much more desirable than a refrigerator.

Cleaning

How do you clean a cooler? Open the drain, grab a hose and spray everything out. It’s as simple as that.

With a portable refrigerator you have to be a bit more careful. Many portable refrigerators come with drain plugs, but you can’t just spray them down. You’ll have to hand-wipe the fridge to avoid harming the motor and electronics.

You also can’t just flip a refridgerator upside down and let it dry. You have to be a little more careful with the cleaning process.

Extra Features

This is where a refrigerator wins hands-down compared to a cooler. Some of the features you’ll find in a portable refrigerator are unimaginable in an ice box.

Top portable refrigerator features:

  • Precise temperature adjustment
  • Internal lighting
  • Dual-zone options (fridge + freezer combo)
  • Digital displays
  • WiFi

One other thing to mention is that portable refrigerators can double as a cooler. If you don’t have power, you can fill the fridge with ice. It’s insulated enough to keep your food cold for at least a day or two.

The Bottom Line

Deciding between a cooler and a portable refrigerator is a personal choice. Everyone is going to have their own opinion, but this is how we would break it down.

Choose a camping cooler if:

  • You have a low budget
  • You have access to ice or camp 10 days or less at a time
  • You want to take your food anywhere
  • You want a product that will last a lifetime

Choose a portable refrigerator if:

  • You have a healthy budget
  • You know your way around electronics
  • You’re ok with keeping it semi-stationary (in the vehicle most of the time)
  • You are a full-time traveler (van life or RV living)
  • You love cooking and want better control of the temperature
  • You need a freezer

Our Recommended Coolers

IMAGE PRODUCT DETAILS  
coldest large camping cooler for a family
Titan Roto Cooler 55
  • Rotomolded construction
  • Low price
  • Up to 8 days of ice
View on Amazon →
best large camping cooler for family
Yeti Tundra 65
  • Rotomolded design
  • Most popular brand
  • Large variety of sizes and colors
View on Amazon →
best large cooler for family camping trips
RTIC 65
  • Rotomolded construction
  • Two drain plugs
  • Holds 64 cans
View on Amazon →

Our Recommended Refrigerators

IMAGE PRODUCT DETAILS  
dometic portable refrigerator for camping
Dometic CFX75 Dual Zone
  • Fridge/freezer combo with separate temperature zones
  • Can pair it with the Dometic app
  • Get alerts when the lid is left open
  • Battery protection settings
View on Amazon →
camping with a dual zone portable refrigerator
Dometic CFX40
  • Refrigerate or freeze to -7F
  • Ultra low power consumption
  • Heavy-duty design with reinforced corners
View on Amazon →
arb 12v portable refrigerator
ARB 50Qt.
  • Designed to safely operate at 30 degrees of tilt
  • Designed for the overlanding community
  • Extremely durable
  • Excellent build quality
View on Amazon →
energy efficient 12 volt portable refrigerator by Engel
Engel MR040F
  • Considered “a legend in reliability”
  • Most efficient reciprocating compressor design
  • Known for longevity
View on Amazon →
budget portable camping refrigerator
Alpicool C15
  • -4°F(-20°C) deep chilling down performance
  • Can be a fridge and freezer
  • Durable and easy transport to anywhere
View on Amazon →
inexpensive portable camping refrigerator
Costway
  • 52L large capacity
  • Internal lighting and battery protection
  • Can achieve 30-minute fast cooling from 90°F to 32°F
View on Amazon →
 

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