Camping Fridge: The Ultimate Guide

 
 

When we decided to #takethetruck instead of a full-size RV, one of the biggest hurdles was deciding on a camping fridge that would work for us. We had spent years using a traditional cooler while tent camping, and there was no way we were going back to sloshing ice chests and soggy food.


But there are so many camping fridge options out there that we didn’t really know where to start.


So, as we often do, we spent hours researching all the various types, models, specs, user reviews, and we watched Youtube videos until our eyes burned and our vision blurred.


We don’t want you to have to go through all of that!


So in this post we’ll outline the 3 primary types of camping fridge, a few things you should consider when looking for a fridge for your truck bed camper, van, or car camping adventure, as well as provide you with loads of useful comparative information on some of the models we consider great choices from four of the most highly regarded camping fridge manufacturers.


*(This post contains affiliate links. This means we may receive a small commission, at no additional cost to you, if you make a purchase through a link. See our full disclosure.)

Three Types of Camping Fridge:

1. Thermoelectric

  • Cheapest option, most quality units are under $300

  • Generally more compact than other camping fridge options

  • Use two power sources: 12v and 110v

  • Really operate as more of a cooler than a fridge (keeping an interior temp 35-40 degrees lower than ambient air temperature), but can also be used to keep food warm as well

  • Though most have a power consumption between 3-5 Amps, because they are less efficient (especially when outside temps are above 80 degrees) they run almost constantly creating an even higher net power usage.

Verdict: This option is best used for short road trips or grocery runs. Not ideal for truck shell camping.

2. Absorption

  • Typically can be purchased for under $500

  • Use three power sources: 12v DC, 110v AC, and Propane Gas

  • Very very efficient on Propane - we once ran our 30+ year old Dometic 4 cu ft unit in our Sunrader RV for 3 entire weeks using a single small 11lb tank on one of our trips out west

  • Very inefficient on 12v DC power, not even a viable option when not running the vehicle because it will kill your battery in no time

  • Typically no accurate temperature adjustment/setting

  • Must be kept almost perfectly level to operate correctly, and must be vented to the outside to avoid carbon monoxide buildup

  • Usually don’t cool well when temps are above 80 - keeping an interior temp about 30 degrees lower than ambient. On more than one occasion we found ourselves sticking ice bags in ours to help keep things cool when travelling in the heat of summer

Verdict: This option is great for those whose camping is done in traditional campgrounds that offer nice level parking places (and hook-ups if you want to run it on electric). Not ideal for truck shell camping.

3. Compressor

  • Expensive, cost $500-$1800 depending on size/model/manufacturer

  • Can operate effectively up to 30 degrees off-level(!)

  • Cools to below freezing despite high ambient temps

  • Most have accurate temperature adjustment controls

  • Very energy efficient on 12v DC - most consume an average of 1 Amp/hr - and can also be plugged into 110v power.

  • Unaffected by the shaking and jostling of off-road adventures that get you to those picturesque camp spots

Verdict: A compressor fridge is the best camping fridge option, period. Especially for truck shell camping and overlanding. With dozens of models and options to choose from and some top-tier manufacturers, we very quickly decided this this was the right choice for us.

How to Choose a Camping Fridge:

So at this point, we know that a compressor-based camping fridge is the direction we’re going. But with so many sizes, manufacturers, and models to choose from it can seem a bit overwhelming.


To help overcome this we recommend breaking the decision down into 3 parts:

Camping Fridge Size/Capacity -

First narrow down your desired size and capacity.


For you this may be a enough space for a weekend of camping with your family, or maybe - like us - you’ll use your camping fridge on the road for weeks or even months at a time.


Whatever your case may be, no one likes to run out of food earlier than expected.


For us, this was 60L - large enough to pack generously for a long weekend of family camping, or strategically get by for 4 or 5 days on the road, making this generally a good size for most.

Camping Fridge Manufacturer -

Then narrow the scope down by manufacturer.


There are dozens out there, and new manufactures are entering the market all the time. But we recommend limiting your choices to four of the most reputable camping fridge manufacturers: Engle, Dometic, Norcold, and ARB.


Whether you’re living it up at the local full-hookup or exploring the wilderness on old forest service roads (or no roads at all), you don’t want something that you’ll be constantly concerned with breaking down - you want something rugged. We’ll dive deeper into this below.

Camping Fridge Model -

Finally, refine your choices down to your favorite compressor-based model from each of the manufacturers.


This is where personal preferences and feature-sets come more into play, but some criteria is pivotal to selecting a good camping fridge.

  • DC Power Consumption: No matter what your usage scenario - the lower the power consumption, the better.


    In our case, we would be running our camping fridge 100% full time off our dual battery setup using our Inergy Kodiak solar generator - so this was a major factor in our decision making process.

  • Dimensions: Take into consideration the external dimensions of the fridge and your space if mounting your camping fridge on the interior of your vehicle, as one model may prove a better fit over another.

  • Special Features: These are things like remote temperature monitoring, how the lid operates, whether it offers built-in battery protection, etc.


    For our purposes, we needed it to be weatherproof because of our custom hitch mount plan - a great alternative to the traditional fridge slide that frees up a ton of interior space. You can check out our post about it here.


Okay, so we have made a decision on size (60L for us), narrowed our list of manufacturers (Engle, Dometic, Norcold, and ARB), and then limited our choices down to four models based on their power consumption, dimensions, and special features.


We’ll use our 4 picks below and walk you through the final selection. Now it’s time to choose!


Here’s a super nerdy chart we made to easily compare the specs on the four models we narrowed our choices down to.

Engel

engel camping fridge

Engle is almost synonymous with camping fridge. Since 1962, this Australian based company has been cranking out some of the most rugged and durable portable refrigerators on the planet. They’re known throughout the overlanding and truck camping communities for making quality products.


So, we of course gave serious consideration to an Engel 60 liter unit* when we were searching for the perfect camping fridge.


From a power-consumption stand-point, Engel provides a range of 0.5 to 4.2 Amps/hr for the model we considered - this made it difficult for us to calculate how it would fair in our usage calculations. We scoured forum posts and reviews and found that the average reported consumption was 1.2 Amps/hr.


Space-wise, Engel offers a wide variety of sizes, but we decided that 60L was a good size for our needs so we looked at the MT60F-G4P. The stated internal dimensions of approximately H 12in x W 15in x D 20in seemed ample for our food needs and were comparable to other models we were considering.


Though Engle makes a seriously rugged camping fridge that has withstood traversing the Australian outback for nearly half a century, during our research we found that direct, prolonged exposure to the elements (namely rain) was not recommended.  


Because of this and the slightly higher average power consumption we had to go in another direction since our truck bed camper build design hinged on having the fridge mounted to the exterior of the vehicle.


Also, the price of these units is at the higher end of the spectrum and that always weighs on our decisions.


We do feel this would be a great choice for anyone looking for a top-of-the-line rock-solid camping fridge that will provide years (if not decades) of use, provided you’re mounting it inside your vehicle where it’s out of constant exposure to the elements.

Dometic

dometic camping fridge

We had great experience with Dometic’s absorption refrigerators in our RVs, and both the 30+ year old units were still running strong when we sold the RVs.


So when we started looking for a camping fridge, Dometic’s 60 liter CFX 65W* was our first consideration.


This unit’s power consumption was the lowest of the four units we considered at 0.85 Amps/hr.


It also offered the greatest amount of usable interior space (106 cans! LOL), and the price - while not the lowest - was a great value.


The exterior however is plastic and, like the Engel, it is not intended to be exposed to the elements for prolonged periods of time.


This unit would be a great option for those of you wanting to mount your camping fridge inside your vehicle and the wifi-enabled fridge monitor phone app is a unique feature that could certainly come in handy on the road.


So our search continued…

Norcold

norcold camping fridge

Thetford’s Norcold camping fridge line is definitely a great value at nearly half the cost of a comparably-sized Engel.


This was primarily what brought us to consider the Norcold NRF60 model*.


The manufacturer's stated power draw is a whopping 5 amps, but after scouring the web we found that the average user-reported power consumption was 1.1 Amps/hr. Definitely better than 5, but still higher than the other units we considered.


We also found that the interior dimensions were not available on the manufacturer’s website or listed in the manual. The only reference point was the tried and true can-count figure - which is a respectable 86 cans.


This unit is definitely not up to full-time exposure to the elements, though the exterior plastic construction does appear fairly durable and the compressor is stated to be hermetically sealed.


This would be a fantastic budget camping fridge for use on a traditional fridge slide mounted to the interior of a vehicle, or for car or tent camping provided it would be stored out of the elements.


But it just wouldn’t work for our truck bed camping application.

ARB: The Best Camping Fridge (for us anyways!)

arb camping fridge

We were already familiar with ARB’s quality reputation in the overlanding and off-road vehicle markets, and the ARB on-board air compressor, Air Locker, and Bull-Bar bumper we installed on the truck have been nothing but rock solid.


So when considering ARB’s camping fridge we assumed that it would be equally as high-quality and rugged - and it is!


Though the ARB Elements Weatherproof Camping Fridge* wasn’t the most budget friendly option, it also wasn’t the most expensive either. And if you search long enough, like we did, you can sometimes find deals online.


The power consumption of 0.89 Amps/hr is low enough for us to run the fridge off our dual battery setup using our Inergy Kodiak and a 100w solar panel without worrying we’ll ever be left with a low battery.


But the best thing about this particular model of their popular camping fridge line is that it’s designed to withstand the rigors of overlanding in an uncovered truck bed completely exposed to the elements 365 days a year!


We were sold!

 
 

This is ultimately why we chose the ARB Elements Weatherproof Camping Fridge for our build. The ability to mount this fridge on the exterior of a truck bed camper (or really any vehicle) frees up SO much space compared to traditional options where a fridge is mounted inside the vehicle on a slide-out.


The pad-lockable lid makes it feel a little more secure too when we’re wandering away from the truck, and the infinite-position gas spring assisted lid makes getting things in and out hassle-free, even one-handed. The wireless monitor is handy to have in the cab to make sure our food is staying cool, especially on longer trips.


And when we get home we simply unpack whatever food is left and hose it off. Then we’re ready for the next adventure!


Whatever type of camper you may be - whether you’re truck shell camping, overlanding, car camping, or living the #vanlife - we hope that this guide has helped you in your camping fridge pursuit.


And we really believe that once you find it, there is no way you’ll want to go back to that old cooler you’ve been dumping ice into for years.


If you have any questions, hit us up in the comments section!


As always, thanks for reading! We’d love for you to SUBSCRIBE to get updates on future posts and travels!

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