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The best coolers for traveling by car

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How do coolers work and which one is the best? Going on a road trip and want to keep your drinks cold and your food fresh? Do you need an extra small cooler for your camper van or motorhome or are you looking for something for your car?

Then you need a 12-volt cooler, don’t know which one to choose? Read on, we’ll help you choose the best cooler for your car or camper van trips.

What’s the best cooler for your car or van?

The best electric cooler has to be the one that best suits your travel style and budget. There are options ranging from 25$ to 1000$ or more.

It all depends on what you are going to use it for. You can start with an ice cooler (decent) or a thermoelectric and then move on to a compressor (the best 12V coolers) and if you are going to leave it fixed you can choose a trivalent one.

As you can see you have many options. If you travel sporadically or just want to try, you can choose a good ice cooler or a thermoelectric that connects to the 12V car charger.

If you have a camper van with an electrical system installed with solar panels and auxiliary battery, my recommendation is a 12V compressor fridge, the Dometic are among my favorites and those of many van owners.

Compressor coolers can also serve as an auxiliary refrigerator to your large volume van or motorhome.

For traveling by car the best coolers are the thermoelectric coolers that plug into the cigarette lighter of the car and do not need an electrical installation as for a compressor cooler.

If you are going camping, you can choose a cooler that connects to the 220V mains. This will keep your drinks cold and your food well preserved.

Check also: Best Refrigerator

Different types of coolers

There are different types of coolers for your car or camper van. Here are some of them, so you can choose the one that best suits your travel style and budget.

12V compressor cooler

12V compressor coolers are the most popular and the ones you’ll see the most during your travels and for good reason.

These coolers are designed for all types of vehicles, from 4×4’s to (small) boats, and are built with durability and efficiency in mind.

The 12V compressor fridges have highly efficient variable speed compressors that consume very little energy, they can be used as a fridge or freezer.

They come in a variety of configurations, including chest, upright and dual-zone refrigerators/freezers – and typically have the ability to operate at an incline of up to 30 degrees (other types of refrigerators must be kept perfectly level when operating).

This combination of features makes these refrigerators perfect for van life.

While compressor refrigerators are awesome, they do have one drawback: cost.

12V portable coolers are more expensive than other options, and that’s an important thing to keep in mind. Since you will need to add an auxiliary battery and a means to charge them (such as solar panels, 220V connection, or a switch to the vehicle’s alternator).

If your goal is to turn your van into a tiny house on wheels, the investment in a high-quality 12V compressor cooler is worth it.

And please, don’t do like we did in our first van, and put a 220V fridge with an inverter. All you’re going to get is headaches and (a lot of) premature damage to the auxiliary battery.

Coolers that need ice to cool

This is the typical cooler that we all started with. They are cheap and you can buy them anywhere, and to cool things you have to put ice.

Here you have very cheap options (10 or 20$), but they don’t keep the cold properly.

My recommendation is the ones around 50$, like the Coleman. They have good insulation and the food can last for 2 days.

To avoid having to use so much ice, you can put frozen food, frozen water bottles, etc.

Choose the ones with a drain for the water, so it’s easier to keep it clean and your food won’t rot.

And if you are going to take it with you, for example to the beach, choose one with wheels, they are much more comfortable and easy to carry.

Thermoelectric coolers (ideal for cars)

Thermoelectric coolers are good for short road trips and for places that aren’t too hot.

This type of cooler requires a 12V connection, but does not have the ability to cool below room temperature efficiently.

Although there are some that claim they can cool 20º below ambient temperature.

If you’re looking for something to keep your drinks or snacks cool during your road trips, then a portable thermoelectric cooler can meet your needs, as long as you don’t travel to very hot places.

But if you’re looking for a cooler that will actually cool your meals during your van or camping trips, then my recommendation is to go for the 12V compressor coolers.

Trivalent coolers (not portable)

The trivalent coolers are the most used in high-volume vans and motorhomes. This is the one we currently have.

They are fixed coolers, which need a ventilation outlet at the back and work with 12V, 220V (or 110V depending on where you live), and propane.

It is very efficient when you connect it to propane or 220V. At 12V it is only used when you are on the move.

For us, it is the best option if you are going to leave it fixed in your van and if you have the propane installation, so you don’t have to depend ongoing on camping sites or areas with electricity.

It has very low consumption, a 13kg canister can last you 2 months, using it every day.

The refrigerator that opens from the top or from the front

There are two types of portable fridges, those that open from the top or those that open from the front (like the ones at home, but smaller).

You can find both models with the same compressors and features and think that you just have to choose the one you like the most.

But they have different advantages, especially if your idea is to use it as a portable fridge, you will find it more interesting if it opens from the top and now I’ll tell you why.

Chest coolers (with the top opening) are usually more efficient.

Why is that? Part of the reason is that the cold air is naturally kept at the bottom.

With chest fridges, the door is at the top, which means that cold air will collect at the bottom of the fridge, where it has nowhere to escape.

But with upright refrigerators, the cold is retained thanks to the insulated seal around the door. So every time the door is opened, the fridge loses cold.

Because food has a higher thermal density than air, most of the cold in any fridge is “stored” in the food (or beer) inside the fridge, so full fridges are much easier to keep cool than fridges with a lot of empty space.

And with the layout of the interior shelves of upright-style fridges, you’re likely to end up with wasted empty space on top of your food.

Chest fridges have more capacity and are easier to organize

If you’re used to a standard front-opening refrigerator like the one in your house or apartment, this may come as a surprise. How can a front-opening fridge with shelves and drawers be more difficult to organize than a chest fridge that forces you to stack items on top of each other?

Front-opening refrigerators in homes are very large and give you plenty of space to organize your food.

But in a smaller van fridge, the empty space is wasted space that makes the fridge compressor work harder (and use more energy).

Even with shelving, you still need to stack items on top of each other and even then, you’re going to need to move items around to get to each other. And you’ll probably end up with a lot of empty air between the top of your food and the bottom of the next shelf.

All of this means wasted space with no real organizational gains.

And if your food moves around inside the fridge while you’re driving, with a chest fridge you won’t have to worry about it all falling out when you open the door.

That’s why we don’t buy bottles of beer anymore, we just buy cans…

In conclusion

Chest coolers are easy to transport and easy to fit inside your van. But, it depends on the design of your camper van.

Before deciding on a chest cooler or front door cooler, take a look at your van and answer the following questions:

Electricity needed for your compressor cooler

Running a 12V fridge in your camper van requires an electrical installation consisting of (at the very least) a 12V socket connected to an auxiliary battery (not the car or van battery) and a means of charging it. But how much battery capacity do you need?

Determining the capacity of your auxiliary battery

To calculate the battery capacity you need to run your fridge reliably, first find the average power consumption of the fridge.

As an example, let’s say our refrigerator draws an average of 2.0 amps per hour.

Over the course of a day (24 hours), a refrigerator that draws 2.0 amps per hour will consume 48 Ah from the battery.

Since you never want to completely drain the battery, we recommend that you take its power consumption and double it to determine the battery capacity.

Therefore, you would need an auxiliary battery with a minimum capacity of 100 Ah in this example, plus additional capacity for your other electrical loads.

This is our case, we have a 100 Ah auxiliary battery, along with a 100 W solar panel. In addition, 220V connection, which serves to charge the auxiliary battery, the car battery and electronic devices.

What to look for in a portable cooler 12 V compressor

Here’s a summary of what you should look for when evaluating cooler options for your camper van:

Price

12V compressor fridges can be quite expensive in general, but there is a wide range of prices between high-end brands and budget brands.

If your budget doesn’t allow for a high-end refrigerator, then we recommend that you take a closer look at the less expensive brands.

Just keep in mind that the fridge is a very important part of your camper van travels. It’s better to save a little more and buy something of good quality.

Interior capacity and freezer capacities

How much fridge space do you need? Buying a camper van cooler that is too big means spending more than necessary and giving up more space in your van.

Likewise, having a fridge that’s too small means more frequent shopping. Needs vary from person to person.

In our case we have a DOMETIC 5380 fridge (80 litres) with enough space for a week’s worth of fresh food for the two of us, a small freezer that works great and space to put bottles and small food items in the door.

Most 12V compressor fridges have the ability to function as a fridge or freezer.But if you need both at the same time, some brands offer refrigerators/freezers that have separate compartments for each.

Energy efficiency and compressor

So that you don’t need to plug into the mains too often, you need to have appliances that are as energy efficient as possible.

Most 12V portable coolers on the market use exactly the same highly efficient variable speed compressor, although some brands such as Dometic / Waeco, Engel and Whynter / Edgestar use their own units.

Outside dimensions and weight

If you already have a designated place where you plan to place the fridge, you’ll want to make sure that all the options you’re considering will fit.

Not all brands are the same size, some are taller, some are wider, even if they have the same interior capacity.

And dimensions can be a determining factor in your cooler purchase. Since it has to fit the configuration of your van.

Weight is another important factor, if you are going to transport your cooler regularly, it will be better if it is lighter than if you are going to leave it stationary most of the time.

Lid opening direction

As I mentioned above this may seem like a minor consideration, but it can make a big difference to the configuration of your van. Some refrigerators have rear-hinged lids, while others have side-hinged lids.

Side-hinged lids need less top clearance to open all the way, and since you’re looking into the fridge from the longer side, it can be easier to see and reach the contents.

The best direction of the lid will depend on the specific configuration of your van.

Standard functions and additional functions

Most 12V portable refrigerators have the following standard features:

Warranty and reliability

Factory warranties give you a degree of security in case something goes wrong and needs to be repaired or replaced.

Reputation is also a factor here. Danfoss compressors are known to be reliable, so refrigerators with this compressor are usually a safe bet.

Dometic has a very good reputation for reliability and support, and Engel’s Sawafuji swing motor is legendary for being able to run for decades without problems.

What are the best trivalent coolers

Although this post is not focused on trivalent coolers, here are three options you should consider if you are planning to install a trivalent cooler in your van or motorhome.

I propose three different sizes: 80, 60 and 40 liters.

Conclusions

As you can see there are 4 different types of portable coolers to take on a trip by car or camper van.

Depending on the service you want these coolers to give you, your budget, the space in your van, if you travel by car, if you have electrical installation and your style of travel, you will choose one cooler or another.

As a summary, choose a compressor cooler if you have electrical installation in your camper van or as an auxiliary cooler in your large volume or motorhome.

Choose thermoelectric cooler to travel by car and then connect it to the mains, in campsites, for example.

Choose trivalent coolers if you are going to leave it fixed in your van or motorhome. And you have the necessary installation to get the most out of these coolers.

I hope this post has helped you to choose your cooler for travelling. If you have any questions, leave us a comment at the end of the post.

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