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Is an Electric 12v Camping Fridge Really Worth It?

Is an electric camping fridge really better than a good quality ice box or cooler? We look at the options and considerations.

At some point in your camping life, you may find yourself yearning for a 12V portable fridge. However, at a cost of $700 or more, there’s a good chance that your future outdoor fridge will cost more than your household unit, which you use every day! Likewise, at this price a new camping fridge will cost you five times more than a good-quality cooler box. This raises an important question: Is a camping fridge really worth it? Well, that’s for you to decide. We dig into the pros and cons of the electric camping fridge, to try and work out whether it's really an investment worth making.



The Motivations

What motivates people to buy an expensive camping fridge? In most cases, it’s the following:

  • No more melted ice
  • Adjustable temperature control
  • The ability to camp for longer periods
  • Being able to explore remote places

We all know the frustration. You start your camping trip with a meticulously packed esky, and you even go so far as to buy ice en route, so that it stays cool as long as possible. But no matter what you do, by day three you have a 2-inch pool of milky water at the bottom of your cooler, and the foul-smelling liquid has found its way into your “sealed” pack of sausages.

Apart from not having to worry about ice anymore, a good 12V camping fridge will also allow you to vary the temperature for different food types. When considering a camping fridge you'll note that many brands offer single compartment and twin compartment models (also known as single and dual zone). Twin or dual zone models allow for compartmental temperature control. Set the fridge compartment to 5ºC for things like milk, cheese, vegetables and cool drinks, while the second compartment can be set for things like frozen meats (-10ºC) and ice-cream (-18ºC). Or if you prefer, use the entire unit as a fridge, or a freezer.

Having the ability to keep food frozen allows you to camp for longer periods without having to buy more supplies. In essence it means you're more self-sufficient and no longer at the mercy of the nearest servo. And what’s more, in many remote places around Australia, it can be almost impossible to find ice and other food supplies.

The Reality of Australian Heat

Generally speaking, most remote places in Australia are hot. And, ironically, most camping fridges are not designed for the reality of such heat. Most of them claim to be “built for the harsh Australian conditions” when In fact, almost every camping fridge on the market is tested at a 25ºC ambient temperature, and many of these units cannot reach their claimed performance figures when the outside temperature rises to 35ºC or more – which is commonly the case in Australia. 

When this happens, the fridge may still be relatively cool, but it may fail to prevent your frozen food from defrosting. It’s a crucial point to remember, and if you’re in the market for a 12V camping fridge, you should take special note of the fridge’s performance figures, and at what ambient temperature it claims these statistics.

Electronics Can Break

The simplicity of a good quality cooler shouldn't be underestimated. There's really very little that can go wrong with what is essentially a big box. Once you introduce anything electronic to the mix, you introduce a range of potential problems.

Things break, especially electronic things that bounce around in the back of a 4x4. It’s a major concern for many campers: the thought of spending hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars on a fridge that could break down when they need it most. The very idea of being a thousand miles from any form of civilisation with a broken fridge is certainly a daunting prospect and not to be taken lightly. Fortunately, as a broken elevator becomes stairs, so a broken camping fridge becomes a cooler. A good fridge will boast extra thick insulation, so at the very worst, your camping fridge will act as a cooler box until you can get the unit fixed. But how long will that take?

Very little can go wrong with a sturdy cooler box; but your 12V fridge may, at some point, require spare parts. Your fridge is designed to travel, and so it will be experiencing the harsh conditions of outback Australia right along with you. While a good quality brand will be built to withstand a lot of punishment, things can always go wrong - an accidental bump to a control panel, a damaged power inlet plug, or perhaps excessive dust ingress. These things happen, and when they do, you want to be sure that spare parts are locally available − and not imported per request.

You also want to ensure the camping fridge you spend your hard earned money on comes with a solid warranty. Most reputable camping fridge brands have warranties of between 2 to 5 years. And will cover compressor failure and component fault.

Vehicle Fridge Setup

An electric camping fridge is great, but as it's name suggests, it requires electricity, and this electricity has to come from somewhere. Typically you'll run power from your vehicles battery, or run a dual battery setup to avoid additional stress on the vehicle starter battery. You'll also require cabling from the battery to the fridge, wherever it might be located in your vehicle.

This kind of vehicle infrastructure needs to be considered before making the move to an electric camping fridge. And when deciding on a fridge, take into account the power usage of the various models. Simple things like the fact that running the fridge as a freezer uses more power than running it as a fridge are important to keep in mind. Checking that the battery you'll use to power the specific fridge you purchase, is capable, and won't be run flat within a few hours of use. 

Many camping fridges now offer battery protection modes to avoid potential damage to your vehicle. A great feature and imperative if you'll be running the fridge from your vehicle starter battery.

The Choice is Yours

Aside from the initial cost when purchasing one, there are very few disadvantages to owning a 12V camping fridge. However, regardless of their benefits, the most important feature of any camping fridge is longevity… whether or not it’s a long-term investment. 

EvaKool and National Luna are both leading international 12V/24V fridge brands. They both offer long-term durability, with 2, 3 and 5 year warranty options. Parts are also available locally and without delay. Both National Luna and Evakool promise fantastic high-temperature performance up to 55ºC ambient. And it's also worth mentioning that both brands offer 12V, 24V and 240V operation.