Deciding Which Portable Fridge to Get
There are many fridges on the market designed for camping and long term touring. In all of the trips, tests and hot meals that have eventuated, one thing has become clear: there is no one ‘best’ portable fridge.
Some are better than others in certain situations, and there are a handful that will always sit at the top of the pile in terms of long term durability and all-around performance, but you pay for that, generally.
But if you are planning on heading away anywhere for more than a couple of days, particularly if there isn’t going to be an ice machine nearby, a camping fridge is one of the best gear investments you can make. Just think, no more soggy sandwiches, waterlogged fruit and soaking wet carpet in the back of the fourbie from the old esky.
And properly vacuum-packed food in a fridge will keep for up to seven times longer. If you have a fridge/ freezer combo, you can keep meat and vegetables frozen and stay on the road for weeks at a time.
So you’ve decided to break the bank and get a portable fridge? That’s the easy bit, now it's time to consider the following:
- Types of fridges
- Portable fridge capacity
- Powering your camping fridge
Types of Portable Camping Fridges
A refrigerator is designed to remove heat from an enclosed space, including the heat of the contents of that space. How it does this depends on the technology being used. There are three main choices of refrigerator technology in Australia now:
- Compressor / Two-way
- Absorption / Three-way
Compressor / Two-way fridge
Compressor fridges come in almost every size, but most people start with something around the 40L mark. This is good for quick trips away, but is better relegated to a full-time freezer for long-term travel. For a week-long family holiday, I like to have at least a 60L or 80L fridge on board. Two-way portable fridges can act as freezers too, even in extreme ambient temperatures, making them great for journeys into the heart of Australia where ambient temperatures can remain above 40°C all day. With low amp-hour consumption figures on most modern units, you can usually run a two-way fridge for as many hours as your battery has amp-hours (taking into account that you can only use about 70% of your battery under perfect conditions). They are so named because they can be powered by 240V or 12V — you can plug them into your car battery or mains socket. These are the mainstay of the touring market. They are relatively lightweight and compact, provide a quick cooling method that is power-efficient, and these fridges are quiet.
Running a compressor fridge in the outback definitely requires a dual battery system at the very least, which is an additional cost to take into account. You should never run a fridge off your starter battery.
Absorption / Three-way Fridge
At first, these fridges look like the obvious way to go. You can use 240V, gas or 12V.
Extremely efficient-running on gas, three-way fridges are anything but efficient if you switch them over to 12V. Many unlucky campers have discovered this the hard way when they have flattened their main car battery after only a short time running the fridge on 12V, as they draw 10 times as many amp-hours as two-way fridges.
Quiet, cheap to run on gas and cheaper than most two-way fridges, the three-way’s biggest problem is reaching cool temperatures in high ambient heat. If you’re going to go down this route, it is worth remembering that you have to pack enough gas to last you the whole trip, or be able to top up along the way.
They also have to be dead level, which can be a problem as many three-way fridges are permanently mounted to the trailer, which means you have to get your trailer dead level every time you stop.
|Eutectic Fridge in action|
Essentially the same as compressor fridges, these fridges employ the same technology to cool the contents, but they utilise an innovative way to keep things cool.
While you’re driving down the road or have it plugged in at home, the fridge is cooling the ‘eutectic pods’, or briny ice blocks, around the body of the fridge. Once these blocks are frozen, the fridge doesn’t need to draw any power to keep your food cold for long periods of time. Of course, the energy required to get those blocks frozen is more up front, but over time these fridges can prove quite efficient.
Eutectic fridges are excellent if you don’t have a way to power the fridge overnight, as they’ll keep your food cold until you plug them in again in the morning when you’re on the road. Considering the cost of a dual battery system, these can be quite a cost-effective solution for many campers.
The capacity of your portable fridge really depends on your intended destinations, your group size and your diet. If you are travelling to remote regions this will require you to be self-sufficient for a longer duration.
For example, on my last Kimberley trip, I was aiming to be self-sufficient for about nine days at a time. To feed three blokes fresh food every day, we needed three fridges: a Waeco 80L for most of the food, a Waeco 50L freezer to keep the meat nice and fresh and an ARB 60L for beer, iced coffee and other luxuries.
With the family, I usually don’t need the third fridge, and we have made do for years with nothing more than a 40L fridge — you just have to pack carefully. With a bigger fridge, you can keep stuff like bread fresh for much longer in the tropics.
|What you need to power your camping fridge|
Once you go down the route of buying a fridge, you have to feed it somehow, which either means electricity from a caravan park, a secondary battery to keep it running overnight, or using LPG for a three-way.
It pays to investigate what it might cost to run the fridge day to day. A proper dual battery system mounted under the bonnet of your 4WD is really the only way to go, and will pay you back every morning you don’t need a jump start, or every time you plug in one of the kids’ toys without worrying about killing your starter battery.
Peace of mind can be expensive, but it is always money well spent. It’s important to remember that solar or generator-based solutions are great, but should be built on top of a dual battery system. There is no point in buying a solar panel to charge a car’s starter battery, which is the worst way to power a fridge over long periods.
Running a three-way fridge on gas is very affordable, but it does mean carrying a finite supply of gas around. Most people will already have gas for cooking or lighting, so investing in a three-way fridge can save you money, not only over the life of the fridge in terms of fuel, but in not having to fork out for an auxiliary battery for your 4WD right away.