So…What is the Best Camping Fridge?

This question is exceedingly common. If you’re looking for evidence that proves which camping fridge outperforms all its competitors, once and for all… you are going to be bitterly disappointed.


This article is for people who want some guidance on choosing a 12V camping fridge – no sales hype, no affiliations, and no bias.

Before we get started, I want to level the playing field by saying that there isn’t a fridge that can be definitively labelled as ‘the best’. There are just too many in-use variables, such as climate, vehicle space, budget, how it’s used, contents, size and volume, ambient temperature, and personal preference. The list goes on.

Something worth keeping in mind is the old adage, ‘you get what you pay for’. Even this can sometimes be misleading, but more on that later.

Knowledge is power, so arm yourself with the following information. Instead of asking, ‘what is the best camping fridge?’ Let’s rephrase the question to be:

How do I choose the best fridge for me?

A Companion Lithium 60L Dual Zone fridge set up on a stand at a campsite. A woman in a purple vest is passing a man a can of drink from an open fridge.

Set up your campsite comfortably and keep your gear conveniently accessible. Image: Companion

Different Fridges for Different Scenarios

Thermoelectric: For Shorter Trips

A thermoelectric fridge is more of a cooling box, as it doesn’t usually become as cold as a fridge. They work using the Peltier effect: the ability to create heating or cooling when electricity passes through two different conductors. If electricity is passed through a metal plate in a particular direction, the plate becomes hot. If it passes in the opposite direction, it becomes cold. A fan pushes air across the cold plate and into the box, cooling it down.

These fridges are great for picnics and short road trips. They’re also popular among couriers and truck drivers in keeping lunch and drinks cold.

Three-Way: For Longer Stays

A three-way fridge can be run on LPG gas, 12-volt, and 240-volt power supplies. When used correctly, it is both very efficient and reliable. Three-way fridges operate via an absorption method: a fully-sealed system that relies on heat for ignition.

Both water and ammonia are heated in a ‘generator’, soon rising to a ‘separator’. Here, the water and ammonia gas are split. The ammonia gas rises to a ‘condenser’, where it cools to liquid form, combines with hydrogen, and evaporates. This removes the heat from the cabinet. From there, the solution travels to an ‘absorber’, where the ammonia combines with water to initiate the cycle again.

Three-way fridges are ideal for extended stays at a shack, or if you intend to set up camp for long periods. They’re also suitable for 4WDrivers, and as caravan fridges.

Compressor Fridges: Popular All-Rounders

Compressor fridges are the most popular camping fridge, due to their low current draw and high cooling efficiency. Common brands such as Dometic (previously Waeco) and Engel are famous for their compressor-driven fridges.

To keep it simple: a compressor is used to pump refrigeration gas around the system. The gas is compressed into a liquid and sent to the cooling elements where it evaporates, removing heat from the cabinet. The gas is then pumped through the outer fins, releasing the heat before returning to the compressor.

Be it camping, 4WDriving, or just an extra fridge/freezer at home – compressor fridges do it all!

A family campsite with MyCOOLMAN dual Zone fridge in foreground. Kids play in background and a man is getting a 2 litre orange juice out of the fridge.

Some fridge models have separately available accessories like portable battery packs. Image: myCOOLMAN


Brand kind-of goes hand in hand with price.

Whilst some high-end brands include a modified and affordable option within their range, they generally all fit within a price bracket. Furthermore, many of the big players share similar price tags for comparable models.

Debating which brand of fridge is the best for camping is like debating which brand of car is best for driving. It all depends on the individual.

Take a $10K hatchback from Holden, for example. It’s got a manual gearbox, steel rims, a simple interior, fabric seats, and a motor that delivers decent performance throughout the car’s life. It will get you from A to B, while being reasonably fuel-efficient.

Alternatively, a $50K BMW hatch will have a smooth automatic gearbox, polished alloys, and heated leather seats. It’ll likely also offer connectivity out of the wazoo, one-touch ignition, smart tech that almost drives the car for you, and a motor that performs throughout the lifespan of the car. This option will also get you from A to B and be reasonably efficient on fuel.

Someone with a low budget who needs a city runabout is going to be happy with the Holden, but if budget is not an issue and a lot of time is spent behind the wheel, the BMW is likely to be more desirable.

The same analogy can be applied to portable fridges.

Both options are going to keep your drinks cold and be comparable in power consumption – but the more you spend on a fridge, the better the build and the more features there are to benefit from. The big brands will offer more service agents, better warranties, and readily available parts. You may spend a little more money spent now, but this will most likely mean less problems in the future. All things considered, ensure the brand has a reputation for the right reason!

A group of 3 children holding half eaten iceblocks and sitting on top of a Dometic fridge with power pack next to it at the beach.

With the right setup, you can even take ice creams camping. Image: Dometic


When it comes to fridges, ‘you get what you pay for’ is a principle that should be applied – but this doesn’t mean you need the most expensive fridge.

If you need a fridge for a one-off occasion, a $200 no-brand marketplace bargain is probably money well spent. Cheaper fridges can be a great option for occasional use, and often come with more features. However, if your cheap fridge fails, the repair cost could outweigh the amount you originally paid for the fridge. 

Expensive fridges should have all the features and the reliability to go with them. Furthermore, reputable brands will have authorised repair agents and a good warranty behind them. These are benefits you are unlikely to have with a cheaper purchase.

If you are a regular camper and/or 4WD tourer, and decide to buy a cheap fridge – it’s likely that you will have to replace it multiple times and carry the burden of unknown reliability on every trip. Paying a little more upfront eases stress, and may end up costing less in the long run. Just think: ‘buy once, buy right’!

Generally, thermoelectric fridges cost under $200. With the absence of a compressor too, these cooling boxes are often quite small and boast plenty of internal space. On the other hand – although the introduction of cheaper, generic brands has helped to bring the price down – compressor fridges tend to be more expensive. With gas, 12-volt, or 240-volt power options, three-way fridges are very versatile and can be bought brand new for as little as $300.

A family are gathered around a well kitted out 4WD vehicle. They are sharing a cool drink with the dad reaching in to a Dometic portable fridge.

Fridge slides help keep your fridge easily accessible. Image: Dometic


Compressors are at the core of fridge operation. They perform the role of both a motor and a pump, and move the refrigerant through the system. A fridge using a reputable compressor is a good indicator of quality, dependability, and the manufacturer’s confidence in their product.

The Sawafuji Swing Motor has proven its reliability for decades, with a trusted reputation. The former well-known brand, Danfoss, was purchased by SECOP a few years ago and continues to perform. Recent years have seen some leading brands such as Dometic (previously Waeco) produce their own compressor, proven to be very efficient and reliable.

LG compressors are used in some of the more affordable fridges. Given they’re from an identifiable brand though, they give the fridge more credibility than a no-name compressor. Unknown compressors lack a proven track record and so have the potential to create headaches and disappointment. A good quality compressor will keep your food cold over years of outback travel.


A couple will usually use a 40-50-litre fridge, where a large family may require 65 litres or more. Consider the length of your trip/s, and if you can re-stock en route. Ultimately, size should heavily influence your choice – no fridge is of any use if it doesn’t fit in your allocated space. The space within your vehicle may also be a limiting factor.

Record the dimensions of the area in which you will be installing your fridge, taking into consideration clearance for the lid. Next, load up your kitchen bench with a heap of the food and drink you’d expect to take camping, and estimate/measure the volume this food takes up.

If you’re packing light with powdered milk and canned veggies, you will need less fridge space than those taking fresh food. Take particular note of long or wide items, such as wine bottles or ice cream containers. Make sure you consider any additional dimensions that a fridge slide or cover may occupy, as well as the direction the lid will open.

It’s highly unlikely you’ll find a fridge that fits perfectly, but having these measurements ready as you sift through your options will at least help you eliminate the unsuitable models.

The inside of a portable fridge with the baskets full of fresh produce. A woman's hands are retrieving a plastic container.

Think about how much food you need to keep fresh inside your fridge. Image: Dometic

Power Consumption and Efficiency

The current draw of a fridge is measured in ‘a/h’ (amps per hour). Many good electric fridges should use between 1–2 a/h, over a 24-hour period. Power consumption should be based on real-world testing. Look for stats like:

– 5°C interior, 32°C ambient, 12 V = 0.89a/h over 24hours

This means that from a 12V power supply, a fridge set at 5°C in a 32°C environment will consume an average of 0.89 amps/hour over 24 hours. Compressor fridges will cool very effectively, often able to reach temperatures of -18 degrees (even on hot days). They operate efficiently on 12-volt, 24-volt, and 240-volt power, and depending on internal and external temperatures average around one amp per hour of power consumption.

Thermoelectric fridges can only cool to 20-30 degrees below ambient temperature. As they consume power at around 4-5 amps per hour, they can’t be left running off your car for more than a few hours. On 12-volt, a three-way fridge will use up to 6 amps an hour (which is a huge current draw)!

A high current draw is not always a bad thing. Fridges like the Waeco CFX will draw high currents over a short period, as the compressor reduces the internal temperature quickly. These short bursts of high current can average out less over a 24-hour period than a compressor with low current draw running for longer periods.

Three-way fridges tend to be very efficient on gas. Around 1kg of gas can provide up to a week of operation, and drop temperatures even to the point of freezing some items in the cabinet.

You’ll come across a never-ending barrage of opinions and tests detailing which fridge is the most efficient. For that reason, you might shoot me down for this, but…in my opinion, there is no single fridge or brand that can be championed as the most efficient!

In a test bound by parameters, you will likely arrive at a top performer. Nonetheless, what happens if one of those parameters changes? How many variations of them should you test? More importantly, is it even worth the effort when you’re likely to come up with marginal performance differences at best?

Instead of focusing on a top performer, it’s more important to match your battery and solar setup to effectively power the fridge that suits your needs. To help with this, check out the Snowys blog ‘Understanding 12V Battery and Solar Setups for Your 4WD’.

A Bushman car fridge positioned between the 2 front seats of a vehicle. There are 2 cans of drink in the built-in cup holders.

Console fridges can be conveniently installed between your vehicle front seats. Image: Bushman


For me, I just need my fridge to keep my food cold. For many though, it’s the extras that make all the difference – and these should play a significant role in your fridge choice.

Nowadays, there’s a host of technology integrated into some models, including features like Bluetooth and WiFi appswireless temperature gauges, and connectivity. Some models even have magnetised lithium batteries, plus additional device charging options with built-in USB ports. If these are important to you, you’ll quickly come to crossing off the makes and models that don’t have them.

Battery protection saves your battery from damage, especially useful if your only power supply is also your vehicle starter battery. Look for variable protection – some fridges are set to a very low protection voltage (usually 9.5V) to protect the compressor, but not your battery.

The ability to set the fridge to a specific temperature is very convenient, while a thermometer monitors the interior temperature of your fridge. Both a bung in the bottom and flush mount cooling elements built into the side of the fridge (as opposed to bolted-in elements make for easier cleaning too. A reversible/removable lid is also handy for accessing your fridge in hard-to-reach places.

Handle configuration and tie-down points, nutserts in the base for semi-permanent fixing, the location of the control panel, and even bottle openers are all features you’ll be glad you considered over and above brand and power consumption to ensure your fridge is functional in your personal camp setup.

A close up of the bottle opening feature included in the Companion Lithium fridge. A hand holds a XXXX Beer under the opener.

Decide what kind of features are important to you. Image: Companion

Dual-Zone Fridge/Freezers

A fridge/freezer operates as a fridge or freezer – but not at the same time. On the other hand, a dual-zone fridge/freezer has two compartments and works as a fridge and freezer simultaneously.

Some dual-zone models have a removable internal divider to allow the entire unit to be a fridge or freezer. The downside here is that the fridge may use more power if it’s relying on the smaller cooling element that most dual-zone fridges are equipped with.

Some dual-zone fridges have independent compartments and thermostats too, allowing you to control the temperature of both the fridge and freezer separately.


If you use your fridge in a marine environment, a metal casing may be prone to rust over time. Otherwise, don’t stress over this.

Both metal and polypropylene cases on high-end fridges are very strong. Metal casings are tough – great for the back of a Ute! Cheaper models opt for lighter materials and are more prone to dents and scratches, but this is often only from cosmetic damage. Plastic will flex with impact, which is a good option for touring. A strong fridge will allow you to stand on its lid – just ask the sales guy to show you!

Fibreglass can be a good option for boats, as it won’t take on any fishy smells and can be effective without a cover. That said, it is prone to impact damage – but once again, this will likely just be cosmetic, and won’t affect performance.

Compressor fridges are built strong and designed to handle harsh outback environments – but no fridge is specifically made to withstand all that mother nature will throw at it. While they can handle a few bumps and often mounted on the back of 4WD Utes, they are an electrical appliance that should be installed in a protected space.

A man opening an Engel fridge in the tray of a black ute.

Ideally, a portable fridge should be installed in a protected space. Image: Engel

Operation, Insulation, and Ventilation

Most 12V fridges will run on 24V to suit a truck’s electrical system, and usually include a 240V cable and/or transformer. If a 240V transformer is not included, buying one could add $50–$100 to your purchase.

LPG fridges run very efficiently from gas. This has them ideal for long-stay camps, where they can be removed from the vehicle and attached to a gas bottle. Usually they can also be run from 12V, but this power supply makes them hungry and thus less suitable for trips where gas refills are not available.

Look for fridges with thick insulation. Plastic fridges will conduct less heat than metal, while white fibreglass offers the best insulation. Better insulation reduces the workload for the compressor.

While they’re safe to leave running in the car, compressor fridges nonetheless require some ventilation to keep the compressor cool. On the other hand, three-way fridges cannot run safely on gas within a car or caravan. Good ventilation is required, which involves taking it out of your vehicle and running it on gas every time you make a stop. This will be every night, due to its current draw.

Three-way fridges also often come with a bubble level, to aid with keeping them level. If they’re not, they will fail to operate sufficiently. They produce a lot of heat too, which must escape both out the back and from the top of the fridge. It will need to be packed carefully and allowed plenty of room, not recommended within an enclosed boot or box.


This accessory is a common add-on to any fridge. You don’t need one, but it does offer some benefits – namely protection, and a little more insulation from direct sun to prevent metal or plastic from heating up. Plus, it often provides a few extra storage pockets.

I’d suggest asking for a package deal with any fridge that includes the cover – but if your budget doesn’t allow for this, it’s not the end of the world.

Companion fridge with cover in the back of an open vehicle.

A cover protects your fridge and offers additional insulation. Image: Companion


Everyone is going to have their opinion on which brand produces the best fridge and, just like the Holden vs Ford debate, there is no right answer.

Stop stressing about efficiency. Most 12V fridges are pretty good nowadays anyway.

Instead, make sure you understand your power requirements – and match your battery setup with this!

If you’ve never heard of the brand, do some research. Find out what compressor is used in the model you’re interested in, and look for evidence of a good reputation – including both product support and after-sales service. Always buy from a reputable retailer.

Reviews are a good way to gather a sense other users’ opinions, but don’t focus on the small percentage of negative reviews. Even Uluru, one of Australia’s natural wonders, gets an average of 4.5 stars from over 2000 reviews, and The Twelve Apostles gets 4.6 from more than 9000 reviews. Some people are impossible to please.

Approach your fridge purchase by listing any specifics you require first, and budget for as much as you are comfortable spending. Then, all you need to do is find a model that best fits these parameters.

Knowledge > budget > needs > wants > go!

Hopefully, you can now approach your purchase of a 12V portable fridge with confidence. Know what questions to ask, don’t be swayed by brand affiliations, and don’t be the victim of any commission-influenced advice.

It’s a big purchase – so make sure you buy the fridge that’s right for you!

A man fishing on a jetty and using a MyCOOLMAN portable fridge to rest his beer.

What better way is there for keeping your catch of the day fresh than with a camping fridge? Image: myCOOLMAN

So, which fridge is best for you?