The 3 Best Portable Refrigerators for Van Life

by Vera Lawrence | LAST UPDATED June 19, 2019

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We recently covered the best heavy-duty coolers for van life. The biggest upside of a cooler is that they don't require power, but coolers aren't perfect. They offer a limited cooling span and need to be stocked regularly with block ice for maximum efficiency.

If you're a true road warrior and van dweller, we assume you already have a kickass solar panel set up. If so, it's time to upgrade to a portable refrigerator. A portable refrigerator keeps your food fresh and cold while camping or living in your van, without having to worry about water-logged food, leaks in your ice chest, or restocking with ice.

Quality 12V refrigerators are not cheap, so you definitely need to do your research before you pull the trigger. To help you on your search, we spent countless hours researching and reading reviews to compile this list of the 3 best 12V portable refrigerators for van life.

ARB Fridge Freezer

ARB Fridge Freezer

The ARB Fridge Freezer made our list because it checks all of the boxes, it's compact, durable, low-energy, and efficient, making it the perfect choice for even the smallest vans. Like every other refrigerator on our list, the ARB doesn't just keep food cold, it keeps for frozen (as in 0 degrees Fahrenheit).

But the reason the ARB is at the top of our list, is because we believe it provides the best bang for your buck. The ARB isn't the most expensive (it's still not cheap), but it might be the best.

According to the manufacturer, the 50-quart version can "maintain sub-freezing temperatures in 90-degree heat while only drawing 0.87 amps per hour from a 12-volt power source." This means you don't need to worry about ice, and you don't have to worry about draining your battery.

Don't have solar panels and a converter set up? Don't worry, the low voltage requirement means you can plug it into most vehicle's cigarette lighter. Obviously, that will drain your van's battery, but the ARB has a low-power cutoff feature that will turn the freezer off if your car battery is about to die (starting the van is more important than cold beers, anyway).

We love that the ARB has a small interior light (just like your fridge at home), which is great since tons of van dwellers stash their freezers under counters and places where there is not a lot of light.

Check out this review from CJ Off Road for more information.


Dometic CRX

Dometic CRX Freezer

Next up is the Dometic CRX. This model is extremely popular among van lifers who need a fridge/freezer that opens like a typical fridge (i.e. like a door instead of top-down).

The Dometic is not quite as efficient as the ARB, but it still clocks in at around 1 amp per hour.

Some reviewers have commented that it is not as durable as models like the ARB, so if you're doing a lot of off-roading, you might want to look elsewhere. We also don't like the price tag (they can get really expensive, so make sure to shop around).

Want to see how it fits in an actual van? Check out this review by Feral Escape:


Norcold NRF-30

Norcold NRF-30

If size is a major concern, the Norcold NRF-30 is a good option. It is much smaller than the other options on this list, so if you're in a mini-van conversion or other smaller conversion, check it out for sure.

Here's a video review:


Van Life Refrigeration Options

There's more than one way to skin a cat. Or in this case, there 's more than one way to freeze a steak. Compression fridges are definitely your best option, but every person (and van) has different needs.

Compression Refrigerators

Portable compression fridges were designed for use on boats and semi-trucks, so they make perfect sense to use for van life.

  • Pros:
    • Durable
    • Efficient
    • Lots of style options
    • Don't need to be kept perfectly level
  • Cons
    • Expensive

Coolers

Quality coolers are the best option if money is your number one concern. They are cheap and don't require fancy electrical hookups. Check out the best coolers for van life to learn more.

  • Pros:
    • Cheap
    • No power needed
    • Can be used as a table/bench
  • Cons
    • Only good as long as your ice
    • Require refills

Thermoelectric Coolers

Thermoelectric coolers aren't a bad choice if you live somewhere that's always cold and you don't need to keep things freezing since they can usually only get about 40 degrees cooler than their surroundings, they don't make sense if the inside of your van ever gets around 70 degrees.

  • Pros:
    • Cheaper than compression fridges
  • Cons
    • Minimum temperature depends on outside temps

3-Way Absorption Fridges

Absorption fridges are popular on RVs because they can draw power from a lot of different sources, but they don't work well with 12V, which is the most popular among van dwellers. Plus, then need to be kept level to work, and what's the fun in that!?

  • Pros:
    • Not many
  • Cons
    • Need to be level
    • Don't work well with 12V systems

Converted Chest Freezers

Converted chest freezers, like the one you had in your college dorm, are a cheap option for DIYers. We personally have not done a chest freezer conversion, but here's an interesting conversation on Reddit that should be able to point you in the right direction.

  • Pros:
    • Cheap
  • Cons
    • Require some DIY work
    • Not as compact
    • Less efficient
Vera Lawrence
Vera is a part-time van lifer after spending nearly four years in her 1990 Ford E350 (named Fred). She currently lives in Utah and takes extended weekend trips into the desert with her two dogs. She is an ice cream fanatic and avid runner.
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