Fridge vs. Cooler for Van Dwelling

by Vera Lawrence | LAST UPDATED September 25, 2021

Refrigerator cooler
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The refrigerator vs. cooler debate has been going on among van dwellers for quite a while now. Both have their good and bad points - refrigerators are much more suited for certain conditions, while coolers are better for others.

We’ll go over the most important points of both, and by the end of the article, you’ll hopefully understand why we declared one of them to be much more suitable for a camper van than the other.


The first thing a lot of people look at when it comes to appliances is price. While we’d like to pretend that they are evenly matched in terms of their price tags, this category’s winner is undoubtedly the cooler.

A decent portable cooler will cost you somewhere between $200-$500, while a decent portable refrigerator starts at around $1000, and the models only get more expensive depending on the different features or add ons.

Keep in mind that these prices are only a baseline example, and you can definitely find a beverage cooler that has a four-digit price tag, as well as a mini-fridge that costs somewhere around $800. However, generally speaking, you’ll pay about as much for a high-end cooler as you would for a refrigeration unit that has little to no features.

Speaking of features, a large part of why these items are priced so differently is their flexibility, but we’ll get more into that a bit further on. All you need to know for now is that any standard cooler will cost you a lot less than a standard van refrigerator.

One final thing that we’d like to note is the warranty. Refrigerators usually receive a longer warranty than coolers simply because of their price tag, but the fact that coolers are primarily meant for outdoor use also plays a big part. While results may vary, refrigerators will typically offer a warranty that lasts for 2-3 years, while coolers generally get only have a one-year warranty.


refrigerator cooler size

A big part of van living is making the most out of the limited storage space that you have at your disposal. You’d definitely have a hard time trying to fit even one of these items, let alone a refrigerator cooler combo, which is one of the reasons why we’re trying to help you make a decision on which one would suit you better.

In terms of sheer size, both of these items come in varying cubic feet, but we’ll still have to give a point to the coolers since they’re much easier to move, even when they’re full. 

On the other hand, a refrigerator can’t be moved unless you want to spill all of the contents on the floor. It also has to stay connected to a power source to function, and to move it; you’ll need to disconnect the 12V DC power cord and move all the components of the power supply as well.

Additionally, even if a refrigerator is tailor-made for traveling purposes, like the Whynter FM-45G, they still need to be placed somewhere where their air vents aren’t blocked.

In short, it’s much easier to find space for a cooler than it is for a refrigerator, so the cooler is the ultimate winner in this category.

Power Supply

Since we briefly mentioned the power requirements for the refrigerators, we should probably go a bit more in-depth on what it is that powers these two items.

Regardless of the type of refrigerator, everything from a freestanding fridge freezer to a countertop glass door model will run on electricity. This means either channeling electricity from your car battery or using something like a DIY solar power array on top of your van.

Unfortunately, home appliances don’t run on the type of current you get from a battery or a solar panel charger, so you’re also going to need to install a DC/AC inverter. This means that not only will you need a constant power source to keep all of your food from spoiling, but you’ll also need to make a lot of modifications to your van to run any sort of refrigerator.

On the other hand, coolers can come in the form of an ice chest or thermoelectric coolers. As the name suggests, ice chests are simply plastic cubes that you pack ice into and then have your food and drink cool in the ambient temperature that’s maintained inside.

That being said, an electric car cooler, like the Koolatron Kool Kaddy P75, is an iceless cooler that only requires a power connection to work. These coolers are designed with road trips in mind rather than home use, so most of them can simply be plugged into the cigarette lighter and use the DC car battery as a power source.

Once again, we’d say that the point goes to the cooler.


refrigerator cooler temperature

The article has been pretty one-sided until now, so let’s start listing off a few things that the refrigerators are better equipped to do. At the top of that list is temperature control.

While coolers like the Dometic CFX3 have temperature controls available, they still can’t cool down their interior with as much precision as a refrigerator-freezer. More precisely, coolers cannot handle more than one different temperature setting at the same time.

In contrast, refrigerators have a bigger swing when it comes to temperature settings, and they can even have a separate freezer compartment. This will allow you to keep the standard food at around 40 degrees Fahrenheit, while the freezer can be kept at 0.

This range of temperatures allows you to keep your quick meals in the main chamber, and the meat or other meals that need preparing can be kept in the freezer. This isn’t possible with a cooler since you’ll either have a portable freezer or a wine cooler. This means that you’ll either be forced to freeze all of your food or have some of it spoil.


Refrigerators have a lot more working parts than coolers, and they’re usually a bit more difficult to clean, so this category seems like it would be another win for the cooler. However, while things may seem that way initially, there are a few things that people don’t consider.

Refrigerator Maintenance

Naturally, all of your electronics are going to get put through their paces when you spend a lot of your time on the road. So regardless if you’re a full-on road rage tailgating driver or if you’re the picture of composure, driving all day is going to lead to a lot of electrical components getting shaken up.

You’re more than likely going to need to learn to live without a led light on the inside of your fridge; you’re going to need to install a latch or duct tape the door shut, so it doesn’t open while driving and the water in your fridge is likely going to turn into club soda on some bumpy roads.

On the more extreme end, you might also see some important components simply dislodge, and you’ll be forced to go online to find another 12-volt refrigerator compressor. However, these components are easy to come by, and they aren’t all that difficult to install even on your own.

Having to buy new parts is costly, and it’s not something that you’ll be happy to do when it happens, but coolers have a much bigger problem.

Cooler Maintenance

The cooling technology that’s used in the thermoelectric coolers is much more intricate than your standard refrigerator. Unfortunately, the parts are also a lot harder to come by and more challenging to install than the standard refrigeration unit.

On the bright side, a good heavy-duty stainless steel cooler can take a lot of punishment before cracking. But if you have a more standard unit, then there’s a fair chance that it’ll get shaken up in transit and develop an issue or two, similar to the refrigerators.

On the other hand, refrigerators will have minimal issues when it comes to electronics but will need to be filled up with ice every few days and will need to have the water drained; otherwise, the food inside will turn to mush due to the moisture.

Final Word on Maintenance

It’s a fair assumption that a refrigerator will have higher maintenance requirements due to all of the working parts. However, they can at least be repaired, unlike thermoelectric coolers, which need to be replaced entirely once they break.

On the other hand, while refrigerators will need to have their contents removed and be wiped down by hand, ice boxes can simply be sprayed down with a hose to clean them. However, ice boxes also need to constantly have their ice supply replenished and have the water drained to avoid all of the contents floating in the melted ice.

Final Decision

Going strictly by the score, the cooler should be the obvious choice for a van dweller; however, we have a bit of a different opinion.

This article was meant to determine which item is better for everyday use, and despite all of the drawbacks, that item is still the mini-fridge. The singular temperature setting of the thermoelectric cooler is a bit too inconvenient for all of our food items, and the constant ice requirement of the ice chests is too annoying to be a viable option for everyday use.

While it may have its drawbacks, especially when it comes to van life, a standard small refrigerator can still offer a lot more standard comforts than any cooler.

You can still pick your own side in the refrigerator cooler debate, but the refrigerator is the clear winner for us.

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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