You’ve identified a problem: you need to keep items cold/frozen while you’re out in your boat, RV, or car. If you’re searching for refrigeration, I’ll bet you’re looking for overnight, multi-day refrigeration/freezing rather than just a day trip-type-of-deal. Regardless of how long you’ll need to use it, here’s everything you need to know to install a refrigerator on your boat or land vehicle.
For this article, we’ll assume you’re not wanting to install a permanent fixture, rather a temporary or semi-temporary one.
There are two main things you’ll want to take into consideration before even looking at refrigerators. Where will it be installed and do you have the power capacity to run it?
Best Portable Refrigerators for Boats and Other Vehicles
Best Portable Refrigerator for a Boat (Marine)
For a marine application, I almost always recommend a Whynter. Maybe I’m a little biased towards their brand (which you’ll see), but they make a fantastic product. It performs like a commercial grade appliance but has a consumer grade price tag. Simply said, a Whynter product is a well-made machine that’ll stand up to the abuse of being on the water, road, or wherever life takes you.
My recommendation for a boat is the Whynter FM-62DZ. This a dual zone model with dedicated space for a freezer and a refrigerator. It has all the necessary features for rough travel including handles, latching mechanisms for the lid, LED lights and much more. Furthermore, even when buying from Amazon Whynter makes an effort to reach out and amend any problems without a cost to the consumer.
Best Portable Refrigerator for a Car
I had to make 2 recommendations for the car. Some people drive sedans, while other people drive large SUVs. There isn’t necessarily a one-size-fits-all fridge for these 2.
In all honesty, it’s just about impossible to fit a real portable refrigerator in a car. You could place it in your trunk, but realistically you’re not going to have it in there for any longer than a week. And if for some reason you are, it’ll be wiser to purchase the larger fridge that is mentioned for the SUVs below.
Regardless, Igloo is a well-known brand. They manufacture all sorts of hard coolers, soft coolers, cooler bags, drinkware, etc. No surprise here they manufacture a thermoelectric cooler. This on-the-go model is ideal for short day-trips like a picnic, or road trip.
It’s small enough to fit in the back seat on the floor of most cars and has a generous 8’ cord that can reach your cigarette lighter. It only has a plug for the cigarette lighter, meaning it can only run off DC power, however you can purchase an adapter for less than $10 to be able to plug it into the wall in a regular AC outlet.
If you plan on being on the road for multiple days at a time in a truck or SUV, this refrigerator is for you. The Whynter FM-45G is a unit that boasts all the premium features in a compact, sleek design. With both AC and DC connections you can take this wherever on the road and then easily move it into a hotel for the evening or into the house for when you’re not traveling.
Inner temperatures can reach a chilly -8 degrees Fahrenheit with Fast Freeze mode. A 45-quart capacity is enough to fit up to 60 12fl oz cans and 65-quart and 85-quart models are also available. Handles on the sides are standard and this top-opening unit features a latching mechanism to keep your perishable goods secure.
Best Portable Refrigerator for a Camper or RV
If you don’t have the ability to place a nearly full-size refrigerator in your camper or RV, a larger portable unit is the way to go. Heck, even if you do have a full-size fridge, you may be seeking additional space.
Whynter comes in as the winner here again with the FM-951GW, a 95-quart wheeled monster that can be used as a refrigerator or freezer. Similar to the previous model mentioned, the FM-951GW features AC and DC options with Fast Freeze mode, handles, a latching mechanism, and a removable wire basket for fresh food.
What makes this unit different is the open-door warning system, built in wheels for easy maneuverability and a taller design.
Best Portable Refrigerator for a Truck
Whether you drive a truck to the office or a truck for a living, there’s a refrigerator right for you.
Tractor trailer drivers are likely to be looking for something that has a larger storage capacity and an option for freezing items. This makes the Dometic CFX 95DZW the perfect option for the trucker on the road. Although it has a high price tag, this electric powered portable refrigerator makes it easy for a single person to pack a week’s worth of meals or more. Who said affordable and healthy eating had to be difficult? All it takes is a stop at the nearest gas station with a microwave and there’s a meal, hot and ready.
As for the commuter, Dometic makes several smaller options that are much more practical for shorter trips. The CF series are AC and DC compatible and come in a variety of sizes.
Factors to Consider
Where will it be installed?
Location is everything. The refrigerator is going to generate heat, so ideally you’ll want to place it in an area where there can be some circulation, or at least enough space so it won’t be smothered. You do not want to place it in a compact area without ventilation, or anywhere near an engine or other heat source. While it’ll probably be fine in one of those areas, it’ll be incredibly inefficient because you’ll spend even more energy trying to keep it cool in a hotter area.
Keeping the fridge out of direct sunlight and away from any rain or other moisture is a must. Then finally, you will need to place it where it will have access to a power source. Luckily with some options there is the ability to use AC or DC power.
How often will you access it? If you only plan on reaching into it once or twice a day, it may not be a big deal to store it somewhere out of site. However if you plan on putting in or taking out items more often you will want to keep it in an easily accessible area or purchase a mounting kit that allows it to slide.
Do you have enough power for it?
Unlike other electronics, like a microwave, that are only used for a brief period, a refrigerator will generally be more active as the compressor will kick on every time its internal temperature reaches a certain point. How often it will turn on depends on the use and the climate it’s in.
Power usage will vary by model, so be sure to take into account the current electrical load on your system and if you’ll be able to run it along with other electronics. Unless the fridge is in a very hot area, the compressor will only run when needed. When the compressor turns on, it will draw anywhere from about 1-5 amps while running. A fridge with a ‘Fast-Freeze’ mode will likely have a higher draw because it is trying to cool down quicker.
Most higher end models of portable refrigerators have the option to use either AC or DC power; be sure to check before purchasing. If the one you purchase only runs on AC power you will need an inverter to convert DC to AC electricity. A decent inverter will cost a few hundred dollars and little wiring.
Types of Refrigerators
If you ask me, there are generally 3 categories of items meant to keep your drinks or food cold. Some manufacturers mix terms together, so I want to be clear on what we’re discussing in this article.
Beverage Coolers – No Active Cooling
These are usually your light-duty day trip coolers (YETIs and similar models being an exception). They do not have any electrical power, but they might have incredibly thick insulation that keeps the contents cold for several days or more. Your $20 Coleman Coolers and all the way up to the pricey Yetis fall into this category. The distinguishing difference here is there is no compressor in any of these.
Thermoelectric Coolers – Active Cooling via Convection Cooling
These are coolers designed to keep food and drinks cold without any ice or a compressor. Instead, these coolers run off electricity and use convection cooling to keep the contents cold. A thermoelectric cooler will need access to a 12V DC receptacle, like a cigarette lighter. Thermoelectric coolers rarely get below 36 degrees Fahrenheit and will not have the ability to keep items frozen or create ice.
If you read closely, these coolers will cool somewhere between 30-40 degrees Fahrenheit below the ambient temperature. This is not actual temperature. So if it’s 90 degrees outside the cooler, the cooler will hover around 50-60 degrees. These coolers are ideal for short trips in the car or boat.
Refrigerators – Active Cooling via Compressor
Just like the refrigerator in your kitchen, these models have a compressor containing a refrigerant, like R410-a or R-134a, the 2 most common nowadays. These models have the ability to keep items just above freezing point and keep other items frozen in a separate compartment. These types of refrigerators can run off both AC and DC power and are typically the most durable.
Gas / Propane / 3-Way Powered Refrigerator
Although these are becoming less common, they still do exist. A propane powered portable refrigerator isn’t a bad option if you plan on setting up camp for several days and want a fridge that won’t be running off of electricity. The ‘3-way’ name comes from the fridge’s ability to run off of 1 of 3 power sources: AC, DC, or gas.
The caveat with a gas-powered fridge is it needs to be on a level surface when in use. Propane is a flammable gas, so storing this fridge away from any heat source and on stable ground is a must. A hose or regulator that wiggles loose could prove deadly if ignited.
Portable Refrigerator Features
Front-Opening vs. Top-Opening
This may be a preference of mine but having a top-opening fridge seems to be a better overall option than a front-opening fridge, like you probably have in your home. In the case of rough waters or bumpy roads items are less likely to move around and the door won’t swing open spilling everything on the floor.
Secondly, it’ll be much easier to stack items on top of one another and you can maximize the space with a top-opening fridge.
Whenever a front-opening fridge is opened the cold air gets instantly dumped out to the surrounding area. That’s simple physics – cold air will sink beneath warm air. Top-opening models in this sense, are much more efficient because the cold air stays towards the bottom of the refrigerator, and won’t spill out of the top.
If you’re needing ice for your excursion, you’re better off just bringing it separately, purchasing it along your journey, or buying a refrigerator with a freezer. Rarely do any portable refrigerators come with an ice maker simply because it’s impractical. You need a water line to feed water into the ice maker, which isn’t possible.
Secondly an ice maker will take up useful space that could be devoted to other food or drinks.
Third, it’d be very easy for a portable ice maker to break. There isn’t a consistent power supply, so in the case you do have a way to feed it water, the potential constant melting and refreezing could break or immobilize parts making the ice maker useless.
In the end, if you’re in that bad of a need for ice, I recommend packing it beforehand and purchasing one of the high-end Yeti or RTIC coolers. Ice will last a little over 10 days in one of these coolers if left unopened, so realistically you’d be able to hold ice for a week with regular use.
Need a Freezer?
Higher end portable fridges will sometimes split their space with 2/3 refrigerator space, 1/3 freezer space – these might be labeled as “Dual Zone”. Having a freezer is a great addition if you keep frozen food to reheat later or will be out on the water or road for an extended period of time. Frozen dinners will taste like heaven after the 15th ham sandwich and keep you in action longer.
Locking Mechanisms and Carrying Handles
You might overlook these features, but buyer beware. Don’t forget this cooler is going to be moving around A LOT and rough waters, a sudden stop, or pothole could cause even a top-opening fridge to open up. The last thing you want is having to stop what you’re doing to clean up everything that flew around the galley or rear of the car.
Handles are a must if you plan on moving a cooler or refrigerator, even if only occasionally. Yes, it feels light coming out of the box, but once it’s packed full of ice, food, and drinks, it’s going to be much more difficult to move. Plus, handles make it easier to have someone help you move it and prevent you from spilling the contents everywhere.
Think you don’t need them now – think again. Have you ever tried to find an electrical outlet in the dark, only to be stabbing the drywall until you finally give up and get a flashlight? That’s exactly why having internal LEDs in, at least, the main fridge compartment is a great feature. Imagine trying to rummage through the fridge in the dark, then you go searching for a flashlight, only to find out the batteries are dead or your phone is on 3%. Get a model with the LEDs in the first place.
If you have you eye on a fridge that doesn’t have LEDs built-in, you can purchase these LED discs that you can place around your refrigerator that can be turned on with a remote.
Adjustable Temperature Range – Fast Freeze Mode
Refrigerators in the $500+ range usually have a digital temperature display and adjustability setting. From this display you can set the temperature to whatever you desire. These settings are usually specific to each side of the fridge if it has more than one compartment. This way, one side can be dedicated freezer space, while the other is for more perishable goods.
With a fast freeze mode, you can rapidly cool down fresh food to lock in its taste and provide a better quality meal when its unfrozen. If food is frozen slowly, there’s a greater chance of ice crystals forming around the outside of the food which will result in a lower quality meal when it’s thawed out.
If you choose to purchase a fridge that has a freezer with the fast freeze option (say that 5 times fast), be sure to turn the fast freeze on a few hours before you will be placing food in it. This will allow the freezer appropriate time to reach the desired temperature where food can be quickly frozen.
Capacity and Insulation
Whenever you’re comparing the volume of the fridge, be sure you’re looking at the inner dimensions vs. the outer dimensions. Different models and brands will have varying levels of insulation which will affect the volume it can hold and its cooling efficiency. Thicker walls do not necessarily indicate better insulation. The material used in those walls will determine how well it can keep the contents cold.
Featured Image Source: Photo by Elizabeth, Table4Five | Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/table4five/