Choosing an Overland Refridgerator
There are many great options nowadays for portable fridge freezers capable of handling the rigors of overland travel. The challenge is figuring out which overland fridge best suits your needs and budget.
Our goal here is the provide key criteria for choosing a fridge and present a few options for different use cases. One thing to note is that you might not need a fridge, and an overlanding cooler that uses ice to keep food cool will suffice.
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There are three types of fridges you’ll typically find used in vehicles: compressor-driven, thermoelectric, and absorption refrigerators. Long story short, compressor-driven fridges are your best choices for overlanding and off-roading.
The primary benefit of compressor-driven models is that they are more efficient, hence makng better use of your (often limited) energy sources while in the backcountry. They are also more reliable, as they can maintain internal temperatures regardless of the outside ambient temperatures, which is really important if you will be traveling in hot climates.
We’ll provide more detail below about the difference between the technologies in the FAQs.
Different fridge manufacturers often use the same compressor, and there are a few compressor makers that are synonymous with quality. Compressors made by Danfoss, Secop, and Sawafuji are used across the industry and all have a solid reputation.
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Engle and Dometic manufactures their own refrigerators as well, and they are known for their durability. On cheaper fridge models, the compressor is likely to be a generic model. That’s not to say they are necessarily unreliable, but you won’t have the peace of mind provided by a trusted brand.
It used to be that overland fridges were controlled only through buttons on the unit and small LCD screens. Some of the newer models have Bluetooth-enabled controls, so you can change the settings through a smartphone. It’s not necessary, and the addition of such technology adds cost. But it is nice to be able to control the fridge from your tent if it’s inside the back of your vehicle.
Most full-featured portable refrigerators now come with the capability to drop temperatures to freezing as well. This comes in handy for a couple of reasons. You can also store frozen food indefinitely, which can come in handy on long trips where food might go bad, even if refrigerated. You can also bring along ice cream and ice cubes — decedent!
Some fridges are dual zone, meaning they have two compartments, one that can be dropped to freezing while the other remains at higher refrigeration temperatures.
Dual zone models tend to be larger and more costly. With single-zone models, you’ll either need to decide whether you want to refrigerate or freeze everything inside.
Overlanding fridges should have thick walls to make them as efficient as possible. The limiting factor while off-the-grid is almost always the ability to generate and store enough electricity to power your fridge. Well-insulated portable fridges reduce the amount of energy needed to maintain a consistent temperature inside the fridge. All of the models we’ll mention in this article have robust insulation.
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Most portable refrigerators designed for overlanding use 12-volt DC power, as they are intended to work with a vehicle’s 12-volt system, drawing from a car battery or portable power station. Many models nowadays allow you to use AC power and solar sources as well, so you can plug them into a normal power socket at home or at a campground or power them with a solar panel.
This contrasts with small beer fridges or dorm refrigerators that are designed only to plug into the wall (AC power). These aren’t a good pick for overlanding, as they require a power-sucking inverter to convert AC to DC power. Also, they are typically poorly insulated and not built to take abuse. Take home message, make sure to get a fridge that works with a 12-volt source, and if you can afford it get one that works with AC and solar as well.
Overland fridges draw different amounts of power from your battery system or generator (whether solar or gas powered), so it’s important to consider how you’ll power the fridge and what your needs are. This is particularly important if you will be running the fridge from a portable power station, as these power stations come in various capacities.
If you get a large fridge that draws a lot of power, you may not be able to recharge your power station quickly enough to keep the fridge running throughout your trip. You’ll need to match the generation capacity of your power source and the power requirements of your fridge. Our article on overland solar systems, linked above, goes more deeply into the topic of matching your power needs to your power generation and storage system. If you don’t feel like dealing with the need to power a fridge, a cooler might work best for you.
Fridge Size and Capacity
Cargo space is always at a premium when traveling off-road. A portable fridge takes up a good amount of room, so you’ll want to make sure whatever model you buy will fit in your rig, and leave room for other essential gear. The other element to consider is the storage capacity inside the refrigerator. As a rule of thumb, the longer you’ll be off-the-grid, the more space you’ll need. The internal capacity of overland-appropriate fridges varies considerably, from around 25 quarts (24 liters) all the way up to over 100 quarts (95 liters).
A portable refrigerator that you plan to use for overlanding and off-roading needs to be ruggedly designed. It will be subject to all sorts of abuse that your typical home fridge isn’t made to handle: bouncing around when you go off-road, exposure to extreme outdoor temperatures, and all the grit that goes with being outdoors, including dust, dirt, mud, rain, snow, and ice. All of the models we’ll present here can handle a beating. But keep durability in mind if you branch out, particularly if you are looking at cheaper fridges designed for on-road RVing, which won’t hold up to sustained backcountry and off-road trail abuse.
An overland fridge is one of the larger investments you’ll make in your overland rig, particularly if you get a higher-end model. Quality comes at a price. More so than many other products, it’s worth spending a bit extra for a portable fridge from a reliable company. We’ll only recommend quality fridges here, which will give you an idea of where to start. Also, look at the warranties from different manufacturers to see which ones provide the longest and most comprehensive coverage.
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