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A 12-volt refrigerator is most likely one of the most important investments you’ll make for your campervan. With a portable 12v fridge, you’ll be able to escape for days at a time without relying on ice.
12-volt refrigerators work just like the fridge in your house, using a compressor. They are rugged, have a low amp draw and keep food and drinks chilled even in the hottest of outdoor temperatures.
We’ve found our ARB 12v fridge to be a game-changer for van life in our Chevy Astro van and now Sprinter van. It’s powered using two 50-watt flexible solar panels, which means we can go off-grid for days and have cold food and drinks. You can also hook up a 12-volt portable fridge to a solar generator.
There are two main types of 12 volt fridges for van life. Top loading, which looks more like a cooler, and front-loading, which looks like one of those dorm room fridges.
Both have pluses and minuses, which we’ll go over once we show you the best 12 volt refrigerators out there.
Table of Contents
The Best Top-Loading 12-Volt Refrigerators for Van Life
We have a top-loading fridge in our campervan, and I prefer this type of fridge as it doesn’t lose as much coolness as a front-loader. We can open the chest, grab what we want, and close it quickly. The cool air mass stays low. I also like that our ARB fridge fits under our Sprinter van bed. If we used a front-loading fridge, it would need to be built more into our kitchen design or cabinetry.
That all being said, here are the best top-loading portable 12-volt fridges out there.
- Exterior dimensions (LxWxH): 29.7 x 20.2 x 19.6 in
- Weight: 65 lb
- Capacity: 59 Quarts/56 Liters
- Power draw: 0.55Ah
- Rugged stainless steel construction
- Separate hinged lids for each compartment
- Large storage capacity
- Lid open alarm
- Wireless remote control
- Battery monitor
- Includes protective travel bag
- Quite heavy
SnoMaster is a family-owned company from South Africa that’s been making big inroads into the US market in the last few years. SnoMaster offers a range of functional and heavy-duty refrigerators that are built for durability and longevity.
The entire outer shell of a SnoMaster 12-volt refrigerator for a campervan is made from stainless steel, including the locks, hinges, and handles, which make it a great option for van life. SnoMaster even developed their own compressor which was designed to function in harsh environments. Not only that, they offer a 5-year warranty on every compressor!
The SnoMaster CL56D is easily the best dual zone 12-volt refrigerator we’ve seen. It features 3 baskets and each compartment can be set independently using a digital thermostat. Best of all, there’s a separate hinged lid for each compartment, so opening one won’t affect the temperature of its neighbor.
This best 12-volt refrigerator offers a 56-liter storage capacity, making it ideal for extended off-grid adventures. Handy additional features include a protective travel bag, lid open alarm, and a wireless remote control that can be charged via solar or USB.
- Exterior dimensions (LxWxH): 29 x 22 x 19 in
- Weight: 56 lbs
- Capacity: 47 Quarts/44.5 Liters
- Power draw: 0.8Ah
- Rugged, built for off-roading
- Available in dual-zone, single-zone and four sizes
- Reaches cold temperatures quickly
- Easy-to-navigate display
- Charges using both AC and DC
- Some say app is bad
- Dual zone fridges come in only large sizes, meaning you’ll need a bigger rig
ARB’s latest line of best 12-volt refrigerators, the Zero fridge models, are rugged and meant for off-roading.
ARB got its start making 12v fridges for 4×4 adventures in the Australian outback, so you can expect a high level of durability. ARB refrigerators use a patented hinge system with a top-opening, detachable lid, so you can reach your food and beverages even in a smaller vehicle.
The ARB Zero line of refrigerators comes in both dual-zone and single-zone options.
The dual-zone refrigerators are only available in 73qt and a 101qt, making them quite large and suitable for a larger vehicle or RV. The dual-zone fridges offer both refrigeration and freezing, and have two separate compartments with their own temperatures controls and lids.
Single zone ARB Zero 12-volt refrigerators come in popular 47qt and 63qt sizes, ideal for a smaller campervan, SUV, or car. The 47qt model has a front-facing lid, while the 63qt features a reversible, side-opening lid.
The ARB Zero refrigerators have an easy-to-read display and a mobile app where you can monitor the fridge’s vitals from afar. However, one reviewer said the app isn’t very good.
You can install a slide or tie-down system to keep your ARB 12v fridge stable when on rough dirt roads.
ARB has a reputation for being high-quality and durable, which is why many people choose this brand. The 12 volt compressor refrigerators get excellent reviews online and in van life forums.
We have an ARB fridge in our campervan and have had a very positive experience so far. Check out my full review of the ARB 367 quart fridge here.
- Dimensions (LxWxH): 38.3 x 20.5 x 18.1 in
- Weight: 72.5 lbs
- Capacity: 95 Quarts/90 Liters
- Power draw: 0.31Ah
- Huge storage capacity
- Separate, multi-direction lids
- Compressor has 5 year warranty
- Thoughtful design features
- 3-level battery protection
- USB ports
- Quite expensive
- Heavy and bulky
- Some have had issues with warped lids
Founded in 2005, ICECO quickly made a name for itself as a manufacturer of high-quality portable fridges for van life. These best 12-volt refrigerators for van life have become really popular among campers looking for a solid, reliable option for off-grid living.
The VL90 is the largest 12-volt refrigerator ICECO makes, and features a whopping 90-liter capacity and a dual zone design. Each compartment has its own digital thermostat control as well as its own lid. A nice feature is the ability to easily change the opening direction of each lid to suit your space.
This best 12-volt refrigerator for van life features 12/24 volt DC ports on either side as well as a pair of USB outlets for charging mobile devices. The built-in AC transformer means you can also pre-cool your refrigerator from a household outlet before hitting the road.
We love the ICECO’s straightforward design and sturdy construction. The manufacturer obviously put a lot of thought into this 12-volt refrigerator, demonstrated by design features such as a convenient drain hole, corner protectors, and removable handles.
This newest offering from Dometic is as cool as it gets. The Dometic CFX3 55IM powered cooler + icemaker produces ice in hours, but keep in mind it will draw more power when set to ice-making mode.
The rugged Dometic 12v fridge for a campervan has a generous 52-liter storage capacity, which can fit up to 83 cans. You can stuff it full of drinks and food to last for days off-grid.
Use the free app to monitor your 12 volt refrigerator while you’re out on a hike or bike ride, and readjust the temperature as needed to create ice for a cold drink after a sweaty day on the trail.
The Dometic CFX3 offers a user-friendly interface, is easy to carry and has flexible power options. Charge it using a 12-volt outlet or a standard household AC outlet.
The rapid freeze-plate and accompanying silicon ice trays make ice in just hours, although one reviewer says it doesn’t really make enough ice at a time.
A removable wire divider less you arrange food and drinks as you like.
- Dimensions: 17.5 x 13.78 x 23 in
- Weight: 35 lbs
- Capacity: 37 liters
- Power draw: 0.1Ah
- Inexpensive, yet functional compressor
- Durable design
- Digital temperature display
- Maintains a temperature of 0 degrees, although some say it goes much lower
- 1-year warranty
- Considerably higher power draw than other 12-v fridges on the market
The Truck Fridge is the cheapest 12v fridge using the Danfoss compressor we could find. This company specializes in refrigerators made for semi-trucks, commercial trucks, vans and campers.
Their best 12 volt refrigerators feature an energy-saving function, a turbo cooling function and a multi-function electronic thermostat. Like the other 12v fridges reviewed here, it can plug into either AC or DC power with battery protection.
You can pick from a variety of sizes if you decide to go with the Truck Fridge.
This is a popular choice among van lifers thanks to the affordable price tag.
- Dimensions (LxWxH): 27.17 x 13.58 x 18.19 in
- Weight: 30 lbs
- Capacity: 47.5 Quarts/45 Liters
- Power draw: 0.38Ah
- Gets down to -4°F
- Very affordable
- 3 levels of battery protection
- High-density foam insulation
- LCD display and digital temp adjustments
- Runs at a 45-degree angle, great for off-roading
- Low amp draw
- Latch isn’t durable
- Made of cheap plastic
- Some say its noisy
A lot of van lifers who don’t want to shell out big bucks for the best 12 volt refrigerator with a Danfoss compressor often go for the Alpicool 12v fridge.
This budget 12v fridge has a trolley design, so you can roll it around your campsite with ease. They are small, portable, and get good reviews on Amazon and in van life forums.
However, with a cheaper price tag you have to expect a cheaper quality. Some reviewers claim the latch broke off after a few uses thanks to low-quality plastic.
Like the other best 12-volt refrigerators, the Alpicool fridge has a built-in LCD control panel which makes it easy to change the temperature. It’s vibration-resistant and operates at a 45-degree angle, making it great for off-roading.
At a weight of only 30 pounds, this is also one of the lightest 12v fridges we could find.
The Best Front-Loading Fridges for Van Life
A front-loading fridge can be a good fridge to add to a campervan, especially if you’re looking to build your fridge in with your cabinetry or kitchen unit. The upright fridge is easier to fit top to bottom than a chest-style fridge. These fridges also are more reminiscent of the fridge you’d have in your house, with shelving and a separate freezer on top.
Here are our top picks if a front-loading fridge is right for your particular van build.
Norcold was founded in 1959 in California and specializes in manufacturing specialty refrigerators for the RV and marine industries. They moved their HQ to Ohio later on.
Their fridges are some of the best available on the market and are known for their build quality and durability. Some owners of 90s WV Eurovans still have an old Norcold onboard going strong.
At the time of writing, they make two models – the Norcold 2.7 Cubic Foot AC/DC Refrigerator/Freezer and the Norcold 1.7 Cubic Foot AC/DC Marine Refrigerator/Freezer. They are available in black and stainless steel. Click here to check out Norcold fridges on Campervan HQ.
These front-loading fridges are extremely efficient: they consume a maximum of 3.6-5.6A at 12VCD depending on the model. Plus, they are very quiet, giving you a good night’s sleep. Their secret? The hermetically-sealed, dependable Danfoss BD-series compressor.
The shelves are robust and easy to clean, so they will last a long time. Norcold fridges are side-mounted, which means there are no visible fasteners in front.
All models operate at 12 or 24 VDC – simply add the 120VAC power cord to your basket before you purchase the fridge. They also run on AC power.
Everyone has heard about Dometic – most van lifers carry around a Dometic fridge or cooler. They say they create “compact solutions for outdoor living” – from fridges and fans to AC units and awnings.
Their front-loading fridges aren’t quite as energy-efficient as the Norcold models, but some are slightly roomier. You can use them either as a fridge, freezer, or fridge-freezer. This means the freezer compartment can be removed, so you can use the full space as a fridge. To select the temperature, just use the soft touch control panel, which is mounted on the inner wall.
Their fan adjusts its speed based on the ambient temperature, which helps keep their fridges quiet. All models can run on 12/24VDC or 110/220VAC.
Dometic currently produces the CRX1065, the CRX1110S, the CRX1080U and the CRX1110U. They go from 1.9 cubic to 3.8 cubic feet capacity. See all models on Campervan HQ.
Nova Kool have been producing refrigeration products for mobile and off-grid use in the Pacific Northwest for more than 30 years.
Nova Kool also uses the much-acclaimed sealed Danfoss compressor, which doesn’t leak any lubricant or refrigerant. Nova Kool fridge/freezers are silent and efficient. They feature interior lighting, a positive latch system, storage for tall bottles on the door, durable powder-coated wire shelves, and more.
Nova Kool currently manufactures three models: the R3800, the R5810, and the R4500 (click here to see all models on CampervanHQ). The capacity goes from 3.5 to 5.8 cubic feet. These are the most spacious front-loading fridges on the market, so if you have room on your van, you might want to invest in one.
Nova Kool refrigerators are made to order at the factory, so you need to allow for plenty of time for construction and delivery.
Things to think about before buying the best 12v refrigerator for van life
Now we’ll go a little more in-depth into what to look for when buying a portable refrigerator for your campervan.
1. Top door vs side door 12v fridge
A top door 12-volt refrigerator for van life is the most energy-efficient of them all.
The best 12v fridges require you to stack food, but also retains cold air better than a front-loader. That’s because not as much air escapes when you’re opening this box-style 12v fridge from the top because cold air usually lingers down at the bottom.
Top door 12v fridges are compact, some can be used as a seat, and they’re easy to install. This 12-volt refrigerator can fit between the two front seats of your vehicle, and all you have to do is pop open the top to grab a cold drink.
Some people do like the side door fridge because it fits better with their particular campervan or RV design. It’s easier to grab food and drinks than with a top-door 12v fridge.
Usually, a side door compressor fridge works well if you have a bit more space for opening and closing the door.
2. What size 12-volt fridge do you need?
The best 12-volt refrigerators come in all sorts of sizes, so it’s important to measure the spot in your vehicle where you plan on putting your fridge. Also, it’s good to consider the quantity of food and drinks you’ll need to keep cool.
Keep in mind the 12v fridge will need enough space around it for the vent fan to run properly, and for you to extend the handles to lift the fridge.
Most people who live or travel in campervans like to get 40-50L 12 volt refrigerators. We have a 37-quart, and it works fine for about 5-7 days off-grid.
However, in our larger Sprinter van conversion, we will most likely add a bigger fridge, possibly a dual zone.
3. Check the type of compressor in the 12v fridge
The best type of compressor for a 12-volt refrigerator is a Danfoss compressor. This is the leading compressor in the fridge industry, and with good cause.
According to the Danfoss website, these compressors have an electronic control unit with built-in speed control, thermostat signal, thermal protection, and a turn-off switch that prevents the compressor from damaging a battery. They also have an electronic thermostat, fan speed control and are highly energy efficient.
However, we have read reviews of other 12 volt fridges, like the Alpicool, that use a different, cheaper compressor but also work quite well.
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4. Calculate the power draw of the best 12v refrigerators for van life
Each best 12 volt refrigerator has a different amount of power it will draw from a battery, more when the fridge is first cooling down, then less to maintain that temperature. The average power draw of a compressor fridge is anywhere between 1 and 5 amps per hour.
We’ve noticed that when our ARB fridge is on, it draws 4-5 amps for about 10-15 minutes. Then it shuts down for maybe 45 minutes. This depends on the outside temperature, of course.
Most people who have a 12v fridge in their campervans run it off an external battery, which is either powered by solar panels, or connected to the van’s alternator via a battery isolator.
Our ARB 12v fridge connects to our solar setup via a DC outlet in the rear of our campervan. We run it off two 50-watt flexible solar panels and its plenty to keep our 12-volt fridge super cold.
Keep in mind that some van lifers say a fridge wreaks havoc on your alternator, and it’s better to power the fridge off rooftop solar panels.
Another option is to keep your 12 volt refrigerator connected to your start battery when driving, then use either a portable solar generator like the Jackery Explorer 500 to keep it cool during the day.
PRO TIP: ARB, a leading manufacturer of 12 volt refrigerators, says many new cars use such small wiring from the cigarette lighter to the battery that a 12v fridge will detect low voltage and automatically shut down. The wiring tricks the fridge into thinking it’s drawing too much power.
ARB does sell a separate hardwire kit that connects your fridge directly to the start battery, circumventing the “small wiring” from your cigarette outlet.
If your battery has a constant hot outlet – which powers even with the ignition turned off – a fridge could run just fine off the start battery for up to 24-hours. Beyond that, ARB recommends a second, or house battery, to power the portable fridge.
5. Decide if you want a dual-zone 12 volt refrigerator or a single-zone
Some of the best 12-volt refrigerators come with two compartments that act as separate refrigerators and freezers, and some don’t. So just be sure to decide whether you need a dual-zone fridge or not before you buy.
We think the new Dometic Cooler + Icemaker is really awesome if you want ice cubes at a remote campsite. Keep in mind the ice-making function will take more power than regular cooling.
We’ve used a single zone fridge for a couple years now and think that’s just fine.
6. Make sure to research the warranty and find the best for your compressor fridge
High-end 12 volt compressor refrigerators usually come with a warranty, but some are better than others. I’ve seen anywhere from a 1-year to a 3-year warranty.
Looking into warranty information is important because it can be tricky to find someone to work on your portable 12v fridge.
Why picking the best 12-volt refrigerator can be confusing
It’s easy to get confused when looking online for the best 12 volt refrigerator for van life. A quick search on Amazon reveals a bunch of lookalikes.
There are three types of 12-volt fridges out there: thermoelectric, absorption and compressor.
12-volt refrigerators are energy efficient and mimic the fridge you have at home, with compressors specially built to be powered from a DC outlet (cigarette lighter).
Here are the three most common types of portable refrigerators:
- Thermoelectric refrigerators
- Absorption refrigerators
- Compressor refrigerators
We’re going to explain these three types of portable fridges so you know why we’re focusing on 12 volt compressor refrigerators only.
Thermoelectric portable 12-volt refrigerators
- Thermoelectric refrigerators look like 12-volt compressor refrigerators, but cost way less. Price is your first indication you’re not looking at a true compression fridge.
- They run off a very different, less efficient technology than 12 volt compressor fridge
- Thermoelectric units are not temperature-controlled, and instead, use the outside air to determine their interior temperature. They cool to about 36-40 degrees less than the ambient air. So, if its 90 degrees outside, your food is going to be kept at 50-54 degrees.
- These coolers are fine if you’re going on a road trip and don’t need to keep food cold for long periods of time, or if you’re not in a hot climate
Want to see our favorite coolers? Check out the best 5 coolers for van life.
Absorption portable refrigerators
- The typical absorption refrigerator can run off three types of power sources: gas, AC or DC, but are most efficient when using propane
- They only cool to 30 degrees below the ambient temperature and are not temperature-controlled
- Absorption fridges have to be completely level to operate correctly
- They pull way more power plugged into a DC outlet than a portable compression refrigerator
- You’ll typically see these refrigerators built into RV units, and they’re the size of a college mini-refrigerator, so not truly a portable option
Compressor 12-volt fridges
- The coldest portable 12-v fridge you’ll find
- Uses less power than an absorption fridge, but more than a thermoelectric cooler
- Runs off the same compressor technology as your household fridge
- Temperature controlled, with both refrigeration and freezer technology
- They’re operational up to 30 degrees off level, and also keep working when jostled about if you’re off-roading
- They come in a variety of sizes but are typically small and manageable
- Way more expensive than thermoelectric or absorption refrigerators
There are several best 12v fridge manufacturers out there, and what you choose will largely depend on your setup, the amount of money you’re willing to fork over, and the warranty information.
We’ve found a great budget option as well if you want to spend less than $400 on a 12v fridge.
The 12 volt refrigerators we recommend all have excellent reviews and a solid history of making good quality products.
All eight best 12 volt refrigerators share these traits in common:
- They run on both AC and DC power
- Operate on a very low power draw
- Interior drain plugs
- Rugged and well-built
- An integrated battery protection system
QUICK TIP: Keep in mind that often these 12 volt refrigerators have a variable temperature at the top and the bottom, which depends on how tightly they’re packed with food and drinks. Many campers recommend using your own thermometer to determine the temperature and adjust accordingly.
Conclusion on the Best 12 Volt Fridges for Van Life
The best 12v refrigerators we recommend do have a few key differences, but all of these refrigerators are high-quality and recommended among van lifers, RVers, truckers and campers.
There are so many good-quality 12 volt compression refrigerators out there that it’s hard for us to say which is the absolute best for your lifestyle. The Dometic Cooler + Icemaker and ARB 12v refrigerators are our top two favorites, but if you’re looking for a budget option, you might want to go with the Alpicool 12v fridge.
Your decision will largely have to do with unit size, price and features – do you want an electronic display and a high-tech unit? Do you need a dual zone unit with both refrigeration and a freezer? Do you care if you have the Danfoss compressor?
Whatever you choose, one thing is clear: you won’t need to deal with slushy ice and the endless search for a convenience store again when you get a 12-volt refrigerator for your van or RV!