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The Best Portable 12 Volt Refrigerator For Campervans & Vanlife In 2022 + Complete Buying Guide

Fancy a cold one while you’re on your travels? But what’s the best way to keep your drinks cold when you’re on the road? That’s where a 12 volt refrigerator comes in.


12 volt refrigerators are becoming increasingly popular among RVers and vanlifers, as they offer several advantages over RV fridges.

For one, 12v fridges are much more energy efficient, as they only need to be plugged into a 12 volt power source. 

Because 12v fridges run off batteries, they can be used even when you’re not hooked up to shore power, making them ideal for off-grid camping and boondocking.

Additionally, 12v fridges are often more compact than RV fridges, making them perfect for use in tight quarters and small spaces.

Whether you’re looking for an efficient fridge for your RV, a compact fridge for your campervan, or a portable freezer, a 12v fridge is a great option.

This article provides an epic overview of 12v fridges, including their benefits and drawbacks. We will also review six specific 12v fridges, detailing their features and how they might be the perfect choice for you.

Best 12v Refrigerator Models Cover
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At A Glance | 6 Best 12 Volt Refrigerator Models For RVs & Campers

bestICECO VL60 Dual Zone Portable Refrigerator with SECOP Compressor, 60 Liters Platinum Compact Refrigerator, DC 12/24V, AC 110-240V, 0℉ to 50℉, Home & Car Use (with Insulated Cover) 1. ICECO VL60 Dual Zone Portable Refrigerator – Best 12v Refrigerator
  • High on space
  • Super durable
  • Dual zone with both usable as fridge/freezer
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DOMETIC CFX3 55-Liter Portable Refrigerator and Freezer with ICE MAKER, Powered by AC/DC or Solar 2. DOMETIC CFX3 Series – Best 12v Fridge Range
  • Super efficient
  • Dual zone with both usable as fridge/freezer
  • Bluetooth app for temp regulation
  • Ice maker
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ICECO JP50 Portable Refrigerator Fridge Freezer, 12V Cooler Refrigerator, 50 Liters Compact Refrigerator with Secop Compressor, for Car & Home Use, 0℉~50℉, DC 12/24V, AC 110/240V 3. ICECO JP50 12V Refrigerator Portable Fridge Freezer – Best 12 Volt Fridge Freezer
  • Inexpensive
  • User-friendly
  • 5-year warranty
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Alpicool C9 Mini Portable Refrigerator 10 Quart(9 Liter) 12 Volt Fridge Freezer for Car, Vehicle, Truck, RV, Boat, Mini Fridge Freezer for Driving, Travel, Fishing, Outdoor -12/24V DC 4. Alpicool C9 Mini Portable Refrigerator 10 Quart(9 Liter) – Best 12 volt Mini Fridge
  • Fast cooling
  • Small size, portable
  • User-friendly features (app, USB socket for small devices, etc.)
  • Inexpensive
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ARB 10802442 ZERO Portable Fridge Freezer Single Zone 47QT, Bluetooth Controlled, 12/110V For Car, Boat, Truck, SUV, RV, Ideal for Camping, Outdoor, Fishing 5. ARB ZERO Portable Fridge Freezer 47 Qts – Best Portable Refrigerator
  • Durable
  • Powerful compressor fridge
  • Efficient
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Alpicool CF55 Portable Refrigerator 58 Quart(55 Liter) Vehicle, Car, Truck, RV, Boat, Mini Fridge Freezer for Driving, Travel, Fishing, Outdoor -12/24V DC 6. Alpicool CF55 Portable Refrigerator 58 Quart(55 Liter) – Best Budget 12v Fridge
  • Inexpensive
  • Fridge-freezer option
  • Efficient
  • Removable baskets
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1. ICECO VL60 Dual Zone Portable Refrigerator – Best 12v Refrigerator

ICECO VL60 Dual Zone Portable Refrigerator with SECOP Compressor, 60 Liters Platinum Compact Refrigerator, DC 12/24V, AC 110-240V, 0℉ to 50℉, Home & Car Use (with Insulated Cover)

Specification

  • Capacity: 2.1 cu. ft. (63.4 quarts)
  • Weight: 65.7 lbs
  • Dimensions: 19.4″ x 18.8″ x 31.2″ (D x H x W)
  • Dual Zone?: Yes
  • Configuration?: Top Loading
  • Power Consumption: 85W in Max mode
  • Cooling range: 0°F to 50°F

If you check our list of desirable features we discussed earlier, ICECO VL60 ticks off the right boxes at almost every point. 

It’s got the highest capacity among all our choices, so it’s meant for people on the road most days of the year. 

Moreover, the VL60 is one of the best dual zone 12V fridge freezers out there. It lets you configure both compartments to run as either fridge or freezer. 

This means the entire space is usable at all times. Want ice cream on some days but need the entire space for your veggies the next day? This 12 volt RV refrigerator lets you do both.

In terms of the space it takes up in your RV, the VL60 is less deep than others. This gives you the extra 1-2 inches of space that you should always leave between your fridge and the wall. 

ICECO has compensated for the depth through the height and width, which is why the capacity is so high. In addition, it’s got recessed handles that let you carry it around without taking up extra space.

The VL60 is designed with a metal outer casing and thick walls. Thicker walls make it easier for the fridge to hold the internal temperature even when ambient temperatures are high. 

ICECO offers a 5-year warranty on this fridge, which is better than many of its competitors.

What We Liked

  • Metal casing and protective cover help hold the cold inside.
  • Locking hinges, recessed handles, top loading design for travel on the road.
  • Lots of space, and both zones are configurable to run as either fridge or freezer.
  • It can run on AC and DC (separate wiring and inlets provided). Useful when you have access to shore power or want to use it at home.

What We Didn’t Like

  • Heavier than other options(66 pounds), not easy to carry out of the van.
  • Needs 85W power in max mode and 60W in eco mode. That’s more power than any other portable fridge in our lineup.
  • In Eco mode, it takes 8-9 hours to reach ~40°F.
  • Min temperature is 0°F. Other fridges offer better minimum temperature for frozen foods.

Pros

  • Heavier than other options(66 pounds), not easy to carry out of the van.
  • Needs 85W power in max mode and 60W in eco mode. That’s more power than any other portable fridge in our lineup.
  • In Eco mode, it takes 8-9 hours to reach ~40°F.
  • Min temperature is 0°F. Other fridges offer better minimum temperature for frozen foods.

Cons

  • Could have had a better min temperature for frozen foods.
  • High wattage.
  • It can be noisy.
  • Expensive.

2. DOMETIC CFX3 Series – Best 12 Volt Refrigerator Range

DOMETIC CFX3 55-Liter Portable Refrigerator and Freezer with ICE MAKER, Powered by AC/DC or Solar

Specification*

  • Capacity: 1.9 cu. ft. (58 quarts)
  • Weight: 47 lbs
  • Dimensions: 20″ x 21″ x 31″ (D x H x W)
  • Dual Zone?: Yes
  • Configuration?: Top Loading
  • Power Consumption: 13W(1.11 ah at 12V)
  • Cooling Range: Yes

*Note: The specs above are for the 58-quart model, but our recommendation below is for the whole CFX3 family of refrigerators, which includes products from 26 quarts to 106 quarts capacity.

Dometic is a major brand name in the RV fridge market. The CFX3 is their popular offering in the 12 volt refrigerator category. It features the 25L, 35L, 45L, 55L, 75L, and 100L variants.

The CFX3 range has the best 12V freezer fridges on power efficiency, hands down. Consider this: for a 58 quarts fridge, the average Ah used is just 1.11 per hour, which at 12V calculates to just 13Watts per hour! 

Obviously, the wattage is higher when the compressor runs, but the design and build ensure that the compressor doesn’t need to run that much. It has a solid outer ExoFrame construction, and aluminum door handles to lift it up. 

Apart from energy efficiency, this series has several user-friendly features such as:

  • a Bluetooth app to control the internal temperatures,
  • battery protection,
  • low voltage cutoff to protect your fridge and battery, and
  • a handy USB port to charge small devices.

This is a dual-zone refrigerator where both zones can be used for a fridge/freezer. And don’t be fooled – just because the units use less power doesn’t mean they do a lesser job of cooling – they can freeze things right down to -7°F and even have a separate ice maker.

What We Liked

  • Superb efficient, so they can work on much lower power than others on our list.
  • Dual zones with a separate fridge and freezer compartment can be used interchangeably and designed to cool up to -7°F. 
  • Bluetooth and Wifi based app for temperature regulation.
  • Dometic’s brand value and 2-year warranty.

What We Didn’t Like

  • These refrigerators carry the Dometic brand name, which is expensive.
  • The unit can be a bit noisy. 

Pros

  • Low power draw.
  • Dual-zone with all fridge/freezer configurations.
  • Battery protection.
  • Bluetooth app for temp regulation.
  • It has its own ice trays for making ice.

Cons

  • Expensive.
  • It can be a bit noisy.

3. ICECO JP50 12 Volt Refrigerator – Best 12 Volt Fridge Freezer

ICECO JP50 Portable Refrigerator Fridge Freezer, 12V Cooler Refrigerator, 50 Liters Compact Refrigerator with Secop Compressor, for Car & Home Use, 0℉~50℉, DC 12/24V, AC 110/240V

Specification

  • Capacity: 1.76 cu. ft. (53 quarts)
  • Weight: 37.5lb
  • Dimensions: 13.78” x 20.87″ x 26″ (D x H x W)
  • Dual Zone?: No
  • Configuration?: Top Loading
  • Power Consumption: 55W (33W in eco-mode)
  • Cooling Range: -7°F – 50°F

The ICECO JP50 is a budget buy, but you get a great deal for the price you are paying. This is a single-zone refrigerator, but you can use it as a fridge or a freezer. Lowering the temperature can turn the fridge into a freezer compartment.

It goes down to -7°F, and if you would like to keep your steaks frozen during your weekend camping trip, this is a nice fridge-freezer to do it.

There are some very nice additions that ICECO has added to the JP50 – the extra long power cord, protective outer covering, and removable handles are all nice touches that make the product that much better. 

It’s also a low-power drawing appliance since it takes just 55W in max mode and 33W in eco mode to cool the 12-volt refrigerator for RV.

The fridge-freezer has all standard features to protect the battery, including auto cutoff and low voltage protection. 

The fridge weighs about 37 pounds, but with food, it can go up to 40-45 pounds. Still, it is much lighter than the previous two on our list. 

It also has a nice, solid exterior and detachable handles for easy lifting. 

The fridge has removable baskets, so you can do all your stacking after taking them out and just slide them back in when you are done – it helps to keep the cold air trapped and saves power.

What We Liked

  • Fridge-freezer combination with lots of space for either operation.
  • Friendly features include extra-long cable, removable storage baskets, LED lights, etc.
  • Much cheaper than its competitors for almost similar features. 
  • Protects the battery against low voltage and current overload.
  • It comes with a 5-year warranty for the compressor.

What We Didn’t Like

The outer casing is not metallic with thickened walls like some competitors, so this fridge may need a bit of extra insulation to hold the temperature after it gets cold. 

One way is to add insulating tapes on the sides and the bottom.

It is not a dual-zone fridge-freezer. You can use it only as either a fridge or a freezer at one time.

Pros

  • Inexpensive, with good capacity.
  • User-friendly features.
  • 5-year compressor warranty.
  • Battery protection systems.

Cons

  • The outer casing is not very durable.
  • In some cases, the 12V connector is slightly loose.
Alpicool C9 Mini Portable Refrigerator 10 Quart(9 Liter) 12 Volt Fridge Freezer for Car, Vehicle, Truck, RV, Boat, Mini Fridge Freezer for Driving, Travel, Fishing, Outdoor -12/24V DC

Specification

  • Capacity: 0.3 cu. ft. (9.5 quarts)
  • Weight: ‎17.38 lbs
  • Dimensions: 12.6″ x 9.8″ x 16.72″ (D x H x W)
  • Dual Zone?: No
  • Configuration?: Top Loading
  • Power Consumption: 45W
  • Cooling Range: Cools down to -4°F

The Alpicool C9 is a different segment of refrigerators from the ones we have discussed so far. 

This is one of the best 12 volt mini-fridges out there, with a much smaller (only 9.5 quarts) capacity than the first three. 

Mini fridges like the Alpicool C9 are great for:

  • picnics, 
  • solo travel, 
  • as an additional portable fridge to your 2-way or 3-way RV fridge, 
  • or even as standalone fridges if you are ok with doing a store run every couple of days.

A mini-fridge has many advantages: for example, the Alpicool C9 takes just 95 minutes to reach a – 4°F temperature (having a smaller space to cool helps). 

Moreover, it is much easier to carry around (just 17 pounds, 20 if you consider the food), and it doesn’t hog a lot of power from your battery (45W on average).

Despite its size, it also packs a lot of features that you would expect in a normal 12v fridge/freezer, such as:

  • battery protection, 
  • powerful door seals for ensuring no spills on the road,
  • tilt protection for the compressor when you park on an incline, and 
  • shock protection for dirt roads and potholes.

What We Liked

  • Incredibly compact, fits almost anywhere and does not hog space. 
  • They’re also perfect for a solo camper or backup portable refrigerators.
  • Cools down super quickly as compared to other full-sized 12v refrigerators.
  • Despite its size, it can carry a fair bit of food and cans.
  • It can be used as both fridge and freezer and cools down to -4°F.

What We Didn’t Like

The outer frame and casing are not as durable as you would like them to be; they tend to come apart after some time.

For its size, 45W of electricity is too high. There are more efficient refrigerators like the Dometic ones we mentioned earlier.

Pros

  • Fast cooling.
  • Small, portable refrigerators.
  • Battery protection.
  • User-friendly features (app, USB socket for small devices, etc.).
  • Inexpensive.

Cons

  • The frame is not durable.
  • Not too efficient
  • It can be a bit noisy.

5. ARB ZERO Portable Fridge Freezer 47 Qts – Best Portable Refrigerator

ARB 10802442 ZERO Portable Fridge Freezer Single Zone 47QT, Bluetooth Controlled, 12/110V For Car, Boat, Truck, SUV, RV, Ideal for Camping, Outdoor, Fishing

Specification

  • Capacity: 1.6 cu. ft. (47 quarts)
  • Weight: ‎65 lbs
  • Dimensions: 29″ x 19″ x 22″ (D x H x W)
  • Dual Zone?: No
  • Configuration?: Top Loading
  • Power Consumption: 50W
  • Cooling Range: -7.6°F to 50°F

At first glance, the ARB ZERO 47Qt is an expensive buy. In fact, it’s the most expensive one on our list. But when you start to use it, you will understand why.

ARB has tried to keep in mind every minute requirement of campers. Take a look at some of the features:

  • DC inlet at both ends makes it easy to use in any configuration on your RV.
  • Quick release door with handles on both sides for one-hand opening when you are carrying groceries in the other hand.
  • Fridge slide included for mounting the fridge in the back of your van.
  • 5V USB outlet near the display panel for connecting your phone/ other small devices.
  • Steel casing to keep the insides colder for longer.
  • BT and Wifi App to control temps.
  • Recessed handles and anti-slip lid inserts for using the fridge (when you are using the fridge as a table for your drinks).

The ARB has a very efficient compressor that lets it cool down the fridge/freezer compartment to -7°F very quickly. 

It’s also an efficient device that keeps the temperature within a 3° range around the temperature that you use.

It only turns on the compressor when the temperature is 3° higher than what you set (saving power).

What We Liked

  • Lots and lots of user-friendly features.
  • The compressor is quite powerful and takes very little time to reach the desired temperature.
  • The fridge slide included with the fridge for mounting is a good addition because it makes it easier to use the fridge when you land at the campground.

What We Didn’t Like

  • Lots and lots of user-friendly features.
  • The compressor is quite powerful and takes very little time to reach the desired temperature.
  • The fridge slide included with the fridge for mounting is a good addition because it makes it easier to use the fridge when you land at the campground.

Pros

  • User-friendly.
  • Durable.
  • Powerful compressor.
  • Energy-efficient.

Cons

  • Expensive.
  • App is buggy.

Alpicool CF55 Portable Refrigerator 58 Quart(55 Liter) Vehicle, Car, Truck, RV, Boat, Mini Fridge Freezer for Driving, Travel, Fishing, Outdoor -12/24V DC

Specification

  • Capacity: 1.9 cu. ft. (58 quarts)
  • Weight: 37 lbs
  • Dimensions: 27.17″ x 20.63″ x 13.58″ (D x H x W)
  • Dual Zone?: Yes
  • Configuration?: Top Loading
  • Power Consumption: 60W
  • Cooling Range: -4°F to 68°F

If you are looking for a no-frills, inexpensive, high-capacity fridge freezer, then Alpicool CF55 is just the right choice.

The CF55 offers 58 quarts of space that can be used both as a fridge and a freezer. This is enough for almost anyone who wants to keep their veggies, fruits, and a few beers in a fridge and doesn’t mind making a store run once a week.

What’s more, the Alpicool CF55 cools down to -4°F, so you can use the freezer compartment for frozen foods and meats.

It does this with an average power consumption of just 45W, so it’s incredibly efficient. You can easily run it off a 500W battery pack for the entire day without needing to charge.

It also has an Eco mode for more efficient cooling if you want to run with even lower power.

It has all the necessary features that you would need in an RV fridge: tilt protection, shock protection, and battery protection. In addition, the baskets are removable, so you can stack up everything and put it back in without losing the cold from inside.

What We Liked

It’s a value-for-money product. If you’re into the extra frills like a Bluetooth app or a heavy-duty steel construction that can last a raging storm, this fridge will do the job for you at nearly ½ the price of its competitors.

It’s got all the basics in place – fridge and freezer option, battery protection, easy temperature controls, etc.

What We Didn’t Like

It’s a value-for-money product. If you’re into the extra frills like a Bluetooth app or a heavy-duty steel construction that can last a raging storm, this fridge will do the job for you at nearly ½ the price of its competitors.

It’s got all the basics in place – fridge and freezer option, battery protection, easy temperature controls, etc.

Pros

  • Budget-friendly

Cons

  • It needs extra insulation to hold the freezer temperatures.
  • It can be a bit loud.

What Is A 12 Volt Refrigerator?

Interior baskets of a 12v Refrigerator

As the name suggests, a 12V fridge works using your 12V DC battery and doesn’t need a campground pedestal to keep your food cold. 

But don’t be confused: we are not talking about those big 2-way and 3-way fridges that can run on shore power, propane gas, and battery here. 

Instead, we’re talking about fridges that are small enough to run purely on a 12V DC connection.

12V fridges use a compression process for cooling. We recommend you avoid absorption fridges because they need to heat their coolant and use much more power.

How Does A 12 Volt Refrigerator Work?

Van Life

There are two main types of RV refrigerators based on the cooling method used- absorption refrigerators and compression refrigerators. Simply put, absorption refrigerators use a chemical process to cool the fridge. In contrast, a compressor fridge uses an electrical process to do it.

The 12V refrigerators we’re talking about work using the compressor process. The main advantage of this method is that it is energy efficient.

Most residential refrigerators in RVs also use the same process for cooling – but there is a big difference. Those refrigerators are large and need a lot of power, so they usually run on an AC power source. 

12V refrigerators need a lot less power because of their size, so they can also run on a 12V DC connection.

Read more: 5 Best RV Refrigerator Options For Campers, Travel Trailers & Motorhomes

The Advantages Of A 12 Volt Refrigerator For Campervans

Energy Efficient

12V RV refrigerators can run for a lot less power than your typical 2-way or 3-way fridge. For example, let’s compare 3 of the best RV refrigerators in the market right now for power consumption:

Fridge ModelSpec
Dometic Americana II2-way
AC and LP
440W
Norcold Polar3-way
AC/LP/DC
300W
ICECO VL6012V fridge
85W

2-way and 3-way fridges like the Dometic Americana II and the Norcold Polar use anywhere between 4 to 6 times the power consumption of a 12V fridge like ICECO VL60. 

Moreover, a 12v compressor refrigerator on;y runs for about 30-40% of the time. The compressor only comes on when the fridge becomes warm again and shuts off after it reaches the desired temperature.

Many 12V fridges also come with a helpful “low power” mode, which reduces power consumption further (but takes longer to cool). For example, the ICECO VL60 we mentioned above uses 85W in its power-hungry “Max” mode. In contrast, it usually works on about 60W in eco mode.

Every boondocker understands how precious those saved watts can be when they’re off-grid and there is no shore power. 

Using low-powered appliances helps save battery power. That means you can make a significantly smaller investment when buying a solar generator, batteries, or an array of solar panels. 

Either way, it is a huge plus point for a 12 volt refrigerator in a campervan.

Read more: How Much Propane Does an RV Fridge Use and How to Reduce It’s Consumption

Can Be Powered By Solar

RV solar panels

Solar power technology has really taken off in the last few years, and 12V devices are ideally suited for use with solar energy. 

For one thing, there is no loss in the solar energy generated when using a 12V DC appliance. In contrast, if you use an AC device, there is an efficiency loss due to the conversion.

Read more: What Does An RV Inverter Do & Why Do I Need One In My Camper?

The second thing is that unlike power guzzling 110V appliances and propane refrigerators, 12V fridges use only 60-80W of peak power, so you can run them on a smaller solar generator. 

Running a 110V refrigerator, on the other hand, requires a much more significant investment to run on solar. 

Consider this: a 2,000W portable solar power station might cost you upwards of $3,500, whereas you can get a 500W solar generator for under $1,000.

Superior Cooling

12-volt RV refrigerators use compressor technology, making them better at consistently cooling whatever the ambient temperature. 

Absorption-based RV refrigerators work less effectively when the temperature outside is too hot.

Read more: Can An RV Refrigerator Fan Make Your Fridge More Efficient?

Portability

12V fridges are designed for the road. Most of them weigh under 60 pounds, and some come with helpful features such as a handle for picking them up and wheels. 

They are designed with strong door seals and latches to keep the doors closed when driving on bumpy roads and uneven terrain.

The Downsides Of A 12v Fridge

Shelving inside a front loading 12v Refrigerator

Price 

For the capacity you get out of them, 12V RV refrigerators are pretty expensive. You can buy a good 2-way or 3-way fridge with about 6 cu. ft. of capacity for somewhere between $1,500 to $2,200. 

But for a small 12V fridge with a capacity of 2 cu. ft. or even less, you will have to shell out anywhere between $600 to $900. 

Moreover, you will not get many of the high-end features of larger RV refrigerators or residential refrigerators. For example, you’ll rarely find adjustable shelves, crisper trays for veggies, etc.

Dependency of A Battery Bank

Smaller campervan conversions and class B motorhomes typically include a 12v electrical system with a battery bank. Conversely, larger motorhomes often use onboard generators or rely on shore power. 

This makes these larger motorhomes independent of shore power (to an extent). Still, it also means that you might need to install a 12V system onboard to run a 12V fridge if you use a class A or class C motorhome or a bigger camper.

How Long Will A 12 Volt Battery Run A Refrigerator?

There is no straightforward answer to this question. However, some things that might influence this number include: 

  • How large the battery is (how many watt-hours).
  • What temperature do you want the refrigerator to cool itself to? The lower the internal temperature, the more the compressor will run, and the more battery is needed.
  • Whether you are using the freezer or not (freezers and ice makers require extra energy to run).
  • The outside temperature (the higher the external temperature, the more the fridge has to work to reduce the internal temperature). 
  • Whether you are simultaneously charging the battery or not. Suppose you are hooked to a solar battery while also running your fridge. In that case, the battery will be able to run the fridge for longer than if it received no charge.
  • How many other devices are you running simultaneously? Each device draws a certain amount of power, so the more devices connected, the less time the battery will be able to run the fridge.

If you’re not sure of the number of hours your 12V refrigerator can run, input your data in this solar bank calculator

It will help you enter all the relevant information and determine how many hours your battery will run.

How to Choose the Right 12v Fridge For Your Camper

12V refrigerators come in various shapes, sizes, brands, budgets, and configurations. 

There’s a lot to think about before choosing one, and here are some pointers you absolutely must consider.

Top Brands

When shortlisting a good product, the first thing to do is find the best brands to meet your needs. When buying a 12V fridge, these are the top brands on the market right now:

  • Dometic: Dometic is a market leader in the RV fridge category known for its innovative designs and features. It also has some of the most efficient refrigerators.
  • ICECO: ICECO makes some of the toughest and most well-designed 12v RV refrigerators.
  • ARB: ARB is known for its high-end and higher-sized 12v RV refrigerators.
  • Engel: Engel is known for the reliability of its products. People have been using Engel fridges that are more than 30 years old. Ourselves included!
  • Whynter: Whynter is known to be a more affordable 12v RV fridge brand than the others on this list.

Fridge Capacity

Fridge capacity is usually measured in either cu. ft. or quarts. 1 cubic foot of space is about the same as 28 liters of water. However, water would fill every available space should you pour it into a fridge. 

When considering the contents of your fridge, you’ll need to consider packaging, empty spaces (air), and shelves. 

Several other factors decide what kind of fridge capacity you need. For example:

  • How much food do you (and your family) eat daily?
  • How much food do you want to store, including beverages, meats, frozen foods, etc.?
  • Do you need a portable freezer, or can you purchase ice from the campground or nearby stores?
  • How many times a week are you willing to run to the grocery store?
  • How often are you going to be off-grid?
  • How big is your RV? What kind of space is available for a fridge in your kitchen?
  • How much power do your 12V batteries have, and what other appliances do you need to run with the same power?

Apart from the fridge’s internal dimensions, you also need to be mindful of the external dimensions and where it sits in relation to other fixtures and fittings: 

  • How far is the fridge from a power outlet? Will it disrupt anything else that is in between the two?
  • Recessed handles are generally better because they don’t jut out from the fridge and save a bit of space. Many 12V portable refrigerators also have removable handles.
  • How much space can you afford to leave behind the fridge for ventilation? You should ideally keep at least 1-2 inches of space.

Remember that 12v RV fridges are pretty small, but most van lifers prefer between 40 to 60 quarts of space for their van fridge.

Power Consumption 

As any RVer knows, battery power is a scarce commodity on board. Your battery provides power to all your appliances, including your fans, lights, phones, TVs, etc. 

You will need to replenish those precious watts from either solar power or shore power (you can also charge the batteries while driving, but let’s leave that aside for now).

Read more: How To Charge A Leisure Battery

Despite advancements in solar technology, installing solar generators and an array of solar panels is still a bit expensive. 

Also, in most cases, recharging a battery from solar power is comparatively slow. 

Solar power is also dependent on the vagaries of the weather because if the sun decides to hide behind the clouds, your solar panels aren’t so effective.

Connecting to shore power is, of course, a good option, but that limits you somewhat. You’ll be dependent on getting to a campground or other means of hookup every other day. This kind of defeats the whole purpose of why many van lifers get into this life in the first place.

A 12V refrigerator is one of the biggest power hoggers on your battery, so it makes sense to only buy one as big as you need. 

Buy a portable fridge that fits the sweet spot between utility, power draw, and price.

Size Of Your Electrical System

It’s simple math – your electrical system must be able to cope with the load you put on it and recharge sufficiently to keep you off the grid as long as you want. 

Ensure you consider the fridge’s power demands. You can upgrade your electrical system if necessary or choose a more efficient appliance. 

Read more: The Complete Guide to Campervan Electrical Systems

Price

Price is almost always a factor in any purchase. While 12V RV refrigerators do tend to be a bit expensive per liter of capacity, they offer a lot of conveniences and are uniquely suited for van life. 

Since your portable fridge will probably last you the next decade or more, try to avoid making price a deciding factor unless you’re on a budget. 

Fridge Style/Configuration

12v Refrigerator

Top-Loading Fridge (Chest)

Top-loading fridges are the most common 12v refrigerator for campervans and RVs. This is because they have several advantages:

  • They are better at retaining their temperature when you open the lid (because the cold air stays at the bottom). 
  • They can store more food because they tend to have no shelving.
  • They are best suited for storing food when traveling because the doors won’t open, allowing the contents to spill out. 
  • You can carry them outside and use them as a cooler.

But there is one thing you miss out on when using chest-style refrigerators: You can’t build storage space right above the fridge. 

However, you can always build a sliding shelf to carry it, solving this problem.

Front-Loading Fridge (Upright Fridge)

A front-loading upright fridge looks like a mini version of the regular residential refrigerators in our homes. One key benefit for RVers is that you can build shelving space above them. 

When you have a permanent fixture like a fridge hogging space in a corner, you would like to use the space above it to carry other things, and these fridges will let you do that.

However, they do have a few downsides:

  • Their cooling efficiency is slightly lower than chest-style refrigerators (because cold air escapes whenever you open the door).
  • They tend to spill more easily unless they have latches on doors and strong door seals. While most upright refrigerators have these features, it’s best to check before buying.
  • They are a bit more expensive because they are designed specifically for RVers (chest-style fridges also have applications in other fields).

Front-Loading Fridge (Drawer)

Suppose you want food to remain firmly in place but don’t want to leave the space atop the refrigerator empty. In that case, a drawer-style front-loading fridge might be a good option. 

These refrigerators have lower space inside as compared to their outer dimensions. Still, they do let you pack the food better. 

However, they also let out refrigerated air every time you open the fridge, making them less energy efficient than top-loading ones.

Compressor vs. Absorption Refrigerators

The 12v refrigerators that we recommend are compression-type fridges, just like RV residential refrigerators. 

Compressor refrigerators are better at cooling the fridge under ambient temperature, unlike absorption ones.

Absorption fridges also have other problems: they don’t work well if the RV tilted even the slightest bit. If you use LP to run them, they produce carbon monoxide that needs to be vented out of the RV. It also creates a potential fire hazard in the RV.

Don’t get us wrong – absorption fridges are great for RVs because of their tremendous flexibility. 

With 2-way and 3-way absorption fridges, you can run your appliances on 110V AC, 12V DC, or even propane. That’s very useful when you want to dry camp away from shore power.

But these refrigerators aren’t efficient when you run them on 12V power. In contrast, the ones designed specifically for 12V DC power are much better with power usage.

Dual-Zone vs. Single Zone

dual zone 12v fridge

Dual-zone refrigerators have two separate compartments, so you can set aside one side specifically as a freezer. That’s useful if you want to carry frozen foods like ice creams with you.

Some dual zone fridges also let you use both sides in refrigerator or freezer modes, so the space doesn’t go to waste if you don’t need the freezer.

In our view, a dual-zone is a great feature, allowing you to use the freezer zone as a fridge. It is the best option if your budget allows it.

Reliability & Warranty

Most refrigerators come with a warranty and sometimes a separate warranty for the compressor. 

Since you are purchasing something that you expect to last for years on end, it is important to look at the manufacturer’s warranty.

That said, reliability is not always about the warranty. For example, an old branded refrigerator will usually be more reliable than the many upstarts you can find online, even if they offer a higher warranty. 

With the boom in RVing in recent years, many 12v fridges are white labeled. So, some brands simply slap their own labels on them. 

That means the online market is often flooded with low-cost, unbranded fridges that, under the cover, are all the same. 

They may not be all low quality, but you don’t necessarily know enough about their manufacture. For example, 

  • they could be manufactured in China or Russia, 
  • instructions may be poor or not written in English, and 
  • replacement parts and aftercare are possibly non-existent.

In Conclusion

After reviewing some of the best 12 volt refrigerators on the market, we have to say that the Dometic CFX3 Series is our top pick.

It’s a high-quality product range with a durable build, excellent cooling capacity, and low power consumption. Not to mention, Dometic refrigerators are packed with user-friendly features that make them a breeze to use.

If you’re on a budget, then go for the Alpicool CF55. It doesn’t have all the bells and whistles that the Dometic range has, but it gets the job done, and it’s much more affordable.

We hope that this guide has helped you narrow down your choices and find the best 12v fridge for your van life. Happy travels!

Leave a comment about your experience with 12v fridges for van life! Do you have a favorite model that you would recommend? Let us know in the comments below!