Tired Of Wet Food, Spoiled Cream, Or Warm Beer - Our Evolution Of Keeping It Cool
We’ve all been there. It’s Sunday on a weekend getaway. The ice in the cooler shifted. So, you reach down to make a sandwich and discover your lunch meat sitting in a cesspool of ice melt at the bottom of the cooler. Well, those days aren’t necessarily behind us. But, there are quite a few better options. Here’s what we’ve learned over the years based on real world experience. So, what is the best cooler/12v fridge for our adventures?
Styrofoam Coolers Are A Dying Breed
In this day and age, our environmental conscious has led to the demise of the basic styrofoam cooler. They were a viable option in the age of petroleum. In fact, they were cheap, disposable, and readily available if you needed more cooler for the adventure. I remember Spring Break adventures with a styrofoam cooler bouncing around in the back of my Jeep. By the end of Spring Break, it was held together by duct tape and leaking all over the back of the Jeep.
Most people no longer look for the disposable coolers. However, there are times that you may be traveling and need a short-term solution. Thankfully, today’s options are a bit less damaging to the environment.
Igloo has created a new cooler that is made from biodegradable materials. Now, I wouldn’t expect this thing to handle much more than a weekend outing. But, this is a practical and affordable short-term solution in a pinch.
Check out Igloo’s website: https://www.igloocoolers.com/pages/recool. They’ll give you a bit more information that I don’t feel needs my attention. As I said, I wouldn’t count on this for much more than a temporary option. I also wouldn’t expect the type of performance that we’ve come to expect from most of today’s more durable coolers. However, there are definitely options for those not ready to invest in a more permanent option and may be testing the waters to see if outdoor adventures are right for them.
Soft-Sided Coolers Are Definitely Moving Forward
I still remember my first soft-sided cooler. It wasn’t much more than a lunch box or six-pack holder with insulated nylon and a strap. But, it worked for what I needed. I also remember a “beeracuda” type cooler that looked like a bazooka over my shoulder, but it kept my beverages cold. Lastly, I remember getting a soft-sided cooler at Trader Joe’s to help my frozen groceries survive the hour long drive back home. Today, our soft-sided cooler is Costco’s take on one of Yeti coolers‘ popular designs.
Although I love Yeti coolers, I’m also very conscious of their premium cost. I do believe that quality comes at a cost. But, I also believe that we shouldn’t throw money away in our quest to get out and enjoy our adventures.
Our Costco cooler is a Coho Cooler. The cooler is ”soft-sided”, but it’s also very well insulated and approaching a rigid style. Some of my favorite features are the rectangular shape, the accessory pouch on the front, the tie-down points, and the well-insulated design. It also has waterproof zippers that are beneficial, but also need maintaining to keep operating smoothly.
The rectangular shape really works well for us. I like how the rectangular shape matches well with our Trail Kitchens King Charles Chuckbox, as well many of our other items that ride in the back of the truck. I’ve also noticed that this semi-rigid design is less likely to leak when the ice melts. Our previous soft-sided coolers tended to sweat and leak as the internal and external temperature changed. This cooler eliminates that drawback.
Is a soft-sided cooler perfect for every scenario?...nope. I do like using the soft-sided cooler for our drinks and snacks that get used more often. Every time a cooler is open, it loses cold air. So, the size is appropriate for short-term storage. Our soft-sided cooler is meant to supplement our hard-sided main cooler. This helps the main cooler stay colder longer. Plus, this soft-sided cooler fits easily in a bear box. Speaking of bear boxes...
Can A Cooler Be Bear Safe?
Living and traveling in bear country means that we have to be very conscious about our food storage. There’s nothing worse than returning to camp to see all of your food scattered across the campground. Or, even worse, seeing your vehicle ripped to shreds because a bear found your food cache.
When we upgraded our cold food storage, safe and secure food storage was a top priority. If a cooler keeps your food cool, but is not bear resistant, then it really doesn’t work well for us. We‘ve had multiple hard-sided coolers and have finally settled on a Yeti Tundra 65 (https://www.yeti.com/en_US/hard-coolers/tundra-65-cooler/YT65.html). The size is manageable for multi-day adventures. The cooler can lock to our rear bumper to keep humans at bay. And, we can also lock the cooler’s lid to make it secure and bear-resistant. The storage capacity, even when packed with ice, food, and drinks has really been well suited for our needs. Is it perfect? Almost.
We have used blocks of ice, frozen water bottles, and even dry ice to help keep our foods at a safe temperature. Thankfully, the Yeti does have a drain, because even with it’s strong reputation for long-term ice, it will eventually melt. In order to get the most performance from your Yeti, I have a few helpful suggestions.
I recommend pre-cooling the cooler by either packing it with ice the night before. Or, in our situation, we can often leave it outside the night before to get cold with the Tahoe night air. I also recommend packing the cooler full to prevent any extra dead space that needs cooling. The more dead space, the more likely warm air will infiltrate and wreak havoc on your ice supply. Make sure your food and drinks are cold prior to putting them in the cooler. And, make sure to move the cooler out of direct sunlight or hot winds. We accidentally left the rear window of the truck open while driving in 100°F temps. That alone was enough to cut our ice longevity in half.
So, how do we keep our stuff from getting soggy without constantly draining the water? Well, it takes a bit of effort. But, maybe it’s time to upgrade our electronics and look for a 12v fridge/freezer combo.
Powerful Cooling Comes At A Cost
The next step for us will eventually be a 12v fridge/freezer. We’ve looked into a few different brands. But, there are also a few important considerations before we pull the trigger.
As I mentioned previously, bear resistant food storage is a priority. So, how will the 12v fridge/freezers measure against the bear-resistant hard-side roto-molded coolers?
I have a friend with a Four Wheel Pop-Top Camper. And, he experienced a pretty adventurous bear invasion. He woke up to his fridge and cabinet being ripped out by a neighborhood bear. Thankfully, he was sleeping in the house and the camper was in the driveway. After he completed the repairs, he proceeded to put a deadbolt on the rear door. So far, he hasn’t had any recurring issues. But, that could only be a matter of time.
Well, our vehicle doesn’t have the capability to be secured by a deadbolt. And, our AT overland Habitat is a soft-sided tent when deployed. So, what are our options for bear-resistant 12v fridge/freezers? I’m not sure I have that answer...yet. But, bear resistance isn’t the only thing holding us back from pulling the trigger on a 12v fridge/freezer. So, what else needs to be considered before buying a 12v fridge/freezer?
Power consumption is another serious consideration. Our factory Toyota Tacoma battery setup has worked extremely well for almost all of our power needs. Our single battery powers all of our lights, accessories, as well as charges our personal electronics. But, what impact will we see if we add a 12v fridge/freezer. Many different models have safeguards to prevent the starter battery from being drained too low. Will that impact the safety of our food storage? I’m not sure which would be worse, stuck in the middle of nowhere with a dead battery or food poisoning?
I’ve looked into two options for our upgraded power needs. The first is a complete onboard setup involving a dual battery system. The one that I really like is the Off Grid Engineering split dual battery upgrade (https://www.offgrid4x4.com/collections/complete-dual-battery-systems/products/2005-current-toyota-tacoma-trd-off-road-trd-pro-complete-dual-battery-system). This is a pretty awesome setup. But, it also adds a pretty penny to our 12v fridge/freezer investment. That’s not even considering the weight impact which almost always affects our fuel economy. The security of a well regulated dual battery system has benefits beyond the 12v fridge/freezer. But, that seems like a LOT of investment for something that presently works well.
The other option I’ve looked into is a bit more portable and can move from vehicle to vehicle based on the need. I like things that are modular, especially when we know that vehicles don’t last forever. In fact, sometimes situations change and portability is greatly appreciated. So, I found a solar/battery option that would work very well for a 12v fridge/freezer. It’s even from one of the most recognized names in the business. Main Line Overland offers a Dometic portable battery complete with a solar panel to keep most 12v fridge/freezers up and running (https://www.mainlineoverland.com/collections/portable-fridges-freezers/products/dometic-plb40-portable-lithium-battery-overland-solar-120-watt-portable-solar-panel-combo-package). This option can also get temporarily tied into the vehicle’s charging system to keep the portable battery well supplied while driving. Then, the solar panel and battery can be deployed while at camp. This option is also quite expensive. But, the portability means that it can go from vehicle to vehicle, even if we decided to build something else in the future.
I haven’t even gotten into the comparison of some of the 12v fridge/freezers available and we’re already talking about a $1000 investment in an electronics upgrade. I’m sure that we could make our existing electronics work for a 12v fridge/freezer. But, part of overlanding is hoping for the best while preparing for the worst. I’ve always preferred to be proactive versus reactive. Now, let‘s look at the different 12v fridge/freezers on our shopping list. I’ll be happy to share what I’ve discovered throughout the shopping process. And, we’ll welcome any additional feedback that may help guide us to the product that is right for us.
ARB, Dometic, Engel, Snomaster, and Whynter...Just To Name A Few
There used to be only a handful of options when looking for a 12v fridge/freezer options available. Today, #Overlanding and #Vanlife is big business. Looking at the latest SEMA videos, as well as the many Overland Expo videos, I’m thankful to have so many options. There is a 12v fridge/freezer in almost every size, power draw, lid configuration, single vs. dual, and durable material made. in a way, that’s great. But, it also makes pulling the trigger all that more difficult. I’ve narrowed down a few important considerations. But, I’m still not 100% convinced that my decision is made entirely.
Size definitely matters. Although I do love to be humorous, size is a very important consideration. Which model blends in with most of our other necessities in the back of the truck? Which model has the right storage for our needs? And, which model can easily go in and out of the vehicle when I need to use the back of the truck for more than camping? I’ve narrowed that down to a minimum of 40l and a maximum of 65l. That’s still a pretty broad range. But, I still plan on using a supplemental cooler for beverages and snacks. And, I don’t think there actually is a one-size-fits-all model out there.
I’ve also decided that a single compartment with basket storage will work well for our needs. Dual zones seem awesome. But, I also see more components to break. I also don’t want to have to have a separate fridge and freezer. I think I’ll just do what I’ve done with the cooler and use my frozen foods before they completely melt. If I really need the freezer, then most models have quality temperature controls and I can make a commitment to turn it into a freezer based on demand.
Our Toyota is equipped with an AC port in the bed of the truck. The Habitat has a 12v port. So, I would like the option of both. Plus, that also gives me the option to prepare our food inside before transporting to the truck. That will help alleviate any extra power draws and work to maintain an efficient operating temperature.
Lastly, and quite important, is construction. Plastic can help keep costs down. But, it’s also a lot less durable than stainless steel. For a high priced piece of electronics that will ride in the back of our truck down bumpy roads, I’d say the more durable the better.
So, where does that leave me with options? I've narrowed it down to three different sizes. These are the manufacturers I feel good about. One of these will eventually be the 12v fridge/freezer option for us.
I’ll list my pros and cons findings alphabetically.
ARB Elements 63qt - 440mm (17.3in) x 490mm (19.3in) x 820mm (32.3in)
Here is the direct link to ARB's website: (https://arbusa.com/portable-fridge-freezers/elements-weatherproof-fridge-freezer/)
Weatherproof - But, how will it handle attacks from furry critters?
Large capacity - 63qt is comparable to our Yeti
Quality brand known for durable overloading gear
Stainless steel durable exterior
Security from theft with a magnetic lock, as well as padlock capability
Gas spring/strut - no need to hold the lid up with your head
Power integrated battery protection system
Price MSRP $1444.49
Heavy, not really portable at 70lbs unloaded
Dometic CFX 50l - 28.54" x 18.54" x 17.91"
Here is the link to Dometic's website: (https://www.dometic.com/en-us/us/products/food-and-beverage/coolers/electric-coolers/dometic-cfx-50w-_-152178)
Quality brand with local service at most RV service shops
Sized well - matches up well with our other equipment
WiFi controls to monitor power consumption
3 stage dynamic battery protection
LED light and wire baskets for interior storage
USB accessory port
Folding and removable handles for tie down points or to fit in tight spaces
44.98lbs - not exactly light, but manageable
Includes AC and DC cords
72 can capacity
MSRP $999.99, but there always seems to be a sale somewhere
Engel MT 45F-U1 - (LxWxH) 25.5" x 14.3" x 20" (Excludes Handles = 1.5” Each)
Here is the link to Engel's website: (https://www.engelcoolers.com/catalog/product/view/id/334/s/engel-platinum-mt45f-u1-ac-dc-fridge-freezer/category/8/)
On sale for $799.99, regularly MSRP $1049.99
3 year warranty
One of the originals in the 12v fridge/freezer game
Includes both AC and DC cords with an auto switch capability
9 foot 12v cord
66lbs unloaded, that's pretty heavy for a smaller capacity cooler
Snomaster LP61 - 30 × 20 × 18 in
Here is the link to Snomaster's website: (https://www.snomasterusa.com/product/classic-series-cl62-stainless-steel-acdc-fridgefreezer/)
Low profile - will match up and be below the rails on the truck bed
62.61 Quarts, 59.26 Liter (Single, compartment, single zone)
Cut out Voltage 3 settings: 10/10.7/11.8 Volts @ 12 V DC
Interior LED Light
Threaded Mounting Feet
Movable Control Panel
***Free Bottle Opener***
3 Internal baskets included
Transit Bag included
5 year compressor warranty
End/Front/Back discharging to reduce overheating potential
Temp Range 50F to -8F, 10c to -22c
Whynter FM 45G - 23.5″ W x 16.5″L x 20.5″ H
Here is a link to their website: (https://www.whynter.com/product/whynter-45-quart-portable-fridge-freezer/)
Available for $529.19 at Best Buy, plus they price match if you find it cheaper and can offer and extended warranty
1 year warranty
Two internal baskets
“Fast Freeze” mode rapidly cools to -8°F
LED temperature display
Functions even when tilted 30°
Tough and solid outer casing
Low power indicator
Positive customer service located in Brea, CA
No interior light
No security locks
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