Keeping food cold on an overland adventure
Cooler, ice, fridge???
When it comes to keeping food cool on an overland adventure, there are a couple of options that come to mind. 1: Travel only in the winter and keep your food on the roof rack. 2: A cooler with ice. 3: A 12v fridge/freezer. I think we all want a little more versatility than option #1 provides, so we will stick with weighing the options provided by options #2 and #3. A cooler with ice sounds pretty straight forward but which cooler? Dry ice or regular ice or a combination? How big of a cooler? The same could hold true for options within the 12v fridge/freezer category. Thermoelectric or compressor based? Absorption, three way, propane, dorm fridge, Engel, ARB, Edgestar, the choices go on forever.
For now, we will just provide an overview of each option and the benefits and downsides of each.
Coleman 48 Quart cooler – $30: First up is the ubiquitous Coleman “Blue Cooler”. You can probably find one of these coolers in your attic or garage, even if you have never purchased one. They are EVERYWHERE. The Coleman chest cooler provides a lot of value for the price. Typically these are found hovering around the $30 price point which makes entry very inexpensive. They are well built for the price but after a couple of years of use you can expect the lid hinges to tear and the drain plug to break it’s tether. Neither of these items are essential for use and as long as you are careful with the handles when loaded heavy, this cooler will provide YEARS of use as a cooler and makeshift seat next to the campfire. The drain is well placed and allows for the elimination of all water when put on a slight incline. It is not insulated as well as a Yeti or similar cooler and will not keep ice as long. The lid is a pressure fit lid and does not latch closed. There really isn’t much to say about this cooler. This is the baseline for which all other coolers are compared.
Amazon: Coleman 48qt “blue” cooler – $29
Coleman Xtreme Cooler – $40-$75 (depends on size): For a pretty manageable increase in price you can find yourself a Coleman Xtreme Cooler. These coolers are built a little better with 2″ of insulation all around and a gasketed lid. They will keep ice for 5 days and are significantly sturdier and better built than the base model blue cooler. The handles are still a weak point so make sure to be gentle with them when loaded. The drain is improved on this model with a channel. This allows for more complete drainage when full as your food won’t get in the way of the water draining out. This also allows the cooler to be drained while on level ground but frankly, it is easy enough to toss something under one end of the cooler to tilt it that this isn’t really a selling point to me. For the money, the Xtreme cooler is a good choice. Igloo makes a comparable model as well called the MaxCold. The Igloo version is, in my opinion, a little better built but the Coleman seems to hold ice a little longer. Both are good choices.
Amazon: Coleman 50Qt Xtreme Cooler – $56
Yeti/Pelican Coolers – $300: If you want a top of the line cooler, look no further. The Yeti cooler is certified grizzly proof and is built to last. It has two inches of insulation, the same as the Coleman Xtreme, but you can rest assured that this insulation is of better quality and will keep ice for longer. The hinges are sturdy and built to last and the handles are not going to break. This is as durable a cooler as you can get. The Pelican ProGear coolers are equally as good. These coolers both have rubberized, non-slip feet. There are lots of accessories available for these coolers like divider kits, security latches, tie down kits, cushions, and trick drain plugs. This will be the last cooler you will ever buy.
Amazon: Yeti Tundra 45Qt – $260
Amazon: Pelican ProGear Elite Cooler 45Qt – $260
12v Coolers – Thermoelectric
The next logical step up might seem to be a 12v cooler, like an Igloo Iceless Cooler or a Koolatron Voyager Cooler but I would recommend against one of these for overland travel for several reasons. The biggest problem facing this style of cooler is the power draw. Most of these coolers claim to draw 92 watts which is about a 6amp draw with the vehicle running. Being Chinese made, I tend to be skeptical of given ratings and err on the side of caution, assuming that these units will actually be less efficient than they claim and draw more power than listed. These coolers pull a steady amperage while running, in this case, an advertised 6amp draw. This means that while your vehicle is running you will be all set. Your alternator will have no problem keeping up. Turn the vehicle off, however, and you will see a dead battery in under 4 hours. One option that I have seen in practice is to unplug it when you make camp. The units are insulated and will keep cool for sometime after being unplugged. The second problem, and it ties in with unplugging them for use as a cooler, is that you don’t have much headroom for the cooler to heat up. The thermoelectric coolers will only cool to about 30* below ambient temperature (on a good day. most of the time it is about 20* below ambient. This means that if it is 70* in your vehicle, the cooler will be at 50*. This is not enough to keep meat or milk good for a several day trip. These coolers are great for keeping drinks cool, not cold, but cool, on a long drive, or for storing things that aren’t temperature critical for short periods. They are cheap to buy, usually around $100-150, but they do not replace a regular cooler with ice.
There are tons of brands of different 12v fridges. The ones worth considering are all compressor based. ARB, Engel, Edgestar, Koldfront, National Luna, Waeco, Whynter, and tons more. The base operation and construction of all of these units is pretty much the same. They are all compressor based, they all draw a peak load of about 7amps, and around 1amp average (once the initial cool down is complete) leading to a run time of about 2 days before draining the battery enough to trigger a low-voltage shutoff. Each has their own set of features to set them apart but you can expect all of the big names to perform well. They are all designed to be used in this type of overlanding atmosphere where bumps, dust, and abuse are commonplace. If you are looking for something that will keep food cold reliably, all of the options will work. If you want some fancy bells and whistles, then be prepared to spend some money. These fridges all come in multiple sizes from 25qt to 86qt+. The most common size, by far, is around the 40-45qt mark. This is a great compromise between having enough space available to pack what you need for a 5 day trip and not being too large that the fridge consumes all storage space in the vehicle. A 43qt fridge will hold everything needed for a four day trip with minimal thought given to organized packing. With some Tetris skills you can easily fit 7 days worth of food and drinks in the fridge. An insulated cover is available and will increase the efficiency and extend the runtime on battery power for any of the models listed below. Even a custom made insulated cover will be better than nothing.
Edgestar – $450 (price varies with size): The Edgestar fridges are the lowest price of the compressor based fridges but don’t think that the low price means low quality. These fridges can hold their own against the other makes. As mentioned before, power consumption and functionality is nearly identical between all players. The rest is all small details. The Edgestar fridges are well built and made to last. The sides and top, being made out of metal and not plastic, can be dented and scratched easily when compared to the some of the other contenders. These scratches will not affect performance but cosmetics are important. The fridge comes with two baskets, 120v and 12v power cords, and that is about it. The digital display for temperature is handy but can be hard to read once installed. The display is right above the power input meaning that if you isntall the fridge in such a manner that the power cord is protected from damage, you will likely also block the display. Not a big deal, but it is nice to see the control panel to know if the fridge has tripped out on low voltage or just to verify the temperature. The Edgestar has a Fast Freeze function which will rapidly cool it down from ambient. The temperature setting is easy to adjust and the fridge will freeze things without breaking a sweat if you set it too low. Play around with the temperature and put a divider over the bottom layer and you will have yourself a dual zone fridge/freezer. Ice cream while on a trip? Heck yeah! The handles are really too weak to use as tie down points, although many people do.
Amazon: Edgestar FP430 43 Quart fridge/freezer – $479
If you are shopping for an Edgestar, keep an eye out for coupon codes, usually 10% off at compactappliance.com or livingdirect.com . It pays to check both sites. They are owned by the same company but sometimes a coupon will work on one but not the other. Also keep an eye out for sales. It is possible to get the fridges for a good discount over typical sale pricing. At the time of writing these fridges (FP430, 43qt) sell for $479. The lowest I have seen is $404 with combining a black friday sale with a 10% off email coupon.
Lastly, if you are not in a hurry, the best deals can be found at openboxdirect.com for a scratch and dent model. These units are usually in awesome condition and can be had for a significant discount. I have purchased three from openboxdirect and all have been like new with no markings or damage of any kind. Others have reported light scratches or small dents. They only come up for sale on this site every once in a while. In the past I have kept the page on a bookmark and checked it once every few days when i remembered. Eventually one will come up.
ARB – $900: The ARB is substantially more expensive than the Edgestar offerings. Part of this is the name but there are some substantial improvements. The case exterior is all plastic. This might be seen as a drawback or a benefit but it does prove to be significantly more resistant to dents, scratches, and general damage than any of the metal cased offerings. The downside of this is that the plastic case does tend to show dirt more and is harder to keep clean than the other with metal cases, especially since it is only offered in a light color motif. The front facing control panel is absolutely perfect and an interior LED light is great for night time fridge access. The latch mechanism is simple and easy to use and a big step up front the latch on the Edgestar. The back hinged lid requires more head space to open than a side hinged lid which can prove to be an issue when installed on top of a storage platform or in a smaller SUV. The interior space is advertised as best in class when compared to the external dimensions and I believe it. Overall this is a great fridge and will last through a lifetime of abuse.
Amazon: ARB 50Qt 12v Fridge/Freezer – $823
National Luna – $1500: If you want the best, this is it. The National Luna Weekender is the best fridge money can buy. Construction quality s top notch. The handles are metal and sturdy, it comes with an interior light, a three level selectable low voltage cutoff, lockable latches, and best of all, a separate freezer section with it’s own lid. The lid can hinge from the side or the back which gives plenty of options for installation. The control panel is located in the bottom corner and this can be hard to see in certain installations. The panel is recessed which provides pretty decent protection from damage.
Equipt: National Luna Weekender 50Qt – $1470