Let’s talk about keeping it “cool”…your food and beverages, that is! We’ll teach you how to choose a van fridge!
A typical road trip involves a cooler and some ice, but nowadays people are taking it to the next level. My sister just bought a new SUV and the center console had a small refrigerator built into it from the factory! Even coolers and ice packs have become much more efficient (and expensive). In this brief article, I am going to outline a few basic options for keeping the “coldies” cold, AKA how to choose a van fridge.
These are my opinions based on experience on the road, installing for customers, and owning many types of campers.
I also have a mentality that I would rather spend the money on the cost of a fridge (or any other upgrade) to go on a trip somewhere than have an expensive upgrade and no money to go on a trip. Let’s just say I’m thrifty. It allows me more adventure time. For example, if a refrigerator cost is $700 + a solar/battery setup to run it. That’s a lot of tacos in Baja or a flight to Hawaii. Also, lets make it clear that there is never a right answer on choosing equipment, gear, or upgrades. You have to choose what will work for you in most scenarios.
The first question to ask yourself in choosing any gear or equipment is how am I going to use it 90% of the time.
The second question is probably the cost and/or, in the case of a refrigerator, how will it power itself. My thoughts for a long time were that it would be a lot of $2.00 bags of ice before I paid the cost of a fridge. However, now that I have a fridge, it’s probably my favorite feature in my Freedom Vessel. That being said, when I build vintage campers or weekend surf mobiles for customers, my approach is different. When we discuss how to choose a van fridge, I often talk them out of installing a $600 refrigerator and a power bank to keep them running. Instead, I suggest a cooler on a sliding drawer or built into a cabinet.
I have a few campers because one just doesn’t do it all! In a weekend-use camper situation, I have to recommend a cooler. When it comes to weekend trips, beach days, or even camping with friends that don’t have campers themselves, I prefer a cooler. You can bring it into your house and load it up with excessive amounts of beverages and food. Then you can carry it into the camper and add ice. You don’t have to “start the fridge” the night before to cool it down. You don’t have to pay as much money. It doesn’t require the infrastructure to make it work. You can bring it out to the campfire upon arrival and not have to climb into the van every time you want a beverage. It also makes a good seat, although I prefer not to sit on the cooler when camping with thirsty friends (pro tip)!
Also, you can use you cooler for other pursuits, like boating, sporting events, birthday parties, and backyard BBQs. A fridge is predominately stuck in your van. The downfall of a cooler can be lettuce floating in the water, or heading out where there is no ice at your fingertips like Baja. (But if the surf is good, warm beer isn’t that bad.) We love our stainless Coleman cooler, but I’d be a lot cooler if I had a Yeti (pun intended). If you want flexibility and budget, go with a cooler and build a special place for it in your van.
Cooler Pros: inexpensive, no power needed, multi-use situations, it’s not stuck in the van
Cooler Cons: needs ice, soggy lettuce or floating leftovers potential (water in the bottom)
Fridge Design (front door or top loader)
When thinking about how to choose a van fridge, your final choice will likely it will be a 12v DC model. This pretty much means it runs off a battery, ideally an auxiliary battery. Old school mentality or easiest way to explain this would be “it plugs into a cigarette lighter.” I’ll talk about power options later, but first, let’s talk about design type and what fits in your van best. There are several companies that make these types of fridges. You can get one that has a “front-load”, so it feels like the fridge in you have in your house kitchen or you can get one that is a “top-load” meaning it has a lid like a cooler.
On my personal build, I went with a solar setup and slightly budget 12v top loader style fridge, mostly due to the size and price. I modified it so the countertop is the lid because I didn’t want to have a slide-out tray or put it under a seat cushion. Basically, it just fit into my design, which I pretty much copied my old VW Bus Westfalia layout into a Sprinter.
My van has two kids, a dog on her pillow and now a cat! A slide-out wasn’t happening! My wife wanted an oven, so real estate is crucial. Everything has its place. I couldn’t have a cooler on a slider because my old dog’s pillow would be in the way half the time. I do like the front loader (and that’s what I put in several customers builds). In these models, you can see what you have and you can load the door with often accessed items like butter and 12oz cans. Plus some models have a small freezer section.
Pros: you can see what you have in it, you can load items on the door with often-used items, some models have a small freezer box, saves space, easier to see what’s in it
Cons: sometimes less efficient, bit more pricey, needs power supply
Pros: efficient, you can actually take these in and out of the van
Cons: things get lost in the bottom, you can’t see what you have, often you have to build a drawer to put it in, you have to take everything out to get to what’s on the bottom, fragile items must be on top of everything, Tetris game packing strategy
How you power your fridge or what kind of power the fridge uses to run itself is another discussion altogether. I am going to keep this brief, as there are several other resources for this information. Basically there are a few different types of fridges suitable for vanlife, as well as a few ways to power them. Propane, battery, and electricity are the “three ways” to power your camper van refrigerator. I don’t recommend buying a 12v fridge and plugging it into your factory 12v cigarette lighter outlet. Your battery will die often and your van won’t start. Another option is you could only have it powered while your car is running. You’ll need to set up an auxiliary battery system, ideally with solar recharging. Even more ideally, a system that also charges off your van when the engine runs.
There are several company’s that focus on making 12v refrigerators. I don’t recommend buying a dorm-room style mini-fridge (110v plugs into an outlet style) and running it through a power inverter. This type of setup is inefficient. If your Freedom Vessel of choice is an RV or trailer and plan on long term camping/boondocking propane may be a good power source for you. You may also have other equipment that runs of propane. If you like camping with hookups, live in a trailer park, or in your parents’ driveway than a 3-way fridge may be nice. Just make sure the driveway is level because a propane fridge must be level or it will not work. I learned that the hard way. A “3-way” means it can run 3 ways (1) battery (2) shore power (3) propane. You can also get a 2-way fridge.
And this concludes how to choose a van fridge. The only question left is, which one will you choose?