Forget fancy coolers. If you’re serious about keeping food and drinks refrigerated or frozen over long periods of time, then you need an in-car refrigerator.
Let me explain why.
Refrigeration vs. Insulation
You don’t need ice. That right there is the big advantage of a refrigerator. No ice means more room for food. No ice means no melt, so your food won’t get soaked. And no ice means you don’t need to buy ice when you want to keep something cold.
When you take a cooler camping, the coldest the inside will ever be is when you first load it. From that point on, it will slowly warm up. You can control that rate of warming by prefreezing the cooler itself (if you have a large chest freezer), prefreezing the contents, packing it densely, using dry ice, minimizing the number and duration of openings, and keeping the cooler in a cool, shady place. That’s a lot of time, effort, and potential headaches, all in an effort to slow the inevitable.
With a fridge, you simply dial in the exact temperature you’d like it to maintain internally, then forget about it. Go ahead and open it to grab a drink. Don’t worry about how long you have the lid open. Store whatever you want inside, in whichever configuration. Everything in there will stay perfectly cool, or perfectly frozen, as long as you need, whenever you need it to be.
How Do You Get a Fridge in Your Car?
The general driving public isn’t really aware that car fridges are a thing, but thanks to niche interests like RVing and overlanding, there’s actually a thriving market for them and a lot of competition, which also means there’s been heavy innovation.
Today’s in-car fridges are incredibly simple. Have a 12-volt outlet or a cigarette lighter? Well, you just plug the fridge into that, and it handles the rest. That means you can throw one in your trunk or permanently mount one anywhere inside your vehicle or even in the open bed of a pickup.
Will they run down your battery? Quality fridges include a battery monitor, which will switch the fridge off if your battery starts to get low. That way, you never have to worry about getting stranded due to a refrigeration-induced dead battery. But honestly, they draw so little electricity that you don’t really need to worry about battery drain. Running one uses less electricity than it takes to power a single headlight.
In my Land Rover, the previous owner removed a rear passenger seat to make room for a large ARB fridge, which is bolted in behind the driver’s seat. That arrangement leaves plenty of room in the back for the expansive tool kit I need to carry because I drive an old Land Rover and keeps the fridge accessible through the rear passenger door, even when the back is full-up with camping gear. Using only a single battery (albeit a deep-cycle Optoma Red Top), I’ve run the fridge with the engine off for three days and two nights without issue. But I do carry an emergency jump-starter just in case the fridge (or any of my other accessories) leads to battery drain.
The Real World
A Yeti Tundra 65 has an interior volume of 44 quarts and exterior dimensions of 16 inches tall, 31 inches wide, and 17 inches deep, and it retails for $400. A 50-quart ARB Fridge Freezer has an interior volume of—wait for it—50 quarts, exterior dimensions of 20x28x15, and costs $839.
The fridge is more than double the price and, unlike a cooler, is something you won’t be able to practically take along on a canoe or raft trip or check as luggage if you’re flying to fish or hunt. Yet if you don’t permanently install your fridge in your car, you can carry it as easily as you could an equivalent-sized cooler, and you can move it between vehicles, too. Fridges typically come with 110-volt plugs, so they can be plugged into any standard outlet you’ll find in a home, cabin, hotel room, or RV site.
How long will a fridge last? Mine has been installed in my Land Rover for more than 15 years, has never required maintenance, and still works as well as it did when it was new. Yeti coolers come with a five-year limited warranty; ARB fridges come with a three-year guarantee.
One morning last summer, I parked my truck at a trailhead up in the mountains and immediately spotted a plump cottontail hopping around in the woods a few yards away. I put an arrow in it, picked it up, threw it in my fridge, set that on freeze, then enjoyed a daylong hike, drove home, and enjoyed fresh rabbit for dinner.
Less bloodthirstily, I’ve used my fridge to carry fresh oysters several days into the Australian Outback and haul a 22-pound Thanksgiving turkey down to Baja while it marinated in champagne. Day to day, I’m free to pick up groceries, and then run other errands, even when it’s hot out, without worrying about spoiled milk. Visiting my girlfriend’s cabin in the mountains, the fridge in my truck makes up for the lack of an indoor fridge.
I know I’m far from the only person who enjoys good food, and far from the only person who enjoys spending nights outdoors. That’s why I’m writing this article—I hope it empowers more people to enjoy good food outdoors.