Portable refrigerators are a vital part of extended road travel. Whether you’re looking for a camping fridge you can set up outside or a 12v refrigerator you can install inside an RV, picking the right fridge is essential for maximizing cooling space while minimizing electricity use. Here’s our favorite portable refrigerator, as well as some more information on why we picked it.

Our Best Ever Portable Refrigerator for Camping

portable refrigerator

The Three Types Of Portable Refrigerators

The market currently has three primary types of portable refrigerators. While they may look similar from the outside, they have widely varying features that make them better for different situations.

Thermoelectric Fridge

Thermoelectric fridges are best for shorter trips, especially when you end your trip somewhere with a better option. These fridges use fans, pumps, and other technology to actively pump heat out of the cooling chamber while they receive electricity. This doesn’t take much electricity, but it doesn’t get nearly as cold as other options, either.

The small size and limited cooling of thermoelectric fridges mean we can’t recommend them as a top portable refrigerator, regardless of their other features. However, they still have their uses.

First, these are pretty affordable among the ranks of portable fridges, making them more appealing to anyone on a budget. Second, they usually require less electricity than other options, which can be important if you don’t have much to spare. Finally, they tend to have insulated interiors so you can put in an ice pack and treat them like a cooler.

Thermoelectric fridges have one other trait that may be relevant: orientation. Unlike other portable refrigerators, thermoelectric fridges often open from the top instead of the side. That can make them easier, or harder, to access in some setups.

Absorption Fridge

Absorption fridges are an excellent choice for RVs. These fridges start with a heat source like propane flames or solar energy to drive a two-coolant process. This provides highly efficient cooling, especially for systems with robust insulation systems that can prevent too much heat from leaking in.

Absorption fridges have two qualities that make them especially good for road trips in RVs. The first is that most of them have no moving parts other than the coolant itself, which moves naturally through the pipes as it heats and cools. This means there aren’t as many points where it can get bumped, jostled, and broken on trips.

The second thing that makes them a great choice is that you can run them entirely from something like a propane tank, which is a way to get consistent cooling in an RV without touching your vehicle’s battery. You can even run an absorption fridge overnight without worry as long as you have enough propane.

Some modern models have optional electric connections, but we don’t like those as much as we like propane-focused systems. Solar-powered heaters aren’t bad, but you’ll need an extra battery bank if you want to keep it separate from your primary electrical grid, and space matters in RVs. Propane is easier to store and ultimately more practical for most trips.

Compressor Fridge

A compressor fridge is a good choice for going out camping. The primary cooling system is a combined motor and pump that moves pressurized coolant through a sealed pipe. When the compressor compacts the coolant, it heats up and goes outside to radiate heat away.

As the liquid coolant travels, it moves through an evaporator system that turns it back from a liquid to a gas. This rapidly cools it down by turning it into a mist, and the coolant then moves through the fridge and absorbs heat as it goes. Once it gets back to the compressor, the cycle repeats.

(For more information on this process, check out this in-depth guide from a manufacturer.)

Compressor fridges work well for camping because they run mainly on electricity. You can leave it inside your RV as long as you have power, or take it out of the RV and hook it up to a generator. They’re particularly effective for longer trips as long as you have a reliable source of electricity, such as RV solar panels.

Our Favorite Portable Refridgerator: The ARB Zero 63QRT Single Zone Fridge

We researched quite a few portable refrigerators before landing on this rugged ARB Zero Portable Refrigerator as a great choice for most buyers. Alternatives like Dometic gave ARB a run for its money in our research, but we ultimately settled on this choice because it’s a great brand and has several features that help it stand out from the crowd.

This portable fridge is a game-changer for our camping adventures for many reasons – but avoiding the need for ice and preventing soggy food alone makes it worth every penny.

This fridge runs on electricity, and we used a Jackery 1000 to power it. Different families will have different needs, of course, and we always encourage you to evaluate your needs before picking a power supply for your portable refrigerator.

We’ll go into the features and why we love it in a moment, but first, let’s take a look at the criteria we used to pick this fridge.

What To Look For When Buying A Portable Refrigerator

Here are the main things to look for when you’re getting a fridge.

Pricing

Most decent portable fridges cost between $500 and $1500. Anything below this range isn’t suitable for serious, long-term use, while anything above this range is probably overpriced. The ARB Zero is towards the higher end of this range, but comfortably within it.

Capacity

A good portable fridge has enough capacity to be useful, but not so much that the dimensions balloon to unacceptable proportions. 63 quarts is about right for an average camping trip, especially if you pack things well.

Dimensions

Every inch of space is precious when you’re on a camping trip. Whether you’re traveling in a full RV or just plugging a fridge into the rear of an SUV, an inch can be the difference between bringing something or leaving it behind.

This fridge is 29.7” L x 18.5” W x 19.5” H. Functionally, it’s about two-and-a-half feet long and one-and-a-half feet wide and tall. That’s small enough to fit into most vehicles without trouble while still being large enough to be useful. It’s also a better size than the 47-quart model, which is just a little too small for our needs. This size lasts us a good 4 days at least.

Dual Zone or Single Zone

Some people will hate this, but we like single-zone fridges more than dual zone. Having two compartments can be great if you need to keep something important like medications at a different temperature or you really love having ice, but most people do better with a single-zone fridge.

The reason is simple: making a dual-zone fridge eats up valuable room. Space is precious, and we hate using it without a good reason to.

Energy Efficiency

Energy efficiency matters on long trips. Solar RV systems can help greatly, especially if you’re traveling in sunny areas, but even the best solar generators will only produce so much electricity each day. The ARB Zero has a comfortable 0.8Ah energy draw for its -7.6 to +50 degree cooling capacity.

Direction Lid Opens

This fridge has a side-opening, reversible top lid. This is an excellent design because you can move it out from under a table or something without having to pull it as far. The 47-quart model has a front-opening top lid that forces you to pull it out farther if you’re trying to maximize efficiency, and we don’t like that as much.

Quality

Quality is a nebulous term and people have varied opinions on how to define it. We see quality mainly in terms of durability. That is, quality means a fridge will perform to its listed specifications for as long as possible. The rugged outside helps with this, ensuring you’re not likely to accidentally break it.

Power Source

This fridge runs on both AC and DC power. If you’re using electricity at all, especially instead of propane, it’s always better to have a fridge that can accept either input.

Interior Drain Plug

Unfortunately, we’ve had to use this feature. We left a big brisket in the ARB fridge while we were at home. It wasn’t sealed properly and the juices gathered at the bottom. Having that interior drain plug made it a whole lot easier to clean. Also, if you don’t have access to electricity for some reason, the ARB can double as a cooler if you dump some ice in it. Easy to pull the plug to drain the water.

ARB vs. Dometic

ARB and Dometic aren’t as different as you might think at first look. These are both great brands, and Dometic helped manufacture ARB units for many years. We love the rapid freeze plates for ice in this Dometic option.

However, after a lot of debate, we decided that a single compartment for storing food is ultimately better than two smaller compartments, one colder than the other. We miss having ice on longer trips, but storing significantly more food in the same volume is ultimately more important. (Of course, Dometic offers these options as well.)

This is particularly true when we’re out in the hot sun. ARB tends to retain its performance in situations where it’s needed most, and that’s ultimately a decisive factor. Leaving a fridge in the sun will draw more power, though, so keep that in mind.

To repeat our main point, both ARB and Dometic are genuinely good manufacturers. You can feel comfortable buying from either of them, but we think ARB is just a little better in terms of features and design.

ARB Fridge Features We Love

The ARB Zero fridge has many valuable features for buyers. Here are the main things we like.

Bluetooth Connectivity: Almost anything can connect to the internet these days. The ARB Zero, specifically, has 2-way Bluetooth compatibility so you can get diagnostic information, adjust certain settings, and otherwise get status updates. This is also a great way to learn if there’s a problem.

Cup Grooves: Now here’s a rare feature, even though it shouldn’t be. The lid of this unit has non-slip grooves for holding glasses and bottles. Naturally, that’s not as useful if you’re leaving the lid open for a while, but it helps this fridge double as a table when you’re outdoors.

Digital Display Panel: This is the sort of modern convenience we expect to see on fridges in this price range. The digital panel provides exacting control over its functions, while front and back plugs make connecting this unit to your power supply easier. It even has a USB port for charging phones and tablet

Drainage Plug: This isn’t special or unique, but it’s good to note that this unit has a drainage plug.

LED Interior Light: In the spring and fall, we are often cooking in the dark. A small but practical light on the inside provides the light you need.

Quick-Release Bolts: The smartly-designed quick-release bolts make it easy to take the whole lid off whenever you want, converting this fridge into an open-air cooler people can reach into much easier.

Quick-Release Handle: The handle here helps provide a better seal for the fridge while still letting you open it easily when you want to get inside.

Recessed Handles: A surprisingly high number of portable refrigerators don’t have good handle spots. The ARB Zero has comfortably large, recessed handles for ease of use. 

Reversible Lid: You can attach the ARB Zero’s door on either side of its top, providing some added utility if you need to have the control panel facing a certain direction.

Removable Baskets: Save your back by placing the empty unit in your vehicle first. Then load the baskets and carry those out to be placed in the fridge. Easy peasy!

Beyond these features, ARB offers several accessories. We didn’t include these in our decision-making process because they’re not naturally part of the fridge. Still, you might want to look into getting one of their compact power packs, a mounting slide, their official tie-down system, or transit bags to help further protect its outside.

Final Thoughts

The ARB Zero 63-quart fridge is a practical and effective choice for most buyers. It’s big enough to hold almost everything you’ll need, reasonably affordable, durable, and equipped with several convenient modern features. In our opinion, you won’t find a better unit with the same mix of benefits in a portable fridge. We’ve used it on many adventures and it is hands down one of the best pieces of gear we use for camping.