What To Look For When Buying A Portable Refrigerator for Camping
Here are the main things to look for when you’re getting a fridge.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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 campers. 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.
The ARB Zero 63-quart fridge is a practical and effective choice for most campers. 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 refrigerator. We’ve used it on many adventures and it is hands down one of the best pieces of gear we use for camping.