Best 12-Volt Coolers: Keep Your Food and Drinks Cool in Your Car
Maximize the freshness and chill of your food and beverages with these 12-volt coolers.
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BY Lisa Conant / LAST UPDATED ON April 13, 2021
We all know the value of having a good cooler: the ability to keep food and drinks fresh and cold when you’re going to a picnic, tailgating party, festival, camping, or on a long road trip is a luxury that gives you a wide array of options for snacks, meals, and drinks outside of your home. Yes, dealing with melting ice and wet bags, bottles, and containers can be annoying, but it’s a necessary evil of using a cooler.
However, a 12-volt-powered portable refrigerator can stay in your vehicle to keep food as fresh and as cold as you want it for as long as you need. To blow your mind even more, some 12-volt coolers function to keep food hot as well. The 12-volt cooler is a game-changer for road trippers, outdoor enthusiasts, beachgoers, campers, and more.
If you’re in the market for a 12-volt cooler for your car, look no further: our in-depth product review and sensible buying guide will help you navigate all the options on the market today and choose the best one to suit your needs.
This electric car cooler refrigerator features a freezer and is spacious to accommodate 72 average-size cans. It is also energy efficient.
- Features Bluetooth connectivity to regulate the fridge and freezer temperature
- You can control and operate the cooler manually or by using an app on your smart device
- Can sweat when it's humid
- A little heavy when fully packed
- May not accurately display internal temperature
A high-quality electric ice chest for cars that maintains a cool internal temperature, even when disconnected from the power source. It is portable and can hold at least 48 cans of soda.
- Can still work effectively when positioned at any angle, inclined or leveled
- Doesn’t vibrate
- Can warm or cool your food, depending on your preference
- Internal temperature is limited, depending on the outside environment
A compact, energy-efficient, iceless cooler. Made in the USA by a longstanding, well-renowned manufacturer.
- With its swing-bale handle, it is portable and easy to carry
- Internal temperature can go as low as 36 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than the room temperature
- Can easily fit up to 32 12-ounce cans
- This model doesn’t include an AC adapter for in-home use
- This unit doesn’t retain its coolness after being unplugged as well as some other models
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Why Buy a 12-Volt Cooler?
- Keep your food cool. The main reason people buy a cooler—whether it is a 12-volt cooler or a regular one—is to keep food cold and fresh until they’re ready to consume it. This also helps to cut down on your risk of getting food poisoning.
- Warm your food. You don’t want to eat cold food? No problem. There are specific 12-volt coolers that not only keep your food cold but also warm it when the need arises.
- Take food on the go. In case you want to carry stored food from your car, you can disconnect the portable refrigerator cooler and bring it along with you. Don’t worry about the food spoiling; a battery-powered cooler can be sealed to keep its cool temperature for hours even after unplugging it.
- Charge phones, tablets, and other devices. There are certain 12-volt coolers that are equipped with USB ports. This could be useful if you want to charge your phone, laptop, or tablet and still keep your snacks or beverages cold at the same time.
- Save space. If you have limited space in your car, a mini 12-volt cooler can be easily tucked into a tight space. You can even keep it in the legroom area between the front and back seats of your car.
Types of 12-Volt Coolers
The design of a 12-volt compressor refrigerator is similar to a typical home refrigerator. The mechanism behind it relies on compressing a cooling agent or a fluid refrigerant to regulate the temperature, making it flexible to be used as either a fridge or a freezer. Unlike other types of 12-volt coolers, compressor refrigerators can still function smoothly when inclined or leveled.
A little bit old-fashioned, a thermoelectric cooler doesn’t have the capability to freeze your food or make ice. Nevertheless, a thermoelectric cooler can reduce the internal temperature to 40 degrees Fahrenheit below the ambient temperature. If you’re going for a short trip or you live in a place with a cool climate, a thermoelectric cooler would be ideal for your situation. Mind you, a thermoelectric cooler can’t keep your food cold when the ambient temperature is above 77 degrees Fahrenheit.
Mostly found in RVs, absorption refrigerators run on three different power sources: 12V DC, propane, and 110 AV. In contrast to thermoelectric and compressor coolers, it uses a lot of power to function, and it can easily drain your battery. Just like a thermoelectric cooler, it is dependent on the outside environment, but it can only go down to 30 degrees below the ambient temperature.
The Dometic brand was first introduced in the United States over 50 years ago in 1968. Currently, Dometic is a household name among RV drivers due to its experience and expertise in manufacturing electric coolers for camping. Its headquarters is based in Solna, Sweden. One of its most popular products is the Dometic CFX-35US.
Founded by William Coffin Coleman in Kingfisher, Okla., in 1900, the Coleman company has become one of the most revered and trusted names in outdoor camping and sporting equipment and gear. It offers innovative cooling solutions, like the 40-Quart PowerChill Thermoelectric Cooler.
Founded in California’s Silicon Valley more than 35 years ago, the Wagan Tech Company expanded to become one of the leading inventors of automotive electronic accessories, including electric car cooler refrigerators. One of its best-selling products in the United States is the Wagan Electric Car Cooler and Warmer.
Since its inception in 1975, ARB has been dedicated to offering 4WD drivers with a wide range of travel accessories. Its operation base is in Melbourne, Australia, but it exports its products to more than 100 countries. Inspired by the hot climate of Australia, one of its well-renowned car refrigerators is the ARB Fridge Freezer-50 Quart.
A subsidiary of Lentek International, Koolatron has been manufacturing thermoelectric coolers, particularly for the USA and Canadian markets, for the past 35 years. Its headquarters is located in Brantford, Canada, but it has other branch offices in New York, Florida and Québec. Its most popular 12-volt cooler is the Koolatron Voyagon Cooler.
Igloo is an American company that has been manufacturing coolers for more than half a century. Although most of its customers know the brand for making ice chests, Igloo recently innovated to manufacturing thermoelectric coolers that don’t require ice to cool your food or drinks. Its most reputable electric cooler is the Igloo Polar Cooler Family.
12-Volt Cooler Pricing
- Under $100: Most 12-volt coolers in this price range are thermoelectric coolers with no capability to freeze your food or set a specific temperature. However, there are a few products under $100 that can keep your food or drinks both cool and warm.
- $100 to $500: This price range includes the highest-quality thermoelectric coolers and a few portable compressor refrigerators. The coolers in this category are also bigger compared to their less expensive counterparts.
- $500 to $1,000: You will likely find the best 12-volt compressor refrigerators in this price range. This budget is suitable if you’re searching for a fridge with a lot of room that you can set a precise temperature and keep your food cold for days or even weeks.
Before you buy a 12-volt cooler, ask yourself: how many people will be using the cooler in your car? If it is just you, a small unit could be satisfactory. However, if you want a cooler to use with your family, or you’re a trucker who is usually on the road for weeks, you will need a larger heavy-duty portable cooler.
For those living in places where the climate is cool throughout the year, a portable cooler that reduces the ambient temperature by at least 40 degrees might be an ideal choice. However, if you’re camping or driving out of town/state for a few days or even weeks, a 12-volt refrigerator that freezes your food will do the trick.
Since you will be dealing with a cooler that plugs in, energy efficiency should be a priority. A solar-compatible and battery-powered cooler is expensive, but in the long run, it can save you a lot of money. Additionally, the less energy a product uses without compromising the quality, the better it is.
A well-insulated cooling system shouldn’t drop the inside temperature too fast when it is opened and closed. A slight drop in temperature is expected, but anything drastic is a red flag that there is an issue with the insulation. Otherwise, a tightly-sealed cooler should keep the same internal temperature when it is exposed directly to the sun.
- Portability. If you're a camper, sometimes you may want to carry your 12-volt fridge for a hiking trip. A lightweight cooler can be an advantage since it will be easier to move. Other than that, a portable refrigerator cooler can be designed to fit into the flexible spaces in your car.
- Lid Opening. The setup of the lid opening can determine the accessibility of your cooler. Most car drivers keep the cooler between the front seats, and it would only make sense to have a refrigerator cooler that opens from the top. However, most RV drivers have a 12-volt fridge that opens on the sides with no complaints.
- Split Compartments. What if you want to separate the frozen food from the chilly drinks? You can’t just mix it all up. A fridge with a dual compartment would be appropriate in such a situation. Also, split compartments can help you with warming your food after cooling.
Best 12-Volt Coolers Reviews & Recommendations 2021
- Thermoelectric coolers don’t need ice to keep them cold, but you can add a bag of ice to the cooler compartment to make it colder. If the ice melts, it would only add water and make it messy.
- To reduce a drop in temperature when exposed to heat, make sure you use the extra insulation cover if it is part of the accessories that are sold with the car refrigerator.
- To avoid a portable cooler odor or stain, you should clean it after using it. If a sidelined fridge is left dirty with food remnants for days, it could start to smell awful and expose you to harmful bacteria.
- When using a portable cooler that relies on ambient temperature to lower the inside temperature, make sure you have an air-conditioning system in your vehicle. If it gets too hot inside your car, the cooling system will be greatly affected.
- Instead of putting warm food into the cooler and connecting it to the power source, it would be more efficient to plug in the cooler for a few hours before adding the warm food. That way, it will take less time to cool the warm food.
Q: Do all 12-volt coolers have USB ports?
No. 12-volt coolers run the gamut from being just basic, budget-friendly, iceless coolers to being full-on portable refrigerator/freezer combos. The basic ones will not have all the bells and whistles, like USB ports, that some of the more technologically advanced, pricier models have.
Q: Can a cooler drain the car battery?
Generally, a 12-volt cooler will not have the capacity to drain your car battery while your car is running. However, many models will continue to draw power whether or not your vehicle is turned on, so be sure to check your user’s manual before plugging in your new 12-volt cooler.
Q: How long will a cooler keep food cold when disconnected?
As long as the cooler is properly sealed and the lid isn’t opened, it should keep your food cold for hours. The best travel cooler for cars is well-insulated to avoid cold air from escaping when it is unplugged.
Q: How effective are coolers for warming food or drinks?
A 12-volt cooler can’t heat up your food like a microwave or fully cook it like an electric cooker. The heating option is only available to provide a modest level of warmth to make it comfortable to eat your food or drink your beverage.
When it comes to the best overall 12-volt cooler, it’s tough to beat the ARB Fridge Freezer. While it comes with a high price point, you get a high-end, portable, and state-of-the-art cooler that will last you for years to come.
If you’re looking for a more budget-friendly option, check out the Koolatron Voyager, a spacious and efficient cooler that won’t break the bank.