LAST UPDATED: April 13, 2019
Best 12-Volt Coolers: Keep Your Food and Drinks Cool in Your Car
A comprehensive review of the best 12-volt coolers available and how you can choose the perfect option for you
The Review Team
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PUBLISHED ON April 13, 2019
If you want to carry fresh food in your vehicle it's crucial to keep it stored in a cool environment with a controlled temperature. A 12-volt cooler is a portable refrigerator that can get the job done. However, searching for the best 12-volt cooler is not as simple as it seems as there are so many options on the market. We've done the research to give you an idea of the best coolers available.
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Why Buy a 12-Volt Cooler?
- Keep your food cool. If you’re going camping or taking a road trip, and you’re carrying food or beverage, a 12-volt cooler contains a refrigerated compartment to store your snacks.
- 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 in California’s Silicon Valley over 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 highest 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 Iceless Thermoelectric Cooler.
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 - $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 - $1000: 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 Cooler Reviews & Recommendations 2020
The ARB Fridge Freezer Series II is available in 50-quart and 37-quart models. This cooler is popular in the off-roading community because it's built to last. It is Bluetooth enabled, so you can adjust or monitor it using your Apple or Android devices as well as ARB LINX. It will alert you, for example, if the lid is left open.
The backlit touchpad is visible at nighttime, or you can display the readings via an app. You can completely control it manually or using a mobile device.The app displays temperature, power input voltage, compressor status, and more. One great thing about this cooler is you can set specific temperatures for specific items, i.e., keeping ice cream cooler than a can of soda. It runs on both 12v and 110v power and can hold up to 72 12-ounce cans.
Unfortunately, it may sweat a little in humid conditions, and it's a little heavy when fully packed. Also, the internal temperature may be a few degrees off of what the display indicates.
The Koolatron Voyager is a mid-sized thermoelectric portable cooler with storage space to hold at least 48 cans. It doesn’t just cool your food to 40-degrees lower than the ambient temperature, it can also warm your food to 145-degrees Fahrenheit.
What's great about this model is you can still use it whether you place it horizontally or vertically. The fan motor is the only moving part in this unit, which is good since it doesn’t have many moving parts that are likely to break down. In contrast to a typical compressor refrigerator, this product doesn’t jolt or vibrate. Furthermore, it is a low-voltage cooler with a dual-zone DC/AC power source, which is helpful when you want to charge it outside your car.
The biggest downside of the Koolatron Voyager is that it doesn’t keep snacks or drinks too cold compared to a compressor refrigerator which can preserve your frozen food. Despite this shortcoming, it is a solid portable cooler for families who are constantly on the road and want to keep their food chilled for a few days.
If you want something simple and convenient that won’t be messy when cleaning or draining, an Igloo Iceless Thermoelectric Cooler might be just what you need. Don’t let the size fool you though, it can hold 32 cans of soda and is still lightweight to carry while camping, on a picnic, or on a fishing trip.
The Igloo Iceless Thermoelectric portable cooler doesn’t make a lot of noise, despite having a cooling fan motor. The inside can keep your food or drinks 36-degrees Fahrenheit colder than the outside temperature. and it doesn’t need ice to get the job done. Due to its size, it can easily fit into the legroom space between the front and back seats.
Even though the Igloo Iceless Thermoelectric Cooler features a dual-zone AC/DC low power plugin, you need to buy the AC adapter separately. Otherwise, the DC power chord shouldn't be a problem since it is 8 feet long and provides plenty of distance to connect it from the backseat.
This 24-liter cooler/warmer is 11 by 8 by 12 inches and can hold 27 cans or two 2-liter bottles standing vertically. It's insulated with polyurethane foam, cools food in 30 minutes up to 32-36 degrees Fahrenheit, and heats items up to 140-degrees Fahrenheit.
The heavy-duty handle makes it easy to carry. The unit comes with a 7-foot DC power cord, so you can place it in the back seat of your vehicle for convenience. The beverages on the top are just as cold as the ones on the bottom, and all you have to do is start the car, plug it in, turn the switch to the "cool" setting, and it starts working. It cools really quickly and keeps everything at a comfortable temperature.
However, if you leave it plugged into your vehicle when you're not in it, it may drain the battery. Also, opening and closing the top can be a bit of a hassle, and it's a little bit noisy.
This 18-quart cooler/warmer is slim and compact and a good option for small cars, SUVs, and minivans. It features a folding handle and uses 12 volts to cool down or warm up beverages and meals.
It cools up to 40-degrees Fahrenheit and heats up to 135-degrees Fahrenheit. It's a versatile product that you can plug into standard outlets in your home or hotel as well as your vehicle. It's a nice size: You can put it behind the passenger seat, and it is easy to open even if you're driving. It's also very lightweight and easy to carry. Overall, it's more than adequate to provide a few years of service as long as you take care of it.
However, there have been some complaints that the fan stopped working after a few months of use. Also, if you turn it off for a while you may lose the coolness, and it takes a while to cool down again.
The Alpicool C20 cools down to minus 4-degrees Fahrenheit and runs on 12/24V DC. It features a three-stage protection system to keep your vehicle's battery from draining. It's vibration-resistant, lightweight, and has handles on both sides for portability. You can also safely position it up to a 45-degree angle, which makes it ideal for off-roading.
It doesn't make a lot of noise, and it comes with a wall plug so you can chill things ahead of time before hitting the road. It has an LED Digital readout with push button settings and gets really cold quite quickly. It's less expensive than larger, bulkier portable refrigerators and can hold a good amount of drinks and meals, considering its size.
One issue with this cooler is that you have to be cautious about where you place it in your vehicle. Airflow to the compressor cannot be obstructed, so you have to situate it in just the right spot. Also, the connection to the cable is a little weak and can easily break. In addition, the temperature display may be inaccurate.
This large-capacity travel refrigerator cools quickly, going from 90-degrees Fahrenheit to 32-degrees Fahrenheit in 30 minutes. It features an LCD display, digital temperature control, an ECO mode to save energy, and a MAX mode to cool items quickly. It has low, medium, and high levels to protect your vehicle's battery from draining.
The cooler is quiet, efficient, roomy and even holds up if used in a vehicle that travels frequently over dirt roads and service roads. If it bounces or tilts at various angles it still functions properly. It can hold around 50 cans and draws very little power. Overall, the quality and functionality in relation to its cost is top-notch.
Unfortunately, the internal thermometer may be a little off, and you may need a thermometer to see the actual temperature inside. Sometimes it’s colder than displayed, and sometimes it’s warmer but only by a few degrees. Also, it's not insulated, so if it’s not running, it’ll warm up several degrees in 30-45 minutes.
This portable refrigerator has a 12/24 V DC connection and can hold 11 liters or 13 cans. It freezes items to zero-degrees Fahrenheit and has a low power consumption. It features a three-stage battery protection system and comes with an adjustable shoulder strap. Also, it uses both AC and DC, so it works on solar systems or in off-grid applications.
The cooler has a memory preset, so it will maintain your setting when it is turned off. It doesn't draw a lot of power, and it fits well between the seats of a variety of different vehicles. It cools just like a refrigerator you use at home, and overall it is rugged, quiet and dependable.
However, the lid hinge can break if you open the cooler too far. Also, there's no drain plug for cleaning, and ventilation is required around three sides, which limits where you can put it in your vehicle.
Tips and Advice for 12-Volt Coolers
- 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?
A: No. Some 12-volt coolers are just made to do a specific task like keeping your food cold or warming it when necessary. However, some of the best camping fridge units available in the market come with a USB port.
Q: Can a cooler drain the car battery?
A: A cooler won’t drain your car battery when it is running. Nevertheless, it is important to take precautions and avoid plugging in your electric cooler when the vehicle is parked. Additionally, you can invest in a battery saver that will allow your fridge to switch off automatically when the battery power drops below 11 volts.
Q: How long will a cooler keep food cold when disconnected?
A: 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: 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.
Our clear winner for the best 12-volt cooler is the ARB Fridge Freezer. It is durable, portable, and can keep your food cool regardless of the room temperature.
If you’re searching for something that is wallet-friendly, consider the Koolatron Voyager.