Do you need a 12v fridge?

March 2019 | Words by Daniel

A week out from our big South Island trip in late 2018 we made the call to buy a 12 volt fridge - we had three weeks on the road planned and based on previous long trips, we knew how hard it was to make sure you eat well.

Now, a fridge is a luxury item, there’s no arguing that. The list of things I’d purchase before a fridge is long - you need to carefully think about the sort of trips you do. If you’re a weekend warrior, a chilly bin and ice are going to do the trick perfectly; even a few days are easily doable. If you’re into longer or more remote trips a fridge starts making sense pretty quickly - no more rushing around to buy ice, no more soggy food, and ice cold beer at camp.

Before breaking out the credit card I spent a few days researching and asking around to see what fridges people recommended. Here in New Zealand you have the Waeco vs Engel debate, along with a few different options that vary in price and quality. There’s no correct answer to what brand you go with here, all the options are slightly different and people’s opinions vary as much as the whole ‘Toyota vs Nissan’ debate. The best thing is to decide on size and your budget and go from there.

Thermoelectric cooler

Compressor styled fridge

Take note that there are ‘12 volt coolers’ and ‘12 volt fridges’ - the coolers tend to be a few hundred dollars and are generally thermoelectric based. They cool to around 20 degrees lower than ambient temperature and use quite a large amount of power doing so. A 12 volt compressor fridge works similarly to your one at home in that it pumps compressed gas around to provide real cooling and can often be used as a freezer too. They do cost significantly more to buy due to their superior cooling abilities. You can also run them on 240 volts at home which helps pre-cool the fridge before hitting the road, saving valuable battery power.

How you’ll run the fridge is also an important decision - running it off your starter battery probably isn’t the best idea - a secondary battery setup is the way to go. We run a CTEK dual battery setup with a 120AH deep cycle battery in our Hilux which provides ample power to keep the fridge cold for days on end without starting the engine or using solar.

We ended up purchasing the Waeco CFX40, which for two people and a small dog works perfectly - enough space for everything we need for a couple of days off the grid. The magic of having proper food with us when we’re out and about has transformed how we eat on trips. Fruit keeps longer, milk and meat don’t spoil, veges stay fresh. And we can bring cheese, which was the biggest win in my mind.

For us, it has completely transformed how we travel. We were both surprised how useful having a fridge is and how it opened the door for us to travel further and still eat well. Just make sure your mates don’t steal all your beers!