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01 fridge or cooler lead photo

Cooler or Freezer Fridge?

Which Is Better For Your Needs?

Photography by Mike Henderson and Harry Wagner

Freezers are all the rage for overlanding with the ability to spend weeks on the road without the need to purchase ice, even in the hottest months of the year.  Does that mean that a fridge is always the right choice though? There are a variety of factors to consider regarding how you keep your food and drinks cold, including your budget, space constraints, how long you will be away from home for, and more.  Keep reading to ensure you make the best choice for your adventures when it comes time to buy a new fridge or cooler.

Dometic has a full line of fridge/freezers from units small enough to fit in your center console to huge dual zone coolers that can fit 100 quarts worth of food in them.  The CFX3 55IM is in the middle, like Goldilocks it is big enough for long weekends yet small enough to be easy to fit in your vehicle. And it is still big enough to fit 83 cans inside.
Dometic has a full line of fridge/freezers from units small enough to fit in your center console to huge dual zone coolers that can fit 100 quarts worth of food in them.  The CFX3 55IM is in the middle, like Goldilocks it is big enough for long weekends yet small enough to be easy to fit in your vehicle. And it is still big enough to fit 83 cans inside.

Advantages of a Freezer/Fridge

Have you ever opened your cooler and your sandwich is now a soggy mess?  With a fridge/freezer you never have to worry about that again.  Instead of relying on ice, 12V fridges like those offered by Dometic, ARB, and Smittybilt use quiet and efficient compressors to keep your items cold.  Note that these compressors are roughly the same size whether you buy a 28-quart fridge or a 100-quart fridge, so a fridge with three times the capacity won’t necessarily have three times as big of exterior dimensions.  You need space to package the compressor regardless of the size of the fridge.  Quality fridges use digital controls to allow you to dial in the exact temperature you desire and have internal current monitoring so they will shut off before killing the battery on your vehicle.  If you have an isolated second battery you can override this setting to ensure your fridge keeps running until the battery is drawn all the way down. Dometic and ARB both offer apps that allow you to monitor current consumption, battery voltage, and fridge temperature right from your smartphone.

Freezer fridges come with a variety of features that make them more convenient than coolers.  Removable lids are helpful when you are loading up or cleaning your fridge, and drain plugs are also helpful for cleaning when the lid of your salsa decides to part ways with the container.  A good freezer/fridge also runs on both 110V and 12V, allowing you to use it in your home when you need extra storage, are entertaining guests, or want to do food prep for your next trip ahead of time.  LED lights inside are also useful when digging through your fridge at night, and they draw little amperage.

A fridge slide solidly mounts to your truck bed or SUV cargo area and securely holds your fridge in place. It also allows you to slide the fridge out when you are stopped, making the contents more easily accessible.  This is a necessity with low heights like the Smittybilt Scout Trailer shown, where you wouldn’t even be able to open the lid of the fridge without the slide.

A fridge slide solidly mounts to your truck bed or SUV cargo area and securely holds your fridge in place. It also allows you to slide the fridge out when you are stopped, making the contents more easily accessible.  This is a necessity with low heights like the Smittybilt Scout Trailer shown, where you wouldn’t even be able to open the lid of the fridge without the slide.

How to Maximize your Freezer/Fridge

There are a lot of products on the market that will help you get the most out of your fridge/freezer. 

Some of the most popular are transit bags that provide extra insulation and keep the fridge from getting scratched up, tie down kits to secure your fridge in place and ensure that it does not move during spirited driving on the trail, and external battery packs that power your fridge even when the engine isn’t running.  ARB also produces a fridge slide ensures easy access to your fridge at all times. Heavy-duty roller bearings deliver smooth operation and prevent dust and grit ingress, and the slide is zinc plated and e-coated for long lasting good looks.

Pack in reverse order so that the things you will need first are on top.  This minimizes the amount of time you need to have the lid open, letting cool air escape from the ice chest.  Pack items in your cooler in chronological order based on when you plan to use or consume the items. Put the items you will use last on the bottom of the cooler, and those you will need access to first, on top. Cold air travels down, so pack the items in the cooler first and then pack either crushed ice or block ice on top.

Pack in reverse order so that the things you will need first are on top.  This minimizes the amount of time you need to have the lid open, letting cool air escape from the ice chest.  Pack items in your cooler in chronological order based on when you plan to use or consume the items. Put the items you will use last on the bottom of the cooler, and those you will need access to first, on top. Cold air travels down, so pack the items in the cooler first and then pack either crushed ice or block ice on top.

Advantages of a Cooler

It may seem like a freezer/fridge is a no brainer, but there are some advantages to a cooler.  The most obvious is the lower price, a Dometic Patrol 55 has the same capacity as a CFX3 55IM but costs a quarter as much.  The Patrol 55 also weighs 25% less than the CFX3 55IM (33 pounds versus 47 pounds), which can be a factor if you are pulling the cooler in and out of your vehicle when you arrive in camp. Doing such is much easier with a cooler, which can double as a seat, since it doesn’t have to be tied to a power source. Coolers have been around for centuries, and they have no moving parts to fail.  For this reason, we prefer them in rough terrain like rock crawling and when they are left in the open bed of a pickup truck where they are exposed to the elements. High-end coolers like the Dometic Patrol 55 use rotomolded construction with tie-down points, excellent seals and latches, and handles that are recessed to aid mounting in tight places.  

Freeze meat and any other food that can be frozen before leaving on your trip to help keep all food cold and fresh.  If you really want to be organized you can even prepare entire meals ahead of time and vacuum pack them before freezing them. All you need to do when you arrive at camp is boil them in hot water for a delicious meal with very little prep or clean up.

Freeze meat and any other food that can be frozen before leaving on your trip to help keep all food cold and fresh.  If you really want to be organized you can even prepare entire meals ahead of time and vacuum pack them before freezing them. All you need to do when you arrive at camp is boil them in hot water for a delicious meal with very little prep or clean up.

How To Maximize your Cooler

The best way to keep items cold in your ice chest is to keep your ice chest cold.  That means starting with a cold cooler and keeping it out of the sun.  If you just get your ice chest out of the garage and toss some warm beverages and a bag of ice in it, much of the ice will be consumed by cooling the ice chest itself and the contents. Place a bag of ice inside the ice chest a day before you leave for your trip so the cooler is already cold before you pack it to maximize efficiency.  

Block ice takes up more space than cube ice, but it also lasts much longer in your cooler.  Dry ice can last even longer, but can crack your plastic ice chest if it comes directly in contact with it, so it must be wrapped in paper. Jugs full of frozen water are a great alternative to block ice. They will keep your ice chest dry and the water can be consumed during your trip. The down side is that they take up a lot of space, so several small bottles may be more practical than one large bottle depending on how much room you have in your cooler.  

You don’t want your fridge moving around on the trail. ARB’s tie down system is ideal for ensuring your fridge is secured at all times. They use black powder coated steel clamps over the handles and plastic-coated ends, matched with webbing straps and quality spring loaded clips for the Classic Series II fridges. Zero fridges have recessed mounting points that accept stainless steel tie-down mounts.

You don’t want your fridge moving around on the trail. ARB’s tie down system is ideal for ensuring your fridge is secured at all times. They use black powder coated steel clamps over the handles and plastic-coated ends, matched with webbing straps and quality spring loaded clips for the Classic Series II fridges. Zero fridges have recessed mounting points that accept stainless steel tie-down mounts.

Try to avoid bringing glass bottles whenever possible. Not only do you risk breaking them on the trail and filling your fridge with shards of glass, but even after consuming the contents they can be challenging to pack out and dispose of. In contrast an aluminum can you can crush and put into your garbage and it hardly takes up any space.

Try to avoid bringing glass bottles whenever possible. Not only do you risk breaking them on the trail and filling your fridge with shards of glass, but even after consuming the contents they can be challenging to pack out and dispose of. In contrast an aluminum can you can crush and put into your garbage and it hardly takes up any space.

A small soft cooler is a great place to keep snacks and beverages close at hand in the cab of your 4x4.  We put ice packs in our AO Cooler, but frozen water bottles are a great option too that will keep your lunch cold and provide drinking water as they melt.

A small soft cooler is a great place to keep snacks and beverages close at hand in the cab of your 4×4.  We put ice packs in our AO Cooler, but frozen water bottles are a great option too that will keep your lunch cold and provide drinking water as they melt.

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