Best 12v Refrigerator For Van Life

There are many options and prices when it comes to selecting the best 12v fridge for van life. Ultimately, the best van refrigerator will depend on your personal needs and campervan set up.

In this article, I’ll discuss the best 12v refrigerators for van life, different fridge layouts, power sources, cooling technologies and style options for van refrigerators.

The best overall 12v refrigerator for your van is the Dometic CRX 65L fridge. It’s one of the most popular refrigerators for van builds and for good reason. It’s modern and stylish, and also highly efficient in terms of space and energy use.

This is the best bang for your buck as far as 12v van refrigerators come.

Additional features include the ability to change the door swing direction, remove the freezer chest if you’d prefer more refrigeration space, and a crisper storage compartment for fresh produce.

πŸ† Best 12V Refrigerator πŸ†

Let’s dive into how to choose the best van life refrigerator for your needs. However, you can skip straight to the recommended fridges if you prefer – jump down here!


Why you Need a Refrigerator in Your Van

What type of meals do you cook? Do you need to keep groceries cold for long periods of time, or do you mostly buy non-perishable items?

cooking a caprese sandwich in a van with lettuce, tomato, mozzarella and olive oil

If you don’t need much refrigerator storage, maybe you can get away with a simple cooler.

If, like me, you plan to spend weeks, months or years in your van then a good van fridge is probably worth the investment.

The interior of a 12volt fridge for vanlife, filled with groceries- produce, meats, cheese, eggs, and a jar of minced garlic.

In addition to cold storage, having a van fridge is also nice for keeping food out of humidity (and heat… I’ve learned the hard way to keep chocolate in my fridge during the summer when the van is hotter) and away from pests (fruit flies, mice and bears- oh my!)

If you’re unsure whether you’ll need to rely on a van refrigerator, consider leaving space within your build layout to add one later, if you choose. You can test out van life with a cooler for the first few trips and then reevaluate if a van fridge is worth the investment.

How to Choose the Best 12 Volt Van Life Fridge

In many ways, selecting the best 12 volt fridge for van life comes down to personal preference and is based on what works within your van layout – how much space/budget/electricity do you have? The primary decisions you’ll need to make are:

πŸ‘‰ Style

Upright (front loading) or Chest (top loading)

πŸ‘‰ Power Source

12 volts, 120 volts or Propane

πŸ‘‰ Cooling Technology

Compressor or Thermoelectric

There are pros and cons to each option – keep on reading for the deets!

Styles Options for 12v Van Fridge

There are 2 primary styles of van fridges available: upright and chest.

Upright (front loading) Refrigerators

Similar to most household refrigerators, an upright 12 volt fridge is front loading. Compared to chest fridges, uprights are easier to install in your van build. They’re also easier to keep organized (I see you, my fellow Type A’s πŸ‘€)

The leading brands for upright are Dometic and Isotherm refrigerators.

A small 12 volt refrigerator in a van, installed under the bed
Credit: So We Bought A Van

Chest (top loading) Refrigerators

Chest refrigerators are also sometimes referred to as drawer or sliding refrigerators. They function very similarly to coolers- load from the top, everything on the bottom gets smushed and forgotten (until it starts to stink).

The primary way chest refrigerators differ from uprights is that they can hold more for the same cubic dimensions (see smushed comment above).

A 12v chest refrigerator located under a van kitchen countertop

Additionally, some come with a separate freezer section. These freezers tend to be the best out of all other refrigerator/freezer options — meaning they actually work at freezing things and keeping them frozen.

Most upright 12 volt refrigerators include a small freezer compartment. However, the freezer doesn’t have independent temperature controls, which effectively makes the compartment a slightly colder compartment than the refrigerator compartment. The downside to this is that you may not be able to freeze items fully.

Finally, the last major difference with chest fridges is the install. Most van lifers build these into a drawer – so you’ll want to invest in some heavy duty drawer slides and a good latch.

Heavy Duty Drawer Slides I Recommend:

heavy duty drawer slides for installing a 12v portable chest refrigerator in a campervan

Drawer Latch
I Recommend:

Chest fridges weigh ~50 lbs empty so you absolutely need heavy duty drawer slides and they can get pricy ($70+ for hardware) so factor this into your purchase decision.

Power Options for Van or RV Refrigerators

Refrigerators come in several different options for power source: 12 volts, 110/120 volts and propane. In fact, some refrigerators even come with dual power source options.

12 Volt Van Fridge

This is exactly what it sounds like – a refrigerator for van life that operates on 12 volts. Most household appliances run on 110 or 120 volts (or 220v if you’re outside of the US/Canada).

It’s important to note that your van batteries are likely 12v.

Having electrical components that run on 12 volts means you don’t need to convert energy from your batteries into a different voltage – this is great news for you because converting energy means you lose efficiency during the conversion process – a bad bad thing when every drop of energy counts!

More on this in a nerdier post – for now all you need to know is 12v appliances are the best option for efficient energy use if you’re using 12v batteries in your van.

Pros:

βœ… Highly energy efficient

Cons:

❌ Expensive upfront cost

120 Volt Van Life Fridge

So you’ve seen the price tag on 12v van fridges (yikes!) and are wondering β€œCan I just use a 120V dorm mini fridge in my van fridge?” The short answer is yes. But do you really want to? Probably not. Lets discuss:

A 120 volt fridge might be cheaper up front but they’re more difficult to use as a mini fridge in a van.

The interior of a well organized refrigerator with small baskets of produce and bright multi-colored reusable sealed containers with food

Why? Your solar panels produce energy stored in your batteries at 12 volts. That energy can be used to power other 12 volt appliances.

Here’s some fun math to consider:
One (1) 100ah lithium battery costs approximately $1,000. The 20% energy you lose in order to power 120v appliances could push you from requiring 1 or 2 batteries in your rig to needing 3 or 4. Makes you rethink the price tag on the 12v van fridge, huh?


Why spend an extra $2,000 for batteries to power your 120V refrigerator if it only saves you $500 on the fridge cost?

However, in order to power a 120V mini fridge in a van with a 12V battery you’ll need an inverter, or a van generator. An inverter can convert 12v to 120 volts but some energy is lost in the transaction. Additionally, you’ll need to run the inverter 24/7 if it’s the only power source for your van refrigerator.

How much energy is lost in the transaction? About twenty percent. 20%!!!!!!

Now imagine this… you’ve spent a few days in constant cloud coverage (hello Seattle!). Your batteries are starting to run low and you’re stuck wondering if you’ll run out of power to keep your food from spoiling.

And of course you just restocked your delicious hiking foods. Sure, you saved money upfront on a less expensive 120v fridge, but long term is it costing you more?

Pros:

βœ… Much more affordable

Cons:

❌ Requires an inverter
❌ 20% energy loss when using 12v battery energy

Propane Refrigerator for van life

Propane refrigerators are fairly common in the RV world. They operate on propane (obviously…) as well as 120 volts, and sometimes also on 12 volts. 

While it’s nice to have a variety of options to power your van fridge, the requirement to have propane may be a show stopper for any van build which doesn’t already have another propane appliance.

Additionally, propane refrigerators can’t operate if they aren’t level. They take longer to cool, and they’re expensive to purchase.

Just about the only benefit is that these van refrigerators hold up well to road travel.

vanlife fridge in wall cabinet
Credit: RVing Know How

Pros:

βœ… Offer multiple energy sources (propane, 120V, 12V)
βœ… Robust design for road life

Cons:

❌ Must be on level surface to operate
❌ Requires propane

Cooling Options For Van Refrigerators

The way in which a refrigerator cools isn’t often discussed, but it’s an important consideration – especially when you live in a van where the ambient temperature fluctuates significantly. There are two primary cooling technologies in 12 volt refrigerators.

12 Volt Compressor Refrigerator

stainless steal isotherm van fridge
Credit: Vanessa Adam

Compressor refrigerators are the standard- these are what you have in your home and what most people are familiar with. They use gas to cool and are efficient at both cooling and removing moisture from the inside of your camper van refrigerator.

The compressor only kicks on when it’s needed to cool the fridge, instead of running constantly, which makes it efficient on energy use.

The drawback to a compressor fridge (over a thermoelectric– more on that next) is the faint vibration it produces when the compressor is on and running. In my experience, this noise is so quiet I don’t even notice it.

If you’re looking for a refrigerator that will keep food cool in any condition a 12 volt compressor fridge is the best fridge for van life.

Pros:

βœ… Efficient energy use
βœ… Removes heat & humidity

Cons:

❌ Compressor creates a low hum (while running)

Thermoelectric 12V Van Fridge

Thermoelectric van refrigerators cool without a compressor (via the Peltier effect– sounds fancy!) In short, the benefits to these refrigerators for vans are that they’re quieter and tend to hold up better over time. 

12v dometic van fridge

The major drawback of a thermoelectric 12 volt fridge for vanlifers is that their ability to cool is based on the ambient temperature (aka the temp inside your van).

If it’s 75 degrees and your van refrigerator can cool 40 degrees below ambient then your fridge will be 35 degrees.

However, if you’re camping in warmer temps, like 90 degrees, that same van fridge would only be able to cool down to 50 degrees.

Note: ambient temperature changes are a great reason to invest in a quality vent fan.

Because your ambient temperature will fluctuate in a van it makes keeping things very cold inside a thermoelectric fridge more difficult.

Pros:

βœ… Quiet – no compressor noise
βœ… Holds up better long term

Cons:

❌ Hard to maintain constant temperature
❌ Limited ability to cool in hot climates

The Best 12V Refrigerators for Van Life

1. Dometic CRX Pro

CRX 1065E 65L Compressor Refrigerator is available for under $1,000. Yes, that’s a chunk of change, but 12v refrigerators don’t come cheaply and this is actually quite a good deal!

Don’t be fooled by the name though, this refrigerator only has a capacity of 55 liters, not 65 as the name implies.

The benefit to this 12v van fridge is that the freezer compartment is removable – so if you’re not someone who tends to need much ice or frozen meals this translates to more refrigerator space for you!

Pros:

βœ… Under $1,000
βœ… Removable freezer compartment
βœ… Reversible door
βœ… Adjustable storage organizers
βœ… Available in multiple sizes
βœ… 2-year warranty (limited)

Cons:

❌ Capacity only 57L
❌ Less efficient use of space than a chest fridge


2. Isotherm Cruise Elegance

If you want the best of the best, and price is no issue, the best upright 12 volt refrigerator for van life is the Isotherm Cruise 65 Elegance (or size up to the 85 liter).

Isotherm refrigerators come with a 2 year warranty and a 5 year limited warranty on the compressor.

Additionally, this Isotherm fridge come with the ability to connect to 12v or 110v (household) electric. The freezer compartment is so well insulated that it actually keeps food frozen and not just slushy.

This is the same refrigerator I have in my van! Read my complete Isotherm fridge review

Pros:

βœ… Top quality
βœ… 2-year parts warranty
βœ… 5-year compressor warranty
βœ… Adjustable storage organization
βœ… Energy efficient
βœ… Reversible door
βœ… Available in multiple sizes

Cons:

❌ Expensive
❌ Less efficient use of space than a chest fridge


3. ARB Zero Portable Fridge

If you’re looking for the absolute best chest fridge money can buy then consider the ARB ZERO Portable Fridge. This chest fridge is built like a work horse and has the 5-star reviews to justify the price tag.

Pros:

βœ… Premium quality
βœ… Dual zone (fridge & freezer capable)
βœ… Versatile for multiple use cases
βœ… App to control temp
βœ… Portable
βœ… Available in multiple sizes

Cons:

❌ Expensive
❌ Bulky
❌ Difficult to organize


4. ICECO VL60 ProS

ICECO VL60 ProS Portable Refrigerator costs under $1,000. This van fridge also comes with a 1-year parts warranty and a generous 5-year warranty on the compressor.

Pros:

βœ… 1-year parts warranty
βœ… 5-year compressor warranty
βœ… Dual zone (fridge & freezer capable)
βœ… Under $1,000
βœ… Runs on AC or DC power
βœ… Very durable
βœ… Portable

Cons:

❌ Difficult to organize

Cost of a Van Life Fridge

The short answer: from mid $400 – $1,500+, depending on how fancy you want to get. Realistically, you’ll want to spend at least $600 if you plan to buy something of quality that will hold up to road life conditions.

Also consider reading How Much Does Van Life Cost?

What Size Van Fridge Should I Buy for my Campervan?

You need at least 50 liters (if buying an upright) and 30 liters (if buying a chest).

I go to the market about once a week and feed only myself. A 65 liter fridge works perfectly for me- but I wouldn’t complain about an 80+ liter for my next build (mostly because I hate going to the market and would love to buy enough food for two weeks!)

A bright green Whole Foods Market reusable grocery bag on top of a white countertop, being unloaded of groceries- red and green peppers, cilantro, bananas, a lime, lemon, orange and a few cans of flavored soda water

If you’re feeding two or more people I’d start with at least a 65 liter van fridge and size up from there.

Additionally, consider sizing up if you’re unsure what size you need. It’s a lot easier to keep additional food in your van fridge if you need more storage space (who really cares if your crackers are chilly). However, you can’t really leave a chicken breast on the counter for several days…

Conclusion – What is the Best 12 volt Fridge for Van Life?

There’s a ton of personal preference that plays into buying the right van fridge.

Most vanlifers will opt for a 12v van fridge that can be powered by their solar setup.

The choice between upright and chest is widely debated. In general, if you have the space for an upright fridge in your build these are the easiest to keep organized. If your options for an installed van fridge are limited the chest refrigerator may be your best option.

Personally, I installed a 12V Isotherm Elegance 65L fridge for my van build. I like that it’s highly energy efficient and the upright (front loading) configuration is very easy to use and keep organized.

Additionally, the freezer chest actually keeps food frozen. While this van fridge model is pricier I have found it’s perfect for my van. During my van build I chose to splurge on two items – my Isotherm van fridge and my airhead compostable toilet. Both have been totally worth the investment!


Planning a van build?
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Written by Claire Fleming

I’m a travel enthusiast who spends half the year in my self-built camper van with my dog, Oscar, and the other half at my home in Raleigh, North Carolina or on international adventures.

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