A good fridge is the heart of any van kitchen. Purchasing the right fridge for your space, needs, and power source is an important part of any van build. Here is how to find the best van fridge for a camper van or RV.
Living the van life is all about going on amazing adventures and having all of your conveniences along for the ride. It’s basically living the ultimate turtle life—taking your entire home with you wherever you go. Having an energy-efficient fridge to keep all of your favourite foods and bevvies cold is essential.
Most van lifers have a solar power electrical system so minimal power draw and maximum cooling is the name of the game. While RVs often have a house-sized refrigerator built-in, it’s great to have an alternative option for off-grid trips or a more affordable replacement.
We’ve had an interesting run with our Dometic fridge but once we got it tuned in, it’s great. We already had a propane system hooked up so having a 3-way absorption model works well for us. It allows us to run off of LP gas, 12 volt power from our batteries, or 110 volt shore power. If you’re starting a van build from scratch, considering non-propane 12 volt refrigerators makes a lot more sense.
There are lots of great upright and portable 12v fridges out there to choose from. This list will cover some of the key differences between each fridge style and highlight our top picks for the best camper van fridge. Let’s get into it!
Best Fridges for Van Life
The qualities of a great camper van fridge boil down to a few key characteristics:
- compact design that fits well in your space
- enough storage for your chilled essentials
- low power consumption
- durable body that can handle whatever van life throws at it
- has a dual zone freezer if you want one
An upright fridge is the most like a regular mini fridge. Most front loading fridges give you the option to pick which side you want your door to open on and can be mounted into a cabinet. They are slightly less efficient than chest-style fridges since more cold air can escape when you open them but the difference is negligible. That said, they offer convenient shelving and usually have an ice cream compartment—I mean freezer… We consider an upright fridge to be the best fridge for a van conversion since it’s off the floor and permanently mounted. The only downside is that they’re usually more expensive.
Sure, we’re biased but this is the fridge that we have and it’s awesome. This is a 3-way fridge that can run off of LP gas, DC power, or AC power. It has 3 cubic feet of storage space with two shelves and three door compartments.
The LED control panel is at the top of the fridge and is super easy to use. There aren’t many settings beyond which power source it’s using but having the “check” light viewable from any angle is helpful if there’s ever an issue. There’s also a white clip on the metal fins inside of the fridge where you can adjust the temperature by a few degrees.
This Dometic refrigerator has a small freezer compartment that is surprisingly spacious. Plus, the front panel is interchangeable so you can have fun with the look of your fridge. We’ve had ours wood grain, white, and silver over the years and now we use paper prints to switch it up. Just remember, make sure to keep this fridge level since it is an absorption refrigerator.
If you already own a Dometic RV fridge and are having issues, check out our detailed troubleshooting guide.
Along with Dometic, Norcold fridges are an RV staple. This model is very similar to the Dometic RM2354 but bigger. It’s a 3-way absorption fridge that can run off of LP gas, DC power, or AC power. This model has 4.5 cubic feet of storage, which is huge for a vehicle fridge!
One thing the Norcold designers did right was the shelving. There are two compartments on the door and two shelves. The bottom shelf has a cutout that you can flip-up to store taller bottles like 2L jugs or wine bottles. In our Dometic fridge, we often have to store taller bottles on their side because the shelving can’t accommodate them.
This Norcold fridge also has a small freezer compartment and an easy-to-use LED control panel. You can customize the front door panel to match your van conversion and switch up the design when you feel like it.
This is the only upright 12 volt refrigerator on our list. That’s mainly because they’re hard to come by since most upright fridges cater to RVs with propane. That being said, this Vitrifrigo model is a great option for a low voltage front-loading fridge.
Unlike a typical upright fridge, this is a compressor fridge instead of absorption. This means that levelling is still important but isn’t as finicky. This refrigerator has 2.2 cubic feet of storage and even has a snazzy light inside triggered by the door opening. It only has one shelf and two door compartments but does have decent freezer capacity.
This Vitrifrigo only draws 40 watts of power so it can easily run off of solar power. It’s much more affordable than the other two upright fridges, making it a great option for van lifers.
Chest Style Fridges
A chest fridge is a popular choice for van life. They’re low voltage, portable, and cool with utmost efficiency. They’re kinda similar to toting a cooler around when you’re going on a camping trip. It’s handy to be able to move it around and potentially even bring it outside depending on how you have it hooked up. Plus, they double as an extra seat in your van, which is always nice to have. The main drawback with these guys is that they take up a lot of floor space. You’re also always stacking things on top of each other but your things do stay in place securely when you’re driving.
Dometic makes an impressive line of 12 volt refrigerators. There are nine 12v fridges in the CFX lineup ranging from 27 quarts all the way up to 93 quarts. To translate, 93 quarts means it can hold 146 cans, which is nuts! Selecting from such a robust product lineup is awesome because there are lots of sizing options for every van.
Our pick is the Dometic CFX-75 because it is a portable fridge freezer with a 74-quart capacity. That’s 2.4 cubic feet, which is comparable to the upright models. This is the best Dometic fridge for van life because of its versatility. It has removable wire baskets for organization and the dual zone means you can set up two different temperature zones. So you can make the whole thing a fridge, rock a fridge freezer combo, or go full freezer.
Its rugged body is durable and ultra insulated so it performs well even in scorching temperatures. It also has an LED light inside to help when you have an ice cream craving in the middle of the night (it happens). The coolest part (pun intended) is that it has wifi! You can connect your 12v fridge to your phone and control a bunch of settings through the Dometic app. You can adjust the temperature, get open lid alerts, and turn off the fridge right from your phone!
Lastly, this off-grid compressor fridge has a USB port so you can charge your devices through it. Plus, if you’re ever running it off of your vehicle battery, it will monitor the power draw. It has a built-in battery protection system that will turn the unit off before it drains your battery.
This ARB fridge is a durable and energy-efficient option that’s ready to take on any off-road adventure. It is a chest-style compressor fridge that can run on AC/DC power. Just like the Dometic, you can hardwire it into your off-grid electrical system or use your car’s cigarette lighter.
There are four different sizes, ranging from 37 quarts to 82 quarts. We’d go for the 50-quart capacity because it can hold a lot but doesn’t take up as much space as the bigger models. This type of fridge is perfect for travelling because it can handle being bumped around and the lid fully comes off for cleaning.
ARB also makes sliding panels that can be mounted in your van for easy access to any ARB fridge. This keeps your portable 12v fridge secure and easy to tuck away when you’re not using it. While you can use this unit as a fridge-freezer, its freezing capabilities aren’t as powerful as the Dometic. Something to keep in mind if having a freezer is an important part of your refrigerator decision.
The Costway 55-quart portable refrigerator is a great budget-friendly option. The lower cost doesn’t mean you need to sacrifice storage capacity or cooling abilities. Some compressor fridges can do an amazing job at chilling but fall flat when it comes to freezing. This 12v fridge can cool down to -20°C (-4°F), which is super impressive.
The design is similar to the ARB fridge with an LED control panel above the handle for convenient temperature control. It also has an anti-shock and anti-shake design that keeps your items secure even on overlanding adventures. This portable fridge-freezer can work with any van build because of its slim profile.
While it does have dual compartments, this 12 volt refrigerator can only be set to one temperature. This means that you’ll be committed to using the whole thing as either a fridge or a freezer and not both simultaneously. It has wire baskets for organization and an LED light for optimal midnight snack scavenging.
Similar to the other compressor refrigerators, the Costway 12v fridge has a battery protection system. This prevents your battery from dying by turning the unit off when the battery is getting low.
This 12 volt portable refrigerator is another affordable option from BougeRV. Like the other compressor refrigerators, this can be hooked up to 12v DC, 24v DC, or AC power. It has a 53-quart capacity and can cool to -20°C (-4°F), making it a versatile option for your van or RV. The only thing to keep in mind is that you can only select one temperature for the whole unit.
The low power consumption draws less than 1 kWh per day when it’s cranked to max. That’ll be easy on your solar panels so you won’t need to worry about monitoring the per-hour power draw. Even with being so energy efficient, the compressor cooling technology works pretty quickly. In 16 minutes, it can get from 25°C (77°F) down to 0°C (32°F)!
It also has battery protection and a slim profile to tuck into tighter spaces. The LED display is easy to use and has an eco-mode for more control over power consumption. The best part about a chest-style portable refrigerator is that it doesn’t need to be kept level. This 12 volt fridge can handle a 30° tilt and still perform properly in your van.
This 12 volt portable refrigerator from Engel doesn’t mess around when it comes to durability. It has a highly efficient compressor that is built to last. Engel even backs this up with a three-year warranty, which is higher than most other 12v refrigerators on the market.
The Engel MR040F-U1 has a 40-quart capacity that can run off of 24v/12v DC or AC power. The durable ABS construction makes this the perfect fridge-freezer for an off-grid van. It can handle pretty much anything you can throw at it and hold many beers along the way.
The fridge’s compressor only draws 1-2 amps per hour, which is 40% less than a traditional compressor. This makes it a good portable fridge option when you don’t have the strongest power source. The only thing that isn’t ideal is the size; it’s quite bulky and takes up a lot of floor space. If your van can spare the extra real estate, it’s one of the best 12v fridges.
What to Look for in a Van Fridge
There are lots of different fridges on the market and let’s face it, many look pretty similar. So how do you decode all the technical info and find the best fridge for van life? Well, the first step is to evaluate your needs, space constraints, power capabilities, and of course, your budget. Traditional RV fridges can handle all the bumps of the road and perform well on electric or gas. Buuuut all of these great features come with a beefy price tag.
To help guide you in your camper fridge journey, here are some things to look for when shopping for van fridges:
- Power Sources
- Freezer Compartment
If you’re starting your van conversion from the ground up, you can customize your kitchen dimensions to accommodate your fridge perfectly. Otherwise, you’ll have to consider how much space you have to work with and how much floor real estate you’re willing to give up.
Do you need to have a 6-pack of ice-cold beers accessible at all times? Do you shop at Costco? If you answered yes to either of these questions, you’ll probably want to opt for a refrigerator with a large capacity.
If you’re running on solar only, you’ll want a 12v fridge. Most 12 volt refrigerators have battery protection to prevent from draining your battery bank. If you hook up to shore power often, an ac/dc model might be great for you. Otherwise, if you already have a stove or furnace running off of propane, a 3-way fridge might tick all of your boxes.
Does your van kitchen work with a chest fridge or will you need an upright fridge?
If you’re living in a van or RV full time, having a freezer is really handy. We have one in our fridge and even though it’s small, it’s great for saving food from going bad. And of course, having ice cream ready to go on hot summer days doesn’t hurt. Some chest fridges are “dual zone,” meaning they have separate fridge-freezer compartments with different temperature zones as well.
Not all camper fridges are created equal. You’ll find that there’s a pretty broad price range that can be confusing. Generally, smaller fridges are cheaper but the savings isn’t really worth it if it doesn’t work for your space. It’s fine to go for a low-cost fridge if you’ll just be using it on weekend trips or as a backup. If you’re living in your van or RV full time, however, don’t cheap out on your fridge.
What Are Absorption Refrigerators?
Absorption fridges are standard in most RVs. They usually offer more versatility in how they operate based on what you’re working with. They can run on propane, battery power, or shore power. Basically, a propane flame or electric element heats an ammonia-based solution. It then travels into a condenser where it dissipates its heat and creates cooling power through rapid evaporation. You should watch this video for a full explanation of all of the chemistry involved.
When run on LP gas (propane), absorption refrigerators are quite efficient, quiet, and durable. The only thing you have to keep in mind is that the fridge needs to be level in order to operate correctly. These things aren’t messing around either, you can get air bubbles in your cooling unit that will cause your fridge to stop cooling.
We have an absorption fridge and it works great. They all come standard with a locking mechanism to prevent your fridge doors from flying open while you’re on the road too. They’re literally designed for vans and RVs so, in our opinion, they’re the best option if you can afford them. Definitely skip it though if you don’t have propane and would be using it on full electric all the time. There are better low power consumption models out there geared for 12 volt usage.
What Are 12 Volt Refrigerators All About?
A 12 volt fridge runs off of the DC power from your batteries. Because it doesn’t need to be converted to AC power with an inverter, it is much more energy-efficient and will take little power draw. This means that your 12v fridge can be hooked up to your battery bank from your solar panels, or it can be hooked up to your vehicle starting battery. Most 12 volt refrigerators come equipped with multi-stage battery protection to prevent your batteries from dying. You wouldn’t want to permanently have your 12v fridge leeching off your vehicle battery but it’s an option for shorter camping trips.
Generally, all 12 volt fridges are compressor fridges. A compressor fridge in your camper van will operate the same way a residential fridge does. They use a refrigerant like Freon to draw out hot air and vent in cold air to the back of your fridge. You can watch this video for a full breakdown of how the process works.
Can You Use a Normal Fridge in a Campervan?
Short answer: no. Normal residential fridges are designed to work off of the 110v AC power you’d have at home. Even energy-efficient residential fridges draw way more power than a 12v DC model for mobile use. Also, if you’re doing van life right, you’re probably going on lots of adventures. These fridges are not meant to be shaken around or moved at all really. A normal mini fridge might seem appealing because of price and availability, but they are not designed for mobile living.
There is one scenario where a normal fridge can be used in a van or RV. If you live in an RV park or on your own property where you’re stationary and have an electrical hook-up, go for it! Some folks prefer a normal fridge because it has more shelf space and they’re usually much cheaper. But again, a camper fridge is more expensive for a reason.
Selecting the best van fridge for your camper van or RV doesn’t have to be a stressful process. While the cost can be daunting, investing in a high-quality refrigerator is an important step in the van life journey. You want your off-grid life to be as comfortable as possible so make sure that your fridge can stand the test. Whether you splash out on a dual-zone 12 volt fridge-freezer or keep it simple with a 12v DC unit, you’ll be eating ice cream on the road in no time!