Choosing the Best Fridge for Your Camper Van Life

By: Scott Adamson
/ May 15, 2020
If you’re looking for a true off-grid Van Life experience, then one of the most important things to plan for is food refrigeration. 

Choosing a fridge is a decision that needs to be made surprisingly early in the van build phase. Why? Well, your fridge will affect:

  • Your cabinetry design
  • Electrical / Solar planning, and
  • Overall storage space

To avoid getting stuck with storing your food in a portable cooler and replenishing ice every couple of days, you’ll definitely want to factor a fridge into your van layout plans.

What I use…

Before I get into the different fridge options and what should be considered before making a final decision, I’ll dive into what my vanlife refrigeration experience has been.

I spent a lot of time debating the style of fridge I should go for in my first van build. The fridge that I ended up choosing was a top-loading dual-zone Whynter fridge.

This particular fridge is more affordable than some of the other 12v top-loading units and so far it has worked really well.

Having a top-loader allows me to cram a ton of food into the fridge, making it possible to go a little over 2 weeks without needing to visit a grocery store.

I’ll be the first to admit that every time you open the fridge, it is a bit of a puzzle to get everything back together, but I think it’s worth it for the extra food storage.

This fridge does consume more power than the Dometic, ARB, or Engel units, but that hasn’t been an issue. This was something I needed to keep in mind when planning my solar system and overall power consumption. This particular fridge pulls around 6-7 amps when the compressor is on full blast.

The other feature of this fridge that I get a lot of use of is the dual-zones. I have the smaller half function as a freezer, which is very handy.

So how do you choose the right fridge for your Vanlife?

There are a plethora of great camper fridge options out there. But in order to narrow down the best fridge for your van, you need to go through this short (but important) list of considerations:

1) Fridge Capacity

Needless to say, your vanlife fridge is going to be smaller than you are likely accustomed to. However, there is a range of fridge sizes to choose from. Most commonly, Van Dwellers will choose within a range of 40-60 quarts, depending on their needs and how many people are living together.

The questions you need to ask yourself are:

  • How much food do you want to be able to store?
  • How often are you willing to go grocery shopping?
  • Do you need an area for freezing food? If so, how big?

2) Efficiency and Power Draw

When it comes to Vanlife, one of the most important things to plan for is Power Consumption. Before making a final decision, be sure to look at how much power the fridge is going to draw and that your van has the capacity to handle it (more on this below).

3) Budget

A good fridge is an extremely worthy purchase for van life, but they are surprisingly expensive! Some 12v fridges are similar in price to a house refrigerator!

Converting a van can be a pricey project when you add it all up. Be sure to factor in the cost of a fridge in your van conversion budget. Depending on your needs, pricing can range anywhere from $300-$2000.

4) Style / Configuration

The next thing you need to choose is the style of fridge that suits your van living needs. We’ve broken down the options for you:

Top-Loading Fridge (Chest)

The top-loading fridge is one of the most common fridge styles for vanlife as it stores more food than front-loaders and is generally more energy-efficient because less cold can escape when opening the door.

Some Vanlifers prefer the stacking method of their food, but others do not. This is really a personal preference.

The thing to consider with top-loaders is that your van layout will need to allow for access above the fridge. You could build a way to slide it out from storage or find a spot where it is accessible at all times.

In our opinion, chest-style fridges are the best choice for off-grid campervans since energy-efficiency and storage space are 2 of the most important factors in your van build.

Front-Loading Fridge (Upright)

Front-loading is a more traditional style of fridge in terms of appearance, but they generally have less storage space than top-loading fridges.

Many Van Lifers choose this style as it fits nicely in their van layout and they don’t have to allow for access above the fridge.

 

Front-Loading Fridge (Drawer)

Another front-loading fridge option is a Drawer pull-out. In terms of food organization, the drawer fridge is similar to the top-loader except it pulls out from the front, however they generally don’t store as much as a top-loading chest fridge.

 

 

Ultimately, the decision on fridge style comes down to:

  • Food storage space needs
  • How you want to layout your van, and
  • Your preference on food organization (stacking vs. shelves). In our opinion, it’s not an amazing experience either way…

5) Compressor vs. Absorption Refrigerators

When choosing the best vanlife fridge, one of the most important deciding factors is your preferred power method. For off-grid camper vans, there are typically 2 types of fridges that are weighed up against each other: Compressor or Absorption.

Compressor Fridge (Recommended)

Compressor-powered fridges, also known as “two-way” refrigerators, use a small compressor unit to cool the refrigerator.

Compressor fridges are the most common type of fridge for vanlife and our recommendation for anyone that is looking to be on the road for long periods of time.

There are 2 ways of powering the compressor:

  • 12V battery power (Recommended), or
  • 110V Power

12V fridges are the most common and low-maintenance fridges used in campervans. Whereas 110V power would require you to run an inverter. Any time you convert power you have a loss, so using a device that operates at your native 12v would give longer battery life.

Pros

✅Most energy-efficient option (12v).

✅Built specifically for these applications and are designed to withstand the abuse of being in a vehicle. Also, they work well in uneven terrain, unlike absorption fridges.

✅Most compressor fridges can double as freezers because of the powerful compressor motor.

Cons

❌Can be expensive (range in price from $300-$2000)

 

3-Way Absorption Fridges (12V DC, 110V AC, or Propane)

Absorption Fridges rely on a gas flow heat exchange and have 3 ways of being powered; 12V, 110V, and Propane. Propane is commonly used in the RV world and has some great advantages to it, if space allows for it.

Personally, I wanted my van to have a single fuel source. I don’t want to worry about propane on the van.

The main reason this type of fridge isn’t suitable for Vanlife is that it needs to remain level in order to work properly. When you’re constantly traveling and parking in unlevel terrain, this just won’t cut it.

Pros

✅Variety of power options (12V DC, 110V AC, or Propane)

✅They can easily run for extended periods of time as they rely on the gas flow exchange system rather than 12V.

Cons

❌Running them on propane means you have other fuel lines to worry about. I prefer a single fuel source in my van.

❌They can be very inefficient when running on 12V power. They are likely to drain the batteries much quicker than a compressor fridge.

❌Because of the gas flow exchange system, these fridges should remain level in order to function properly.

❌They are harder to install than a compressor fridge.

❌Additional ventilation would be required.

6) Reliability & Warranty

With any large purchase, you want to make sure you’re purchasing from a well-liked brand with a lot of honest and positive reviews.

This can be an expensive purchase and an important aspect of making your van feel like home. But, alas, things can go wrong so you also want to make sure you are covered by a lengthy and useful warranty.

So, what’s the best fridge for Vanlife?

Ultimately, we recommend going with a 12V Compressor Top Loading Fridge due to capacity and efficiency. In terms of size, this really depends on your food storage needs and how many people are living together.

Leading Brands

The most popular brands in this space are:

Bonus: Vanlife Refrigeration Tips

Load up that fridge!

The more food you keep in the fridge, the less energy you’re going to waste trying to keep the fridge cold. You will notice that your fridge spends less time running as the items within the fridge help to retain the lower temperatures.

Install on a separate circuit

I had originally used 14/2 in-wall speaker wire for my 12v wiring. After using the fridge for some time, it turned out that the fridge pulls more amps than I was expecting. Although the 14/2 wire would run the fridge, I was experiencing almost 15% voltage drop over the roughly 12ft of wire.

So the fridge would work fine when the batteries were topped up, but as the batteries would drain down to 11.5 volts, the fridge would draw down to 10v, which would ultimately turn the fridge off…

So when planning your van build, I would suggest installing the fridge on a separate circuit and using 10 AWG wire for this.

After all the trouble in purchasing and installing the best fridge for your vanlife, my last piece of advice would be to COOK as much as possible while on the road. Eating restaurant / fast foods can quickly add up.

Jam pack your new fridge with yummy fruits and vegetables and get cookin!

Scott Adamson
Wanderful Idea Guy
Coffee drinker, adventure seeker, below average photographer.
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