Refrigeration options for camping

Your refrigeration options for camping are fairly broad from the fairly light weight esky’s to the higher cost and heavy compressor fridges. You don't need a large icebox or fridge for 4-5 people if you are smart about how you manage your fridge and food / drinks.

Outlined below are the main options for your camp refrigeration. For a more indepth general article on choosing your portable camp fridge, you can also go to Choice magazine.

Iceboxes

IceboxThe most inexpensive option for your camp refrigeration is an icebox and a bag of ice. When we refer to iceboxes, we are talking about the preferred more solid square shaped products with thicker walls.

As the ice will take up room in the icebox, we suggest that they should be no larger than 50 litres in volume, compared to our suggested 40 litres for a compressor or absorption fridge. Your initial outlay on a good quality 50 litre icebox will be around the $169 to $299 mark. Iceboxes are much lighter in weight at around 10-12 kg compared to 20-24 kg for the equivalent size compressor fridge. 

There are many icebox and ice devotees out there, including us, although common ice drawbacks include lack of easily available ice, expecially in remote areas, ice requiring regular top-ups, waterlogged food and the difficulties in controlling and regulating the temperature. Many of these issues can be addressed through proper management of your icebox.

The option to use an icebox is not perfect, but with careful selection and good management, they are definitely worth starting out with, especially if you are on a limited budget, until you are ready, if at all, to upgrade. We often still use our icebox and ice for our long stay camping when ice is readily available and we are on an unpowered site. Ice is also great to have on hand for nicely chilled refreshments at the end of a hot day.

Absorption fridges

Absorption fridgeAbsorption fridges are generally referred to as three-way fridges as they can run on mains electricity, LP gas or battery power from a portable power bank or deep cycle battery. They tend, however, to be very inefficient on battery power and should only be powered by the car battery when the car is running. And don’t forget to disconnect the fridge from the car’s power supply when the car is not running or you will flattened the battery.

Most of the absorption fridges on the market will cost a little more than a good icebox at around $300 to $500 for a basic 35 litre model and up to $900 for a 40 litre model. They shouldn't (and don't need to be) any larger than 40 litres for our setup.

These fridges are also very popular for long stay camping as they can very efficiently run for a couple of weeks on a 4 litre refillable LP gas bottle. No need to keep your battery charged or find a powered site - you just set and forget.

The disadvantages of these types of fridges are outlined below:
  • When operating on gas, they should sit level for maximum performance and they could be accidentally bumped out of alignment.
  • When operating on gas, they need to be placed in an open, well ventilated area.
  • They take longer to cool than the more expensive compressor fridges.
  • They only cool to 20-25 degrees below the ambient temperature, which is not ideal in hot conditions.
  • They are better suited to long stay camping rather than touring or short stay camping because they take a little time to set up and level at the campsite.
  • Unlike some of the compressor fridges on the market, they don’t tend to have dividers and baskets to separate and help organise your food. Appropriately sized plastic containers from home can be used to help separate and organise food in the absence of anything supplied with the fridge.

So there are a number of disadvantages to absorption fridges, but they are definitely worth considering if you want something more than ice and an icebox, and you do a lot of long stay camping, but don’t for whatever reason see a compressor fridge as an option in the future.

We would, however, recommend you skip the absorption fridge for a compressor fridge if you are considering a more extensive and expensive power setup and don’t necessarily want the option to run your fridge on gas.

For safety reasons, when operating on gas, absorption fridges should be kept in a well ventilated area at the campsite and not in an enclosed tent.

Compressor fridges

Compressor fridgeFor many people, a good compressor fridge is the ultimate in camp refrigeration, and why wouldn’t they be when you can set and forget - no levelling required, no running out of ice, no waterlogged food, no monitoring of the fridge temperature. The only hassle is maintaining the power supply.

Compressor fridges are generally referred to as two-way fridges as they generally run on battery power and mains electricity only.

As with the absorption fridges above, they shouldn't (and don't need to be) any larger than 40 litres for our setup.

Compressor fridges have the following advantages:
  • They chill down quickly and to the set temperature regardless of the ambient temperature.
  • Some of them can be set to freeze food.
  • Some models come with dual zones with divided freezer and fridge sections.
  • They do not need to be level (unlike absorption fridges).
They have the following disadvantages:
  • The cost of a quality compressor fridge will be in excess of AU$800.
  • Unlike iceboxes and absorption fridges, compressor fridges are much more complicated to power without a powered site. They require a battery to provide sufficient charge to run the fridge and other items around the campsite, and a reliable source of power to recharge the battery. This process can be complicated and expensive.
  • Compressor fridges are very heavy compared to iceboxes and absorption fridges, especially when fully loaded with food. The average 40 litre fridge alone, without contents, weighs around 22-24 kg / 48-53 lb, as opposed to 12-15 kg / 26-33 lb for the alternatives.
  • A lot of 40 litre compressor fridges have a different shape to the average icebox or absorption fridge. They tend to be wider and with a shorter depth and many also have protruding handles. To comfortably fit in the way we suggest in our packing guidelines, these fridges may need a car with a deeper rear cargo area.

Soft and hard shell cooler bags

CoolersSmaller soft or hard shell cooler bags come in handy at the campsite to take excess food items that would benefit from cooler storage temperatures but don’t necessarily need refrigeration, such as some of the fruit and vegetables. We suggest you choose bags that are around 15-20 litre in volume - and no larger.

To provide some additional cooling, we place a sealed plastic container full of ice on top of the food, and in warm conditions, we place a small wet towel over the top of the bag to take advantage of evaporative cooling. In warm weather the bag will also stay cooler if placed in the open air under the awning rather than in a warmer enclosed annex.

Drinks tubs

If you are planning a "big night" and want to consume a few liquid refreshments, your limited refrigeration options don't necessarily mean you have to consume warm drinks.

In our kitchen section, we suggest you find a neatly stackable plastic container to hold your kitchenware, and buy a couple of extras for other uses around the campsite. Filled with a bag of ice and they are perfect as a drinks tub.