What Is a Portable Refrigerator?

Updated: Nov. 28, 2022

A portable fridge makes camping and road trips more enjoyable. Here's an overview of how they work and what to look for when you're shopping.

What’s driving the recent uptick in portable refrigerator sales? The skyrocketing interest in camping over the last two years.

According to the KOA 2021 North American Camping Report, the number of first-time campers increased 500 percent from 2019 to 2020, and interest in RV ownership has also increased dramatically. This spike is likely pandemic-driven, with airports and crowded spaces becoming less attractive to many travelers.

People are also buying portable fridges for tailgating and cosmetics storage.

What Is a Portable Fridge?

A portable fridge is a self-contained storage chest that uses an outside power source to control its internal temperature. Unlike a traditional cooler, a portable fridge doesn’t rely on ice or freezer packs to keep its contents cool.

Two main technologies power portable fridges and freezers: Compression refrigeration and thermoelectric refrigeration. A third technology (absorption refrigeration) is less common in portable models because it doesn’t work unless it’s perfectly level, so we won’t include it here.

An ice-chilled cooler works for most of a day. But if you want to keep items cool and fresh for multiple days, or maintain precise control over the thermostat, a portable fridge is a better choice. Portable fridges are especially popular with:

  • Campers who want to eat well in the wilderness;
  • Anyone who wants the option of using their fridge as a warming device (more on that below);
  • Outdoor party hosts who don’t want to mess with ice to chill beverages;
  • Vacationing families who keep perishable snacks on hand during a road trip;
  • Tailgaters needing a large fridge to serve perishable foods on a warm day;
  • Anyone who wants to keep cosmetics or a few beverages chilled on a countertop.

What Are the Pros and Cons of Portable Fridges?

We’ll look at the strengths and weaknesses of portable refrigeration before examining the different technologies of compression and thermoelectric fridges.

Pros of portable fridges

  • Portability. Sure, it’s obvious, but it’s also the main draw. It’s great to have a device that can hit the road with you and make a campsite more convenient.
  • Control. If you dump ice into a cooler, you can’t control the temperature. Most portable fridges allow some degree of temperature control, so they can keep meat fresh or ice cream frozen as well as chill a beer.
  • No melted ice. Coolers work fine for beverages, but not so well with sandwiches or other food that needs to stay dry.

Cons of portable fridges

  • Power source. The need for some kind of power supply is the biggest strike against them. Battery options are too expensive or impractical for most people. By far, most portable fridges need to be connected to a house or vehicle power supply.

Thermoelectric portable fridges

These models use a solid-state heat pump to move heat out of (or into) the insulated interior. There’s no refrigerant used and no compressor required. This lack of refrigerant is why some manufacturers call their thermoelectric models “coolers” rather than “refrigerators.” For clarity’s sake, we’ll stick with “refrigerator” or “fridge” in this article.

Pros of thermoelectric fridges

  • Lightweight. They’re a fraction of the weight of a compressor fridge. The exact numbers will vary, but most thermoelectric models will weigh about 70 to 80 percent less than a similarly-sized compression fridge.
  • More storage capacity. With no need to house a compressor, thermoelectric refrigerators have more storage space than similarly-sized compression models.
  • Environmentally friendly. Uses no refrigerant.
  • Option to heat. Thermoelectric fridges can run on reverse, like a home’s heat pump, allowing it to act as a warming oven instead of a cooler.
  • Quiet. Another benefit of no compressor. These units make minimal noise, even when running at maximum capacity.
  • Size options. Thermoelectric models can be compact, making them good choices for in-car or countertop fridges.

Cons of thermoelectric fridges

  • Limited by ambient temperature. Thermoelectric fridges can only warm or cool their contents relative to the ambient temperature; the range depends on the model. Bottom line: If it can only cool 30 degrees relative to the ambient temperature and it’s 95 F outside, the fridge will be 65 F — not nearly cool enough to keep food from spoiling.

Portable Compression Fridges

This is the common type of refrigeration in home refrigerators and heat pumps. These are the most efficient type of portable fridge, but carry disadvantages such as price, use of refrigerant and complexity that leads to breakdowns.

Pros of compression fridges

  • Temperature control. Set it and forget it.
  • Not related to ambient temperature. Whether it’s 65 F or 95 F outside, a compression fridge maintains its set temperature.
  • Freezer mode. Want ice cream at the campsite? Some compression models offer interior temperatures well below freezing.

Cons of compression fridges

  • Price. They often cost significantly more than thermoelectric models.
  • Noise. The compressor sounds much like a kitchen fridge.
  • Weight. The compressor contributes to the fridge’s heavier weight, normally about three times that of a similar-sized thermoelectric model.
  • Storage. Housing the compressor reduces interior space.
  • Environmental concerns. Compression fridges require refrigerant, which could leak out of the unit.

What To Look for in a Portable Fridge

Ultimately, the type of technology you opt for isn’t as important as the fridge itself. Look for a model that will suit your storage, durability and power needs. Here are a few key items to look for when comparison shopping:

  • Storage capacity. What are you going to put in the fridge, and how much space will it need?
  • Weight. Must you lift this appliance in and out of tight spaces? Will you be hauling it to a remote site, or will it always stay in your truck?
  • Power source. Most portable fridges come with multiple adapters for AC and DC supply, but always double-check. You don’t want to load up for a trip and realize you don’t have the right plug.
  • Durability/warranty. Some models are more rugged than others. If possible, look at a sample in a store or from another camper, then be honest about the demands you’ll make on it.