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So it’s the start of camping season and I know you’re all heading out so you can have some fun far away from everyone. Wherever you go and whatever you do you’re going to need to take some food with you, and some of that food is going to need to be cold. To help with that off-road journalist and veteran rock crawler, Harry Wagner and I wanted to share some of our experiences. I’ll share some of the coolers I’ve used over the years as well as some tips for getting the best performance from a cooler. Harry has a few different 12v fridges to show as well as some tips on selecting the right fridge for your needs.

Why Coolers?

Most people use coolers before they graduate to 12v fridges. There are number of reasons coolers are a great option. First, they’re cheap. Even the most expensive coolers are half the price of a portable electric fridge. Coolers are light and easy to move around when empty. Coolers come in lots of sizes for any different use. Coolers are easy to maintain. Coolers are pretty effective for camping or overlanding trips of less than a week’s duration.

Coleman Extreme 65 qt.

 So for our family of 4 we generally need 2 coolers for the average trip up to a week long. For our main cooler we’ve been using this Coleman Extreme for the last few years. It cost about $120 and keeps ice cold for 5 days reliably on trips like our Death Valley Tour, and our Mojave Road adventure.

Maximizing Cooler Performance

Getting the best performance but of a cooler is easy, but you have to take a couple of steps to get the longest ice retention.
 

Use Block Ice

I always use frozen juice or soda bottles in my coolers and there are a number of advantages to this. First, the larger ice mass stays frozen longer. Second, because it’s contained, you don’t get water sloshing around your cooler. On a longer trip, you can dump the melted water out to make the remaining ice last longer, and while you’re at it, you can drink the melted water, though it might taste like juice…
 

Be organized 

Many coolers have baskets available that hang at the top of the cooler for holding small items. I go one step further and use plastic organizer baskets or tubs in the bottom to keep things organized. This helps you get what you need faster, and you can pull an entire basket out if you need all the items to prepare a meal.
 

Keep you Cooler out of the Sun

It’s best to keep your cooler cool. Keep it out of the sun. Don’t leave it in your hot car. It always helps to use a reflective tarp of blanket to cover the cooler if shade isn’t available. 
 

Keep the Lid Closed 

When the lid’s open, the ice is melting. Open it, get your snacks, close it! The baskets help with this if you need more time, just pull the basket out and CLOSE THE LID!
 

Load Cold Food

Don’t put warm food in the cooler. It’s best to load it straight from your fridge at home. If you can, even go as far as to freeze anything that can be frozen. It’ll thaw in plenty of time for your BBQ.
 

Pre-Cool Your Cooler

The first thing that your ice has to do is cool all the plastic that your cooler is made of. If you have a nice roto-molded cooler like our new Canyon Cooler, the plastic is thicker and therefor has more thermal mass for you to cool down. Canyon suggests using an extra bag of ice the night before your trip to pre-cool your cooler. It really does help!

Keep Void Space Down

Any air inside the cooler is going to hurt ice retention. Try to keep any dead space inside the cooler to a minimum.

Canyon Coolers Outfitter 55QT Roto-Molded Cooler

Canyon Cooler Outfitter 55

This season, Canyon Coolers have been kind enough to send us this hard cooler and soft cooler for us to use. Harry took an epic road trip to Alaska last summer and took a 110 quart Canyon Cooler, which was big enough to store not only his cold food but all of his dry food as well.
We are testing the much more reasonably sized Outfitter 55 quart cooler, which retails for only $230.  Canyon Cooler is based out of Flagstaff, AZ and for the past 10 years has offered rotomolded coolers with a full lifetime warranty.
Right off the bat there are a few things I really like:

Low Profile Design

The Canyon cooler has a squared off design without handles or protrusions that make it take up excess space. This cooler will fit in tight with all the other gear in your truck or trailer.

Roto-Molded with thick insulation

Coolers like this are roto-molded which is a really expensive way to do one-piece plastic molding. The cooler is insulated on all 6 sides, whereas many cheap coolers, like out Coleman, have no insulation in the lid at all.

Functional Handles

Canyon Outfitter coolers have a finger grip handle under the lid that is big and easy to hold on to. They also have handy rope handles that hang down and allow you to carry the cooler in a more comfortable position alone or with a helper. These handles hang in a recess when not in use so they won’t snag or take up space.

Organizer Baskets

Canyon also makes organizer baskets for their coolers that retail from $12.99 to $24.99 Depending on the model. Our Outfitter 55 can take two baskets that retail for $14.99 each. There is a lip inside the cooler where the baskets securely rest.
Canyon Cooler makes Nomad soft sided coolers in 20 quarts and 30 quart sizes, which cost $149.99 and $169.99 respectively.  These coolers are great because you can cram them in locations that a hard sided cooler would not fit, and collapse them as you consume the contents.
We like to keep snacks in our soft cooler where they are easily at hand, without concerns about getting konked in the head when we are driving down the trail.
Soft coolers have come a long way in recent years. Stand out features on this for me are the slick durable material, Waterproof zipper and the adjustable shoulder strap for hauling it down to the beach.

Fridges, why?

by Harry Wagner

I must confess that I think a lot of overlanding “kit” are just expensive gadgets that you don’t really need to go camping.  Fridges, however, are not one of those items.  I bought my first ARB fridge about ten years ago and it is still going strong.  Often times I will bring a fridge on longer road trips, like the Rebelle Rally or going to King of the Hammers for ten days.  I tend to eat healthier when I can bring things like baby carrots and hummus or salads along instead of stopping for fast food on the road.
All of the fridges here shown have some common features.  They all are compatible with 12v and 110v power, offer thermal protection that is adjustable to keep your battery from dying, have LED lights inside, drain plugs, baskets inside, and removable lids.  They all do a great job of keeping your food cold.  You aren’t going to go wrong with any of these options, but let’s talk about the little details that distinguish one from another.

ARB Fridge (old)

This classic ARB freezer fridge has served me well over the past decade, from my 4Runner to my Tacoma and now living most of the time in the back of my Access Cab Tundra. At 50 liters it is a good balance between cost (about $1000), weight (about 50 pounds), and capacity (50 liters).  I typically try to pack drinks and plastic items on the bottom and then put soft items like vegetables and fruit on the top.  I also try to avoid bringing glass on the trail whenever possible.  The fridge is faded and the 12v plug is ripping out, but it is still going strong.  The transit bag offers an extra level of insulation and keeps your investment from getting scratched up, but the velcro has never stuck well on this fridge from day one.

Dometic

I got this Dometic CFX28 because it fits perfectly in the back of my Tracker on the custom rack Austin Hall at Samco Fabrication built for me.  It retails for only $700 and it pretty lightweight, which fits the theme of the Tracker.  I really like the reinforced corners and the transit bag is way better than ARB’s, using zippers instead of velcro.  One of my favorite features is the USB outlet.  I thought it was a gimmick at first, but in the Tracker I only have one 12V outlet so when the fridge is plugged in this is my only option to charge my phone, so it comes in handy.
If I have a complaint, it is with the handles of the Dometic fridge, which protrude past the body of the fridge and can be an issue depending on where you mount it. Dometic offers fridges in 35, 45, 55, and 100 liters and dual zone fridges in 75 and 95 liters, with an app that allows you to monitor the voltage and temperature.

ARB Fridge (New)

ARB ZERO FRIDGE 101 QUART DUAL ZONE
The newest fridge on the market is ARB’s Zero line, which they unveiled at the SEMA Show last winter. In addition to being olive drab, I immediately like the square, reinforced edges that maximize the space of the fridge.  Things shaped like an Action Packer are a pet peeve for me because there is so much wasted space, and in something like my Tracker or bobbed mini truck space is at a premium.  Of course, when we are talking about the huge 101 quart dual zone Zero fridge, it takes up a lot of space and costs over $1500.  If I only had one fridge this size Zero would not be it, but ARB also offers the dual zone in a 73 quart size as well as single zone in 47 and 63 quart sizes, with prices comparable to the classic ARB fridge.
What you get with the Zero line is the ability to monitor and control your fridge from ARB’s app, a USB outlet, 12v outlets on each side to make mounting and power routing easy, recessed handles, and a unique new tie down system that is the best I have seen. I got the giant dual zone fridge to put in the back seat of my crew cab Ram with a Northstar camper on the back, it basically doubles the cold storage I have and allows me to spend more time away from civilization.  One of my favorite features of this new ARB Zero fridge is the dual lids, which can be easily switched from one side to the other depending on how you need them to open.

Conclusions

So that’s what we know about fridges and coolers. We don’t really spend a ton of time thinking about it or worrying about it, but we’ve both spent a lot of time with these options and we know what works.
What do you use to keep your food cold? What has been your experience and what has made the most difference for you? Let us know in the comments.
And Harry is starting his own channel here on YouTube that will feature more serious rock crawling content so be sure to head over to the link and subscribe. Also stay tuned after this for a quick teaser of the first video we’ve got queued up for you.

 

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