Comparing fridge freezers to cooler boxes – every few months, with almost clockwork precision, a discussion pops up on many camping and/or over-landing forums pitting the virtues of the refrigerator against the time-tested ice chest. Which is better is not an easily answered question. As we tentatively approach a verdict, it is important that we understand everything we can about coolers and fridges.
The modern cooler is produced in a multitude of variations using materials as basic as styrofoam to stainless steel and now rotary molded plastic. The latter is fast becoming the most popular format for a number of sound reasons. Rotary molding is a process by which plastic pellets are introduced into a mold and melted, then rotated at high speed to evenly distribute the molten material. The result is a molded form with intricate shapes, consistent thickness, and enough durability and strength to be used for the construction of not just coolers, but protective cases and even white water kayaks. Rotary molded coolers make for a more attractive option for the demands of overland travel.
Over the last few years, we’ve seen a growing list of manufacturers making rotary molded coolers. There are dozens of offerings. These coolers are largely the same in many aspects. They all feature rugged rotary molded bodies with matching rotary molded lids. The shapes may differ, the thickness of the walls may have some variability, and there will be different hinge and latch designs employed, but it is somewhat safe to say most rotary molded coolers have a host of similarities. This is not to say they perform equally, but there is a lot of consistency in the rotary molded cooler world.
Cooler Box Pros:
If you have shopped for a rotary molded cooler recently, you have most likely experience knee weakening sticker shock. It is hard to believe that such prices represent a budget option, but compared to the price of a refrigerator, they certainly are more attainable.
Another benefit of the rotary molded cooler is the simplicity of use. Fill your cooler with snacks and suds, top with ice, and close the lid. It really doesn’t get much easier. That simplicity of design matched to the brawn of the rotary molded construction, makes these coolers virtually indestructible. It’s nearly impossible to damage a rotary molded cooler, but there are some limitations to consider.
Cooler Box Cons:
It is an obvious caveat––coolers are nothing without ice.
For most weekend getaways and even some protracted journeys, this isn’t a big setback as ice is easily found at most corner stores and gas stations. That is if you travel within close proximity to suburbia in Africa. For the international traveler, finding ice on the edges of the Sahara or in remote corners of Mozambique or Botswana might be a little tricky. On the upshot, these newer rotary molded coolers can often retain ice for up to a week if used properly, even in summer temperatures. All the same, a cooler without ice is just a fancy box.
The last potential negative, and this is getting pretty nit-picky, is the size of the average cooler relative to the amount of contents it can store. Rotary molded coolers have a large exterior size due to the thick walls required to retain the ice. An average cooler is considerably larger than its refrigerated counterparts. Plus, all that ice factors into the storage volume of the cooler. A 40-litre refrigerator provides 40 actual litres of storage. A cooler must forfeit some of that storage capacity for ice.
Portable 12-volt fridge freezers are one of the best things to ever happen to overlanding.
Because all four-wheeled rigs have an alternator and battery, harnessing that power to chill our eats and drinks is pretty convenient. When discussing 12-volt refrigerators, it is important to cull out the cheaper electric coolers on the market. Those inexpensive devices can seldom cool their contents more than a few degrees below ambient temperatures whereas a proper fridge/freezer can often cool up to well below ambient temperature.
To achieve the impressive performance provided by a modern 12-volt refrigerator, most units will employ highly advanced internal motors and compressors, not too unlike those used in your home fridge. They also use well constructed bodies with excellent insulating properties and in most cases, complex thermostatic regulators and electronics to maintain temperature and maximize energy efficiency. Many are designed to shut off if they sense they might be pulling too much juice from the host power source. Because many popular 12-volt refrigerators were purpose-built for use in overland vehicles, they’re also relatively durable, but do require a touch more love and care than a cooler.
Fridge Freezer Pros:
The single biggest advantage a refrigerator has over a cooler is independence from ice.
With a steady supply of power, a refrigerator can cool and even freeze indefinitely. For the extended journey deep into the bush, this is an unparalleled advantage. As one drives by day, the alternator supplies the power to cool the fridge. By night, the battery supplies ample power to keep things cold. At no point does a hunt for ice enter the scenario.
Another advantage of the refrigerator is the ability to moderate precise temperatures.
This may sway your decision to go with the more expensive refrigerator.
Because overland vehicles have limited cargo space, the smaller physical size of a fridge is always appreciated. Although the inner workings of a refrigerator do take up some space, those components are relatively small leaving maximum space for food and beverage storage. The walls of most refrigerators are usually quite thin, again giving the refrigerator a significantly smaller footprint.
Fridge Freezer Cons:
Without beating around the bush, refrigerators are very expensive.
If there is a reason why those who want a refrigerator do not have one, it’s likely because the purchase price is prohibitive. There is also no denying that a fridge freezer brings with it a level of complexity that can’t be dismissed. A fridge freezer is a machine with many parts, some of which are capable of failing, and they sometimes do. Then there is the added complexity of providing power to the appliance.
For those travelers who drive day in and day out, power is seldom an issue. For those prone to park for a few days, supplemental power supplies will need to be factored into the system. This could be achieved with more battery storage, generators, or solar solutions, all options adding even more cost and complexity to the bottom line.
If the thought of spending R6,000 or more is too much to justify, and no one would blame you for that assessment, a cooler box is the clear choice. Although a R2,000 cooler is still expensive, they genuinely do perform much better than their cheaper cousins. We’ll save that discussion for another day, but rotary molded coolers are worth the additional outlay of cash.
If you have limited storage space, find yourself on multi-day or even multi-week travels, and have designs on international travels, you can’t beat a fridge freezer for convenience.
Which is best? It really depends on your intended usage. It also depends on the exact products being used. But comparing a high quality fridge freezer to a high quality cooler, it is a tough decision to call. Many people use both.