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What is the Best 12v Camping Cooler

ThermoElectric cooler - what is the best 12v camping cooler

In this article we are going to try to answer the question, “What is the Best 12v Camping Cooler”.  We are going to look at:

  • What is a 12v Camping Cooler
  • How do 12v Coolers Work
  • Do 12v coolers Work
  • What to Look for When Choosing Your Camping Cooler
  • Review of the top 5 12v coolers
  • Conclusions and recommendations.

In this post we are only concerned with thermoelectric coolers. Follow this link if you are interested in the more sophisticated 12V portable camping fridge coolers

Camping Sages Choice of 12V Camping Cooler

This is a mid-length article – around a 10-minute read.  For those who do not want to read the whole article, our choice of 12V Camping Cooler for 2020 is:

Knox 48Qt Electric Cooler

Knox 48Qt Electric Cooler

What is a 12v Camping Cooler

A 12v Camping Cooler is an electric cooler which runs on 12V DC current.  They usually have a cable that will plug directly into a car cigarette lighter socket.  Some come with AC adapters for plugging into home outlets.  For most Camping Coolers the adapter must be bought separately.  In some it is supplied or is built into the cooler.

There are 2 types of 12V coolers.  At the cheaper end, there are the thermoelectric models.  As you move up in the price range we get to coolers that are probably better described as portable or camping fridges. This article will consider thermoelectric coolers.  Take a look at our article on portable camping fridge/coolers if you decide those are likely to better meet your needs.

How do 12v Coolers Work (Thermoelectric Coolers)?

12V coolers work by reducing the temperature of the cooler by a fixed amount compared to the current ambient temperature.  This temperature differential is usually between 36 and 40F. See the table below for what this means in the real world.

The cooling mechanism is completely reversible so coolers can also be used as warmers. 

Whether used as a cooler or warmer, you can only get a maximum of +/- 36-40degrees of temperature change.

How do 12v Coolers Work – the More Technical Explanation

A quick warning.  There is some technical stuff in this section. It is included for those who like to have all the facts.  Click here to skip the technical bits and get to the reviews.

We use 12V coolers all the time.  We use them for camping, tailgate parties and more than a few barbecues and parties.  Strange to say, until I started writing this review, I have never thought about how they work.

Thermoelectric Coolers – the Peltier Effect

It turns out that cheaper coolers rely on something called the Peltier effect.  Named after French Physicist, Jean Peltier, the Peltier effect is,

“the presence of heating or cooling at an electrified junction of 2 different electrical conductors”.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thermoelectric_effect#Peltier_effect

The Peltier effect – more commonly referred to as the thermoelectric effect – can generate temperature differences of up to 70C – 126F.  For domestic camping coolers, the thermoelectric effect is usually used to give a temperature difference of 20-22C – 36-40F

Thermoelectric Cooler Diagram.svg
By Ken Brazier – self-made, based on w:Image:ThermoelectricCooler.jpg by CM Cullen (which is GFDL 1.2 and CC-by 2.5 licensed), CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

All that is needed is a fan to circulate air over the cold plate and into the cooler.

As heating and cooling can be reversed by a reversing the polarity, several coolers are sold as both being able to cool and warm. The maximum temperature differential is still about 40F. 

Advantages of Thermoelectric coolers

  • Simple and cheap
  • No moving parts apart from the fan.
  • No refrigerants so potentially more environmentally friendly that conventional fridges
  • No maintenance and long

Disadvantages of Thermoelectric coolers

  • Fixed temperature differential
  • Inefficient – typical camping cooler requires 4-5A at 12V to achieve 40F differential

Do 12v coolers Work

The short answer is YES.  12V coolers work really well. 

They are exceptionally reliable.  The coolers will work as long as there is a functioning 12V power supply and the fan is working. The most common fault is that the power cords can get damaged.

The key thing to remember is that they can only give a fixed differential to the ambient air temperature.

Ambient air temperatureMinimum Cooler Temperature
6020
8040
10060
11070
Thermoelectric coolers temperature differences at 40F differential

So, if the ambient temperature is below 72F the cooler will reduce the temperature below freezing. Your food and drink can freeze solid (we’ve had it happen) which is generally not a good idea (go to cooler to take out a couple of juicy steaks to slap on the grill only to find they are frozen solid :().

At the opposite end of the scale, if the outside temperature is above 90-95degrees the contents of your cooler will be cool – but not cold.  For some (most) food stuffs this is not acceptable.

The bottom line is that a 12V camping cooler works well at delivering that 36-40 degree temperature difference.

12V coolers are also well insulated.  Just like a more conventional cooler, most 12V coolers have 2inches of thermal insulation in the sides, top and bottom.  If you lose DC supply you can expect the cooler to remain cool for up to about 24 hours.

A major advantage of a 12V cooler is that you don’t use any of the usable volume by filling it with ice.  This also means that your cooler remains dry as there is no ice to melt.

Benefits of 12v Thermoelectric Camping Coolers

  • No ice needed – full capacity of the cooler is available to your food and/or drink
  • As long as you have power – your cooler will keep on cooling
  • With no melting ice the inside of the cooler remains dry – there is no need to regularly drain out the ice melt
  • Simple design
  • No moving parts so extremely reliable
  • Cheap

Disadvantages (Thermoelectric)

  • Fixed temperature differential – temperature will only be 40F lower than outside
  • Inefficient – needs to run continuously to keep cooler temperature down
  • High continuous current – 4-5A.  Typical car batteries have a capacity of 50-90Ah.  You could fully discharge your battery in less than 10 hours. 

How to Get the Best from Your Camping Cooler

Just before getting to the reviews, here is how you get the best from your camping cooler.  We look at 3 areas of use:

  • Prepping and filling the cooler
  • Using the cooler
  • Cleaning after use

Prepping and filling the cooler

  • Just as with the more traditional camping coolers, you will get longer lasting cooling if you pre-cool the cooler.  You can fill it with ice for a few hours or store it in a commercial freeaer.  Alternatively, just plug it in at home and let it cool for 48hours
  • Make sure all the items to be packed in the freezer are cold before adding to the cooler
  • Include a few cooler ice packs in you packing.  These will help to moderate the limited cooling range of thermoelectric coolers.
  • Instead of ice packs, you can deep freeze a couple of large bottles of water.  These work just as well as ice packs and can be used for drinking water as they thaw.  Remember, water expands as it freezes.  It’s best to make sure there is a 2 inch air gap at the top of a bottle before putting in the freezer.  Don’t put unopened, store bought water directly into the freezer.

In-Use

  • Thermoelectric coolers work best if you can leave them running all the time.  Minimize the time the cooler is not connected to a power supply
  • Pack the cooler in your car so that the air vents are clear and you can plug it into you cigarette lighter socket.
  • Avoid letting direct sunlight onto the cooler – both in your car and at the campsite
  • At some campsites you will have to keep your cooler in your car to protect it from bears.  Try to make sure your car is kept as cool as possible too.
  • Keeping a 12V cooler running all the time takes quite a lot of battery capacity.  Check your battery is capable of starting your car.  You might need to run your car for as much as 2 hours a day just to replace the charge used in running your cooler over night.
  • Given the power usage of 12V coolers you might consider:
  • Looking for campsites with electric hook-ups.  That’s not going to be possible in most cases or when dispersed or wild camping
  • Taking along a camping generator.  You are likely to need it in summer to run your lights and tent fans too.
  • Invest in camping power pack and solar power system.
  • While you don’t have the problem with lots of melting ice, you will get considerable condensation in the cooler from normal use.  You should wipe up the condensation to keep the inside dry.

After Use

After use care is very little different from a standard camping cooler.

  • Remove all unused food and drink
  • Wash out the inside of the cooler with a washing up detergent
  • Make sure the cooler is clean and dry, inside and out, before storing
  • Place the power lead of adapter inside the cooler.  If you don’t keep them together I can just about guarantee the leads will get lost.

What to Look for In Camping Cooler

There are a few specific things to look for when buying a camping cooler:

  • Thermoelectric temperature differential – typically 36 or 40 degrees.  The more the better
  • Reviews on the ability of the cooler achieving and maintaining the temperature differential.  Most tests are artificial.  We feel you are better off looking at what real-world users are saying about the coolers they have purchased
  • Reported current usage – normally around 5A.  Any more and your battery is going to discharge even faster
  • Car battery voltage protection.  You don’t want to get stuck with a flat battery
  • Insulation – it’s a cooler first.  Even if the 12V thermoelectrics are not working, the cooler should be capable of keeping its contents cool.
  • Handle and wheels – these coolers are heavy when fully loaded.  Wheels and a handle help move it to where you need it
  • Multiple power supplies accepted – AC and DC
  • Length of DC leads – longer is better
  • DC adapter included – Y/N

12V Camping Coolers in this Review

To provide a reasonable comparison with our ice cooled camping cooler review, we have targetted our review to coolers with a capacity in the range of 35 – 50 Qt.  If you take a look at the standard camping cooler review you will see that we looked for coolers of around 60Qt capacity. 

A 40Qt thermoelectric cooler doesn’t need ice.  It will have a useful capacity similar to that of the 60Qt plus coolers that require lots of ice.

Coleman Cooler| 40-Quart Portable Cooler | Iceless Electric Cooler

FeatureColeman 40-Quart IcelessComments
Capacity Qt4044 cans
Temp Differential 0F40 
Dual function (cool and warm)N 
Dimensions (inches)23.5 x 17 x 15.3 
Empty weight (pounds)16.9 
Nominal current (Amps)4 
Battery Protection (Y/N)N 
Wheels (Y/N)N 
Power inputsDC only 
DC adapter includedN 
Length of DC lead (feet)8 

Coleman 40 quart Iceless cooler – we like

  • 8-foot DC cable – still doesn’t get you too far from your car/truck but is better than most
  • Can be used as a chest (standard) cooler or stand vertically with left or right opening door
  • 40-degree temperature differential – remember, the higher this figure the better (at least in theory)

Coleman 40 quart Iceless cooler – we don’t like

  • Warmer function not available – we have never used the warmer function on any of our electric coolers so this wouldn’t be a problem for us but it seems a shame not to include it.
  • DC cable is attached to the cooler – more chance of damage
  • Several people report the unit failing after very little use – as we will see, this is a complaint for a limited number of all coolers in this review.

Igloo Iceless Thermoelectric Cooler

FeatureIgloo IcelessComments
Capacity Qt4056 cans
Temp Differential 0F38 
Dual function (cool and warm)N 
Dimensions (inches)21.87 x 15.25 x 16.75 
Empty weight (pounds)18.75 
Nominal current (Amps)4.5 
Battery Protection (Y/N)N 
Wheels (Y/N)N 
Power inputsDC and ACAC adapter is an extra
DC adapter includedNOptional extra
Length of DC lead (feet)8 

Igloo Iceless Thermoelectric Cooler – We Like

  • Can be used either as a chest cooler or upright like a refrigerator
  • Contains adjustable divider/food shelf – helps keep your food and drink separate

Igloo Iceless Thermoelectric Cooler – We Don’t Like

  • Several people have found that the DC cable breaks
  • Does not have the greatest temp differential

Wagan EL6244 Blue 46 Quart 12V Thermoelectric Cooler/Warmer Car Fridge    

FeatureWagan 46Qt ThermoelectricComments
Capacity Qt4660 cans
Temp Differential 0F38 
Dual function (cool and warm)Y 
Dimensions (inches)21.75 x 16.25 x 17.5 17.25 x 9.25 x 13.5 
Empty weight (pounds)22.3 
Nominal current (Amps)4 
Battery Protection (Y/N)N 
Wheels (Y/N)Y 
Power inputsDC 
DC adapter includedN 
Length of DC lead (feet)8 

Wagan EL6244 Blue 46 Quart 12V – We Like

  • Split, removable doors.  Makes getting into the cooler easy and convenient
  • Wheels and a handle.  These coolers are pretty heavy fully loaded.  Think 90-110pounds.  Wheels are a great idea.
  • Adjustable dividers

Wagan EL6244 Blue 46 Quart 12V – We Don’t Like

  • Several reports of coolers stopping working soon after purchase
  • Some people find it to be noisy

You have to love the comment, “it’s exactly what I need as a boby builder on the go”.  These things are heavy when fully loaded 😊. That may not have been what he meant though.

Dometic TC35-DC-A 12V Tropicool Tc35 Thermoelectric Cooler/Warmer

Video is for the smaller, 14Qt model.

FeatureDometic TC35-DC-A 12V TropicoolComments
Capacity Qt3560 cans
Temp Differential 0F40 
Dual function (cool and warm)Y 
Dimensions (inches)Ext 22 x 18 x 14 IntDimensions from the Dometic User manual
Empty weight (pounds)22.3 
Nominal current (Amps)4.5 
Battery Protection (Y/N)N 
Wheels (Y/N)N 
Power inputs12/24 DC, 110V AC 
DC adapter includedYDC and AC adapters supplied
Length of DC lead (feet)8 

Dometic TC35-DC-A 12V Tropicool – We Like

  • Detachable lid for loading and cleaning
  • 12/24V input
  • Cooling and warning

Dometic TC35-DC-A 12V Tropicool – We Don’t Like

  • 35 quarts is maximum size
  • Several reports of coolers stopping working soon after purchase.  This seems to be a common complaint with all Thermoelectric coolers.
  • More expensive than others in this review

Dometic are better known for their portable refrigerators than for coolers.  This shows in their attempts to add much more control to this cooler with 7-stage temperature control.  It looks good but, in the end, you only have a choice of hot or cold.

Knox 48Qt Electric Cooler

FeatureKnox 48QuartComments
Capacity Qt4860 cans
Temp Differential 0F40 
Dual function (cool and warm)Y 
Dimensions (inches)Ext 22 x 15 x 15 Int 17 x 12 x 11Gives 2inches of insultation all round
Empty weight (pounds)16 
Nominal current (Amps)4 
Battery Protection (Y/N)N 
Wheels (Y/N)Y 
Power inputs12 DC, 110V ACLeads are built into the cooler.  Each has its own storage compartment
DC adapter includedYDC and AC adapters supplied
Length of DC lead (feet)5.5Short for this sort of cooler

Knox 48Qt Electric Cooler– We Like

  • Large capacity – 48Qt is going to keep you going for a few days
  • Wheels and a long handle – someone is thinking about how these coolers are meant to be moved around
  • AC and DC cables included
  • Dividers included to better organize the contents
  • Cooling and warming

Knox 48Qt Electric Cooler – We Don’t Like

  • Usual complaints about quality and robustness.  This really does seem to be an issue for all of this class of coolers
  • There is an error in the manufacturers description that says it cools to 40F.  That is the maximum temperature differential that the cooler can achieve

Conclusions

Points to Note

In researching for this review it became clear that many people did not know exactly what 12V Thermoelectric coolers were designed to achieve.  This is not helped by unclear or misleading manufacturers or marketing information.  This is an area in which manufacturers could do more to provide the clarity.

There also seems to be an underlying issue with quality control.  For every cooler we reviewed there were roughly equal reports of the purchased units failing soon after purchase.  On the other side of the coin – many users reported they had used the coolers for many years with no problems.

12V Thermoelectric coolers are ideal:

  • Where the outside temperature does not rise above 80-85F
  • Where you have the ability to run the cooler continuously

This last point is problematic.  Thermoelectric devises are inefficient.  They use noticeable current – 4 – 5.5A in this review.  You are going to completely discharge an average car battery in less than 10hours.  To run a cooler overnight in a tent you will need either a hookup or a generator.

As CampingSage is all about camping comfortably (being off-grid does not mean you should not be comfortable) we recommend that you used a 12V cooler in conjunction with a small camping generator.

So, What is the Best 12v Camping Cooler?

If you have made it this far in the review – thank you.  It has been a bit of a long read.

In the end, our choice of 12V Camping cooler is clear.  All of these coolers will do a good job.  Our choice is one that also includes DC and AC out of the box.  It also acknowledges that a fully loaded cooler is heavy so it has wheels and a useful, extending handle.

CampingSage’s 12V Camping Cooler of 2020 is:

Knox 48Qt Electric Cooler

Last update on 2020-08-11 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API