Best portable refrigerators: 7 top options from thermoelectric to compressor coolers

Serial boat owner Drew Maglio picks out 7 of the best portable refrigerators available right now and explains what features to look out for…

As opposed to passive coolers which rely on dry ice blocks, chemical cooling agents, or old fashioned ice cubes and a well insulated container to keep things cold, portable refrigerators use 12/24DC and/or 115/220V AC electricity to preserve contents.

There are two basic variations of portable refrigerators, which include thermoelectric coolers using the Peltier Cooling Method (i.e. a cold plate to remove heat and decrease ambient temperatures), and compressor-driven systems that are more properly called portable refrigerators.

If you missed the recent guide to the best boat coolers, it’s worth reading that piece first, as there are a lot of impressive options to consider before you consider buying one of the best portable refrigerators.

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The Dometic CFX range includes some of the most feature-rich portable refrigerators on the market right now

Compared to thermoelectric coolers, compressor-driven systems are vastly superior at both cooling efficiency and capacity — albeit at a far greater cost of entry.

While compressor-driven systems can typically maintain temperatures set via thermostatic control, thermoelectric coolers can typically only maintain temperatures of 40-50 degrees F below ambient air temperature.

For this reason thermoelectric coolers are only advisable in temperate climates where daytime temperatures do not exceed 75-80F (24-26C)

7 of the best portable refrigerators available right now

Thermoelectric portable refrigerators

With the limitations inherent in thermoelectric cooling, it is not advisable to invest too large a sum into a thermoelectric cooler.

Similarly, you should temper your expectations and realize that a thermoelectric cooler only works as a “refrigerator” with daytime ambient temperatures of 75 degrees or below.

Furthermore, a good practice when using a thermoelectric cooler is to place a large block of ice in the cooler before running the unit, as thermoelectric coolers do not cool down as quickly as compressor-driven systems.

With these limitations in mind, the following are some product recommendations.

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Halfords 40 Litre Mains and 12V & 24V Electric Coolbox

This thermoelectric cooler by Halfords is a relatively inexpensive and compact option for usage as an active cooler in a temperate and moderate climate.

Being able to run off DC and AC power with a pull-out handle and integrated wheels, this cooler is a great option for those that need a cheap, compact, and no-frills cooling solution.

Specifications

Capacity: 40L
Power: 12V/24V/Mains
Dimensions: 435 x 550 x 370mm
Weight: 8.4kg

Reasons to buy

  • Affordable
  • Compact
  • Has removable internal dividers
  • Can operate on 12V and 24V DC power and 240V AC power

Reasons to avoid

  • Energy inefficient
  • Mediocre build quality

Eco rating: 2/5

Buy it now from Halfords

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Coleman 765556 portable thermoelectric cooler

This thermoelectric cooler by Coleman is a versatile and affordable option for those looking for a multi-faceted portable refrigerator.

Suitable for use either horizontally or vertically, this unit could even be permanently utilized or mounted as a mini-fridge if ambient air temperatures are moderate enough.

This portable refrigerator is popular with truckers, RVers, and boaters alike.

Specifications

Capacity: 40L
Power: 12V
Dimensions: 450 x 410 x 610mm
Weight: 8.16kg

Reasons to buy

  • Affordable
  • Ergonomic and sleek appearance
  • Can be operated in a horizontal or vertical position
  • Features a fan to evacuate heat away from the Peltier cooling element

Reasons to avoid

  • Only accepts 12V power
  • Inefficient when compared to compressor-driven units

Eco rating: 2/5

Buy it now from Amazon

Compressor-driven portable refrigerators

As opposed to the thermoelectric coolers above, compressor-driven systems are superior portable refrigerators in nearly every way—albeit at a substantially greater cost of entry.

There is one particular downside however that shoppers should know about: because compressor-driven portable refrigerators rely on a relatively large and heavy compressor to evacuate heat, they tend to be substantially larger in terms of dimensions, as well as heavier for a given capacity, when compared to thermoelectric coolers.

With that in mind, here are our recommendations for compressor-driven portable refrigerators.

Norcold NRF-45 AC/DC Portable Refrigerator/Freezer

This portable refrigerator by Norcold has been a staple among boaters and sailors alike for years due to its affordable price, cooling efficiency, compact footprint, and brand recognition.

While other options on this list have likely passed it by in terms of both quality and value, this unit remains a good buy.

Specifications

Capacity: 45L
Power: 12V/24V/120V
Dimensions: 430 x 400 x 648mm
Weight: 20kg

Reasons to buy

  • Compressor-driven system that can run off both AC and DC power
  • Low wattage
  • Relatively affordable for a big name portable refrigerator
  • Has dual-zone functionality (fridge and freezer)
  • Specifically marine-rated

Reasons to avoid

  • Industrial/dated appearance
  • Spotty reliability

Eco rating: 4/5

Buy it now from West Marine

Bodega 12V portable refrigerator

This portable refrigerator by Bodega is a true wild card on this list as it is the most dynamic and portable option—all at an incredibly affordable price of entry.

Featuring wheels and a robust handle, this unit is truly meant to be transported during use and is therefore suitable for weekend boaters.

Things like an integrated cutting board, dual cooling zones, and the ability to be controlled via a smartphone app, make this unit the most functional and ergonomic portable refrigerator on this list.

Specifications

Capacity: 36L
Power: 12V
Dimensions: 368 x 360 x 724mm
Weight: 17kg

Reasons to buy

  • Many additional features – detachable battery, smartphone control, built-in lights, integrated cutting board
  • Has wheels which make transport much easier
  • Dual-zone functionality (fridge and freezer)
  • Stylish and a good value proposition

Reasons to avoid

  • Relatively heavy for a given capacity
  • Not specifically marine-rated

Eco rating: 4/5

Buy it now on Amazon (US)

Buy it now on Amazon (UK)

Kohree 12V Portable Refrigerator

For the budget-conscious, this unit by Kohree cannot be beaten, which is why it is an Amazon best-seller.

Being compact and compatible with both AC and DC power, this unit is a quality all-rounder without the big name brand tax.

Specifications

Capacity: 25L
Power: 12V
Dimensions: 350 x 320 x 570mm
Weight: 12.4kg

Reasons to buy

  • Extremely affordable for a compressor-driven unit
  • Compact
  • Versatile – can run off 12/24V DC or 110/240V AC

Reasons to avoid

  • Fewer features than other coolers on this list

Eco rating: 4/5

Buy it now on Amazon

Dometic CFX3 Portable Refrigerator

This portable refrigerator by Dometic is the highest of the high-end solutions on this list—albeit with a price to match the renowned Dometic name.

Compared to previous generations of Dometic portable refrigerators, the new CFX line is stylish with a rugged appearance, which means it can double as a seat.

With marine-rated components and integrated battery-saving features, this portable refrigerator is likely to be the best performing and longest lived option in the corrosive marine environment.

Cruising boaters without built-in refrigeration systems often find ways to permanently install Dometic units like the one pictured above onto their vessels, which speaks volumes to the trust they have in the brand.]

Specifications

Capacity: 32L
Power: 24V
Dimensions: 398 x 407 x 694mm
Weight: 16.78kg

Reasons to buy

  • Premium build quality and components – specifically marine-rated
  • Stylish rugged, industrial appearance
  • Can be used as a fridge or freezer
  • Features battery protection to prevent excess battery drain
  • Comes in different sizes
  • Features ice trays (55 quart unit)

Reasons to avoid

  • Expensive
  • Relatively high average draw for a compressor-driven unit

Eco rating: 3/5

Buy it now on Amazon (32L)

Buy it now on West Marine (45QT)

Buy it now on West Marine (55QT)

Engel 19QT Portable Insulated Live Bait Fishing Box

Best portable refrigerator for fishing

One more bonus option for the fisherman among us, there is a portable livewell/cooler offered by Engel that is well worth a closer look…

Specifications

Capacity: 18L
Power: 12V
Dimensions: 422 x 297 x 343mm
Weight: 3.29kg

Reasons to buy

  • Features an aerator to preserve bait
  • Compact
  • Integrated bait net

Reasons to avoid

  • Build quality could be better
  • Not very well-insulated for frozen bait or as use as a cooler

Eco rating: N/A

Buy it now from Amazon

Didn’t find what you’re looking for? Head to Amazon’s dedicated boating page for more marine products.

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