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Published Jan. 13, 2020

Whether you’re a trucker, a camping enthusiast or a health-conscious parent looking for a way to save money and calories on shop-bought lunches and after-school snacks, a portable 12-volt cooler might be the answer. In various sizes and styles with a whole host of different features to suit every budget, 12-volt coolers offer a portable and convenient solution to expensive snacks, soggy sandwiches, and disappointing campfire meals. All you need is a car cigarette lighter, somewhere for it to sit, and you’re good to go. Check out the best 12-volt coolers below.

The Best 12 Volt Coolers

The ICECO is a stylish and compact car cooler with a 21-quart capacity and a super efficient Danfoss compressor. Different operating modes—including energy-saving and fast-cooling—as well as Dynamic Battery Protection ensure you can save power while also protecting your car battery. The cooler features a flexible and versatile dual zone design with a smart partition, so both sides can be independently configured. Temperature and settings can be easily monitored and adjusted using the Bluetooth app or touchscreen display. 

However, you might find a slight variance between the displayed temperature and the actual temperature inside. It includes DC12/24V input for maximum convenience, but the plug doesn’t fit securely in a standard car cigarette lighter and it may need to be replaced. Embedded handles and damping door hinge guarantee portability and ease of use on the road, although the size is likely insufficient for a family camping trip.

Key Features
  • Separate refrigeration and freezer compartments
  • Bluetooth and app controls
  • Three-stage Dynamic Battery Protection
  • Fast-cooling and power-saving modes
Specification
  • Brand ICECO
  • Model GO20WDS
  • Weight 23.8 pounds
PROS

Fridge and freezer sections can each be operated simultaneously 

LED light and luminous touch screen display and control panel

Includes five-year compressor warranty and one-year on all other parts

CONS

Not big enough for a family trip

Slight variance between temperature display and actual temperature inside

The plug does not fit snugly in the cigarette lighter and has a tendency to drop out

The Igloo is a portable 12-volt thermoelectric car cooler in silver and white that is capable of maintaining an environment up to 35 degrees lower than the outside temperature thanks to a quiet and efficient convection system with a brushless motor.

Thermoelectric cooling also means no ice is required to keep things cool, which increases internal storage space and requires no cleanup. The cooler will maintain the temperature for a while without power but is not suitable for actively cooling items and works better if brought down to the desired temperature before use.

Key Features
  • Available in 26- or 28-quart sizes
  • Iceless, thermoelectric convection cooling system with circulating fan
  • Ergonomic, hard shell design with swing-up handle and molded grips
Specification
  • Brand Igloo
  • Model 40369
  • Weight 10 pounds
PROS

Quiet and efficient motor

No ice means no wasted space or mess to clean up

Extra long, universal fitting power cord

CONS

Needs to be pre-cooled before using

Handle can detach without warning

No option to plug into main power

This is a versatile cooler with adjustable temperature and multiple settings to enable cooling, chilling, and freezing, plus a 40-minute quick-cooling option. It is available in three sizes (16, 32 and 42 quarts) to suit different needs and can be charged or powered in three different ways (AC, 12 volt, and solar). Full customer service, technical support, and a manufacturer’s warranty are also included. 

The included battery will last 10 hours at 0 degrees on a single charge and is easily removable to allow use of backup batteries during longer off-grid trips. We especially like the USB charging point and Bluetooth app controls.

Key Features
  • Can be used as a cooler or freezer
  • Uses LG compressors to reach temperatures of -4 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Telescoping handle and large wheels
  • LCD screen and Bluetooth app remote controls
Specification
  • Brand ACOPOWER
  • Weight 38.8 pounds
PROS

40-minute quick cooling setting

Three different charging options plus replaceable battery with 10-hour life

Includes USB charging point

Can be controlled remotely via app

CONS

Internal storage only half of appliance’s total size

No cover on control panel to prevent accidental pressing of buttons

Very heavy when filled

This portable, 48-quart capacity, 12-volt cooler offers a functional design and compressor refrigeration technology that is as quiet as it is efficient, offering both eco and max power modes for maximum versatility. Ice-free cooling conveniently reduces cleanup and maximizes internal space. The vibration-resistant design still works at angles up to 45 degrees, and a built-in LED light means this cooler really can be used anywhere, while effective high density foam insulation will keep snacks cold even when power isn’t available.

It will successfully chill down to a temperature of -4 degrees Fahrenheit, but you may not want to rely on it to keep food completely and safely frozen in high ambient temperatures. The top-loading design helps keep temperatures stable, but the latch is flimsy and extra care is advised to avoid breakage.

Key Features
  • Top-loading, functional design
  • Efficient compressor refrigeration for iceless chilling down to -4 degrees Fahrenheit
  • LCD and digitized temperature display
  • Molded built-in handles for carrying
Specification
  • Brand Alpicool
  • Model CF45
  • Weight 30 pounds
PROS

Designed for rugged, off-road use

Power saving modes and three-stage car battery protection

AC adapter included in package

CONS

Flimsy, poorly-made latch on lid

May not keep food frozen in high temperatures

Needs considerable airing to get rid of unpleasant plastic odor after delivery

A compact but powerful 37-quart capacity cooler that is compatible with (and includes cables for) 12/24 volt DC and 110 AC power sources for maximum portability and versatility. Intelligent Battery Protection and different operating modes (max, normal, and eco) enable the cooler to reach and maintain deep-freeze temperatures of -4-degrees Fahrenheit with minimal power usage. 

The instruction manual, however, is vague and difficult to understand. While efficient insulation will keep products frozen for up to 10 hours without any power regardless of ambient temperature, the use of ice means this will melt eventually and therefore will need regular cleaning. Its shock-proof design guarantees use in the toughest environments and the cooler will still operate if positioned at a 45-degree angle, but the exterior appears fragile and marks easily.

Key Features
  • Multiple power-saving modes 
  • ECO and intelligent battery protection
  • LED touch screen controls
  • Shockproof design for use in tough environments
  • USB-charging port
Specification
  • Brand Ausranvik
  • Model APR-50T
  • Weight 37.4 pounds
PROS

Removable drain plug for easy cleaning

Whisper-quiet operation

Extra-long power cables included

CONS

Ice means extra weight, loss of space and a need for regular cleaning 

Heavy and bulky

Fragile exterior finish scuffs easily

The Koolatron is a compact 12-volt cooler with an 18-quart capacity and gray plastic hardshell for easy cleaning and durability. The motor in its state-of-the-art thermoelectric system is unaffected by tilting or vibration, which makes it ideal for use on the road, while the folding handle facilitates easy carrying to and from your vehicle. 

Its cooling and warming capabilities are improved by the use of a fan for even temperatures, but it’s easily blocked and no use if the cooler is overfilled. The no-latch lid makes for easy access while driving, while the slimline shape is designed to fit comfortably in even the smallest vehicles. Unfortunately, it is very narrow and you may struggle storing bulky items or packing enough for a family-sized trip. You also have the option to plug in at home, but you’ll need to buy an adapter, as one is not included.

Key Features
  • Narrow design to fit any vehicle
  • Ice-free, thermoelectric system 
  • Capable of warming and cooling
  • Easy access, latch-free lid
Specification
  • Brand Koolatron
  • Model P20
  • Weight 5 pounds
PROS

Very low power usage at 12 volts 

Ice-free temperature control

Unaffected by rugged environment

CONS

Not ideal for wide items

Fan is easily blocked by stored items

AC adapter not included

Best 12 Volt Cooler Buying Guide & FAQ

If you spend any time at all in your vehicle, you’ve probably thought about how great it would be to always have your own snacks and drinks on hand wherever you are. You’ll have no more excuses about how the drive-thru is convenient and no more soggy sandwiches or lukewarm soup.

A portable 12 volt cooler rolls convenience and independence into one, while giving you the opportunity to eat better, save money, and drink more water. But how do they work, which features are most important, and what type of cooler is best for you? Our buying guide below answers all these questions and more.

The Advantages of Owning a 12 Volt Cooler

While long-distance truckers have been relying on 12 volt coolers to keep them fed and hydrated on the road for years, it’s taken a while for them to catch on with the wider market, but now they’re here to stay.

As a hallmark of absolute convenience, it’s not hard to see why. Thrifty individuals might invest in a portable cooler to save money on work lunches, while the health conscious no longer need to rely on unhealthy convenience food on the road. Insulin-dependent diabetics can travel with confidence and freedom, knowing their medication is cold and safe in the cooler. 

Benefits

  • Eat better by taking your own food wherever you go and avoid buying unhealthy convenience snacks.
  • Save money on work lunches, days out, road trips, and after-school snacks for the kids.
  • Travel conveniently and independently without worrying that you have nowhere to store your temperature-controlled medication.
  • Nothing says convenience like being able to charge your electronics from the USB port on your 12 volt cooler in the middle of the woods.
Ice chest full of drinks

Different Types of 12 Volt Coolers

While non-powered coolers involve packing your goodies in ice and hoping for the best, 12 volt coolers offer a way of chilling (and, in some cases, warming) food and drink without all the mess and wasted space. The type of cooler you choose will dictate the price and its functionality, so it’s good to understand the different options available.

  • Thermoelectric 

Thermoelectric coolers are a lightweight and effective way of keeping things cold on the move. They can cool down as far as around 30 degrees below ambient temperature. No ice is required, which means no messy cleanup and more compact, space-saving designs. 

The low voltage received through the plug in the cigarette lighter is used to create the Peltier effect. The current is passed through conductors and, at the first electrical junction, heat is removed and then deposited at the second electrical junction. This creates a cooling effect and the heat is pushed out of the box by a fan, while another circulates the cold air. Whether it reaches the target temperature, and how long it mains this, depends on the outside temperature. Thermoelectric cooling does not count as refrigeration and this type of cooler cannot provide environments required for keeping food frozen.

  • Compressor

Compressor cooling is achieved when the evaporator in the system converts the refrigerant liquid into gas and, in the process, extracts and releases heat. This is the same technology used in domestic fridge freezers, but on a smaller, portable scale. 

These types of coolers can be used with 12/24V DC and usually 100/240V AC without any problems, allowing for complete convenience and versatility. As a rule, they provide highly efficient cooling with minimum power consumption and the most high-end of these are often also capable of deep freezing. It’s recommended that this type of cooler is not used on an angle, where possible, and some space around the cooler is required for ventilation.

The Most Important Features of a 12 Volt Cooler

12 volt coolers come in a range of sizes and styles, with a wide array of features. With such a variety in options and price points, how do you know you’re getting the best cooler to suit your personal needs?

There are some main features to look out for to make sure you avoid disappointment. Decide how you’re going to be using the cooler, what you’re likely to be storing and where you want to put it. You can then narrow down your choices based on the most key factors.

  • Capacity

Portable coolers come in all shapes and capacity: some will just about hold a bottle of water and a sandwich, while others are capable of storing a week’s worth of food. If you just want something to keep you in cold drinks during your daily commute, you’ll likely be satisfied with one of the smaller models on the market. If you’re looking at taking the whole family away on a multi-day trip into the woods, however, you’ll need something much bigger. 

Make sure you have the necessary space in your vehicle, too. The dimensions listed in the product description are usually exterior measurements. The interior capacity of the cooler will more likely be given in quarts or liters. Sometimes, a model will also suggest how many 2-liter bottles or drinks cans it can hold, to give you a better idea of its internal measurements.

  • Portability

The weight and portability of your 12 volt cooler is another important factor. If you don’t plan on ever taking it out of the car, then your biggest worry will be how you get it installed in your chosen spot in the first place. If you’re planning on carrying a cooler with you on a hike, however, you’re going to need a lightweight option.

Ultimately, you need to decide how important a factor the portability is. Will you be transporting the cooler over long distances, or just to and from the truck at either end of your trip? Most coolers come with molded hand grips for easier carrying, while some models even include telescoping handles and wheels for guaranteed portability.

  • Energy Efficiency

Any 12 volt cooler can be plugged into your vehicle’s cigarette lighter in order to draw power from the battery, but the more efficiently it can do that, the better. This is particularly important if you’re going to be leaving the cooler plugged in overnight while you camp, for example. The last thing you need is a flat battery when you get up in the morning. Some models include intelligent battery protection to stop this happening, and it’s definitely a feature worth considering.

The most efficient coolers will draw only a few amps when actively working to bring the inside environment down to the required temperature. It’ll then shut off and, like a thermostat in your home, only draw power intermittently to keep the temperature constant. For this reason, the cooler’s insulation is also another important factor to consider.

Tips for Buying and Using 12 Volt Coolers

As with any purchase, we would always recommend thoroughly reading the instruction manual and any setup or installation guide before using your 12 volt cooler. This will give you advice about how to get the best from your purchase and reiterate the things you need to know. 

We’ve got a few general tips about buying and using a 12 volt cooler, but the manufacturer should be best placed to explain any fancy features, the best way to clean the cooler and how to achieve the most efficient operation.

  • If you’re going to be using the cooler inside as well as outside, check whether you need to buy an AC adapter as they’re not always included.
  • Along with the dimensions and internal capacity, it’s always worth checking the length of the power cord to make sure you’ll be able to plug in from wherever you’ve planned on putting the cooler.
  • Try and keep the cooler level as much as possible, even when it’s not plugged in. Some models state they’re unaffected by vibrations and will still work at an angle, but it’s better to err on the side of caution.
  • It’s much easier and more efficient to keep items nice and cold if they’ve been pre-chilled before going into the cooler. 
  • Always clean out your cooler after using it. Crumbs and spills are inevitable and can cause health problems, as well as bad smells, if left unattended.
Ice chest full of drinks in bottles on color napkin

Best 12 Volt Coolers FAQ:

There is currently a huge range of 12 volt coolers on the market, all with different features and specifications. For specific questions, we recommend checking product pages and manufacturer information. But there are some things you will always want to ask and need to know about 12 volt coolers in the most general sense. We’ve done our best to answer these below.

Q: How cold are 12 volt coolers?

The best thermoelectric 12 volt coolers can deliver temperatures up to 30 degrees lower than the outside ambient temperature. This means how cold it gets will depend on where you are.

Q: How do thermoelectric coolers work?

Thermoelectric coolers utilize the Peltier effect. Voltage is passed through a joined conductor to create a current. Heat from the current is removed at one of the conductor’s electric junctions, which creates a temperature difference, before being deposited at the second junction.

Q: How long does it take for a 12 volt cooler to get cold?

It depends on the internal capacity and the ambient outside temperature, but it could be up to an hour. With this in mind, it might be more efficient, if possible, to plug the cooler in at home and pre-chill before installing it in your vehicle. We would always recommend pre-chilling food and drink before loading it into the cooler for more efficient operation, too.

Our Top Pick

Our overall top pick of portable 12 volt coolers is the ICECO 12V Portable Refrigerator. We really like the Bluetooth functionality, which allows remote operation and monitoring. Plus, having the option to maintain two different temperatures at the same time is infinitely useful and provides incredible flexibility and versatility.

Sources:

  1. How Do Thermoelectric Coolers Work – Marlow
  2. Thermoelectric FAQs – CoolTech Leisure

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