In van life, we encounter many different climates, situations, and experiences, and we want the products and materials in our tiny home on wheels to be just as adaptable. When looking at what you need for your van, you may not be ready to invest in a campervan fridge. Instead, finding the best cooler for van life may be your ticket!
Putting a cooler into your campervan is one of the best choices we made when we got on the road. It immediately upgraded our experience, allowed us to go off the grid for extended trips, and enhanced our comfort while traveling. There are so many cooler options that it’s easy to get information overload. We have researched you and found the best cooler for van life on the market. To find out our top pick, read on.
|Yeti TUNDRA® 65 HARD COOLER
|Igloo BMX 52 Quart Cooler
|Dometic CFX3 35 Powered Cooler
|RTIC 52 QT ULTRA-LIGHT COOLER
|Arctic Zone Titan Deep Freeze
|Price under $500
|17.3″ x 16″ x30.6″
|26.57 x 16.93 x 16.93 inches
|27.3 x 16 x 15.7 inches
|21″ X: 13″ X 14″
|22.05 x 14.77 x 13.98 inches
|Hard-sided rotomolded cooler
|Heavy-duty blow-molded construction
|Electric.Hard-sided ExoFrame construction
|Hard-sided 3 inches closed-cell foam insulation
Table of Contents
Our Choice Yeti TUNDRA® 65 HARD COOLER
There is a reason why we name this multipurpose piece of equipment the best cooler for van life.
The Yeti TUNDRA® 65 HARD COOLER is “grizzly-resistant, easy to clean, has a 5-year warranty, and has good online reviews.
- Easy to clean
- Five-year warranty
- can be used for cold and hot items
- High price point
Best Powered Cooler: Dometic CFX3 35 Powered Cooler
Whether you choose an electric or non-electric cooling system, there are plenty of practical options. While the suitable non-electric cooler can serve all your cooling needs, I will say that if you are looking for the best electric cooler for van life, look no further. Dometic CFX3 35 Powered Cooler is perfect for the job.
This lightweight but heavy-dutyeExo-frame cooler has optimized software that offers premium cooling and freezing ability. This cooler freezes to -7°F and has received a 4.4 rating for general use via REI reviews.
- Low power draw
- Reliable brand
- High price point
The Igloo BMX 52 Quart Cooler is durable yet lightweight, with a reinforced base for increased strength and protection. In addition, its rust-resistant, stainless steel hinge rods provide extended performance, and its Cool Riser Technology elevates the cooler away from hot surfaces, enhancing its cooling performance.
- Proven 4-5 day ice retention at 90°F
- Competitive price
- Limited color options
- Standard features
Arctic Zone coolers have been around for many years, and despite the increase in cooler brands, they have continued to produce and add competitive cooler designs to the market. The Arctic zone has traditionally focused on soft-sided coolers until now.
This hard-sided, high-performance cooler is constructed with thick polyurethane insulation, maximizes ice retention (up to 4 days), and meets the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee standards for Bear-Resistant containers when used appropriately.
- Competitive price
- Comparable ice life retention
- Great warranty
- Limite size options
- Standard features
Best Value: RTIC 52 QT ULTRA-LIGHT COOLER
The RTIC52 QT ultra-light cooler is a lightweight, premium option for adventurers. They have created this cooler to be a competitively lightweight, well insulated, durable option. This fridge is supported to have great ice retention and also be able to be carried by one person.
Additionally, it comes with a removable divider at no extra cost. All that considered, we have ranked these the best value cooler on our list.
- 30% lighter than rotomolded coolers of the same capacity
- Included divider basket keeps items dry and gives more compartments.
- Best Value
- Long-lasting ice retention rate
- Two drain plugs
- Not as durable as rotomolded coolers
How to Choose the Best Cooler for Van Life
Having a cooler can be a budget-friendly and effective way to manage all of your perishable food needs.
The options for van life fridges and coolers are only increasing, and it can feel overwhelming to choose when trying to choose the right one for you.
When choosing a cooler, ask yourself what you need from a perishable items cooling unit. Do you need a portable option for beach days, backpacking, rafting, or fishing trips? Are you hoping to store all of your essential perishable groceries? Do you need it to have different compartments? Depending on your needs, you must find a cooler that serves you specifically.
Shawn and I have done plenty of research when choosing our fridges for our different van builds and have seen what our van life friends have used. Here is what we tell those who ask and what you should look for in a cooler.
What Kind of Cooler Should I Choose?
Coolers come in all shapes and sizes, but not all coolers will best suit your needs and give you the experience you envision. Cooler technology has improved so much that it can rival electric-powered fridges, extending your food’s shelf life and reducing food costs.
There are many different kinds of coolers, including hard shell coolers such as metal, hard plastic, and so on, and soft coolers such as cotton, canvas, polyester, and styrofoam are somewhere in the middle.
The hard shell cooers are often more durable and have a longer ice- retention rate. Finally, electric or powered coolers run on propane or electricity.
Durable hard-shelled adventure coolers
Hard-shelled coolers are meant to last and go on extended camping and vanlife adventures. They are known for their ice retention, so you can keep all of your food and drinks cold for long periods.
These coolers are also multi-functional. Due to their rugged exteriors, you can use them as an extra bench seat, a small table, or a step. In addition, they can fit into your campervan design and make your meals much better by keeping all your favorite foods fresh.
Electric coolers can also fall under the refrigeratory category due to the need for gas or electricity to run. These coolers do not need ice and instead will need a DC or AC power unit to function.
These coolers are hard-shell and made to be durable and long-lasting. If you are interested, check out our choice of the best electric cooler for vanlife. Not all electric coolers are the same, so do your research and ensure that you find a unit compatible with your power system.
Small hard-shell coolers
These coolers are usually cheaper than the large, hard-shell coolers we mentioned above because there are so many more options, and cooling technology has also evolved. As a result, these coolers are typically meant for shorter trips but also can be used for regular use if you don’t need to store much produce or have more than one.
This is one of the cheapest cooler options on the market. However, they are often only used once or twice and are not as durable as the other options. Typically, paper or styrofoam are minimally insulated and can only hold your ice and drinks for a short period.
So if you are looking for something long-term, we don’t recommend this option, and there are so many great reusable options on the market, but if you only need fresh produce and cold drinks for a short period, this may be the right option.
These smaller soft-shell coolers come in many sizes and are made in many designs such as shoulder bags, backpacks, waterproof, and more. These are typically much smaller, and remember to consider how much room ice will take up. Space is critical in van life and these little cooler bags, so plan accordingly.
What are the Advantages of Dry Coolers?
Having a cooler instead of a refrigerator has certain advantages. A large and more obvious one is the price point. While some van refrigeration options can be pretty pricy, there is a large variety in options and costs when it comes to dry cooler choices.
Coolers can also offer advantages such as not needing ongoing maintenance besides regular cleanings. They also do not need any energy, so there is no drain on your power system.
Coolers are often more lightweight and have minimal to no ongoing costs attached. They also come in more varied sizes and have the potential to take up less space than a powered fridge or cooler.
Hard vs. Soft Coolers
Hard-sided and soft-sided coolers have one job, to keep your items cool. Both options are efficient and effective in their own right, but they have different ways of accomplishing this goal. When determining which one will fit your needs and do the job best, you will need to consider what situations and benefits come with each.
Soft-sided coolers are named because they are not hard plastic like many coolers. Soft coolers work at their best capacity for heading to the gym, going on picnics, going on a day trip, and so on. These coolers are easily maneuverable and portable, take up minimal space, and are supposed to be easy to throw over your shoulder and carry around.
Soft-sided coolers are often collapsible and are useful for the traveler who likes to buy in small quantities and shop as they go. Likely they will often be in places with plenty of restaurants and grocery options. They may be best for the person with minimal space and would prepare an option that can be folded up and easily stored when not in use.
Hard-sided, durable coolers are for the person who hopes to spend more extended periods out in nature and away from the luxuries of the city. In addition, hard-sided coolers often have better ice retention and a more extensive food storage capacity.
If you are hoping to have something that allows you to take extended trips and to load up on more perishable items, this is a great choice. In addition, the durability of some of the best coolers for van life is excellent for those who want something that can easily withstand the elements.
Electric coolers or fridges are ready to travel with you near or far. These fridges are great for off-the-grid adventures because you don’t have to worry about the ice melting and the need to re-up every couple of days. We love these for their durability and longevity, although you will need a power system that can handle the power they require. Look at our choice for the best electric cooler for vanlife above.
Dimensions and Capacity
The size of your cooler will come down to your lifestyle and how you see yourself using it. There are many variations in cooler size, from the often smaller soft coolers to the larger hard-shelled, durable adventure coolers. These all have specific functionalities and uses, as we have mentioned above. So again, the dimensions will be different and particular to the needs of the person. Be aware of the variety of options and take into account your needs. Here is a list of the previously mentioned dimensions and capacities.
We recommend that you always visit the website and read multiple ratings and reviews on other websites before purchasing this one. We suggest you read varied responses, including 3-star reviews, to find out the good and the bad opinions on your purchase.
In the van life community, we appreciate long-lasting products that can withstand the many terrains and adventures this lifestyle may take you on. This is why we chose the five aforementioned coolers. We chose these options for their high performance and durability ratings. So consider how important a durable cooler is for your lifestyle.
Be sure to check the warranty policy before purchasing your cooler. Also, consider the extended warranty from the company where you bought the cooler.
Vanlife Cooler vs. Campervan Fridge
So should you purchase a vanlife cool or a campervan fridge? One may choose one over the other for many reasons and circumstances. Some reasons include price point, durability, size, cold retention, adaptability, ease of use, and more, and both are great options for van life.
Vanlife coolers typically offer lower prices, do not use gas or power, and are typically more lightweight. In contrast, fridges do not share the need to restock on ice and allow more time off the grid. Depending on your lifestyle, one may be a better fit than another. We know many people that have strong opinions both ways. The choice is ultimately yours and comes down to personal taste and opinions.
7 Tips for Keeping Ice Cold During Van Life
Ensuring your cooler can keep your food cool for relatively long periods is a must-have in van life. We want the flexibility to go off-grid for a few days (or longer) without worrying about whether our food will go bad before we get there. So here are the ultimate hacks to keep your ice cold and your life chill.
- Choose a suitable cooler. Above, we have named the best coolers for van life. All of these options are measured for chillability, amongst other factors.
- Mix large block ice and smaller cubed ice into the cooler for best results. Small ice cubes will cool the cooler and contents and melt faster. Larger ice will do the inverse. We suggest mixing both for the best results.
- Don’t drain the cold water. If there is still ice in your cooler, don’t drain the water that melts from the ice. The cold water helps to insulate the remaining ice in your cooler. Exposed produce and other food products should be packaged appropriately to avoid contact with the water.
- Pack cold things. By packing pre-chilled items in the cooler, you keep the base temperature lower than if the ice begins melting on impact from the added items.
- Limit access to the cooler throughout the day. If you organize your cooler and know where things are, you can decrease the time it is open and reduce the amount of warm air that comes in contact with the cooler air in your cooler.
- Dry ice will keep your cooler contents cold longer than regular ice. Make sure you use a cooler compatible with dry ice best practices, like our top pick for the best cooler for van life; the Yeti Tundra.
- Utilize rock salt. Generously sprinkle rock salt on top of the ice in your cooler for extra cooling power.
Choosing the best Cooler for Van Life
A van life refrigeration system can easily up-level your van life experience by giving you the flexibility to go longer, farther, and with more convenience than you could have imagined. This vanlife upgrade makes life a little sweeter – or savory, depending on your taste. It makes it so you can bring your favorite, no perishables, and create meals that make your tiny home much homier.
These options are some of the best vanlife coolers because they are multi-functional and efficient. They can double as a seat, a table, or a step. They are all designed to be durable, rugged, and long-lasting, so you can enjoy them for many years and many adventures down the road. Which cooler do you like the best? Let us know in the comment section!