Long car trips are a big part of American life. The cost of gasoline on top of multiple stops for expensive restaurant and gas station food can make a trip skyrocket more in price, and quickly. One way to save money is to invest in a high-quality, well-made 12-volt cooler for your vehicle.
12-volt coolers provide a portable and affordable answer to the typical gas station snacks and unhealthy fast food that peppers the American landscape. You only need a decent surface area for the cooler to sit in and an auxiliary cigarette lighter built-in to your vehicle to enjoy it to its fullest.
We’re going to show you the best 12-volt cooler choices available on the market today. Firstly, we are going to situate you with the bare minimum of what you should know before purchasing one of these 12-volt coolers in our short buyer’s guide. After that, we’ll dive right into our individual product reviews giving you all the info on the 12-volt coolers worth investing in. Then comes an extended buyer’s guide that will flesh out the fantastic benefits of owning a 12 volt cooler in the first place.
- Features to Consider in a 12-Volt Cooler
- Top 10 Best 12-Volt Coolers 2020
- 1. Best Overall 12-Volt Cooler: Alpicool CF35 Portable
- 2. Best Value: Igloo Iceless Thermoelectric Cooler
- 3. Best Budget 12-Volt Cooler: Wagan 12V Cooler/Warmer
- 4. Koolatron P-20 Compact Thermo
- 5. Best Large 12-Volt Cooler: Costway 55 Quart Car Cooler
- 6. Best Premium 12-Volt Cooler: ARB Portable Fridge/Freezer
- 7. Knox Gear 48 Quart Electric Cooler/Warmer
- 8. Cooluli Mini Fridge Electric Cooler/Warmer
- 9. Koolatron P27 Voyager
- 10. Coleman 40-Quart Portable Cooler
- Guide to Buying the Best 12-Volt Cooler
- Final Considerations
Features to Consider in a 12-Volt Cooler
If you crave even more detail on these awesome car cooler products, please be sure to look at our extended buyer’s guide after our product reviews for a more detailed look on the ins and outs of these on-the-road lifesavers.
Size is on the top of your list when it comes to the most important factor in a 12-volt cooler. Are you buying this for your entire family, or are you just using a cooler to keep your lunch cool on the way to work? Size matters, especially when considering exactly what and how much you’ll be putting in your cooler.
Some of us, especially those who live in the more southern areas of the United States, deal with extreme temperatures on the regular. Be sure that before purchasing any kind of 12-volt cooler that the product can at least chill items down to about 40 degrees. It’s also worth noting that some coolers also can freeze food completely, so if you want to bring along a pint of ice cream, make sure your cooler is up to the job.
This may not be too much of an issue depending on your usage of the cooler itself. Truckers, for instance, are generally going to want to keep their coolers on their rig. However, campers that want to enjoy fresh food during their trip may want to buy a lighter 12-volt cooler system for maximum ease of movement.
You could own one of the best coolers in the world in terms of how cold the internal temperature gets inside the product. However, if the insulation inside isn’t up to par, you’re not going to be able to retain that cool atmosphere for very long at all. A well-sealed and insulated 12-volt cooler will not only maintain its temperature when opening the lid, but it will also stay at the same temperature even when exposed to increased levels of heat, such as when sitting directly in the sun’s rays.
Battery and solar-powered coolers exist, however they generally come with a steep price tag. Most of these products plug into an energy outlet for charging, the more energy-efficient the cooler is, the easier it is on your car battery in the long run.
- Capacity: 35L, 45L, and 55L
- Weight: 28lbs
- Connections: 12/24V DC
This solidly-built 12-volt cooler is the king of our list, balancing quality alongside its economical price point.
With options for 35, 45, and 55 liters of interior storage, all options are more than enough for a family outing. The 35L version comes in at a relatively light 28lbs, so it’s not going to be too much of a hassle to store in and out of a vehicle, and with easily accessible side handles, you won’t have trouble getting a decent grip.
In our opinion, the neatest thing about the Alpicool CF35 is that it is specifically built for off-roading purposes. That means it can tolerate strange angles that one might run into on backwoods adventures without missing a beat when it comes to keeping your food and beverages cool and fresh. On top of that, it also comes with a three-stage battery protection system, which keeps the cooler from draining your car battery completely, a good thing to have when you’re out and about in the backcountry!
The biggest issue we found with this cooler is that airflow is necessary for it to function properly. The compressor must not be obscured by anything else in your vehicle, so it’s crucial you put it in a relatively open-air location. If you have a cramped vehicle, this may not be the best option for you on this list.
- Great value for the price
- Lots of room for food and beverages
- Three-stage car battery protection system
- Built tough, and for off-roading
- Light despite its roomy interior
- Needs proper airflow, or the compressor will not work adequately
- Capacity: 28qt
- Weight: 10lbs
- Connections: 12-volt DC, 110-volt outlet
Much like the Cooluli Mini Fridge on this list, the Igloo Iceless Thermoelectric cooler is a portable affair. This is very much a casual 12-volt cooler for things like short day trips, small picnics at the park, and other more minor events, as it has a relatively small capacity.
With that being said, however, it still cools down to below 40 degrees and has enough capacity for a few days for a single person. And if you find the cooling capacity on this model lacking, there’s enough room in this model to add additional ice, keeping your food and beverages fresh for hours.
This is a tough 12-volt cooler as well. Made of solid polypropylene plastic, if this model happens to take a nasty fall out of one’s vehicle, it will stay intact. This thing is built to last! On top of that, the cooling fan built into the top of the unit is pretty much silent, so you won’t have to deal with a loud, super-annoying cooling fan hum while trying to enjoy activities and conversation with your family and friends.
To sweeten the design of this cooler more, the size and shape (a tall height but small, narrow base) help it fit pretty much anywhere in your vehicle, whether sitting somewhere in the trunk or even inside the cab in between seats. This efficient design makes it extremely versatile when it comes to storage.
One of the biggest problems we found with the Igloo 12-volt cooler is that it requires an adapter to be used with indoor outlets. Other than that, especially for the price, it’s hard to beat this product, especially with all the great design features and the overall price point of the entire product. It’s a solid deal for a solidly-built 12-volt cooler.
- 8-foot long power cord
- Quiet motor
- Great insulated design
- Carry handle
- LED light on the plug when the unit is operational
- Indoor use requires an adaptor
- Capacity: 14L
- Weight: 10lbs
- Connections: 12-volt DC, AC adaptor sold separately
This compact 12-volt cooler is a great and inexpensive option for any on-the-go family that wants a lot of storage space at a budget price.
This 12-volt cooler can hold up to 12 regular-sized cans of soda OR two 2L bottles of soda. That’s a lot of space for an inexpensive model! And due to the awesome polyurethane foam insulated interior, your food and beverage choices will stay chilly for long periods.
One of the cooler things we found about this product is the excellent 7.5-foot cord that comes with the cooler. This allows you to plug it up to your vehicle’s cigarette lighter or any other DC adaptor and have the cooler sit comfortably in the back seat, cooling (or heating) your food and drinks uninterrupted.
The biggest problem we noticed with the Wagan cooler is that the top’s seal might come loose if the cooler is packed too full of goods, so that’s something to be aware of when you’re planning out a trip. Otherwise, this is a fantastic buy at its price point and will give you a lot of value in the long run.
- 7.5-foot cord provided
- Folding handle
- Polyurethane foam insulation
- Hot/Cold/Off indicator light
- The top’s seal may not stay intact depending on how stuffed the cooler is
- Capacity: 18qt
- Weight: 5lbs
- Connections: 12-volt DC. 110/120-volt AC
If you’re looking for a 12-volt cooler that can fit in pretty much any narrow space in your car, home, or some other area of your life with very little room, then the Koolatron P20 Compact is the option for you! Also, it’s a decent size at around 18 quarts, so it’s more than enough when it comes to storing food for one to two individuals.
With a simple flip of a switch, this cooler can switch between cool and warm modes. The cool mode can go as low as 40 degrees Fahrenheit below the outside temperature. However, if you’re looking to warm some food up on a cold winter day, the Koolatron P20 can also work in the opposite direction, warming things up to 135 degrees Fahrenheit. An AC adaptor can be purchased separately, allowing you to use this cooler with a standard outlet.
The downside to the Koolatron P20 is that it doesn’t come with an AC adaptor. These can easily be bought separately, however, and we think the narrow design of this 12-volt cooler more than makes up for it.
- Folding handle system
- Slender fit ideal for nooks and crannies in cramped vehicles
- Quiet cooling motor
- AC adaptor sold separately
- Capacity: 52L
- Weight: 36lbs
- Connections: 12/24V DC, 110-240V AC
This beast of a 12-volt cooler is closer to a car refrigerator more than any other item on this list, except maybe for the ARB Portable Fridge/Freezer.
First up is the overall construction quality of this product. It’s built ridiculously tough, and it can withstand terrible drops. On top of that, it has a huge 52L carrying capacity, so this product can easily store food and beverages for an entire family, and then some.
The Costway is also extremely cooling efficient. Within just 30 minutes, the Costway cooler can go from 90 degrees Fahrenheit to 32 Fahrenheit-an insane rate of cooling well worth the price tag.
On top of all those fantastic features, the Costway cooler also comes with a lot of different accessories including an internal wire-constructed basket system for organizational purposes. It also comes with both AC as well as DC cables for both indoor as well as outdoor/vehicle use.
As far as negatives go, the worst aspect of this product is its high energy consumption. For this reason, we don’t recommend it being connected to a car battery for too long if the vehicle’s engine isn’t running. Other than that, this is a superb product that is possibly the best family option on this list.
- 3 different settings for car battery usage
- Vivid LCD
- Comes with power cord
- 30-minute fast cooldown
- Huge amount of carrying space
- Potentially can drain a car battery fast
- Capacity: 37Qt
- Weight: 56lbs
- Connections: 12/24V DC and 120V AC
First things first, the interior is incredibly spacious, and the 37qt model can hold a whopping 50 12oz cans of soda. So, use that as a mental picture to help you understand the sheer volume of space this cooler has!
As a compression-based 12-volt refrigerator, the outside temperature doesn’t really matter much to it when it comes to its maximum cooling capabilities. Even in the hottest conditions, it can go as low as zero degrees Fahrenheit.
It’s also built extremely tough. This product was made for the intrepid adventurer in mind. Not only does it function at pretty much any angle of incline, but it can keep food cold as long as a refrigerator if used properly.
This is obviously a very high-end product, and with it comes a steep price tag. Additionally, an additional purchase of an insulation jacket might be necessary to help insulate while staying cold in hot temperatures. If you’ve got the cash, however, this is a great purchase option.
- Comes in 37, 50, and 82-quart versions
- Holds up to 50 12oz cans of soda
- Can go as low as 0 degrees Fahrenheit
- Comes with two power cables: DC and AC
- Comes with a three-year warranty
- Extremely expensive
- Might need extra insulation
- Capacity: 48qt
- Weight: 16lbs
- Connections: 12V DC and 110V AC
The presence of wheels on this 12-volt cooler is the first really noticeable thing with this product. With a 48-quart carrying capacity, you’re possibly going to need those wheels in order to lug around everything you can fit in this thing!
The most crucial thing to note about this cooler, however, is how it’s designed. There are two handles built into it. One extends outward much like you would see on a wheeled luggage carrier, the others are embedded on the side as you would see on any cooler you could purchase at a local grocery store. This makes transporting the large cooler easy.
Even the cord systems are built into the cooler itself, so you won’t have any chance of losing them. In fact, they have a built-in section dedicated just for them alone, which we found to be a really neat addition.
This product comes with a pretty short cord, so you’re not going to be taking this 12-volt cooler too far from the car or electrical outlet. However, for its price, storage capacity, and the fact that it’s wheeled, this is a fantastic choice for your cooling needs.
- Comes with DC and AC cables
- Lots of space
- Great price
- Wheeled for easier movement
- The power cord could definitely be longer.
- Capacity: 4qt
- Weight: 4lbs
- Connections: AC, DC, USB
This cooler is super compact and looks more like a powered lunchbox than a refrigerator. However, if you’re not too concerned about a small capacity, this 12-volt cooler might be the item you’re looking for.
A great thing about this cooler is it comes with both an AC adaptor (for at-home use) as well as a DC cable for use with a vehicle. On top of that, it also comes with USB capabilities, but we wouldn’t recommend that as the cooling/heating output isn’t as good with that sort of connection.
This cooler is also a fantastic pick for the individual who is looking to let their personality shine with their choice of product. The Cooluli comes with a whopping seven different color options to choose from, allowing you a greater range of aesthetic options than most of the products on this list.
Sitting in the $50 range, the best thing about this product is its price. The cost, while awesome, comes at a cost of additional space. The cooler can only fit a maximum of 6 cans of soda, so it’s really not the most ideal for family situations, but probably better suited for an individual that’s on the go, or is looking for a low-cost solution to transporting their medications, such as insulin. But even then, you could go with better options on this list.
- Comes in lots of color choices
- One of the most affordable 12-volt coolers on the market
- Small, space-efficient design
- Great for truckers and individuals on the go
- Helpful carrying handle
- Not big enough for family use
- Capacity: 29qt
- Weight: 11lbs
- Connections: 12V DC and 110V AC
The Koolatron Voyager is a decent thermoelectric cooler that can hold quite a bit of food and drink for your family’s needs. It also doubles as a food warmer in a pinch as well, like most thermoelectric coolers on this list.
What separates this product from other inexpensive coolers like the Cooluli Mini Fridge and the Wagan 12v is how absolutely solid it is built. In fact, the manufacturer specifically says that the only movable aspect of the cooler is the actual motor of the cooling fan itself. Because of this solid-state sort of construction, it pretty much ensures that this product won’t break down.
A couple of things knocked the score of this product down a bit. For one, there’s no AC adaptor included with the product, forcing you to buy it separately. Also, and probably the biggest issue, the power cord mechanism here can easily loosen from the body of the cooler. This could be a really bad prospect if one lost the cord during the middle of a camping trip, causing countless dollars of food and drink to potentially go to waste.
- Automatic locking mechanism built into the handle
- Big enough for a family
- Great price
- Doesn't include AC adaptor
- The power cord can loosen easily
- Capacity: 40Qt
- Weight: 15lbs
- Connections: 12V DC and 110V AC
Coleman is a well-known name in coolers and outdoor supplies, and we just had to include one of their products on our list of 12-volt coolers. This is a great option if you’re on a budget and you need a lot of storage space at the same time.
The most noticeable thing about this cooler is its slick “door” design. This allows it not only to be used in an upright position but also down on its side like a traditional refrigerator setup.
Additionally, the Coleman cooler isn’t that heavy at 15 lbs, which makes it light enough to be transportable. And with a 40qt interior, you’ll have more than enough room for food and beverages for everyone.
Although it’s a good low-cost option, there are some problems with this Coleman cooler. First off, the cooling fan built into the model is quite loud. Coleman doesn’t have the best reputation for durable products either, especially with prolonged use in high-temperature areas. The Coleman 12-volt cooler doesn’t really work efficiently in places with ambient temperature over 80 degrees, so take that into consideration before purchase. If you’re looking for a cooler that keeps things cool even in ultra-hot climates, check out the ARB Portable Fridge/Freezer.
- Can be used upright or more like a chest
- Efficient "door" design
- Affordable for the volume
- Loud cooling fan
- Can give out with prolonged use in the heat
Guide to Buying the Best 12-Volt Cooler
Here are a few additional in-depth points that we feel can expand a bit more on what we originally covered in the brief buyer’s guide that went over earlier in the article. Let’s take a closer look at what makes owning a 12-volt cooler product such a cool prospect!
The Positives of Buying a 12-Volt Cooler
- Individuals have been using 12-volt coolers for years, especially if they are one the road a lot. Truck drivers, who are extremely vital to keeping the United States economy in tip-top shape, absolutely rely on them when it comes to keeping their food and drink supply properly maintained while dealing with transporting freight.
- The rest of the population, however, has also caught on to the value of these coolers, and with good reason. If your job has you on the road often and you adhere to a specific dietary needs, then a 12-volt cooler might be your ticket to a better level of health. It’s a sad fact that fast food options and your typical gas station eats don’t cut it when it comes to overall healthy eating, but with a 12-volt cooler in your vehicle’s arsenal, you can bypass the less-than-stellar food lining America’s highways.
Keeping Medicines Cold
- In some more serious cases, a 12-volt cooler can even help ensure that people have access to medicine while also providing peace of mind. People with diabetic conditions that require insulin supplementation can safely store their materials in a 12-volt cooler in case of a serious emergency and not worry about spoiling their life-saving medical supplies while on long car trips or in hot weather conditions.
Some 12-volt coolers come complete with USB ports embedded in them. This is a fantastic addition for not just you but the entire family. On the off chance that you didn’t store any form of external power sources with you prior to a middle-of-nowhere camping outing, no fear! These sorts of coolers can charge up your smartphone and any number of other USB-related devices as long as your car has gas.
Last, but not least, we think one of the very best reasons to invest in a 12-volt cooler is that you will definitely end up saving more money in the long run than you would without one. Convenience food is just that, convenient, and it comes at a cost that adds up. Why not load up on your favorite snacks, beverages, and quality meals before going out on the road in the first place? Not only is it smart on a sheer financial level, but it also gives you complete control over your trip. You’ll never have to make a pit stop for a can of energy drink ever again!
Types of 12-Volt Coolers
There are a few different versions of a 12-volt cooler on the market, mainly distinguishable by the way they keep things cool. Check out the following types of coolers.
This is the main kind of 12-volt cooler you’re going to find available. They are usually not very bulky and can cool items 30-40 degrees below outside temperature depending on the model, no ice needed!
Thermoelectric coolers utilize what is known as the Peltier effect in order to facilitate heat transfer. This transfer takes place between two internal semiconductor “plates” that are constantly shifting heat to one another; so while one of these plates is losing heat energy, another one is gaining it. The cooling plate is located on the inside of the cooler, while the heating plate is located on the outside of the cooler.
When the plate on the inside of the cooler reaches lower temperature levels, it will also lower the overall temperature inside the cooler as a whole. Ideally, if the cooler is very well insulated, it will stay that way!
The interesting thing about thermoelectric coolers is that you can replace the inner cooling plate with the outside heating plate and convert your 12-volt cooler into a 12 volt warmer in a jiffy. Not only can you keep food cool, but you can also keep it warm at your discretion.
Something to be clear about with thermoelectric coolers, however… they can not keep food frozen, so be aware of that before considering any kind of purchase. These are better for shorter car trips or if you live in a colder climate than other parts of the world. If you live in a place where the daily temperature gets to 75 degrees Fahrenheit or more, this type of 12-volt cooler won’t keep your items very cold for long at all.
Compressor-based cooling systems use refrigerant liquid or some other type of coolant-based substance to properly manipulate the internal temperature of the cooler. These types of 12-volt coolers are equivalent to home refrigeration systems and can be used for both keeping items relatively cool as well as outright freezing them.
Compressor refrigeration units literally “compress” the refrigerant fluid inside the unit. This increases pressure and temperature in the process. The super pressurized refrigerant then becomes a gas and snakes through the condenser coils located on the outside of the unit. Since these coils are out in the open, they are then exposed to outside temperatures. If the outside temperature is lower than the refrigerant’s temperature, then the refrigerant becomes liquid. This highly-pressurized liquid then moves through a narrowly-shaped expansion valve and emerges as supercooled vapor.
These are the heavy-hitters of the 12 volt cooler world. They also happen to use an insane amount of power and are best used in RVs as opposed to standard road vehicles, as the power required for these coolers can easily exhaust a full car battery very fast. If you buy an absorption refrigerator, we recommend purchasing a deep cycle battery.
Can 12-Volt Coolers Drain a Car Battery With Prolonged Use?
If your vehicle is currently on the go, or the engine is running, then a 12-volt cooler won’t tax your car battery. A good recommendation is to always unplug your cooler when you park your vehicle, that way it won’t sap any excess energy from your car battery. A car battery can support a cooler for a short period of time without the motor running.
How Long Does It Take for a 12-Volt Cooler to Lower Its Temperature?
A lot of this depends on the temperature outside or in one’s vehicle, but a good litmus to go by is usually at least one hour or a little over an hour for your cooler to hit a decent 30-40 degree lower temperature. Prepping and pre-cooling your cooler in the comfort of your own home before making a trip is a practical option in order to bypass long cooling times.
Is the Warming Portion of a 12-Volt Cooler Really That Effective?
Some 12-volt coolers can warm food items as well as keep them cold. This, however, is not the equivalent to utilizing something like a microwave or an oven. The heat setting on 12-volt thermoelectric coolers like the Koolatron P-20 and the Wagan 12v generally is just to keep food at a certain “fresh” temperature (such as a sandwich or a nice cup of coffee) so that you aren’t consuming ice-cold food when you don’t have to.
How Cold Can 12-Volt Coolers Get?
Now, this really depends on the product, but usually, 12-volt coolers can pump out temperatures 30-40 degrees lower than the current temperature in one’s geographic area, ensuring the food and beverages inside are at a nice and chilly state of being.
Can a 12-Volt Cooler Keep Food Cold Even When Unplugged?
This really depends on the overall quality of one’s product, however, generally speaking, a cooler should keep food and beverages chilly for several hours assuming the lid on the cooler stays closed and sealed. The length of this time can vary depending on the product you purchase.
Helpful Hints for Using a 12-Volt Cooler
It’s crucial to note that every 12-volt cooler is going to be different. Be sure to consult the manual that comes with it in order to set it up and utilize it to its maximum capacity. However, here are a few nonspecific tips to get the most out of your new cooling unit.
- Keep all 12-volt coolers level inside your vehicle if at all possible. This applies even if it’s plugged in or not. It’s good to make this a habit, even if your model specifies that it doesn’t matter if it needs to be level or not.
- This seems like a no-brainer, but keep your cooler clean. Not only will it cut down on nasty odors in the long run, but it also will ultimately keep more serious issues, such as mold and bacteria, at bay.
- A lot of 12-volt cooler models come with a decent amount of power cord, but if you’re not 100% sure, always bring an extra extension cord with you on your trip as you’ll never know if you might need it.
- Do you live in a really hot environment? If so, consider adding even more insulation to the outside of your 12-volt cooler. Some models come with these covers already with the product itself, but others can be purchased separately.
- Ice isn’t needed for things like thermoelectric coolers, however, in hotter climates, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to add some inside the cooler to keep things as cool as possible or to prolong the useable unplugged time of a cooler. Be sure to put the ice in a sealable, tough bag of some kind, otherwise, you’re going to be cleaning up a lot of water.
For even more helpful tips on what to look for when buying a 12-volt cooler, please check out this video.
12-volt coolers are a great addition to any vehicle, especially on extended. Coolers allow some of the conveniences of being at home, helping keep food nice and fresh while out on the road for long periods of time. They even come in handy for individuals that need to keep precious materials, such as medicines, chilled and always at the ready for when they are needed the most.
If you are still having a problem considering any of the products we chose for our list, take another look at our short buyer’s guide as well as our extended buyer’s guide for a much more in-depth look on what you should really look out for in a quality 12-volt cooler for your personal needs.
Until next time, we’ll see you on the road!