Being able to take food and drinks on the go and keep them cool has always been a neat convenience. But these days, when being able to check into hotels is not a given, it’s time to rethink the portable 12-volt electric cooler. It’s not just a cool luxury anymore, as much as it’s an essential part of your go-kit.
If you’re traveling by car, RV, or even boat, a reliable electric cooler is a must-have for long trips or journeys where you’re uncertain of your lodging options. Beyond food and drink, if you need to carry insulin or baby formula or any other climate-sensitive essential, a steady source of cooling is far superior to a regular cooler packed with ice or ice packs.
The two most common types of electric coolers are compressor refrigerators, which function much like a typical home refrigerator. The mechanism behind it relies on compressing a cooling agent or a fluid refrigerant to regulate the temperature, making it flexible to be used as either a fridge or a freezer. Thermoelectric coolers cannot freeze your food or make ice, but they can reduce the internal temperature to 40 degrees Fahrenheit below the ambient temperature. They’re considerably less expensive than compressor refrigerators, but if you’re going to be somewhere where the ambient temp is above 80 for a lengthy period, keep a close eye on those perishables.
For our list of the best electric coolers, we’ll focus on thermoelectric coolers. Take a look at our favorite options below for your next road trip.
1. Koolatron Voyager Travel Cooler and Warmer (29 Quart)
Koolatron is not the home planet of the late great backboard-smasher Darryl Dawkins (that was Lovetron) nor a great funk band. It’s a Canada-based company which has been making thermoelectric coolers for the past 35 years, and this is its most popular model. What we love about the Koolatron is the fact that, unlike most thermoelectric coolers, it runs equally well when placed horizontally or vertically. When you’re playing Tetris, trying to wedge it into a camper or a car full of stuff for a trip, that’s a huge deal. It also has only one moving part — the fan motor — which means way less chance of breakdown. The 29-quart capacity is ample, the 40-degree-cooling range and the ability to heat up to 145 degrees are both standout numbers, and the price is terrific. You don’t hear the Koolatron name all that often, but it’s well worth looking for.
2. AstroAI Thermoelectric Car Cooler (26 Quarts)
This AstroAI cooler will not give you days’ worth of frozen food. But it’s nearly one-tenth of the price of other options, and if you’re looking for an electric cooler for an overnight trip or even to just ferry dairy and perishables home from the supermarket on a scorching day, it’s a great find. The cooler body holds temperature so well that it maintains ice-cooled temps for a day even without electricity, but when plugged into your car or boat’s 12V outlet, it keeps the inner temperature up to 32 degrees below ambient temp.
It does come with a few disclaimers, though. First, do not plug it into the 24V lighter outputs found in heavy-duty vehicles. Second, don’t overpack it so you crowd the vent fans built into the lid. Finally, be sure you do not keep it plugged into your car when the engine is off because it will drain your car battery. But a light-duty electric cooler for $86 is a sweet deal when you consider that a Yeti cooler that is 12 quarts smaller and has no electric assist is over twice the price.
3. Wagan 12V Personal Cooler/Warmer (14 Liters)
Maybe you travel light and don’t need to haul food and drinks for a whole crew. If you just want some beers and maybe a couple of snacks within arm’s reach when you’re on the road, the Wagan 12V Personal Cooler/Warmer is amazingly portable, won’t completely hog your car space and it also keeps things warm if you need. Toggling between heat and cool is a simple flick of the switch, and both are effective. The cooling mode brings down the temp between 32 and 36 degrees below ambient air temp, and the heating mode keeps the interior at a toasty 140 degrees Fahrenheit in case you hit the drive-thru and want to save it for when you get home. And, for a relatively small unit, it still holds up to 12 beverage cans with some extra space left over for other items. The carrying strap adds to the portability factor. One knock? The AC cable that allows you to plug into a normal outlet is sold separately.
4. Dometic TC35-DC-A Tropicool Thermoelectric Cooler/Warmer
Think of the Dometic TC35-CD-A thermoelectric cooler/warmer as the Wagan’s bigger brother. Like the Wagan it’s thermoelectric and can serve as a cooler or a heater, but the 33-liter capacity dwarfs the Wagan’s. This model is made with the truck driver or RV owner in mind, but if you’re driving a larger SUV it could fit nicely in the back. The lid is detachable for maximum access but also held in place magnetically so it won’t be randomly taking off on you. The handle conveniently folds into the unit, and the dust-proof LED display and control pad gives you the ability to run it hot or cold. It has seven stages of cooling or heating, and for something as large as the Dometic TC35 (which bears an uncanny resemblance to a printer), the 22.5-pound weight when empty is less than expected.