Main photo credit: Koolatron

Whether you’re striking out on a two-week camping trip or heading to the beach for a picnic, no outdoor adventure is complete without food and drink. That means you’ll need a cooler to keep your beverages chilled and food fresh. But even the best coolers can only keep things cold for so long. Eventually, your freezer packs will thaw out and you’ll have to stock up on ice from the nearest gas station or convenience store.

What if there was a better way to keep your consumables cold without worrying about ice melting? Well, there is, and that’s by using an electric car cooler. These handy devices have a lot in common with the cooler you probably already have packed away with your camping gear. The difference is you can plug an electric cooler into your vehicle’s 12-volt power outlet and it will keep the things inside cool without the aid of ice. You can even use some of the more powerful electric coolers to make ice while you’re on the road or at the campground.

Some car coolers can do double duty and keep food warm, too, so you can be everyone’s best friend when you arrive at a fall picnic or backyard potluck with piping hot chili. You’ll find a lot of variety in the car cooler marketplace in terms of functionality and price.

For more information on the best car coolers and portable refrigerators for your car, refer to our table of contents.

1. Editor’s Pick: ICECO 31-Liter Portable Freezer

iceco jp30 car cooler/portable refrigerator

None of the coolers on our list illustrate the phrase “you get what you pay for” better than this option from ICECO. You’ll pay more for this product, but for your money you get a cooler that promises better performance and longevity than many other portable powered coolers.

This is a versatile cooler, boasting the flexibility to run on 12- or 24-volt DC current, or 110- or 240-volt AC household power. While many of the other coolers we selected for our list are capable of keeping food and drinks chilled or frozen, this recommendation can be set to maintain a temperature anywhere between -7 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit. That means you can easily chill or freeze food that’s at room temperature when you load it up without space-hogging ice or freezer packs.

ICECO equips this cooler with a Secop compressor for fast cooling. You can also run this cooler in an eco mode that consumes less electricity and prolongs run time when you’re powering it with a battery.

With your purchase, ICECO includes an insulated protective bag and a 12-foot long DC power cable. The compressor is warrantied for five years, and everything else is covered by a one-year warranty.

2. Best Value: Aspenora 37-Quart Car Refrigerator

aspenora 37-quart portable freezer/fridge car cooler

Next on our list is another product that toes the line between coolers and portable refrigerators. This cooler from Aspenora boasts performance to rival our Editor’s Pick, but at a lower price.

Among this cooler’s coolest features is its two-zone design. One side is a dedicated fridge and the other functions as a freezer. You control the temperature settings via a slick touch-sensitive panel built into the lid, and you can also lock the lid to prevent accidental openings and food spoilage. Because you likely bring at least one smartphone or tablet with you even when camping or fishing, this cooler has a USB charging port, too. What this cooler doesn’t have is an adapter for 110/240-volt operation.

The company says this cooler has 1.57-inch thick insulation that will keep the interior cool for up to 10 hours, so you can turn it off overnight and avoid running down your car or truck’s battery. If you forget to turn the cooler off, a battery protection function will shut it down automatically. Finally, an anti-pinch closing mechanism protects you from slamming your fingers in the lid; that soft-close function also protects the electronics in the lid from damage.

3. Best Storage Capacity: Setpower 53-Quart Portable Cooler

setpower aj50 53-quarts portable freezer/car cooler

While its price won’t be suited to every budget, Setpower’s option gets a nod from us for its 53-quart capacity, the most generous of any of the items in our list of the best car coolers.

To give you an idea of its size, Setpower says you can pack 70 soda cans, 42 pint-sized water bottles, or 12 wine bottles in the AJ50 variant. A wire storage basket lets you store delicate food separately from hard/heavy items. You can use this recommendation as a fridge/freezer as well as a cooler. Setpower says the compressor is powerful enough to chill or freeze food and drink from room temperature, and you can set the temperature to any point between 0 and 50 degrees F.

A 38-pound weight means you’ll get a bit of a workout moving this cooler around, but it has robust-looking carry handles at either end. Setpower sells this particular cooler with DC (12/24-volt) and AC (110/240-volt) power cables, so you can use this portable cooler at home just as easily as you would in your car or camper. An auto shut-off system with three settings lets you protect your vehicle’s battery when running this cooler with the engine turned off.

4. Best on a Budget: Ivation 27-Quart Portable Fridge

ivation 27-quart electric cooler and warmer

Here’s our recommendation for a basic cooler if you’re shopping on a budget. While the first few items in our list are basically portable fridge-freezer units, this Ivation product is a simpler electric car cooler that will keep your food and drinks cool, but not frozen.

This is a dual-power cooler that you can run on a 12-volt DC power source—like your vehicle’s cigarette lighter—or on 110-volt AC current with the included adapter for household outlets. Both adapters store in convenient compartments built into the lid.

Ivation says this device will keep drinks as cool as 40 degrees F and can also keep food warm up 130 degrees F. However, those are its only settings; it can’t be set to any temperatures in between those points. The company also says this option will work best if you load it with drinks or food that has already been chilled or warmed up. As some buyers have noted, it will take a long time to cool or heat items from ambient temperature.

While the cooler’s capacity is relatively modest, Ivation says it’s large enough to accommodate 2-liter soda bottles. This cooler weighs 10.6 pounds, so it’s relatively easy to move around even when loaded.

5. Best Ultra-Portable Cooler: AstroAI 4-Liter Minifridge

astroai 4-liter mini fridge

Designed to look like an old-fashioned home refrigerator, AstroAI’s minifridge is tiny, measuring 10-inches high by 9.45-inches deep and 6.9-inches wide. Its 4-liter internal capacity is just large enough to accommodate six regular-size soda cans, and a weight of less than five pounds empty allows for easy transportation.

AstroAI says it designed this little fridge for more than just keeping drinks cold. It’s also ideal for storing cosmetics and skin care products, breast milk, and other items that are perishable at room temperature.

This cooler will take items from room temperature down to 37 degrees F in three hours, and you can also use it to keep food or drink hot at up to 150 degrees F. The company makes it clear this product is not designed to warm things up from ambient temperatures, but claims your items will stay warm for hours after the device is turned off. Actual cooling and warming performance will vary somewhat depending on the ambient temperature.

This minifridge ships with a 12-volt DC cigarette lighter cable for use in your vehicle and a 110-volt AC adapter so you can also plug it in at home or your office.

6. Wagan 14-Liter Personal Cooler/Warmer

wagan 12v personal cooler/warmer

This option from Wagan is another lightweight cooler, weighing in at 8.7 pounds empty. While adding food and drink to it will obviously make it heavier, the included shoulder strap leaves your hands free for carrying other items.

This cooler’s design lends itself well to serving as a central console in a vehicle’s back seat, and includes cupholders so your passengers can enjoy drinks on the road. Its capacity is 14 liters. While it’s advertised as a 12-volt cooler, Wagan sells an optional AC adapter that lets you plug it into a household power outlet. The standard 9-foot-long DC power cable connects to your vehicle’s cigarette lighter.

As with the Ivation cooler discussed above, this Wagan unit works best to keep your items cold or warm, but is not designed to efficiently chill or heat your food and drink from room temperature. The company says this cooler’s temperature range is 32 degrees F (the freezing point) to 140 degrees F. You can’t select any temperatures between those two points, but changing between cooling and warming modes is as simple as flipping a switch. Simple green and red LED indicators tell you at a glance which mode it is set to.

7. Igloo 40-Quart Iceless Cooler

igloo iceless 40-quart car cooler

If you’ve ever been to a picnic or campground, there’s a good chance you’ve seen the Igloo name on a cooler. The well-known company makes electric car coolers, too, like this 40-quart model that you can use like a traditional ice chest or as a stand-up mini-fridge.

This is a relatively basic model, so there’s no warming function. Instead it’s designed simply to let you keep food and drink cold, but not frozen. Igloo says this cooler uses thermoelectric technology and a convection-style circulation fan for efficient performance. Rather than promise to cool your food and drink down to a specific temperature, Igloo says this device can maintain a temperature 38 degrees F below the ambient temp. That means it will work most efficiently in your air-conditioned home or vehicle.

With all that in mind, if you want to use this cooler for camping, you may need to put some ice or a freezer pack inside to keep food fresh and drinks refreshing. Finally, this cooler is designed for car and home use, with a 12-volt cigarette lighter adapter and a 110-volt household power cord.

8. Koolatron 36-Quart Kool Kaddy Electric Cooler/Warmer

koolatron p75 kool kaddy electric cooler/warmer

From Koolatron comes another mid-capacity electric car cooler that also includes a warming function. This option is a 36-quart model that combines the classic design of an ice chest with a 12-volt plug-in function for both cooling and warming modes.

However, Koolatron says you can also stand the cooler up on one end to turn it into a minifridge. There’s a removable shelf, too, that you can use to keep different items separated in ice chest mode. Like the Igloo model earlier on our list, this is a thermoelectric cooler. That means you can’t set it to a specific temperature for cooling, but it will chill food and drinks to 40 degrees F below the ambient temperature. Therefore, as with the Igloo model, this Koolatron cooler will work best in an air-conditioned home or vehicle.

Going with this option does get you a more versatile warming mode. The company says that this device will heat food up to 135 degrees F, so you could use it to keep food hot for, say, a casual at-home buffet dinner. Note that while you can run this cooler on household AC current, the adapter to do so is sold separately.

9. AstroAI 26-Quart Thermoelectric Car Cooler

astroai 26-quart electric cooler

Here’s the second AstroAI cooler to make our list, a more traditional design than the adorable minifridge seen earlier. A 26-quart capacity means you can bring, for example, 30 soda cans or 18 pint-size water bottles on your trip and keep them cool on the way. And like many regular ice chest coolers, the single flip-up handle on this option locks the lid closed when you fold it down, which ensures it stays shut tight and your food and drink stay cool.

This is another thermoelectric cooler, so there’s no compressor assembly. On the plus side, that keeps this cooler light and makes it easy for you to carry. However, it also means you can’t set this cooler to a specific temperature. AstroAI says it will keep your things cooled to 32 degrees F below the ambient temp, so keep that in mind if you use this product outdoors on a hot summer day.

Insulation in the cooler’s walls promises one-day ice retention without electricity, so you can also use this as a regular ice chest. This cooler is only designed for in-car use with its 12-volt cigarette lighter adapter. The company also includes two reusable ice packs.

10. Koolatron 26-Quart Portable Electric Cooler

koolatron p25 12v portable electric cooler

The final entry in our compilation of the best car coolers is another option from Koolatron. It uses the same thermoelectric cooling technology as the other model found earlier on our list, but is a smaller, more straightforward cooler that does not have a warming function.

While the cooling unit on our other Koolatron recommendation is built into the body of the cooler itself, the electrics on this unit are housed in the lid, which frees up storage space for your food and drink. According to the company, you can pack up 31 soda cans in this 26-quart cooler, and the handle locks the lid shut when you fold it down. There’s also a removable shelf you can use to keep things organized.

Plug the 12-volt cigarette lighter adapter into your car and this option will cool your items to 40 degrees below the ambient temperature. This cooler can be used indoors too, but for that you will have to buy an optional 110-volt household adapter.

Koolatron is up-front about the fact this cooler is not designed to cool food and beverages from room temperature. The company says you will get the best results when you load the cooler up with pre-chilled items.

Should you buy a car cooler with a compressor or a thermoelectric model?

best car coolers/portable refrigerators

Photo credit: LightField Studios / Shutterstock.com

If you want a cooler that can efficiently chill or freeze food and drink from room temperature, then you should choose one with a compressor, such as one of the products we placed at the top of our list.

A cooler with a compressor is effectively a portable fridge or freezer with proven and effective technology, but you won’t get it for cheap. The compressor itself is heavy, so any cooler equipped with one will be more difficult for you to pick up and move around.

A thermoelectric cooler is a simpler, less-expensive device that uses a scientific phenomenon called the Peltier effect to either generate heat, or absorb it and thereby provide a cooling effect. Thermoelectric cooling is less efficient than a compressor-based system, so it won’t do as good a job keeping your food chilled as a compressor-type cooler will. However, a thermoelectric cooler will be much less expensive than one with a compressor.

Can you put ice inside an electric car cooler?

Yes, but whether you need to depends on the type of cooler you buy. If you choose one with a compressor-based cooling system, you won’t need to pack your food and drink in ice as these coolers are designed to be effective at chilling things down and keeping them at a set temperature.

However, if you buy a thermoelectric cooler, we recommend chilling or freezing your food and drinks ahead of time and then packing it in the cooler and turning it on. You can also pack your items in ice and the thermoelectric cooler function will keep the ice frozen for longer than in a regular cooler.

How long can you leave an electric cooler plugged into your vehicle?

You can run an electric cooler plugged into your vehicle for as long as you want, so long as the vehicle is running, which keeps the battery charged.

When your vehicle is off, be careful not to leave the cooler running for too long because it will drain the battery after two to three hours, which can leave you stranded as the battery may not have enough power left in it to start the engine.

What’s the difference between running your cooler on 12-volt DC power and 110-volt AC household electricity?

As far as your cooler is concerned, there isn’t much difference. All of these coolers in our list are designed to operate on 12-volt automotive DC power. The ones that can be plugged into a household outlet have adapters, like the one you use to plug a laptop computer into the wall to convert your home’s 110-volt AC power to the DC current the cooler requires.


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