The confusion surrounding this decision is more than justified; there are solid reasons in favour of both cooling devices. We can, however, attempt to organise the reasoning process a little better, to help you figure out whether an esky or a portable refrigerator would be a better fit for you.
The first (and most obvious) factor – what’s your budget?
A cooler box will obviously help you save a few hundred bucks. Your seasoned caravanning buddies might swear by the refrigerator, and might have very good reasons to back them up too. But the fact remains that shelling out $1000 (if not more) can be difficult, especially if you’re currently making the very first round of purchases for your caravan. On the other hand, a cooler box is a much cheaper investment at under $500 (we’re talking about a good quality, large capacity, rotary moulded variety).
How long do you intend to camp out?
If your typical caravanning trip is completed in 4 days or less, a cooler box can have you covered. Good quality eskies can preserve ice for up to 5 days at a stretch, depending on ambient temperatures, of course. But if you’re planning longer getaways, a refrigerator is pretty unbeatable in the convenience that it’ll bring to the equation. Having your own caravan refrigerator means that you don’t have to keep running after ice refills, and as an added plus, you can also set your desired cooling temperature to a very precise value.
How warm is it going to be?
The functionality of the cooler box relies heavily on the ambient temperature. Your esky will function below par in warmer areas, needing more frequent ice refills and causing your food to swim in pools of water. With a refrigerator, however, you can tackle the summer heat with pizazz. The only side-effect (if any) will be a higher power consumption. But your food and beer will remain chilled. And dry.
Will you have access to power?
Cooler boxes fit right into the idea of a short, off-the-grid caravanning holiday. Most modern refrigerators don’t drain too much of your car battery, and the ‘absorption’ variety refrigerator can even run on gas. But the esky can often be a much more hassle-free product to use. Just pack in your groceries, along with some ice, and you’re good to go. Simple and robust.
What’s your take on maintenance?
Regardless of how sophisticated your caravan refrigerator is, it is at the end of the day a complex piece of equipment with tons of parts and accessories that can break down. In contrast, a cooler box (and we’re talking about the rugged, rotary moulded variety of course) is a much sturdier and no-nonsense alternative.
What are the tentative contents of your cooling device?
This might sound like an odd question, but it’s a valid one nonetheless. Certain foods (fresh fruits and vegetables, and certain meats) won’t survive in moist conditions. If you’re using a cooler box, you might have to forego these, and only carry dry, packaged groceries that won’t go bad if the ice melts. With a refrigerator, you’re free to carry anything you please and treat your tastebuds to your favourite meals on the road. Besides, a refrigerator offers much more usable volume than a cooler box of the same capacity, because the latter also needs to hold sufficient ice to cool its contents.
So essentially, a refrigerator is a dearer purchase, but brings you a great deal of freedom to camp wherever and however you want. But that said, a cooler box also has its distinct advantages, primarily thanks to its ruggedness and affordability, and particularly for short caravanning holidays. Evaluate your specific concerns and constraints while choosing one over the other, because no two camping scenarios are ever alike.