Electric Cooler for camping- Bouge RV Portable Refrigerator/Freezer Review
Last Updated on January 18, 2022
Curious about electric coolers? We were too! Read on to learn all about our experience test driving the Bouge RV portable refrigerator and freezer (also known as an electric cooler).
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Electric coolers, like the Bouge RV unit we test below, are a good solution for van lifers, DIY conversion enthusiasts, car campers, boaters, and others who have regular access to power, but don’t have the space and power for an RV refrigerator. They’re not a great solution for tailgaters, non-powered travel (sail, paddle, pedal power) unless you have a full solar set up to power it. They’re a great alternative to a Yeti or rotomolded cooler for long term use, and can easily move from house to car to boat, making them very versatile.
- Why we were excited to try an electric cooler for our camping rig
- Bouge RV electric cooler overview
- Is a portable electric cooler worth it?
- What is the best use for a portable electric cooler?
- Pros of an electric cooler
- Cons of an electric cooler
- Where to buy an electric cooler
- Testing methodology
Related: Master camping checklist for your next adventure, Complete road trip packing list
Why we were excited to try an electric cooler
When we were building our Ford F150 into an alternative RV (#trucklife) we had really hoped to install some sort of electric camping refrigerator or electric cooler instead of a traditional cooler. However, we still haven’t finished our solar system on the truck, and we had a perfectly good (albeit 20 year old) Alaska fishing cooler that worked fine. We have always hated constantly buying ice, draining the cooler, and how food can get soggy or ruined in the slushy water of the cooler.
We use the truck for short camping trips, long road trips, occasional commutes in Seattle, and Jay uses it as my base station when on Search and Rescue calls. So it would be great to have a solution that could live in the truck, ready for quick use, and keep things cold indefinitely.
The last few years, rotomolded coolers like Yeti have really taken off. And why not? Coolers are beautifully simple, but also pretty terrible. It’s a bit like when LED lights showed everyone how truly terrible our 80 year old flashlight technology was. A cooler, which is just an insulated box, uses lots of ice, is heavy to move, can’t keep things frozen, tends to soak everything inside in a gross water bath after a day or two, and require frequent draining, making a mud puddle in your campsite. The Yeti greatly reduces the need for ice, and they’re built really well, with better handles, drains, etc.
But when we were building the #trucklife F150 camper conversion, I found that the high price of a Yeti made me look for an alternative, as the benefits didn’t seem to match the price tag. Especially for use in a vehicle with a power supply, I was really interested in getting something electric and getting out of ice entirely. But traditional RV refrigerators (which usually use a mix of propane and electricity) are way too big for our build, as well as being way more expensive, and must be built in to cabinetry.
We wanted something that could share the back seat of the extended cab truck with our Lab mix, Stuart. There’s a new player recently, though, in small electric coolers. I think I started seeing these first in long haul truckers, which makes a lot of sense, but now you can buy them targeted at other users. These plug in to a 12v system and provide basic refrigeration functions in a portable package. So we were delighted this fall when Bouge RV provided us with one of their 12/120 volt electric coolers for testing.
Overview of the Bouge RV Electric Cooler
We tested the 40L model, and is physically similar in size to our old white Coleman marine ice chest. It’s a bit taller and narrower, which works great in our vehicle. It fits perfectly behind the driver’s seat of the truck (one of the drivers in our family is 6’4″, so the seat needs to go -all- the way back). At first, it’s way heavier, but when you account for adding a couple of ten pound ice blocks, the weight difference is gone. It also has excellent, strong handles (removable) that make it easier to move around. It’s definitely easier with two people when loaded, but that’s not any different from any traditional cooler I’ve used.
Inside, the unit feels more like a chest freezer than a cooler, and in fact, it is advertised as a freezer, although that’s not how I used it. It has a simple temperature panel, and a switch on the back to choose the battery protection level. More on that later. You can either plug it in to wall power at home with the included AC adapter, or with the included 12v car socket plug. The power adapters seem fairly standard, so I think you could buy additional ones for different settings, which might be convenient. I loaded the cooler inside and let it cool down using the supplied wall mains power supply, and unplugged it to take it to the truck when ready to go. In the truck, I plugged it in using the supplied standard auto outlet (formerly known as a cigarette lighter plug). Eventually, I will plumb this directly into the auxiliary power system, when I get it built Real Soon Now.
The cooler has a small section that gets cold air directly from the cooler unit, but isn’t as well temperature controlled. The manual (which is a bit… weirdly translated?) suggests using this area for cool drinks. I think it would hold about 4 U.S. sized 12 oz cans of refreshment. The main body of the cooler is a bit taller and skinnier than a typical Coleman style cooler, but it has a really nice wire shelf basket system that makes it very easy to get into the bottom section, and keeps everything neatly separated with air passages between. A simple push button control panel lets you choose the temperature, from deep freeze to red wine chilling temps. The cooler automatically turns the compressor off and on to maintain the temperature. When running, the unit is audible, but not loud. I slept in the same room with it running and didn’t notice it all.
We loaded up the cooler and took it with our extended family to cut a Christmas tree in the National Forest here in Washington. Although it was cool weather, the unit worked great. We’re looking forward to using it more once the weather warms up and we can really put it to use.
Is an portable electric refrigerator worth it? What are the alternatives?
At the time of this article, January of 2022, the Bouge RV electric cooler is priced about the same as a Yeti Tundra cooler, $350, but of course, it offers electric cooling and no need for ice. The top of the line 12v portable refrigerators are from Dometic and ARB. While those units are definitely well proven and have neat features, like Bluetooth control etc, they are also around four times the price of the Bouge RV. If you’ve got the budget for one of those, there’s no reason not to choose them. They’re solid and proven brands.
The Bouge RV unit has almost all the practical features, and the price is so much better! The most budget friendly option is still a decent plastic cooler, like the Alaskan standard of the Igloo or Coleman Marine coolers, at about $65 each. But I think, over time, the 12v cooler will pay for itself even against these bargain coolers, with less need to purchase ice, less food lost to spoilage or water incursion, and the ability to purchase food ahead of time and more intentionally.
What is the best use for a portable electric cooler?
As I mentioned in the intro, I think the Bouge RV electric cooler (and its relatives) are a very good alternative to either traditional or Yeti/rotomolded coolers for many (if not all) users.
Road trippers: you can leave this plugged in while driving, and bring it in to hotels at night, or plug it in at campgrounds with hookups. If you’re driving every day, you should have no problem keeping it cold.
Nontraditional RV/Van lifers: if you have a big RV, you probably already have a Dometic or similar dc/gas refrigerator. But those things are big and expensive. I think this is an ideal alternative for the van life or SUV conversion RV user, as it’s much cheaper, doesn’t need to be built in, and is more flexible in power and placement.
Boating: a great option for the boat that has wind/solar power and is out for long periods of time, since it needs no ice or propane. One drawback for boaters: the manual says you can’t use it for a step or a seat, and every boat I’ve ever been on used the cooler as a main source of furniture.
Cabin: it doesn’t need A/C power so it’s great for an off-grid cabin that has simple solar, hydro or wind. Or if you have sketchy or generator power, you can always power it off a vehicle.
Do you need extra power? You can probably use this what you already have, but it would be best if you have a backup power system, like a small solar panel setup, or at least an auxiliary battery. It does have a switch which should turn it off before it drains your vehicle battery while parked that you can’t start the engine. One other thing to note: some cars have the auxiliary power ports turn off when the ignition is off, while others leave it on. If the power goes off, the cooler might overheat fairly quickly in a locked car in the sun. In an RV, trailer, van or truck conversion, or cabin with solar power, I think this could be powered by a single panel and battery. Bouge RV sells these on their website, or numerous similar systems exist from other vendors.
- Quiet, efficient, compact.
- Doesn’t need ice.
- Can freeze or refrigerate.
- Cheaper than most competitors, more features than Yeti
- Doesn’t require modification in most vehicles
- The documentation for the Bouge RV cooler is somewhat lacking, but as attentive as the company seems to be, I’d expect that to improve quickly.
- Not that fast to cool things down. For parties and tailgating: big open ice chests full of ice cubes are going to be better at quickly cooling drinks, withstanding frequent opening etc. Hunters, fishermen, and other heavy users may find the cooling power not quick enough to keep things cold, especially if you want them frozen.
- Temperature control is not very tight. The air temperature went up and down fifteen or more degrees during cycles in my testing. While this is fine for drinks, it might damage produce or thaw something frozen during the extremes of the cycles.
- Warms up quickly when not plugged in.
Although we did not test the insulated cover, the many 5 star reviews on Amazon indicate that getting the additional insulated protective cover may help keep it cold longer and use less power.
The Bouge RV cooler is a solid alternative for many users to the Yeti rotomolded cooler craze, and allows basic refrigerator technology at a fraction of the price and size requirements of traditional RV units.
Where to buy
You can buy a portable electric cooler and freezer combo directly from Bouge RV and save 12% with the code AFFfridge, or $90 off the 53 quart one with the coupon code AFFfridge100.
You can also buy the Bouge RV from Amazon.
Bouge RV Portable Refrigerator/Freezer Testing Methodology
Jay is a super tester and this section was written by him to cover all the technical testing he performed on our electric cooler!
As the Ordinary Adventures Chief Technical Officer and Truck Mechanic (OACTOTM), I get -way- more excited by technical testing than Jennie does. If you’re a numbers type (I am), and want to know how well this thing performs, read on. I did a few “scientific” tests on it with a remote thermocouple and Kill-A-Watt tester to see how it would perform. We did most of the testing at home for convenience, via the 120v mains power adapter. Of course, the power adapter is not 100% efficient. These adapters, similar to what your laptop uses, are generally somewhere around 80% efficient, so I’m guessing power consumption directly off solar or vehicle battery might be 20% lower than what I show here.
I pre-cooled the empty unit by turning it on. It used 58 watts idling with nothing inside, pulling .55 measured amps from the A/C wall power.
At 3:30 pm, I loaded it with 12 cans of flavored seltzer water, a cup of tap water with a test probe in it, one can of wine, and a Rainier Beer, aka the original sports drink. The drinks were all at 66 degrees (room temp in Seattle in November is chilly!) I turned the temp to 36°F (it can be set to Celsius if you live in the modern world). Within an hour, the temp inside the cooler was down to 46°, and the drinks were at 57°. When I checked 3.5 hours later, the interior air temp was at 30° and the drinks had reached 36 °. By 7:30 the next day, 16 hours total, the energy consumed was 0.48 kw/h. To see how well insulated it was as a basic cooler, I then unplugged the electric cooler, and left it closed while monitoring the temp. By 6:30pm, eleven hours later, the drinks were up to 55°, a rise of about 2° per hour, at a room temp of 68°. Given the cold room temperature and fairly rapid rise, I don’t think you’d want to leave this thing unplugged for very long, especially with sensitive produce or meat inside. I’d guess no more than an hour in real heat? There is an insulated case available that I think would improve this a lot. Normally I’d wrap a cooler in a blanket or a sleeping bag, but these coolers need space around the fans to allow the heat to exit, so I think the purpose-made blanket would be a good choice. If we get one of these eventually I’ll re-test.