There’s a lot more to keeping your food and drinks cool on the road than merely picking out a fridge and choosing the colour, argues Johan Badenhorst. And what about the option of a cooler box? What really is the best option?
I recently received a gift of a 20-litre cooler box. Looking at the box, inspecting its features and weighing up its price, compared to standard cooler boxes on the one hand, and fridge/freezers that we use on our safaris on the other hand, made me think: what is the best way to stay cool in the great outdoors?
Over the past six years, Voetspore has been closely associated with 4×4 Megaworld. We love and trust their products. We understand that purchasing the 4×4 is only the first step. Then comes journey planning and the fitment of the vehicle to tackle the intended route. Only then comes the expedition itself. Certain items are standard. We know vehicles need suspension, a bull bar, winch, rear bumper, extra spare wheel carrier, long-range fuel tank, roof rack, drawer system and water tank. We also like to add a centre console for the two-way radio, seat covers, air compressor, spotlights, dual-battery system, fridge slide, fridge and 220V invertor. All of these add up to more than 25% of the value of your vehicle. But is all of it necessary, or are some items merely nice-to-haves?
4×4 Megaworld use ARB and Engel fridges. Outdoor enthusiasts will testify that the Engel is the Rolls-Royce of fridges. But they aren’t cheap. Fact is: if you can afford it, buy it. Make sure you are happy with the grey colour, because it will last a lifetime. On six Voetspore journeys, however, we found our ARBs to be more than adequate. Ours kept our meat frozen and our beers cold from Agulhas to Alexandria, on the Equator, in the Great Rift Valley, in Madagascar, last year during the Voetspore 10 Reunion and recently, in India. I believe it is a great fridge, and recommend it with confidence. But buying and fitting a fridge is not that simple.
First, you need to pick the rights size: 40, 60 or 80 litres. Then you need to decide if you need a fridge, freezer or both. On Voetspore expeditions we have a minimum of two and often three or four devices. Some are set to freeze, others just to keep cool. Nothing is as annoying on a trip as a frozen (read flat) beer. Many vegetables prefer not to be stored below freezing while meat, especially chicken, doesn’t travel well if not frozen. So you either need a dual device, or two devices. Most people are surprised when they see the price of a freezer. R17 000 (incl bag) for an 80-litre Engel! You can buy a fridge for your kitchen, three times the size at half the price.
There’s a good reason for this: fridges fitted to 4×4s and off-road trailers need to be able to work at any angle, as you drive up Sani Pass or down Van Zyl’s. Buying the fridge is only the beginning in your quest to be properly equipped. You also need to provide it with electricity. Running it from a main battery socket, provided in the back of your Fortuner, Ranger or Amarok is not a good idea. The wiring is too thin to supply constant and strong electrical current. So you need to have an electrical wire pulled from the main battery with 4–6mm thick wiring. But keep in mind that if you don’t unplug your fridge in the afternoon when you arrive at the campsite, chances are that your 4×4 will not be able to start the next morning. There is a solution: get a dual-battery system.
A dual-battery system is not as simple as installing a second battery and connecting it to the main battery and alternator: it needs to be a deep cycle battery. This is different to your main battery. The second battery needs to be managed. You can’t just drain power from the main battery or you’ll still end up with a vehicle that won’t start. Recently, we started fitting the Intervolt battery management system at the Voetspore 4×4 Fitment Centre. For many years I believed that this was the Achilles heel of 4×4 fitment. I can’t remember one journey where we didn’t have problems with the battery management system. One or more batteries go dead, you never know how well the secondary battery is charging, some fridges work and other don’t… the problems are endless. But I think we may just have stumbled across the solution. The Intervolt served us well in India. Most of our journey of three months was completed in temperatures above 400Celsius. And the Intervolt worked well.
But we are not yet at the end of the fitment part of the cooling equipment in your 4×4. The design of the fridges, with its top lid, and the restricted space in your vehicle or trailer implies that it is difficult to access the fridge. How many times did it not happen that special fillet, packet of mince or marinated sosaties are discovered when you get back home when everything is unpacked, just because you couldn’t see it in a corner of the fridge. As a solution, we installed a fridge slide. The fridge slide allows access to every-thing in the fridge. You slide it out, open the lid and even the shortest of us can see what is inside. The slide also enables anyone to put the 25kg loaded fridge back into position again.
This whole exercise runs into thousands of rands. That is why, when I received my recent cooler box gift, I gave it some thought. At first, the cooler box is a sexy thing: it is good looking, rugged, you can feel the quality. Some of the features are noticeable from the outset: you can lock it, there are moulded tie-down slots for mounting it in your vehicle, it has a stainless steel bottle opener, heavy duty rubber anchor latchets, a tape measure on the outside lid, 50mm walls and a 75mm lid and a drainage plug. The main question remains though: for how long will it keep my stuff cold and frozen? This is a question of management. Pre-cool your cooler a few hours before packing, keep your cooler closed as much as possible, keep it as full as possible as air is the enemy of ice retention, always have it in shady areas, stock it with ice blocks as opposed to ice cubes and don’t drain the excess water. In this way, you can keep items frozen for up to two weeks in a cooler.
This cooler box comes at a third of the price, compared to the fridge, dual-battery and management system. It is therefore a no brainer? Not at all. Going out on a boat, enjoying sundowners on a game view, doing just the occasional off-road safari and there is no doubt: the cooler box, and a proper one at that, is the answer. But going on regular and/or lengthy journeys, and the investment in the fridge/dual-battery system is the answer. This is horses for courses. If you do invest in a cooler box, invest in a proper one. Buying cheap will cost you dearly in the end. And if you have your sexy box, keep in mind that, as with so many things in life, the way you manage it is what will make it successful (or not).