You might not need a refrigerator in your vehicle but if you do big trips, especially off-grid, it changes everything. After an overland adventure with Dometic’s CFX3 fridge and PLB40 power source in my rig, I can help you decide if a setup like this is something you might want to invest in.
(Full Disclosure: Dometic’s people loaded a CFX3 35 fridge and a PLB40 into my Montero, took care of route planning, provided food and paid for fuel for myself and a group of other off-road types on about a week-long Baja trip. Dometic also brought its own very talented photographer, which is why the images in this writeup look unusually well-produced and commercial-friendly compared to the images you usually see with my blogs. But they looked too good not to share.)
Dometic is not exactly a household name, but it is an established player in durable portable appliances. The company’s fridges have been used in RVs and boats for a long time. It also makes wine chillers, toilets... just about everything that could turn a vehicle or trailer into a comfortable, modern home. Dometic’s actually been making off-road truck fridges for a while too, under its own label and for another major adventure equipment brand.
But with hardcore car camping–commonly described as “overlanding” these days–getting more popular, Dometic is getting more aggressive on marketing itself directly to folks who like to kit their cars, trucks, and SUVs out for adventure and self-sufficiency.
To that end, the new Dometic CFX3 “electric coolers” (fridges) are being advertised as top-quality, not-the-cheap-option, backcountry perishable food storage. It’s a big top-opening brick that’s Bluetooth connected and industrially elegant.
The PLB40 (Portable Lithium Battery; 40Ah lithium iron phosphate battery pack) is a useful power cell you can bring out to the bush, or, plug straight into your vehicle’s cig lighter to essentially give you a plug-and-play dual battery system. I’ll explain a little more about that later, but you’re definitely going to want one to go with your new car fridge.
There are six different Dometic CFX3 fridges that share the same basic construction and features. The CFX3 35, the unit that was tested in my Montero, is the smallest with a claimed capacity of 36 liters (50 beer cans) and least-expensive with a list price of $899.99. The CFX3 100 is on the other end of the spectrum at a gargantuan 99 liters (153 beer cans), asking $1,399.
You can dive into specifics on all the CFX3 models on Dometic’s site. I’ll just run through the most pertinent highlights: these fridges have drain plugs, full-color digital displays reporting temperature and providing an interface, app connectivity via Bluetooth so you can keep tabs on the coldness of your cooler from your cab, and the bigger ones even have little freezers so you can make your own ice.
You can plug these fridges into a 12-volt cig lighter socket, or, into the wall in your house if you want to use it in the garage or whatever.
The PLB ($849.99) has USB outputs, a normal 12-volt DC outlet, a two-pin 12-volter, and a nice screen on top to report its charge level. The thing weighs about 16 pounds and has “512 Wh of energy, 40 Ah.” That translates to approximately one long weekend worth of keeping a CFX3 35 fridge running. But if you put it between your car’s 12-volt outlet and said fridge, you could use it indefinitely.
Have I sufficiently explained how all this heavy-duty electrical shit is supposed to work with your dinky cigarette lighter plug without killing your alternator and spoiling your food? No?
OK, without getting sciency, because what the hell do I know, let’s break it down. You might have heard of some overland rigs running a dual-battery setup. (If you’re already bored, skip to the next section.) A big reason you might want a dual-battery in your 4WD is so that you have one normal car battery doing car battery things, and a second powering your fridge and lights and whatnot while the truck’s off.
The main battery powers the starter, so you can start your truck as usual, the second battery powers your toys. That way you never have to worry about draining the battery that’s critical to the vehicle’s operation. While the engine’s running, the second battery is getting charged. So, in theory, you always have power.
Setting up a dual-battery system properly requires running a bunch of wiring, finding a place to install a second car battery, and if those things sound like a pain in the ass, Dometic’s PLB40 is going to sound pretty sweet.
If you plug the PLB into one of your vehicle’s 12-volt sockets, it will charge while you’re driving. Plug the other end into your fridge, and it’s always keeping your stuff cool. Boom, you’re done! As a bonus of the PLB’s portability, you can carry it into a tent or out onto a beach should the need strike you. That’s handy if you’re spending a couple nights on the Sea of Cortez and want to bring your fridge out on the beach. I mean, why walk dozens of feet back to your rig for a coldie?
Unfortunately, I didn’t really get to test the full potential of this setup because the 12-volt plugs in my Montero are kind of janky. But, that meant I did get to test the PLB’s fridge-powering longevity, and I can report that even without being charged, it can keep the CFX3 35 fridge running for a full three-day weekend with juice to spare.
When you’re spending time at any really significant distance from civilization, keeping perishables cold is a real challenge. You can’t always just grab ice from a gas station. With a powered fridge, you never have to worry about that. Even better: Being able to load up (and trust) a refrigerator in your truck like you do the one in your house increases your food freedom dramatically, and that can make your camping vacation way more fun.
Want to take fancy steaks from Whole Foods down to Baja? No problem. Those $18 Wagu hot dogs they sell at Century City? Throw ’em in the fridge and you can cook them up on a beach 1,000 miles away three days later.
Don’t like cooking when you’re traveling? There’s an advantage there, too... you can put restaurant leftovers in your truck fridge!
As far as the Dometic CFX3 fridge specifically, being able to see the thing’s status on a smartphone is pretty sweet. But I was most impressed by the build quality. The handles and body of the CFX3 in all sizes are robust and industrially elegant. The CFX3 35 I spent time with was fairly heavy, but not impossible to carry for a single person. The same goes for the PLB40–reassuringly well-made.
And they don’t just look tough: I treated the fridge and battery in my truck a lot less gently than I would my own equipment. Neither seemed to mind getting dragged through sand, left outside in dew, dropped, spilled-on, and just generally abused.
My field notes in the cons column: “Enormous and expensive.”
The CFX3 35, which we’ve established as the smallest in the series, doesn’t exactly tuck away easily. Realistically, it consumed about a quarter of my behind-the-second-row cargo capacity area. And my Montero might be old, but it is not small inside.
That said, it’s about the same size as a medium-sized camp cooler. Whether it’s thick insulation like a Yeti has, or a powered compressor like the this unit has, you just need space to have good cooling in a box.
Then there’s the price. There’s no question that $1,800 is a lot of money. I mean, let’s be real, it almost doubled the value of my Mitsubishi while it was installed. However, overlanding is an expensive hobby, and products that are both high-tech and tough enough to withstand off-roading are never cheap.
For example, you could easily spend $1,800 on a light bar instead of this fridge-and-battery combo. Also while I know there are others out there, like me, running around in four-figure rigs, many of the overland 4x4s I see are $50,000-and-up vehicles.
So, really, a CFX3 fridge costs a lot of money but you’re getting a great-looking high-performance food storage solution.
On its own, the CFX3’s weaknesses are really just what’s inherent to putting a fridge in your vehicle. It’s a commitment. To get more granular than that, you’ll have to check out reviews of some competitors.
- Mounting your truck fridge on a slider would make it a lot easier to open and access, but it is not completely necessary.
- I have a feeling a lot of people are going to dig the Bluetooth app status thing, but I personally could live without it. In fact, I’d take less digital functionality for a lower price if that were an option.
- You don’t really need to lock the fridge down if you drive like me, but if you’re in a Raptor or anything else with long legs, you’re going to need a semi-permanent installation solution.
And none were very scientific, but they sure make having a fridge look like a fun time! You’ll see some more bangers in other blogs. For now, just a few more, of the food-coolers in action: