Let’s face it, nothing can put a (literal) damper on your day more than lots of back sweat or heat exhaustion. When you’re overheating, the mere thought of even moving becomes tiring.
Thanks to poor van insulation and a broken AC system, I’ve become a master at finding ways to stay cool while living in a van. If you’ve found an older van that you might buy, but it’s AC is broken, what should you do? Make amends with van life in hot weather, or drop anywhere from $170 – $4,000 to repair its AC system?
…even then, AC only helps when you’re driving. So how do you stay cool when you aren’t driving?
Note: this post may contain Amazon associate links
Easy Ways to Cool a Van Without AC
1. Stay in Coastal or Mountain Towns
Higher altitudes = colder temperatures. If the summer months are fast approaching, plan your route along coastlines or forested mountain areas to follow the cool air.
A popular route for van lifers is to head to the Pacific Northwest (PNW) during the summer months and then migrate towards the southern desert for the winter. This is what I did for my first year and it worked out pretty well, give or take some hot summer days.
2. Park in the Shade
The easiest way to help stay cool is simply parking in the shade. Especially in the desert, parking in the shade can cool a van by ten degrees or more. Consider investing in a big, cheap tarp so you always have instant shade with you (or check out the Moonshade portable awning).
Orient your van so that windows aren’t facing the sun. This may require adjusting the van throughout the day, but windows have no insulation and will allow all the sun’s heat to pour into the van. I also use blackout curtains (that I cut to the size of my windows) over my windows if I’m not able to orient my van.
3. Keep Doors Open & Use Mesh Netting
If you can safely leave your doors open, do it! When I’m camping on BLM land in the desert, I have my doors wide open practically all day. It’s the best way to maximize air flow throughout the van. However, little gnats and insects can get into the van when the doors are open.
When this happens, sometimes I use sheets of mesh netting that I put over the doors with magnets. It’s a little tedious to set up, but allows me to keep a cool breeze without the bugs. If you want a more convenient setup, consider buying magnetic screen doors that you can fit to size.
Click the image below for a Youtube tutorial from Backroads Vanner on how to make your own DIY bug screens:
4. Use a Windshield Cover
When I first bought this random windshield cover off of Amazon, it was such a thin material I was convinced it would do nothing. But, I have been proven wrong. I put this up every time my van is parked somewhere during the day and it has not only kept the van cooler but also the items within it.
5. Opt for Reflectix
I also use reflectix material to cover windows that I don’t have window covers for. Reflectix by itself shouldn’t serve as insulation, but it’s an excellent window cover for, well, reflecting sunlight away. And, it’s pretty dang cheap for a whole roll.
6. Use Van Window Screens
Van window screens are essentially nylon mesh pockets that slide over the window frame of your camper van front doors. While a windshield cover and reflectix are great for completely blocking out sunlight, the window screens allow hot air to escape the campervan while simultaneously blocking out direct sunlight. They also add a nice layer of privacy.
7. Install a Ceiling Fan
The more air circulation you can create throughout the van, the better. Keep windows cracked to help keep air flowing. Even if it’s a warm breeze, it’s still better than no breeze!
And if you’re ready to put a hole in the ceiling, invest in a ceiling fan. Truly, I cannot recommend this enough. My ceiling fan makes the difference between night and day in my comfort level. I splurged on the MaxxAir fan because it was the biggest, quietest, and most energy efficient I could find. But there are more affordable ones (such as Dometic’s Fantastic fan).
8. Consider Cooling Seat Covers
Seat covers are an easy way to make your road trip time more pleasant by ventilating your seat. If you want a fancy 12V seat cover that heats up or cools down, check out this adjustable 12V seat cover from Paffenery. But a simple beaded seat cover can also seriously improve ventilation and prevent direct sunlight from roasting your car seat!
9. Leverage Solar Panel Shade & White Paint
Lighter colors reflect sunlight whereas darker colors absorb sunlight, so lighter-colored vans will stay slightly cooler. Painting your roof with a solar-reflective sealant can help cut down on sunlight absorption.
That being said, only 45% of the sun’s heat comes from its visible light. The other 55% is within the Infrared spectroscopy and is absorbed by any color, regardless of how light or dark it is. So what’s better than a light-colored van is a roof that’s shaded by solar panels. The solar panels will block out all sun rays; not just the 45% from visible light. It’s a win-win because while you’re keeping your van shaded, you’re soaking up all the sun rays to power your electronic needs!
10. Invest in Quality Van Insulation
Opt for van insulation with a high R-value and install it properly (without thermal bridges) to ensure your van conversion keeps out as much heat as possible. Read my full guide on understanding and choosing camper van insulation.
11. Opt for a 12 Volt AC for Van
There are a lot of options for 12-volt AC units but actual good ones are few and far between.
Check out the most powerful, top-rated 12V AC units for vans.
While a lot of 12v ACs are relatively energy efficient and provide cooled air, think of them as personal fans rather than room-cooling fans. Most of the reviews I’ve read say that these devices need to be directly blowing on someone to be effective.
That being said, some van dwellers really like the Ontel Arctic Air device (heads up, it only comes with a USB charger cord). But for $38 that could definitely be worth the investment! If you’re open to spending more, the Evapolar EvaChill is a bit bulkier but a bit more effective. It charges off of USB-C however, there are a handful of reviews that report the wire melting from overheating.
Or, you can be a real badass and make a homemade air conditioning unit like this guy:
12. Drink Water
It’s easier to regulate your body temperature if you are hydrated. Given an average human body is made up of 60-70% water, it’s not surprising that body water plays a super important role as a “thermoregulator”. So the more hydrated you are, the easier (and faster) your body can dissipate heat and cool down. Consider keeping a hydroflask on-hand so you can keep your water cold for hours, even on a hot day.
13. Sleep on a Gel Memory Foam Mattress
If you’re a hot sleeper, a gel memory foam mattress in your camper van can do wonders for keeping you cool at night. Gel memory foam is cool to the touch and specially designed to draw heat away from the sleeper. Just make sure your mattress has access to proper ventilation so you don’t risk mattress mildew.
14. Invest in a Portable Fridge
When you can’t escape the summer heat, nothing beats a cold drink or throwing an ice pack on the back of your neck. A portable fridge gives you the ability to always have either of those on hand, and that’s pretty invaluable IMO.
I spent most of my van life days without a fridge (I used a variety of coolers) and ice simply can’t last more than a few days. Now, I use the budget-friendly BougeRV compressor fridge and I always keep a water bottle in there to keep it ice cold–can’t get enough of my freezing cold drinks!
15. Install Shore Power
Shore power hookups in your van will give you the ability to access cool water and electricity from any main power supply. If you have an electric AC unit, you can use it off of shore power. Lots of campgrounds and RV parks across the country offer shore power hookups. Check out this guide on installing shore power in your van.
Sometimes, if all else fails, I highly recommend running into a grocery store down the frozen goods aisle. Trust me, I’ve done it many times myself. In any case, I bid you happy (and cool) van adventures!