How To Stay Cool While Camping Without AC

There’s No Need For AC In A Van If You Follow Some Simple Tips

This summer, no matter where your van travels take you, you are bound to run into some scorching heat. While some vans and van conversions may be blessed with great cab air conditioning or even heavy-duty solar-powered units, there are other ways to stay cool while camping without plugging in or draining your battery bank.

I’ve lived and camped in the high desert for many years, and our summers can reach over 100 degrees Fahrenheit in July and August. I’ve also lived much of that time without coveted AC. 

Some of that time was spent “living” in Black Rock City, the hometown of Burning Man, located in the hot and dry Black Rock Desert. Unfortunately, there is no place to plug in in the city, and unless you run an annoyingly loud generator, you will have no AC in this land of hedonistic heat.

People walking around in the desert during burning man.
Spending years at Burning Man is a lesson in how to survive the heat.

Spending time in this type of heat has taught me numerous ways to stay cool until the sun goes down. Many of these tips work nicely with van life. Other hot weather tips are just common sense:

  • Get up early to enjoy cooler temperatures.
  • Lay low or rest during the hottest parts of the day.
  • Seek out lakes or oceans.
  • Drink at least two liters of water per day.
  • Escape to air-conditioned movie theaters or stores.

These five other tips work directly with your van, no matter how it’s set up. They are basic, simple techniques that are also very cheap or even free. They work best with more dry heat but can also work in higher humidity areas. 

1. Cover Up

Van curtains drawn closed to keep the sun out and stay cool.
Let as little light and sun come into your van as possible.

After going to Burning Man for over ten years, I learned one very valuable lesson: be sure to cover up. This means covering yourself up with sun-protective clothing as well as covering up your van. Putting reflective covers over all your windows and blocking off the cab from the living area can drop the temps in your van by nearly 20 degrees. Installing an awning to add outdoor living space and block even more sun is a great idea. Many van lifers at the Burn would also completely cover their vehicles with shade cloth such as Aluminet. The key is to block as much light as possible while still letting air flow through. This brings us to the next important point.

2. Let the Breeze In To Stay Cool Naturally

Windfinder map showing wind direction. Using this information can help you use the wind to stay cool.
Find the prevailing winds in your area with Windfinder.

Airflow is essential in any kind of vehicle living situation. If you have vents or fans, those should be used liberally, but also let the wind do its job. Park your van to take the best advantage of cross breezes. These breezes should come in through your largest opening (side or back doors) and be able to move across your living area and escape out another window or door. You can find the directions of the prevailing winds in your area by checking out Windfinder.

3. Spray the Heat Away

Woman using a spray bottle to stay cool.
A spray bottle is one of the most useful cooling (and cleaning) tools in a van.

If you cannot get to a cooling watering hole or waterfall, bring them to you. Keep a spray bottle full of ice water nearby to periodically spray yourself and your clothing. This is also the time to learn the health benefits of cold showers. If your van has a shower, don’t bother to fire up the water heater and just take cold or lukewarm showers in the afternoon or evening before bed. You can also spray your bed sheets with the spray bottle before getting some shuteye.

4. Choose the Right Fabrics To Stay Cool While Camping

Cotton sheets can help you stay cool while you sleep.
Choose cotton or natural fabrics for your van bedding.

Not only should you stick with loose, light, natural fabrics for your hot weather clothing, but you should also consider the same types of fabrics for your van. For example, ensure your bed sheets and pillowcases are cotton or other breathable and non-irritating fabric. The same goes for your van seat fabrics and pillows. If they are dark or tend to make you sweat, cover them with a cool sheet or Turkish cotton towel.

5. Stay Cool While Camping By Cooking Outside

Person sitting outside their van and cooking with a propane stove.
Cook outside or eat foods that don’t require cooking.

While many vans have great indoor kitchens, this is the time to embrace outdoor cooking. Cooking inside can heat a tiny space quickly, and cooking over an open flame will heat you up unnecessarily. Keep your meals simple and cook outside with a propane or butane stove. Even better, take a cue from desert dwellers and eat cold foods or food that doesn’t need to be cooked. These include items such as hard-boiled eggs, salads, tuna fish, nuts, raw veggies, and, best of all, cold beer.

Travel Safe And Stay Cool While Camping This Summer

While keeping cool without air conditioning requires a little pre-planning, summer is one of the best times of the year to experience van life. From the sunsets and late nights under the stars to swimming in alpine lakes, you’ll be wishing the heat would stick around a bit longer.

What are your van tips to stay cool on scorching hot days? Let us know in the comments.

This post may contain affiliate links or mention our own products, please check out our disclosure policy here.

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