How to Cool a RV or Camper Van Without Air Conditioning

Angela Devaney

Van life is full of unique challenges. Some are obvious, like the space constraints of living in just a few square feet, and others might be less obvious. For example, how’s the weather?

RVers and Van Lifers need to prepare for the weather at their destinations. A little while back, we wrote about RV skirting to help insulate your living area to keep it warm in the winter (and cooler in the summer). Today, we’re going to tackle the opposite problem: heat.

If you’re traveling somewhere the weather is nice and toasty, you’re for sure going to enjoy the time spent outdoors. Who doesn’t love basking on a beach, exploring a bit of desert, or just strolling in the sunlight on a warm day?

The trouble is that heat doesn’t dissipate quickly. The inside of an RV or campervan vehicle can get extremely hot, making it impossible to enjoy your time during the day, or sleep comfortably in the evening.

Keeping an RV Cool without AC

The easiest way to cool your RV or camper is to run the engine or tap into a power hook-up and keep the AC going, but let’s be honest; that’s not a real option. There might not be an electric hook-up nearby, and running the engine wastes a ton of fuel. Even using a generator is noisy and inefficient to keep your RV cool. You want passive cooling or much more efficient active cooling.

Luckily, you have many different options if you know what to do and where to look. Please keep reading for our top tips, recommendations, strategies, and of course, products that can help you stay cool on even the hottest days.

Positioning and Orientation

Sometimes, you’re limited in where and how you can park, and other times, you have complete freedom.

Positioning Your RV

When you choose, picking the correct orientation for your RV or camper will help keep your living area cool.

  • Orient your RV such that the sun shines on the smallest area possible, with the fewest windows. Solid walls are insulated and block sunlight and heat; windows act like a greenhouse, letting it in and keeping it in.
  • Find a nearby tree. Parking in the shadow of a tree can block a good portion of the sunlight that would otherwise make its way to your RV and heat it, which can lower internal air temperatures by ten or more degrees.
  • Adjust your positioning throughout the day to keep up with the changing position of the sun. What about that angle that keeps sunlight out of your windows? It works fine in the morning but leaves you open to afternoon heat.

Of course, you’re not always able to take advantage of positioning, and there won’t always be local trees or other landmarks to park in the shade. What else can you do?

Shade Your Windows

Windows let in a lot of heat, even if the sun isn’t shining directly on them. If you can’t park in the shade, you do still have one option: bringing your own.

DIY Awning with a Tarp

Every RVer should have a few tarps on hand, and they’re far too valuable to leave behind. Case in point: a bit of cord or a couple of supports, and a tarp becomes an awning and sunshade. Not only does it provide shade for you, but it can also help block the sun from your windows at the same time.

Windshield Sun Shade

Your windshield is one large window you can’t block out, so a removable sunshade lets you cover it up while you’re parked.

They come in different sizes and many fold away into a comparatively tiny package, so work for just about any RV, motor home, bus, or another large vehicle.

Awning Side Shade

Awnings come standard in many different campers and RVs, but they’re also usually a little small and restrictive.

They can shade windows and maybe give you enough shade for a chair or two during the noon hours, but when the sun hangs low in the sky, they don’t give you much protection.

A side shade like this one is like an awning for your awning and gives you more shade and shelter.

RV Awning Rooms

On the more extreme end of comfort and protection from the elements is a full-on additional room. It’s like having a large tent folded up against the side of your RV. Once you set it up, you’re protected from the ground, from wind and sunshine in all directions, and the sun bearing down above you.

They’re more expensive and awkward than awnings and shades, but you can’t get better sun protection than building yourself a whole other room.

Regardless of which option you pursue, remember to keep space in consideration. You have to store these shades somewhere, and storage space is at a premium inside an RV or camper. If you don’t have built-in awnings, make sure whatever you get folds up nicely and can be stored in as small a space as possible.

Encourage Air Flow

Part of the problem of heat build-up inside an RV is that the air doesn’t circulate. The longer air is trapped inside your living space, the warmer and more stagnant it will become.

Encourage Airflow

So, distribute it yourself! You can do this in a few different ways.

  • Passive circulation. Close windows on the sunny side and open them on the shady side, so air flows through where it’s coolest.
  • Vent fans. Heat rises, so the hottest air is up near where your roof vents are already positioned. Clever, right? Instead of relying on vents to passively let the air out, use a vent fan to pull hot air out and suck in cooler air from down below, preferably in a shaded area.
  • Force Air Flow. Fans might make you feel a little cooler by evaporating moisture on your skin and blowing air over you, but they don’t reduce the temperature if they aren’t circulating the air. Make sure you have fans pulling hot air out and pushing cooler air in, no matter how they need to be positioned.

Reduce Incoming Heat

Shading your windows is one thing, but there are a lot of other sources of heat that might be baking your living space without you realizing it.

Reduce Incoming Heat

Check and double-check these whenever you set up for the day to ensure you aren’t adding more heat than is necessary to your RV or camper space.

  • The fridge. Refrigerators work by pulling heat out of their interior, and that heat has to go somewhere. Most RVs have a built-in vent to funnel heat out of the vehicle, but that vent might be closed or blocked, so make sure it’s cleared open.
  • Shower skylight. If your RV has a built-in shower (luxurious, right? You can feel the envy from the campervan owners), you may have a skylight to make it more pleasant to use. That skylight is another big window, though, so make sure to cover up or shade it in some way when you’re not using it.
  • Many living vehicles have halogen lights for everything from door lights to overhead lights. These bulbs give off a lot of heat. It takes a bit of an initial investment, but replacing those bulbs with LEDs will reduce heat and ensure they’ll virtually never burn out.
  • Cook outside. Cooking puts a lot of heat into the air around your stove, grill, microwave, or whatever other devices you’re using to prepare your food. Set up outside to keep that heat away from your living space.
  • Computers have fans because they generate a lot of heat. Televisions also create a lot of heat. Just about everything electronic creates heat. It might not be much, but in the hot summer months, every little bit builds up. Turn off and unplug electronics you don’t need to be using, and use or charge others outside as much as possible.

Once you’ve covered all the bases (and windows), the only source of heat besides the ambient air temperature will be your own body. Of course, don’t underestimate how much heat a person puts out; the less time you spend indoors, the less heat you’ll have to get rid of when it’s time to sleep.

Build a Swamp Cooler

Did you know that you can make an air conditioner? It’s not even particularly difficult or expensive. A Styrofoam cooler, a small fan, and some plastic cups or sections of PVC pipe are all you need. Well, that, and a source of ice. The cooling has to come from somewhere!

The basic idea is to carve a few holes in your Styrofoam cooler. One spot in the top lets the fan point down into it, bringing warmer air from outside and blowing it over the ice to chill it. Holes in the sides (or in the top, with a PVC elbow) act as vents for cooler air to escape. Plastic cups with the bottoms removed or pieces of PVC allow you to direct the airflow in a direction you choose, rather than just the ambient area around the cooler.

The trick with a swamp cooler is the ice. The colder the ice in the cooler, the cooler the air will be, and the longer it will last. You can even use dry ice, but if you do, make sure you have proper ventilation. Dry ice is carbon dioxide, displacing oxygen, and can asphyxiate you if it builds up too much. Water ice is probably the better and more accessible choice.

You can also buy ready-made evaporative air coolers that work with the same concept.

You fill them with water or ice, and they’re able to cool a large area with little power consumption. It’s a better long-term solution, complete with a ten-gallon water tank, wheels, powerful fan blades, and more resistance to the elements.

Consider a Misting System

Misters are systems of hoses and nozzles that aerosolize and spray water in the area around you. This water pulls heat from the air as it evaporates, which makes the whole space feel cooler. Any mist on your skin will help you cool off too. If you’ve never shivered in a 100-degree day before, you’ve never experienced a mister.

There are a few considerations that might make a misting system less valuable.

  • They don’t work as well when it’s humid out. Since misters work via evaporation, if the air is already saturated with moisture, you’re just going to leave everything damp and sticky.
  • You need water to run through them. Depending on how isolated you are from the nearest water source, this could be a colossal waste.
  • Some areas have stringent environmental protection regulations, and bringing in your water to spray everywhere could get you in trouble.
  • If the water you use is mineralized (hard), it can gum up the nozzles and require more frequent maintenance.

On the other hand, if you’re in a hot and dry area where water is nevertheless readily available, a misting system can do wonders. It can lower the ambient air temperature by as much as 20 degrees.

Honeywell Air Cooler

Plan Your Route

Probably the best thing you can do to stay cool while traveling is planning your route, so you aren’t spending the day or night in a place that’s too far outside your comfort zone. Think snowbirds who travel to Florida in the winter and Minnesota in the summer. You have the complete freedom to drive and camp out wherever you want (and the facilities are available), so take advantage of it. In the summer, don’t strand yourself in the middle of Nevada, just like you wouldn’t hit up northern Canada in the dead of winter.

Considering the weather, the time of year and the local environment are essential for leading a more comfortable RV or campervan lifestyle. Remember that higher altitudes are cooler; Arizona might seem hot, but the mountains can still have colder areas at higher elevations.

The key is to plan. Know your comfort range, research the climate, and prepare a route that takes you to the locations you’ll find comfortable. By avoiding the worst of the heat, all of the other methods on this list will be more effective.

Angela Devaney

Angela Devaney, a former IT project management professional, embarked on an adventurous journey of full-time travel, which included touring West Africa in a converted overland truck and converting an ex-military 4×4 Sprinter van into a camper for a five-year South American expedition. She now utilizes her hands-on experience to create practical RV living and van life advice as a full-time digital media producer, reaching over a million users annually through her YouTube channel, blog, and newsletter. Angela also lends her expertise as the editor-in-chief of the Campervan Electrics Handbook.

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