Van Life Air Conditioner Options – Best Ways To Stay Cool

Air conditioner in ceiling of RV

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Springtime can be an exciting month for those who are living the van life or who own a camper van that they use periodically. The same can be said for any type of camper as we enter the prime months for this type of living.

It can be exciting looking forward to getting out into nature after a long winter of being indoors.

The warm months of spring allow us to finally break out of our caves and get back into the world. Feeling sunshine on our face and getting out and going to new places is something that van lifers and RVers look forward to.

The bad part about this is that the springtime ends and we move into the hot summer months of summer. This can make for a more difficult time if you live in or travel in a camper van.

Staying cool when the temperatures are soaring can be quite a challenge for those who want to be out in nature but comfortable at the same time.

We often don’t have this problem in our homes since we are fortunate to have air-conditioning that cools us off when the weather is at its hottest.

Vans, on the other hand, do not offer an easy way for people to stay cool and many are not equipped with air conditioners. I know from personal experience that it can be challenging when the temperature and humidity are high. It makes for some very uncomfortable nights as you try to sleep in a puddle of sweat.

There has to be a better way, right?

There has to be a way to stay cool and make the lifestyle more bearable when the weather is not cooperating. On one hand, it’s nice to have warm weather but on the other hand, the warmth can make for miserable living conditions.

Fortunately, there are some options for you to use to be able to stay cool in a van. A lot of professionally manufactured class B motorhomes already have built-in air-conditioning units that can be powered when using shore power. However, for many converted vans, this feature is left out.

Let’s look at a few options that are available to be able to condition the air in a camper van.

Roof Air Conditioner

The most common type of air conditioner unit in vans and other RVs is the roof type. These air conditioner units are mounted onto the roof and direct air-conditioned air down into the van from the ceiling.

These can work quite well in RVs since they circulate air down through the van allowing the cold air to sink.

One downside to this type of air conditioning unit is the amount of electricity that it requires to run. You will only be able to use an air conditioner like this if you are plugged into shore power. There may be some vans with strong enough solar systems to power a unit like this but the majority of camper vans cannot sustain this type of air conditioner on solar power alone.

These can also be difficult to install and are quite heavy. Some of them can be over 100 pounds so it is a substantial amount of weight sitting on top of your roof at all times. Two people are usually needed for the installation of one of these.

The Dometic Penguin II is a great option and a popular model that people often install in camper vans.

Once installed, these work quite well and give you a high-quality air-conditioning unit that can easily cool down the small space of a camper van. If you know that you will be staying in RV Parks the majority of the time, installing an air conditioner unit like this on the top of your van is a good idea.

Window Air Conditioner

The old fashioned window air conditioner doesn’t have to be limited to non-mobile structures. These can also be installed in a van if the layout is designed to allow for it.

Many people have installed these and they can also work quite well since most of them are powerful units that provide max cooling. A small area like a van is no match for a window unit and it would have no trouble keeping the area nice and cool.

The problem with this type of unit is that they are not specifically designed to be used in an application like this. It will require a unique layout and you will probably have to design your entire layout around it.

Some van conversions enclose an area in which to install the air conditioner. Sometimes in the rear or sometimes in other places in the van. The following video shows a window air conditioner installed in the front of the van directing cold air towards the living space.

I have also seen van conversions that have window units like this exposed out of the side or rear of the van. This is unsightly and although it probably works to keep the van cool, it isn’t going to win any awards for looking good.

If you are desperate for air conditioning and want an installed option, a window unit may do the trick for you. You will just need to make sure you have a layout that allows for a large portion of space to be used for it.

Portable Air Conditioner

A portable air conditioner is a great option if you know that you are only going to need it occasionally. These can be stored when not in use and then set up when you need to condition the air inside the van.

Some of these units are quite large and take up a lot of space but there are smaller units on the market that would serve a camper van well. It doesn’t take a large unit to cool a small area so you could get by with an 8000 BTU unit.

There are different types of portable air conditioners that I would like to discuss.

1. Household Portable Air Conditioners

These are the kind that you will find at nearly any home goods store or various places online. They are designed to be used in the house. They must be vented outside and they usually include a kit that allows you to vent them out of a standard window.

These are not often easy to install in a van situation and you might have to be creative to make it work. You will need a way to vent it to the outside. This is possible by installing a permanent vent out the side of your van that the air conditioner can attach to or be removed from.

You might also be able to vent it out one of the front windows although you’ll probably have to create a DIY solution for doing it this way.

The 8,000 BTU MIDEA Portable Air Conditioner is a great choice for small areas.

2. Zero Breeze Camping Air Conditioner

Zero Breeze makes a portable air conditioner that is designed for the camping and outdoor lifestyle. These portable air conditioners are very small, lightweight, and can be operated using a battery.

These small air conditioners can be effective in cooling a very small area such as what a camper van has. Zero Breeze markets its product to be used in outdoor situations such as camping in a tent or spending the day on your back patio.

Anywhere that cool air needed, a portable air conditioner unit like Zero Breeze is easy to set up and use for hours with the included battery.

I have not tested one of these in a van environment so I cannot say for certain if these are effective in cooling down an entire van interior. However, they do look promising and if they work well, they provide a very good choice for van lifers who are looking to cool down their living space in the hot summer.

The Zero Breeze also requires that it be vented but it is perhaps easier to vent then the larger type of exhaust that you have with a standard portable air conditioner.

Portable air conditioners make a great solution for those who are only seeking such a solution on the hottest of days. Otherwise, there may be other ways to cool down your van without having to break out the portable units.

Cooler Air Conditioner

Although not technically an air conditioner, the cooler solution is a popular way to get some relief from the hot weather. There are many companies on the market that build them and you can also create your own if you are handy.

These use a standard cooler that is filled with water and ice. The ice cools down the internal ductwork and then a fan blows air through the duct system, cooling it down as it passes. This is a multi-use solution since it allows you to have a cooler of ice to keep food and drinks cold while also cooling the air to give you a more comfortable living experience.

One problem with doing this might be having damp air blowing into your van. This would be a problem and could be a cause of mold or mildew. You want to make sure that the air coming out of the cooler is dry so it will not result in problems like this.

The ICY Breeze provides a product that blows out dry, cold air and makes a great, affordable alternative to an air conditioner. This type of system can make a huge difference on a hot day and could be the difference between you enjoying your trip or being miserable.

Read my Icy Breeze review.

You would spend less money building one yourself but be sure you build it to where it blows dry air instead of damp, humid air.

Other Options For Staying Cool In A Camper Van

If you are not interested in using the options discussed so far, there are other ways to keep your van cool. Just because you are used to air-conditioned spaces, doesn’t mean that you can’t get along without it. The following solutions could be used to create a more comfortable environment for your van.

Roof Fan

Air-conditioning is nice but you probably aren’t going to always be able to have it. This will be a fact of life if you intend to spend time in a camper van. You will have to come up with other solutions to keep cool.

One of the most obvious ways is installing a roof fan onto the top of your van. This is very common amongst van conversions and RVs and provides a great amount of ventilation for the living area.

The Maxxair 5100K is a great affordable option and is what I chose to install in my van.

With a fan like this, you can pull air in so that you can always have moving air throughout your van. You can also pull air out and this works great in conjunction with an open window or door. Having both of them allows you to create airflow and cools the van down quite nicely.

I use my fan nearly all of the time in the summer months or at any time when it is warm. In combination with my sliding rear window, I am able to create a nice cool draft that blows through my van keeping me cool even when it is super hot outside.

If you are converting a van, you will definitely want to install a fan in your roof. It’s one of the simplest things to do and it will be one of the things that you use the most in your van.

Even if you have an air conditioner, you won’t always be able to use it and you will need other ways. A fan like this provides you with a great solution and it uses very little energy. It can run for long periods using a solar battery bank.

Read more about my roof fan installation.

Vented Windows

Another simple solution for getting some airflow into your van is by using a window that opens. These types of van windows are usually either sliding or have a crank on them or vents that push out. They have screens so that bugs cannot come in but airflow is allowed to pass through and create a nice draft within your van.

Between a fan and a window, these two items are commonly used on conversion vans to create a more comfortable living environment. Both are important in the process and they work very well with each other.

When designing a conversion van layout, it’s a good idea to consider the airflow when you are looking to install a fan and a window. Install them in locations that create a draft throughout the van in an effective way.

Rear sliding screen window in van

For example, my roof fan is near the front of the van and my vented window is near the rear. When I have my fan on pulling air out of the van, it’s pulling air into the van through the rear window so it creates a draft that I can feel almost anywhere in my van.

I would suggest installing at least one small window in a van and this will allow you to keep the living space cooler.

I purchased mine from Van Windows Direct and was very pleased with their service and the product.

Standard Fans

Perhaps the easiest way to stay cool in your van is to use a standard fan. Similar to using a standard ceiling fan or a standing oscillating fan at your home, this can be just as effective in your van.

Small clip-on fans work great since you have a limited area to work with. These types of fans can be clipped onto wherever needed so that you can enjoy a nice breeze anywhere in the van.

Many of these types of fans use USB power which doesn’t need much electricity. These work well with solar battery banks and can keep you cool without using lots of electricity. Having a small clip-on fan pointed at you while you are trying to sleep at night can go along way in keeping your cool.

If you are looking for a more permanent solution that ties into your 12-volt electrical system, the Caframo Sirocco fan is a great choice. Although quite expensive for what it is, it installs easily and uses minimal power while maintaining a low profile and not taking up much space.

If you want to go cheaper, you can always opt for a simple clip-on fan that you would likely find in an office cubicle. Although not as effective as a roof fan combined with a vented window, this solution can work well in your overall plan to stay cool in the hot summer months.

Seeking Shade

Perhaps the most basic way that you can ensure that you are doing all you can to keep cool is to always seek out shaded areas to park. Parking your camper van in the shade is probably an obvious way to keep cool but it’s important to mention it anyway.

This is not always possible and you might not always be able to seek out shade if you are depending on the sun for charging your solar panels. However, if you will seek out shaded areas to park your van in when you are not in need of charging your solar battery bank, you will be better off.

Parking in direct sunlight makes it difficult to cool your van on a hot day. No matter how well you have insulated your van, the heat will find its way in and it will be more difficult to cool it down.

Traveling Where There Is Cooler Weather

If all else has failed and you are still burning up in the summer heat, you can always head to a location where the weather is not so harsh.

In the United States, you could head north in the summer months instead of braving the hot and humid south. This will allow you to escape the heat and not have to worry about the extremely hot temperatures during the day.

Although almost all places have their share of hot temperatures, the climate is much more bearable in the northern states.

This is the beauty of having a mobile living space that can be driven anywhere you wish. You can choose where to go based on what you want to do and the weather that you want to experience.

How NOT To Stay Cool In A Van

As I mentioned earlier in the article, It’s important to make sure you are always blowing dry air into your van. Whatever choice you use, it will need to be something that doesn’t produce humid air.

An example would be the Arctic Air. This misting fan may be a great solution for keeping you cool in some situations but I wouldn’t suggest it for a camper van. It uses water to cool and humidify an area which wouldn’t be a good idea for a van interior.

The same can be said for the common “swamp coolers” that you often see people using for their vans or RVs. Most of these also produce air that is humid and will not be a good choice for using inside a van.

I would suggest only seeking out those options that are going to produce dry, cool air. These are going to be the best solutions for the small space of a camper van.

To summarize, I would NOT suggest doing the following.

  • Using mist fans. Mist fans will cool you down but at the expense of moist, damp air. This should be avoided in a small camper van. They would be great for a tent camping situation but I would keep them out of my van.
  • Using swamp coolers. The same can be said about these. They produce moist air and aren’t the best solution for keeping cool in a van. Choose options that only produce dry air.
  • Starting and running your vehicle to use the air conditioning. Besides polluting the air and disturbing others who may be staying nearby, running your vehicle could have deadly consequences. Carbon monoxide could enter the vehicle while you are parked or asleep. It could also be damaging to the engine of your vehicle and cause it to overheat in the summer.


Air-conditioning in a camper van sounds like a great idea and there are many solutions available on the market. However, van lifers usually don’t stay in areas where they are constantly hooked up to electricity so other solutions are needed.

The other solutions will help to keep you cool in your van in the hottest of months. Although it will never be the conditioned air that you might be used to in your home, portable air conditioners, as well as vents and windows, can go along way towards helping you cope with hot weather.

If you don’t have an air conditioner installed in your van, don’t worry, try one of the options mentioned above and see how it works for you. I have been able to stay comfortably on hot days and nights in my van without an air conditioner.

I rely on my window and fan to create a draft of cool air that helps me feel more comfortable.

Dan Collins

I consider myself an outdoor enthusiast. I love to travel and go to places that most people don't get a chance to go. I want to see it all and live life to the fullest while I'm alive. My camper van is helping me to do just that. I write about my experiences to help inspire others to do the same.

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