As much as I hate being cold in the winter, being hot in the summer can suck the life right out of me.
Before van life, I was cocky about not needing the comfort of an air conditioner at all times. I thought for sure, I was above those types of people that went from home, to work, to home again and never subjected themselves to the oppressive heat of the day.
All of that changed though when I moved into a van. You see, our van has no air conditioning at all, not even in the cabin when we’re driving. It wouldn’t be so bad if our windows opened, but most of them don’t. You can see out of them, but that’s about all they have to offer.
We either have to keep the doors open, or slowly suffocate to death.
It’s not that big of a deal in the middle of summer in the Pacific Northwest, but when we travel out of our little bubble, staying cool can be tough.
Keeping Cool Without Air Conditioning In A Van
I think it was somewhere in the scenic Smokey Mountain National Park when we decided that it was just too hot to go on. The plan that day had been to go to Dollywood and have a blast before sampling moonshine and retiring for the evening. Unfortunately, when we got to Dollywood, it was closed.
In a scene straight out of a National Lampoon movie, I tried pressuring them into opening the gates for me, but those old lady security guards are way tougher than I will ever be and they quickly overpowered us.
Since we were on a tight schedule and didn’t have an extra day to spend in Dollywood, we had to come up with another fun way to spend our time.
And what could be funner than drinking copious amount of moonshine in the middle of the day?
Now, if you’ve never had moonshine, just know that it’s very strong and a little bit of it in the Tennessee summer heat will kick your ass.
After several hours of “sampling” we retired to our campsite and tried sleeping, but after two hours of thrashing in the hot van we gave up and started researching portable AC units.
Portable AC Units Are Expensive and Drain Energy
After several miserable hours, we came to the conclusion that affordable air conditioning just wasn’t a thing we could get.
Sure, they make units you can install in a van or RV, but the cost alone is enough to deter most people. Add to it, the fact that you always have to be plugged into an outlet and it totally negates the stealth aspect.
For people like us that depend on our van being stealthy, we just can’t afford a giant energy sucker making a bunch of noise all the time.
We could however, make a swamp cooler pretty cheaply.
Now, I’m not going to lie to you can tell you that it’s as good as being in an air conditioned room. It’s not. But I will tell you that it certainly takes the edge off when you don’t want to feel like you’re sleeping in a giant’s mouth.
Easy DIY Swamp Cooler
Turns out, you can make a cheap swamp cooler pretty easy and cheap if you have just a few small things.
If you’re not good with tools or just panic at the thought of DIY, I’ll start this tutorial off by saying that you can buy these units pre-made. We chose that route initially because we were in dire need of an immediate solution. Our brains had been scrambled by heat and mountain moonshine and we were in no shape to be using hand tools.
After using it for one night, we promptly returned it and headed to the local hardware store.
These are so easy to throw together, anyone can do it.
Even you, I promise!
First you need a cheap cooler. You can either go to goodwill and buy an actual cooler, or you could go to the grocery store and get yourself one of the 6 dollar Styrofoam ones. For ease of cutting, I would suggest the latter.
From there, you’re going to need to cut some holes. One on top for your fan, and one or more on the front for your cool air to escape.
After you have cut your holes, go ahead and place your 12 volt fan into the top hole. I would suggest a fan like this little Taotou model. It is compact and quiet, but the actual fan part is a rectangle shape, so it’ll be easier to jam it into the top hole securely.
Your last step is to fill the cooler with ice. You can absolutely use just a bag of regular old ice, but pro tip here…if you use blocks of ice, they last way longer!
Now, this isn’t going to cool like a refrigerator or anything. It’s not going to get so cold you’ll need to put a sweater on, but if you’re in Georgia, and its summer time, and there are legions of fire ants outside, you’ll be happy with this.
This will provide you with a gentle cool breeze that can mean the difference in a comfortable night sleep and a fitful night of naked sweating in a stuffy van.
More Ways To Keep Cool
This wouldn’t be a post about keeping cool in a van if we didn’t include some obvious other answers for those of you who are currently drunk on moonshine and slowly going insane from heat.
Stay parked in the shade. During the hottest part of the day, try to park under a tree, or at least not in direct sunlight.
- Keep your windows covered. Remember I said Reflectix would keep you warm in the winter? Well it’ll keep you cool in the summer too. Just make sure you cover your windows completely so no sunlight can get in.
- Stay hydrated. This is a big one, drinks lots of water or Gatorade. Ice cold when possible. Usually I’m not one to want to go to gas stations and buy stuff all the time, but when it’s sweltering outside and you need relief, go ahead and splurge on ice cold beverages. Hydration makes you sweat, sweat keeps you cool. That’s just biology!
- Fill a hot water bottle with ice water. This is my weird trick that I use when nothing else will work. I will fill a hot water bottle with ice, wrap it in a towel, and sleep with it. I either put it on the back of my neck, or on whatever body part is particularly miserable.
Staying Cool In Your Stealth Van Doesn’t Have To Be Expensive
Like I said earlier, there are tons of units out there that claim to keep you cool and not drain a ton of energy, but they are all swamp coolers. Some are a little more intricate than others, but at the end of the day, they all use the same type of technology.
I have seen models go anywhere from 80 to 400 bucks. The GoCool unit that I linked to above…the one we bought initially…that was $360.
After we realized how simple it was to put together on our own, we just couldn’t justify spending that kind of money. If you’re living in your car or van more for money savings over the Instagram glory, you probably can’t either.
*This post may contain affiliate links. Please read this disclosure for more information