I spend my winter in the desert and sometimes it gets hot. This photo shows some of my methods to stay cool: 1) Shade cloth draped around the trailer 2) Plywood over my roof 3) Roof vents 4) ADCO windshield cover on the van 5) Shade cloth between the trailer and the van to make a shaded porch to sit under outside.

I’m writing this in July and much of the country is sweltering under oppressive heat, so it seems like an appropriate time to write about staying cool in a van. Before we go any further let me say staying cool is the most difficult aspect of living in a van and the best you can hope for is to make it bearable; it will never be pleasant or good! There are two kinds of cooling for your van:
1) Active Cooling is when you are creating cold air with an air conditioner and pumping cold air into the van. Because you are creating cold air, you can reduce the temperature to almost any temperature you want if you spend the money. Active cooling is difficult because you have to find room for the air conditioner and then you have to find a large source of electricity for it. The power almost certainly must come from either a generator or being hooked up to the city 110 power grid (commonly called shore power). With a van the most practical solution is a very small window or portable air conditioner powered by a generator. It is possible to run it off solar, but it is difficult and expensive. You’ll need:

  • A very well insulated van.
  • The smallest air conditioner you can find–500 watts or less.
  • A minimum of 800 watts  of solar and 8 golf cart batteries.

With this system you are creating more power than the air conditioner draws but it’s going to be expensive, need a lot of room on the roof and the batteries will be very heavy and take a lot of space. And even then you can only run the air conditioner sporadically and a minimal amount at night.
The bottom line is Active cooling isn’t a viable option for must of us, we need something cheaper and easier.
2) Passive Cooling is when you are doing everything you can to keep heat from building up in the van. However, the best you can hope for is that the inside temperature is the same as the outside temperature. For example, if it’s 100* outside, it will be 100* inside. That doesn’t sound very good but consider if you didn’t use passive cooling techniques, it could easily be 130*-140* inside–that’s a big improvement and worth the effort!!
This post is only about Passive Cooling steps you can take because they are all relatively cheap and easy and the average person can do them. Let’s take a look:

How you Park the Van:

How you park can make a big difference. Your windows allow the most heat into the van and your side door allows the most cooling so you want to try to park the van so the least heat comes in from the windows and the most heat can escape through the side door. Since I have a cargo van, I try to park East-West with the windshield facing due west; that way the drivers side (which has no windows) faces south, and the side door gets no sunshine and can be open all day.  To keep heat from coning in through the windshield and drivers window, I use an ADCO windshield cover that completely covers the windshield and drivers window. By parking with the front pointed to the West and using the ADCO cover, the only windows exposed to the sun are the back door windows and they are tinted very dark.  Passenger vans will be different, just try to park with the fewest windows exposed to the sun and the most doors open into the shade.

Roof Rack to Shade the Roof: 

This is a fairly cheap and easy method of cooling the van because your roof is in the shade 100% of the time. The easiest way is to buy a ladder rack and use 2x4s and plywood to cover the roof. If you keep it low enough no one will be able to see it and it won’t hurt your stealth. The sun and rain will destroy the wood so you want to paint it very well. This is the ladder rack I use on my van and it costs $82 on Amazon:  Pro-Series 500 lbs. Capacity Van Rack

I covered the roof of my trailer with plywood so it’s always in the shade. You can also see I have two vents with covers and a tarp to cover the south wall of the trailer which leaves my side door open into the shade of the van. I have very good passive cooling.

Paint the Roof:

If you have a dark colored van, you can keep it cooler by painting the roof with a special elastometric paint like my friend did in the below picture. She used the Kool-Seal brand but there are several good ones. You can buy it at Walmart or Home Depot. It’s very easy to do, you just pour it on and roll it evenly with a roller. The hardest part is scrubbing  the roof clean. Buy Kool-Seal from Amazon here: Kool-Seal Elastomeric Roof Coating, 1-Gallon

A friend of mine painting her roof with Kool-Seal to keep it cooler.

Install a Roof Vent:

Without doubt one of the best thing you can do to cool the van is install a vent. Warm air rises so it automatically  will exit from the van. You can buy vents with powered fans in them and they are an excellent choice. They can be set to run inside or outside and they will remove a lot of air very quickly. A non-powered vent will be about $40, a basic powered Fantastic Fan will be around $150. They aren’t hard to install but paying someone to install one will be expensive. Get one from Amazon here: Fan-Tastic Vent 3-Speed Motor, Manual Crank

A Fantastic Fan at work drastically cooling the van.

Use Portable Fans:

I actually prefer portable fans more than roof fans because they are so much cheaper and you can set them anywhere you want. Having a fan siting two feet away from you aimed right at your face is going to work better than an immovable fan in your roof. I have two fans I carry with me; the first is an Endless Breeze which is made by Fantastic Fan. I’ve been using it for over 10 year and it seems to be indestructible. The other is a Roadpro fan but it is made by O2 Cool. They are a very good, inexpensive fan that is often re-branded as Walmarts Ozark Trail or Roadpro. You can get the Roadpro at any truck stop. Get them from Amazon here: RoadPro 12-Volt/ Battery Portable Fan
Endless Breeze Stand alone Fan

ADCO Windshield Cover:

Something I recommend very highly is an ADCO Windshield cover! They are a heavy vinyl that fits completely across your front-door windows and windshield. To put it on you open one door and slip the pocket over the doors corner and shut the door. Pull the cover over the windshield and open the other door. Slip it’s pocket over that door and close it. It has magnets at the bottom to keep it from flapping in the wind and has a cutout for the mirrors. It works extremely well–far better than Reflectix because the heat never gets inside the van. Another plus is it lets some light through so the  van isn’t as dark as Reflectix which doesn’t let any light through. Mine cost about $45. Get them from Amazon here: ADCO Windshield Covers

Reflectix in the Windows:

For summer or winter, putting Reflectix into the windows of the van is a lifesaver! It will keep the van cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter. There are several ways to do it but the simplest and best is to cut the Reflectix a little big and simply press it into the window frame. You’d think it would just fall out but for some reason it doesn’t. Two other options are 1) to use Velcro to hold it in, or 2) strong magnets taped to the Reflectix and washers taped to the window frame. But compression works so well I recommend you start with it. Buy it from Amazon here: Reflectix 24-Inch by 25-Feet Bubble Pack Insulation

Use Tarps or an Awning to Shade the Van:

A very good option is to drape tarps as an awning off the van or trailer. It has the advantage of being cheap and easy and it also works great in the rain. But, it has two really big disadvantages: 1) you can’t leave it up in a strong wind, 2) it keeps the breeze from blowing through  the van. If you are in the forest you can tie it out to nearby trees and in the desert you can use PVC tubes as tent poles.

I tied this tarp out to nearby trees and it kept the rain off in bad weather and it also put the side of the trailer in the shade in sunshine. It worked very well!

In the picture below you see my high quality awning made by ARB that I installed on my trailer. It works very well, and is fairly easy to put out, but, it won’t stand up to much wind.

My ARB awning and shade cloth to make a very pleasant outdoor room.

Use Shade Cloth in the Desert:

The problem with tarps and awnings is they can’t stay up in much of a wind and the desert has a lot of wind. I got tired of taking it down in every windstorm so I switched to shade cloth instead which is a mesh tarp that lets the wind flow through. It doesn’t shade as well as a tarp would, but it shades very well. Plus, it allows the near constant breeze to blow through the cloth and into my windows. Having the breeze much more than makes up for it not being quite as good a shade.
It’s important that the shade cloth be pulled away from the van. An easy way to attach it is to drill holes through the gutter of the van matching the grommets in the shade cloth and use spring clips carabiners to attach it into the holes. Pull the bottom of the shade cloth out away from the van and use bungee cords to attach it to stakes driven into the ground far enough to hold it far away from the van. Oddly, dark colors are better than light colors as long as it is held out away from the vehicle. Mine is 10 x 16. You can buy one like it from Amazon here: 90% Shade Mesh Cloth, 10′ x 16′

Shade cloth on trailer and van.

Shade cloth on trailer and van.

Have an outdoor room:

If at all possible you want to have an outdoor room where you can go and sit in the shade in the heat of the day while the van is it’s hottest. There are several ways to create one. The first is with an awning for a roof and and shade cloth as walls, and the other is with a pop-up awning like an EZ-Up Canopy. They’re cheap and fairly easy to setup, but best of all they give you good shade during the heat of the day. You can get an EZ- Up canopy from Amazon here: E-Z UP 10 by 10-Feet Canopy

My ARB awning and shade cloth make a very nice outdoor room

An EZ-Up outside the van door also makes a nice outdoor room.

I hope you get some ideas on staying cool from this post. They won’t all work for you because we are all in very different situations, but hopefully some of them will work.
Here are the items I am actually using from Amazon. If you use these links I’ll make a small percentage and it will cost you nothing:
Pro-Series 500 lbs. Capacity Van Rack
Kool-Seal Elastomeric Roof Coating, 1-Gallon
Endless Breeze Stand alone Fan
RoadPro 12-Volt/ Battery Portable Fan
Fan-Tastic Vent 3-Speed Motor, Manual Crank
ADCO Windshield Covers
Reflectix 24-Inch by 25-Feet Bubble Pack Insulation
90% Shade Mesh Cloth, 10′ x 16′
E-Z UP 10 by 10-Feet Canopy