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Tent Air Conditioning

Tent air conditioning is often the only way campers in very warm, humid climates are able to camp in warm seasons.

People who have not experienced weeks of very warm, humid weather may not understand how difficult it can be for tent campers to spend day and night outdoors in these conditions.

Fortunately, it is not difficult to adapt an air conditioner for tent camping.

Before getting into the details, prospective A/C campers should first make sure that an air conditioner is necessary for their situation.


Do I need tent air conditioning?

Family camping tents offer a lot of screen mesh in doorways, windows, low vents and ceilings to take advantage of breezes and convection.

Tents can be pitched in the shade or oriented facing a breeze in order to improve conditions inside.

If possible, tent campers should always first try to work with nature to get the most enjoyment out of camping. Breeze and convection are often enough for campers in moderate climates to be comfortable.

However, family campers sometimes need assistance with the conditions inside the tent body.

Before discussing air conditioners, lets first look at some other, simpler solutions.


Fans

Families in moderate climates camp on warm, humid, still days and evenings in sheltered sites. There may be neither enough breeze nor convection to make the tent comfortable.

Small 6-volt and larger 12-volt portable fans are available to provide a breeze inside the tent body.

Small tent fans can attach to a ceiling loop, clip to fabric or poles or sit in the gear loft. More powerful small fans draw power from 4, D-cell alkaline batteries, provide a gentle breeze and can last for several trips.

Larger fans are 12-volt units, which sit on the tent floor, can provide quite a breeze and draw power from a large, rechargeable battery. These fans will need more cargo space to transport, but can be useful at sites without electricity.


Ice cooler fans

An ice cooler fan offers spot cooling. These units feature a small, battery powered fan which sits on top of an open ice cooler, blows air first over the reservoir of ice and then over a camper.

Because the air is passed over melting ice, these units normally blow cool, humid air inside of a tent. This makes them better suited to dry than to humid climates, where they will increase the humidity inside the tent even more.

Freezing the ice in plastic containers inside the cooler will keep the extra humidity out of the tent body, but will also reduce the cooling effect of an ice cooler.

Coolers used for this purpose will not be available to chill food.


Evaporative coolers

Tent campers who live in hot, semi-arid climates, such as in many western U.S. states, may benefit from evaporative coolers, especially during the daytime.

Since these units rely on evaporating water mist to cool a chamber, they are not suitable for the more humid climate of the eastern U.S. states.


Air conditioners

Campers who live in very warm, humid climates, such as the southeastern U.S. states, may realize that neither ventilation nor a fan will be enough to make the tent comfortable. The humidity in the air may be worse than the air temperature itself.

Tent campers in this region may find tent camping too uncomfortable without tent air conditioning.

Fortunately, an air conditioner can make a family tent quite comfortable, even on a very warm, humid day. It is the only device that can transfer both heat and humidity out of the tent body.

In order to transfer heat and humidity, an A/C will need to consume a substantial amount of electricity. Batteries cannot supply this much current.

So, campers will need to book a tent campsite with 120-volt electricity.

A heavy-duty, outdoor extension cord is also necessary.

Campers planning on camping with an air conditioner should also have a look at the tent campsite and electricity page in order to learn about working with campsite electrics.


Window air conditioners for tent camping

Window air conditioners are widely available, and, among air conditioner types, offer the most cooling capability for the price.

However, a window air conditioner is designed to fit in an open window and will only work with a tent, if it is partly inside and partly outside of the tent body. This will require adapting a window A/C to a tent and perhaps the tent to the A/C.

Room air conditioners

Another type of air conditioner is a room air conditioner, which is designed to sit on the floor inside a closed chamber with an exhaust hose out a window opening.

It has wheels on the base and a handle at the top and stands more upright than a window air conditioner.

This type of A/C usually has a single exhaust hose, which will need to pass through a doorway.

However, Campetent doubts that many tent campers will find a portable, room air conditioner satisfactory for tent air conditioning.

It is substantially easier to move around and to set up than a window A/C, but is more expensive and offers less cooling for the same BTU rating.

It will also take up a fair amount of precious space inside the tent.

The warm, humid air that is exhausted out the hose will be drawn from inside the tent, which will create a vacuum, drawing outside air into the tent through any open mesh. This will partially defeat the purpose of a room A/C.

Room air conditioners are available with dual hoses, one for intake and the other for exhaust. These do not have the vacuum issue, but are even more expensive and difficult to find.

For campers who already have a room air conditioner at home, it's definitely worth a try at an electric campsite. Otherwise, most people will prefer a window unit.

Window air conditioners are the best compromise

Family tent campers who want to reduce the heat and humidity inside their tent will be best served by adapting a window air conditioner to their tent.

The tent-air-conditioner page will give campers some tips and ideas on selecting an air conditioner for their tent.

Preparing a window air conditioner for tent camping

Campers who are using an old air conditioner for camping will want to first maintain it, so that it can keep the tent as comfortable as possible.

Make sure the screen or foam filter behind the front faceplate has been cleaned of dust. This protects the front (evaporator) fins from getting clogged with dust.

Remove the housing of the A/C. Check that the front and back radiator fins are not plugged. Use a brush or air compressor to clean them, if necessary.

Campers can clean the rear (condenser) fins with a garden hose (avoid spraying the front electrical panel). However, the air conditioner should then be allowed to thoroughly dry before being hooked up to electricity.

Rinse any dirt out of the bottom A/C pan and make sure that the back drain opening or hose is not plugged. Otherwise the bottom drain pan will fill up and overflow, possibly inside the tent.

Once the cover is back on, place some duct tape over any sharp edges or corners of the metal housing, so that they do not catch or tear any tent fabric.


Where to put a tent air conditioner

A window air conditioner can be set up in a window, through the wall or in the doorway of a tent.

Setting the A/C in a doorway is the easiest and safest method. Campers won't have to worry about modifying tent fabric.

Campers will probably want to seal the door, window and low vent storm flaps in the tent body, in order for the air conditioner to perform well.

Since cool, dry, conditioned air is heavier than warm, humid air, the conditioned air is less likely to drift out through the ceiling mesh—as long as the tent body is fairly well sealed up.

A breeze over the ceiling mesh might draw some of the conditioned air out. However, air conditioners are usually used in hot temperatures and in fairly still weather, so this should not be an issue.

Campers can partially cover the tent ceiling mesh, if necessary, to retain more cool air. A light, breathable fabric should do the trick.

If the tent is in direct sunlight in hot temperatures, the air conditioner will likely not be able to overcome the effect of the sun's rays on the tent fabric, and the tent body will not cool down.


Making a doorway stand for the A/C

Find some lumber or a low stand to set the unit on. The stand should be large enough, so that the A/C is not prone to tipping.

The lumber or stand will need to be placed outside of the doorway.

When the A/C is in position, the front will need to be raised slightly, so that the water accumulating in the bottom pan will drip out the back of the A/C onto the ground, outside of the tent.


Fashioning a fabric border to seal around the air conditioner in a tent doorway

When the A/C is set in the tent doorway, fabric should seal around the A/C housing, so that air and insects cannot pass around the A/C through any gaps.

Campers can tape the tent door fabric to the A/C housing, but it is better to tape a separate, synthetic fabric or plastic sheeting border around the A/C and clip this border to the tent fabric. This protects the tent fabric and makes it easier to seal and unseal the doorway.

Cut 4 strips of fabric, one each for the top, sides and bottom of the A/C. Campers can also use plastic sheeting instead of waterproof, synthetic fabric. The fabric should extend about 6" to 12" away from the A/C housing and form a rectangular border around the A/C. Each strip will need to be cut longer than the corresponding side of the A/C, so that it can form a square corner with the adjacent strip.

Tape one edge of each fabric strip to the housing and to the adjacent strips at the corners. The front faceplate should be on one side of the fabric border. Any housing vents and the back of the A/C should be on the other side of the fabric. Try not to cover any vents with tape or fabric.

Campers will now have a fabric border around their A/C and, with some clips or clothespins, should be able to easily seal and unseal the A/C border from the tent doorway fabric.

Setting an air conditioner in the doorway of a tent

Campers will need to place the A/C in a lower corner of the tent doorway, making sure that the front few inches of the A/C are inside the tent body and the rest of the unit is outside of the tent.

If the A/C is sitting in the only doorway of the tent, campers will need to step over or around the A/C to enter the tent.

A smaller A/C and a large doorway will work best in this situation.

It may be better to set the A/C in the lower corner of the doorway away from the vertical part of the zipper track, so that people can more easily step around it when opening the door. The A/C may need more border fabric, because the door flap will not close as tightly around the A/C.

Zip the door closed as much as possible. Clip the border fabric around the A/C to the doorway fabric, sealing any gaps.

Large tents with 2 doors are better suited to tent air conditioners.

A tent with 2 doors can have one doorway dedicated to the air conditioner and the other for traffic.


Setting an air conditioner into a tent window

Next to the doorway, a tent screen window is the most common spot to place a window air conditioner. This frees the doorway for traffic and is much easier than cutting an opening in the tent wall.

The manufacturer has already cut and reinforced an opening in the tent wall for a window screen, so campers can use this opening, instead of taking the risk of creating one themselves.

Mounting an A/C works best in window openings that are low in the tent wall.

If the window opening is too high, the mounted A/C may be unstable.

Many campers use a cooler or milk crate outside the window to support an A/C in this situation.


Cutting the screen

The window screen will need to be cut away to allow the front of the A/C to pass into the tent body. The window storm flap will probably be the only way to keep out flying insects, when the A/C is not in the window.

It may be possible to modify the screen to open and close by sewing a velcro border or zipper around the edge of the cut screen, which would allow it to be reattached or zipped to the window opening border.

Velcro hooks will catch screen netting, just like they catch velcro loops. However, screen mesh is not designed for this and could be damaged.

Campers will probably want to attach the velcro hook tape to the tent body and the velcro loop tape to the screen, so if the screen gets rolled up and put in a tent pocket, there will be no hooks in the rolled bundle to cause damage.


Cutting an opening in the tent wall

Creating an opening in a tent wall can be risky.

If the tent wall is not modified correctly and carefully, the tent may no longer function.

Tent campers who do a lot of camping on very warm, humid days, want full access through the tent doorways and windows and are willing to modify the tent body can consider setting up an air conditioner through the wall of their tents.

An inexpensive tent is usually the best candidate for this type of alteration.

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