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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 may camp on warm, humid, still days and evenings in sheltered sites. There is neither enough breeze nor convection to make the tent comfortable. Small 6-volt and larger 12-volt tent fans are available to provide a breeze inside the tent body.

Small tent fans either attach to a ceiling loop, clip to fabric or poles or can sit in the gear loft. These often draw power from four, D-cell alkaline batteries.

Larger tent fans are 12-volt units, which sit on the floor, can provide quite a breeze and usually draw power from a large, rechargeable battery.


Ice cooler fans

An ice cooler fan offers spot cooling. These units feature a small 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 more suited to dry than to humid climates, where they will increase the humidity inside the tent even more.

Storing the ice in 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.


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, like 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, in this situation, 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.

Campers will need to find 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

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

A room air conditioner is designed to sit on the floor inside a chamber with an exhaust hose out a window opening.

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

A room A/C takes up a fair amount of space inside a tent, which makes it more suited to large tents.

A room air conditioner usually has a single exhaust hose, which will have to pass through a doorway.

Campetent doubts, however, 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.

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

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

If you already have a room air conditioner at home, it's definitely worth a try at an electric campsite. Otherwise, most people will prefer another option.

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

Make sure the filter behind the front A/C faceplate has been cleaned of dust.

Vents around the top and sides of a window air conditioner draw air into the unit to be blown over the back radiator and out the back. Cover these vents with some nylon screening, so that flying insects are not sucked into the housing, where they can block the air flow. Please note that these vents are located around the top and sides, not the front or the back, of the A/C.

The best way to cover the vents is to remove the A/C housing cover, place some nylon screening over the vents from the inside, tape around the screening and put the cover back on. Be sure not to block the vents with any tape.

While the cover is off, make sure that the front and back radiator fins are not plugged. Use a brush or air compressor to clean them, if necessary.

Rinse any dirt out of the bottom A/C pan and make sure that the back drain opening or hose is not plugged.

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


Where to put a tent air conditioner

A window air conditioner can be set up either 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.

Note that you will have to close all door, window and low-vent flaps in order for the air conditioner to function.

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.

Allow a bit of ventilation for fresh air for breathing.

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

Some campers do partially cover the tent ceiling mesh, if necessary, to retain more cool air. A light, uncoated, breathable fabric works best.

If the tent is in direct sunlight in hot temperatures, the air conditioner will very 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, other building material or a low stand to set the unit on. A stand should be large enough to that the A/C is not prone to tipping.

The lumber or stand will normally 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.

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

Setting an air conditioner in the doorway of a single-door 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.

Since 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 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.


Setting an air conditioner in a double-door tent

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

The doorway with the air conditioner will be left closed, while the A/C is in place.

In this situation, the A/C can be set towards the lower corner of the doorway where the vertical and horizontal zipper tracks meet, so that the door fabric can be drawn more completely around the A/C.


Setting an air conditioner into a tent window

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

Windows can be rather high on a family tent wall. The tent wall should not slope very much.

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

The window screen will need to be cut away to allow the front of the A/C to pass into the tent body. This may mean that the window storm flap will 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 to allow it to be reattached or zipped to the window border. Velcro hooks will catch screen netting, just like they catch velcro loops, but screen is not designed for this and could be damaged. You will probably want to attach the hook tape to the tent body and the 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 bundle to cause damage.

Cutting an opening in the tent wall

Creating an opening in a tent wall can be risky.

The opening may need to be closer to the ground than a window, so that it is easier to set up the A/C.

However, 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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