(Cover photo courtesy Instagram/LivingWithoutWalls)
Everyone looks forward to summer, and the promise of long, warm days makes us all excited to get out into the world and enjoy life.
When the temperatures outside really start to rise, though, it can prove challenging to maintain a comfortable environment in your van.
Although many fancy Class B campers come equipped with van air conditioners, not everyone has that luxury.
Fortunately, there are loads of options for keeping your van cool.
From low-tech solutions to high-end campervan AC units, we’ve found the 6 best air conditioners for a campervan, any of which should have you feeling fresh as a daisy and ready to conquer van life on even the hottest of days!
But first, can your campervan power an AC unit?
Just a quick note before we get started. Most of the campervan air conditioners on the market run on AC power – the same type you have in your house.
Solar panels and battery banks won’t keep up with the power requirements for a campervan AC unit that runs on AC power, or 120 volts. You’ll need to hook up to shore power in a campground or use a generator.
12-volt air conditioners are few and far between and much more expensive than AC units that run on 120-volts. You can expect to pay up to four times the amount for the best campervan air conditioner that runs on 12 volts.
The only true 12-volt campervan AC unit we’ve found is the Nomadic Cooling air conditioner, meant to run on your van’s batteries. Use the coupon code WAYWARD100 to get $100 off any Nomadic Cooling air conditioner.
These AC units use much less power than their counterparts so are best for off-grid van life.
Best Campervan AC Unit Comparison Chart
|Dometic Penguin II||Buy Now|
|Coleman Mach 15||Buy Now|
|Dometic Brisk II||Buy Now|
|Zero Breeze||Buy Now|
|Nomadic Cooling 3000||Buy Now|
The 6 Best Air Conditioners For A Camper Van
Dometic is a big name when it comes to campervan air conditioners, and the Penguin II is one of the company's most popular models.
- Weight: 99 pounds
- Dimensions: 29 x 40 x 9.5″
- Cooling capacity: 11,000 BTU/hour
- Power draw: 3,000 Watts
- Power source: 115V AC
- Price: $900-$1,100
This Dometic Penguin II best air conditioner for a campervan has a low profile – only adding 9.5 inches to your van’s roofline – so you won’t have to worry about drag affecting your fuel economy.
In fact, we think this van AC unit actually looks pretty cool, and will enhance any campervan’s aesthetic!
Although the Penguin II is pretty heavy, it’s fairly easy to install and comes with manual, electronic, and wall thermostat controls.
One of the best things about this best campervan air conditioner is its use of R410 refrigerant, an eco-friendly option that releases heat more efficiently than other AC units.
The Penguin II has a 3-speed blower, and although it isn’t the quietest of van air conditioners, it’ll definitely do the job of cooling down your van on the hottest days, thanks to its 11,000 BTU/hour cooling capacity.
- Attractive, compact design
- Produces minimal drag
- 2 year warranty
- Can be quite noisy
- Doesn’t come with instructions
The Nomadic Cooling AC units are the only 12-volt air conditioners that you can use off-grid. Plus, we have partnered with Nomadic Cooling to give you $100 off an AC unit. Use the coupon code "WAYWARD100" when you check out!
- Weight: 61 pounds
- Cooling capacity: 11,830 BTU
- Power draw: 35-120 Amps
- Power source: 12 volt
- Price: $4,200
The Nomadic Cooling campervan air conditioning unit is the only AC unit we’ve found that runs on 12-volt power. This unit comes with a hefty price tag, but that’s what you get for a truly off-grid air conditioner that runs off your van’s batteries, preferably lithium.
The Nomadic 3000 fits into a standard 14×14 opening and runs on real refrigerant.
This campervan AC unit comes with both Eco Mode and Powerful Mode depending on the outdoor temperature. Default is Eco Mode and is preferred up to 85 degrees outside. You can use Powerful Mode for short bursts to really cool your van down on a hot day. Powerful Mode takes a lot of amps so isn’t sustainable for the long term.
The Nomadic Cooling 3000 comes with a pressure alarm, high/lower voltage alarm, motor over-current and motor temperature protection. Remember to use the coupon code WAYWARD100 for $100 off any Nomadic Cooling AC unit.
- Works off-grid
- Real refrigerant
- Fits into standard 14×14 opening
- Very expensive
- High power draw
The Coleman Mach 15 is the most powerful AC unit for a campervan. This awesome air conditioner will always perform, no matter how hot it is outside.
Weight: 90 pounds
Cooling capacity: 15,000 BTU/hour
Power draw: 1,800 Watts
Power source: 115V AC
This Coleman Mach 15 best air conditioner for a campervan features an impressive 1/3 horsepower fan that blows cool air at an incredible 325 cubic feet per minute.
Best of all, the unit is really quiet, even when the fan is on full speed.
The Coleman Mach 15 also features a heating element, and its rugged construction, with all copper tubing, gas-flux brazed joints, and a sealed shaft to protect it from the elements means this campervan AC unit will stand the test of time.
Although the Mach 15 campervan air conditioner weighs less than similar units, installation can be quite tricky, and you’ll need at least 2 people and a few hours to get the job done.
This van AC unit is designed for ducted systems but comes with an adaptor for non-ducted setup, like what you’d have in a campervan.
- Relatively low power draw
- Durable design
- Doubles as a heater
- Installation can be tricky
- On the pricey side
Dometic is a super-reliable and trusted company that has been working with NASA for years to help improve their air conditioning systems. This makes the Dometic a clear pick for the best air conditioner for a camper van.
Weight: 77 pounds
Cooling capacity: 13,500 BTU/hour
Power draw: 2,800 Watt
Power source: 115V AC
The Brisk II is a sturdy, lightweight campervan air conditioner that uses aircraft-grade parts, and is really made to last.
This best air conditioner for a campervan is easy to install and comes with a gasket that fits a standard 14×14 opening.
The Dometic Brisk II is one of the quieter units on our list, thanks to its vibration-reducing technology.
Although this van AC unit doesn’t have the highest BTU rating, it’s definitely powerful enough to cool down a campervan.
The Dometic Brisk II has a 3-speed blower, washable filter, and a remote control, so you don’t even have to get out of bed if you need to adjust the temperature!
- Runs quiet
- Sturdy, lightweight design
- Easy to install
- Wires are short
- Reports of faulty evaporator coils
Although the Zero Breeze does require ventilation, the small exhaust pipe could easily be fit through a window.
This cool-looking cordless van AC unit has small, strong compressors, and its BTU rating is really impressive, given its size.
The Zero Breeze is definitely on the expensive side, but if you’re looking for an innovative solution to your van air conditioner needs, this could be the unit for you!
The Zero Breeze campervan AC unit claims to drop the ambient temperature 30 degrees in just 10 minutes. It uses refrigerant, so isn’t a swamp cooler.
The ideal cooling area for a Zero Breeze is 24-40 square feet, perfect for a van.
- Impressive cooling capacity
- Might struggle to cool larger spaces
- Heavy for a portable unit
One of the biggest concerns when using an evaporative cooler as a campervan air conditioner is that it’ll create a lot of moisture, which could lead to an uncomfortable environment, as well as potential mold and mildew.
The Fresair S6 rooftop evaporative cooler combats this by using a state of the art filter that’s anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, and allows the Fresair to produce cool, dry air.
This van AC unit runs on water, so it’s an eco-friendly option, and it also uses very little power.
The unit has awesome adjustable ceiling vents and comes with a dedicated 18L water reservoir.
Although the manufacturer claims that the Fresair can drop the air temperature by 40 degrees, there’s no getting away from the fact that this is an evaporative cooler, so it’ll only be really effective in very low-humidity environments.
Here. isa chart from Fresair’s website to show you how well the unit will work relative to humidity.
- Lightweight and easy to install
- Low power draw
- Very expensive
- Only effective in dry environments
Campervan Air Conditioner BTU Ratings Explained
When you’re looking for the best air conditioner for a campervan, you’ll quickly notice that each unit’s BTU rating is prominently displayed. Why does this matter, and what does it mean?
BTU stands for British Thermal Units, and measures the heat transfer capacity of the AC.
This is defined as the amount of heat needed to raise the temperature of one pound of water by one degree, Fahrenheit.
Essentially, the higher the number, the quicker and more efficiently the van AC unit can cool down the space.
In practice, the efficiency of the best air conditioner for a campervan depends on factors like the size of the space, how well-insulated it is, and the outside temperature.
Generally speaking, though, a BTU rating of 10,000 to 13,000 will keep your van nice and cool on the spiciest of days.
Different Types Of Campervan Air Conditioners
There are many different ways to keep your campervan cool, and it can be difficult to choose which type of van air conditioner will work best for you. Here’s the lowdown on the different types of campervan air conditioners.
Compressor Campervan Air Conditioners
This is the most popular option for a rooftop air conditioner for a van.
A compressor van AC unit sucks in hot air and cools it by using refrigerant. The cool air is blown back into your living space, and hot air is expelled outside.
These best air conditioners for a camper van can be ducted or non-ducted, and although they’re the best option for quickly lowering the temperature inside, the main drawback is the amount of power they’ll draw.
Unless you plan on using a separate generator or hooking up to shore power, it’ll be unlikely that you’re solar and battery setup will be enough to run this type of campervan AC unit for long.
Another thing to consider when looking at this type of campervan air conditioner is the weight of the unit.
You’ll need to be sure the roof of your van can handle extra weight, and whether or not there’s enough space for installation.
Evaporative Cooler Campervan Air Conditioners
Also known as swamp coolers, these van AC units work by cooling the air through the evaporation of water.
The simplest way to achieve this type of cooling is to hang a wet towel in front of a fan, although this will create a really humid environment that could lead to mold and mildew.
There are some really cool rooftop evaporative coolers out there, and many van dwellers use them.
However, this type of campervan air conditioner has its limitations.
An evaporative cooler only really works well in very low-humidity environments, which is great if you’ll only be using it in the desert, but not so great if you’re on your way to Florida!
You’ll also need a lot of water to run an evaporative cooler, which can be a serious downside.
Portable Campervan Air Conditioners
This type of unit could definitely be the best air conditioner for a campervan if you want something for occasional use that can be stored when not in use.
Household versions are larger and definitely have enough cooling capacity for use as a campervan AC unit, but they need to be vented outside and you’ll need to get creative to achieve this in your van.
Smaller portable air conditioners are an excellent option, especially for use in specific areas.
These van AC units are easier to vent, more affordable, and often run on battery power, although you’ll struggle to cool down your entire living space with a portable air conditioner.
Window Campervan Air Conditioner
Window air conditioners aren’t designed to be portable, but they continue to be a popular option among van dwellers, thanks to their supreme cooling power.
A window unit is big and bulky, but it could be the best air conditioner for a campervan; especially if you design the layout of your van to accommodate it.
Learn how to build your own van with this detailed van build sourcebook. While the title reflects Sprinter vans, the concepts can be used on any DIY campervan conversion. You'll learn design considerations, how to plumb your van, choosing solar panels, installing water tanks and electrical and wiring systems. A great resource!
You may also be interested in 7 Best 12-Volt Refrigerators For Van Life and Camping.
How to Keep Your Campervan Cool When Temperatures Begin To Rise
Whether or not you’re using the best air conditioner for a camper van there are quite a few things you can do to make things more comfortable in your van.
Some of these may appear obvious, and some might seem superfluous, but when the heat is on, small changes can make all the difference!
Apart from giving you privacy, using reflective window coverings and curtains in your van can make a huge difference, sometimes even lowering the temperature inside by 10 or 20 degrees.
Using a mesh screen will keep out unwanted creepy-crawlies, and you’ll be able to create valuable airflow, especially if you also install a vent fan.
Roof Fans/Portable Fans
Although a fan won’t be able to cool the interior of your van on a hot day, it can bring the temperature down to match the temperature outside.
The two most popular roof fans for van life are the Maxxair and Fan-Tastic, and either one will give you much-needed air circulation. A small, USB-powered fan can also make a lot of difference and is a cheap, space-saving way to get the air moving inside your van.
Insulating your camper van is super-important, not just to help keep the heat inside during the winter, but also to maintain a comfortable environment during the summer, especially if you’re using a van AC unit.
This might seem like a no-brainer, but parking your van in the shade can make a big difference on the hottest of days.
Parking in the shade will keep the sun’s rays at bay and prevent the temperature inside your van from becoming unbearable.
Drive Somewhere Cooler
Don’t forget that you’re free to leave! If you’re suffering in the heat, there will often be somewhere not too far away that is going to be cooler.
Driving to the coast can often be the way too go, and nighttime temperatures at higher elevations are usually much more pleasant.
Don’t forget showers! A good shower can cool you right off in the hot summer. Check out 9 Van Life Shower Ideas for Staying Clean On the Road and 11 ways to Find Public Showers When Living in a Campervan.
Conclusion On The Best Air Conditioners For A Campervan
Everyone has different tolerance levels when it comes to heat, and while some will be loving the feel of a hot day, others will be reaching for the air conditioner on switch.
If you’re traveling with pets or children, a campervan AC unit is a must, especially during the hottest months.
Whether you’re using a powerful rooftop air conditioner, or a small, portable unit, taking the edge off the heat will make living in your van much more bearable.
We hope you’ve found this article helpful. Feel free to leave any questions in the comments section below!
Check out more awesome van life posts below:
Nicholas Marshall is a writer, photographer, and musician who currently lives in a ‘97 VW Eurovan with his wife and six-year-old daughter. Since selling their house and hitting the road, Nicholas and his family have meandered through the Western States. Van life has been everything they hoped it would be: challenging, rewarding, relaxing, and exciting.