When summer arrives and school lets out, everyone wants to get out and take advantage of the warm weather and time off to travel and explore. Here in the mid-Atlantic region of the eastern United States, however, summer temps are becoming progressively more unbearable. The Washington, DC area has just endured a miserable multiweek stretch of scorching temps (late-July 2023), and more is likely on the way as the climate continues to evolve.
Large RVs rely on separate air-conditioning systems to keep the living areas cool while camping; however, these systems take up a lot of valuable space and require massive amounts of electrical power to operate (either with 30A/50A shore power hookups or noisy generators). Compact campervans are limited on both space and extra power, so the big RV solution of throwing some A/C at the problem is just not feasible for travelers who prioritize efficiency, sustainability, and mobility.
Nothing is worse than enduring a hot, stuffy night in your campervan to wake up tired, hot, and cranky (read how this Washington Post reporter fared in Hawaii). Luckily, there are plenty of strategies available to mitigate the effects of heat on the compact campervan traveler so you can explore and create good memories!
The Keys to Campervan Cool
While RV air-conditioning systems are generally not a feasible solution for compact campervans, some prior planning and minor behavior changes can significantly improve a summer outdoor travel experience. This guide will outline some of the strategies that we have found to help beat the heat.
Research: Know What You Are Getting Into
If you are already familiar with the DMV (or The District, Maryland, and Virginia), you may already have a good idea about the climate and the timing of the seasons. However, out-of-town travelers may not be used to our climate, and even for locals, the weather is subject to change. Do some research online, local tourism bureaus will usually have climate and seasonal information posted on their websites (see this example from Virginia). Keep in mind that these are tourist bureaus, however, so you will want to read between the lines when you see euphemisms like "it can get a bit sticky." These are a starting point, but there is also lots of additional candid climate info available using the magic of search engines.
Weather forecasts are another great resource to plan your travel. The National Weather Service offers national weather and forecasts that are useful for looking at the "big picture," and it also has a very cool interactive map that can drill down to the county level on weather, temperatures, and precipitation. The Weather Channel and WeatherBug are other popular online weather resources.
When: Timing Your Trip
With a basic feel for the rhythm of the local climate, the savvy traveler can make informed and intentional choices about the type of campervan trip they are ready to embark on. Perhaps the most important question is what dates and time of year. Of course, availability with work and life will be the most important criteria, but climate should also factor into these decisions if it will impact the travel experience.
Every person has their own temperature tolerances and preferences, so it is important that you know yourself and what you want. For people who do not mind warm weather and potentially hot temps, summer can be a great time to get out on the road; however, for those sensitive to the heat, it could be miserable. In the mid-Atlantic region of the United States, which includes northern Virginia, Washington DC, and Maryland, spring and fall can be quite comfortable for campervan travel and outdoor activities. While often overlooked because they do not align with the traditional summer holiday travel season, these shoulder seasons not only benefit from milder temperatures, but also allow a traveler to avoid the summer tourist crush that makes campsites difficult to book and national parks feel like hiking through a mosh pit.
Where: Higher Ground
The ocean is a popular destination for summer travel, including Assateague National Seashore, Virginia Beach, and the Outer Banks. These locations, however, are increasingly miserable outdoors during the peak of summer due to the heat, humidity, and lack of shade. Thankfully, the DMV has lots of great non-beach options within a day's drive west toward the Appalachian Mountains, which encompass Shenandoah National Park, the George Washington & Jefferson National Forests, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. All offer great drives and breathtaking, scenic vistas. But why are these such great destinations when it is hot outside?
1) Elevation. Ridges and peaks in this region average around 3,000 feet, but the larger mountains go up to 6,000 feet. The air can be up to 10 degrees cooler in this region than at sea level.
2) Shade. These areas have thick beautiful forests and most campgrounds will have sites shaded by forest canopy, providing relief from direct sunlight.
3) Relative Humidity. There is less moisture in the air than down at sea-level and near the ocean. As a result, the human body is able to more effectively regulate its temperature using the natural processes of evaporative cooling (sweating) and dissipation.
Air Circulation in the Campervan
Once the dates and destination have been figured out, it is time to work out how to live out of a campervan in the heat. When inside a campervan, air circulation is the name of the game. Moving air will pass over the skin and allow heat carried in the blood to be transferred and carried away from the body. It also moves evaporative heat away from the body. That is the science behind behind it, but what does that mean in practice? In a single word: FANS.
Circulation fans keep air moving inside, exhaust fans pull the heat and moisture out of your living and sleeping space. Vander has installed battery-powered (USB-charged) fans in our smaller compact campervans to help keep the air moving. Our largest model, the DMV Cruiser, has two large MaxxAir roof fans that fulfill both exhaust and air circulation functions.
Fresh air is another key component of circulation, as no one wants to keep recirculating the same hot, humid (and maybe a little stinky) air. The DMV Cruiser model is equipped with sliding windows and integrated screens, which makes getting outside air a breeze (see what I did there?). Some of our smaller campervans are equipped with side window deflectors, which let the window come down a bit to let in fresh air. Finally, we started sending our non-screened campervans out with magnetic micro-mesh bug nets from Skeeter Beater so our clients can enjoy the the outdoor air without inviting in all of the annoying bugs.
Be a Camper Vanpire....
Ok, not literally a vampire, no need to sleep in a dirt coffin or do the whole bloodsucking thing, but you can significantly cut down on heat discomfort by staying out of direct sunlight.
1) Find a campsite in the shade. Many campgrounds include pictures of every site, so you can pick out a campsite that looks nice and shady. Sometimes a campground will allow you to drive around and choose a spot... it doesn't hurt to ask.
2) Sunshades. Use the privacy shades to block direct sunlight coming in through the windows. Most Vander window covers have reflective material on at least one side, this face this out to help prevent you windows from becoming greenhouses.
3) Awnings. Sometimes shade can be difficult to find. In these instances, consider adding one of our MoonShade awnings for your trip. The awning will provide a shady place to hang out beside the campervan and also help with the inside of the van by cooling the area outside the door.
These are some of our best practices, maybe you have some good ones, too. If so, please share your ideas in the comments. Now that you are ready to plan out a great campervan trip, we hope to help get you on the road soon in a compact campervan!