Can you put a portable air conditioner in a tent?
While some people love a minimalist camping trip, others prefer their slice of nature with a few mod cons thrown in - like an AC that cools you down on a boiling hot night. While portable air conditioners aren't advertised as tent air conditioners, doing a bit of research to find a unit that’s tent-friendly can make your summer camping a bit more comfortable.
Can a tent be air conditioned?
Yes, it can! While some outdoorsy types may scoff at the idea of air conditioning in a tent, other campers enjoy their taste of the great outdoors more with some temperature regulation. It’s all about personal preference, and what you need to do to make the most of your experience in a way that serves you.
You might consider a portable camping air conditioner if:
- You’re camping in an insulated/ 4-seasons tent, and that added insulation is toasty in winter, but feels a bit like being cooked in summer.
- You’re camping with kids who may complain about the lack of screen time, let alone the lack of AC in a hot tent.
- If you’re camping in a hot and humid location and the temperature doesn’t tend to drop at night (for example, if you’re not camping near water, which can provide a cooling breeze).
Types of air conditioners for camping
Technically, all ACs that you take with you when going camping will be portable. However, this type of air conditioner refers specifically to a portable model that contains a compressor that compresses a refrigerant (a cold liquid). It sucks in warm and humid air, and runs it over the refrigerant contained in the cooling coils. Cool air is pushed into the tent using a fan, and hot air is blown out of the tent window via an exhaust hose.
To use a portable aircon for camping, you’ll need a tent with a window large enough to accommodate the exhaust hose (usually around 6-8 inches in diameter).
- Since they suck humidity out of the air, portable ACs are great for hot, humid weather.
- Only the exhaust hose is exposed to the outside world, which reduces the chances of theft and makes a portable AC a relatively safe choice.
- You don’t need an AC stand for this freestanding AC type.
- Your tent doesn’t need to have an AC port fitted, which you need for a window-mounted AC.
- Can be quite bulky and take up a lot of tent space, especially if you have a small tent.
- Can be a power drain, especially if you’re planning to run it for long periods. Access to mains supply power is recommended for it to work reliably.
These cool your tent by evaporating water that you add to the built-in water tank. A fan draws warm air into the cooler, passes it through water-soaked pads, and sends the air back out into the tent - now cooled and humidified.
- Often nice and small, which makes them highly portable and lightweight (good for packing in a car boot).
- Fit comfortably in small tents and campervans, which saves space in tight living quarters.
- Energy efficiency is better than portable ACs and window-mounted ACs (as these use a compressor, while evaporative coolers work more like fans).
- Much more likely to use battery power than portable ACs (which is good news if you’re going off-grid or don’t have easy access to mains power).
- The cheapest AC to source out of the three options suitable for camping.
- Less powerful cooling power than a portable air conditioner or window-mounted AC.
- Not as effective at cooling larger spaces, as these are traditionally made to be personal space coolers.
- Not great for humid climates, as they add moisture to the air.
These ACs suck warm air from a room through an evaporator coil. Some of the air is vented outside, and the rest is fed back into the tent as cool air, after passing through an AC condenser and liquid refrigerant.
How does a window-mounted air conditioner fit inside a tent, you may be wondering? Well, you can’t do it on the fly - it requires planning and know-how.
To vent this air conditioner in a tent, you’ll need a tent with an AC port or flap built into it. The bulk of the unit will be outside the tent. It needs to sit on an AC stand or other makeshift stand like a milk crate to be positioned correctly.
If your tent doesn’t have an AC port, it’s possible to do a DIY job for this camping air conditioner. You can create your own port by cutting a hole in your tent, however this is risky. You’ll need to seam the edges and seal any air gaps to create a secure fit-out, and if you cut a hole that’s too large for the AC you’ll have ruined the tent, so make sure any measurements are right before starting.
- Window mounted ACs are the most powerful cooling option when it comes to camping.
- The bulk of the unit is exposed outdoors, making it vulnerable to damage or theft.
- These are the trickiest type of AC to set up when camping.
- Requires access to an external power supply.
- Likely to be big and bulky, making them difficult to transport.
Other factors to consider when choosing a tent AC
Finding the right cooling capacity for a camping AC can be tricky. For a room in a house, you mainly look at the square metres - but with tents you can’t just do this. A room that’s 100 square metres won’t necessarily cool a tent that’s 100 square metres.
There are so many variables, including whether the tent is insulated (which will take longer to cool it), the ceiling height, outside temperature and wind conditions, whether you’ve pitched the tent in the sun or the shade, the number of people in the tent, number of tent rooms, and whether the flaps/ windows are open.
For portable ACs and window mounted ACs
The cooling capacity of portable ACs are measured in BTUs (British Thermal Units).
Generally, the larger the tent, the higher BTU rating you will need. Here’s a rough guide to how manu BTU's you might need (but it only factors in tent size and insulation).
What is the right BTU for a tent AC?
- Insulated: 3000 BTU
- Uninsulated: 5000 BTU
- Insulated: 5, 000
- Uninsulated: 7, 000 BTU
8 person tent
- Insulated: 10, 000 BTU
- Uninsulated: 14, 000 BTU
For evaporative Coolers
The cooling capacity of an evaporative cooler is measured by airflow volume - the amount of air that can flow in a space in a given time. In Australia, this is measured as cubic metres per hour (or m³/h).
How do I know what size evaporative cooler I need?
First, calculate the number of cubic metres in your tent, by multiplying the length, width and height.
Then think about how many air changes you'd like in your tent, per minute. If you want the air to change once per minute, multiply your tent's cubic metres by 60 minutes, to get the hourly rate you need.
For example, take a 2-person tent that's 2.5m long, 1.5m wide and 1m tall. This works out to be 3.75 cubic metres.
If you want the air changed every minute, this means you need a airflow volume of 225m³/h (3.75m³ x 60 minutes). If you want the air changed twice every minute, look for a cooler with an air flow of double that. This is going to be 450m³/h airflow (3.75m³ x 120 minutes).
Ease of set-up
Consider how much time and effort you want to spend setting up your tent AC. If you prefer the quick and easy option, a small evaporative cooler is your best option. If you don’t mind tinkering around setting up a window air conditioner, it will take much longer, but you’ll be rewarded with a more powerful cooling effect.
Your AC should be suitably sized for your tent, with all the people, camping gear and room for sleeping factored in, too. A camping aircon is meant to make the whole experience more comfortable - not cramped and inconvenient, which will be the case if your AC is too large for the space.
In any case bigger doesn’t mean better - if you have a 2-person tent, a small AC is more likely to have the right cooling capacity for your space. Going too large can make your tent too cold, too fast, causing it cycle on and off, something that isn’t great for the longevity of the appliance.
Think about the places you most commonly camp, and what options they have for a power source. This should be compatible with the power source that the camping AC you buy requires to run.
- Mains power: Or 240V, where you plug a cord into an outlet, is the most reliable power source for both portable ACs and window mounted ACs.
- Power generator: These can provide a 120V or 240V supply. Make sure that the generator can offer the starting power needed by the AC unit (which can be 2 times higher than the running power). If you’re using a power generator for a portable AC, just be mindful that it may use a lot of fuel.
- Compact portable battery pack: These use lithium ion batteries and can usually charge tent air conditioners that are battery-powered evaporative coolers. Just make sure that how it charges (e.g. via USB or a 12V cigarette lighter) is compatible with the cooler.
If you’re using anything other than mains power that you can easily plug into, think about the minimum running time of your AC before it runs out of charge. Weigh this up with how long you’d like to run it for, and on which setting. For example, you may want to run your AC all night on the highest fan speed. However, if you need to charge it through the night, or refill the water tank every 2 hours, this won’t be practical.
Some comforting white noise can block out the sound of other campers. However, you don’t want your AC to be so loud that you can't sleep, or that it drowns out all the sounds of nature.
Evaporative coolers tend to be the quietest. Some even have a sleep mode that lowers the decibel rating to 25dB, just above a whisper. They next quietest are window mounted units, and the loudest are portable ACs.
Along with all your other camping and hiking gear, a heavy air conditioning unit is not going to be fun to try and fit into your boot with everything else. The lightest AC types are small evaporative coolers, while the heaviest are window-mounted ACs.
You can buy a small evaporative air cooler for under $100, a small portable AC starting at around $350, and a small window-mounted AC for around $400. If you have a medium or large tent though, your aircon will likely cost more than this.
When making a purchase, consider utility - can you use this AC in your home or office as well? If not, and you’re opting for an expensive purchase, consider whether you go camping in summer often enough to make buying an AC just for camping worthwhile.
Investing in an air conditioner for your tent or campervan can provide some relief from harsh weather on your adventures. To choose the right AC for you, research an AC's performance specifically for your tent and weather conditions. However, also weigh up effort and reward. A tent AC might make life breezier at your destination, but it should also be convenient to transport, carry and make room for in your tent, as well as easy to power at your location.