How to Car Camp in Hot Weather While Remaining Chill

My cross-country trip began, as all trips do, with high hopes. I had to be on the East Coast by June 5. The last week of May and first couple weeks of June would let me dodge tornadoes in Kansas, humidity in the Southeast, and Saharan sun in the Southwest…or so I thought.

That was in the old weather regime; in the new one, controlled by the impetuous climate emergency, all bets are off. I had to drive around tornadoes in Colorado, encountered 95 degrees and 95 percent humidity in Arkansas, and saw the mercury hit 108 in Tucson.

This led to more than a few uncomfortable nights, including my last one before getting home: when I got gas at 9:30 p.m. in southern Arizona, well after sundown, the wind was howling and it was 104 degrees. Oof. Too hot to camp. But an hour out from Yuma, my eyes getting heavy, I gave up and found a sliver of public land next to the Barry Goldwater gunnery range. Temp: 96. I opened every window, left the back door wide open, and went to sleep with mosquitoes licking their chops. When I awoke before sunup, around 5:30, the temperature had only fallen to 88.

You’ve heard the Simpsons climate joke, right? Bart says, “Man, this is the hottest summer of my life,” to which Homer says, “Correction, it’s the coolest summer of the rest of your life.”

Not camping is not an option, which means finding ways to make our base camps more habitable. That means shade, breeze, and water. Here are a few of the methods and some of the gear that I use to achieve those.

Start With Your Vehicle

• Tint your windows with a material that absorbs infrared, like 3M’s Ceramic IR series. The company claims its window films lower internal temperatures by nearly 50º. I can’t verify temperature differentials, but in my car it’s a lot.

• When the sun’s out place silver reflective material (Reflectix) on your windshield and all other windows to bounce sunlight away from your car’s interior. A roll of this insulating material costs about $25 and can be customized for your rig in about an hour using nothing but a Sharpie and some scissors. You might already be familiar with the Reflectix hack from a van or camper build. If not, check out my DIY window coverings here.

• Park in the shade. I know: duh. Still, it’s amazing how many people park in the middle of the solar oven. First thing I do when I roll into a trailhead on a hot day is to look at where the shade is-and where it’s going to be as the sun moves.

• Crack your windows or sunroof a half inch to let heat escape. Again, duh–just take this as a reminder that it’s worth that little extra effort.

• If you’re sleeping in your car, as I typically do, you’ll probably want window screens to keep bugs out, especially if you read via headlamp or phone before going to sleep. You can find stretchy versions that will fit most windows for about $20.

• Commercially made window screens don’t cover sunroofs or open tailgates, however. For that, I’m planning to use mosquito netting that I cut down to size. The screen just arrived in the mail, so I’ll let you know how it works out.

• Getting air moving is critical to convective cooling. On that last, hellishly hot night, I used a $10 fan from Walmart to get some breeze across my body. It made all the difference between sleeping and tossing all night in a sweaty heap, but since then I’ve upgraded to Luno’s USB-powered, $35 Car Camping Fan. More on that here.

Create Your Own Shade

• If it’s really hot, you’re likely going to be having your adventures in the morning or evening when temps are cooler, leaving the middle of the day for siestas and your favorite form of rehydration. Nothing beats a roof-mounted awning like the Thule Outland for simplicity and fast set-up. Read our review of the Thule here. Another option is the portable Moonfab awning, which fits on any car or even a tree. Read our full Moonfab review here.

• Awning curious but not ready to commit? Before I left on my trip, I had the sense to buy a reflective hiking umbrella. Not only did it make my hikes more comfortable, it served as cover when I cooked dinner at the back of my rig during a storm at New River Gorge, West Virginia. After that, I considered getting a rectangular golf umbrella that can cover the width of my rig’s rear opening and fixing it in place with rare earth magnets, but that seemed more trouble than it’s worth. I continue to use my shiny compact umbrella and couldn’t be happier with it. For serious back-of-vehicle shade, take a look at a small awning mounted sidebars on the back of your rack, like Yakima’s Slim Shady, or go big with a bat-wing like Rhino Rack’s.

• “Shade houses” are life savers. These pop-up awnings are (relatively) lightweight and can be set up anywhere, from the beach to the forest, and typically are large enough to cover a picnic table. Take that, moskies. We’re particularly fond of the NEMO Bugout (review here) and also the REI Screen House (read our review). For something more portable (and open to the breeze), consider the Helinox Royal Box. It has a much lower roof (58 inches) than the two screen houses and the side walls roll up—you can fit a couple chairs and small table beneath it, making it ideal for beach days.

Bring Your Own Power

• Do you need electric power in camp? Uh, did Lewis and Clark carry a Goal Zero? Exactly. You do not need it. But if you’re trying to stay cool, it can certainly help. My old Vanagon had an auxiliary battery and an inverter, so I was profligate with my electricity usage, and after I sold it and moved to the GX I had to reconsider my battery options. My first step was to replace the standard battery with an AGM model, which is more reliable and lasts longer. Second, though a lot of overlanders install aux batteries under the hood, I didn’t want the complexity, cost, commitment, and weight. Instead, with rolling summer blackouts and the threat of longer outages due to wildfires, I bought a high capacity home “generator” should the lights go out. It also happens to fit perfectly behind my passenger seat. The Jackery Explorer 1000 stores 1000Wh of power at a cost $1 per watt-hour. Compared that to Goal Zero’s offerings, which range from roughly $1.25/Wh to $1.50/Wh. Read our of the review of the Jackery and its two 100-watt solar panels here.

• How to keep that battery charged? Using solar panels feels like you’re stickin’ it to the Man, and when driving I keep mine plugged into the 12V port, then plug my fridge into the battery. The battery recharges when the car’s running and the fridge gets power whether it is or isn’t.

Keep Your Food Cold

• For cooler folks, pack the box as full as you can (same for fridges or “electric coolers”). The less space for air to circulate, the longer your ice will melt. (Read our deeper dive on this here.) Also, block ice melts slower than cubed ice.

• Years ago, my good friend Sinuhe Xavier urged me to get a portable fridge, arguing it would change my life, and boy, was he right. They keep your food and drinks really cold, without any of the mess of melting ice. They have organizer sections. They run on 12 volt or 120 AC, which means they go from car to cabin in a cinch. Some will keep your frozen stuff frozen, and all of them can serve as a plain old cooler if there’s no power. They draw very little amperage and come with automatic shutoffs to protect your car’s battery, and if you’re using solar panels and an external battery like the Jackery, you’ll run out of food before you’ll run out of cold.

I had an ancient Dometic in my Westy, then an ARB, then two more Dometics. By far my favorite by far is the Dometic CFX3 45, which I bought last spring. It’s beautiful designed (yes, a large box can be easy on the eyes) and is whisper quiet, which matters a lot when you’re sleeping a few feet away from it.

Stay Cool Sleeping

• Rambo on the ground just like your ancestors did, preferably in starfish pose to catch any potential breeze.

• If you’re using a tent, make sure it’s double walled and that the first wall is mostly mesh, which keeps the bugs out but lets breeze in. Obviously, if it’s not going to rain, leave the fly off.

• An alternative to a tent is to use an awning with mesh walls. ARB makes such a system, but it’s been sold out all year. Justin and I both have Thule awnings on our vehicles, but the brand only offers individual, fabric walls.

• Some people swear by hammocks. Makes sense, as getting air flow all around your body will help shed temperature. I’m a side sleeper, though, and find hammocks perfect for catnaps and no longer.

• A larger but cushier version of the total-airflow tactic is to sleep on a cot. Justin and my son Jackson have the REI Kingdom 3 Cot, which is an amazing camp luxury (read Justin’s full review here), but a bit bulky. J&J swear by theirs. I’ve been testing the Helinox Cot One, which 1) I love using, and 2) disassembles in two minutes to the size of a small, folded camp chair. Because of the cooling effect of airflow, cots are typically a summer-only option, but you can also add an insulated sleeping pad. Read my take on the Helinox here.

Hydrate Inside and Out

• I rarely pass up an opportunity to jump in water. On this last trip, I swam in lakes Michigan and Erie (and a bunch of smaller ones), in the Gunnison, Colorado, Cuyahoga, and Rio Grande rivers, and countless creeks. SO sweet. And at the end of the day (literally, the end of the day) if I can wash off sweat and grime with a dip right before bed, I know I’ll sleep way better.

• No running water? Take a shower. I’ve owned the Nemo Helio and the RinseKit Pro and they both function great. For a while, I had a DIY rooftop shower made of PVC and threads to create pressure with a bike pump. All of those options were wonderful, but for my needs they were overkill. Ultimately, I went with a cheaper and simpler option: Sea to Summit’s Pocket Shower. Basically a dry bag where the water goes on the inside, the Pocket Shower holds 10 liters (2.6 gallons), which you release with a threaded nozzle. STS says you get about 8 minutes of shower time, but if you’re efficient you can stretch it further. Using Dr. Bronner’s soap, I got wet, lathered, and rinsed fully with just a liter and a half. Even minimalist backpackers should consider the Pocket Shower, as it weighs a tad over four ounces, can serve as a dry bag, and even haul water.

• No shower in your camp? Before I go to bed, I take a sponge bath from head to toe with a wet washcloth. For places I don’t want said washcloth to touch, I use disposable wipes. It’s amazing how much better I sleep if I can find a way to get clean. And letting the moisture evaporate from your skin is pretty darn cooling.

• Drink, drink, and drink some more. Kinda basic, but do whatever it takes to keep the liquids flowing. I’ve become addicted to cold, sparkling water, especially Topo Chico, and I usually bring along a soft cooler to carry cold drinks to swimming holes and the like. To see our favorite soft-sided coolers, go here.

• How to store water? Jeez, let me count the ways. There are legions of options, from 2.5-gallon plastic jugs from 7Eleven to tanks designed to fit snugly behind the front seats, with an arch for the driveshaft hump. I’m a big fan of collapsible solutions such as the Sea to Summit Watercell or MSR Dromedary lines (see my comparison here), but whenever possible I use metal containers, like the five-gallon Jerry can from Dinuba.

Photo: Justin Housman



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