Camping air conditioner; can it be done, and how?

Australia can get seriously warm, and nothing beats having access to an air conditioner when its hot. The thing is though, can you run an air conditioner when camping?

The simple answer is yes, you can. The more complicated answer though, is it really depends on your setup, and where you are.

For the purpose of this post, we are going to talk traditional reverse cycle air conditioners first, and then move onto the various 12V air conditioners.

Van and aircon
Can you run your air conditioner when camping? Let’s find out

Running a reverse cycle air conditioner when camping

There are three ways in which you can run a reverse cycle air conditioner when camping:

Plug into mains power

The first, and traditional way to run air conditioning when camping is to plug into mains power. This can be done with older style air conditioners that draw a lot of power on start-up, and the newer inverter style that will soft start. 

One of the main reasons people stay at caravan parks or private properties, particularly in the wet season up north is so they can run their air conditioner.

It’s the easiest, simplest and quietest way to get your aircon running. There’s also no restrictions for turning it off, meaning you can always enjoy a cool space.

Of course, the downside of this is that you have to be at a caravan park, or private residence, and a lot of people try and get away from all of that.

Please note also that some caravan parks are on power restrictions, and you may not be allowed to run your air conditioner.

This can be if the parks wiring simply can’t keep up with the demands of multiple caravans running air conditioners, or if they are running off diesel generators where electricity is even more expensive.

In Western Australia, running a caravan air conditioner off mains power will cost anywhere between 29 and 58 cents an hour, so its not the cheapest thing in the world.

Next time you book into a Caravan Park and run your air conditioner all night, think about what its costs, and you might feel better about the price you’ve paid!

Caravan Parks
Caravan parks are popular because of the access to power

Plug into a generator

The next option, for those who are not in caravan parks and still want the comforts of an air conditioner when camping is to run it off a generator.

Sizing your generator so it runs your air conditioner is not always easy, as they can draw a significant amount of additional power on start-up.

For example, an older non inverter style air conditioner might draw 3000 watt on start-up, before dropping down to 1500 watt. The initial power draw might mean you need a 3 – 3.5kW generator, purely for start-up.

Modern air conditioners in Caravans use inverter technology and ramp up without the huge surge, and some people do run them off the UE20I Honda Generators with no issues.

Remember that the generator will also run the rest of your caravan, so if you are running water pumps, or a kettle, or lights it might tip the generator over the edge under some circumstances, resulting in an aircon that turns off.

Generators are also not too kindly looked upon these days, unless you are miles away from anyone else.

They are noisy, they smell and they ruin the peace and quiet in a camp ground. If you are going to run one near other people, be respectful about where it’s positioned, how long you run it for and what hours you use it.

Honda Generator
A lot of people just use a generator to run the air conditioner when camping

Run off an inverter and substantial battery system

The last option, which has become significantly more popular recently is to install a battery system and inverter that is capable of running your air conditioner.

There are a lot of things that need to be done right here though, including a solar system that is suitable for recharging the batteries. You can read more about that here – running caravan aircon off batteries.

There are some caravans being sold in Australia now with 1.6kW of solar on the roof, and 800aH of lithium batteries, which will run an aircon for a very long time, including overnight.

Lithium batteries are pretty much a must here, as they allow for the extreme discharge rates needed to power an aircon.

Again, you need to match the aircon to the inverter and battery/solar system to ensure it will run for the duration you need.

Some people are happy being able to run the aircon for a few hours during the middle of the day just to keep the van cool, and knowing that the solar will recharge it before the end of the day, or it will the following morning.

In general you’ll get away with running an aircon for a short period of time with a 200aH lithium battery, and a 3000W inverter. Ideally though, you would have 300 – 600aH of lithium, and more than 600W of panels.

We’ve actually just installed a 12V Lithium Battery setup, and can run an aircon comfortably from it, but not for hours on end.

3000W Inverter
You need a decent inverter and battery system to run an air conditioner when camping

Caravan Air conditioners tend to draw around 90 – 110 amps when working hard, and then it can drop down to about 50 or 60 if the area is cool and it drops into a more efficient cooling mode. That’s a lot of power, and you need a decent system to run it!

There are some much smaller capacity air conditioners that only pull about 300W, but I’m not sure how they would perform in a van. In essence you can’t beat physics, and low power in means low results out. This is exactly why 12V heaters and 12V kettles are basically rubbish.

Electric Caravans

Just a small note here, for those who don’t believe this is possible, or haven’t seen it in person. We were at Coalseam Conservation Park last year and bumped into a lovely couple who had a fully electric caravan, made by ERV.

I actually chuckled about it having a gas weber outside initially, until I realised it too, was electric.

ERV Caravan
A fully electric Caravan made by ERV

This caravan has a 14kW/Hr battery with over 2kW of solar, and will comfortably run all of the usual appliances off grid including your aircon, kettle, electric weber, induction cooktop, toaster, fridge and all of the smaller appliances often found in a typical van. 

Of course, the technology is relatively new, and its still being ironed out, but in a few years these are going to become far more popular, and I feel that gas will eventually be less common than batteries.

Electric Caravan
Zero gas on board this electric caravan

12V air conditioners

If you want something that is far more efficient, there are a few 12V air conditioners that are used for camping. These are all evaporative aircon, like what many people have in their homes.

They take water, and run it through pads, and a fan pushes air through them. This creates evaporation of water, which in turn provides the cooling effect that we all love. 

These do not work well in humid weather, and they do introduce moisture into the air, which isn’t always a good thing. They also need to be topped up with water, or have a water supply.

Many of the 12V aircons will cool, but due to their size and capacity it is significantly less than what you’d get from a normal reverse cycle caravan aircon.

Transcool is one of the better known brands, but there are plenty of others out there. Alternatively, I’ve seen people make their own out of an esky and computer fans, and they put ice into the esky.

There’s a number of misting options out there too, which can deliver a similar result (but are probably not to be used inside a van!).

You can also get a Zero Breeze Mark II Portable Air Conditioner which is a proper reverse cycle unit, and there’s a few other brands out there.

Be reasonable with your expectations though; at the end of the day you can’t beat physics and if its got a low power draw, it will also have a low cooling ability.

There’s a reason caravan air conditioners use a lot of power; they need it to do a good job of cooling and heating.

These 12V camping air conditioners will work in really small locations, or as a direct cooler (like a fan), but they are not effective at keeping a caravan or camper trailer cool, especially if its really warm.

Other heating and cooling options for camping

The most common heating option when camping today is a diesel heater. We actually use a portable diesel heater, which works amazingly, and it draws very little power.

It also consumes very little fuel, making it the perfect way to stay warm on a cold night.

Portable Diesel Heater
Our portable diesel heater in use

In regards to cooling, the most common option is to install some fans, as these are extremely energy efficient. The Sirroco fans are highly rated, but are quite expensive too, or there are plenty of other cheaper options on the market.

We just use a Ryobi 18V Fan, which is portable and does the job for now.

Ryobi 18V Fan review
Our 18V Ryobi Fan works pretty well for now

Camping is changing at a rapid pace, and I’m super excited to see where battery technology takes us. What do you use for keeping cool and warm when camping?

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  1. Hi Greg,

    Yep, you are correct, there are some 12V options on the market now. Some are fairly effective at cooling but still draw a heap of power. Time will tell how they go, but its good to see some new options coming out.

    All the best

  2. Greg francis says:

    It seems that you have missed a heating and cooling option for caravans there are 12 volt reverse cycle air conditioners also available maybe some more research as these are relatively new to the market but if they are as good as the 12 volt fridges currently on the market should work ok