Let’s face it; it gets hot in the South during late Spring and Summer. Our camping friends up North have the luxury of mild summers. Due to the frustrating fact that there are so many used campers for sale that, for some incredible reason, do NOT have air conditioning, I can only assume that air conditioning is not much of a consideration for those folks.
I don’t even have to use my wife as an excuse for getting AC because I, Personally, refuse to camp in a sweatbox. Been there and done that, thank you. No, the popup camper I am currently renovating which I have named, Frostbite, will have AC starting the first day she is enlisted for camping service.
There are several options available for adding AC to a popup that fall into three basic modifications: Roof AC units, Window units, and the new stand alone, portable AC units. I have researched and examined some of the pros and cons of each.
Roof units are, of course, mounted on the roof. Popups equipped with AC from the factory all have these. They are generally 6000 to 12000 BTU. I’ve read in numerous sources that the 10000+ BTU units are the minimum needed to be effective during peak summer camping without shade.
Now, these roof units are fine is they are already built in to the camper. Replacing a broken one with a new one is a job that even I would take on. Installing one on a camper that didn’t have one to start with, however, is another story.
The first consideration is the cost. While not mind numbingly expensive, a professional installation of these things will be at least $600.
The second consideration is the weight. Popup camper roofs must have additional supports to hold the extra 60-80 pounds of the AC unit. If it doesn’t have these braces, they will have to be installed along with the AC at an additional cost. There is a chance, of course, that a particular popup model has AC as an option when it is purchased and the roofs of all models of a that brand have the needed braces already installed in case AC is added later. A little research will, hopefully, uncover this.
In the case of Frostbite, the roof is nearly 30 years old and, even if the needed braces are present, I am not ready to trust an added 70 pounds on the roof and lift cables. I’m only willing to push my luck so far.
The cheapest option by far for adding AC to a popup is installing a window unit. There are many ways of doing this but all involve cutting a hole either in the side of the hard wall or the canvas. Many folks install these at the tongue end of the camper near the floor underneath the bunk end. Other modifications include cutting a hole in the canvas on one of the sides of the popup and use window unit support kits attached to the hard wall to hold it in place.
These units are relatively cheap and can be found for under $100 most anyplace. There are some cons, though. First, cutting a hole anywhere in the hard wall or the canvas of the camper is a major and permanent alteration. Opportunities for water leaks abound.
Another con is location. AC units installed in the tongue end of a popup are on the floor which will keep your feet and ankles nice and cool but the cold air might have more trouble reaching up towards head and chest level where you need it. Also, the hot exhaust is going directly underneath one of the bunk ends with might make for a hot night for those sleeping on that end.
AC units installed through the canvas have the added pain of having to be installed and uninstalled when the camper is set up for camping. For some this might not be a problem but I wouldn’t relish having to heft the thing around so much every time I camp.
A final knock against the window unit option is the look. The somewhat ugly back of the AC unit will always be visible to folks whenever the camper is set up at a campsite. The word “shack” comes to mind. Now, I’ll be the first to sacrifice looking good for being cool but there are other options.
That said, there are plenty of folks who use this option for cooling their popups. Some report more success than others in regards to cooling effectiveness. However, I am quite sure that a window unit modification beats not having AC at all hands down.
A final option is the portable air conditioner. These units are self contained and vent the hot air and water via hoses. A good bit more expensive than the window unit option, installing one of these units has the added perk of not requiring much if any alterations to the camper itself. The hoses can be vented through a hole in the floor. If you absolutely have to cut a hole in your camper, the floor is the safest place to cut one. I have read about folks simply zipping the exhaust hose into a closed window.
There are some cons to these units as well, though. First, the exhaust air hose can get very hot which can work against the very thing you are trying to do which is cool the inside of the camper. It is generally recommended that the exhaust hose be insulated to help combat this issue.
Second, these units are not as effective in cooling the inside as well as a roof unit. Cold air falling from the ceiling is just more efficient than cold air blowing across the floor. These portable units do have the benefit of sitting higher than the window units.
I have decided to opt for this middle option for Frostbite. There are pros and cons of each option I know and I’m sure there are plenty of folks who are perfectly happy with the window units and I’ll confess that I’m a bit jealous of the folks with the snazzy roof units. This is just my personal preference given the circumstances I’m faced with.
Don’t worry; I will be sure to let you know how it works or how it fails. If it fails to cool to my satisfaction, I’ll keep trying things until it does. There are some other tricks in addition to the AC unit to help keep pop-ups cooler as well that I’ll get to in future columns.
Until then, stay cool and let’s go camping.