Monday, July 22, 2019

How To Beat the Heat in Your Tiny Trailer

I'm on my phone reading news stories that have headlines like "Widespread, dangerous, and oppressive heat roasts much of the U.S. through the weekend" and "The Midwest and East Coast brace for 'extremely dangerous' weekend heat wave." Wouldn't you know it? This is the weekend when my wife and I have reserved a site for our 6-night campout in a local state park . . . and it's the hottest temperatures of the summer.

Tiny trailer groups on Facebook started getting posts like "What are you doing to survive the heat wave?" and "What are you doing instead of camping this weekend?" I was making manly noises and declaring that my wife and I should camp anyway. "I can write an article about the heat!" The Green Goddess had an air conditioner, and I'd camped a few weeks earlier when the temperatures rose to around 90. It would be an experiment, a test to determine how well our tiny trailer weathered the heat spell.

The week roasted its inexorable course toward the weekend, the temperatures rising higher and higher. Then on Thursday it rained, but still there was no break in the heat, only a rise in the humidity. Our tiny trailer sat in the driveway in full sun, slowing transforming into a solar oven. I turned on the air conditioning and found the trailer did indeed cool to a bearable temperature, but it also began to off-gas chemical smells as the heat baked the sides and roof of our plywood-constructed home.

"Maybe we can skip Friday and Saturday, then head out on Sunday when the heat breaks," I said, my wife in complete accord. I decided to conduct my AC experiment at home in the driveway as the heat wave dominated the next two days. I also decided to post on a couple of Facebook tiny trailer camping groups a request about how others beat the heat.
Heading out for six nights of camping at a local state park in Iowa. Temperature highs 90-99, lows 69-77. The site has electric. Our standy teardrop has a small air conditioner, but I'm interested if anyone has any tips (other than turning the ac on) that they use for camping in the heat. After our adventure, I might write an article on my experience and tips provided. Thanks!
This article includes both wisdom gleaned from experienced campers and the results of my personal "parked in the driveway in full sun" experiment with the Green Goddess.

The FB comments on my post provided good grist for thought. Some were anecdotal, some thoughtful, and some funny--and even those had a perspective. Sifting through the comments and categorizing them provided some useful tips for dealing with heat while tiny trailer camping.

Several comments directly and indirectly addressed the idea that modern civilization has "narrowed" the range of temperatures in which we exist, by way of heating and air conditioning. Humans are capable of thriving in a much wider range than we usually do. "The frontier was settled without AC!" stated one Facebook comment. "However, I must admit, anything over 105° is tough. Sweat, it does a body good." People who work outside are much more accustomed to a greater temperature differential than people whose jobs keep them inside, which leads to a second concept, discussed below.

Acclimation is used in this article to mean that not only must the mind accept the idea of hanging out in the heat; the body has to spend time getting used to, or acclimating, to the greater heat. This will take time--time spent outdoors more, clothing modifications, water consumption acknowledged. Listen to your body. It will tell you things you need to know about dealing with the heat. One experience we have every year here in the Midwest is when the temperatures hit the 20s in the fall, we say, "Wow, it's cold!" And when the temperatures hit the 20s in the early spring, we all say, "Wow, it's warm!" We do adapt to the weather over time.

Site Selection
Where you camp was mentioned as a primary way of avoiding the heat. First and foremost, of course, one can travel to an area that is cooler. One witty yet pointed FB comment was the following: "Here's one more from the peanut gallery. 80° in the Southwest and in the shade, you'll want a light jacket!" Most times, though, we can't just take off till we reach a comfortable climate zone; we have to manage the weather right where we are. The best suggestions for finding cool spots said to seek out shade and to camp near water. "I always look at Google Earth before I choose a site to make sure the park has shady sites or better, a shady one with a breeze off the lake."

Activity Schedule
Being active when it's cooler is the general rule suggested. During daylight, early morning and late evening are the times of coolest temperatures. Work with that reality. One man said, "Typically, I’ll stay outside and in the shade during the day (a river / lake helps!), run the AC after dinner, and then may or may not run just the windows/fans at night." Another added, "Try to stay in shade during the day. Wait til the sun goes down to take your shower."

Camper Set-up
Don't worry, I will eventually mention air conditioning, but several other categories also deserve attention. Many tiny trailers don't have AC but still utilize build design to maximize air flow in the camper. One great help if you own a small, traditional teardrop is to use a cover canopy which shades the entire rig. If that is not possible (as with my standy trailer), then an awning provides shade and less heat. "I would think a large canopy or under some large trees next to a lake would be the coolest spot to be," said one camper. One comment was to use greenhouse garden shade cloth as an awning.

A protective canopy for a teardrop is an effective buffer for the heat. "At 15’ square, this one has great coverage."

Airflow strategies for tiny trailers were the most frequent mentions.
  • "Our Camp Inn teardrop has two big doors with screens, and a powerful roof fan."
  • "We use a fan and just open the windows."
  • "Awnings; window and door screens - we also have a screen tent which allows us to leave one TD door completely open; dehumidifier (Eva Dry rechargeable); fans - one ceiling fan (12v) and another one (small computer fan) in one of our two air vents it blows out to help move the air through the teardrop."

"We camped in the desert last fall with unseasonably warm days. Our warmest day in the TD was 105."

Most tiny trailers have built-in fans, but having additional fans was also a hot (pun intended) suggestion. These extra fans included box fans for outside when the air is still, personal hand fans, and inside fans to augment the ceiling fan in the trailer. Regarding outside fans: "We had lots of time where the air outside was still. Luckily we took a HV fan with us. It helped quite a bit just keeping air circulating when we were sitting outside or preparing meals." Fans seem to be a real way to combat the heat. "Last summer we were camping in Canada on Canada Day and our indoor/outdoor thermometer said it was 108 degrees outside. We used our fox wing and sunseeker awnings along with our ceiling battery operated fan for the overnights. We were surprised how good this worked; we were able to sleep there without heading to town and a hotel like we thought we might have to do."

Two other comments addressed equipment. One was how to use the cooling effect of water in conjunction with fans. "We don't have AC in our teardrop or our home. We use a lot of fans. On hot nights, we bring a wet washcloth and a bowl of water to bed. Wet yourself and the evaporation will cool you. This even works on humid Chicago nights. This week, we bought battery-powered mist fans for each of us. They seem to work well. We'll take them on our camping trip in two weeks." The second comment was about keeping pets cool. "If you are taking pets, be sure to get them a cooling mat. Fabulous product."

Air Conditioning
Well, we've finally arrived at the obvious solution to excessive heat (unless you're boondocking)--air conditioning! Most people granted its utility. "I view A/C as 100% necessary when camping in some areas of the country in the summer," says one woman who does not have AC and who lives in a cooler part of the country, although there are the naysayers: "I believe that, if you use AC at all, the heat feels worse."

"I grew up in Phoenix before there was a/c. Swamp coolers. But we spent nearly every day outdoors in summer vacation. We’d swim in the canals if it got really hot. I remember my dad got an a/c unit for the ‘56 Ford Station Wagon. It hung on the front passenger’s window. It was a swamp cooler, too." 

Air conditioning can be an addition to summer camping, even if it is only used during the hot afternoon or for sleeping. "We have an AC unit in our camper that was great for at night. During the day we spend 99% of the time outdoors with our dogs." My favorite AC-related comment was the following: "I tented for five months in SC. The heat was awful. If you have ac, you are blessed." My response was, "I have it, and I intend to use it." One useful comment was to be sure to clean the AC's filter regularly. One man rinses his filter once a week during the camping season.

To summarize online tiny trailer group advice, we should "embrace the heat," as one camper said, and structure our routine and environment so that our bodies aren't over-taxed and are given a chance to become accustomed to the heat. If we need to, we should utilize awnings, fans, and air conditioners to increase our comfort level, and we should always remember that while "I can take it" is usually tolerable, heat stroke or exhaustion isn't. We need to take the weather into account when we camp--and that includes the heat.

Can I (and did I) take the heat?

A pretty strong case could be made that I didn't even try to overcome the "widespread, dangerous, and oppressive heat." Instead, with the Green Goddess still in the driveway (in full sunlight), I turned on the air conditioner as an experiment to see how it worked in extreme, humid summer heat.

Day 1 Driveway Experiment

My finding? The temperature was 92 degrees, the humidity 60%, and the "feels like" adjusted heat index was 104 degrees. I had the unit set for 75 degrees, automatic mode, automatic fan speed, and the energy saver mode off. I have installed a air flow deflector to move the cool air upward (and not under the bed). A 9-inch additional portable fan was added to facilitate air flow. I also had my small dehumidifier running because there was substantial rainfall (and therefore humidity) from a passing thunderstorm. Entering the trailer, the temperature was certainly manageable. The unit was running at high fan, and the temperature was higher than 75 because when I went back into my house (thermostat set at 76), the house was cooler than the trailer. Below was the trailer's basic cooling equipment.
  • Comfort Aire air conditioner (RTTC installed), 5,000 BTU (no link)
  • Air Wing air conditioner deflector 
  • 9" portable table fan (Walmart)
  • Pro Breeze electric mini dehumidifier
The only negative aspect of the first day was that with the heat penetrating the trailer, the off-gassing increased, and there is a noticeable chemical smell from the building materials--whether from plywood glues, adhesives, the gray vinyl wall covering, varnishes, and/or something else is not clear.

Day 2 Driveway Experiment

My set-up today will be the same as yesterday except I will play with the ceiling vent fan and the side windows to determine if I can exchange air in the trailer, vent the off-gassing, and still maintain a temperature that is at least minimally comfortable.

At 4:30 in the afternoon, I had to recognize the limitations of my tiny trailer. The high today was 94 degrees, humidity 61%, and the heat index 113 degrees. I adjusted several times the side windows, the ceiling vent and fan, played with the AC controls for cooler settings, and the conclusion is that at with the  current temperature with the trailer in full sun--it's not possible to maintain a marginally cool temperature and eliminate off-gassing for this trailer.

I think that with shade the trailer would have a fighting chance because the roof and sides wouldn't be roasting with the direct sun contact. This would lessen the off-gassing and lessen the burden on the air conditioner.

 Tomorrow it is forecast to be three degrees hotter at the campground than here at home. Therefore, I am keeping to our plan of not leaving until Sunday when the heat passes. My wife will not camp with me this trip; I'll be on recon for future trips.

It's been an odd one. We've had this heat wave, our daughter and grandson are sick with a cold, we haven't been able to verify cellphone signal strength at the campground, a Fed Ex package is arriving early and needs to be signed for, and the big Iowa bicycle rally, RAGBRAI, is passing through town Thursday (the day I had planned to drive home) with 12,000 bicyclists. We've decided to loosen up and be flexible. I'll come home early, and we will head to town and enjoy the spectacle.

At the Campground

Arriving at the campground today, the host checked me in and noticed that I was arriving two days late. "You're not the only one who didn't make the weekend," she commented. The high today will be 82 degrees, the low 66. Humidity is 72%, but this trip I also am running the Pro Breeze mini dehumidifier. The AC is on, the ceiling fan closed but running on low, I ran the portable fan during the afternoon, and one side window is cracked an inch. The temperature is comfortable, and there is no discernable chemical smell from off-gassing. The trailer has partial shade from trees.

So there it is, folks. I believe we could have camped here at Lacey-Keosauqua State Park in higher temperatures, but it's not clear yet where that cut-off point is when the heat is so great that it just ain't worth it. The trailer is about a year and a half old, so who knows? Maybe the off-gassing will continue to be less noticable, even in the heat, over time.

Probably most reading this have noticed that much of the advice provided is pretty much common sense. I have no problem with that. My mom always said, "Wear a hat in the sun and a coat in the cold." Taking into account all the ways to deal with excessive heat, we still have to consider our individual tolerances and the capabilities of our camping rigs when we make our decisions. Be safe and be cool, folks. Now I can enjoy my three nights camping. Stay tuned for the article and photos of this trip.

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