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Saturday, September 30, 2023
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Portable Air Conditioner Buying Guide for Camping

Now that we’re firmly into spring and summer is just around the corner, it’s time to start thinking about those warm-weather camping adventures for 2023…

And that means figuring out how to enjoy warm weather camping without the discomfort of being hot and sweaty!

Camping gear has come a long way over the years, and today, you can go camping and enjoy solar power, heat, and air conditioning, among many other amenities. You don’t have to invest in an RV or a huge travel trailer to do so, either.

I’ve been testing a ZeroBreeze Mark 2 Plus Extra portable AC unit for the last few weeks, and that got me thinking – what should you look for when buying a portable air conditioner for camping? Keep reading and find out!

Table of Contents

Understand BTUs

ZeroBreeze Mark2 camping

BTU stands for “British Thermal Unit.” It’s a measurement used to figure out how much heat an air conditioning unit can remove from a space in one hour. The higher the BTU, the more powerful it is, and the more quickly it can remove heat from your tent, yurt, or whatever it is you’re camping in.

So why are BTUs important? When shopping for a portable air conditioner, you want to invest in a unit with enough power to cool the space. If you get a portable air conditioner that’s too powerful, your tent could be an icebox! But, if you get one that isn’t powerful enough, your tent might still be too hot to sleep comfortably on a hot night.

BTUs for air conditioners are usually noted as a number – 2,500, 7,500, and 15,000, as just three examples. The higher the BTUs, the more powerful the air conditioner. Usually, the higher the BTUs, the higher the cost of the unit, too. It also depends on the hardware and technology.

When you’re tent camping, you don’t need a portable air conditioner that moves 15,000 units of heat in an hour. Honestly, you don’t need one half that powerful, either.

The ZeroBreeze Mark 2 Plus Extra I’ve been testing is rated at 2,300 BTUs. Now, this thing isn’t going to cool an RV or trailer, but in a small rooftop tent like mine, 2,300 BTUs does the trick for making the sleeping space more comfortable.

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Consider R-Value

zerobreeze mark 2 in rv

Now that you understand BTUs, let’s explore the next crucial factor in determining which portable air conditioner to buy – R-Value.

R-value has nothing to do with air conditioners but refers to how well a structure stops the flow of heat in and out. You often hear the term “R-value” when discussing insulation for homes. The better insulation is at preventing heat movement, the higher its value. So, R60 insulation does a much better job of this than R30 insulation.

However, a typical tent doesn’t have insulation. It’s just a thin layer of fabric between you and the outside world, so the movement of heat (or, in this case, cool air) will be fairly unimpeded. Even an RV or trailer’s insulation isn’t as good as a home, so heat and cold can move between inside and out much more freely.

This is important to understand because even a high-powered portable air conditioner won’t be able to keep a tent ice cold in the blazing heat – there’s just not enough insulation in a typical tent to prevent heat from penetrating the tent and the cold air moving out. In other words, tempering your expectations of what’s possible in terms of cooling your tent is necessary.

Consider Total Space, Too

ZeroBreeze Mark2 in trailer

How well a portable air conditioner works is also influenced by the total space you’re trying to cool. For example, if I put the ZeroBreeze Mark 2 Plus Extra in my two-person rooftop tent, it will cool that space more quickly than in my six-person ground tent because it’s a much larger space to cool.

That being the case, you’ll need to size your portable air conditioner according to the size of your tent – the larger the tent, the larger the unit you’ll need.

Of course, there are things you can do to shrink the size of the space you cool. For example, some larger ground tents have wall dividers, so instead of cooling the entire tent, you might cool just one portion of it. Alternatively, if you’re in a hard-sided camper, you might partition off part of the interior for cooling.

Whatever the case, by minimizing how much space you’re asking the portable air conditioner to cool, the better it will be able to perform and the more comfortable you will be!

Additionally, other factors play into the cooling power of a portable air conditioner:

  • What is the ambient temperature? The higher the temperature, the longer it will take for the unit to cool the air in your tent. Additionally, the hotter it is, the higher the cooled temperature will be (e.g., if it’s 110 degrees, don’t expect the air conditioner to cool your tent down to 60 degrees). The number of people in the space also affects the ambient temperature.
  • Is your tent in the sun or the shade? A portable air conditioner will be able to cool your tent or trailer more efficiently if it’s in the shade.
  • Are you cooking? If you’re in a trailer cooking dinner and the stovetop or oven is on, it will raise the ambient temperature in the trailer and make it more difficult for a portable air conditioner to cool the space.

What Air Conditioner Specs Should You Look For?

zero breeze mark 2 portable air conditioner

Aside from the general air conditioning terms discussed above, there are a few portable air conditioner specs and features to consider when making a purchase:

  • Power source – Does the unit require 120V power? Can it run on 12V power? Is it battery-powered? Or is it all of the above? Multiple power options are nice so that you can use your portable air conditioner according to the situation – shore power when it’s available, 12V power if you have enough batteries, or built-in battery power when you’re off-grid. My Zero Breeze Mark 2 Plus Extra works with a single 24V battery, two 24V batteries, and various other methods to give me loads of usage and charging options. For example, I can use a 12V to 24V inverter to hard-wire the air conditioner into a 12V system. The inverter also comes with a cigarette lighter plug to charge the battery. Moreover, the Mark 2 comes with a 110V plug, so you can run it directly off shore power without using the battery.
  • Run time – If the unit is battery-powered, how long will it run? Some units only run an hour or two per charge. The ZeroBreeze Mark 2 gives you up to five hours of performance per charge on a single battery. My Mark 2 Plus Extra’s power extension dock comes with two batteries give me more than 10 hours of runtime (the dock also enables me to charge the batteries). Check the energy-efficiency ratio of a unit before buying so you have a good idea of how long it will run and how efficient it is.
  • Size and weight – There’s no point in investing in a portable air conditioner that’s so big and heavy that you can’t reasonably take it with you. Instead, a small, lightweight unit is ideal for off-grid camping. For example, my ZeroBreeze Mark 2 Plus Extra is 20″L x 10″ W x 11″H and weighs just 16.5 pounds – the perfect size for overlanding!
  • Exhaust method – My ZeroBreeze Mark 2 uses a dual hose system that brings fresh air inside through one hose while exhausting hot air through another. This method is highly efficient and helps cool the tent down faster.
  • Self-containment – Is the unit self-contained? Does it come with all the hoses, adapters, batteries, and so forth needed for it to work in your specific setting? Likewise, does it have a compressor, making it a true air conditioner?
  • Noise level – When you’re trying to enjoy the great outdoors, the last thing you want is to hear a noisy air conditioning unit buzzing in your ear!
  • Accessories – Are there accessories available that expand the functionality of the unit? For example, can you add a longer vent hose or additional batteries?

ZeroBreeze Mark2 in car

Additionally, make sure that the portable air conditioner you’re considering is an actual air conditioner. Some manufacturers advertise their units as air conditioners, but they require cold water, ice, or both to blow cool air.

At the end of the day, there are only a few portable air conditioners for camping. But that’s not why I went with ZeroBreeze. Instead, I was drawn to ZeroBreeze because their units tick all the boxes I identified above. You also get tons of choices – get the air conditioner by itself, with one battery, or with two as I’ve done! Plus, ZeroBreeze is the grandfather of this industry, having been around for a while and built a reputation for a solid product.

But you have to decide what’s best for you! Use the details in this guide to decide which portable air conditioner is best for your specific situation.

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