How to survive the heat and humidity

When it gets really hot...

Heat and humidity – how to survive it when you’re traveling around in a truck in the tropics:

Hanging around countries like Panama, it is immediately obvious that there are basically two economic modes available: the rich and the poor. In the cities, for sure, you see a middle class but, for the region as a whole it’s this basic dualism. And, for me, a middle class, squatter, traveler, it can be tricky identifying with the situation of any one person. Sure, my western-world birth entitles me to the education and opportunities that the rich have – I travel the world like they do and appreciate the same kinds of modern culture. On the other hand, I do not have a home, can’t afford to have kids, have no job-security – back home, I dumpster dive and live in abandoned buildings, my income is based on the minimum wage and I officially fall well below the poverty line. Gets confusing sometimes.

How the other half live...
Condensation on the outside of a bus window.

But hanging around tropical countries like Panama, I can see there’s a new way to describe the people, one that makes it so obvious to which class I belong: There are the Air-con People, who live in an air-con apartment, drive to their air-con office in an air-con car, and there are the Non-Air-con People, every second of their existence open to the hot and humid elements. And I definitely belong to the latter. You probably do too, traveling through in your overland truck, living in a steel and fiber-glass box.

Of course, this is all just a crazy observation born from a brain-addling obsession driven by the relentless heat and humidity. And in the brief respite that is the relative cool of a tropical morning I decided to sniff around the www to see if there were any real solutions out there besides heading back north. Here’s what I found:

  • Buy plenty of fans. For every 5 degrees increase in temperature and10 percentiles of humidity, we bought a new fan until every living mammal on board our bus had at least one personal fan that follows them around wherever they’re sitting or sleeping. Of course this results in a continually shifting web of power cables and a collective hum approaching the more silent of generators but it’s worth it: Fans remain the most valued piece of kit for any overlander in a hot vehicle. You get used to the noise and they seem to continue producing some relief even as your batteries drain to nothing.
  • That’s it, really. Fans are your only hope.

Ok, there are lots of other tricks and tips. Most of them are pretty obvious like parking under a tree, keeping the windows closed, keeping them open, and cooking outside. You can put a wet towel on your head, drink lots of chilled water, take showers every few hours and stuff like that. If you have a ready supply of ice you can fix a couple of computer fans in the lid of your cool-box, blowing out cool air until you have to make another sweaty trip to the ice-vendor.  None of it will really produce the experience you crave. We have become air-con hags; loitering around shopping malls, taking our time in supermarkets and refusing to get out of our richer friends’ cars. There is, of course, the nuclear option of escaping to your nearest mountain village and rediscovering, for a few days at least, the joys of clothing.

Fill box with ice...

Delving deeper into the piles of overlanding blogs, Caribbean Yacht Club websites and Australian Tropical Zone Trucker forums, I discovered there are very few practical solutions out there. With dry heat, things are easier – with evaporative or swamp coolers the principle is to load up the atmosphere with water which reduces the temperature. With the addition of a fan to blow away the moisture-rich air, you can achieve a very comfortable environment. The Ancient Persians are famous for understanding this principle, building great chimneys above their home – a pool of water at the bottom and the gentlest of desert breezes at the top. However, if you live in a more humid environment, the power of evaporation is greatly reduced and you must resort to the refrigeration method of pumping fluid around a closed circuit and forcing it to evaporate and condense over and over. This, of course, consumes a lot of energy – electrical in the case of buildings and mechanical in the case of vehicles. One interesting contraption I discovered was a propane-powered air conditioner – I could only find historical references to it though; is such a machine still sold somewhere? Would it work for an RV-er?

Diesel-powered truck a/c
Consumes 0.7l/hr - electric versions consume 45 A/hr (!)

I more or less understand the physics of it but I’m still slightly amazed that there is no low-power, low capacity version of the air conditioner. Just some small unit that can use the sun’s free energy to release the merest puff of cool, dry air across my desk or bed, that’s all I ask.

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