Using Shade Cloth in the Desert


In my last post I gave you some ideas on how to stay cool in a van using Reflectix and an ADCO windshield cover to keep the heat from getting into the van at all. In today’s post I want to give you an example of how you can use shade cloth around your van to stay cool along with some other ideas.

Their are two reasons my time in the desert requires different strategies from me than when I travel in the summer:

  1. The main difference is the severe desert winds that would just rip the Reflectix right off  of my van if they came up all of a sudden–which they do frequently. And if not destroy it outright, the constant buffeting from the wind would  rub a blemish on my vans paint and a hole through the Reflectix.
  2. In the winter I move very little so how long it takes to set up or take down the shade cloth is no big deal. In the summer when I travel a lot it would become an extreme nuisance to have to constantly take it on and off multiple times a week–just ain’t gonna happen!


In the photo above you can see a typical setup for me in the desert. These are some of the things that help keep me cool:

  1. I have a ladder rack over the trailer and I’ve covered it with plywood so the roof is always in the shade.
  2. I cover my front windshield with an ADCO windshield cover that I just dearly love and very highly recommend to you!
  3. I have a black, 90% shade cloth tarp wrapped around the side of my trailer. Notice it is pulled away and staked down with bungee cords. The reason black is best is the heat accumulates at the cloth and because it is pulled away from the trailer, the heat stays away from the trailer.
  4. I created a “courtyard” between the trailer and the van by hanging shade cloth between them. That gives me a cool place to go and sit in the shade.
  5. I have dark tinted windows on the trailer. That allows ventilation when I need it and keeps the heat out when I don’t

Why do I like and use shade cloth and not a tarp?

  1. The main reason is that the wind in the desert is so bad that a tarp would have to be put up and taken down constantly or the flapping in the wind would either destroy the tarp or drive me crazy-both are bad! The shade cloth sheds the wind very well and I can have it out during all but the very worst winds.
  2. The second reason shade cloth is far superior is it allows the wind to blow through  it and into my open windows, giving me a cross-breeze in my trailer and van. A tarp would block the wind and I wouldn’t have any ventilation.
  3. The final reason is that there is very little rain in the desert so the one thing a tarp does far better than shade cloth (let you sit outside in the rain, almost never gets to happen.


In the above picture I am standing in the courtyard created by a 10×12 black shade cloth. I like the 10 foot wide but would have preferred it to to be 16 long because my trailer is 6 feet wide x 10 feet long. That way I could hang down the ends of the tarp either 3 feet on both ends or 6 feet on one end. This way I have to hang a separate tarp to cover one end.

Hanging all the tarps on the trailer is harder because it is so high, but I rarely move the trailer so it’s no big deal. But I often move the van so the courtyard could be a hassle. But it’s only attached by 4 bungee cords and I marked where the tires go so I always come back to the exact same spot.  I love the courtyard so much, it’s worth the little bit of work to me!


In the photo above you can see the plywood that covers the entire roof of the trailer, leaving in in shade all day. I haven’t noticed any problems at all with towing the trailer because of it. That is not treated plywood, next time I would buy treated Marine plywood (about $68 a sheet) and put multiple coats of good paint on it.


In the above photo I’m looking at the trailer from the south. I always orient the trailer due east-west with the tongue facing west so the door opens to the north and the sun never shines inside it. Then I cover the south wall with shade cloth. The trailer is 6×10 and the tarp is 10×16 so it wraps around and covers the front end (which faces west) of the trailer. The reason is because the desert has cold nights and so morning sun is a good thing. In the late afternoon it’s the hottest it will be so I want to protect the trailer the most from the direct hit of the suns brutal heat rays.

You can see the plywood on the ladder rack really well from this angle. Notice the shade cloth is staked out and away from the trailer so the heat can’t get to it. I use bungees for everything so it can give in the wind.

shade-cloth-frontLooking from the front you can see the shade cloth covers around the front of the trailer keeping it cool from the hot late afternoon sun. It’s all held together with bungees running everywhere!

shade-cloth-roof-ventsI’ve climber up on a ladder and you can see the roof is in shade from the plywood. You can barely see I have two roof vents and vent covers . At the top right you can see the shade cloth attaches by spring clips hooked to eye screws screwed into the 2×4 that holds the plywood.


The van is kept cool by an ADCO windshield cover up front, the courtyard shade cloth on the south wall and this Reflectix around the back door and windows.


I love the ADCO windshield cover and would not be without one!! The heat stays outside keeping the van as cool as possible, but it lets light in so it isn’t so dark.

This has worked extremely well for me but I’m aware it isn’t for everyone. If you move a lot it wouldn’t be worth the hassle and obviously you can’t do this in the city. But if you boondock in the desert then this may be a great idea for you, if not, then I hope you got some ideas here that you can use! Below I have links to Amazon to all the products you’ve seen here. If you use them I’ll make a small percentage of your purchase and it will cost you nothing, even if you buy something else.

Be sure and double check I’ve got the right link to the windshield cover you need.

I’m making Videos on my good friends James YouTube Channel. See them here:

I made a video of all the things you’ve read here, you can see the video here:

Thanks for supporting this site by using these links to Amazon. I’ll make a small percentage on your purchase and it won’t cost you anything, even if you buy something different.


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I've been a full-time VanDweller since 1995 and I love it. I hope to never live in a house again! Check out Homes On Wheels Alliance (HOWA), our nonprofit that I co-founded. HOWA is dedicated to helping nomads in need.

37 Comments on “Using Shade Cloth in the Desert

  1. Am so glad you pointed out that a black is the best color for a shade cloth. I, too, had my mind on a white or even a silver color at additional expense with both being harder to find and more limited in stock sizes.

      • Bob, I have been thinking & thinking & thinking regarding the reason why a black shade cloth is more effective, I have arrived to the following theory ( I may be wrong though ), here it goes….

        The sun rays hit one side of the black shade cloth accumulating a LARGE amount of heat in that area, the opposite side in cooler thus the difference of temperatures on both sides of the cloth creates a sort of vacuum promoting an active air circulation by the van’s wall & windows…. LOL, you didn’t know I was so smart !!!
        My regards, Lucy the physicist. LOL.

  2. I have seen others just give and buy a generator and take out the back glass of their van put in plywood cut out a section for a small a / c and only use it when the Temps are high it may cost more that cool air sure can feel good but I know you like to keep things simple just be careful and drink a lot of water it won’t be long till cool Temps anyway

    • Thanks Joe, as a Snowbird heat isn’t much of a problem for me, if it’s so hot that I need an AC, I’ll just move to where it’s cooler. These steps just make it a little more pleasant for the in-between times–a little too hot in the desert and still too cold in the mountains. Bob

  3. Great post Bob! The heat has been killer, even out where I am in the north east. I am no longer living in my van unfortunately, and want to get back to it soon. The big issue for me now is trying to stay cool while stealth vandwelling if I go back to it now. It’s so much harder to get away with it in a big city where I am now.

    • Heat in a city is a huge problem with all that blacktop and concrete. With the humidity where you are a fan and vents are just about your only options. Bob

    • Under-body ventilation helps. Using either finned vents or mesh covered vents (keep out critters) through the flooring of the vehicle can provide air flow from the underbelly (shaded and cooler air) up to the roof venting. Buy some patches for repairing screen doors, and use them to seal up the vents from insects with some silicone. Just make sure to set up a way to plug or seal the venting entirely for when you are mobile again (keep out dust and water). Even if you’re parked on blacktop, the heat under your vehicle will still remain considerably cooler than the surrounding pavement and allow you a cross breeze through your vehicle interior. I did this under the passenger seat of a 1997 Ford Escort I lived in. I removed the passenger seat and back rest of the rear seats entirely to provide more spacious interior. I built a tool box for my work gear and tools, and camp supply storage for my cooking and lighting needs after work, and put venting through the floor under the tool box situated in the middle of where the passenger seat once was bolted. It provided me a nice cool breeze with my windows cracked as the air was pulled up under the tool box and circulated around the car. I used dryer duct finned vents, gravity allowed the fins to remain open as I installed it facing down towards the pavement. Then when I was ready to get mobile to the next work town, I squeezed under the car and duct taped the fins closed for transport.

  4. Thanks. Good call on shade cloth instead of a tarp. Hadn’t thought of it even though I have shade cloth at my brick and stick.

  5. Thanks, Bob. Very informative. Last two posts have given me some good
    advice and ideas. Lots of sun here in Nevada as you know and wind. I am
    able to drop shade quickly in case of gusts. Thanks again, Rich.

  6. Wonder advice Bob! And it really opens up to understanding with the videos you make about the topics. Thank you.

  7. Thanks for this series, Bob. Some very useful info there. I will need to add shade cloth to the gear pile to pack in the truck.

  8. Bob,in watching the video I found what you said about having the cargo trailer interesting. I have been mulling the idea over of getting one to hook up to my 2014 Escape.
    As you know, I have tried the Runaway and a popup which didn’t work out for me. But I keep coming back to the CT idea. I have been looking at the Plainoltrailers ,models and think maybe a 5×8 or 5×10 might work for me. I am sure that the Escape would tow those with no problem and wouldn’t hurt my mpg much. I was considering the 6×10 but I don’t want anything that would be wider than the Escape, so the 5 wide seems good.
    When I did the trip to Ca just using the Escape and camped in state parks and stopped at Ehrenberg for a couple days things were not as comfortable as I wanted. It was a little tight, so I think the CT would be good.

    The CTs at Plainoltrailers are priced pretty reasonable ($1,200 to $1,400). I think that the basic one with having them install side slider windows and a powered roof vent would be all that I would need. And I could make the inside very simple with a air bed and some sterilite container drawers would suffice for now.

    So, what do you think? would the 5×8 or 5×10 work for my Escape setup? And is it worth having the company that makes them, install the windows and roof vent as opposed to doing it myself?

    • That’s a very good looking trailer and a fair price! I’m less optimistic about the Escapes towing ability than you are, so I would get the lightest one I could find and put the minimum of stuff in it. I would build a bed to get the storage underneath and use plastic totes and drawers for organization.

      No matter what I’d get the side door, roof vent and at least one window, preferably two. You should ave a lot of money if you buy and install them yourself, but you have to decide your comfort level with that.

      I think it is an excellent choice!! It seems like the perfect compromise and balance of all your needs and budget!

  9. I found your site a couple of weeks ago and have been very busy doing lots of research. I would like to van dwell in about three years time – so I have been doing LOTS of thinking about what I NEED vs what I WANT. Thanks for this info on the sun shade – I will definitely give this a try the next time I am in southern Utah tent camping in the summer where it’s HOT!

  10. Bob,

    Haven’t had a chance to watch the video, do you have any issues with wind blowing the ADCO windshield cover off?



    • Queen, yes I have but I’ve found that running extra magnets all around solves the problem in all but the very worst winds. I always have lots of magnets on hand! Bob

  11. Bob,

    Now I know why the Bedouin of the Middle East have black, goat hair tents! Amazing that this technology has been around thousands of years. A great observation by you!

    I’m not a vandweller yet but would love to be soon. I’ve been thinking of converting a 6’X10″ CT to go behind my GMC, 1500, 4×4 pickup, which I already own. Any thoughts?

    Thank you for sharing all of this wonderful information!
    Rogue Rose

    • Rose, I am a big fan of converting a cargo trailer!! They have a long list of advantages that make them ideal for many of us. However,if I were you I would give thought to a 6×12 instead. There is very little sacrifice for the extra 2 feet but a substantial amount more room inside.

    • Seems odd, doesn’t it! The key is their downy undercoats that insulate their skin from the heat that builds upon the surface of their fur.

  12. I’m loving your site, so many tips that you provide. Thank you. I’m about to head into the freedom lifestyle, but have additional questions. I have a pitt companion that I rescued many years ago, we are inseparable, how do I keep her cool when i’m at work? I’m allowed to have her in the parking lot and she will be check up on every 2 hrs (breaks and lunches) but my main concern is her safety during the heat and cold winters here in Omaha, Nebraska. I’m converting a van into a dwelling, I’m adding insulation to the floors, sidewalls, and ceiling. I will use the idea/tip about the ADCO for the windows, but without having the car running while i’m at work, is there another way? I’ve seen devices online that states it would keep your cabin cool.

  13. Hey Bob,
    Thanks for sharing your knowledge of camping in the desert. I’ll trade you a tip for your shade/windsails advice: Have you considered using 4×8 sheets of Advantek in lieu of expensive marine grade plywood as a replacement for the trailer shade that you have installed on the ladder rack? It’s impressive stuff, I have a piece that’s been in sun and rain continuously for 8 years and it’s held up well even though it was unpainted.
    Available at the big box lumber stores, sometimes under a different name at 1/3 the price of marine grade ply.
    Happy Trails!

  14. In your blog about windscreens, I can’t see most of the photos you mention 🙁 The info sounds great but would be easier to understand if I could see it.

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