12 Ways to Stay Cool When Your Car’s AC Gives Out

When your car's air conditioning dies, there's still hope for a comfortable ride. Here's how to keep the summer heat from ruining your commute when the AC is out of commission.

By Tom Scalisi | Updated Jul 24, 2023 10:42 AM

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mother leaning out drivers side of window of red SUV looking at daughter in backseat window in desert landscape

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There’s a lot to love about summer: cookouts, pool parties, vacations, and family time come to mind. One thing no one loves? A sweltering hot car. If your car’s AC has thrown in the towel and you’re not in a position to get it fixed, don’t sweat it! Here’s how you can stay cool when your car’s air conditioning is broken.

1. Roll the windows down.

view of road with hand hanging out of car window

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The simplest way to get relief when your car’s AC is on the fritz is to roll down the windows when you’re on the road and let the airflow cool you off. That said, driving with the windows down increases drag, which can be a drain on your gas mileage, particularly at highway speeds. But when you’re sweating, fuel economy is probably the least of your concerns.

2. Park in the shade.

view looking down residential street with cars parked under shady trees

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There are few sensations as excruciating as sliding into a car that’s been baking in the sun all day. Keep your car’s interior a little more bearable by parking in the shade. When your air conditioning isn’t working, finding a shady spot is essential, even if it means that you’ll have to schlep farther to the car. It’s also a good idea to invest in a windshield sunshade to block the sun’s rays. You may even want to consider shelling out for a parking space in a garage during the summer months.

RELATED: 12 Things Never to Leave in a Hot Car

3. Crack a window open.

close up on finger pressing button on car window controls

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Another trick for keeping an unattended car cool for your return: Leave your windows down—just a tad—to encourage airflow. That little bit of ventilation will prevent heat from building up as quickly, which means you’ll sweat less when you hit the road again. You don’t have to roll them down far, just a crack—enough to let air in and keep would-be thieves out.

4. Buy a cooling seat cover.

close view of dark colored car seats with seatbelt buckles

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It doesn’t matter how much air makes its way through the windows if your back is baking against a scorching-hot car seat. Keep a cool head, back, and rear with a seat cover like the Zone Tech cooling car seat cushion. The seat cover plugs into your car’s 12-volt system, and has a fan that circulates air through its mesh and microfiber cushion. It’ll keep your body a little cooler (and your bum from sticking to a hot car seat), even if your AC is shot.

5. Bring a cold drink.

little girl sits in hatchback trunk drinking from pink water bottle as mother and brother load up the trunk for road trip

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A cold drink in your cup holder can do a lot to tone down the heat and keep you hydrated and comfortable during a long drive. Opt for a quality insulated water bottle to keep your beverage of choice cool for hours. Just fill it with water, iced tea, or lemonade, toss in a few ice cubes, and you should be good to go. Heading out on a road trip? Stash a cooler full of ice and bottled water in the trunk so you’ll always have a cold drink on hand.

RELATED: 10 Tricks for Keeping Cool at Home Without Air Conditioning

6. Grab a cooling towel.

man standing outside of his car cooling off with towel and water bottle

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There’s a reason why amusement parks can get away with selling tiny cooling towels for a hefty price: They work. The good news is, you can buy cooling towels, like Frogg Toggs’ Chilly Pad, for a lot less online or at your local home store. Keep a few ready for those brutal summer days, whether or not you’re driving. To get the full benefits of a cooling towel, pour cool water over it, wring it out, and drape it across your neck.

7. Plug in a portable AC.

hand plugging in USB into port on car dashboard

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No, this isn’t a window unit that hangs outside your car window. Instead, portable air conditioners like ConBlom’s personal evaporative air cooler run on your car’s 12-volt power system or on rechargeable batteries. Depending on the model you choose, you may first need to fill it with ice or water, but then you just switch it on to blow cool air. These little machines can move a surprising amount of air through your vehicle.

If you have the room, you might try something a bit larger and more powerful for your next road trip. Portable cooler air conditioners combine the ability to keep food and drinks cool while using the cold temperatures within the cooler to produce cold air and pump it into the car. While the size might not be convenient, this is truly portable air conditioning.

RELATED: Buyer’s Guide: The Best Personal Air Conditioners

8. Try a DIY fix.

close shot on canister of refrigerant and car engine with open hood

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Many things can go wrong with your car’s AC system, but some are pretty straightforward to address. For instance, if your system is simply low on refrigerant, you can buy a refill kit at a local auto parts store. Make sure that you purchase the right kind of refrigerant for your car, and note that you’ll need a recharging hose if the kit you buy doesn’t include one. One end of the hose attaches to the can of refrigerant, and the other to a fitting under the hood. If you’re intimidated by car repairs, ask the staff at the auto parts store for help. Another common cause of a failed AC is a stretched or torn compressor belt. These belts are relatively easy to fix if you follow an online tutorial or YouTube video. Do a little research and see if you can diagnose the problem. As long as your compressor pulley still spins freely, your solution may be cheaper and easier than you thought.

RELATED: How to Recharge Your Car’s AC at Home

9. Throw in the white towel.

hands on dark colored steering wheel lit by hot sun

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No, we aren’t talking about surrendering to the summer’s heat. We literally mean throwing a white towel over the steering wheel. The dark leather, rubber, plastic, and other materials that make up a steering wheel absorb a lot of the sun’s heat, whether directly or indirectly. One way to potentially combat how hot the steering wheel gets is to place a white bath towel over the wheel. The light color will reflect the sun’s energy while keeping the steering wheel underneath cooler to the touch.

10. Buckle up when you get out of the car.

close up on buckled seat belt

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The metal on seat belt buckles can get scorching hot, and one touch against an arm or leg could send a jolt of pain through the body. Believe it or not, there’s a simple way to keep buckles cooler and safer: Buckle the seatbelt again as you leave the car. Doing so keeps the metal of the buckle out of the sun, significantly reducing the buckle’s temperature.

RELATED: 11 Car Sounds You Should Never Ignore

11. Press the recirculation button.

a hand in a medical glove presses the air recirculation button in the car

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If it feels like your AC wants to work, but just can’t get it cold enough for comfort, try hitting the recirculation button. This button keeps fresh air out of the vehicle and continues to condition the same air inside the vehicle. Every time the air passes through the cooling coil, it will come out a bit cooler, and this may help your ailing AC system feel a bit more comfortable.

12. Keep your passengers to a minimum.

Two Senior Female Friends Enjoying Day Trip Out Driving In Car Together stock photo

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This tip might not be a lot of fun, but if your car’s air conditioning is on the fritz, limit the amount of folks you’re shuttling about. Packing five people into a car will create body heat and humidity, especially as everyone starts to sweat. Instead, limit your passenger capacity to you and two others to provide plenty of airflow and prevent the vehicle from collecting too much body heat (and keep it smelling a bit fresher inside, as well).