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Friday, August 19, 2022
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Camping Solar Panel Guide

Image courtesy of Sunflare

There is no doubt that camping solar panel systems for overlanding, off-roading, and other outdoor adventures are much more budget-friendly these days.

I mean, take one look at RVs, camper trailers, and overlanding rigs, and you’ll often see more folks with solar panels than without.

If you’re considering adding solar power to your camping setup, this guide will help you get sorted out and ready for the 2022 camping season.

Table of Contents

Camping Solar Panel: The Basics

Sunflare Solar Panel on rooftop tent

Image courtesy of Sunflare

There are four basic components of a solar power system:

  • A solar panel
  • A charge controller
  • A battery
  • An inverter

Each component serves a critical task: the solar panel collects the sun’s rays, a charge controller that regulates the power coming from the panels to the battery, which stores the power. The inverter completes the basic setup and converts the DC electricity to AC.

Simple enough, right?

There are major differences between various solar panels, charge controllers, and batteries, though. Let’s explore some of those differences in detail.

Solar Panels for Camping

Sunflare product shot

Image courtesy of Sunflare

The first component of our camping solar panel system is, well, the solar panel!

Not that long ago, solar panels were big, bulky, and rigid – features that were not conducive to camping, overlanding, and other mobile outdoor activities.

But things have changed…

For example, the XPLOR series of solar panels from Sunflare are ultra-thin and lightweight. You can get a 105-watt panel that’s roughly 47 x 33 inches in size, 1.7mm thick, and weighs just 6.5 pounds. Even the largest option – a 180-watt panel – is roughly 65 x 39 inches and weighs only 11 pounds.

So, the size and weight of solar panels aren’t a concern for camping any longer. Really, your primary task when shopping for solar panels for camping is figuring out how much power you need.

Sunflare Solar Panel overhead

Image courtesy of Sunflare

Let’s take the 105-watt panel I mentioned earlier as an example.

With this particular XPLOR solar panel, you can power a 43-inch smart TV for 1.5 hours, a 100W laptop for 3.5 hours, or 10 CFL lights for 3.5 hours. Obviously, this is a great option if your camping or overlanding setup isn’t electrical-heavy.

By contrast, a 126-watt solar panel gets you a little more runtime: a 50-inch smart TV for 1.5 hours, a 100W laptop for 4.5 hours, or 10 CFL lights for 4.5 hours.

Let’s jump up to a larger 180-watt panel. With a panel of this size, you can watch a 65-inch smart TV for 1.5 hours, run your 100W laptop for 6.5 hours, or use 10 CFL lights for 6.5 hours.

Sizing Your Solar Panel

Sunflare on a Toyota

Image courtesy of Sunflare

There are other factors to consider besides your potential electricity usage when setting up your solar power system.

For example, you need to consider the potential energy intake in the areas you intend to travel. If you’ll be in Southern California in the summer where there is abundant sunshine, the energy intake will be much different than if you’re in a forest in Minnesota in the spring, where foliage and clouds might block the sun.

Likewise, consider the time of year you typically camp. If you camp in the summer, the longer days give your solar panels longer to collect energy. But if you usually camp in the fall and winter, the shorter days will require that you get a higher-wattage panel to compensate for less available sunlight.

So, what does all this mean for your solar panel shopping? 

Standing on a Sunflare solar panel

Image courtesy of Sunflare

Basically, a good rule of thumb is to upsize your solar panel just in case. While the XPLOR 105-watt panel might be plenty for your current needs, it might not do the trick a year or two down the road.

Also, while you might typically camp in the summer, at some point you might pick up winter camping and need a higher-wattage panel.

It’s easy to play the what-if game, so it’s important not to go down a rabbit hole of what you may or may not need five years down the road. At the same time, it’s also important not to build a solar power system just to meet your current needs because doing so increases the risk that you’ll outgrow it sooner rather than later.

If, for example, you’re leaning towards a 105-watt panel, upgrading to a 126-watt panel might prove more beneficial for you in both the short term and long term. Likewise, if a 126-watt panel seems like the way to go right now, upgrading to a 180-watt panel gives you the flexibility for growth in the years to come.

Fortunately, companies like Sunflare have various sizing and wattage options to fit just about any camping solar panel needs. 

Charge Controllers for Solar Power Systems

redarc setup

Of course, as we discussed earlier, solar panels are just one part of the puzzle. You also need a charge controller for your solar power system.

The basic function of a charge controller is to manage the voltage and current that come into the batteries. Essentially, a charge controller is the gatekeeper of power, and its job is to protect the batteries from overcharging. Some charge controllers do much more, though.

For example, I have a REDARC Manager 30 battery management system that makes managing the battery power in my Turtleback Expedition Series Trailer a breeze.

This gadget is a 30-amp system that includes goodies like an MPPT solar regulator, a load disconnect controller, a battery isolator, and a 110-volt AC shore power charger. Additionally, it serves as a remote battery charger. All this is in a small package that measures about 18 x 7 x 3 inches. Nice!

redarc setup in turtleback trailer

When using a battery management system like this, you have the advantage of charging your batteries from shore power as you pack up to leave. Then, you can charge the batteries from your vehicle as you drive. While camping, the REDARC Manager 30 regulates the power coming in from the solar panels to keep the batteries charged.

Likewise, a battery management system like this prevents the backflow of electricity out of the battery while also managing the output of power to your devices to prevent draining the battery. 

They really are incredibly slick systems that make a camping solar panel setup so much more efficient and easy to operate.

Batteries for Your Camping Solar Panel

Man installing additional batteries in his camper van

 photo by photoschmidt via iStock

The batteries are another crucial component of your solar power system. They are the power bank that stores the power coming in from the solar panels and delivers it when needed to your electric devices.

Just like you need to think purposefully about the size of your solar panels, you also need to think purposefully about the size and number of batteries you have.

Obviously, the larger the capacity of the battery and the larger the number of batteries you have, the more capable you are of being off-grid for longer periods. But with larger and more batteries comes the need for more space to accommodate them and more weight added to your rig.

Sizing your batteries really comes down to having a system that’s flexible and can meet your power needs now and for the foreseeable future. For example, a 100AH battery can run a 100W laptop for 9 hours. A 200AH battery can do it for 18 hours. A 300AH battery extends that time to 27 hours.

This is a simple example, but it’s illustrative of the wide range of power options that different-sized batteries provide.

Man installing additional batteries in his camper van

 photo by photoschmidt via iStock

For many people, lithium-ion batteries are the way to go for camping solar panel systems. These batteries have a longer lifespan, a greater depth of discharge, and are often smaller than AGM batteries.

I started with AGMs in my trailer and promptly switched to two 100AH lithium-ion batteries. It was a move I’m glad I made! By having dedicated batteries for my trailer, I don’t have to rely on my starter battery for anything other than starting the truck. I highly recommend a dual-battery setup like this.

planar-diesel-heater-setup-in-rooftop-tent

Of course, when thinking of solar power, we need to quickly mention a small, portable alternative if a trailer-mounted system like what I have is a bit too much for your needs.

The Blackfire Pac1000 is in my kit, and has been a great addition for powering devices on quick overnight trips.

It has a 982.8Wh lithium-ion battery and multiple outputs (120V, USB, and 12V). It can be recharged using a mobile AC charger, a fast AC charger, or a DC carport charger.

Of course, it can also be charged with solar panels, giving you even greater flexibility.

Obviously, this isn’t an option for extended camping trips or for powering multiple components, like the water pump, outlets, and lights in my trailer. But, for those last-minute trips when I leave my trailer behind, it’s awesome!

Building Your Solar Power System

Sunflare camping in a canyon

Image courtesy of Sunflare

I’ll close off with this disclaimer: what I need and want for my solar power system might not be the right fit for your needs or wants. That being the case, it’s critical that you use this article as a leaping point for thinking more thoroughly about what you need your camping solar panel system to do.

I am certainly no solar power expert, either. I have relied on discussions with the pros to develop a system for my needs that works great. I strongly suggest you do the same. I’m sure the folks at Sunflare would be happy to give you some guidance! Contact them today to learn more about the possibilities of adding solar power to your camping setup.

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