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Solar Power for Camping: A Beginner’s Guide

Photo by Voyagerix via iStock

When I was a kid, we “roughed” it in a small bumper-pull trailer. In the 1980s, it was no frills, for sure, but at least we were inside with a furnace to keep the chill away at night.

But when I think about that old camper and compare it to my current one, the difference is almost comical. And it’s not like I’m pulling a $100,000 fifth wheel, either – that would be an even bigger difference!

There are many more creature comforts in today’s campers than there were even 10 or 20 years ago, let alone 40 years ago. There are also many more technologies that make camping a much easier and more functional experience – solar power being one of them.

If you’re new to solar power and have questions about solar power for camping, specifically, how much solar power you need, you’ve come to the right place.

How Much Solar Power Do I Need for Camping?

RV with Solar panels near the ocean

Photo by Voyagerix via iStock

Using solar power for camping isn’t just a matter of slapping a solar panel on your camper’s roof and connecting some wires.

Instead, you need to consider the question, “How much solar power do I need for camping?”

The answer to this question is, of course, that it depends.

Before investing in a solar power system, you need to know what you need and what you don’t. Adding too many solar panels is a waste of your time and money – there’s no point in covering your RV’s roof with panels if you don’t need all the power that they can generate. By the same token, you don’t want to add a single solar panel thinking that it can produce the power needed to run two A/C units in the heat of the day.

Couple in an RV cooking

Photo by FatCamera via iStock

You should start by figuring out what your normal energy use is when you’re camping. Once you do that, you can figure out the size of your solar power bank for camping.

To determine your energy usage level, just go camping! You’ll need to boondock, obviously, so you can gauge how long your batteries last under normal use. The key term here is “normal use.” Use the lights, the water pump, and whatever else you normally use so you get an accurate estimate of power consumption.

While you’re camping, use a battery monitor to track the levels of the batteries in your camper or RV. You’ll then need to do some math. Let’s say, for example, that after two days of camping your two 80 amp-hour batteries are at 50 percent charge. In other words, the batteries have used up a total of 80 amp-hours over two days, or 40 amp-hours per day.

Using this figure, you can determine how much solar power you need.

Man fixing a camper battery

Photo by photoschmidt via iStock

Just remember that you need to have a big enough battery bank to store the power generated by your solar panels. You can cover every inch of your camper with solar panels, but there’s no point if your batteries don’t have the ability to store all that energy.

Adding additional batteries for a solar power bank for camping brings up the question of space in your camper as well as its weight rating. Batteries aren’t exactly small or lightweight, so be sure you have a place where you can safely add additional batteries to increase capacity for storing power.

Building a Solar Power Supply for Camping

Solar Power Supply for Camping

Photo by photoschmidt via iStock

Now that we have a good idea of how much power consumption we need to plan for, we can figure out the size of the solar panel for our solar power supply.

The output you can expect from a solar panel depends on many factors, including the temperature, the level of sun exposure, and the time of day.

However, a good assumption to make is that you can get about 30 amp-hours of power from a 100-watt solar panel per day.

Using our example from above, that means we’d need two solar panels to exceed our 40 amp-hour threshold.

Another popular method for determining the size of a solar power supply for camping is to use the amp-hour capacity of your batteries as a guide for how many solar panels you need.

Briter Products 400W RV solar panel 2

For example, if you have 300 amp-hours worth of batteries, investing in a 400-watt solar panel like the Briter Products panel shown above would work well. Now, obviously, in this scenario the solar panel produces more power than the batteries can store, but this is okay. You actually want to have a panel that can produce a higher level of power to accommodate for drop-offs in efficiency that we discussed earlier. For example, on a cloudy day, a 400-watt panel might only produce 350 watts of power.

How to Use Solar Power for Camping

Aside from the obvious need to mount the panels on your roof (or, alternatively, using a portable solar panel array if desired), you’ll need to wire the solar panels to the battery bank in your camper or RV.

This can be a very complex process, particularly if you have multiple solar panels. If you’re not confident with electricity, it’s imperative that you have a professional install your solar power supply for camping. You can see how this is done in the video above by RandomBitsRV.

Solar panel connecting cables on top of a camper

Photo by photoschmidt via iStock

Of course, when using solar power for camping, you have to be mindful of where you park your camper or RV to maximize how much sun it gets. This can be tough to get used to if you’re like me and traditionally sought out shady spots to shield your eyes from the morning sun. If you’re relying on solar, though, you’ll need to get a sleeping mask because your rig needs to catch those early morning rays!

benefits of lithium batteries

I would also suggest that you pair your solar panel with a bank of lithium-ion batteries. As I discuss in this article, lithium-ion batteries offer far more advantages than traditional AGM batteries, including the ability to run them down to nothing whereas AGM batteries only have a depth of discharge of 50 percent.

I have two lithium-ion batteries from Briter Products in my Turtleback Expedition Trailer and they have proven to be one of the best upgrades I’ve made to my overlanding setup. These batteries are smaller and lighter weight than AGMs, come with a five-year warranty, and are fully serviceable, so they will be a dependable power source for me for years and years to come. There’s even an LCD display on the battery and they’re Bluetooth compatible so I can monitor the battery levels with my phone. Nice!

Kitchen in a RV

Photo by SolStock via iStock

Another tip for using solar power for camping is to conserve energy whenever possible. Taking shorter showers (which reduces the power consumption of the water pump) can save a surprising amount of energy. Swapping out all the lights in your camper or RV for more efficient LED bulbs will also be a great help. Wrapping up in a blanket when you get a little chilly rather than kicking the furnace on will save you some energy as well.

Really, the toughest part about using solar power for camping is all the upfront cost and time that’s needed to outfit your rig with the proper equipment. After that, though, you can enjoy solar power for camping with very little fuss!

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