Most campers have long known that portable solar panels can be used to charge their supplementary batteries. Unsurprisingly, technology continues to improve in terms of efficiency and performance, allowing you to get more bang for your buck and have enough power while on the go!

Solar Panels and tents

However, adding solar electricity to your camping needs and setup is a no-brainer, and it usually begins with the question: what type of solar panels should I need when camping?

The cost of solar panels is at an all-time low. Panel prices have fallen by as much as 66% from 2016 to 2020. In other words, solar panels are now one of the most affordable components in a solar panel system!

What amount of solar power do you require for camping?

You’re probably wondering “What size solar system do I need for camping?” There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. No two setups are alike, and your requirements will differ from those of your neighbors on each side.

Self-sufficient wild camping in a beautiful scenic location in the Yorkshire Dales

Furthermore, with so many different sized panels on the marketplace, deciding where to start can be difficult. The first thing to remember is that all-electric items, such as your refrigerator, lights, and charging equipment, are measured in amps.

An electric current’s speed is measured in amps. More electricity flows when the current is larger. As a result, you must determine how many electrical loads you already have or will have, as well as how many amps that will consume from your battery. This information is available in the product manual or on the device’s label.

You’ll need to figure out how long each device will be utilized since this will give you the total Amp-hours (Ah) of daily power consumption. The number of amps drawn for the duration of time in hours that you take the current is referred to as amp-hours. So, amps multiplied by the number of hours equals Ah.

So here are three things you should know:

  • The number and amps of electrical loads to be run
  • Over a 24-hour period, what that total would be
  • Your battery’s capacity, measured in Ah

As a result, how many solar panels you’ll need is decided by the amount of charge that needs to be returned to the batteries throughout each day’s hours of direct sunlight. Get this right, and you will have enough power output for multiple devices!

Not sure how many solar panels you’ll need for camping?

A man camping in the wilderness on a moorland sits in a tent and charges his smartphone using a portable solar panel.

Well, if that’s the case, then start by evaluating solar panels by their power rating or wattage. The basic unit of power is the watt, which is a measurement of how much electricity it can produce. In other words, the rate at which you may charge the batteries is determined by the wattage of a solar panel.

  • Watts = Volts x Amps

Let’s say you have a 12v system and need to recharge your batteries at 75 amps per hour every day. Each day, you get about 6 hours of sunlight. You’ll need the following items:

  • 75Ah x 12V = 900Wh
  • 900Wh/6h = 150W of solar panels 

In fact, it is often a good idea to overestimate your needs by at least 20%, so you would require 180W of solar panels. It is also suggested that you purchase a solar regulator as part of your solar panel system to ensure that your solar setup is providing an effective and safe charge.

Even though the idea may appear to be rather complex at first, after you understand these calculations and different circumstances, you will realize that it is not at all difficult. All it takes is a few minutes of your time to sit down with paper and a pen to figure out what you will use and therefore what power you need to cover it.

What is the minimum panel size?

Using the example above, you’d want to purchase a 180-watt panel for your solar setup. Much smaller panels are available to buy, however, they will only really provide power for small appliances such as an LED light.

Other factors come into play. If you were using a portable fridge, for example, the atmospheric temperature range, the number of times you open and close your fridge, and, of course, your preferred fridge temperature, all play a significant role in the power use over a 24-hour period.

So determining that figure can be challenging when there are so many variables at play!

Man camping in the woods with his solar panel

Over the course of a 24-hour period, a quality 12V camping fridge may utilize between 30A/h and 45A/h. Most campgrounds have between 2 and 7 hours of useful solar energy, depending on daylight conditions and your geographical area.

In ideal conditions, an 85W panel produces about 5 amps per hour, so replenishing 35 amps would take at least 7 hours.

It is oversimplified and based on the bare minimum in terms of fridge size, performance, operating circumstances, and how often you reach for “just one more drink”!

Furthermore, the computations do not take into consideration non-ideal circumstances such as:

  • Your solar panel is covered in dew or dust
  • The weather is partly overcast
  • High ambient temperatures put a burden on your refrigerator
  • How many other appliances are you running

When you’re thinking in terms of minimal requirements, in this example it’s advisable to upsize the panel to a 120W or 150W unit. Furthermore, increasing the size of your solar panel will allow you to generate enough energy to power extra camping devices like LED lighting and/or a cellphone charger.

So you could use a 200W panel for that extra margin in this instance.

A climber has placed a solar panel charging system outside the tent to charge batteries for devices

However, keep in mind that your regulator would need to be rated for this capacity and that in the case of non-flexible units, such a panel might be impractically large or require you to add multiple panels.

When camping, how do you use solar panels?

Because a portable solar power system’s wattage is limited, the camping solar panel should be positioned to gain the most advantage from the sun. At midday, the sun is at its brightest.

You can utilize transportable photovoltaic power if you don’t feel you’ll be able to follow the full direct sun with many solar panels attached to your camper’s roof.

A young woman in nature with her trailer and solar panel

If you insist on mounting your solar panels on the roof of your camper, crystalline panels are a good option. Your solar array will be fixed in this scenario. Alternatively, a portable solar array can be set up on the ground. Because space isn’t a concern in the latter situation, you can go with cheaper thin-film panels.

If you must have the best efficiency, you can utilize monocrystalline solar panels in portable solar arrays and handle them carefully.

A man camping in the woods charging his laptop with a solar panel

For campers and caravans, there are two ways to use solar panels: simply attach them directly to the gadgets, or use a power pack.

A power pack is a collection of batteries connected together and governed by a charge controller (or regulator), as well as an adapter (s) that allows you to quickly and easily power your usual gadgets. Power packs (also called a battery bank) provide flexibility at the cost of increased weight transportable.

Did you know?

  • Power packs can be used in conjunction with solar panels that are connected in both series and parallel
  • Higher consumption, on the other hand, is associated with both a higher wattage solar panel and a larger battery capacity
  • The more items you want to plug in, the more money you should budget for a higher-capacity battery

What are the benefits of solar panels for campers, RVs, and motorhomes?

A man installing a solar panel

To use RV solar panels for campers, you will have to have a system that includes the following elements:

  • Flexible solar panels, for starters
  • A charge controller to prevent your storage system from being overcharged
  • Energy storage with solar batteries (common options are lead-acid or lithium-ion)
  • A inverter to convert direct-current electricity into alternating current, depending on what you will plug into your system. This is occasionally pre-wired into the solar battery.

You can purchase each of these parts separately. You’ll also need adequate cables and connectors to connect all of your components, as well as racking and mounting equipment for your panels, which are usually included when buying solar panels or battery systems. The solar charge controller may not be weatherproof and should be installed in a secure location.

Energy-saving tips

  • Choose a solar panel with a slightly higher power rating than you require
  • Always assess your daily electrical use and choose the entire system with that in mind

The efficiency of a solar panel system

Solar panels are rated for their maximum efficiency, which means that in ideal conditions, a solar panel wattage of 100 will produce 100 watts. This is the maximum wattage of a 100-watt solar panel. However several factors influence how much power you may get… unless you’re the smartest camper on the planet and have figured out how to control the weather!

The amount of electricity generated by the solar panel is influenced by the weather, temperature, time of day, and other factors like your geographic location, the time of the year, and so on.

What else should you know about solar panels for camping?

Portable solar panels should have an energy conversion of between 21.5 and 23.55 percent. Depending on the month and your location, daily peak sunshine hours range from 1.4 to 7.4 hours. Monocrystalline camping solar panels are the ideal solar panels for a camper trailer since function best in direct sunlight.

Bottom line

Although there are many solar panel variables, they are still well worth the time and cost. While it can be an expensive investment upfront, it allows you to go camping off-grid rather than staying in a congested RV park or campsite.

The money you’ll save on camping trip fees and electricity prices will start to make up for the initial outlay. It is also absolutely silent, unlike a fuel generator, and once you’re done with all the solar panel setup, maintaining it is already simple.

FAQs

Is it true that the type of battery I use plays a vital role?

The answer is yes! The chemistry and size of your battery bank can have a considerable impact on the overall performance of your solar system.

Would the panel’s condition make a significant difference?

Absolutely! The quality of your solar panels is a factor that influences the functioning and efficiency of your system. To help your solar panels work efficiently, keep them in good condition.

Does the regulator play an important role?

Many factors may influence this, but in general, an MPPT regulator will produce more amps from your solar panel than a PWM regulator.

How much solar power do I require for a camping refrigerator?

As covered in the information above, it depends on how much energy your fridge will use. A general recommendation is to have more solar panels than strictly necessary. This gives you some flexibility when it comes to charging the battery bank. Remember, you will also have other devices to charge!