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Camping Solar Power System

By Benjamin Strusnik November 08, 2022

When it comes to camping solar power systems, the two most ideal options would be a portable solar system or RV solar system.

But before we dive into how to set these two different systems up, let’s have a look at why solar power is beneficial for campers.

The Power of the Sun

portable solar system for camping

When you’re out traveling on the open road, looking for that next spot to set up camp, you need to be thinking about power.

What if we told you that the best power provider is something you can make use of every day?

You can harness the sun’s natural energy by using solar panels, converting the incoming light energy into usable electricity.

Advantages of Solar Energy

There’s nothing better than a free, renewable source of energy that’s available for you to use every day. we say renewable because the sun isn’t going anywhere, anytime soon.

And when it comes to costs, there are no recurring payments for fuel.

All you need to pay mind to is the initial costs and maintenance of your solar system.

Solar energy doesn’t do any harm to the environment, so you’re decreasing your carbon footprint

Disadvantages of traditional power

In most cases, campers tend to make use of gas generators to power their appliances but there are a few problems with this.

For starters, gasoline costs money and if you’re constantly needing a refill, you’re breaking the bank.

Also, gasoline doesn’t do wonders for the environment and is quite damaging.

The gas and fuels used in these generators are obtained from burning fossil fuels.

When you use these fossil fuels in your generators, it’s producing large amounts of carbon dioxide in the process.

All this is doing is increasing your carbon footprint and contributing to air pollution.

Now that we’ve discussed the basics of solar power, which is the first step in building a solar system for our campers?

Size your System

portable solar systems for camping

The first step to building any solar system is to know the size based on your solar needs. Figuring this out isn’t rocket science and only requires you to know the wattage of an appliance.

Watts and time 

If you’re a camper, you’re going to have portable lights and various appliances to enhance your experience.

These appliances have an output wattage that tends to be located beneath the appliance itself.

Once you have the wattage of an appliance, it’s essential to know how long you plan on keeping them powered.

With these two values, you can obtain the watt hours per day that each of these appliances uses. Add these values together and you will get the total watt-hours per day

If you’re a camper, you will have a small solar system with minimal appliances being powered. In other words, that total watt-hours per day value are going to be small too. 

Solar needs 

Calculating your solar needs can be done by either going the manual route or getting into the nitty-gritty technical aspects. 

camping solar power systems

However, unless you’re very clued up on energy losses and efficiencies, this isn’t going to be easy.

The easier route would be to take the values you calculated earlier and make use of a solar calculator online. These are free to use and give you accurate estimates on how you should size your solar system.

Solar systems consist of batteries, solar panels, and charge controllers. 

A solar calculator does the job of figuring out the size of each of these components by using previously calculated values, as well as sun hours and the amount of time you want your solar system to run.

To get the size of the battery, the calculators typically use your total watt-hours, the number of days you want your system to run without sun, as well as the lowest temperature that your system would be exposed to. 

The calculator does its magic and you’re left with the battery size.

If you want to save yourself money and save the environment, we recommended investing in a solar battery as it can charge using AC or solar power. 

This is much better than lugging around a heavy, lead-acid battery.

Sizing the solar panels is where the sun hours come into play and the calculator uses your previously calculated battery size in the equation.

Once the calculator does its job, you’ll be left with the wattage of solar panels needed, the number of panels in an array, and the charge controller.

You can use these calculators to get the size of any system. Whether it's a solar system for boats, one for an RV, or a portable setup for campers, taking the solar calculator route will guarantee the best results.

How to set up an RV solar system

portable solar system for a camping

If you’re a camper in the states, chances are you’ve gotten to your destination in an RV. If you haven’t, don’t worry, we’ll talk about portable solar systems for campers too. 

But for now, let’s dive into the basics of a camper-friendly RV solar system.

If you’ve driven out into the more mountainous regions to set up camp and take your RV with you, that RV can harness the sun’s energy and stay powered. 

Components

At the top of the RV, or on the extended side panels if you have any, is where you will place the solar panels. 

These panels are connected to a charge controller placed inside the RV. The panels are hooked up with some fuses and breakers before being connected to the solar batteries.

The fuses and breakers aren’t necessary, but they do an excellent job of protecting your equipment and preventing your wires from wearing out.

The best option when purchasing a solar system for an RV is to buy kits as they include everything you need in one convenient place. 

These include a few solar panels to create an array, one or two batteries, and typically an MPPT charge controller

Plus, this ends up being cheaper than if you were to purchase the components separately. 

Aside from the solar panels and charge controller, it comes with mounting hardware and wires.

So now that we’ve gone over the basic components, let’s look at how we’d go about setting everything up.

Setting it up

camping solar system

The nice part about solar systems for campers is that the system itself isn’t a mission to set up. 

When you want a solar system for a home, you need to worry about the condition of your roof as well as more complicated wiring. 

A professional isn’t needed to set up a solar system for an RV.

The mounting hardware like the frame and bolts are secured tightly to the solar panels and then it’s a matter of marking where you’d want to install them.

Using the screws and a power drill, the solar panels will remain secured on your RV’s roof. 

Most RV roofs are spacious so if you’re asking if can you add solar panels to an existing system on an RV, the answer is yes so long as you have the space.

Wiring

As for the wiring, most DIY RV solar kits include MC4 connectors allowing you to connect your solar panels in a parallel or series configuration.

The wires from the panels can be hooked up to a fuse to allow you to disconnect the solar p[anels from the charge controllers. 

solar power system for camping

This is a good safety measure to ensure that your equipment doesn’t overheat or wear out due to the solar panels always running.  

You should connect your charge controller to your batteries before hooking them up to the solar panels. 

This is a simple procedure, connecting the positive side of the fuse to the positive node of the battery, and the negative node of the battery is connected to the charge controller.

Now you can connect the charge controller and battery to the solar panels and your system should be ready to go.

Benefits for Campers

The most obvious benefit is the amount of money you’re saving. 

Since you no longer need to be lugging around cans of gas to fill up generators or use non-environment-friendly batteries, you won’t need to constantly purchase fuel. 

The generators for RVs tend to be loud and noisy too so using solar power is a good and quiet solution.

Also, maintenance is much easier. Most technical problems in an RV solar system can be figured out with ease. All that needs to be done is sweeping debris and snow off of your roof.

ShopSolarKit’s most popular RV solar kit is one that packs a punch. 

You’re able to power your RV with 400W, and you can expand it up to 800W if you want more power. 

Installing this 400W complete solar kit for your RV is simple as it includes pre-assembled wiring handedness. In other words, you don’t need any crimping tools to set it up. 

portable solar system camping

What’s in the package 

This package includes two 200W monocrystalline solar panels as well as a 40A MPPT solar charge controller. 

Between monocrystalline and polycrystalline, the former is more efficient and does a better job of harnessing the sun’s energy. It’s the more premium of the two.

The solar panels have a maximum power voltage of 20.4V and weigh in at around 26.5 lbs.

Also, the package includes inline fuse holders with a 15A fuse.

The controller allows you to gauge your power by providing updates on the voltage and amperage being outputted.

All the necessary 10 gauge cables and mounting brackets come included in the package so you won’t need to worry about purchasing that separately.

Aside from the physical goodies, you’re getting a 25-year output warranty, making your purchase one backed with confidence.

The package doesn’t come included with a battery, but if you’re wanting a package that does, there’s a more powerful 3600W one designed for longer RV and camping trips.

portable solar system when camping

Price

This solar kit is priced at around $697 and if you were to look at the price of the individual components, you are saving a good amount of money. 

This kit is the most basic RV solar kit for campers and comes at an affordable price.

How to set up a Portable Solar system

Despite campers wanting to be away from an indoor environment, they still want to make use of their electronic device.

Knowing the type as well as how many solar panels you’re wanting in your portable solar system is determined by how much power you draw from your battery vs the rate at which the solar panels charge the battery during the day.

For example, if you want to draw 5A per hour at around 14V, you’re going to draw a total wattage of around 70W. 

Let’s keep this value and assume we’re receiving around 9 hours of effective sunlight during the day. We can divide the 70W by the 9 sun hours and we’ll get around 8W per hour. 

Since a lot of the power isn’t stored and is instead converted to heat during the battery charging process, a 20W solar panel will do the job in ideal conditions. 

However, we want to increase the scale and magnitude of everything. We aren’t always faced with ideal conditions and many campers want to prepare for weeks where there’s a string of cloudy days.

So the best way to go about sizing your portable solar system is to use the solar calculator based on your solar needs.

how to set up a portable solar system

Components

When comparing a portable solar system to an RV setup, it's cheaper and easier to take wherever you please. In reality, you only need one or two batteries with a set of solar panels. 

A solar battery won’t be necessary here as we’re not working with a larger scale system so having a standard Lithium-ion or lead acid battery would be great. 

If you don’t want to lug your bare battery around wherever you go, we recommend getting a battery box to house the component.

These neat additions have conveniently placed USB ports and a voltage display so you know how your battery is performing. 

They also have a master switch acting as an overload protection circuit breaker.

With a battery case having a built-in breaker, you won’t need to worry about purchasing individual components.

Most battery cases also have digital voltmeters built into them. The voltage increases the longer we leave the solar panels out in the sun. It stops increasing once the solar charge controller determines that the battery is fully charged.

The case has a nylon strap that securely holds the battery in place, wrapping around the battery. 

But now we move onto a component that is unique among solar systems, the flexible solar panel.

Flexible solar panels 

When it comes to portable solar systems, campers tend to use foldable, flexible solar panels as they are easy to carry. 

These solar panels have rigid aluminum frames that’s design allow them to fold in half to save space. 

set up a portable solar system

It also has folding aluminum stands so that you can face the panel towards the sun and achieve the best output.

Flexible solar panels also have a charge controller built-in on the backside of the panel. These charge controllers tend to be PWM or pulse width modulation. 

This is a safe and efficient way of regulating the flow of energy to the battery and it does this by gradually reducing the current.

The charge controller stops your battery from overcharging and overheating as well as stopping it from discharging during the night.

Connecting the solar panel to the battery is a matter of knowing your positive and negative terminals. The solar panels are typically supplied with an Anderson to alligator clip lead for your battery terminal.  

 All you need to do is unfold the solar panel, allow it to stand, and then align the Anderson connectors and push them firmly together.

You will know that everything is connected successfully if the battery is charging 

As much as a flexible solar panel is convenient for smaller setups, they do not come without their problems. However, each problem can be solved with an easy fix.

The downside of flexible solar panels

Flexible solar panels have a different location of the solar cells compared to your standard monocrystalline solar panels. 

They are situated between insulating layers made of materials that don’t dissipate heat as well as the standard solar panel. This means that flexible solar panels don’t dissipate heat too well.

The best solution to this problem would be to make use of a thermally conductive layer, separating the panels from the surface you place them on. This could be in the form of a cement sheet layer or thin layers of aluminum. 

Another problem is the efficiency rating. A standard monocrystalline solar panel can have an efficiency rating anywhere between 18% and 24%, but a flexible solar panel is only around 12%.

Fortunately, due to these flexible solar panels being so light and small, you’re able to daisy chain them and ultimately increase their efficiency rating.

The EcoFlow River Nomad kit helps you keep your devices charged and powered when you’re out camping with the family. 

set up a portable solar system for camping

This option is for the campers who travel in their family automobiles and leave their vehicles behind when camping. 

EcoFlow has included its X-stream technology in this package. This means that the smart inverter enables fast rechargeability and essentially becomes quiet when charging.

Having a portable power station means you can be powered wherever you go.

What’s in the package

This portable solar kit comes with a 200W monocrystalline solar panel that’s fully weatherproof and comes fitted with an aluminum frame. 

They have a maximum power voltage of around 19V and a maximum current of around 11A.

Fortunately for you, the solar panel is easy to carry, weighing in at only 36.8 lbs.

The battery is an Ecoflow river that’s rated at around 720Wh and has around 800 charge cycles. It’s a lithium-ion battery that weighs under 18lbs. 

These bad boys have a variety of charging ports, ranging from USBs to Car Power output ports.

Having a 720Wh capacity in the battery charges to full capacity in under 96 minutes, so you won’t need to wait too long to get to power your devices.

Aside from the physical components, you’re getting all the necessary cables, a user manual on how to set everything up, and a warranty card ensuring that your system is safe.

Price

This package serves as a way for campers to stay powered, allowing you to carry these lightweight components wherever you go. 

They are priced at around $1100 and with the included EcoFlow battery, you’re getting a good deal.

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