How Do You Use Solar Panels For Camping? | Portable Power

How Do You Use Solar Panels For Camping -Featured Image

How do you use solar panels for camping? There are loads of different ways solar panels can be used for camping. From charging a mobile phone to powering an electric grill, for an alfresco barbecue. From free standing panels called portable solar panels. To panels installed to a recreational vehicle, boat or outbuildings. They can even be used in the home for power outages and emergencies.

What makes them really good for camping is their size and weight. This makes them very easy to move around and transport. But the best part is unlike using a gasoline generator to generate electricity. They are not noisy, smelly and dirty and they do not pollute the environment. 

How Do You Use Solar Panels For Camping ?

Solar panels for camping work in the same way as residential panels. Without being too technical. You do not need any technical knowledge to use a portable solar panel by the way. They collect sunlight and convert it into usable direct current (DC) electricity. They do this through their solar cells which are called photovoltaic cells (PV)

There are generally three accepted types of solar panels:
  • Monocrystalline
    Are single (mono) solar cells manufactured from the purest silicon. The solar panels are recognizable by their dark colour
  • Polycrystalline
    Are manufactured from multiple crystalline solar cells. The solar panels are recognizable by their blue speckled colour
  • Thin-Film
    Made by covering a material with one or more thin layers of PV cells. The solar panels are recognizable for their extremely thin and lightweight characteristics.

Solar panels used for camping usually have monocrystalline or polycrystalline PV cells. Monocrystalline cells have the highest efficiency rating. This is because they are made from single solar cells. However this also makes them more expensive than polycrystalline solar panels.

How Do You Use Solar Panels For Camping
A solar panel doesn’t store electricity

Because a solar panel doesn’t store electricity. The generated DC electricity is used to charge a battery. Think of a solar panel as being a mini fuel refinery rather than a power station. What do I mean by that? 

Well as an example; 

A traditional power generator might use gasoline to drive it. The gasoline has been refined from oil in a refinery. Which you then use to power the generator, which then produces electricity.

A solar power generator used for camping generates its electricity by;
Refining sunlight through the solar panels, which then charges a battery. Which in turn powers or charges appliances or electronic devices.

Solar Panels For Camping -Smartphone
What type of batteries can be charged for camping?

Camping with a tent. The only battery you may need is the one that comes built into your smartphone. Because you can use a portable solar charger to directly charge its battery. You may also consider adding a power bank. Instead of charging your phone directly. A power bank stores power for later use.

Charging a solar power station will give you the ability to charge or power more than just a smartphone. These types of batteries have a built-in inverter. This means it will convert the generated DC current into alternating current (AC). So you can power domestic appliances while on your camping trip.

Camping with a recreational vehicle or trailer/caravan. There are two ways to charge a vehicle’s leisure and starter batteries using solar panels. The first way is to install solar panels which can be rigid or flexible. Or even a combination of both. The second way is to use a portable solar panel with a solar controller. You can then directly hook it up to the batteries using crocodile clips. 

What Size Solar Panels Do I Need For Camping?

Solar Panels For Camping -Size

Portable solar panel sizes for camping are normally determined by their power output. The larger the output the bigger the solar panel. So for instance a 200w portable solar briefcase would be twice the size of a 100w. This is because to make a 200w solar panel, 2 x 100w panels are joined together.They come in 50w to 300w versions

Portable solar chargers can be as small as a 5w up to 100w. They are usually characterised by their softer fold-up nature. They have more than 1 solar panel moulded or sewn into a polymer material carcas. A 21w solar charger may contain 3 x 7w foldable solar panels. The 3 x 7w panels make up the chargers final power output of 21w. The larger chargers can be used to charge portable solar power stations.

Installed solar panels for a recreational vehicle can be rigid or flexible. And can range from 50w to 360w. Again the larger the wattage the bigger the solar panel. Which size of panel you choose will depend on how many watts you want to generate.  

How Many Solar Panels Do I Need For Camping?

Generally speaking most applications for camping require one or two solar panels. But it really boils down to what kind of batteries you want to charge.

Smartphone

A smartphone battery only needs one solar charger to keep it charged. This type of solar panel is usually used by hikers or overnight campers. Where space is at a premium and smartphones need to be kept charged.

Solar Panels For Camping -Smartphone
Power bank

These are generally used for backup power and require one portable solar charger. To keep them topped up for when their stored power needs to be used for camping. They are capable of charging most USB enabled devices. Including tablets, cameras and handheld games. So they are more versatile than just being able to charge a smartphone. 

Solar power station

These are the best batteries to use when camping. They have a built-in solar controller and inverter. They also have other enhancements like MPPT capabilities to help with charging efficiency. They come in various different sizes from 100w to 3000w plus.This is a big range so I will give you some examples;

Power Station WattageNumber of Solar Panels and Wattage
100W1 x 50w solar panel
500W1 x 100w solar panel
1000W2 x 100w or 1 x 200w solar panels
2000w4 x 200w solar panels

These are guidelines because the more solar panels you use the faster the power station will charge.

Leisure batteries

Using portable solar panels to charge a vehicle’s leisure battery for camping will require 1 or 2 portable panels. Depending on how many batteries you have and how quickly you want them to charge. For most vehicles with a couple of leisure batteries connected in series a 200w solar panel should do the trick. This is because a 200w panel will charge them faster than a 100w panel. But for even better charging times 2 x 200w portables would be the optimum. This will also help on cloudy days. 

Solar Panels For Camping -Installed

Using installed solar panels to charge a vehicle’s leisure batteries. All depends on how large a system you have in mind. So for instance a 1Kw system would require 10 x 100w panels or 5 x 200w panels. This would obviously be meant for a larger system. But using our 2 x leisure battery system. The optimal number of solar panels to use would be 400w. Either 4 x 100w panels or 2 x 200w panels. Adding more solar panels would charge the batteries faster and help with cloudy days

How To Set Up Solar Panels For Camping?

Setting up solar panels for camping is pretty straight forward. Except for installing panels to a recreational vehicle. You should have few if any difficulties.

This is Renogy video about the 100 watt solar suitcase. Which can be used for charging a solar power station or recreational vehicle Leisure batteries
Smartphone and power bank

To set up a portable solar charger to charge a smartphone or power bank. All you need to do is roll the solar charger out in the sun. Or if it has a kickstand, stand it up and point it at the sun. Connect the phone or power bank to the charger via the USB port. And the solar charger will start charging. It really is as simple as that.

If you have a pack you can attach it to that using eye holes or cloth hooks. These are usually fitted into the solar charger. And carabiners can then be used to firmly attach it to your pack. If you do this just make sure the sun is behind you as you walk. The same can be done by hanging it from a tree or your tent. Just make sure it is facing the sun and not shaded.

Solar power station

Setting up solar panels with a power station is child’s play. All you have to do is unfold the portable solar panel. Set it upright on its kickstand. Point it at the sun. Adjust the legs or kickstand for the perfect angel to the sun. Connect the solar power cable to the DC input port on the power station and it will start to charge. 

Solar Panels For Camping -Power Station EcoFlow River
Recreational vehicles 

You set the portable solar panel up exactly the same way as the solar power station method. Except if the solar panel has a built-in solar controller. You then connect straight to your recreational vehicle battery bank. If the solar panel doesn’t have a built-in solar controller. You connect the solar panel to the solar controller. Then connect the controller to the recreational vehicle battery bank.

Installed solar panels

Fit the flexible or rigid solar panels to the recreational vehicles roof. Connect all the solar panels together forming an array. Run the resulting cabling to the solar controller. Run cabling from the solar controller to the vehicle’s battery bank. Run cabling from the battery bank to the inverter. Run cabling around the interior of the vehicle from the inverter to power outlet sockets. 

Portable Solar Panels For Camping

You now know how portable solar panels for camping work. What size, how many you need and how to set them up. I am hoping I have helped you understand that they are not techie. That they charge batteries and do not directly power appliances. And that apart from installing them they are very easy and simple to use.

For further reading. If you want to know what to look for when buying a portable solar panel you can read about it here 

If you want to have a look at some product reviews follow these links

I hope you enjoyed my post and have found it helpful. If you have any questions about portable solar panels for camping. Or want to leave your own personal thoughts, please feel free to leave a comment below

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3 Comments on “How Do You Use Solar Panels For Camping? | Portable Power”

  1. Hello there! This is an interesting read. I have heard of solar panel technology for some time now. But even though I have, it is still something that is very new and foreign to me. I did not know one can just purchase their own solar panel just like that. I was wondering on the days that are not sunny, would solar panels still work? I know with regular electronics, a consequence to overcharging past its limit would be that the life of the battery shortens more and more, so do solar panels have that type of limitation too? Thanks for compiling this.

    1. Hi Mike

      Solar panels will still charge a battery if it is overcast but at a reduced rate compared to full sunshine. But not when it is very heavy cloud. Even here in the UK you do not get heavy cloud all day everyday in the winter. This is proved by the number of houses sporting solar panels these days.

      With regard to battery charging correct. If you overcharge a battery it will get damaged. Fortunately portable solar panels can be attached to a charge controller to stop that happening. A power station has a controller built in. And a power bank will stop charging at 100% anyway. Leisure and starter batteries should never be charged by a solar panel that hasn’t been attached to a charge controller first. 

      So in answer to your excellent question Mike no solar panels will not overcharge a battery. As long as it is firstly attached to a solar charge controller.

      Regards

      Steve

  2. Hi. What an interesting article on solar panels.

    These must be the bets for the summer. Not only because many people including me, choose to go camping fon holiday, but also the sun is shining most days, therefore, why waste it! It is a great opportunity to take environmentally friendly decisions too! We all need to try to save our planet for a better future.

    Best regards,
    Dominique

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