The type of power generation you use while camping is one of the most important considerations you can make, especially if you are spending a considerable amount of time away from home. Generators were once the only viable option, but today portable camping solar panels have become affordable for everyday use. Coupled with a battery system and inverter you can power to almost any device you bring with you. However, choosing the right solar panel and accessories can be a difficult decision to make. Many people make this mistake of thinking that all solar panels and accessories are equal, but nothing could be further from the truth. The following guide will help you understand more about choosing a solar panel for your next camping trip.
Camping solar panel kits
A solar camping kit is an all-in-one package designed to have you generating power without any additional accessories. They usually come with a solar panel (a folding solar panel is most common in camping kits), regulator, all the required electrical connections and wiring, stand and a carry kit. All that you will need to provide is a 12v battery and inverter if you want to power AC appliances, and some manufacturers even include these in their kits for a total package solution.
Create your own solar panel system
Those with experience in solar/battery technology, or those with the time to put in hours of research, may want to construct their own portable solar panel system. This is a good alternative because you only need to purchase what you will use and you can usually put a kit together for cheaper than an all-in-one package. This is a good option for those that enjoy DIY projects and all you need to get started is a folding solar panel . You can build your own frame to save even more money.
What you need to know when choosing a solar panel for camping
The following are the most important things to consider when choosing a camping solar panel system.
The type and size of the panel
Ideally you should select a panel that is designed to charge a 12 volt battery. Judging the size of panel that you require depends on your intended energy usage. You should conduct an energy audit. A simple way to do this is to find the watts used by each appliance and then multiply this by the hours it will be used per day. This gives you the daily watt hour rating. Then divide this number by the average number of peak sun hours for a rough calculation of required watts.
Panel mounting options
Panels can be directly mounted to a caravan or vehicle, but most campers opt for portable panels that are free standing. This means that they can be moved to capture the most amount of sun.
The best camping solar panels are foldable, which makes for easier storage. They are also relatively lightweight so they can be setup and moved into place easily. Some manufacturers now make flexible solar panels, which are becoming more popular with campers.
You cannot expect that any 12 volt battery will work with continual deep discharge, in fact it is the fastest way to kill a standard car battery. Ideally, you want a deep cycle battery that is rated in Amp Hours (AH). A deep cycle battery is designed to be charged and discharged often and will last several years with proper use. The best batteries for this type of use are AGM batteries, which are fully sealed and cope well with the charge-discharge cycle and even the occasional over discharge. However, as a general rule this battery should never be discharged further than 70% of capacity. A great alternative to the AGM are LiFePO4 (lithium Iron Phosphate) batteries that have the added benefit of being far lighter and coping with even deeper discharge. This main reason these are not more popular is that they cost more than 3 times as much as AGM batteries!
In general, the higher the rated Amp Hours the better. You need to ensure you have a battery capable of providing enough power for each day as well as being able to cope with additional days without charging if you are on the road or when the weather is not conducive to solar generation. You can use two batteries in series for a 24 volt system or two batteries in parallel for a 12 volt system with additional amp hours. Many people choose a two battery system because it provides a backup if a battery becomes faulty.
Regulator and Inverter
We recommend a solar regulator (charge controller) for all camping solar panels above 10 watts. An inverter is only necessary if you plan on running AC appliances. A pure sine wave inerter is the best option, but is also more expensive than other inverters. Using an inverter is not 100% efficient and you should calculate for about 20% power loss.
If you are new to solar power and want a simple kit to get started then a Suntech Freedom kit is our top pick. They come with everything you need and have a very good reputation in the industry. They are covered by a 25 year warranty (the regulator has a 5 year warranty) so you can expect that this kit will continue to perform well for many years of camping. They come in a range of sizes and capacities from 20 watt through to 140 watt. The 80, 120 and 140 watt kits are also available in 24 volt configuration. We currently recommend AGM batteries, but LiFePO4 is the best option if you can afford it.