Camping outdoors is a beloved pastime for many people. Getting away from the bustle of everyday life to connect with nature can be an incredibly rewarding experience. However, keeping your devices charged while off the grid can be a challenge. This is where solar panels come in extremely handy.
In this guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know about using solar panels for camping. We’ll discuss:
- The Benefits of Using Solar Panels for Camping
- How to Choose a Solar Panel System
- Wattage and Voltage
- Portable vs Fixed
- Charge Controllers
- The Best Portable Solar Panels for Camping
- Overall Picks
- The Best Fixed/Custom Solar Setups
- DIY Components
- Additional Tips for Charging Devices with Solar While Camping
- Frequently Asked Questions
Whether you’re car camping out of your trunk or embarking on a multi-day thru hike, having the right solar setup with you is critical. Let’s dive in!
The Benefits of Using Solar Panels for Camping
Why should you use solar panels for camping instead of just packing extra backup batteries? There are a few key benefits:
- Sustainable Off-Grid Power – Rather than relying on wasteful disposable batteries, solar panels allow you to keep devices charged in an eco-friendly manner while getting away from civilization.
- Reduce Your Pack Weight – Bringing dozens of AA and AAA batteries adds serious pack weight. With a solar charging setup, you only need to pack the panel and perhaps an external battery or two. Much lighter!
- Keep Critical Safety Devices Powered – Whether you use a GPS device, satellite communicator, or headlamp, keeping these gadgets charged via renewable solar energy gives great peace of mind in case of an emergency.
- Never Worry About Finding an Outlet – No need to scramble for scarce wall outlets at public restrooms, picnic sites, etc. As long as there is sunshine, you’ve got power!
- Enjoy Off-Grid Comforts – Keep small luxuries powered like lights, fans, phones, e-readers, and portable speakers to enhance time spent in nature away from civilization.
With the outdoor recreational market exploding in growth and solar technology prices dropping rapidly, solar panels for camping make more sense than ever from a convenience, safety, and sustainability standpoint.
How to Choose a Solar Panel System
Purchasing a solar charging system for camping is an investment that requires some careful consideration. Between portable folding panels and fixed multi-panel custom rigs, there are a range of setups available at different price points. Here are the key factors to weigh:
Wattage and Voltage
The wattage rating indicates the maximum amount of power the solar panel can produce under peak solar conditions. More watts means faster charging, but also a larger and heavier panel typically. For portable setups, 10 to 100 watts is common. For fixed custom systems, sky’s the limit with panels frequently ranging from 100 to over 1,000 watts.
Voltage correlates with compatibility. Most consumer electronics charge with either 5V or 12V DC power. When wiring panels directly to batteries and controllers, adding panel voltages in series allows you to achieve desired higher DC voltages. For plug-and-play use with USB gadgets, 5V models are the easiest option. However, 12V panels can deliver more total power.
Portable vs Fixed Solar
- Portable solar panels – These compact folding units are designed for on-the-go applications. Ranging from tiny 5 watt phone chargers to robust 100+ watt panels, portable models compile solar cells into weatherproof canvases, rugged frames, and adjustable kickstands for easy transport and angling toward the sun. While output is lower per panel, convenience and mobility are the priorities.
- Fixed solar setups – For base camp locations and overlanding vehicles, fixed non-portable solar arrays allow you to tap into serious power levels. By mounting panels to rooftops, trailers, and dedicated frames, larger capacity 100W+ models can be combined in parallel and series configurations. This requires regulators and batteries for power storage but enables running high draw devices. Customization provides flexibility but setup/teardown takes more effort.
Charge Controllers & Regulators
In any solar system, a charge controller serves a critical role regulating power flowing from the panels into batteries. By preventing overcharging, undercharging, and overdischarging, controllers protect components and optimize performance. In fixed arrays, MPPT controllers maximize solar input to achieve high efficiency power transfer. For portable use, simpler PWM regulators suffice. Most battery packs have basic controllers built-in. But for standalone panels, ensure compatibility or damage issues can result.
Deep Cycle Batteries
For fixed solar arrays storing significant power reserves, deep cycle batteries are an efficient clean power bank. Unlike car batteries meant for engine starts, these robust cells withstand repeat deep discharge cycles. Formats span from hefty lead-acid models to premium lithium options offering ultralight weight and space savings for their supply duration. Review battery bank voltage, capacity in amp hours, maximum charge/discharge rates, and supported cycles when selecting models to combine with solar charging. Proper solar controller selection ensures safe optimal charging.
The Best Portable Solar Panels for Camping
Ready to purchase an awesome portable solar charger for your next outdoor adventure? Here are my top picks spanning budget buys to serious solar kits capable of juicing up multiple devices at once.
Anker 21W Solar Charger
- Compact durable design
- Fast smartphone charging
- Affordable price
BigBlue 28W Solar Charger
- Ultra lightweight panel (2 lbs)
- Foldable triple kickstand
- Faster charging speed than competition
Goal Zero Nomad 20 Solar Panel
- Silent portable charging
- Rugged weatherproof build
- From trusted industry leader
Jackery SolarSaga 100W Portable Solar Panel
- High efficiency solar cells
- Transport case included
- Exceptional 100W charging capacity
Nekteck 21W Solar Charger – $49.99
This wallet-friendly option offers a great blend of efficiency, convenience, and versatility at a bargain price point making solar charging accessible for everyone.
- Compact durable design
- 21W high conversion rate
- Ports: 1USB-C, 1USB-A
Eceen Portable 10W Solar Charger – $35.99
Don’t let the tiny size fool you – this packable powerhouse harnesses the sun to charge phones and small USB devices surprisingly fast!
- Ultralight only 12oz
- Waterproof silicone protection
- Carabiner for easy attachment
Renogy Eclipse 100W Portable Solar Suitcase – $259.99
Boasting premium panels in a compact suitcase format, this robust 100W solar generator is powerful enough to charge high capacity power stations and small electronics on-the-go.
- Includes adjustable kickstand
- Controller with dual charging ports
- Ultra durable casing
Jackery SolarSaga 60W Solar Panel – $249.99
Jackery sets the gold standard for portable solar chargers with resilient panels featuring top-tier cell efficiency to reliably juice up your gear using free limitless solar energy.
- Portable rugged design
- Folds down into a briefcase
- Powerful 60w charging speed
Bluetti PV200 200W Solar Panel Kit – $449.00
Bring a serious solar setup to power larger devices and appliances with this easy transport 200W solar array that can fold out for maximum sun harnessing potential.
- Heavy duty kickstand
- Includes charge controller
- Scalable modular system
Maxoak BLUETTI Solar Generator 500W Panel – $849.99
Tap into immense 500 watt solar charging capabilities with this commercial capacity panel kit complete with stands and cables to refuel high capacity Bluetti power stations using the power of the sun.
- Massive 6.5A current
- Aluminum frame stands
- Industrial 500 watt power
The Best Fixed/Custom Solar Setups
For overlanding vehicles and permanent outdoor base camps tapping into larger solar power, fixed semi-permanent solar installations are the way to go for tapping into higher wattage capacity.
Getting started with a complete portable readymade solar generator kit takes the guesswork out of component selection for plug-and-play power.
Jackery Solar Generator 1000 – $1529.00
Bundling top-rated panels with an industry leading lithium battery pack, this 1002Wh solar generator is beautifully engineered inside-out for effortless off-grid solar charging.
- Includes 4 x 100W panels (400 watts total)
- 1002Wh capacity lithium battery
- 2000W AC inverter with outlets
- MPPT solar charging
Bluetti AC200MAX + 4 PV200 Panels – $3196.00
Expandable 2.4kWh AC ubiquity in a compact go anywhere package, this combination bundles Bluetti’s frames and kickstands for off-grid solar charging bliss.
- Includes 4 x 200 watt panels
- 3072Wh lithium battery capacity
- 2200W AC pure sine inverter
- Up to 900W solar input
For the ultimate in customization flexibility, hand selecting solar gear components allows tailoring systems perfectly for your mobile power needs.
Renogy 400W Monocrystalline Solar Panel Kit – $949.99
Tap into serious solar power with an adjustable four panel 400 watt 24V array capable of harvesting free sun energy even in low light and high temperature conditions.
- Includes MC4 connectors
- 40A PWM charge controller
- Improved frame corrosion resistance
Mighty Max 12V Deep Cycle Battery – $359.99
Beef up your battery bank reserves with this long lasting 12V 35AH 26Ah SLA sealed lead acid AGM battery.
- Spill proof safe design
- 45A maximum charge rate
- Maintenance free
- 30 day refund policy
Victron SmartSolar MPPT Controller – $139
This fully programmable controller harnesses power from any solar array while protecting your batteries from damage through overcharging.
- Battery temperature sensor input
- Automatic load disconnect
- Settings programmable over Bluetooth
- Works with 12 / 24 / 32 / 36 / 48V systems
Additional Tips for Charging Devices with Solar While Camping
Beyond just the solar panels and batteries themselves, properly incorporating a solar charging system into your outdoor routine requires some solar savvy. Here are my top tips for off-grid solar success:
- Angle panels perfectly – Place portable solar arrays where they will maximize sun exposure at the sun’s trajectory. In general, pointing panels south tilted at your latitude’s angle equals peak absorption potential.
- Top up batteries early in day – For overnight power reserves, start charging spare battery packs first thing each morning to take advantage of peak daylight intensity instead of racing against the setting sun.
- Use charge controllers – Undervoltage can critically damage gadgets. For directly charging devices, regulate flow with an integrated solar controller unless panel voltage precisely matches device needs.
- Keep panels clean and cooling – Dust buildup drastically limits efficiency. Position panels where air can circulate while avoiding shady tree debris. Carry a soft brush and microfiber cloth to remove stubborn grime if necessary.
- Have a backup plan – Cloudy weather can ruin reliance on solar alone. Pack an emergency portable charger or extra charged USB battery pack just in case weather conditions limit solar intake.
- Know your power needs – Determine typical daily power requirements for essential electronics you need to operate. Select solar gear capable of generating at least 30% more than this to account for inefficiencies and non-ideal solar conditions. Size your battery reserves accordingly.
- Consider canopy & generator pairing – During extended overcast and stormy conditions, a canopy roof paired with a gas generator near your base campsite keeps the panels generating by sheltering them from precipitation while offering occasional generator charging as needed.
Frequently Asked Questions
How many watts of solar do I need for camping?
This depends on your intended devices and batteries to charge, but here is a basic guideline:
- Small USB devices – 0 to 50 watt portable panel
- Laptops, large battery packs – 50 to 120 watt portable panel
- Fridges, AC appliances – 200 to 1000 watt fixed array
Of course, more solar input equals faster charging across the board. Size your system based on your average daily power usage.
Can solar panels really charge a fridge?
Yes, but running AC appliances requires a properly sized inverter along with large solar arrays and battery banks. The power drain of a freezer is no joke. For a portable fridge alone, at least 300 watts of solar input is recommended for reliable operation. Large fixed solar + battery + inverter platforms built out in vans and trailers can absolutely handle refrigeration off the sun though!
What battery should I use with solar panels for camping?
Using a separate solar generator battery pack offers the most flexibility for portable panel setups. Look for lithium batteries with at least 100Wh capacity rated for 500+ cycles. For fixed installations, deep cycle lead acid and lithium batteries withstand frequent charging. Use an appropriate solar charge controller to optimize and protect battery life!
Will solar panels work in cloudy or cold weather?
Solar efficiency declines during cloud cover and colder ambient temperatures. However, panels will continue generating a fraction of their peak rating in less than ideal conditions. Position panels tilted toward the winter southern sun, clean off snow buildup, and give a performance boost on cold sunny days by placing dark absorbing backgrounds behind them.
I hope this guide has helped demystify the world of solar charging on your outdoor adventures! Let me know if you have any other questions.