Camping Solar Panels

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Written By Jay Clatworthy

Off Grid Camping contributor.

Camping solar panels are a must if you are planning to be off grid for any significant period of time. They provide a way to add power to your battery during daylight hours to offset the power used by your appliances.

Your solar panel requirements will depend based on how much power your appliances use, the batteries you are charging, and how much space you have to store it during transit. 

How Do You Use Solar Panels For Camping?

Typically you will have some form of battery that your appliances are connected to, which you need to charge to allow your appliances to keep going.

This could be a dual battery setup, battery box, or an all-in-one portable battery pack.

By charging your batteries with solar power during the day, you extend the period of time you can stay off grid without needing a mains power connection. 

How Do I Connect My Solar Panel?

In the majority of cases, solar panels are equipped with an Anderson plug, and most battery units are also set up with an Anderson plug to receive the solar power.

Do I Need a Solar Panel Regulator?

It would be best to always use a regulator between your solar pane panel and your battery source.

It is not wise to plug your solar panel directly into your battery as the solar panel could potentially deliver more power than the battery is capable of receiving and cause damage.

The regulator helps smooth out the level and speed of energy arriving at the battery so it can take it on without issue.

Many portable camping solar panels have a regulator incorporated into the design. However, some have a separate regulator, often with Anderson plugs on each side, that you connect between your panel and battery. 

Different Camping Solar Panel Styles

There are a range of different solar panel styles you can consider. The best one for you will depend on your particular setup, how much power you are hoping to catch, and how many appliances you have hooked up. 

Fixed Solar Panel

There are a few different single panels on offer. These do not fold in half, so they can need a fair bit of room. Single panels are best suited to permanent mounting on your vehicle/camper/caravan roof.

However, if you get a high-quality one, and your power needs are not high, you may get away with a solid single panel with fold out legs so you can rotate throughout the day to keep it in optimum position. 

Folding (Bi-Fold) Solar Panel

Folding solar panels are very popular and fold in half for ease of transport. They often include folding legs on the back so you can prop it up at an angle to get maximum sunlight to the solar cells and provide stability on uneven surfaces.

Blanket Solar Panel 

Increasingly popular are the folding blanket style solar panels. They are manufactured with foldable joins, and they unfold too often 6-8 times their packed upsize.

The folding blankets are great to spread over your car windscreen or hang from a tree. Anywhere you can find a good bit of sun, your solar blanket can go. 

If you want to dig even deeper, there are even more different types of solar panels (flexible, etc.), but the majority of panels currently for sale are likely to be one of the three above categories.   

Solar Panel Cell Types

There are three different types of cells used to help solar panels convert sunlight into energy. They have different characteristics, efficiencies, production methods, and costs.  

Monocrystalline Solar Panels

Monocrystalline solar panels are the oldest solar panel technology and can usually be distinguished by their black color.

These solar cells are made by dipping pure silicon crystals into a vat of molten silicon and pulling them out very slowly to create what they call ‘ingots’.

These ingots are then sliced thinly into silicon wafers that are made into collections of cells, which form the solar panel. 

Polycrystalline Solar Panels

Polycrystalline cells are a new technology than monocrystalline cells, using different materials and a different manufacturing process.

Polycrystalline cells use fragments of silicon crystal melted together. This silicon crystal is then placed in molten silicon and allowed to fragment and cool until sliced into wafers that are used to create the solar panels.

Polycrystalline panels are not quite as efficient as monocrystalline solar panels, but they are improving rapidly as design and manufacturing processes are continually enhanced. 

Amorphous Silicon (Thin Film) Solar Panels

Thin film solar panels are the newest developments in the solar industry, and amorphous silicon is one of the most prominent thin film products.

This film is created by placing the layer of amorphous silicon between thin sheets of conductive material, which then has a layer of glass on top for protection.

They can be more than 300 times thinner than monocrystalline and polycrystalline cells. These thin film panels are the cheapest, but also the least efficient. 

Which type is best?

Each type of solar panel has its own strengths and weaknesses. Monocrystalline panels provide the best performance but also come with the biggest price tag.

Though the thin film panels are much cheaper, they are also significantly less efficient than the mono and polycrystalline alternatives.

The majority of solar panels you look at are likely to be monocrystalline, and this is a sensible and logical choice in most situations. 

What Are The Best Solar Panels For Camping?

The specifics of your particular situation will determine the best panel for you. In many cases, you can find a similar watt and type panel for vastly different prices, and in many cases, this extra price does provide you with superior performance.

I would recommend first beginning with the type of panel that suits you best given your setup (fixed, folding, blanket), then figuring out your wattage preference.

Then looking around at the different options within that narrower range and seeing what other characteristics vary with the price. 

Getting The Best Performance From Your Solar Panels

Peak performance from your solar panel is largely determined by the weather itself (how sunny it is, what clouds are obstructing sunlight etc.) and how you have positioned your solar panel.

Ideally, the panel should be on a 45-degree angle relative to the sun, but this angle will need to be adjusted throughout the day as the sun moves across the sky. 

There is no easy way to ‘set and forget’ the positioning of your solar panel. It is something that you need to do actively throughout the day to get the most charge into your batteries. 

Features

Solar panels don’t have a lot of ‘accessories’ available, but there are a few things that are handy to have included with your panel that it is with keeping in the front of your mind as you shop around:

Carry Bag

If your panel is small enough, then a bag is great to make it easier to carry around and set up and also protect it while travelling when it is laying in your caravan or stacked in your boot. 

Legs/Stand

If you have a fixed or folding panel, the legs or a stand makes a huge difference to the ease of setup and adjustment throughout the day.

If they are adjustable, then that is even better, as you will need to regularly be tweaking their position and angle throughout the day for peak performance. 

Regulator 

Most panels have a regulator built into the actual panel, while others (like blankets) have a separate regulator you need to connect in-line.

Either way, make sure a regulator is included in your purchase as you cannot connect your panel directly to your battery source without risk of damage to your battery.