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Portable power has come a long way in recent years. Even more so – solar power has become much more attainable – not to mention popular. Although going out into nature is one of the few remaining ways to truly “unplug” – it’s a lot safer (and more convenient) to have some sort of power source while you are camping.
According to the KOA North American Camping Report, 45% of campers agreed that technology improved their experience. Having a source of power can be quite useful as you set up camp and cook dinner once the sun goes down. Plus, you want to be sure that your devices are fully charged so you can navigate and have a phone ready in case of any emergencies.
In the past, many campers relied on traditional generators – like gasoline or propane – to provide light, heat, and electricity for their campsites. However, there are a lot of downsides to these types of generators – of which are not an issue for solar panels.
While gas is certainly a trusted source of power, solar panels are a great alternative.
But are they really able to replace gas-powered generators and can they provide enough power?
Let’s compare these types of portable power sources.
The way that solar power systems and traditional generators create energy is quite different.
Solar panels use special photovoltaic (PV) cells - which are able to transform UV rays into electrical currents. Of course, the process of this is quite complex and scientific – but in the simplest of terms, these cells are able to take electrons from light particles to create electricity.
Traditional generators, on the other hand, do not create electricity. They merely store energy and supply it to electronic devices. This is done by using a power supply (typically gasoline or propane) to power an engine within the generator that provides an electrical current.
There are numerous types of power generators.
Some that are quite large use movement to create electrical flows, like dams and windmills. However, the types that are most commonly used by people when camping are much smaller and rely on natural gas or propane to create a current.
Now, it should be mentioned that solar panels can only create an electrical charge with direct UV lights.
Therefore, they can only generate solid power during the day and when there is direct sunshine. If there are a lot of clouds or rain in the forecast, then a solar panel system will not work very well.
In this case, it would be wise to have a solar generator that can be used to store all of the electricity you can collect on a sunny day and be used at a later time.
There are also several things that you can do to maximize your solar power production while camping, such as keeping the panels clean, angling your panels correctly, and using smaller systems that can be attached to backpacks or the roof of a vehicle so you can charge on the go.
For example, it takes about 10 watts to completely charge one modern cell phone. If you want to keep a LED lantern that is equal to a 60-watt lightbulb on for several hours after dark, then you will need just about 8 watts of energy per hour. However, if you want to run larger appliances - like say a mini fridge - while also charging a digital camera and a space heater, then you will need more wattage.
Solar-powered systems come in various sizes so you can choose exactly how many watts you need for your trip. Smaller panels start at 14 watts, which is enough to charge up your phone a couple of times throughout the day. Larger systems go up to 100 watts, so you can have several devices plugged in at once.
You can also purchase portable AC power banks that can be connected to your solar panel systems to store even more energy to be used at a later time.
For example, a 154Wh power bank can provide enough power to keep a minifridge cold for up to 10 hours or provide up to four full charges for a laptop.
Generally, portable generators offer far higher wattage than solar panel systems. You will commonly find systems between 2,000 to 3,000 watts. These are usually used for RVs with AC systems and water heaters since they provide such high amounts of power.
Both solar panels and generators have their own sets of pros and cons.
Generators are more ideal if you need a lot of power on your trip – like when you’re RVing or doing some serious “glamping”. However, since some generators use extremely flammable gas, there is a chance that it could spark a fire. If you are camping in a dry climate with grass, brush, or trees, a mishap could potentially lead to a major fire.
Additionally, there is a risk that the gasoline used by these generators could leak. This could be extremely dangerous if it flows into a water source.
Solar panel systems are far less dangerous and pose virtually no risk of causing a fire. Having a portable solar energy system is also quite a bit more convenient if you are going to be moving around frequently.
Even the largest solar panels weigh just under 11 pounds and can be folded up so they are easier to move, while others are small enough they can be clipped onto a backpack. Generators, on the other hand, are quite heavy and bulky - you can’t lug them around on a hike comfortably.
Now, solar power doesn’t come without its drawbacks. To reiterate, solar panels do not work very well if the sun isn’t shining. Additionally, you need to be mindful of how you allocate the energy.
Basically, solar is more ideal if you are packing light and moving around a lot – whereas generators would be the more practical choice if you have lots of equipment that needs juice.
Solar panel systems are often less expensive than generators.
A 100W solar panel charger costs just over $300, while smaller chargers start at only around $60.
While you can find a portable generator in the $300 to $500 price range, you also have to factor in the cost of fuel every time that you use it.
In the long run, solar will save you money – just like switching to solar power does for your home.
It is fairly safe to say that most campers care about the environment to some degree.
After all, they want to stay in beautiful and safe areas with green grass, clean water, and luscious foliage. Therefore, it’s important to choose power systems that can help to reduce carbon footprint.
As we all know, gasoline and propane are not renewable energy resources - and the process by which these products are gathered is bad for the environment. Furthermore, when gasoline is burned to generate electricity in a generator, it puts off fumes which are quite harmful.
In this case, solar panels are the clear winners as they have a very minimal environmental impact. They rely only on a safe, renewable energy source and they can be used over and over again.
As the popularity of solar power continues to climb, the innovation for portable solar power will likely follow suit!
Going solar for your next camping trip isn’t just a good investment financially, you are contributing in the fight to preserve nature’s beauty.
If you have any questions related to solar power and camping, don’t hesitate to reach out to the team at Mount Black – we are always happy to help!