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How to choose your next camping solar panel

How to choose your next camping solar panel

So, you’re looking to get off-grid and have been told you need solar, or you’re wanting to take your dual battery system to the next level but aren’t sure what sort of solar panel to choose. We’ve put together a rundown of everything you need to know or consider when deciding on your next solar panel.

Charging 12V batteries with folding solar panels overlooking the beach

Finding the right sized panel

To figure out the right size solar panel for your camping setup you need to work backwards. The first step is to collate a list of gadgets and accessories you’re planning to run. With this list, find out the number of Watts each accessory draws. This can be done by either checking in the device’s manual or with a quick Google search. Next, you’ll need to estimate the number of hours you will be using each item per day. Multiply this by the Watts drawn from each item to get the Watt hours.

Watts x hours = Watt-hours (Wh)

Once you’ve got the Wh for each item, add them all together and this is your total Wh. To determine how many Watts of solar you need, divide your Wh by the average amount of full sunlight per day (five or six hours is generally a good estimate).

Wh / sunlight hours = solar panel Wattage needed

This number is the total amount of solar Watts that should, in theory, fully charge your batteries and accommodate your power consumption each day if you’re not running your vehicle and utilising charge from your alternator, However, we always recommend rounding up and overcompensating your solar needs as you never know what the weather or camp conditions are going to throw at you. Shady campsites, overcast and rainy weather, less sun hours in winter, and days where you might consume more power, all need to be considered.

If math isn’t one of your strengths, our solar calculator makes figuring out your solar size needs simple. 

Keeping accessories going in the bush with REDARC solar

Choosing the best type of solar

No longer are solar panels heavy things that need to be bolted to the roof of your car or caravan, these days solar panels come in many different types to suit every different style of travel and traveller.

For many people, fixed solar panels are still the go-to option. If you travel with a caravan or camper trailer or are happy to have them permanently fixed to the roof of your vehicle, fixed panels are a great choice. They’re cost effective and simple, meaning all you have to do when you get to camp is setup, sit back and relax. No needing to worry about where to place your panel or remembering to set it up.

These days, solar panels are quite light meaning they don’t impact vehicle weights all that much and are available in a range of shapes and sizes to maximise the roof space available. One of the limitations of fixed panels is that to get the best results you will need to have your panels in full sun. While this might not be an issue if they’re mounted to a caravan or camper trailer, having your car parked in full sun in 30+ degree heat isn’t ideal.

Fixed panels installed on the roof of a Toyota Coaster bus

If you’re wanting a more portable solar solution, there are a few options available. Folding solar panels look similar to fixed panels but can be set on the ground and angled to get the perfect amount of sunlight. Once you’re ready to go home just fold them up and put them in the car. They’re lightweight and can be folded down relatively flat to slide behind seats or lay on beds. With an ETFE (ethylene tetrafluoroethylene) coating rather than glass, REDARC’s folding panels are much durable enough to withstand anything camp can throw at them.

REDARC folding panels sitting on a rock overlooking the beach

If you’re tight on space or want to maximise the amount of solar power going back into your system, solar blankets are a great option. Drape it over the bonnet, hang it from your awning or lay it on the ground, there are endless possibilities when it comes to finding the best place to put a solar blanket for maximum sun exposure. When it’s time to go just fold up the panel and slip it into an unused nook and you’re off.

REDARC's folding solar blanket laid over the bonnet of a 4WD

When purchasing a solar blanket look for monocrystalline or amorphous cells as they tend to be higher quality, lighter and more compact than many of the alternatives. They’re also more efficient than any fixed or folding panel, providing the best performance even on low light or overcast days and perfect for topping up the charge in your lithium batteries.

Caring for your new panel

No matter what type of panel you get, they will all need a little care from time to time to keep them working at their best capacity. After a while of being exposed to the elements, panels tend to accumulate a layer of dust, tree sap, dead bugs and who knows what else.

The easiest way to clean them up is to grab a few microfibre rags, get one wet and give the panel a quick wipe down. Then just give it a quick dry and you’re good to go. If you’ve got a folding panel or solar blanket you want to make sure it’s cool before you clean it and completely dry before you fold it away. They will also need to be stored in a cool dry place to ensure they keep pumping power back into your system for years to come.

Pat Callinan cleaning his REDARC fixed panel

If you’re looking to get your off-grid power system ready for your next camping trip but aren’t sure where to start, check out our build your REDARC dual battery system tool to find out the best products to keep all your accessories charged.

Build your REDARC dual battery system

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