How to Get Electricity During Your Camping Trip

Modern Gasoline Powered Generator Running Next to Camper Van

For a lot of people, going camping or backpacking is the perfect opportunity to disconnect from the modern world and really “live off the land” for a few days. If you’re one of those people, you may not really see the need for camping electricity at all. Just load up a few propane tanks and battery-powered lamps and you’re good to go, right? Anyway, isn’t there usually electricity available at least at the main office of the campground? If you really need a boost, you can always go over there and do what you need to do instead of bothering with portable electricity for camping.

If that’s your style, then this article is not for you. But if you would like to still enjoy some of the conveniences of the modern world while you are out in the woods, there’s a good chance you might want an electricity source for at least some of the time that you are camping. Many campsites will offer full hookups with water and electricity, so that might even be good enough for you. But if you are in a more remote area, there are still some ways you can get a strong power source of portable electricity for camping, at least for a little while.

Many modern devices like digital cameras or laptop computers all have batteries that will need to be recharged periodically. You might also discover that you’ll need a few lights if you would like to stay up past dark each night, and especially if you decide to read or play games with your fellow campers.

Let’s take a brief look at some of your options when it comes to portable electricity for camping. You’ll find that a lot of these options are easily available on Amazon. We’ll list a few of them, and then go into greater detail further on in this article.

Generators

Your many adventures outside can last a whole longer with a good reliable power source. One of the best ways to get power is by using a generator, and here are a few of the most popular ones available today.

  • Gas generators usually run on fuel. A good model to choose is the DuroStar DS4000S. This model works extremely well, although you should be aware that it is bulkier and heavier than many other types of generators. That may not be a problem if you have a vehicle with which to transport your generator. However, it is also worth taking note that some campsites have banned gas generators entirely because of the fumes they emit.
  • Thermoelectric generators (TEG) usually run on heat. A good model to choose is the BioLite Wood Burning CampStove. This stove has a built-in TEG to generate electricity and cook food at the same time. However, the amount of electricity generated is often only enough to power an iPhone or other small devices and gadgets.
  • A pedal generator can run on your own calories, so it is a great backup battery choice for those who exercise a lot. The K-Tor Power Box 50 can definitely be used in emergency situations but if you struggle to get enough exercise, you may not want to try this option.
  • A car battery can be taken directly out of your car. A good model to choose is the BESTEK Power Inverter DC to AC Car Inverter with a Dual USB Car Adapter. You will also probably need a power inverter so it does not affect your electronic systems. Also, be sure not to use the battery too long because you might not have enough charge left to start your car.
  • Several small portable battery packs are usually available at Walmart and other big stores. There is a wide range of battery packs that come in different sizes and capacities. Some are even big enough to charge a laptop. A good model to select is the Goal Zero Sherpa 100 Power Bank.
  • Solar power is another option that uses entirely solar energy. A good model to select is the Anker 21W Dual USB Solar Charger Clean model. Just be aware that solar generators depend greatly on the presence of the sun, which is not necessarily possible if you are camping in deep wooded areas or caves.
  • Wind or water turbines run on kinetic energy. A good model to select is the Waterlily Turbine Charger. This model works well any time of the day as long as you are near a river or a windy area. The battery life of these models can be limited, so always keep that in mind.
Gasoline powered portable generator at home.

A gasoline generator requires little maintenance and is typically more affordable than a diesel generator.

Gas Generators

One of the best pieces of camping gear to generate electricity off the grid is a gas-powered generator. While this is an easy way to provide power, it’s also very noisy. Many gas generators emit fumes while running, and this can ruin some of the fresh air you’ll find in the outdoors. We recommend using other ways to get your camping electricity unless you’re going to be camping in the wilderness with no other campers around. Gasoline generators can also prove to be prohibitively expensive.

Thermoelectric Generators

Thermoelectric generators (TEG) like camping stoves are less efficient and more expensive than gasoline-powered generators, but they are superior in every other way. Using a TEG is a good way to convert temperature differences into electricity. These generators use some of the energy created from the temperature difference between two points, so you can use a TEG even in a wilderness situation by building a fire and using the burnt coals for the heat source. Just be aware that thermoelectric generators can even cost slightly more than gasoline generators.

Pedal Generators

A pedal generator is another type of electricity source, and this one is people-powered. A simple one will use regular bike pedals and it’s small and lightweight enough to carry with you on a camping trip. Not only will it charge electronic devices and small appliances, but it will give you enough power to recharge batteries for a flashlight or even a 12-volt car battery.

A pedal generator won’t store energy from pedaling like other power generators, so be aware that you’ll always have to pedal to get electricity while camping. Also, portable pedal generators must be bolted to a base so that you can comfortably pedal for a long period of time. Some pedal generators will charge two items at one time, such as a laptop as well as a tablet computer. They can also be less expensive than the other generators. Many portable pedal generators can be bought on Amazon for less than two hundred dollars.

A mechanic fitting a car battery with wrench

While car batteries are lightweight and portable, they require regular topping-up with pure water to replace water lost due to evaporation. 

12-Volt Car Battery

One way to get camping electricity is to plug into your car’s cigarette lighter outlet and use the car battery. This will work for charging cell phones and other small appliances, but you can’t use it for long or it will lower the battery charge too much for the car to start. You may want to try the BESTEK 300W Power Inverter DC 12V to 110V AC Car Inverter with 4.2A Dual USB Car Adapter to plug into the 12-volt outlet. This will give you regular power outlets and USB ports.

If you prefer to use a 12-volt battery like the one your car has for your electricity needs, it’s easiest to buy a portable 12-volt power source. These come with their own converters and outlets, and they often have panels that indicate how much charge is left. Some 12-volt power packs can also be used to jump-start your car’s battery. These cost about the same as pedal generators.

Small Portable Battery Packs

This is a modern solution for having a power supply at your campsite. Rather than lug a heavy battery backup or use your car for power, you can fit one of these portable battery packs in a laptop bag. If you need camping electricity just to charge a few small electronics, look no further than these packs.

The lithium-ion batteries in a portable charger can keep phones, cameras, and tablets running for days. Both the basic models and the more powerful compact portable batteries should include USB ports and standard 120-volt electrical outlets for charging. The power output is measured in amp-hours (Ah), and 27 Ah will be enough to keep minor electronics charged for a few days.

Portable packs like the Goal Zero Sherpa 100 Power Bank weighing less than 2lbs are compact yet provide enough juice to charge your phones and tablets for days. There are even 100 Ah capacity solar-powered generators that are larger versions of the portable battery pack. If you are car camping, maybe you can consider the chunky solar-powered generators. But for now, a smaller portable power pack should do.

olar panel in a campsite on a sunny autumn day

Solar panels are a very common and efficient portable power source for camping.

Solar Power

Solar power is a win-win solution for the question of how to get electricity while camping. It’s clean, quiet energy and, once you’ve purchased a solar setup, it’s free. Portable solar panels can be set up in the sunniest area of your camp to take the best advantage of the available sunlight. Of course, you have to rely on sunny days for electricity, and that’s why you need battery storage as part of your solar electricity camping kit.

Most solar power camping setups include a portable battery pack. For outdoors, you’ll want a kit that’s rugged, waterproof, and lightweight. When there’s no sun, your battery pack should have an attachment allowing it to be recharged from your vehicle as well. You might need an inverter so that the power pack can be safely charged without damaging your vehicle’s battery.

Some of the benefits of solar kits include easy setup and little effort to keep going. They also need very little maintenance. If you are just going to charge your iPhone or tablet, a portable low-wattage solar charger such as Anker 21W Dual USB Solar Charger should be more than sufficient.

Wind or Water Turbine

Solar kits generally don’t work at night or even the day in places where sunlight is blocked. If you are in a dense forest or it’s a cloudy day, then you might run into problems. Wind or water turbines generate electricity directly from wind or water. These devices often have a maximum power output of 15W and they offer two 5V USB ports for charging. As with solar power, this is free too! If you are not near any water source, you can simply hang the device on a tree and let it collect wind instead.

Recreation Vehicle (RV) Battery Bank

RVs have a 12-volt battery separate from the car battery. These are usually 30 or 50 Ah systems that power the basic functions of the camper such as lights, vent fans, and the water pump. This battery is strong enough to power small devices but not the larger appliances that you might find. It can be recharged with an electrical hookup at a campground or even by the sun if you have solar panels. The battery is automatically charged whenever the motorhome is plugged into a power source or when it’s running.

For several days of stationary camping, though, this won’t really give you enough electricity. If your RV has solar panels, the basic functions will work for a few days. But if you want to use air conditioning and other energy-draining appliances, you will soon need more power. One solution is to include a battery bank in your RV that can be charged at a campsite or with solar panels. This is a connected set of 12-volt batteries that are evenly spaced in your camper to keep the weight distributed properly.

Upgrading a RV Battery Bank for Dry Camping

Most modern motor homes also have a built-in gas generator that runs using the fuel in the gas tank. Some of them switch over automatically when electricity demand is high, and others have to be manually set to the generator mode, which can be valuable, even in campgrounds where electricity is provided. If too many campers are draining the electrical grid, there may not be enough voltage to operate some of your appliances. Operating them with insufficient power can permanently damage them.

Tips to Make the Most of Your Power Source

  • Always try to use battery-powered appliances. Some small devices like alarm clocks and fans will run for months on the same batteries. The more you can lessen the load on your electric consumption, the longer you will be able to camp off the grid.
  • Always try to use energy-efficient appliances. Newer appliances are often rated for less energy consumption. Make sure your small and large appliances are fully up to date with all of the latest energy-saving features.
  • Always try to use dual solar electricity sources for an RV. If you’re going to use solar panels, select both the roof-mounted and portable types. If your camping spot is too shaded for the roof panels to be effective, you can set up the portable ones in the brightest available sunny area.

Look at All of Your Options

Overall, there really are a lot of ways to generate electricity for your camping trips. Price, available space, and ease of use are some of the most important factors to consider when deciding which option to choose. Some options, such as solar panels and TEG generators, can cost a lot upfront but they yield solid value because of the amount of free energy they produce. Always remember that battery storage is a vital component of whichever setup you choose.

Always Consider Your Safety

Last but not least, always think about safety in your campground. Whatever power source you end up using, you will need to be especially cautious while camping or using it around sleeping bags or in a tent with a stove jack. Having plenty of electrical power can be perfectly safe, just as long as you follow some of the most basic precautions. It can certainly be risky to use electricity inside a damp tent unless the tent is properly shielded and connected. If you’re hooking up to campsite-supplied electricity, you will need a special, heavy-duty waterproof connector line that includes damp-proof sockets for plugging in all of your equipment.

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    Riley Draper

    Riley Draper is a writer and entrepreneur from Chattanooga, Tennessee. As a world traveler, he has been to more than fifty countries and hiked some of the most elusive trails in the world. He is the co-founder of WeCounsel Solutions and has published work in both national and global outlets, including the Times Free Press, Patch, and Healthcare Global. When he's not writing, he's probably on a hiking trip or climbing in the mountains.