Boondocking is a great way to save money while traveling. It can be fun and make your trip feel more like camping when you stay in a disbursed camping area for several days without the creature comforts of an RV park. Unfortunately, that means doing without a power hookup as well. There are several boondocking power options available to RVers. The trick is choosing the one(s) that fit your power needs and budget.
Probably the most widely used power option for RVers is a gas or propane-powered generator. Motorhomes and Class Cs come with them built into the RV, and there are plenty of ways they can be carried with you or mounted on the back of fifth wheels and travel trailers.
Simply put, a fossil-fuel-powered generator, whether the fuel is gasoline, diesel, or propane, works by burning a fuel to spin a magnetic AC generator. This is similar to how the alternator in your car works.
A traditional generator sends the AC it generates directly to the outlets. The power may go through a voltage regulator of some kind, but you are generating AC power and using it for the most part. Unfortunately, some generators produce rather dirty power this way. What do I mean by dirty power?
AC power is called alternating current. Instead of flowing in one direction like direct current (DC), it alternates back and forth. Think of it like generating heat by rubbing your hands back and forth. When power comes out of your wall at home, it smoothly flows back and forth at the same rate, or frequency, all of the time. On a graph, this looks like a nice smooth sine wave.
Because a generator must rev up and down to maintain a constant voltage, it may not look as smooth. It might look jittery. This is called harmonic distortion. Traditional generators can have a lot of it. That doesn’t make them bad. Many modern generators have safeties built-in. If you need raw power to fire up your RV air conditioner several hours a day while boondocking, you will need a powerful generator to run it.
- Many price points and sizes to choose from
- Easy to keep running by adding more fuel
- Depending on the size, they are quite heavy.
- Trailer owners may have to get a mount built for it.
- Cheaper ones tend to produce dirtier power, which isn’t necessarily good for electronics like computers.
Inverter generators are quieter than traditional gas-powered generators. They work by adding a few steps to the process of getting power. Power is produced the same way as a traditional generator and then sent through a rectifier to convert the AC power to DC. An onboard computer chip sends the power through an inverter (hence the name) to clean up the power and turn it back into AC.
- They are smaller and lighter than most traditional generators.
- They tend to be quieter.
- They produce power with less distortion, which is better for electronics.
- They are typically more expensive when you compare total power output.
- They don’t typically produce as much power, so without additions like a SoftStartRV, they may not run a larger air conditioner that well.
Solar power is an excellent addition to any RVer’s boondocking power solution. As you probably already know, solar panels convert sunlight into electricity to charge your RV batteries. But there are a lot of other parts that go into making a solar system work too, and finding the right setup for you and your needs can be confusing and costly.
Many who install solar on their rig also opt for lithium batteries because they work very well with solar, require little to no maintenance, and can be placed anywhere because they don’t have to be vented like lead-acid batteries.
- Low Maintenance
- Free Power
- Always charging your batteries when the sun is out
- They can be costly.
- Unless you have a very expensive and hefty system, you aren’t going to be running your air conditioner with solar.
- Many RVers will have to get the system wired up if their rig isn’t prewired (not plug and play).
- They aren’t very useful when you aren’t using your RV.
A portable solar generator system combines a new addition to the power market, portable power stations, and solar panels. Though they haven’t quite gotten there yet, they aim to replace gas-powered generators eventually.
Several companies like Jackery, Goal Zero, Bluetti, and Ecoflow produce portable power stations, and they all come in different sizes. They are all the same type of device, though. A lithium battery pack, an inverter, and a solar charge controller are all wrapped in a portable box with various output plugs. The power station can usually be charged three ways, a wall outlet or gas generator, a carport, and solar panels.
Using solar panels with a portable power station makes it a solar generator, especially if the power station supports pass-through charging (you can use it while it’s charging up). Some larger power stations can run just about everything on an RV, including a 1000W microwave.
Using this type of system for solar power has a few advantages over installing a solar system on your RV. They are typically cheaper when you consider they have every component needed for solar charging, and you don’t have to pay to get them installed on your RV. They are also portable so that you can use them for power around your campsite or in your home as an emergency backup power source.
- Low Maintenance
- Free Power
- Almost Silent
- Portable Power
- Useful when not RVing
- May be less expensive than installing a solar system on your RV
- Some of the larger units will run an RV air conditioner, but probably not for long periods.
- Though they are technically a generator, it still takes time to charge them up with the sun.
- The solar panels made for many of these units are portable and less durable than roof-mounted solar panels.
- They require a bit more daily setup than a built-in RV solar system (power station and solar panels must be taken outside and set up to charge).
There is no best option for every RVer out there. I can speak from personal experience and say that my motorhome has a generator built-in, but I also have a Jackery Explorer 1500 Solar Generator setup. When I need to run my air conditioner while boondocking, I use the generator and charge up the Explorer 1500 while it’s running. I charge the Explorer 1500 up with solar and run almost everything else like laptops, a microwave, TV, fan, etc. when I don’t need to run the AC.
If you only boondock a few times a year, you probably only need one power option. In contrast, those who spend much of their RV time without hookups will probably want the benefits of having a gas-powered generator and a solar option to cover all of their needs. It’s always better to have more options than you need in an emergency.
About The Author: Levi Henley
Levi Henley and his wife, Natalie, have been full-time RVers for over 5 years. They have also been Coach-Net customers for the same amount of time. They travel and workcamp around the U.S. in their 26-foot Itasca Sunstar motorhome with their two cats. They write for multiple RV-related publications and recently co-wrote “Seasonal Workamping for a Living: How We Did It.” You can follow their adventures on the road at henleyshappytrails.com
Laura H. ~ “We got the help we needed on a holiday to get us where we needed to go. Not sure we could have received this service from a regular auto club. Thank you Coach-Net.”