Let's talk about the best solar panels for camper vans. If you’re building out a camper van, you’re basically left with three options when it comes to power:
Living in the dark ages with no electricity is fine if you are just going on a weekend camping trip. And using a noisy, stinky, gas-guzzling generator is fine if you don’t care about the environment (or your neighbors).
But for full-time or part-time van lifers, the choice is clear: solar panels offer the cleanest, quietest and most efficient form of electricity for van life. Solar panels provide free renewable energy that allows you to live off the grid and away from society while still enjoying the creature comforts of the 21st century.
Fortunately, the cost of solar panels has plummeted in recent years and the number of options has skyrocketed. Unfortunately, the increase in solar panel options makes it harder than ever to pick.
If you’re not sure what direction to take, you’re in luck because we’re here to help.
In this article, we are first going to talk about the best solar panels for van living in 2021.
The Renogy 100 Watt 12-Volt Monocrystalline Solar Panel is our top choice for most camper vans because they are compact, reliable, durable, affordable, and with a 25-year power output warranty and a 5-year material and workmanship warranty.
Thanks to their compact design, you should be able to fit two of these bad boys on top of almost any van (even minivans), which should be more than enough power for all but the most energy-hungry users.
They come ready to install and if you’re looking for a full solar panel kit, you can save a bit of money and get a complete 100W Renogy starter kit for less than $200 (or upgrade to the 200W starter kit for as little as $350).
To make the most out of your panel(s), we would suggest buying or building an adjustable mount (like this one from Renogy) so you can angle the panels towards the sun while you’re park.
The RICH SOLAR 100 Watt 12 Volt Monocrystalline Solar Panel is a slightly more affordable option with a bunch of great reviews. The only reason we didn’t pick Rich Solar for the #1 spot is that these panels are slightly larger. So if you have the room and want to save some money, this is a great option.
Surprise, surprise. Renogy claims another spot on our list with the Renogy 160 Watt 12 Volt Flexible Monocrystalline Solar Panel. This is one of the most flexible panels we’ve come across, which makes it a great option for curved surfaces. It’s also extremely lightweight, which makes it easier to install and helps with gas mileage on long hauls.
When it comes to portable solar panels, we love the Jackery SolarSaga panels because of their sleek design and lightweight. What we don’t love is the price tag, but that is to be expected with high-quality portable panels.
If you want to remain ultra-portable, you can connect these to most standard power banks or up the ante with the Jackery Portable Power Station Explorer 240. This is a great option if you know you’ll be using the panels with different vehicles or if you don’t want to invest in a permanent solar solution for your rusty ol’ camper van.
The Renogy 200 Watt Monocrystalline Foldable Solar Suitcase is a more bulky alternative but we like it because the bulk makes it seem more durable. It’s got a very solid 4.5-star rating and reviewers have noted that it has outperformed their expectations. But be aware, it can be cumbersome to move around, so I would only recommend this if you tend to stay in the same place for a few nights.
Rigid solar panels are the most affordable and durable option and they are generally what we would recommend for “permanent builds.” Flexible panels are great because they are lighter and can be easier to install - the major downside is the increased cost and decreased durability.
The choice of fixed vs. portable solar panels is usually pretty easy to make. Do you want to stick panels on the top of your van and keep them there forever? Or do you want to unload the panels when you park?
Unloading portable panels might sound like a pain in the butt, but there are benefits. For one, they allow you to park your van in the shade while your panels soak up energy in the sun. We can’t stress enough how great this can be when temperatures are high.
In our eyes, the two biggest downsides of portable panels is that they can be more than twice as expensive and they take up extra room inside the van (unless you have some sort of external storage).
When it comes to portable vs. fixed, the choice is yours. We tend to suggest fixed just because they are cheaper, but you really need to think about how you will be using your van.
The amount of power you need is obviously very subjective. Not only will you need to determine how many watts your solar panel can generate, you also need to consider the size of your battery to store that power.
If you check out some of our van tours, you’ll see that most people opt for 200W to 400W options.
To figure out your individual needs, start with a list of items you will need to power, here’s a basic list of things to consider, starting with the most common:
In general, refrigeration takes up the most power for most van builds (one of the few reasons why some people go with old school coolers instead). If you only need to keep the lights on at night and charge your phone, you could probably get by with small portable solar panels connected to a large USB battery pack. But if you have a fridge/freezer, you’ll need to up your wattage.
We were going to write a long guide about calculating your power usage, but we couldn’t do a better job than EXPLORIST.life, so check out their video and go support them!
Many van lifers quickly discover that even if you have some of the best solar panels for camper vans, that does not mean unlimited power at all times. In fact, if you don’t correctly maximize your solar efficiency you’ll quickly find yourself with an empty battery. Here are some obvious and not-so-obvious tips on getting the most out of your renewable energy.