Power for campers – hook-up, solar power and portable power

Some of the questions we get the most are about camping power…how do I charge my laptop, power my camping fridge or use an electric hob when camping?

We’ve looked at the options and compiled our findings for you. We’ve tried to keep things simple and untechnical, with tried and tested recommendations for hook-up, portable powerbanks and solar power. Read on…

Campsite power – EHU hook-up

If you’re on a campsite in a campervan or caravan, then electric hook-up is the easiest answer. You’ll pay a bit more for your pitch, but the convenience of being able to run everything from your fridge to your hairdryer is usually worth the extra.

Using a hook-up cable

To use the site’s electric points, you simply need to attach a cable. The cheapest of these will be a single cable with a connector for the site’s electric point at one end and a connector for your campervan at the other. Easy! Your own decision will be what length to go for – they vary from around 5m to 25m. Prices from as little as £15.

This type of cable connection links to your vehicle’s internal electrics so you can use your built-in appliances and power-points.

Powerpro

Hook-up for tents and van campers

If you don’t have an electric socket on the side of your van, or if you’re in a tent, you can still hook up to the site’s electricity. All you need is an extension reel with the right socket connector on one end.  The best of these we’ve found (and used) is the Crusader PowerPro.

It’s a box of tricks with three 13amp plug sockets, three USB slots for charging phones and laptops, a detachable LED torch and, of course, a 15m cable with plug for hooking up to site electricity points. There’s also a circuit-breaker and a built-in polarity warning light (see the tips section below). They’re not light at 4.4kg but it’s a lot of kit in a small package. Around £45. 

More EHU hook-ups for campers

 

There are quite a few camping hook-up alternatives to the PowerPro.

Outwell make a three-socket Mensa hook-up roller with a built-in light. Again, a 15m cable, three sockets, two USB ports Outwell EHUand polarity warning. This one rolls into a more conventional looking extension reel and weighs around 4kg. About £55 (£45 for the version without USBs and light).

Crusader electric hook-up unitIf you don’t mind all that cable messing up your neat packing, there are plenty of simpler options, such as the Crusader mains EHU unit (around £30).

This black and orange EHU cable is a bit prettier (in our opinion) and has the bonus of two USB slots. Costs around £59, however.

Hook-up tips

 

Tip 1: We carry two different lengths of EHU cable – 5m and 20m. If you’re on a pitch close to the electricity point, you can avoid all that cable snaking everywhere by using the shorter one.

Tip 2: Check the polarity – some sites (more so in Europe) have reversed polarity, where the live and neutral are the wrong way round. It can be a shock hazard, so it’s safest to check it with a plug-in polarity tester (only a fiver). If you find the connections are reversed, then an adaptor sorts it out.

Tip 3. Keep it neat with a cable bag or cable tidy reel

Tip 4. Some continental campsites have a different type of socket. If so, you’ll need a cheap euro adaptor (around £7). Campsites can often lend or sell you one, but taking your own can pay off.

The best way to power your fridge

First of all, have a look at our guide to choosing a fridge. It may be that you don’t need a powered camping fridge at all – there are some very efficient passive coolboxes out there.

 

Waeco CFX35 compressor fridge

Dometic’s compressor fridges are superb. A constant temperature whatever the outside weather and they run very efficiently on 12V.

If you don’t want to be changing ice packs, however, you’ll either have a 12V coolbox or efficient compressor fridge connected to the car or campervan 12V (socket). The best compressor fridges use very little power and will alert you if your battery is getting low.

Another option is a three-way fridge (absorption coolbox), which will work on electricity when you’re at a campsite, 12V when you’re on the move and gas when you have no electricity. These do tend to be big beasts, but they give you a lot of freedom. 

See more of our camping fridge and coolbox recommendations.

Electricity for camp cooking

 
Most campers tend to cook on gas and that certainly liberates you to cook anywhere. Even more freeing is cooking using a woodburning camping stove
 
If you want to use an electric kettle, then you’ll need campsite electricity. We’ve tended to choose smaller, lower wattage models like this one-litre Igenix kettle just in case the campsite can’t cope.
 
Electricity for cooking, though, can make everything a bit faster. We’ve used a small, portable induction hob, for example. Again, you need a campsite electricity supply and one of the cable options from the section above.

Have a look at our feature on electric cooking options for when you’re on hook-up, including the Remoska, induction hobs and a portable microwave.

Keep phones and tablets charged

Because these take so little power, the 12V socket in the car or campervan is usually all you’ll need. The same goes for any device that can be USB powered.

 
working while travelling

Working on Campfire Magazine while camping in France. The iPad and keyboard combo works well, but we always need wifi.

If you’re wild camping or camping without a vehicle, then have a look at the portable power section below.

Laptops, though, draw more power. You can use campsite mains electricity, a high-powered portable battery bank (see next section) or an inverter (if you must).

Inverters

We’re not fans of inverters. Basically, these convert the 12V supply from your leisure or car battery to 230V, so you can plug in a laptop or other low wattage device.

 

The reason we’re not keen is that they actually take power to operate, they can be noisy, it’s too easy to run down your battery and, unless you have a high wattage model (connected directly to the battery), you still won’t be able to plug in an electric kettle or fan heater, for example.

If you’ve successfully used an inverter, let us know. In the meantime, we think they’re not worth the risk when you can stick with 12V charging, cook and boil a kettle on gas or use hook-up.

A 1000W Bestek inverter for £65 sounds perfect, eh? If you’re running anything over 150W, though, then it needs to be connected to the battery rather than through the car or van’s 12V socket. Your car needs to be running too.

If you’d like to try an inverter, then you need to carefully work out the peak wattage of the equipment you’d like to run and the length of time it’ll be on for. A laptop, for instance, will need an inverter of at least 150W and, depending on your battery, will run for between five and eight hours before your battery is exhausted.

Keeping medicines cool

The impetus for this article was, in fact, a question we had from someone wondering how to keep their medications cool while camping in summer.

As well as passive coolers designed for insulin, there are some neat little powered devices.

Best of the bunch seems to be this Home Care medicine/insulin cooler at around £100.

Perfect camping power – at a cost

Dometic has brought out a super-efficient lithium battery pack that will power a fridge or coolbox for more than a day on one charge  – 40 hours for the CFX35 we use.

The PLB40 portable power charges via 12V socket, solar panel or mains power and is neat and light. A screen shows capacity, charging status and output (512Wh of energy, 40Ah). There are sockets for USB and a 12V two-pin thingy, so you can use it for phones, tablets, cameras and other small electronic devices.

Dometic’s website shows it being used with a Macbook laptop, but laptops need AC, so you’d need a 150W inverter to do this.

The best camping lights

LED lights use barely any power, so there are lots of options these days for USB rechargeable camping lights. Add a portable power bank (see below) or recharge from the car’s 12V socket.

 

Some also come with built-in phone/tablet chargers that work by either solar or, better still, a combination of solar and USB.

The inflatable 2-in-1 Luminaid, for example, has been tested in disaster situations, so is a good pick. It folds down to virtually nothing, is waterproof and gives up to 50 hours of light (on low) when fully charged. About £40 (£20 for the one without phone charger).

Found under a number of different names, this small lamp has a 4W LED light but is also an 8800mAh power bank too, so you can charge your camera or phone through it. You’ll get around 18 hours at full brightness. Around £20.

We like the Luminoodle too because it’s decorative as a lighting strip you can hang with ties or magnets, and also folds into a bag to work as a table lamp. Bright, rechargeable and can work directly from a USB adaptor in the 12V socket.

 

And for a good light to read or play games by, this £13 folding rechargeable desk lamp is perfect.

Portable camping power

If you’re an explorer rather than a campsite comfort-seeker, then you’ll want a portable power pack to charge your phone, camera or tablet.

 

The key number is the mAH (milli-ampere hour). You’ll find powerbanks as low as 1,000mAH and as high as 30,000mAH. The higher the number, the more charge you’ll get, but the trade-off is weight and size. Some airlines won’t allow very high-powered battery banks.

For goodness sake, please don’t buy a disposable powerbank – apart from being very low mAH and slow, they’re an environmental menace.

There aren’t many powerbanks with a three-pin socket. This 23,200mAH powerbank from Jackery works well for an emergency, but will only charge your laptop to 70% if you use the computer while charging. Up to 10 charges for an iPhone, though. Around £110.

Features to look out for are Quick Charge 4.0 and USB-C. If these are useable for input as well as output, they’ll be faster to charge themselves (as well as faster to charge your phone). Passthrough charging is something to look out for. It means you can charge a phone at the same time as the powerbank itself. PowerIQ or similar-sounding names tell you that the charger can recognise the type of device you’ve connected so that it can deliver the optimum amount of power.

These are great for phones, tablets, cameras and LED lights, but you’ll need a higher performing battery bank for laptops. Check the wattage of your machine. The MacBook I’m writing this on has an 87W power adaptor, for example. Many powerbanks will state the maximum wattage they can handle.

You’ll also need a cable (often supplied), as your three-pin plug won’t attach to the bank, unless you go for one of the few powerbanks with an AC socket.

We’ve tested a few ranges that we like and trust:

  • Anker powerbanks are consistently top-rated.
  • Zendure chargers are simple, neat, fast and tough.
  • RavPower – some very high-powered options and great reviews.

These pocket chargers are a valuable tool to have in your kit. On campsites, we’ve seen people leave their phones plugged in to charge in the shower blocks. While honesty is a hallmark of campers, we’ve always worried about the danger of phones getting knocked into sinks or soaking up condensation. Leaving a charging unit to recharge rather than the phone sounds like a good idea.

For solar phone chargers, see the solar section lower down.

Solar power for campers

The holy grail of power? We’d probably all like to be able to stick a panel in the sun and power everything easily, quickly and for free. Instead, if you’ve ever started to research solar power for camping, you may well have given up – bamboozled by the maths you have to do.

 

Whether it’s a permanent installation or a portable solar set-up, the power you get will, of course, be affected by how much cloud cover you get. Most good solar panels won’t need bright sunlight all the time, but won’t perform well in cloud.

We turned to a few experts to help us unravel the potential of solar – in particular,  thanks to Caroline Rawlinson at Solar Technology International for some much-needed guidance.

Solar panels for campervans

If you’re thinking of getting a larger solar panel fitted into the roof of your campervan, then your installation will, most probably, integrate into your vehicle electrics and power your leisure battery. Getting that right means finding an installer you trust or speaking to people who’ve done a successful DIY job.

“You need to check with the installer not just about the panel’s capability but about how power will be regulated to avoid damage to the leisure battery,” says Caroline. “This is a fairly simple option for 5V and 12V devices, but if you want to plug in a three-pin 230V appliance (running on AC), you need an inverter. An inverter itself needs power to run, so make sure your installer gives you advice about turning it off when not in use.

“Solar panels can be useful for trickle-charging the battery when the campervan isn’t used very often in storage, for example.”

Around £125 for this 100W solar panel by EcoWorthy. With controller and installation bits and pieces.

Just to stress Caroline’s point that solar panels generate DC power. If you want to plug in a three-pin 230V socket, you’ll need to convert to AC, using an inverter.

There are lots of simple DIY kits for around £100 that will connect to your leisure battery and can either be installed or used standing outside the van. Look for ones with good regulators/controllers to protect your battery. Go for 50W as a minimum.

Solar for 12V and USB devices

The easiest way to harness the sun in a portable package is to get a solar hub. HUBi, for example, is a system that includes a solar panel, lights and a lithium battery pack to store energy. The power can then be used via 12V sockets and USB sockets to run lights, fans, smartphones, tablets, 12V TVs and radios. HUBi is available in a 2k and 10k version for around £140/£200.

A RavPower folding 24W solar charger with three USB slots. Around £60

Addtop’s small solar charger for tablets and phones. 25,000 mAH. Around £40.

For phones and other small electronic devices, portable panels with built-in USB sockets are neat and effective. 

Solar powered camping fridges

As mentioned in the fridge section above, good compressor fridges run efficiently on 12V and only draw power when needed. If they have good insulation, they won’t need to run the fan all that often. So, you should be able to power a fridge using solar.

“It’s typical to expect power demand to be 60% of a full 24 hours,” says Caroline. “For example, the Dometic CF26 fridge requires 35W an hour, so power consumption would be 504Wh over a day, which equates to a solar panel of just over 100W solar for spring, summer and autumn use.”

Hobs, hairdryers and more

A simple answer. Solar is not going to be a viable option for these power-hungry devices unless you have a heavy-duty permanent installation incorporating battery banks and an inverter. If you’re planning on living off-grid, then fair enough, but not for the majority of campers.

Either use mains hook-up, gas (for kettles and cooking) or look for 12V models – we’d always prefer to do without, however, than use a 12V kettle or feeble hairdryer (gas-powered and rechargeable tongs and straighteners work well!).

For more technical help, there are some decent books to give you a more thorough grounding than we can fit here.

Woodfired power for cooking, light and phones

Biolite wood-burning camping stove

We’ve never warmed to the Biolite – a range of woodburning stoves and accessories that use the energy generated while cooking to charge devices. Other people love them, though, because they’re ultra-portable and very fast stoves that need only sticks and twigs to create a very good fire.

You can get backpacking models, a smokeless fire pit, lights, kettles, grills, a coffee press and more to go with your chosen stove. And there’s a big BaseCamp for camp cooking too.

More woodburning options in our special feature.

 

Camping power is such a BIG topic and everyone has their individual needs and ambitions! Please share your set-ups, workarounds and ideas. Leave a comment below, or send us a message.

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