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How To Use Portable Solar Panels On Your RV

Everyone is talking about RV solar power these days. From Instagram influencers to YouTubers with massive solar power setups (we included), it’s easy to be inspired and want to take advantage of making your own power from the sun. 

But what if the upfront costs of a major RV solar install are too much for your camping needs?  What if installing and managing such a technical solar power system seems too complicated and daunting? 

If this sounds like you, we have good news! You can still enjoy the benefits of solar energy through affordable and beginner-friendly portable RV solar panels. 

How Much Solar Do I Need For An RV or Off Grid Project: How To Get Accurate Calculations

What Are Portable RV Solar Panels? 

Portable RV solar panels are more compact versions of the solar panels many RVers install on their roof. These compact versions of RV solar panels come in many different shapes and sizes.

Some portable solar panels fold up into a carrying case and tuck away easily for storage. Other portable panels come with stands. These types of solar panels can be thin and flexible or bulkier and rigid, depending on the brand and type. 

Portable solar panels are brought out when in use and can be placed anywhere around your rig. You can even place them on top if you prefer, but they are not mounted down so you will always need to pack them away when traveling. 

There are many benefits to using portable solar panels, which we’ll explain below. 

How Do Portable Solar Panels Work? 

Unlike roof-mounted solar panels, portable panels can be placed anywhere around your rig. This allows you to park your rig in the shade to keep it cool, but place your panels in the sun to get power! 

Similar to roof-mounted solar panels, portable RV solar panels generate electricity from the sun. They plug into a charge controller or straight into a battery and viola! You have power!

Pro Tip: Learn more about how Ground-Mounted Solar Panels Are a Powerful Inexpensive Way to Double Solar Energy.

Benefits of Portable RV Solar Panels Over Permanent Roof Installation

From considerations like stealth camping for van-lifers to ease-of-use for those new to solar power, there are many benefits to using a portable setup. Here are the major benefits: 

Great for Beginners

If you’re a newbie to all things solar power, it can be really confusing. Portable RV solar panels are great for beginners because they typically aren’t as technically involved. These types of panels are a great way to get introduced to solar power, and they really pack a punch! 

Ease of Use

With portable panels, all you have to do when you get to your location is plug them in, set them up, and instantly you have power. It doesn’t require you to install a bunch of hardware or appliances like a full RV solar install would.

Lower Price

When you buy a portable RV solar panel setup, the price is typically much, much lower than a full RV solar install. Many portable solar panels come in a kit that includes everything you need to get started. These kits can include the panels and a battery/inverter combo. 

Built-In Charge Controller

This is just another reason these panels are great for beginners and non-techy people! Portable solar panel kits come with a built-in charge controller. The charge controller is what regulates the energy coming in from the sun so you don’t fry your battery. There’s no need to worry about all that stuff with a portable panel kit. 

Can Be Moved For The Best Sunlight

In a rig with panels mounted on the roof, you have to be mindful of where you park to get the most direct sunlight. The quality of the sunlight varies throughout the day and provides different levels of energy. 

With portable panels, you don’t have to worry about where you park your rig. You can even park in the shade and put your panels out in the sun! 

If you have roof-mounted solar panels, you’re probably not going to be moving your rig around all day long to avoid shade. Even tiltable installed solar panels are limited in their direction. On the other hand, you can move portable panels around throughout the day to face them in-line with the most direct sunlight.

Great for Occasional Boondocking or Low Power Users

Typically, portable solar kits aren’t as robust in terms of power output when compared to full RV solar system setups. But, that doesn’t mean they can’t pack a punch! 

Portable solar kits are perfect for those who only boondock occasionally, or for those who don’t have a ton of power needs. 

These types of solar power kits are also excellent for van-lifers! If keeping your devices charged, having lighting in the evening, and the occasional small appliance use are your main power needs, these kits have the perfect amount of power for you. 

portable solar panels
We also make use of a solar generator (fancy term for solar panels combined with battery and inverter)

Keeps RV Batteries Topped Off

When you’re not plugged into shore power, these portable solar kits are a great option to keep your RV batteries topped off. They are a good alternative to a generator to recharge your batteries when boondocking – especially when used with lithium-ion batteries (we use Battle Born Batteries!)

Many portable solar panel kits clip right to the RV batteries

Can Be Used in Non-RVing Situations

Portable solar panels are great for many things, and since they’re not mounted to your RV you can truly take them anywhere. Depending on the size and type of setup you have, you can take them to the park, use them backpacking or camping, use them in emergencies, and so much more.

Cons of Portable Solar Panels

As with all things, portable RV solar panels do have their cons. Here are the shortcomings of using portable solar panels as a power source: 

  • Set-up time – you have to set up and take down your solar panels every time you get to a new spot. 
  • Not all are waterproof – if you don’t have waterproof panels, you have to be hyper-vigilant to changing weather conditions.
  • Risk of theft. Since these panels are set up on the ground outside your rig, they can be attractive to thieves and easy to steal.
  • No control over the charge controller. Since the charge controller is built into the portable panels, you don’t have the option of choosing a high-quality controller. Since this piece is what protects your battery, it’s pretty important! Go with a reputable brand to avoid damage. 
  • Not for high-power users. If you plan on using all the electricity that you would when you’re plugged into shore power, portable solar panels are not for you. They simply can’t generate enough power to keep up with heavy usage. 
  • They don’t work when you’re driving. Since you pack away the solar panels when you’re driving, you’re not generating solar power. Many RV batteries will charge when the rig is running, but depending on your drive time your batteries might get fully charged. This is a downside when compared to a roof-mounted system that works all the time. 

Are Portable RV Solar Panels Worth It? 

If you have minimal power needs, are a total newbie to solar power, or like the adaptability and portability of free-standing panels, they are definitely worth it. 

Portable RV solar panels are a great way to get your feet wet when it comes to using solar power and can be a stepping stone to a full RV solar install, which is especially great if you’re on a budget!

Before we went big on solar, we used a small 100W portable RV solar panel suitcase, and made a video review of it – watch below:

100 Watt Lightweight Portable Flexible Solar Panel Kit from Lensun | Product Review

This Lensun portable RV solar panel kit came with us to Alaska and added 100 watts of solar to the 200 installed on the roof of the Lance Truck Camper we took, effectively doubling its capacity.

There are lots of options available on the market, and you can Click Here to browse Portable RV Solar Panels on Amazon.


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About Tom Morton

Tom, a Pacific Northwest native, is our technical genius. Born in Washington and raised in Alaska before settling in Michigan. He's the man who keeps our operation running, both figuratively and literally.

With a background in Electrical Engineering, Tom specializes in RV solar systems and lithium batteries. He made history as the first documented individual to use a Tesla battery module as an RV battery. Tom has personally assisted countless RVers with system installations and has educated thousands more through his videos and articles.

Cinematography is another of Tom's passions, showcased in his work on the Go North series. You can see his camera skills on display in The RVers TV show on Discovery Channel and PBS where he also stars as a co-host.

Tom's mechanical expertise extends beyond RVs to boats, planes, and all things mechanical. He's renowned for taking on maintenance and repair projects single-handedly and is often spotted underneath RVs, making him the technical backbone of our endeavors.

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Curt Passafume

Saturday 17th of June 2023

Thanks Tom, Going to jump into our solar journey with the portable approach. I do have a question though. Do you need one portable unit for each battery you have or can a single unit be connected to a 4 battery bank to charge them all? Have made the conversion from lead acid to Battle Born (appreciate the tip) but not sure how many portable units I will need to keep all four batteries charging. Appreciate the clarification. THX Curt

Mortons on the Move

Monday 19th of June 2023

As long as you connect them across the entire bank you can use as many of few portable units as you want. Your needs will just be based on your usage. Even if its too small and doesent keep up they will slow the drain from the batteries. With lithium you wont hurt them doing this.

Deborah Lee

Wednesday 3rd of February 2021

Good Morning and Thank You for yet another great article! I have read so much of what you have written, and watched MANY of your videos since discovering your lithium comparison video. You explain everything very plainly, and answer all the questions most people would ask. I am 65, female, have a very low SS Budget, and pretty much know nothing about camping, boondocking, solar or any of it. I am starting from scratch with an old 1989 3/4 ton ford and a 2007 fifth wheel, and jumping right in. It's my anti-homeless plan for my critters and myself ?. Just want to say Thank You for all that you do for the diehard, the middle of the road, and the Newbie-No Clue folks out here. What you do is Very Important to so many. Safe Travels, and Take Care.

Mortons on the Move

Wednesday 3rd of February 2021

Thank you so much, Deborah! Your kind words about our videos and articles mean a lot to us. We wish you all the best on your RV journey! :)

John

Friday 22nd of January 2021

Another great post! You guys are making one of the big worries about boondocking look trivial. Since this portable unit has its own charge controller, would you tap it in before or after the rig's controller? Thanks, again Keep safe and healthy!

Robert Makowski

Monday 18th of January 2021

Hey Tom and Cait, go huskies. I enjoyed your solar review. I have been kicking the idea of going solar to put on our 18 Jayco TT. However I doubt I could justify the cost. I have been wanting to get a couple of Battleborn Batteries after watching your review and build. We are running with two deep cycle interstates and I doubt they would hold up for us to try some boondocking. Maybe a portable system would be a good way to start. Anyways thanks again for a great article. Bob Makowski

Dennis Ashworth

Tuesday 10th of November 2020

Hey you two, keep up the great work! We met you on the Fantasy RV Alaska trip and since reading your postings, I’ve acquired a new interest in solar panels and lithium batteries. I am building a remote ham radio station in southern Utah, totally off the grid (goal is no man made electrical noise) and can’t wait to apply the learning you have shared. I might even try some of the smaller flexible panels on the RV.

Take care, Dennis (& Vivian) Ashworth

Mortons on the Move

Wednesday 11th of November 2020

Hello Dennis and Vivian! Glad you're finding some of our RV solar and lithium battery posts helpful! Your ham radio project sounds awesome! We love hearing about how people are using these technologies to build off-grid. The silence is definitely a big perk! Best of luck finishing it up, and thanks for your comment! ~Tom & Cait