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Do Camper Vans Need Powered Sites?

Solar panel on van roof

Road tripping and camping in camper vans have always been a popular pastime. As of late, it’s becoming even more common throughout the world. However, many new owners aren’t sure about how to get them powered up when they settle at a campsite. 

So, do camper vans need powered sites? It depends on your needs. If you intend to use microwaves, TVs, outlets, and other electric accessories, then you should find a powered site. However, you can still get power using a few different devices to avoid the higher costs of sites that come with hookups.

Whether you’re new or experienced with camper vans, it’s always a good idea to find cheaper and more efficient forms of power. But which source is the best? Find out below.

How Are Camper Vans Powered?

Owning a camper van gives you a home on wheels wherever you go. One of the things that can make camping more enjoyable is having power while you’re on the road. After all, you’ll need to charge your phones, laptops, and other devices. Here are the five main ways that you can get power to your camper van:

  1. Using electrical hookups
  2. Installing solar panels
  3. Using portable solar panels and chargers
  4. Utilizing the vehicle’s alternator
  5. Buying a gas-powered generator

Electrical hookups are the most common way that people power their camper van. Most camper vans manufactured as motorhomes or RVs come with hookups on them. You can plug your camper van directly into the power at the campsite that you stay at for instant electricity throughout your vacation.

Some of these campsites you visit might require a dog bone adapter, which will allow you to convert to a different amperage. Keep in mind that you might also stay at campgrounds that require you to pay for the electricity used over a specific amount. Always contact the campground owners before using any electricity.

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Using Solar Power For A Camper Van 

Installing solar panels onto your camper van is a great way to have electricity anywhere that’s sunny. Contrary to popular belief, you can still charge with solar panels in lightly cloudy weather. However, they don’t produce as much power as on sunny days, only about 15-25 percent of their usual output.

Monocrystalline and polycrystalline are two types of solar panels. The monocrystalline panel is somewhat more efficient, producing more watts per panel size, but also more costly. Each type of solar panel has a life expectancy of about 25 years.

The main pieces that you’ll need to power your camper van with solar panels are as follows:

  • A solar panel(s) between 50 watt and 500 watt. You usually can’t fit more on the roof of a camper van, but if you have more room, more power to you.
  • A charge controller to maintain the electrical current. This piece stops the current from building up too much, and it also helps to let you know all of the statistics.
  • 1-2 12 volt deep cycle batteries to store the energy that you got through the panels.
  • An inverter that changes the DC power from the batteries to AC power for your devices.
  • Fuses in case something goes wrong.
  • MC connector cables and connection pieces, Z-brackets, screws, and possibly a cable holder.

As you can see, there’s quite a bit to learn and put together if you choose to install solar panels yourself. However, there are plenty of webpages and videos on the internet to give you tips and pointers on a DIY installation process.

To avoid the time-consuming process of assembling all the individual components, check out this user-friendly solar kit. If you’re worried you don’t have the skills to tackle a solar project, relax you can always hire a professional to advise and assist you in completing the job.

If you still don’t want to try this route, then portable solar panels and chargers are worth a try.

Portable Solar Panels

Portable solar panels offer a much simpler process of providing solar power. There are currently two types of portable solar panels:

  1. 50 Watt and bigger panels that connect to a 12 volt deep cycle battery.
  2. Portable chargers that don’t connect to a battery source.

Portable panels are convenient because you can fold them up and store them whenever they’re not in use. They also have fewer parts than the previously mentioned roof-mounted solar panels. The only real downside is that portable solar panels set on the ground or roof, but you have to store them every time you drive.

Roof-mounted panels are always charging, but portable panels only charge when you’re parked and you have them set up. However, if you plan on camping for a few days in a row, portable solar panels are a great choice.

Solar chargers allow you to have a handheld device to set out. You can set them on the dashboard when you drive, on your backpack or anywhere else that you put it. The only major drawback is that they don’t have a power bank. You won’t be able to store power, so you can only use whatever’s readily available.

Using The Vehicle’s Alternator

Another way to have electricity available to your camper van is to use the vehicle’s alternator to charge auxiliary batteries while you’re driving. This setup is a great stand-alone system or you can use it in conjunction with solar panels when there’s not a lot of sunshine available.

The main pieces that you’ll need to power your camper van from the vehicle’s alternator are as follows:

  • A battery isolator to charge the auxiliary batteries.
  • 1-2 12 volt deep cycle batteries to store the energy that you get through the alternator.
  • An inverter that changes the DC power from the batteries to AC power for your devices.
  • Fuse box and fuses in case something goes wrong.
  • Various sized wire and connectors.

The battery isolator is a device that only allows electrical current to travel in one direction. Simply stated, this device allows the vehicle’s alternator to charge the auxiliary batteries, but prevent the vehicle’s battery from being drained.

If you unintentionally drain the auxiliary batteries, the vehicle’s battery will remain fully charged and able to start the engine and that’s essential, especially if you’re camping alone back in the boondocks.

Another key component in the electrical system is an inverter of some type, which converts the 12-volt direct current stored in the batteries to alternating current, allowing for the use of AC powered devices in your camper van. There are three common inverter types.

  • Square wave
  • Modified square wave
  • Pure sine wave

Read our post, “What Is An Inverter? Why Would I Want One In My DIY Van Build?” to learn more about the different types of inverters.

It would be best if you powered sensitive electronics with a pure sine wave inverter. However, if you only need to power less sensitive devices like refrigerators, fans or other motor-driven loads, then a modified square wave inverter may be your best choice.

One of the most popular modified square wave inverters is the Krieger 2000 watt and for a pure sine wave inverter, a good choice is this Go Power 1500 watt.

Gas-Powered Generators 

Generators are great to use when you’re looking for a way to power your camper van. If you’re staying at a campsite, you don’t need hookups if you have a generator. However, you should always make sure that generators are allowed. They tend to be a bit noisy, making many campgrounds deny usage.

By using gasoline or propane, you can charge your electrical devices quickly – research the generators burn rate and efficiency to get your money’s worth. You don’t need a powered site when camping in a camper van as long as you have an electrical source with you. One of the best selling generators is the Westinghouse iGen2200 inverter generator. It’s quiet, long running and only weighs 46 lbs.

Dry Camping In A Camper Van

Dry camping is another popular option when you’re trying to find a place to go camping in a camper van. There are numerous pros and cons of dry camping, so let’s check them out below.


  • Being able to camp without electricity is an excellent way to soak in the scenery and forget about the noisiness of modern living.
  • Dry camping is usually much cheaper since many campgrounds reduce the prices on sites without hookups. You can also find free camping without hookups.
  • Since there’s no grid or lines to tie into, campsites are usually much more dispersed when they don’t have electrical hookups.
  • You don’t have to be concerned about being charged extra money if you use too much electricity.
  • Without anything electrical nearby, you don’t have to worry about fire hazards from improper care.


  • Since you’re off of the electrical grid, you can’t check your emails or do anything work-related.
  • You might not be able to chat with friends, read Kindle books, and so on.
  • Music is hard to come by unless you have a battery-operated stereo, of course.
  • Camping without electricity makes some people feel unsafe since they can’t contact people. This decision depends on you, so it might not be a bad thing.


Camping in a camper van is incredibly exciting. If you want to have power while out in the woods, you should opt for one of the five methods mentioned above. They’re all efficient enough to power your devices. You simply have to choose which one makes the most sense for you.

Be aware you should only power sensitive electronics such as TVs, satellite systems and laptops with quality, true-sine-wave inverters or generators. For more information on inverters, read our inverter post here.

Here are some takeaways from the article:

  1. Powered campsites allow you to use electricity while camping in a van.
  2. Solar power, either mounted or portable, is a fantastic way to have power whenever it’s sunny.
  3. While driving, you can use the power of your vehicle to charge auxiliary batteries.
  4. Gas-powered generators offer an instant power source, but they can be a bit noisy. Check with each campground before making reservations.
  5. Dry camping is a fun option that allows you to leave the electricity behind in favor of off-the-grid camping.
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The western part of the country draws me with its mountains, deserts, and red rock vistas. Still, there are numerous other wonders I'm ready to explore., from Maine's rugged coast to California's Big Sur cliffs and everywhere between.