Blocked RV Solar? Save Power While Boondocking!

RV boondocking, solar panels, and lithium batteries are huge topics. But what if your solar panels are blocked by trees or other obstructions? You can save power while boondocking by following some basic guidelines.

Solar panels are fantastic for turning the power of the sun into electricity to power many items RVers use daily. But what happens when you’re boondocking in an area where your solar panels are blocked — like in the forest — and the sun can’t provide sufficient power to your rig to meet even your basic electrical needs?

Whether you have a bank of solar panels or not, saving power while boondocking can enhance your overall camping experience. In this post, and the video above, we’ll show you how we conserve energy when solar isn’t available, and provide lots of tips and tricks to help you conserve RV power off the grid.

What is boondocking?

Boondocking is camping off the grid, meaning that you’re parked in an area where you can’t connect to utilities. It can technically include overnighting in a truck stop, rest area, or Walmart parking lot. But the classic meaning of the word “boondocking” generally refers to RV camping on public lands, such as BLM (Bureau of Land Management), often in particularly remote areas.

You can also pay for a site in a campground where electrical hookups are simply not available for campers, nor do they provide water or sewer hookups. Many state and national parks, and national forests, for example, offer designated campsites in magnificent places. But since hookups to amenities aren’t usually provided when you camp in locations like these, you’re still boondocking or “dry camping.” And since they’re often surrounded by trees, you may need to be extra thoughtful about power usage, even if you have a large bank of solar panels.

Are Solar Panels the Answer to Saving Power While RV Boondocking?

Tree shade means we must save power while RV boondocking

Shade or cloud cover prevents the sun from providing power.

You may have seen our video showing how we upgraded our solar panels to take premium advantage of the power of the sun. But in some camping locations, like those in wooded areas, we’re surrounded by trees that cast shadows on our solar panels even on clear days. Or we may be camping in an area where it’s overcast or it rains for a few days. Saving power while RV boondocking is critical in conditions such as these.

While having a large bank of solar panels is great, we don’t want the need for solar power to dictate where we camp. We enjoy spending time in the forest, for example, and we really don’t want to run our generator in that environment more than necessary. After all, peace & quiet is the main reason we upgraded our solar system!

Tips and Tricks to Save Power While Boondocking

Use Devices that Require Less Power 

Devices that save power while RV boondocking

We can stay connected using several devices, but some are more power-hungry than others!

The first thing we do when we’re off the grid and want to conserve power is lean toward using our lower power usage devices. For example, we’ll use our iPhones or iPads instead of our more power-hungry laptop computers. Not only will these devices maintain power for longer than a laptop will, but we can also charge them from a 12-volt plug (further conserving power usage because our inverter isn’t needed to generate 12-volt power). So charging an iPhone or iPad is far more efficient than charging a laptop computer.

Plan Ahead for your Power Needs

We design websites for a living, and like many other full-time RVers who work from the road, we need connectivity and our laptops to do our jobs. So we try to plan ahead for our more intensive power requirements. For example, before moving to a campsite in the forest where we know we’ll have less access to power, we’ll spend time at an RV park that offers full amenities, and we’ll work on power-intensive tasks like video editing and website design.

Then, when we’re out in a natural environment where the scenery calls us outside to spend more time enjoying some fantastic hiking experiences, for instance, we’re able to ditch our power-hungry laptops for the personal power boost of the great outdoors. Saving power while RV boondocking has many perks! Getting more exercise is definitely one of them!

Make Daily Choices that Conserve Your RV’s Power

How We Conserve Power When Making Coffee

Pour-over coffee uses no power at all

Electric coffee makers are great, but use lots of power! Pour-over coffee uses no electrical power at all!

Not only do we save power related to our work while we’re RV boondocking, but we also try to use fewer power-hungry devices throughout the RV.

Making coffee is a good example of this. When there’s an abundant supply of electrical power available, many RVers (including us) use an electric coffee maker. But when boondocking and trying to save power, you can use a French press or the pour-over method.

We happen to prefer pour-over because it allows us to use less power to heat the water using only our propane stove (as you can with a French press). But clean-up is much easier and requires less water usage with the pour-over method. (We’ll talk more about water conservation in a separate post!)

How We Save Power When Cooking Meals While RV Boondocking

We also conserve kitchen power in other ways, such as avoiding the use of our microwave or our InstantPot. We tend to eat more cold meals while boondocking, such as salads, or we cook meals like burgers on our outdoor grill using propane instead of electricity. Or we might choose to have a nice cup of hot soup which we can heat using our propane stove.

How We Conserve Lighting Power

LED lightbulbs save power while RV boondocking

LED lightbulbs are a must for RVers who want to save power!

Lots of newer RVs come with LED lightbulbs already installed, but ours didn’t (back in 2005, LEDs weren’t around very much yet)! We chose to retrofit our RV with LED bulbs to conserve power.

High-quality bulbs like the M4 LED bulbs that we use throughout our motorhome provide reliable lighting with far less power consumption than traditional bulbs. Not only do LED bulbs use less power than incandescent, halogen, or even fluorescent bulbs, but you can purchase brighter LEDs, allowing you to use fewer lighting fixtures to cast sufficient light in your RV. Click here if you want to know more about the technology behind RV LED lights.

And click here if you’d like to check out all of our LED conversion videos in one place!

You can save even more power while RV boondocking by adjusting your sleep schedule. If you turn in earlier at night, when it gets dark, and rise with the sun, you’ll need fewer lights during hours of darkness.

How We Save Heating Power While RV Boondocking

Choosing warm bedding options can keep you comfortable through colder nights without the need to use your RV’s heat, or at least reduce that need considerably. Warm flannel sheets, a down comforter, and a fleece blanket keep us warm without any heat at all, unless temperatures drop into the forties, at which point we do need to add some heat to the rig!

Auxiliary propane heater

Our portable propane heater uses no electricity and keeps us warm when the temps drop!

Even though your furnace may use propane to generate heat, it also requires 12-volt power to operate the fan/blower. The less you have to use your furnace, then, the more power you’ll conserve.

We chose to install a small auxiliary heater that runs strictly off propane with no electricity required at all. It keeps us incredibly warm even in very cold climates. An added benefit is that it absolutely SIPS propane!

Some larger motorhomes come equipped with something called hydronic heat, which uses diesel fuel as a power source. We’ve heard so many awesome things about it that we’d definitely look into that for any future RV.

How Can We Save Refrigeration Power While RV Boondocking?

Turning off unused circuits at the circuit breaker

Turning off circuits that aren’t being used saves on phantom power loss throughout the RV!

This is more of an issue for us because we chose to install a full-sized residential refrigerator in our RV, which requires the constant running of our 3000-watt Xantrex power inverter to provide 120-volt AC power. However, if you’ve got an RV fridge that runs off propane, you’ll use only the little bit of power required to run the 12-volt circuitry while you’re off the grid. There are pros & cons to RV fridges, but their low electrical consumption is a definite plus!

When we’re boondocking, in order to save power despite our inverter being on all the time, we turn off every circuit we’re not using, so that the inverter is powering nothing but the fridge, and any other outlets currently in use (when our laptops need charging for example). This also conserves power by eliminating phantom drain to things like the television and the microwave clock.

Battery Power

Lithium battery pack

Lithium battery power is highly efficient and charges more quickly than other types of batteries.

Even though our solar panels may not be producing power when we boondock in the forest, we still have the advantage of our battery bank to help sustain our electrical needs. In our RV, we have 600 Ah of Xantrex lithium battery power that is 100% usable. So even without sunlight, shore power, or our generator to replenish the battery, we have plenty of power stored to sustain our needs for quite some time.

An additional, significant advantage to lithium batteries is that they accept a charge so much faster than flooded lead-acid and AGM batteries do. So when we do get some sun on our solar panels, or when we run our generator to charge the battery bank back up, a lot less time is required to get a lot more charge into them.

Generator Power

Onan generator

Exercising an RV generator is very important to keep it in good running condition for occasions when we need a power boost.

If you’ve got a working generator, remember that it’s there for a reason. We installed solar panels and a big battery bank to reduce our need to use our generator, but not to fully eliminate it. Our goal is to be able to enjoy all of the places we want to experience, and sometimes this requires the use of our generator to keep us comfortable off the grid.

It’s important to remember that a generator needs to be exercised under load at least once a month even if you’re not using it to generate power. This is an essential part of keeping a generator in healthy running condition. RV service technicians tell us that the generators they see with the fewest hours on them are the ones that have the most problems. We all need exercise to stay in shape, and our generators are no different.

You can use your generator wisely by running it when y0u have multiple uses for it, such as around dinner time. This way you can not only charge up your batteries, but also power the microwave oven or an InstantPot while making dinner. You can also heat a tank of hot water while your generator is running. As long as you don’t exceed its capacity, you can run everything all at once, up to your generator’s limit.

Hiking on a groomed trail

Camping off the grid allows us to have some amazing experiences that only nature can offer!

While your generator’s running and you’re charging your RV batteries and powering other electrical appliances, don’t forget to charge the batteries in your portable devices, like cell phones, laptop computers, games, walkie-talkies, and cameras.

All of this helps us manage and save power while we’re boondocking in our RV.

You can experience travel to some amazing places on the grid or off, as long as you know how to save power.

We hope these ideas for how to enjoy camping without hookups will help you get out and enjoy nature in your rig, while still enjoying the comforts an RV offers.

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No sun on the solar panels due to the trees