Camping Generators: Everything You Need To Know

 

What features should you look for in a camping generator? Photo via author

Camping Generators: Everything You Need To Know

Without shore power, the average RVer will be unable to operate any 120-volt appliance or operate their RV’s converter charger, which is the primary source for keeping the RVs house batteries charged. Without charged house batteries, most of your RV’s systems will fail to operate correctly, if at all.

Most RVers that boondock, especially those just starting out, will want to consider buying a portable camping generator to supply their RV with electrical power when needed if their RV is not already equipped with a built-in generator.

What features should you look for in a camping generator?

Output

First and foremost, don’t buy into the myth that you need a generator with an output that matches your RV’s electrical service panel.

For example, you most likely do not need a generator that puts out 30 amps of 120 volt AC (alternating current) or 3,600 watts if your RV has a 30 amp plug on it. To determine the rated output of the generator needed, you will first need to calculate your electrical needs. Things to consider:

  • What 120-volt appliances, if any, do I want to operate? Most RVers want to be able to operate their air conditioner(s) which is typically the highest power requirement.
  • Is there a way to minimize the power requirements of the appliance(s) I want to operate? The electrical needs for starting an air conditioner(s) can be significantly reduced with a SoftStart product, hairdryers can be run on the styling setting rather than high, etc.  If an air conditioner is part of your equation, please take the time to educate yourself on the electrical needs during the startup process of the unit and ways to manage/reduce the load.
  • Will I be operating more than one appliance at a time? Maybe the air conditioner and a microwave oven at the same time.
  • Is there an acceptable alternative to the 120-volt appliance I want to operate when boondocking? Click here to see some alternatives.
  • Can I turn off other 120 volt appliances to maximize (redirect) available generator power to the appliance I need to operate? Turning the RV absorption refrigerator to LP Gas or turning off the charger in your RVs converter charger for example.
  • Maybe you only need to keep your house batteries charged via the converter charger?

 

Once you have considered all of the above, just add up the power requirements of each and the total will be the minimum rated size of the generator you will need.

Type

Just like RVs, camping generators come in a variety of types. Some things to consider:

  • Inverter generators have a microprocessor built-in which regulates voltage to protect sensitive electronics.
  • Contractor generators fluctuate while operating producing “dirty power” with unstable frequency and voltage output which can damage sensitive electronics.

Noise

How comfortable are you with noise? More importantly what are your neighbors, if you have any in the boondocks, willing to tolerate?

  • Inverter type generators, which are enclosed in a case, are very quiet
  • Contractor type generators are not enclosed and much noisier

Fuel

Portable camping generators typically operate on gasoline but are also available in propane or even diesel. Considerations for which fuel type is best include:

  • What type of fuel does the engine in your RV operate on? Owning a generator that uses the same type of fuel eliminates the need for using two different fuel pumps at the filling station or carrying two types of spare fuel.
  • Diesel fuel is not nearly as volatile as gasoline.
  • A properly operating propane generator produces much less carbon monoxide than a gasoline generator. Propane gas won’t degrade overtime like gasoline. Propane gas can’t be “spilled” like gasoline or diesel.

Physical size & weight

  • Is there somewhere I can safely (think fuel, fumes, and theft) store the generator in my RV or tow vehicle?
  • Will the generator fit in the space I want it to?
  • Will I be able to lift the portable generator in and out of its storage space when needed?

Other considerations

The generator output is listed as surge and rated capacity. As the name implies, surge capacity is a short burst of extra energy the generator is able to produce to help start motors like those found in RV air conditioners. 

Make sure the electrical connections such as the output plug on the generator and park adapter, if needed, are rated for the maximum electrical loads you expect the RV will be drawing. Example: Don’t use a 15 to 30 amp park adapter if the expected maximum load is 20 amps and the generator is rated to produce 20 amps or more.

Keep in mind that internal combustion engines lose approximately 3% efficiency for every 1,000 feet of elevation gained. This will impact the rated output of a generator and how much electrical power it can produce in the mountains.

I prefer a 2,200-watt Honda generator. Photo via Amazon

Why I carry a Honda generator

For years I only traveled with a 1,000-watt Honda generator (1,000 surge watts, 900 rated watts) when boondocking. It was lightweight, quiet, and produced enough power to meet our needs of running my wife’s hairdryer on low and charging the house batteries in our travel trailer.

Recently I have been traveling more in the summer on business and found myself in areas where it is nice to be able to run the air conditioner when boondocking.

I upgraded to a 2,200-watt Honda (2,200 surge watts, 1,800 rated watts) and installed a SoftStart device which significantly reduces the power needed by my RV’s air conditioner to start up (start up current went from 28 amps to 13.5 amps). The units are small enough that I can carry either one behind the LP tanks on my travel trailer.

Both units operate on gasoline as does my tow vehicle, motorcycle, and ATV that we carry with us. I can either fuel the generator while fueling my tow vehicle or from the spare cans of fuel I carry for refueling the motorcycle and ATV in the field, negating the need for carrying other types of spare fuel.

What is the best camping generator for boondocking?

So, what is the best camping generator for boondocking? It all depends on how you use your RV, your lifestyle, and your electrical needs. Use the guidelines above, read online reviews, and talk with others on forums like iRV2 to decide what best fits your needs.

You may also want to consider a solar power setup—Here Are 5 Reasons Why We Prefer Solar Power Over A Generator

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