I’ve met a lot of people in my travels with massive solar setups—sometimes more than 2,000 watts. Every time I hear these astounding numbers, I can’t help but wonder if that level of solar power is truly necessary. They tell me how they can run their air conditioners and microwaves while boondocking. This always leaves me, with my 100-watt panel, in awe.
In many ways, RVing has always been about simplicity. My fiancée and I traveled for a year-and-a-half in our pop-up Aliner camper with just one suitcase solar panel. While we certainly didn’t have the luxury of infinite power available to us, we made do just fine.
This is the story of how we made it work.
From cold mountains to sunny salt flats
When we first set out in our little camper, we didn’t have any intention of becoming full-timers. My fiancée and I had just graduated from college, and we were eager to take some time and explore the country. We bought the biggest camper our Jeep Liberty would comfortably pull, and patiently waited for our lease to end.
Solar seemed like an afterthought in retrospect. We’d been avid tent campers for years and intended on taking that approach to our new setup. We figured we only needed enough power to run our lights, charge some devices, and occasionally use the propane furnace when it got cold. Calling our camper’s amenities barebones would be an understatement—but we loved it.
The pitfalls of only 100 watts
I won’t lie, our lack of solar got interesting at times. We’d been traveling down through Utah after just completing the Beet Harvest up in Montana. It was mid-October, so not quite winter, but the temperature was certainly dropping.
We set up camp in the National Forest outside of Park City, and over the course of 24 hours, a significant storm rolled in. Whatever sunlight there was quickly became covered in clouds. Our battery was already sitting at a low voltage, and we knew we were going to have to run the furnace overnight—at least a little bit to not completely freeze.
That night it got down to -5 degrees outside. We woke up to ice-lined camper walls and frozen noses. I scurried outside to check the battery’s voltage and was relieved to find we were sitting right at 50%, the lowest you should ever drain a lead-acid battery without damaging it.
We quickly learned that our solar setup simply wasn’t cut out for winter conditions. The next morning, we packed up and headed straight to the Salt Flats, where we enjoyed unlimited sunlight and 70-degree days for a week straight.
Maximizing a single 100-watt solar panel
Along the way, I learned that there were a lot of little things I could do to make life with limited power easier. Living with a small amount of solar means you need to travel with the weather. We never had a single issue during the summer traveling up and down the West Coast, and during the colder winter months we “cheated” and stayed at an RV park, all while snowboarding our hearts out.
Reducing our electrical appliances to the bare minimum helped tremendously. Instead of an electric coffee maker, we used a stovetop French press every morning. To reheat food, we warmed it up in a pan over low heat. Everything took a little more work but consumed absolutely zero power.
Challenges and sacrifices
One of my favorite memories was boiling water so that I could take a warm, outdoor shower in the North Dakotan chill. Living with 100 watts means you make sacrifices, and while it can be fun at times, it does get frustrating.
We didn’t have running water or a pump in our camper, so all our dishes were done with a gravity-fed sink that drained into a removable 6-gallon water jug. One time, I was making a DIY roof rack and needed to cut some metal piping with a Dremel. There was no way I was going to use up the little power we had in the RV battery, so I was forced to run an inverter attached to the car battery, with the car running. It was unconventional, but it got the job done.
Looking back and moving forward
Nowadays, I consider myself spoiled. My fiancée and I have since upgraded our rig and have 525 watts of solar on the roof of a slide-in truck camper. Transitioning away from seasonal jobs and into online work requires us to have more consistent power. We also learned our lesson in those cold Utah mountains, that 500+ watts ensure we can run our furnace even on the coldest of days.
Despite this, the lifestyle we lived with 100 watts still prevails and we strive to keep our setup as simple as possible.
How much solar are you running?
At the end of the day, everyone has different needs and lifestyle requirements, so your power consumption will vary. I hope that this testimonial will convince others that you can live the RV life even with a considerably basic solar setup.
For those that already have their solar installed, how many watts are you running? Could you ever see yourself living with just one panel? Let me know in the comments.
Jeff Clemishaw is a traveling freelance writer, passionate RVer, and snowboarder. He and his fiancée travel in their truck camper, chasing powder and seeking adventure.