It’s only my second year of owning a fridge in my van, and now that I have one, there’s no looking back. However, keeping things cool in the summer isn’t easy. A fridge solves one problem, but keeping the batteries topped up with the sun is a whole different thing. Let’s discuss choosing a solar panel.

This is not meant to be a comprehensive guide but rather something useful to help the uninitiated, like myself. Before you dive into choosing watts and amps, consider what you want to do.

Do you have a SWB van, like a T5 or a Sprinter, and need the practicality of parking in a car park without stress? Perhaps you want to park up in a national park with height restrictions. Are you a weekend warrior hitting the campsites with a larger van? Or are you going full-time or intending to hit the road for long periods? Let me share my thoughts on all of these findings.

What Solar Panel Is The Best?

There are a few types of solar panels: rigid panels, the ones you will find on buildings; flexible solar panels that can curve to an insane degree; and foldable solar panels that fit into a smallish carrying bag. Here are my thoughts on each type.

Rigid Solar Panels

These offer the best bang for your buck, and if you look on Facebook Marketplace, you can easily find a 200W panel for £100. Rigid panels are hard-wearing, waterproof, and can handle being jostled on the road.

The downsides are that once they are fixed to the van, that’s it—you’ve potentially drilled into the roof, ensured waterproofing, and increased the height of your van. So, if you’re in a short wheelbase van that can creep under most 2.5m height restrictions, this type of panel might take you over the edge. It all depends on where you normally like to park up.

Having a fixed solar panel means less flexibility in getting the most power during the day, as you can’t angle or place them to get the most from the sunshine, which is especially important in the winter months.

Flexible Solar Panels

Much lighter than the rigid types, these panels are a lot thinner but still require ventilation underneath the van for true efficiency. Due to their flexible nature, you can angle them over the front of the van, or if you haven’t made them a permanent fixture, just lean them against your vehicle and adjust during the day for optimum power charging.

The downsides are that they take up some room inside your van and can be a pain to find space for. Also, check the IP rating, as these panels tend not to be water-resistant or waterproof.

Foldable Solar Panels

Straight off the bat, these tend to be more expensive, as you trade the power generated for the ability to fold up and pack the panel away safely when traveling. For example, a 120W foldable panel will cost around £140, depending on the connectors you need.

There is much more to choosing a panel, but another deciding factor is what you are connecting it to. If you are connecting to a power bank like the Ecoflow River 2, it brings up the following issue.

Solar Panel Connectors

Make sure the output of your solar panel matches what you are plugging it into or ensure that a compatible cable is available. For example, my last solar panel had MC4 connectors, but my Ecoflow had an XT60 input, which required an MC4 to XT60 cable costing me an extra £20. So when choosing your panel, check the connectors and also the input capacity.

For another example, I was fortunate enough to borrow an Ecoflow 200W panel, but the max input of my Ecoflow River 2 was only 100W. When you choose the type of panel you want, ensure it’s compatible and works within the specifications. It’s great to have a panel that can supply more power than your rated battery pack (if that’s what you are using), so you aren’t overworking things.

If you are going down the solar-to-MPPT route, that’s a whole different post in itself. The point of this article is to share my recent experiences in choosing a solar panel for van life.

I was tempted by a flexible panel, but in the end, I went for a foldable one purely because of limited storage space, and having a nice carrying bag would prevent it from getting accidentally damaged during transit. Let me know your thoughts below and if you’ve seen any deals on solar panels for Vanlife.

Final Considerations When Choosing A Solar Panel For Van Life

  • Consider the amount of power you need. How many devices will you be using in your van? How much time will you be spending off-grid?
  • Consider the type of solar panel. Monocrystalline solar panels are typically more efficient than polycrystalline solar panels, but they are also more expensive.
  • Consider the mounting options. If you have a van with a suitable roof, you can mount your solar panels there. If not, you may need to mount them on the side of your van or on a ground-mounted rack.
  • Consider the warranty. Make sure the solar panel you choose comes with a good warranty. This will protect you in case the panel fails.

Other Notes

A 100-watt solar panel can only generate around 100 watts of power in ideal conditions, such as direct sunlight and no cloud cover. In real-world conditions, a 100-watt solar panel will likely generate much less power. Hence going for a larger panel gives you more wiggle room.