Get the most out of your solar panels when boondocking in northern forests
By Bob Difley
Most snowbirds have fled their winter desert hangouts and have moved or are moving north to their stick house or, if fulltiming, into their favorite summer destinations. Most will travel between favored campgrounds, but some will be heading into the national forests to boondock at their secret campsites, providing they haven’t been eliminated by the Forest Service’s new Travel Management Plan (TMR).
That’s another story, but briefly, new rules for driving and boondocking in the national forests now define where you can drive and where you can camp. Make sure you pick up the particular forest’s Motor Vehicle Use Map (MVUM) that defines the approved roads and dispersed camping areas.
However, another challenge awaits boondockers as well. That is producing enough electrical power from solar panels to meet your daily needs. In the desert, your considerations were:
- Because most desert campsites are open to the sky, you get charging from your panels from the first glint of sun over the morning horizon until it has passed out of view in the western sky.
- However, since the angle of the sun is lower, you will not get full charging unless you tilt your panels toward the sun’s trajectory across the sky, and position your RV horizontal to the sun’s movement, and verify that your panels–or other roof top equipment–do not shade the charging (silicon) part of the panel.
- Since the days are shorter, your total charging time will be shorter, and your batteries may not have sufficient time to become fully re-charged. Therefore, you may have to schedule more electricity-using hours (meals, showering, computer use) during daylight, so as not to deplete too much from your batteries overnight.
- When you move from the desert to a Ponderosa pine forested campsite, your challenges change.
The good news is that since the sun during the summer months passes more directly overhead, your panels do not have to be elevated to take full advantage of the suns’ rays throughout the day. Also, days are longer so you have many more charging hours every day than in the desert in winter, and since the number of nightime dark hours roughly equals the eight hours of sleep needed, most electricity-using can be accomplished while the panels are charging if you coordinate your sleeping and rising times with the sun’s.
But now comes the hard part. Since you are camping in a forest, you will undoubtedly have periods of the day when the sun is blocked from reaching your panels by the magnificent (and tall) trees surrounding your campsite. Short of camping out in the middle of a meadow (which can be nice but not always available) you will have to hazard a guess at how many daylight hours the sun is actually reaching your panels–without any part being shaded, which reduces the amount of amps that pass into your batteries–and calculate accordingly so you don’t find yourself with batteries that have not re-charged.
The remaining consideration in both desert and forest is the number of overcast or rainy days which will produce minimal battery charging. It is therefore a good idea to oversize your system to account for all the variables and calculate to include a margin of error. Checd your battery voltage daily to make sure you are balancing the discharging with charging.
For more RVing tips take a look at my Healthy RV Lifestyle website, where you will also find my ebooks: BOONDOCKING: Finding the Perfect Campsite on America’s Public Lands (PDF or Kindle), 111 Ways to Get the Biggest Bang for your RV Lifestyle Buck (PDF or Kindle), and Snowbird Guide to Boondocking in the Southwestern Deserts (PDF or Kindle).