If you are looking to buy your first camping generator, then this article might be the definitive guide for you. You can’t rely solely on reading other buyer’s reviews. You need to know how they work, what fuel alternatives you have, what size will fit your needs and many other things.
1. Find out what you need to power
There are a couple of things you need to write down before you go on a spending spree. Not everybody uses the same electric devices while camping so there can’t any specific guides to help you with that.
- Make a list of what devices will require power on your campsite. Are you only going to power just some lights? Or are you going to bring the whole kitchen with you? Knowing what you need to power is essential if you want to choose the best camping generator. I’m including this table containing the most used appliances on a camping trip and how much power they use on average.
- Check the starting wattage of big devices. When it comes to starting them, many devices require more power to start than to run. You don’t want to buy a 2000 watts generator when one piece of equipment needs 3000 watts to start. It will just not start. Simple.
- Reduce the number of electric devices that you use to lower power consumption. Do you really need to bring an electric grill with you on a camping trip? Isn’t it more efficient to use a campfire for cooking? Why do you need a kettle when you can boil the water over the fire. Consider using heating methods that don’t require electricity. The fewer devices you have to power, the more money you’ll save when you buy that camping generator.
2. They can be noisy
Ever since they were introduced for commercial use, all the way back in 1873, they had this one problem: the noise they make is terrible. People demanded cheap and portable generators, and it seems that until recent days, there was absolutely no marketing focuses on quiet ones.
But why are conventional generators so loud? After all, a gasoline or diesel generator’s working principles are almost like a car’s engine, but the car is not that noisy. I’ll tell you why: it’s the muffler. A commercial standard generator has an approximately 4 inches long muffler while the car that you drive can have a 2 feet long one. Run your car without any exhaust pipes, and you’ll see what I mean.
I’ve seen people building a soundproof box to get away with high noise levels. But I don’t know how practical this will be when it comes to camping trips.
So, how loud is a loud generator? Well, they can reach levels as high as 100 Decibels. That’s the equivalent of a chainsaw, motorcycle or a jet take-off (at 0.2 miles away from you).
But with time, things have changed and nowadays having a quiet generator is probably more important than fuel consumption or size. And with the introduction of inverter generators, manufacturers finally managed to deliver everything that a customer ever wanted.
3. Camping generators are expensive to run for long-term
The last thing you want is a generator that thinks it’s a Camaro. The consumption varies depending on what fuel it uses, amount of power generated and load. Spoiler alert: the old gasoline generator is not fuel efficient.
Consumption levels sorted by fuel type
In the US, most people buy a gasoline generator to use while camping. You can find gasoline at every gas station, and that’s probably the reason why people buy them. But this is not the most efficient fuel. A generator that provides 5000 Watts will consume around 18 gallons of fuel on a runtime of 24 hours. Not that you need some many watts on a campsite, but you can use this as a guideline.
Diesel generators are more efficient at this, but it’s hard to find a portable one. They serve the purpose well usually on construction site or as a backup for buildings. For guidelines on how much they consume, a typical 20 kW unit, on a full load will burn around 1.6 gallons per hour.
If you care about the environment, a propane generator is a choice to go. You’ll be responsible by running clean power and when it comes to fuel consumption, a 2000 watts unit can run for 6 hours with 1.18 gallons of fuel on a 50% load.
Determine how much fuel they burn on 100% load
Most of the times, manufacturers will not list the fuel consumption on a full load. In simple terms, a full load means that all the connected electric equipment are consuming all the power that the unit can generate at that time.
For marketing purposes, they will state the consumption levels at 50% load or 25% load. This is where people make a huge mistake. They think that if a particular unit runs with 1 Gallon per hour at 50% load then at 100% load the generator will burn 2 gallons per hour.
This calculation is wrong. The fuel consumption can be four times higher at 100% load.
4. Not all generators come with a complete kit
If this is the first generator you buy, it’s better to know that you’ll probably need some separate accessories that most likely manufacturers will not include.
Some of the accessories that I can think of and are not included in the original kit can be:
- Automatic Voltage Regulator – Essential if you want to power some sensible devices like a laptop, tv, tablets, home theaters, etc. With a new generator this might not be needed as it provides stable power, but as the generator wears off, it can produce fluctuations which can damage these devices.
- Circuit Breaker – Very useful in case of malfunctions or in case of a short circuit. If you don’t have one and something goes wrong, you have all the chances to burn your electric devices.
- Wheel Kit – This only applies to large generators.
- Extension Leads – I think this is self-explanatory.
5. Don’t plan to bring one inside your tent
It goes without saying, but you need to take extra care with them. There is only one safe way to operate a generator: never run it in an enclosed space (tent, trailer, campervan, etc.). The amount of carbon dioxide that some of them generate (gasoline and diesel ones especially) can kill a man.
Even if you run one close to your campsite you can still feel the effects of the CO2 you’ll inhale. Symptoms of CO2 poisoning can be headaches, nausea, dizziness, and fatigue.
If possible, I suggest running it at least 30 feet away from your camp.
6. Consider the costs for maintenance
Last time I checked, all mechanical devices will need some maintenance during their lifetime and generators are no different. Probably the most important thing you can do to extend their lifespan is to change their oil frequently.
These are some maintenance “must do’s” that will cost you extra money in the long run:
- Changing the air filter to keep the engine breathing
- Routine cleaning that will help you spot any bad seals or leaking gaskets.
- Some generators might need a new spark plug
- Changing the fuel filter to allow a good fuel flow
The average lifespan of a portable generator is between 10000 and 25000 hours. As you can see, there’s quite a difference between these numbers. This could only mean that the more often you’re doing the maintenance, the longer it will serve you.
7. There are environmentally friendly alternatives to conventional generators
For many of you, burning fossil fuels on a camping trip is unacceptable. And I get your point. There are enough fumes and CO2 in big cities, and a camping trip is a perfect escape from that. Plus, renewable energy doesn’t cost you a dime, and it’s everywhere around you.
But what alternatives are out there?
- Portable solar generators (solar panels) – The most popular option out there. They can be very efficient on a sunny day, and most of them come as a complete kit: solar panels, inverter, and batteries.
- Portable wind turbines – these bad boys are ready to be mounted to your RV, but there are some options for tent/trailer camping as well.
- Portable water turbines – If you are camping next to a river this can be a great solution.
8. The portable inverter generator is the best for camping
I firmly believe that in the years to come, conventional generators will be a thing of the past. Inverter units are here, and there’s nothing that can beat them. But what makes them so good?
- I consider them to be the only option for a super quiet portable generator that you can find on the market. Yes, you can soundproof a standard one, but you make it less mobile this way.
- They output clean power. And by this, I mean that they produce pure sine waves, more like the power you get from the grid. That is is what you need to power sensitive electronics.
- They are more lightweight, much smaller and more manageable than any others.
- You can run two units in parallel to get more power.
The only limitation they have is the power they can output. Typically, this is between 1000 and 4000 watts.
9. Running them on a raining day can be dangerous
Not all of them are waterproof. In general, the manufacturers will say that their generator is not safe to run in rain or snow. If any moisture gets inside the outlets, it can lead to permanent damage, and there’s the risk of electrocution.
Some units can have a Ground Fault Circuit Interrupt Outlets (GFCI). These are designed to shut themselves off if water finds it’s way inside them. But this is typically an expensive feature that will bump up the price of the unit.
If you plan to use it in the rain, make sure you purchase a special cover. You can probably buy one for around $30 on Amazon.
10. Consider renting one
If you’re only camping for a couple of days a year, there’s no point in buying one. You are just going to use it once or twice. And then you’ll store it God knows where and probably not going to bother emptying the fuel tank, so the next year it will not start.
I know, you’ll say it’s not true, you’re the guy that always takes care of his “toys”. That’s what I say all the time, and it’s never true. Just check your garage and see how much stuff is in there that you’re not actually using.
Head over to your local tools hire station, and I bet you can find some fantastic deals for a few days rental.
11. Consider getting a mounting kit if you have an RV
If you plan to add a generator as a power supply for your RV, then you need a mounting kit.
The are many options when it comes to this, and I’ll list some of them below. Unfortunately, I don’t know much about them so I’ll make sure I include a link for each one for you to do some further research.
- Install an A-Frame Carrier: This is for trailers only, and it’s a good option for small generators. You can find more details about A-Frame carriers at Camping World.
- Rear mounting to a hitch straight on the bumper: This seems to be the most popular choice, even though I’m not sure how much weight you can put directly on the bumper.
- Use an Adjustable RV Trailer Hitch: This get’s mounted straight on the frame of the RV. It’s probably the safest of them all.
If you decide to attach a $1000 generator on the outside of your RV, you must keep in mind that there is a possibility this might get stolen. Consider using buying or building some metal box that you can lock.
12. Check if generators are allowed on the chosen campsite
The worst thing to do is to buy something that you can’t use or have some though restrictions to use it.
Before you venture off, visit the campsite’s website to check if you are allowed to bring a generator with you. If you plan traveling to national parks or national reservations, most likely they have strict rules when it comes to pollution.
Public campsites can have different rules as well. For example, many will have some quiet hours, usually between 10 pm and 7 am. During these times you are not allowed to use any devices that generate excessive noise.
13. Look for a used generator for sale
Used units lose their value over time but just like with cars. There are chances that you can spot a gem.
I imagine you started your quest for the best camping generator with a budget in mind. But as you read more and more reviews or buying guides, you find out that you have to pay more for better quality. If the budget is a problem for you, I suggest you look at places like eBay or Craiglist.
People are upgrading their kits quite often, and they want to get rid of the old one as soon as possible. There’s a big chance that you can pick one up for under $100.
You can also use new apps like Facebook Marketplace. It’s becoming very popular, and people post a lot of used stuff for sale. I did a quick search on a 10-mile radius around my home, and I found 324 generators for sale and 5 of them were brand new (I think they bought them and found out they can’t use them).
14. Big Brands means you’ll spend more money
Big brands typically spend more on marketing and many times the consumer is paying their bill. Over our lifetime, we pay nearly 30% more for things we buy than we normally should.
I’m not saying that Honda or Yamaha generators are bad and overpriced. But in today’s markets, there’s a big competition, and if you’re a new player, the only way to win a spot is to lower the price to attract initial sales.
One good example is the guys from Champion. They are relatively new on the market, since 2003, but they started to build up a big brand. Nowadays, on every review you read on the internet, I bet you’ll find at least one Champion generator mentioned there.
But they’re not the only ones. Companies launch products all the time. The only problem is that you will need to trust your guts with them because you’re not going to find too many reviews for a newly launched generator.
15. Wait for the portable biomass power generator
Biomass could be the revolution for mobile power plants. It is currently used on an industrial scale to generate electricity, but things will change in the future.
Companies are working on prototypes for portable designs, some small enough that campers can use.
Now, there is no information about when these inventions will be ready for commercial use, but some say that won’t be more than two years.
16. Order online vs. buying in store
Both options have their pros and cons but let’s get into some details about each one.
- A wider range of brands and products to choose from.
- You can do your research, and you don’t have to rely on the salesperson opinion.
- All the online stores are a few clicks away. You don’t need to travel all over the city to look in every store.
- Sometimes specifications can be confusing, and there’s nobody there to help you. You can try to call them, but not all merchants have phone support.
- Depending on the weight of the generator, the delivery costs can reach as much as $200+
Buying in store
- Most of the times, you can test one. Merchants know that people will want to see how it works, how loud it is, and they will often have a demo product.
- You will get it straight away.
- Assuming that it’s a big store and the staff is adequately trained, you’ll have some assistance if you encounter difficulties when making your decision.
- You’ll often have to travel a lot and visit many stores before you find the one that fits your needs.
- Physical stores need to pay rent, and sometimes you’ll see that prices are higher in store than online.
17. Know the difference between kW and kVA
You’ve probably seen this by now, but many product description list the maximum power generated in kVA. But what is the difference between them and how this can affect your needs?
kVA is the measurement for the apparent power. This Apparent Power, in simple terms, is the total amount of energy in use in a system.
If all the electrical devices could operate at 100% efficiency, we could say that 1 kW is equal to 1 kVA. But this is not the case, especially when it comes to generators. They usually run with much lower efficiency.
If you are not familiar with the kVA measurement and you want to convert this value to the more familiar kW, you will need to know what the system’s efficiency is.
Below you can find the formula that you can use for conversion:
Apparent power (kVA) x power factor (pf) = actual power (kW)
I know it’s going to sound crazy, but you can use the beer analogy to understand this better.
Imagine being in a pub on a Friday night. The bartender pours you a pint of beer. If you look at the glass and run the analogy, the amount of beer and the amount of foam altogether will be your kVA. The liquid beer will be your kW. You only care about the beer, not the foam. The better the bartender (the more efficient the system is), the more beer you’ll get (kW).
18. Generator guidelines that will make a difference
The more features it has, the more expensive it gets. But at the same time, the more features it has, the more reliable and safe to use it gets.
If you want to break the bank and go big with this, I’ll include some pro features that will make a difference.
- Large fuel tanks if you want to use it for a long time. Usually, they have a run time of 4-8 hours, but you can extend this.
- Low tone mufflers to help with noise reduction. Having them is helpful for standard generators that are known to be noisy
- Integrated circuit breaker protection. Believe me or not but overloading a generator can be very easy to achieve.
- Integrated inverter to help cleaning the power that comes from the alternator. A handy feature to have when powering sensible electronic devices.
- Wheel kit and fold down handles: useful if the generator is quite big in size and weight.
19. Does it matter if it’s AC or DC for camping purposes?
It does, but I doubt that you will find any portable DC generators. People use them to power large motors on an industrial scale. For home and outdoor use, AC generators are the most common because they require very low maintenance.
Their working principle is the same: the current is produces via electromagnetic induction. The only difference is that in the case of AC units, the coil through which the current if flowing is fixed and the magnet is moving around it. On DC motors, the opposite happens.
Due to their better efficiency on charging battery systems, you might stumble upon DC generators used on campsites, but they are usually costly and not practical to apply to directly power appliances.