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Can I Use A Generator When Tent Camping?

Small, quiet, efficient camping inverter generator

Generators, particularly inverter-generators, are perfect for satisfying all of your tent camping electricity requirements. Inverter-generators are compact, highly portable, efficient and amazingly quiet. With power outputs available up to 4500W, you can easily power your camping fridge, tent air conditioning and/or tent heater.

There are a few things you need to know about camping generators before you start. Things like: how portable is the generator, what are the power requirements of appliances, and does my campsite allow generators.

These questions are answered in this article. First, we take a look at some basics:

  • Why would you want a generator while camping?
  • What sort of generator do I need for camping?
  • How does a camping generator work?
  • What can you use a generator for when camping?

Why would I want a camping generator?

Tent camping is the simplest way to enjoy a weekend or longer trip in nature. At its best it allows us to get right back into a simpler, more relaxed and natural way of living. That it can improve survival skills and resourcefulness for kids and adults of all ages is an added blessing.

If you have read our article on Family Camping in Comfort, you’ll know that we also believe in camping with a touch of comfort and luxury. We try to ration the use of all technology while camping but the reality is, cutting ourselves off from the rest of the World is no longer acceptable.

It is more comforting to know that you can have access to the daily technological marvels (ipads and SmartPhones particularly) that we usually use on a daily basis at home and at work.

Women in tent working on her laptop
Tablets and phones have become part of everyone’s essential tent camping gear

Tablets and cell phones are probably manageable for short trips. If you want to run a tent heater or power a camping fridge cooler, you are likely to need a bit more power than your car or truck can provide. That’s where a portable generator can be perfect.

You can, and almost certainly will, take portable power packs camping with you. However, if you have multiple devices and are going to be camping for more than a couple of days, you are going to need to be able to charge your power packs too. That’s where a generator can be invaluable.

What sort of generator do I need for camping?

This section may be a bit complex. You can safely skip it if you are happy with our conclusion:

“For almost all family camping trips you will need a portable inverter generator capable of producing around 2300W peak output and 1800W in steady running.”

There are 4 major considerations when choosing any camping generator:


WEN 56380i Super Quiet 3800-Watt Portable Inverter Generator

  • Power in Watts – Surge/Running
  • PortabilityWeight
  • Size
  • Noise (dB) – lower is better

Just before looking at some candidate machines – we are going to take a look at the underlying technology.

Types of Portable Generators

Traditional Generators
Traditional camping generator
Traditional Camping/Tailgate Generator. While small, these generators tend to be noisy and expensive to run

Older, traditional generators are basically a gasoline engine connected to a big alternator. The electrical output from the alternator depends on many things but mainly the input speed and the output load.

To maintain a reasonable AC output frequency, traditional generators are governed to run constantly at a preset RPM – usually 3600rpm. When the electrical load changes the throttle on the generator also changes to increase or decrease the engine power accordingly to maintain 3600rpm.

The need to run these generators at a set rpm means that they are always noisy. The change in noise levels to cope with changes in electrical demand can be particularly noticeable.

There is always a lag between changes in power demand (electrical) and the power available (gas). This leads to considerable fluctuations in output current and voltage. The electrical output from a traditional gas generator is often referred to as ‘dirty’.

A dirty output is not too much of a problem on older appliances like heaters, air conditioners, cookers etc. On newer appliances such as computers, smartphones, lighting etc – dirty electricity is more of a problem In the best case, your appliances may simply not run or not charge. At worst, it could damage your appliance.

For this reason we strongly recommend Inverter Generators for camping.

Inverter Generators

Inverter generators are more complex and therefore, more expensive. They are much more efficient so, if you use one fairly often, it will be cheaper overall.

At heart inverter generators still have a gasoline engine and an alternator. It’s what happens next that adds to the complexity.

The output from the alternator (alternating current by definition) is converted to direct current (DC). This DC is then fed into an inverter to convert it back to AC.

It seems bizarre to generate in AC, convert to DC, and then to revert to DC. As this is done electronically each conversion process is very efficient. The electronic processing means that the output frequency and voltage are precisely controlled.

The role of the gas engine is to simply produce power. Frequency and voltage is all controlled via the inverter. The speed of the gas engine is much less important so it can always run at optimal, slower speeds allowing it to be much quieter.

In a family tent camping context, having a very quiet generator is essential to preserve the natural surroundings and the peace and quiet in your tent. It’s even more important if you have other people camping near you. They are not likely to want to hear your generator.

The precise, ‘clean’ electrical outputs means that all of your electrical appliances are going to be safe too.

Candidate Camping Inverter Generators

We will be providing some in-depth reviews of inverter generators in future articles. For now, here is a selection of inverter generators that are well suited to most family camping needs.

These examples come from Amazon. If you click on links to Amazon we may earn an affiliate fee. This in no way affects the price you pay.

We suggest you use these examples as a starting point and compare prices and availability across a range of suppliers.

  Pulsar PG2300iS WEN 56225i Rainier R2200i Generac 7117 GP2200i
Power (Peak/Running(W)) 2300/1800 2250/1800 2200/1800 2200/1700
Weight (pounds) 48 48.5 44 46
Size (inches) 19.7×11.2×17.9 19×11.5×18.2 20×12.5×18 19x11x17
Noise (dB) * 59 53 52 60

* The decibel (dB) scale is tricky to understand. Here’s a table with the noise levels from some everyday occurrences. Anything below around 60dB is considered below normal conversational levels so it is quiet. Effectively, this means all of the examples in the table above will be virtually silent from as little as 10feet away. That is pretty darn quiet.

What can you use a generator for when camping?

The possibilities are endless when you have a generator at your campsite! Look at these suggestions below to get an idea of how you can capitalize on using a generator while tent camping.

  • Kitchen appliances such as blenders, crockpots, griddles, etc.
  • Turn your campsite into an outside kitchen
  • Charge devices such as smartphones, flip phones, tablets, portable gaming systems, etc.
  • Turn a small part of your campsite into a technology haven. Go the extra mile and bring a small television and favorite gaming system for the gamers in your family young and old
  • If you have a baby joining, power devices such as bottle warmers, baby wipe warmers, etc.
  • Love your tunes? Use your camping generator to power your radio, MP3, or iPod so your campsite is a 24/7 dance party
  • Give new life to your campsite by hooking up colored lights to decorate for a birthday or holiday celebration!
  • Plug a lamp into your generator to light up your campsite more while you’re outside at night
  • Keep your tent cool with a tent fan that has some real power
  • Plug a fridge cooler into your generator to keep food and drinks cold. A generator will protect your car battery even if you only have a cheaper, 12V Thermoelectric Cooler too.

How Many Things Can I Run From a Camping Generator?

As we have mentioned, the sweet spot for inverter generators is around 1800W continuous and 2300W peak.

For the most part, figuring out how many devices you can run is a simple case of addition. Look at the rated Wattage of each appliance you want to use. Add them all together. If it comes to less than 1800W you are good to go.

Almost!

Any appliance that contains a motor or a heating element also has a surge power rating. A motor starting up takes more power than the same motor once it’s running. This is often quoted in the product information sheets.

Things like fan heaters and air conditioning units take as much as 100% more power during startup. Mini-fridges and coolers also create smaller peaks in demand on startup.

Illustrative Camping Appliance Wattage

  Running (W) Start Up (W)
Cooler 150 200
Tent Heater+ 1000 2000
Tent Air Conditioner + 1500 2200
Television (LED backlit)* 30 150
Lights (LED) 30 30
Ipad 15 15
Hair Dryer 1600 1800
Smart Phones 20 20
Laptop 100 100

All of these figures are only illustrative. From these figures you can see that you should be fine running a small tent heater at the same time as a television, some LED lights and charging an IPad or a few phones.

If you want to run a hairdryer at the same time, you are probably going to trip the generator though. A tent air conditioner is going to give you a few problems too.

+Tent heaters and air conditioners often have the power quoted in British Thermal Units (BTU). This might mean something to the techies but I don’t understand. 1Watt=3.41BTU. So the tent heater above might be described as 3410BTU.

*Television power consumption depends quite strongly on screen sizes. These figures are for typical flat screen devices (no one still uses CRT do they?).

TV Power Consumption By Screen Size.
Screen Size (in) Power (W)
15 20
24 50
42 80
50 100

Where Can You Use A Camping Generator?

Not all National Park or Federal campsites allow the use of generators. It kind of makes sense. They strongly support the ethos that camping is the modern way of getting back to nature. Having lots of small 4-stroke gas engines running all over the site is not the atmosphere they want to preserve.

The golden rule is to check before your book.

If you are going to be wild camping you are not constrained by any campsite rules. Sadly we can’t guarantee that there aren’t state prohibitions against the use of generators even for dispersed camping.

Again, check before you travel.

Given how little noise a modern inverter generator produces, it is very unlikely anyone will know your have a generator running. Of course, if you are going to be playing loud music or your tent is lit up with lots of high intensity, flashing lights it might give the game away.

Inverter Generator Safety

A couple of notes on safety.

Whatever generator you use it’s going to produce lots of CO2 and other exhaust gases. It must always be outdoors – at least 20feet away from any tent. Make sure you have appropriate power leads with you. Take a look at our article on tent electric hookups for some examples of the sort of cable you will need.

All the generators we have mentioned run on gas. You need to keep the gas in a proper safety container that is not stored in a tent or with the generator.

If you use something like one of these cans you can safely leave it in the trunk. The fine control on the nozzle makes topping up the generator a breezew.

Conclusion

Camping generators provide for a degree of convenience and comfort without interfering with you getting closer to nature.

For camping in tents, an 1800W generator has the performance you need for all of your technological gadgets and devices. You can upgrade this by spending a little more money. We don’t think you need anything more that 2,600W for most tent camping needs.

To avoid the possibility of damaging your gadgets (and for the quietest possible experience), we strongly recommend you should invest in an inverter generator. It is more expensive to get started but it will pay for itself over time.

Based on our quick review (watch out for more detailed product comparisons later), it looks like the Rainier R2200i provides a great blend of the features you need.

Top Alternative to Using A Generator When Tent Camping?

Just to finish up. There is one alternative to using a generator when camping in tents. An Alternative that would allow you to run just about any combination of electrical appliance or gadget you like.

If you are not worried about diverse camping you could always look for campsites that provide pitches for tents that include an electrical hookup.

Electrical hookups are generally provided for RVs and Campers. There are a growing number of campsites that also provide hookups for tents. All you need is a specially designed hookup cable adapter, an outdoor extension cord with a powerstrip.

It works great.

But you are tied to a limited number of campsites.

A good camping generator is more versatile.

The choice is yours.

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Keith Longmire

Keith Longmire

I’m the guy that loves camping, insists on family camping trips, and the editor and owner of Campingsage.com

I love camping and the outdoors. Through this site I hope to help you enjoy it too.