CAMPING - POWER & LIGHTING
Very few of today’s 4WDs have under-bonnet space for a full-sized deep cycle battery to power a fridge and other camping equipment. One solution is a power pack or power station.
Many 4WD buyers don’t want to completely refit their vehicles for occasional camping forays. An example of a complete refit is our own 75 Series LandCruiser bush vehicle that is set up with a 100 amp-hour deep cycle battery under the bonnet and a 100amp solar panel on a rack on the LandCruiser’s roof that powers our second fridge/freezer and charging station.
(In a totally separate electrical system our Tray-Tek slide-on camper has twin 100Ah lithium batteries. The camper has a fixed 200-watt roof-top solar panel and a Projecta 120-watt folding solar panel.)
We have all the amps we need.
However, we’re often testing other people’s vehicles – press-test 4WDs that aren’t set up for camping – so we have additional kit that we employ.
The key component is a power pack or power station.
Our main one was a Thumper 75Ah model that could easily run the fridge and camp lights at night, and was also a jump-starter should the main vehicle battery go flat.
One some test trips in vehicles other than our own well set-up machine, we’re not driving a vehicle every day: we may be camped somewhere, exploring on foot, or checking out and videoing camping equipment. Then we call on a second power pack.
We use one power pack overnight and recharge it using the portable solar panels next day. In the meantime the second, charged power pack runs the fridge during the day. At night we swap the charged and partially discharged power packs, running the fridge overnight and next day off the charged one and recharging the other one with the solar panels.
It’s possible to do all this with one power pack, because the inbuilt charger allows the fridge motor to interrupt the solar charging regime when required, but we prefer the inherent back-up nature of having two power packs.
What power pack for you
If you want reliable camp power availability, don’t take the cheap route.
You won’t get 24-hour fridge operation and diesel-engine jump-start capability from anything costing less than around $400. The best units are around twice that much.
We’ve tested cheaper units and they just won’t do the job. You don’t want to risk losing a fridge full of food, or worse, eating food (or beer) that hasn’t been kept cold enough.
Power packs can be semi- or fully-portable. The battery box type is designed to be mounted in the back of a wagon or ute, close to the fridge. The fully-portable type has carry handles, allowing it be moved more easily from vehicle to vehicle – especially handy if it’s to be used as a jump-starter.
A basic system involves buying a purpose-designed battery box and a deep cycle battery to go inside it. As you’ll see from our accompanying battery story, 75-100Ah is the benchmark for camping power.
The best battery boxes incorporate a smart charger and several 12V outlets. Pricing for the box, without battery, is $90-$170. Add a top-quality AGM or lithium battery and inbuilt 240V inverter and you won’t get much change out of $800 – $1500.
Portable power packs are priced according to Amp-hour ratings and range in price from around $500 up to $2200.
If you want to employ the solar-charging swap system we use you can buy two medium-sized units rather than one big one: say, two 60Ah units, instead of one 105Ah one.
Whatever power pack you choose, be aware that in-vehicle charging via a cigarette lighter socket is totally inadequate. If the power pack is depleted overnight, running your fridge, it needs more than the eight amps recharging you get from an in-vehicle socket when you’re driving next day.
What’s needed is a DC/DC charger, connected to your vehicle starting battery. These devices can deliver 20-25 amps, so when choosing your power pack or power station, make sure it has input capacity for that much current.
All the Chinese-made power packs or power stations we’ve seen have only cigarette lighter socket in-vehicle charging. Worse, they won’t warrant the power station if you use a more powerful in-vehicle charger.
Equally stupidly, they have a common input for car or solar charging, but the solar input is up to 20 amps. Why can’t that input accept 20 amps from the vehicle alternator?
Updating an older power pack
In theory, it’s possible to upgrade an older power pack by replacing the AGM battery inside with a lithium one. However, many older power packs lack modern outlets, including USBs, so it may not be the right way to go.
We tried to do an update experiment with our old Thumper power pack, requesting info on a lithium replacement battery, but after three successive emails to Thumper we received no reply.
We gave up and started to look around for another-brand lithium replacement in May 2023. We’ll let you know how we go.