How to Choose A Generator for Your RV


Kelsey Glennon

Favorite Trip

Florida Freshwater Springs

Home Base

Orlando, FL

Favorite RV

Airstream Overlander

About Contributor

Kelsey’s first career as a performing artist had her traveling the world. Eager to keep traveling, she hit the road to see the USA in a 69’ Airstream Overlander. Today you can find her writing about travel, design, and good food. When she’s not planning her next trip, she’s sipping on local beer and petting other people’s dogs.

When it comes to powering your RV, you need portable energy. After all, an RV (like the Happier Camper) can go almost anywhere, why limit yourself to the nearest power grid? This is where generators come in. Generators offer an alternative form of power from the standard RV pedestal hookup you’ll find at campgrounds.

Generators are portable and powerful and open up amazing camping experiences in remote areas. With a generator on board, you can enjoy the solitude of camping deep in nature, while still enjoying the creature comforts of a powered home.

Solar panels are also an alternative form of power. But their leading downfall is their reliance on clear skies for continuous energy. Solar panels also can’t quite match the load that a generator can manage. If you’re trying to run appliances and equipment, like an air conditioner, a generator is your most reliable portable power option. And, generator performs in any weather condition. Generators are one of the most reliable forms of portable energy out there.

What is a Generator?

Portable Generators for Travel Trailers

Generators charge your RV’s outlets so you can operate lights, charge phones, or even operate a microwave. For many campers, generator camping is the preferred way to camp. Over the years, generators have become more and more efficient. Today’s generators are much quieter than their predecessors and have a smaller footprint.

In RVing, there are two types of generators: a built-in onboard generator, and a portable generator.

An onboard generator is built into the RV and gets its fuel from the RV’s chassis fuel tank. An onboard fuel tank is common on toyhaulers. The onboard generator could also be fueled by the RV’s propane system.

In contrast, a portable generator has its own fuel tank within the machine itself. You can move this generator around and take it with you from RV to RV.

If your RV comes “generator PREPPED” or “generator READY” you should consult with the RV manufacturer, or with a Camping World to identify compatible generator options for your rig.

Why You Might Want a Generator

freedom elite class c boondocking on BLM land
Generators allow you to camp in remote locales, away from neighbors, noise, and crowded campgrounds.

Generators aren’t for everyone, and they’re certainly not needed to go RV camping. Ask yourself this key question before you decide to purchase a generator.

Are you interested in camping away from the amenities of the RV park?

Yes? Then let’s start looking at generators.

No? You likely won’t use a generator much if you’re staying primarily at campgrounds with power hookups.

One last question

Do you experience severe storms and power outages in your area?

Camping aside, you might consider keeping a generator on hand during storm season. Generators can run necessary appliances in the case of an emergency. Practice generator safety at all times, whether using one for your home or for camping.

So You Want to Buy A Generator…Now what?

The first question to think about is WHAT you plan to power with your generator. This gives you an idea of how much power you’ll need when you get out on the road. Think about your power needs in terms of tiers, going from most important power needs (Top Tier), to least important power needs (Low-Tier). These tiers will differ from family to family. Grab your fellow campers, a pen, paper, and discuss what powered items are most important as a group. Let’s look at some common power needs.

High-Priority or Top-Tier Power Needs

Laptop computer inside a camper
For some campers, charged electronic devices are a necessity for camping. Image by Virrage Images from Shutterstock

High-priority power needs are essential–you can’t camp without them. This changes from camper to camper. It might be the ability to charge electronic devices (Some electronics, like cell phones, laptops, and tablets, can only be charged with an inverter generator). For others, it might be using a CPAP machine while sleeping.

Don’t forget: your essential power needs also include things like lights and the electric components of your RV (slides, awnings, motorized jacks). Also, your water pump needs power if you plan to use any of the water systems in your RV. And your furnace needs electric power to run the fans.

These operations will run on the RV batteries, but those batteries won’t survive more than a few days when you’re boondocking (camping without city power). Running your RV may charge your batteries and it may not. Some batteries will need to be charged by shore power or a generator or a solar panel. Figure out which is true before you make an assumption and run low on power.

Middle-Priority or Middle Tier Power Needs

microwave in white RV kitchen.
Microwaves consume a lot of energy. Is it essential to your off-grid camping experience?

Let’s take a look at what powered devices that you don’t need, but would sure like to have.

Kitchen electronics fit in here. Things like your microwave, toaster, or coffee pot qualify. Also, your refrigerator might need electrical power, but not all of them. Many RV fridges will operate off propane or electricity. If you run out of propane, you’ll need electrical power to keep your food from spoiling.

Personal hygiene items—hairdryer or electric razor—are some additional items. Your air conditioner might fit into middle-tier power need items, too, depending on where you’re camping.

Low-Priority or Low-Tier Power Needs

RV television uses energy.
TVs are likely a low-tier item for boondocking trips. Is it necessary for your trip?

Items that fall in this level are not used very often but are nice to have from time to time. Some common items you’ll find sitting in this category are your television, washer/dryer combo, or dishwasher. Obviously, these things aren’t totally needed, and you could do without them. But, some might be necessary for your comfort and convenience.

Your Power Needs

The items in these tiers will differ from camper to camper. You might not consider the microwave a very important item, while others might find it essential to cooking. This is why we recommend an open discussion with your fellow campers pre-trip to discuss how to share power resources.

Now that you’ve taken a hard look at your power needs, it’s time to look at the types of generators. An inverter generator is always the best choice for camping.

What Is An Inverter Generator?

There are two main types of generators that are available on the market. You’ll find open frame generators and inverter generators.

Open Frame Generators

Open frame generators produce plenty of power in most cases. They are less expensive than inverter generators, too. The biggest issue with open frame generators is that they’re loud. If you’re trying to enjoy nature, an open frame generator isn’t for you, but they work great for construction sites.

If you’re planning to camp far away from other people, an open frame could technically work. But the high noise level makes it untenable for typical camping situations. Forget your hopes of animal spotting. It also disrupts the solitude of being out in nature. It’s hard to hear the chirp of birds or the breeze in the trees over the growl of a hungry generator.

Open frame generators also create what’s known as “dirty” power. It’s the power that isn’t safe for delicate electrical appliances. Your coffee pot is fine, but your laptop won’t play nice with an open frame generator. It’s the type of power you need to power most things, but the waves of power aren’t smoothed out and you’ll see spikes, which could damage some electronics.

Inverter Generators

With an inverter generator, there’s still power produced from a gasoline engine. However, the energy current is smoothed out, making it less harmful to delicate electrical objects.

What you get is an energy current that’s called AC (alternating current) power. That power is then converted to DC (direct current) and then back to AC. This process of inverting the power from AC to DC to AC creates the “clean” power you need to power sensitive electronics.

Then there’s the case of the inverter generators being far quieter. Seriously, new inverter generators are much quieter than you might expect. Also, they’re typically smaller and easier to move around.

That’s the good news. The bad news is these generators are more expensive. However, they are getting more cost-effective all the time. So, you should be able to purchase one for a reasonable price.

How Will I Fuel My Generator?

2019 Heartland Fuel
2019 Heartland Fuel has an onboard fuel tank.

The next thing to consider is your fuel consumption. Depending on your RVing plans, you may use 10 to 20 gallons per day. How much fuel a generator uses depends on the LOAD you put on the generator AND the FUEL TYPE running the generator. If you are running a lot of electrical appliances and the air conditioners, it will use more fuel.

Inverter generators you’ll find in the RV market will ONLY burn fuel to compensate for load. So, if your RV is not running its lights, air conditioner, or other electrical appliances, then the inverter generator will not burn as much fuel because power is not being drawn.

If you’re running your generator and not pulling electricity, you might want to just shut it off to save fuel. Plus this will make your neighbors happy. Together, these considerations narrow the field of portable RV generator options that meet YOUR specific RV lifestyle needs.

Now that you know what kind of generators are out there and how they burn fuel, let’s find the right one to power your needs.

Cummins Onan P2500i Inverter Portable Generator

Cummins Onan P2500i Inverter Portable Generator
Cummins Onan P2500i Inverter Portable Generator

The Onan P2500i is lightweight, easy to carry, and are double-insulated to run quietly. An easy-to-read LED display provides precise readings to keep you in the know about your power consumption. This generator’s clean power is perfect for sensitive electronics.

The fuel-efficient P2500i has a one-gallon fuel tank that runs 10 hours at 25% load on a dependable 3.4 HP 98cc OHV 4-Stroke Engine. The best feature of the Onan P2500i is that it’s a stackable design–meaning you can use it linked together with another generator. Why would you want to link generators? Because buying two 2500 watt generators gives you 5000 watts of power–that will run any type of device you’ve got, including your air conditioner.

The two smaller generators weigh less than a larger wattage generator so you’ll have an easier time moving them. Stackable smaller generators give you some options. Maybe you plan to camp somewhere where you know you won’t use your air conditioner. Then you only need to bring one of them, but you always have the option to bring both if you know you will need your air conditioner.

Using dual generators has its downfalls too. That’s twice the maintenance to keep both of them up, and twice the likelihood you’ll need service on one of them at some point.

Champion 3500 Watt Dual Fuel Inverter Portable Generator

Champion 3500-Watt Dual Fuel Inverter Portable Generator
Champion 3500-Watt Dual Fuel Inverter Portable Generator

Okay, so let’s say you don’t want to mess around with the dual generator setup. There’s an option for you too.

The Champion 3500 Watt Dual Fuel Inverter Portable Generator will power everything you need it to. This generator is feature-packed. It has a 30 amp RV hookup built-in. That means there’s no need for an adapter. Champion also gave it an economy mode where it idles lower when your power needs are reduced. This saves you money on fuel in the long run.

It runs on either gasoline or propane, giving you further fuel options. It’s still quiet, although a little louder than the 2000 watt version, running at about 60 decibels. And it’s also heavier, about 110 lbs. So you’ve got to think about how you’ll lift it into your RV or truck before you decide on this one. It comes with built-in wheels and a pull handle so you can move it easily from one spot to another.

Honda EU3000is Portable Generator

Honda EU3000iS 49-State Inverter Generator with CO-MINDER
Honda EU3000iS 49-State Inverter Generator with CO-MINDER

Honda makes some of the best generators out there. They created the “whisper quiet,” generator and are notoriously fuel-efficient, producing high-quality power ideal for RVing and camping. The Honda EU3000is Portable Generator offers a good amount of power for a reasonable price and operates at 49 to 58 decibels. It’s also small enough to fit in many travel trailer storage areas or easily in the bed of a pickup or in the cargo area of an SUV.

The generator produces 3,000 watts of power maximum and 2,800 running watts, which is enough to run an AC unit if you need to in the summer. It will also run for up to 20 hours on 3.4 gallons of fuel, depending on the load. That is excellent performance from a generator that weighs 145 lbs. The unit comes with a three-year warranty and you can even string together multiple EU3000is to increase power output. If you need 6,000 watts of power, just add another generator.

Coleman 3500i Generator

Coleman 3500i Generator
Coleman 3500i Generator

Perfect for campsites, cabins, RVs, trailers, and tailgating, the Coleman 3500i Generator can be used to handle everything from higher voltage appliances to even your most sensitive electronics. This generator offers a maximum output of 3500W and uses an economy switch to modify engine speed based on power demand. It’ll run for 3.1 hours at 100% load and 4.2 hours at 50% load on the 1.5-gallon tank. Safety features include built-in overload protection and a low-oil indicator with automatic engine shut-off.

Cummins Onan P4500i Inverter Portable Generator

Cummins Onan P4500i Inverter Portable Generator
Cummins Onan P4500i Inverter Portable Generator

Designed to go wherever you do, the new advanced portable inverter generator by Cummins brings together efficiency, durability, and performance to deliver power for when you need it most. The Onan P4500i is capable of paralleling with another P4500 inverter generator. At 98 lbs. this powerful, yet lightweight Onan inverter unit comes with wheels and a telescopic handle, making the Onan p4500i easy to manage. The P4500i features a push-button and remote start with a pull-cord backup, a double-insulated case for quieter operation, and an LED display for precise readings. The fuel-efficient P4500i has a 3.4-gallon fuel tank that runs 18 hours at 25% load.

If you plan on doing some RVing where you won’t have shore power, make sure you have a way to keep your RV’s batteries charged up. Solar panels can help keep things charged if the sky is clear, but generators are reliable in any weather. Use this guide as a good place to start looking for the right unit. If you want more advice, visit one of the many Camping World locations to discuss the options with an expert.

Already have a generator? What do you use and why? Leave a comment below.

Shop Camping World’s inventory of generators.

  • Comment (3)
  • Bob says:

    I disagree. My truck charges my RV batteries going down the road and every trailer I have had has done the same. This guy need to do his home work. I like some of his thoughts. I have been camping for 60 years.

  • Robert McDowell says:

    Can I plug a solar generator (like a Jackary 1500 (1800 Watts)) into my trailer’s shore power cord? I have a medical condition and need continuous (10 to 12 hours of) quiet power to heat my dialysis solution using a heating pad (50 or 90 watts) We are long time ‘dry campers’ and do not visit RV parks unless on a road trip.
    Thank You

  • Hi Robert!

    Looking at the Jackery 1500, it does not seem to include a 30 or 50-amp outlet for RV service. So I wouldn’t recommend trying to use an adapter to plug your RV into it directly. You will be better off bringing the generator inside and plugging your heating pad directly into it. Let us know if you have any other questions!

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