- Disclaimer: The story is authored by Ash Browne, and Renogy makes only essential grammatical and formatting adjustments.
- Power Plus Community or Discord Name: Ash Browne
- Location: Northern Alberta
- Solar Experience: Since 2023
- Application Scenario: Converted a slide-in truck camper into a sleeping area.
- Shared on 09/05/2023
I grew up in the 1980's and spent much of my youth outside! I love camping and fishing, and currently call Grande Prairie, Alberta home. My wife and I are both members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and with almost 25 years in law enforcement, I am prepping to retire. I started a leather company which I called Open Air Options. I make wallets, belts, bags, keychains, fire fighter rigs, and fix a lot of items. Most of what I do is custom and you can see a lot of my work on Instagram under Open Air Options.
I enjoy working with my hands and having the freedom to be flexible with my time outdoors. I find the outdoors is healing and beautiful and have spent a good amount of time in Jasper National Park area. Often my wife Raylene and I kayak and go on ski and mountain biking trips. Sometimes this includes parks, lakes and sometimes rivers. I have always enjoyed fishing and I travel back to Northern Saskatchewan at least once a year to catch Northern Pike and Lake Trout.
My brother and I meet for multi-day canoe or kayak trips in the middle of nowhere, usually so isolated it is without cellular service. We live about 1200 km's / 745 miles away from each other and so meeting up always involves a decent amount of driving. If you're not from Canada I'm assuming it can be difficult to wrap your head around the sheer size of our Country! To get to our favourite canoe spot takes me about 15 hours (1500 km/932 mi). My common practice was to pre-pack gear, head out after work, and drive about 700 km/434 mi. I would sleep in the cab of my truck and continue the following morning. Once we met up we would head further North until nightfall and sleep another night in the truck. By the time we push off shore into the canoe full of gear and supplies for a week, I already felt very banged up. I'm very comfortable with mapping and navigation, and also pretty 'techie.'
How I Discovered Solar Power: From Truck Topper to DIY Camper Transformation?
To keep our phones, lights, navigation system, and a Bluetooth speaker charged for photos and music along the way, we have tested and tried a lot of different power banks/brands, with some that have survived and some that simply did not make the 'cut.' By the time our journey was over, I was not exactly stoked for the long journey back home. This began a search for a simple truck topper that I could lay a mattress inside, somewhat away from the elements, and get some better rest.
YouTube was a good source of inspiration and I observed larger solar panels being used to power everything from small coolers, to TV's, fans, and air conditioners! For about a month I watched for used truck toppers and the cost was usually very high. A small truck camper came up 200 km's away from me for less than $400. It had no appliances which was exactly what I was looking for because my plan was to gut, insulate, and rebuild my perfect little getaway.
The day I went to see it I was as horrible as I thought, with a broken window where someone had broke inside to drink a bottle of vodka, before cutting themselves when they smashed it on the ground. It was filthy. It was also exactly what I was looking for!!
I planned out most of the interior as a sketch, and my first purchase was a small cubic mini wood stove that basically everything else had to be designed around. I built cabinets and filmed the bulk of the project which I later posted on my new YouTube channel Hot Balls Cold River!!
See what we have done on the camper below:
Planning a solar setup was not easy, and I dove into articles, blogs, and YouTube videos trying to figure out what I needed. I spent at least an hour at the local Canadian Tire trying to figure out which panel was best with what inverter (did I need an inverter??), it was a lot to digest. I walked away and was shopping at Costco the same day and came across a solar kit. It was designed for RV's, with a solar panel on a stand you could move into the sun to power your system.
The specs: 140 w solar panel, 8.5 A controller, 300 w inverter modified sign. It was seemingly all I needed to start and I bought one. I visited a battery store and they had an expert on staff who recommended a 115 ah deep cycle battery lead acid which I purchased. I installed a battery monitor so I could see the power percentage. I was able to add some nice personal touches such as leather engraved drawer pulls, and laser engraved bees onto the ceiling (33 Bees!).
Fishing Trip Adventure: From Solar Setup Glitches to Remote Tire Mishaps
Eventually, I was ready to head out on my annual fishing trip! I drove the 700 km's and camped the first night. It was awesome to say the least to lay flat and be able to have some room. Solar was still not working, as the controller light was not on when the inverter and controller were both hooked up to the battery. So I continued on another 600 km's to the 2nd spot before meeting my brother. I had a full night in the woods alone, so I pulled off all the wiring and one-by-one, connected the inverter and controller to the battery. In the end, somehow, I had the polarity wrong on the controller.
Once everything was back together properly, it worked like a charm!! The 3rd night, North of La Ronge, SK, was great and my brother and I caught up over a couple cold beers, stories, and we both enjoyed the way the solar unit worked, which easily charged our phones and lights.
We woke up to a nice sunny day and began to drive Northbound on the highway, very close to where the pavement ends and dirt road begins. Suddenly, my truck dropped heavy on the right rear end, and I felt the vibration and friction of my wheel hub digging into the pavement. I got out and my brother, who was following me, got out and said 'your f'n tire is in the creek!' I looked over and sure enough, my rear tire was spinning in the creek! I may have temporarily lost my mind, and I high fived him saying 'what an adventure this is!.' We cracked a beer in the hot sun and took inventory of the damage.....I fished my tire out of the creek and rolled it up to the truck, which was very damaged in the rear quarter panel.
The whole light assembly was hanging off. It was not good. So I phoned a tow truck in La Ronge, which was about 100 km's away, and requested a tow into Town. I used the trailer jacks to remove it off my truck, and hooked up my tow straps to my brother's truck, so he could pull my broken truck away. We then guided his truck under the camper, and installed it before cross loading all of my gear into his vehicle. The tow truck showed up and within 2 hours, we were back on the road, 1 vehicle short, to our destination the Churchill River Campground.
So having no idea how much solar power my system would provide, we used it for fans, phones, and lights. My goal was really to wear down the system in real life weather.
"What's that beeping?" my brother said at 6 a.m. on the 3rd day.
'Battery is dead' I answered.
Why Renogy Was the Right Choice for My Solar Upgrade?
So for that 8 days of camping, the battery ran out of power twice, and empty enough for the alarm on the inverter to go off. I decided then that it seemed my system worked, however an upgrade was needed when I returned home. Dealing with my damaged vehicle took a couple days and in the end my wife purchased a replacement truck and came to pick me up! Once home I began a search for components and came across Renogy.
Initially my goal was to add to the single solar panel and also to the lone battery, however the charge controller was too small to accommodate another panel, so I chose a 30 amp Renogy charge controller, which was highly rated and would afford me lot of space to add more panels later if required. I did quite a bit of online research and Renogy products were at the top of my list for all components. I liked the idea of all components being the same brand eventually because in my experience everything tends to work better when it's the same.
I also noticed the BT-1 unit connected via bluetooth and I loved the idea of seeing my specs through the app! I was leaning towards the 700w inverter and when I discussed it with my wife she said 'why so small, go big or go home!, let's go 1000w.'
I admit I am the type that does not tend to calculate all my power usage needs first, I simply wanted to go as high as I could afford, in terms of components, and then test their capability in the real world. So in the end I added to my system: 100 w Renogy solar panel tied in with the 140w, a 30 A MPPT Renogy controller, a 1000 w Renogy inverter, and a 2nd 115 ah battery.
How Renogy Powers My Adventures?
In 2023 I have already spent 30 nights so far in the camper, and can say the increase in power thanks to Renogy products is amazing. I have added a 26 inch TV, an original NES Nintendo system, and a DVD player! With everything on including entertainment systems, and virtually no sun, my battery has been down to the low 60's % on a couple occasions. However I've watched as once the sun came out, with the MPPT controller, I was back up to 100% in just an hour. It's such an awesome system for my needs and I've learned a lot.
Next Adventure: Building the Ultimate Overlander
I'm currently searching for another vehicle as a second build. I am looking to go bigger, and really like the unimog and old fire truck overlander builds! I plan to have an indoor shower, media area, tankless water heater, hammock, fridge/range, power hoists for bikes/kayaks, and all the power I need to be off grid for an extended amount of time (likely only confined by fresh water needs). It's exciting for me to learn new things and I'm currently learning to weld and next on my list is learning hydraulic systems. I am additionally providing content for my Hot Balls Cold River YouTube channel, by learning graphic design and character animation and I hope everyone enjoys it! Cheers!