Choosing and Using a Quiet Generator for Camping

Camping can be so peaceful and relaxing. The hustle and noise of city life fade easily when sitting around a crackling campfire with friends and family. You find yourself wondering why you don’t do this more often when suddenly the camper next door fires up their gas powered generator. Instantly, your peace and serenity are replaced with the rumble and roar of the internal combustion engine. How rude they are, you think to yourself. And, how uninformed. Too bad they didn’t buy a newer, quiet generator for camping. With so many great choices available and lower than ever prices, there’s just no reason not to own one.

Today’s quiet generators for camping allow campers to bring many of the modern conveniences from home to the most primitive places on earth. Computers, hair dryers, electric fans, coffee makers, and TV’s are all easily powered by small, quiet generators designed for recreational use.

Types of Generators

Generators are designed for many different applications.  They are classified according to use or application. Manufacturers use terms like Recreational, RV, Standby, PTO, and Towable to describe the various classes of generators.

  • Recreational – generators are designed to be used by campers, RVers, tailgaters, and others engaged in recreation activities. Most are small, and portable. Larger models can power an RV’s air conditioner and other appliances simultaneously. The focus of this article is on this type of generator.
  • RV – generators are specifically made for powering RV appliances and the accessories you use in an RV. Designed to be permanently mounted on your motorhome, trailer, or fifth-wheel, they run on gasoline, liquid propane (LP) or diesel fuel.
  • Standby – generators are made to provide backup power for homes when your normal electric power source is down.
  • PTO – Power Take Off (PTO) generators are designed to be used on the farm with your tractor providing the source of drive. The tractor engine simply turns a shaft connected to the PTO generator to create electricity.
  • Towable – These large, industrial generators are used for construction sites, outdoor events such as carnivals and concert venues and other places where lots of power is needed. They often run on diesel fuel and are mounted to a trailer for towing.

How do generators work?

A generator is made up of two main components: an engine and an alternator.

Engines used in portable recreational generators are typically 50cc to 180cc in size – think minibike to small-sized motorcycle engines. Because they are designed to be portable, the engines need to be both small and lightweight. Most use very efficient 4-stroke engines that burn gasoline and produce less pollution.

The alternator is the component responsible for creating electricity. It does this by converting rotating mechanical energy into Alternating Current (AC) electricity. There are two styles of alternators: conventional and inverter.

Conventional alternators are the original and older type. Similar to the alternator in your car, it uses a rotating armature (rotor) surrounded by coils of wire (Stator) to produce an alternating field of electrical current. When generators use conventional alternators, the engine and the alternator are two separate components coupled together. While this method is reliable, it requires the engine run at full speed (typically 3600 rpm), regardless of the load needed, to produce consistent AC voltage output. Conventional generators produce a good amount of noise and pollution when running. And, their voltage output is not as clean as commercial power delivered to your home.

Newer style generators use Inverter alternators which add additional digital electronic circuitry on to the alternator to maintain a steady output voltage regardless of load. Generators that use inverters combine the alternator and the engine into a single, lightweight unit. The electronic inverter circuity allows the engine to automatically throttle itself up and down depending upon the load applied. This results in a quieter running generator that is more fuel efficient – especially with less demanding loads. The super-clean voltage output by this type of generator is well suited for running modern devices such as computers, video games, flat panel TVs, or any device with a microprocessor. In addition, Inverter generators provide both Alternating Current (AC) and Direct Current (DC) power. Consumers can use them to power today’s modern appliances as well as charge the car battery – very convenient!

Features that Matter Most to Campers

Manufacturers use a variety of techie terms when describing features about generators. Some are a bit confusing. When using a generator for camping, the features that matter most are Noise Level, Power Output, Run Time and Dry Weight.

Noise level – Not all manufacturers provide this important detail. But, if there is one thing a camper wants to know about a generator, this is it. Unfortunately, this means you may need to go to a dealer who is willing to actually demonstrate the generator for you. Many dealer showrooms will not do this. However, one good place to look and listen is at a Camping and RV show. They’re a lot of fun and a great way to see the latest outdoor recreation products while talking directly to manufacturer reps.

For an easy way to find a show near you, go to

For those manufacturers that do provide noise level data, it is usually given as (decibel) dBA, such as 59 dBA, or sometimes given as a range like 53 – 59 dBA. When a range of numbers is given, it means the noise level at 1/4 rated load and the noise level at full rated load. Beware, some manufacturers advertise how quiet their generator performs using only the 1/4 rated load number. Be sure to evaluate it at FULL rated load – that’s when it is loudest.

The table below shows how common noises compare to each other with respect to dBA levels. Keep in mind that the distance away from the sound source directly affects how loud it sounds. Most popular 1,000 – 2,000 watt Inverter generators generate 50-60 dBA noise level at full rated load and are considered to be about as loud as normal conversational speech.

Sound Level (dBA)Typical SourceSubjective Evaluation
140Shot gun fire (gunner's ears) Extremely noisy to intolerable
130Threshold of pain
120Jet take-off at 300 ft
110Night club dance floor
100Loud car horn at 9 ftVery noisy
90Semi truck at 30 ft
80Side walk of busy streetLoud
70Car interior while moving
60Normal conversationModerate
50Office background noise
30Inside bedroom at nightQuiet
10Pin dropAlmost silent

Power Output – Power output of a generator is given by it’s Wattage rating. The wattage rating is often given using two output levels. Maximum power is the maximum output that a generator can produce and is usually available for up to 30 minutes. Rated power is the power that a generator can produce for long periods of time – typically 90% of the maximum power. Quiet generators used for camping can be roughly grouped into three sizes based on power output.

  • Lightweight, compact generators provide up to 1000 watts of power. They are ideal for powering TV’s, electric razors, gaming consoles, and small lights and fans.
  • Slightly larger models provide up to 2000 watts. Ideal for powering coffee pots, microwave ovens, hair dryers, electric grills and heaters, these generators are still lightweight at around 40 – 50 pounds.
  • Even larger models are capable of generating more than 3000 watts. These puppies can pretty much power anything you bring camping and usually several devices simultaneously. Many can power RV A/C units up to 13500 BTUs. But, they are larger and heavier often weighing 100 – 150 pounds and come at a hefty price.

To determine the best size (Power rating) generator for your needs, just add up the wattage needed for each device you want to power simultaneously. Or use each device one-at-a-time with a smaller generator. Most electronic appliances and devices have this listed on a label affixed to the unit. Keep in mind that wattage required for starting a tool or appliance with a motor will be much higher than the watts required to run the device.

Here is a list of common electronic devices people often bring when Camping, RVing, or Tailgating, with typical power requirements. The numbers show the starting power (wattage) needed followed by the running power requirement. Be sure to check the actual power needed for your device as it will be slightly different than the examples shown.

  • Blender 850w, 400w
  • Electric Grill (tabletop) 1650w, 1650w
  • Hair Dryer (1600 watts) 1900w, 1800w
  • Coffee Maker 600w, 600w
  • Electric Heater 1300w, 1300w
  • Laptop computer 225w, 225w
  • Flat-screen TV 120w, 120w
  • Fan (portable) 120w, 40w
  • DVD Player 350w, 350w

Run Time – The maximum time a generator can run before needing to be refueled is what manufacturers call run time. It is determined by the load applied, the efficiency of the generator, and the size of its gas tank. Manufactures may provide the run time for both 1/4 rated load and full rated load, however some provide only the run time for 1/4 rated load because it appears much more impressive. Your run time may vary significantly from manufacturer published specs due to the load draw. Remember, inverter generators will automatically throttle up and down when in use dependent upon the load, so consider the published specs a rough guideline only.

Dry Weight – This is the weight of the generator without gas in the fuel tank. A U.S. gallon of gas weighs slightly more than 6 lbs. Not much additional weight on small, compact generators, but this can add an additional 20lbs to some of the larger 3,000w models.

Additional Features of Recreational Generators

When buying a quiet generator for camping, features like Noise level, Power Output, Run Time, and Dry Weight are certainly the most important. However, additional features found in most quality generators should not be overlooked.

Parallel capability – Need more power? Combine two generators together for nearly double the power. This is an additional benefit of inverter technology and is a great way to get more power without sacrificing portability.

Low Oil Monitor – Found on some models, this feature protects the generator by shutting the engine off when low oil is detected.

US Forest Service qualified spark arrestor/muffler – This safety feature prevents errant sparks from occurring and is especially important when camping in dry wilderness areas where fires easily spread.

Circuit protection – Protects the generator from being overloaded by shutting off the AC power output if the load draw is excessive or a short occurs. Most models have DC circuit protection as well and will stop the DC output when charging a battery if a problem occurs.

Fuel Petcock – Is a small manual valve used to control the flow of gasoline. Its purpose is to reduce carburetor contamination by turning off gasoline flow and allowing the carburetor to run dry. Just flip it to the OFF position to stop the generator and you’re good to go.

Large fuel fill opening – A bigger opening mounted directly on top makes it easier to fill the tank with less spills.

Brands to Consider

Well known brands in the Recreational Generator world include Honda, Yamaha, Generac, and Briggs & Stratton. If quality is what you seek, you just cannot go wrong with either Honda or Yamaha. Both companies are well versed at producing high quality motorcycles and much of this technology is used in their generator products. But quality and brand name come at a higher price. Expect to pay $800 – $1,000 (2012) for the smallest Inverter models.

Budget conscious campers should consider Generac, Briggs & Stratton, and Honeywell brands. Some of these quality manufacturers offer 800w models for under $400 (2012). Keep in mind that you will sacrifice features on models in this price range. But why pay for features you won’t need?

Choosing a quiet generator for camping or recreational use really comes down to budget, features needed and, to a lesser degree, the space available to carry it and fuel. But if creature comfort when camping is what you want, then today’s lightweight, compact Inverter generators are well worth the investment.

Looking for more creature comforts when camping? Check out my articles on Portable heaters and Inflatable Air Mattresses. Roughing it in the wild doesn’t always have to be rough after all.