Harnessing the power of the sun for a little extra charge on the trail seems like a great idea. Sunlights free and chargers are getting cheaper/smaller and more efficient, but do they really work? Are solar chargers worth it for camping and backpacking?
Solar panels are great for camping, but I would only recommend them for longer trips. Solar chargers take forever to charge a phone so it’s better to use them alongside portable power banks. Charge the power bank with the solar charger and then charge your phone with the power bank. It will take about 12 hours to charge your phone directly vs 3-4 to charge the power bank and then your phone.
There aren’t that many options out there for charging devices on the trail. The only real option you have is to use a solar panel alongside a power bank on longer trips. If you’re in a rush and don’t feel like reading the entire post do yourself a favor and pickup the Goal Zero Nomad 10 Solar Charger and Venture 35 Power Bank.
If I were to break it down into simple terms. Use the solar charger to charge the power bank and then use the power bank to charge your cell phone. With 4-5 hours of sunlight your power bank will get your phone at least 3 charge cycles. Keep reading to learn a few tips to help you choose a solar panel and learn how to use it.
Is A Solar Panel Worth It For Camping?
Personally, I would look into waterproof power banks if you’re planning a short 2-3 day weekend camping trip. My Venture 35 Charger gets me 3-4 phone charges and that’s more than enough for me. Solar panels make way more sense on longer trips or if you’re camping with multiple people.
The truth is, solar chargers are great for charging less demanding devices like cell/satellite phones and PLBs, but you need to be realistic with your expectations. Don’t expect a solar charger to work like your wall charger or portable power bank. It will take a while for your phone and other gadgets to charge up to full capacity.
Solar panels are great in theory, but they take up a lot of pack space. Plan on spending at least $80 for a halfway decent panel that’s strong enough to charge a phone. The cheaper options you find on Amazon and Walmart will take days to charge up a phone. You’d be better off using a couple power banks on short weekend trips.
Unless you plan on spending a few hundred dollars the Goal Zero Nomad 10 is easily the best portable solar panel you can buy at the moment. It folds in half and it’s a little bit bigger than a piece of paper. Just keep in mind that the charging rate is usually overstated on solar panels. I’ll go into more detail below, but a 10 Watt Rated panel will only generate like 3 Watts on a typical day.
Make Sure Your Solar Panel’s Large Enough
Solar panels aren’t a miracle product. The technology has only recently moved into the consumer space. Don’t expect a cheap $30 compact panel to reliably charge up your phone. You need to spend at least $80 for a halfway decent charger.
Bigger chargers take up more real estate in your pack, but they’re far more reliable. Look for a charger that’s at least the size of a paper and flips out for a bigger surface area. Compact chargers won’t even be strong enough to chare up your cell phone.
Use Your Solar Panel With a Battery Power Bank
Solar panels can be used to directly charge your phone, but it will take forever. Thought I got screwed the first time I took my Goal Zero Nomad 10 Panel out camping. I setup my panel to charge my Iphone after a long hike and 3 hours later I only had a 30% charge. Rigged it up to the outside of my pack the following day and got up to 70% throughout the hike.
It was better than nothing, but the charger barely kept up with my phones battery draw. I was listening to an audiobook, but I really thought charge times would be better than that. After contemplating for a bit I decided to hit up the online forums to see what everybody else had to say.
After getting home and talking to a few people I realized that you’re supposed to use the charger with a power bank instead of hooking it up directly to your phone. Picked up a waterproof Venture 35 Power Bank and it was a night and day difference. It took about 5 hours to fully charge the 9600mAh power bank and I can charge my iphone 3-4 times off a single charge.
Multiple Battery Power Banks Might Be A Better Choice
Solar chargers aren’t light and they take up a lot of real estate in your pack. My solar charger is about 1″ thick and about the size of a piece of paper. Throw in a power bank or 2 and you’re taking up a lot of space and weight in your pack. A few extra pounds here and there makes a huge difference over a long hike.
You might be better off carrying a few power banks instead of a charger on shorter weekend trips. One power bank is plenty for my girlfriend and I on a weekend trip. Go in with a full charge and recharge every night before bed. You might want to bring a spare for longer trips. Just make sure they’re waterproof or stored in a dry bag.
Watt Ratings Can Be Deceptive
Comparing solar panels can be a serious challenge. You can’t just look at the wattage ratings and compare panels side by side. There’s no regulatory body that oversees wattage ratings and there’s huge sales advantages to lying about ratings.
Look at this Hiluckey Solar Panel for instance. It’s a halfway decent product and easily one of the best selling solar chargers on Amazon. Having 25,000 mAh it should easily outperform the 2000 mAh Goal Zero Nomad 10, but it doesn’t come close. According to product reviews the Hiluckey charger takes 15-20 hours to charge an iPhone versus 9 hours with the Goal Zero.
Solar Chargers Give You Piece Of Mind
When a power bank quits working it’s basically like carrying around a rock. When a power bank is dead, it’s basically worthless. In contrast, a good solar panel ensures you’ll eventually be able to charge up your devices. It might take a while in bad weather with little sunlight, but you’ll eventually get enough to trickle charge your device in a survival scenario.
How much should the SHTF factor really matter? Well it depends on where you’re going and how important using your cell phone is. Would it ruin your trip if your camera battery dies and you wouldn’t be able to take pictures? If yes, than it’s probably worth the extra weight/space of carrying a solar panel. I’ve wasted $80 on things that are far dumber than a solar panel.
Plus it’s always nice to have backup in emergency situations. While you might think you’re healthy and generally fit, bad things can happen on the trail.
Solar Chargers Aren’t All That Convenient
Carrying around a few fully charged power banks is far more convenient than bringing along a solar panel. You really need to find the right spot when using a solar panel. Lay it out flat and have it directly facing the sun.
Hanging it on your backpack while hiking might get you some charge, but you won’t get much. If you spend most of your day hiking and get to camp just before dusk it’s better to use a power bank. You won’t get enough direct sunlight to get much of a charge. Power banks are far more convenient on long hikes.
Are Your Devices Trickle Charge Compatable?
This is one of the most overlooked factors when it comes to solar chargers. Some devices won’t charge well on a trickle charger. An iPhone for example, is notoriously bad for solar chargers. You can’t let your iPhone die since the screen blinks while charging. The flashing drains the battery faster than most chargers operate.