How to Choose Solar Power Camping Equipment
Finding the Right Solar Power for Your Adventure
Disappearing into the wilderness may feel like it loses some of its charm when your phone is in your pack, but the safety benefits generally outweigh the setbacks. And whether you’re checking the weather or just checking in with family, your phone needs juice.
Even the most outdoorsy and off-the-grid adventurers rely on access to power keep everything from their phones to their cameras to GPS watches running. The sun is the most reliable power source in the outdoors, so the majority of outdoor enthusiasts have turned to camping solar panels to fuel their adventures.
How Will You Use Your Solar Power for Camping?
The easiest way to simplify your search for portable solar panels is to narrow down exactly how you intend to use it. Are you looking for a solar power charger? If you’re heading into the backcountry, look for small, lightweight units like the Goal Zero Guide 10 Plus & Solar Recharging Kit, which is capable of powering smaller electronics like iPhones and GoPros. If you’re car camping or road-tripping and want to use solar power to keep basecamp running, consider larger, more powerful systems like the Goal Zero Yeti 1000 LI with MPPT + Boulder 100 BC.
It’s also worth considering where you’re going to use your solar panel. Those living in the sunny Southwest who are blessed with consistently favorable weather may be able to get away with using a smaller panel. Meanwhile, someone living in the often overcast Pacific Northwest will want a larger panel to maximize the moments when the sun is shining.
3 Solar Charging Options for Campers
There are three common solar power systems available to hikers, backpackers, and campers today: panels only, panels with integrated batteries, and panels with separate storage batteries.
- Panels Only: Panel-only systems can be used to power a device directly, charge a power station, or be chained—or connected—to other panels to increase the amount of energy collected. But charging a device directly from a solar panel can be severely limiting—a device can only charge when the sun is out and your device is not in use. As a result, panel-only systems are ideal for users who either already own a rechargeable power station, or who want to chain their new solar panel into an existing system to increase its power.
- Panels with Integrated Batteries: Panels that charge integrated batteries offer more versatility. For example, you can charge the panel’s integrated battery during the day, allowing you to charge your action cam overnight, freeing up the camera for use during the day’s adventures. The downside to panels with integrated batteries is that you’re limited to using the battery that comes with the panel and unable to adjust power storage to meet changing needs.
- Panels with Independent Batteries: Panels capable of charging independent batteries provide the ultimate amount of flexibility because the energy collected by the batteries can be used at your convenience. For short trips, independent batteries can be used without a panel, reducing the amount of stuff you need to carry or pack. They are also more advantageous for charging; it’s simply easier to bring a battery into your tent than a combination solar panel and battery. Independent batteries also allow you to choose a power station that best meets your needs, or adjust power stations depending on activities.
An added bonus of independent batteries is that you can charge them before leaving on your trip, ensuring you’ll be able to keep your devices charged even if the weather doesn’t cooperate.
Understanding Solar Energy
In order to gauge the performance of a solar power system—the panel and the battery—it’s necessary to have a basic understanding of the technical terms used in discussing solar power. The most common terms encountered are watts, milliamp hours, amp hours, and volts.
Watts (W): Watts tell you how much power a solar panel will collect in one hour. Because this is a such an important feature to consider, watts are generally included in a product’s name. For example, the X-Dragon 40W SunPower Solar Panel has a capacity of 40 watts. Typically, the larger the surface area of the panel, the more watts it will produce.
A good rule of thumb is that panels between 7W and 15W are good for powering small electronics such as phones and watches. If you’re looking to charge multiple small electronics or a larger device such as a tablet, you will need at least a 15W panel. To power a laptops, a panel needs to be capable of harnessing a minimum of 25 watts of energy.
Milliamp hours (mAh): While watts measure a solar panel’s capacity to produce power, mAh measures a battery’s ability to store power. It also offers insight into how much power you will need to capture to charge your electronics. For example, the BioLite Charge 40 has a capacity of 10,400 mAh, while popular smartphones like the iPhone X and Samsung Galaxy S8 have roughly 3,000 mAh batteries—meaning the Charge 40 is capable of charging these phones approximately three times.
Amp hours (Ah): The Ah is just a bigger unit of the mAh—an amp hour is 1,000 times greater than a milliamp hour. Super-large batteries like those found in the Goal Zero line of Yeti Power Stations are measured in Ah rather than mAh.
Volts (V): Volts measure a battery or power station’s output and will indicate what types of devices a battery is able of charging, along with how long it will take to charge. A smaller battery, such as the 6,000 mAh Skullcandy Stash Portable Battery Pack is ideal for someone looking for an iPhone solar charger or a charger for other small electronics that typically have a 5-volt input rating. The Goal Zero Sherpa 100AC Portable Power Bank is a smart choice for a backpacking solar charger capable of powering a laptop or power-hungry tablet, which commonly have input ratings between 8V and 19V. The Sherpa 100 features a multitude of ports—5V, 9V, 12V,15V, and 20V, along with a 110V AC inverter—for powering all types of electronic devices.
Solar Panel Compatibility
When choosing a solar power charger, ensure that it’s compatible with the devices you plan on using. The vast majority of solar panels and batteries come equipped with USB ports that can be paired with most smartphones and tablets. However, some electronics like DSLR camera batteries and laptops plug into wall outlets and will require a special connection (such as the AC port on the Goal Zero Sherpa 100AC Portable Power Bank) or an adapter. Larger batteries, like the Goal Zero Power Stations, feature a variety of outlets for connecting a wide array of electronics.
Equally important is choosing a solar-powered charging system with enough ports to accommodate your needs. For example, if you want to keep both a cell phone and camera charged during your trip, choose a battery with two ports that can be used simultaneously.
Chaining Solar Panels Together
The ability to chain solar panels together is a handy feature that increases the versatility and capacity of a solar power charger. Being able to link panels together allows users to adjust the capacity to collect power, depending on the needs of a given trip.
Solar panels in the backcountry and at the campground continue to grow, and so do the options for taking advantage of this excellent source of energy to power your electronics. Remember to consider the factors and features above to match the perfect solar panel and battery to your needs before heading off on your next adventure. Have questions about harnessing the power of the sun on your next adventure? Reach out to one of our Gearheads for expert advice on all things solar.