Mom Goes Camping

The 5 Best Portable Solar Chargers for Camping, Backpacking and Thru-Hiking (Plus Buying Guide)

best portable solar chargers for camping hiking and backpacking

For a long time I was against the idea of buying a solar powered charger for camping.  But then I saw a venomous viper 1 yard from my tent while wild camping with my 6 year old.  I realized how much it would suck if my phone was dead and was unable to call the local police or rangers if she got bit.

So, as much as I am personally opposed to using your phone while in the outdoors (or any other device – seriously, you should be enjoying nature and not checking your email!), it is still good to have a portable solar charger to keep your phone juiced in case of emergencies.  Likewise, anyone dependent on GPS for navigation will want a reliable way to keep it powered. And I’m sure there are a zillion other good reasons to have a solar charger while outdoors.

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Top 5 Portable Solar Chargers

1. Anker PowerPort Solar Lite 15w

Anker PowerPort portable solar charger for outdoor use

In pretty much every list of the top portable solar chargers, the Anker PowerPort Solar Lite takes the #1 spot.  There is good reason for this.  The solar charger is very reliable, doesn’t have issues with bouncing back to full charge after shadows pass overhead, is pretty lightweight, durable, and a good value.  It also comes in a 21w version if you need more power.

Some other perks of the Anker PowerPort solar charger is that it has elastic loops for attaching it to your pack and a pocket for holding your devices.

  • Watts: 15
  • Amps:1
  • Weight: 12.5oz
  • Size: 11×6.3” folded, 18.1×11” open
  • Integrated Battery: No
  • Connections: 2
  • Cost: $49-$79  Buy Here at Best Price

Best For: Changing devices quickly while camping, backpacking, or hiking

 

2. Yolk Station Solar Paper

Yolk Solar Paper lightweight portable solar charger

The Solar Paper by Yolk Station is marketed as the “world’s thinnest and lightest solar charger.”  At just 0.4 inches thick, it really does live up to its promises.

In addition to being super small, the Solar Paper have some other great features like a 23.7% efficiency, auto reset (which is important for when those annoying shadows pass over and cause charge speed to reduce!), an LCD amp meter which shows charging speed, and waterproofness to IP64 rating. One panel is 5 watts, but additional panels can be easily added with a magnet system.

The only downsides of this portable solar charger is that it is fairly pricy and its bare design doesn’t have any straps.  One panel will be enough to charge your phone.  To charge tablets, you’ll need at least 2 panels.

  • Watts: 5w (additional panels can be added)
  • Amps: 1
  • Weight: 4.8oz
  • Size: 3.5×7.5”folded, 7×7.5” open
  • Integrated Battery: No
  • Connections: 2
  • Cost: $148 – Buy Here At Best Price

Best For: Lightweight backpacking

 

3. AUKEY Panel Solar Charger

aukey portable solar charger

For a cheap solar charger, the Aukey does a good job.  It has a high efficiency rate of 23.5% and actually allows you to charge more than one device at a time quickly.  The only real downside is that it is a bit bulky and heavy for backpacking.  It would be a great solar charge for camping though.

  • Watts: 14w
  • Amps: 4amps
  • Weight: 21.5oz
  • Size: 11.4×6.9” folded, 20.8×11.4” open
  • Integrated Battery: No
  • Connections: 2 (2 amps per port)
  • Price: $39.99 – Buy Here At Best Price

Best For: People who want a cheap solar charger for multiple devices, even if it means carrying more weight.

 

4. ECEEN 13w Solar Charger

ECEEN solar charger

The ECEEN is really well designed for outdoor use.  It has pockets where you can keep your gadgets while charging, a built-in stand, straps, and is waterproof.  The most standout feature of this solar charger though is that it is lightweight at just 9.3 ounces

The only major downside is that you aren’t going to be able to charge two devices at once quickly.  The 2amps is for ideal conditions.  Connecting two devices to the solar charge will have a maximum of 1amp per connection, but realistically it’s going to be a lot less.

  • Watts: 13
  • Amps: 2
  • Weight: 9.3oz
  • Size: 7×12.7” folded, 14×12.7” open
  • Integrated Battery: No
  • Connections: 2
  • Cost: $39.99 – Buy Here At Best Price

Best For: People who want a cheap solar charger that won’t weigh them down.

 

5. SLXtreme Solar iPhone Case

Snow Lizard SLXtreme solar powered waterproof phone case

The SLXTREME is a really cool product made for outdoor adventurers.  It is a case which you slip over your iPhone.  Once on, your iPhone becomes virtually indestructible and very waterproof.  The solar cell and integrated battery keep your phone charged so it is always ready for emergencies.

There are different models for the iPhone 5, 6, and 7.

  • Watts: 5w (additional panels can be added)
  • Amps: 2
  • Weight: 7.5oz
  • Size: 6.9×3.15×0.88”
  • Integrated Battery: Yes – 4000 mAh
  • Connections: 1
  • Cost:  $149 – Buy Here At Best Price

Best For: Extreme adventurers who want to keep their phone charged and from getting destroyed.

 

Portable Solar Charger vs. Battery Pack

A lot of people who want to buy a solar cell phone charger probably don’t need one.  They could just get by with a battery pack instead.

  • For day hikes, a battery pack has plenty of juice for your phone and camera too.
  • For emergency juice in case you have to turn your phone on (to call 911, send a message to your boyfriend…), then a battery pack is fine. Get one with a big enough capacity and you won’t use it up.

The Anker Astro battery pack, for example, is compact, lightweight (4.2oz), and could charge an iPhone 6 nearly two times.

Anker Astro lightweight battery pack

 

However, battery packs are a pain in the ass on longer trips where you will need to charge your phone or GPS frequently.

As several thru-hikers mentioned about their experiences using a battery pack, they had to recharge it when making rest/fueling stops in town.  Since battery packs take forever to recharge, you end up losing a lot of time.  It forced them to stay in hotels to have a way to charge the damn thing, so ended up costing a lot of money too.

It really depends on how you are using your devices while hiking, camping, and backpacking though.  Since solar powered phone chargers are getting so cheap, it might be worth it to have the reassurance of a more reliable power source than what battery packs offer.

 

Three Solar Charger Options to Consider

Option 1: Solar charger that directly charges your phone

These are generally the cheapest and smallest types of solar cell phone chargers.  However, they come with a major potential drawback.

If the sunlight reduces during charging, the power output reduces – and stays at that reduced rate.  That means a shadow passing over the charger can reduce output to practically zero!! 

The problem is easy to fix: you just unplug the phone and plug it back in. Charging will resume at full capability then. However, it’s incredibly annoying to do this.  It’s also incredibly annoying to come back to base camp after a long hike only to realize your phone hasn’t charged at all because a friggin’ cloud passed over after you left!

Thus, be very careful when buying solar panels which directly charge your phone. Even popular models like the Poweradd 14 and Instapark Mercury 10 will stop charging when shadows pass over. By contrast, solar chargers like the Anker PowerPort Solar Lite will return to full charge once the shadow passes.

Pros:

  • Most affordable option
  • Fast charge

Cons:

  • No way to store excess power
  • If no sunlight, you can’t power your phone
  • Shadows can reduce power output!!!

 

Option 2: Solar charger with integrated battery

These solar phone chargers have a battery in them.  First you charge the battery, and then you charge your phone with it.  The main issue with them is that they are usually a lot slower on both ends.  They are slow to charge the integrated battery, and then the battery is slow to charge your device. If you do choose an all-in-one solar charger setup, then you’ll also need to look at the battery’s capacity (mAh).

Pros:

  • Usually no issues with passing shadows causing it to stop charging
  • Can store the power for later charging

Cons:

  • Integrated battery means extra weight
  • Usually much slower than direct charging
  • Integrated battery often has low capacity
  • Often poor-quality, inefficient battery
  • Pricier

 

Option 3: Use solar charger to charge battery pack and use this to charge your phone

Right now, this is probably your best solar charger setup.  You get to choose whatever (reliable) direct solar charger you want and pair it with a battery pack that suits your size needs.

Pros:

  • Can store power for later charging
  • You decide the battery pack capacity
  • More options and versatility

Cons:

  • Might be heavier

 

Choosing a Portable Solar Charger for Outdoor Use

There are so many solar chargers out there now. Here, I’m going to focus on what you need to look at for outdoor use.

I’m also going to focus on solar chargers which are actually portable.  That immediately eliminates a lot of “camping” solar chargers because they are designed for RVs and car camping.  Some of those camping solar chargers are meant to power friggin’ TVs and weigh a ton!

 

Solar Charger Specs

  • Watts: You are going to need at least 10 watts for charging a phone or GPS. More watts is better, but will add weight and size to the panel.
  • Amps: 1 amp is okay for older phones. But you should really get at least 2 amps – especially if you plan on getting a newer phone and don’t want to wait all day for the phone to charge. 2 amps will also charge tablets and even laptops at a reasonable speed.

See the end of this article for a guid e to volts, amps, mAh, and watts.

 

Weight

Once you start looking for solar chargers, you’ll realize that the definition of “portable” varies a lot.  Some manufacturers label their solar chargers as portable even when they weigh over 5lbs.  Backpackers wouldn’t find these too portable!

Unfortunately, most solar chargers are still nowhere near the weight requirements of ultra-light backpackers.  Extra to carry around at least an extra 12-20 ounces.  You can find lightweight solar chargers (like some of the ones listed above), but they do charge much slower than the bigger, heavier chargers.

 

Usability

Look for:

  • Solar chargers that can connect to your backpack. This is great for charging as you hike (especially with integrated battery chargers)
  • Panels that can be easily propped up. It will help you get maximum sunlight.
  • Flexible or rigid panels. Flexible panels are less likely to get broken and a bit easier to use.  Rigid panels should be foldable so you can pack them easily.

 

Durability

  • Waterproof: By their nature, solar panels are waterproof. What you want to look at is how waterproof the solar charger connections and batteries are.
  • Panel type: As a general rule, monocrystalline solar panels are the most durable and rugged. However, they are also the heaviest and thickest. CIGS panels (thin film) are next, followed by Polycrystalline

 

Efficiency

Good brands of portable solar chargers will list their efficiency rating.  Anything above 22% is a fairly good efficiency.

Aside from the manufacturer’s listing, you can also determine solar charge efficiency by looking at:

  • Panel type: Monocrystalline solar panels are the most efficient followed by polycrystalline and CIGS.
  • Panel surface area: The larger the solar panel, the great its surface area and the better it will be able to convert solar energy into power. You’ll really see the difference in efficiency when the sunlight is less than ideal, such as on cloudy days.

 

Number of Connects and their Amperage

If you just need one connection for your solar charger, then choosing one is easy.  Things get complicated when you need more than one connection port.

The reason is because most portable solar chargers list their TOTAL amperage for ALL connections.  Let’s say you want to charge 2 power-thirsty devices on a 1amp solar charger.  The solar charger splits the amps between the connections, so they both charge slowly.

Some devices won’t even start charging unless they can get a certain amperage level, so having multiple connections could backfire on you!

By contrast, some solar chargers list the amperage of EACH connection.  Or, some solar chargers even have connections which have higher amps than others so you can put your priority device to charge there and leave the other device for the slower connection.

 

Price

To figure out the value, look at the price per watt of the solar charger.

Total price divided by watts = price per watt.

Portable solar chargers are getting cheaper all of the time.  It used to be that $10 per watt was a good deal.  Now you can find quality portable solar chargers that cost less than $3 per watt.

 

Understanding Volts, Amps, mAh, and Watts

Let me preface this by saying I am NOT a tech person.  However, after some reading, even I was able to get the gist of volts, amps, and watts.  You need to have a general understanding of these electricity terms if you want to buy (the right) solar charger for your devices.

 

Metaphor for Understanding Electricity Terms

The standard metaphor used to explain the terms below is water going through a pipe.

  • Watts = total water
  • Volts = water pressure
  • Amps = size of pipe

If you have high water pressure (volts) and big pipes (amps), then you are going to have a lot of water (watts) going through the pipes.

 

Volts:

This is energy potential of the charger.  All USB cables run at 5 volts (thus anything that charges via USB takes 5 volts).  If you were to try charging your cell phone on a 12 volt solar charger, it wouldn’t be able to handle that much electricity. You’d see sparks and melting plastic!  Luckily, we don’t have to worry about this happening because solar chargers designed for USB devices are standardized at 5 volt.

On the flip side, don’t try charging your phone on a solar charger with higher voltage! You’d need an adapter to do this safely.

 

Amps

The amount of electricity that can flow at once is measured in amps.

  • Older cell phones will handle about 1 amp.
  • Newer fast-charge phones will handle upwards of 2 amps.
  • Devices which use more power (such as tablets) usually handle around 2 to 2.5 amps

You want high amps so your phone can charge faster. 

But, if your device has low amp potential, then getting a high-amp charger isn’t going to help it charger faster.  Your phone can only charge as fast as its amp rating.

For example, as Techlicious explains, the iPhone 6 supports 1.6 amps and comes with a 1 amp charger.  You could use a 2.2 amp charger with it – but it will still only charger at a maximum of 1.6 amps.

 

Milliamp Hours (mAh)

Phone batteries are often measured in milliamp hours (mAh).  Or, sometimes they are listed in amp hours (Ah).

1 Ah = 1000 mAh.

This is a measurement of the battery’s capacity. A lot of people use it to gauge how long a battery will last.  The ZenFone 3 Zoom has an impressive 5,000 mAh battery. The LG X has a 4,500 mAh.  Most newer phone batteries are going to have around a 3,000 mAh capacity though.

Once you know the mAh rating of your battery, you can figure out how long it will take to completely charge.  For example, if your solar charger is capable of giving out 1 amp of power, in one hour it will charge 1,000 mAh.  A 3,000 mAh battery would take 3 hours to charge (assuming ideal conditions – which pretty much never happen).

 

Watts:

Volts x amps = watts

Since we know that all USB solar chargers are 5volt and most devices aren’t going to draw more than 2 amps at once, we can figure out how much watts we need our solar charger to have.

5 volt x 2 amps = 10 watts.

In the perfect world, a solar charger would always give out its maximum volts and amps.  We know this isn’t true though.   That’s why it’s good to look for solar phone chargers with higher wattage. 10 watts is the minimum you should look for in a solar charger for your phone.  20 watts is better.

 

Do you have a solar charger for camping, hiking, and backpacking? Which one and how do you like it? 


Image credit: Creative Edge Solar- 5 Solar Charger by Mcjones2003, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

Resources for this article:
http://sciencing.com/larger-mah-number-cell-phone-battery-mean-better-battery-15015.html
https://electronics.stackexchange.com/questions/79279/does-mah-measure-how-long-a-battery-would-last
https://www.tomsguide.com/us/smartphones-best-battery-life,review-2857.html
http://www.newelectric.com/whats-the-difference-between-amps-volts-and-watts/
https://www.ise.fraunhofer.de/content/dam/ise/de/documents/publications/studies/Photovoltaics-Report.pdf
http://energyinformative.org/best-solar-panel-monocrystalline-polycrystalline-thin-film/#thin-film-solar-cells

About the author /


Diane Vukovic is an avid traveler, outdoor enthusiast, beetle lover, sometimes sculptress, couchsurfer, and loves finding ways to explain complex topics to her 6-year old daughter. Follow MomGoesCamping on Facebook and Twitter @MomGoesCamping to stay in touch!

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