I am a big advocate of digital detoxing. So, when I go backpacking, I will turn my phone off. However, I can respect that there are plenty of situations where you’d need to use your phone – like when you are using your phone as your main camera, or you need to call for emergency assistance. It’s reasons like these that solar phone chargers are so useful.
Do You Just Need to Charge Your Phone, or Other Gadgets Too?
If you only need a solar charger for your phone, you’ll have a lot of lightweight, portable options to choose from.
But what if you want to charge other devices too? There is lots of USB-chargeable backpacking gear now, like USB headlamps, lanterns, and location devices. You might need to charge things like your tablet, Kindle, or camera battery too.
If this is the case, then you should get a portable solar panel. Read this post on The Best Portable Solar Panels for Backpacking to learn more about the options.
I can tell you right now that the best solar panels for charging multiple types of gear (not just your phone) are:
Top Pick: The Anker PowerPort Solar Lite 15w
It weighs just 12.5oz and folds down nearly flat to 11×6.3 inches. Compared to other portable solar panels, it is very reliable. Many other panels without an integrated battery have an issue that they stop charging if a shadow passes overhead. The Anker PowerPort does not have these issues and is very reliable.
You can use the Anker PowerPort to charge devices directly. If you want to store power, you’ll have to get an external battery to use with it. You use the solar panel to charge the battery pack. Then you use the battery pack to charge your devices via USB. Check it out here.
*Buy the Anker solar panel here. It’s very affordable.
Runner Up: BioLite 5w with 2200mAh battery pack
This solar panel weighs a bit more than the Anker (13.8oz). However, the weight includes an integrated battery. So, it actually ends up being lighter.
The BioLite is pretty small, so don’t expect it to charge the battery or any device quickly. However, it is really easy to transport. You can clip it to your backpack and charge the integrated battery while you hike. There’s also a 10watt model available.
*Buy the BioLite solar panel here. It’s a bit pricier than the Anker, but has an integrated battery so is a good value.
Small Solar Chargers for Phones
When you only need the solar panel to charge your phone or maybe one more small device, then you can get away with getting a solar charger which is smaller, lighter, and cheaper.
You have two options: Case chargers and solar battery banks. Here’s a comparison of the two.
|Solar Phone Cases||-Protect phone from damage|
-Very small and lightweight
-No need to tether your phone to it
|-Small panel means slow charge
-Fitted to specific phones
-Will need new case when you upgrade your phone
|Solar Battery Banks||-Can pre-charge the battery at home|
-Can charge other devices too
-Lots of options
-Battery capacities up to 25,000mAh
|-Need to carry an extra device
-Some are very heavy
-Quality varies drastically
Which Solar Phone Charger to Choose?
In almost all situations, it makes more sense to get a solar battery bank than a solar case. The main reason is that a battery bank can be used with any phone and thus is “future proof.” So, if you upgrade your phone (or it gets lost/stolen/destroyed…), you can still use the same solar power bank with it.
Further, solar battery banks have a much higher capacity, so you will be able to charge your phone more times from them. Usually you can get at least 2 or 3 full phone charges. You can fill up the power bank before you leave for your trip and use sunlight to keep the power bank topped off.
By comparison, solar phone cases have tiny batteries and thus low capacity. Some of the older models don’t even have batteries, so only direct charging is possible. That’s particularly annoying since you’d need to leave your phone sitting outside or hanging off your pack to charge. If the idea is to have a way to charge your phone for emergencies, it’s not practical since there’s no stored power. If your phone completely drained, you’d have to wait until bright daylight to make your emergency call!
Because of all their downsides, a solar phone case only makes sense is if:
- You need to go ultralight,
- You don’t use your phone often anyway, or
- You are very clumsy and need the extra protection the case offers.
For all other situations, a solar power bank is the better option for charging your phone.
Don’t expect a solar power bank or case to charge your phone quickly. They have tiny solar panels (usually just around 7 inches long). So, they can’t capture too much sun. Even in direct sunlight, it will probably take over 50 hours to fill the battery. Since you can probably get multiple charges out of a full battery, that translates into around 15 hours of sunlight to charge your phone!
Thus, these small solar chargers for phones are not meant to be primary chargers. They are only meant for emergencies. You’ll want to charge your phone and the power bank before you leave on your trip. And, whenever you have sunlight, take advantage of it charge the battery bank. That probably means you’ll want to attach the solar charger to your backpack — so plan for that when you pack your gear. If you need faster charging, you’ll need to get a portable solar panel, like the Anker PowerPort Lite.
Best Solar Power Banks for Phones
Unlike the portable solar panels that I talked about above, these are smaller and more compact – thus great if you only really need to charge your phone. They are also much more affordable options. Having affordable gear not only helps your budget now, but it means that you don’t have to worry as much about the solar charger getting stolen or lost while you are traveling.
Right now, this solar battery bank has the highest capacity available. At 25,000mAh, you will be able to recharge an iPhone 8 over 9 times. You might not even need to use the solar feature of it since it can keep your devices charged for so long.
The high capacity of it does mean that the RAVPower bank is heavy at 19.4oz. So, I’d only recommend this if you use devices very often during your backpacking trips and need to stay powered. Surprisingly though, the power bank can refill on solar fairly quickly. It will take around 85 hours to recharge on sunlight. Yes, that’s a long time – but battery banks with half the capacity often take that long.
- 25,000mAh capacity
- 13×3.5×1.18 inches
- 3 outputs
- Charges iPhone8 over 9 times
- IP66 waterproof rating
- Built-in LED light with 3 settings
- Buy here
RAVPower also makes a 15,000mAh solar charger which you can get here. It is lighter and smaller.
As far as cheap solar power banks go, this is one of the most popular and reliable. There are some nice features, like that the light indicator turns green when solar energy is being absorbed. It will charge even when there isn’t much light. And it charges devices quickly at 2.1amps. Instead of just claiming that it is “waterproof”, the waterproof rating has actually been tested.
Of course, it will take a long time to fill the battery with solar panel (about 56 hours in decent sunlight). But, this is actually better than most others in the same price range.
- 10,000mAh capacity
- 6×2.9×0.7 inches
- One USB output
- Wireless charging
- Fully charges in 6 hours via outlet
- Charges iPhoneX 2.3 times and iPhone8 3.5 times
- IPX4 waterproof rating
- Built-in flashlight and compass
- Buy here
Choosing a Solar Phone Charger
Be warned that the quality of solar battery banks varies drastically. Even the manufacturers know this and the cheap solar chargers will specifically state that it’s best to charge the power bank with a power outlet and the “solar charging feature should only be used as an emergency back-up instead of a main power source.”
The main things to look at when choosing a solar battery bank are:
How much power a battery bank can hold is measured in millamps. The higher the capacity, the more power the battery bank can hold.
To figure out how much capacity you need, look at the mAh of your phone’s battery. Then think about how many times you want the power bank to charge your phone.
- The iPhone X has a 2,716 mAh battery.
- In theory, a power bank with 10,000mAh capacity would be able to charge it 3 ½ times.
Unfortunately, you probably won’t actually get 3 ½ charges out of any powerbank. Why? Because no power bank is 100% efficient. A lot of power gets lost when sending it from the power bank battery to the phone’s battery. This has to do with the different voltage of the power bank and the phone. (Source)
Further, some power is lost through the connection cable. Temperature can also affect how much power is lost.
Expect a power bank to only deliver 66% of its listed capacity.
So, if a power bank has a 10,000mAh capacity, expect to actually get 6,666mAh – which means it would charge an iPhone X about 2.4 times instead of 3.5 times.
*To check the capacity of an iPhone battery, open up the settings app. Then choose “Battery,” “Battery Health” and look at the “maximum Capacity” indicator.
**Note that a battery’s capacity gets lower as it ages. So, a new battery might have a capacity of 3500 but shrink to 3100 after 6 months of use.
The amperage (amps) of a solar battery pack tells you how fast it can charge a device. Most solar chargers for phones will have 1 to 2amps. If you need to charge larger devices like laptops of tablets, you’d need something with higher amperage – and thus a bigger solar panel instead of just a solar power bank.
Watts tells you how much power the solar panel can gather. The higher the watts, the stronger the panel – but high watts also means that the panel will be bigger and heavier.
Don’t expect a solar power bank to have anything more than 1 to 2 watts. Yes, this means it will take a very long time to fill the power bank battery with sunshine. That’s why it’s recommended to fill the power bank with an outlet before you leave/whenever you get to town.
If you really need reliable power and faster charging, then you’ll need a portable solar panel and not just a solar phone charger. As mentioned earlier, I recommend the Anker PowerPort Lite. It is 15 watts and still very lightweight for backpacking.
Number of Outputs
A lot of the newer solar power banks now have two outlets. This allows you to charge two devices at the same time. This doesn’t necessarily mean you should charge two devices at once though, as this will significantly slow down charging time.
Solar power banks have all sorts of extra features like built-in flashlights, waterproof ratings, and so forth. But one feature which you will absolutely want is a carabiner hook. Otherwise, you won’t be able to attach the power bank to your pack. You’d have to lay it flat to charge, which means no charging on the go.