Even though I really hate the idea of using tech while backpacking, I’ve resigned myself to at least being able to call for emergency help. Since I’m a 110lb woman who backpacks with my daughter (and carries pretty much all of her gear too), getting the most ultralight solar panel matters. All those extra ounces add up quickly!
I know that choosing a solar panel can be confusing. So, here’s the lowdown on the best solar panels which are actually lightweight – including lightweight power banks too.
Best Setup: Suntactics S5 + Anker Astro E1 Power Bank
At 7oz, the Suntactics 5 watt solar panel is one of the lightest that you’ll find while still being very reliable. You’ll need to pair it with a power bank though. I recommend the Anker Astro E1 Battery. At 6,800mAh capcity, it has enough juice for headlamp batteries, phones, tablets, and cameras.
- Solar panel: 7oz
- Power Bank: 4.2oz
- Total Weight: 11.2oz
- Get the solar panel here and the power bank here.
(Scroll down for the complete list and reviews of UL solar panels)
Problems with Ultralight Solar Panels
Most backpacking solar panels do not come with an integrated battery. That means you can only charge devices directly using the solar panel – such as by attaching the solar panel to your backpack as you trek.
If you don’t have a battery pack, your solar panel isn’t going to be very reliable:
- You will only be able to charge devices during the day.
- There will be no way to charge devices on cloudy days.
- You may even need a charge controller for direct charging, which means extra weight.
1. Get a Power Bank
The obvious solution to these problems is to get a power bank. Use the solar panel to charge the power bank. Then you charge your devices with the power bank (which can be done at night, on cloudy days, etc.).
But this creates another problem for those of who want to go ultralight: The power bank may be heavier than the actual solar panel.
Thus, you’ll need to also shop for an ultralight power bank, not just a lightweight solar panel. As recommended above, the Anker Astro battery is probably your best bet. It is just 4.4oz for 6,800mAh capacity. Get it here. Or read more about the Best Lightweight Power Banks for Backpacking.
2. Choose a Solar Panel with an Integrated Battery
These solar panels will weigh more because they have a built-in battery pack. The battery pack stores power so you can charge devices whenever.
Even though they seem heavy, many of the battery packs are designed to be lightweight. So, it might actually be lighter than a solar panel + separate power bank.
The BioLite solar panel reviewed below, for example, has an integrated battery and weighs 13.8oz. That’s pretty lightweight!
3. Get a Solar Power Bank
Instead of getting a solar panel, you could get a solar power bank. This is simpler because it’s an all-in-one solution. The only issue is that, since power banks are small, the solar panel part won’t have much surface area. It will take much longer to collect energy and fill the power bank than if you’d used a larger, folding solar panel.
Still, I like solar power banks because you can constantly keep them clipped to your backpack or on top of your tent. So long as they are constantly outside, you shouldn’t have to worry about it draining. Oh, and you can fill the power bank before you leave or whenever you get into town to refuel. Read more about solar power banks here.
Other Issues with Ultralight Solar Panels
Don’t Trust the Wattage
More wattage equals more weight. But, when calculating your wattage requirements, remember that every solar panel company is going to mislead you.
They will list wattage and amps output in ideal conditions, meaning no clouds, losses due to lamination, loss due to cables, etc. Take this into consideration or you could end up with dead devices when you need them most.
The biggest flaw with solar panels is that they can stop charging your device/charging can slow is a cloud passes over. This is a huge issue, especially if you are leaving your solar panel at camp with the intention of charging it while you are gone. You come back expecting your device to be fully charged, only to find out that charging has slowed to practically nothing.
With these solar panels, you have to reset them to get the charging back at full speed. Instead of driving yourself crazy, only get a solar panel with automatic restart.
Cold Weather Drains Batteries
One good piece of advice I read was this: sleep with your batteries at night. Otherwise, the cold weather will drain them. Or, keep the batteries in your inside pocket while hiking in cold weather.
Don’t Forget the Weight of Cables
It’s worth noting that most manufacturers only list the weight for their solar panels. This weight does NOT include accessories like cables, 12volt-to-USB adapters, or charge controllers. These can add a few ounces to the setup.
Best Ultralight Solar Panel Solutions
1. Powerfilm 10 watt – No Battery (12oz)
In discussions about the best ultralight solar panel, this one always comes up. The reason is because it can charge even in cloudy conditions. It outperforms other solar panels in this aspect, even if it does weigh a bit more.
Note that the panel gives a 12v output. So you will need a 12v to USB adapter (included). This adds weight to the setup, making it around 15oz instead of 12oz. If you are charging a device directly, you’ll also probably want to get a charge controller.
- Charges in cloudy conditions
- 10 watts
- Light for wattage and size
- Folded dimensions are 3.5×10.5×1.3”
- Unfolded it is 21×23.7”
- No integrated battery
- No auto reset
- RA-2 adapter adds weight
- Need charge controller for directly charging devices
2. Suntactics S5 – No Battery (7oz)
Suntactics is one of the best known brands for ultralight solar panels. They have been used by many backpackers and advertise the fact that they’ve “traveled on all the American trails for over 8 years now.”
Most users are in love with this solar panel as it is very reliable. You won’t want to use it for directly charging though, at least without a charge controller. Instead, pair it with a power bank. If paired with the Anker Astro power bank (4.4oz) the total setup is just 11.4oz.
- Designed for backpacking
- Very durable
- 5 watts
- Wattage is actually accurate
- Closed size: 6×6”
- Open size: 6×11”
- Auto reset
- No integrated battery
- Need charge controller for direct charging
- Doesn’t actually give 1amp current
- Plastic laminate hinge is crappy
3. BLAVOR Qi Solar Battery Bank (8.5oz)
For trips of up to 1 week, you might not even need a solar panel. A 10,000mAh battery pack will probably keep your gadgets going.
This battery bank by BLAVOR packs that much capacity. And, just in case you need more, it has a small solar panel on it. Of course, it will take forever to refill the battery bank with the tiny solar panel (56 hours in decent sunlight!). However, you can charge it in town when refueling and use the solar panel charging for emergencies.
- Just 8.5oz
- 10,000mAh integrated battery
- 1 amps
- Wireless charging
- Small and compact (5.6×2.9×07”)
- Refill battery in 6 hours via wall outlet
- Very affordable
- Tiny solar panel
- Takes 56 hours to refill battery bank with solar
4. BioLite Solar Panel 5 – Integrated Battery (13.8oz)
The BioLite is a complete power solution for backpacking. At 13.8oz (which includes the battery weight), it is truly an ultralight solar panel.
As expected from such a lightweight solar panel, it will take forever to charge devices. The battery capacity is also pretty low. So, even if you precharge the battery before leaving for your hike, you still risk running out of power. However, it is very affordable so worth considering if you are on a budget.
- 13.8oz total weight
- 5 watts
- Integrated battery
- Clips to a backpack
- Charge strength indicator
- Battery only has 2200mAh capacity
- No auto reset!
- Not flexible
- Approximately 10x8x1”
5. Solar Paper by Yolk Station – No Battery (4.8oz.)
This solar panel has gotten mixed reviews and it is a bit pricy, but it is also one of the lightest weight solar panels available.
Each 5 watt panel weighs just 4.8oz, and you can connect as many panels you want. It also has nice features like auto reset, LCD amp meter, and an IP64 rating. You’ll have to pair with an external battery bank if you want to store power, which does mean extra weight.
Note that this solar panel doesn’t have the auto-reset feature, which can be a pain if you need to use it in cloudy weather. That’s why this solar panel doesn’t make the top pick, despite being the lightest weight solar panel.
- 5 watts; can add multiple panels
- Only 0.4 inches thick
- Two connections
- Folds to 3.5×7.5”
- Auto reset
- Just 1 amp
- No integrated battery
- No straps
- Overheats easily
Do you use a solar panel when backpacking? Which one? Let us know in the comments.
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