Mom Goes Camping

How to Charge Devices while Camping or Backpacking

how to charge devices camping or backpacking

One of my biggest fears is having the batteries in my headlamp die while camping with my kids.  We typically go wild camping, so there aren’t exactly any power outlets around to recharge.  Call me a wuss, but I really don’t want to walk around in the dark to pee at night!

There’s also the issue of my phone battery dying on longer camping trips.  Even though I keep my phone off for the entire trip (If you haven’t tried a digital detox yet, your mental health will thank you for it!), I still want to have it available for emergencies.  The battery slowly drains even when turned off.

Because of these concerns – and the whole “I’ve got to be a responsible parent” thing – I’ve started taking backup power sources for charging devices while camping. There are a lot of options.  I’ll go over them so you can decide which makes sense for your trip and power needs.

Gourmet As Heck ebook

Short Answer:

  • For weekend trips: Bring a lightweight power bank, like the Anker 10,000mAh PowerCore (6.35oz) or the RAV 26,800mAh Power Bank (16.1oz).
  • For longer trips: You’ll need a solar panel. Use it to charge a power bank, and then use the power bank to charge your devices. The Goal Zero Nomad Plus (14 watts, 22oz ) is one of the most popular chargers for camping.
  • If you are paranoid…Then get a power bank with built-in solar panel.  The Elze Solar Power Bank has a 25,000mAh capacity (enough to charge an iPhone about 8 to 10 times), and weighs 15.5oz.  It will take forever to recharge with the tiny solar panel, but at least it’s an option.  🙂

 

Option 1: Extra Rechargeable Batteries

rechargeable batteries

On short trips, I just bring along a few extra AA or AAA rechargeable batteries in case my headlamp batteries die.

I only buy rechargeable batteries now.  Not only are they better for the environment, but they simply make more financial sense.  Pay for good rechargeable batteries with a high capacity and you’ll get lots of use out of them.

*Tip: Make sure that all of your headlamps/flashlights/lanterns use the same type of battery.  Then you won’t have to take multiple types of spare batteries.

 

The Good:

This is the cheapest and simplest solution. Batteries don’t weigh too much and you can bring along as many as you think you’ll need. You can also bring along the charger.  When you have access to a wall outlet, then you can recharge your batteries.

 

The Bad:

  • Can’t Charge Phone or other USB Devices: There are some circuits you can make to charge USB devices with AA batteries.  But, even if you do want to bother with this, AA and AAA batteries simply don’t have enough juice to keep your phone charged.
  • Battery Life Draining Over Time: Like all batteries,rechargeable batteries lose capacity over time.  So, by the 10th time you’ve used a battery, it won’t hold as much power as it originally did. Hence why I worry about the batteries dying.  I can never keep my batteries organized and have no idea which ones are older/newer.  Thus I have no idea how long the batteries will last, even once they have been fully charged.  *This could be easily solved if I’d just get a friggin’ battery meter.
  • Recharging while Camping: Most AA/AAA battery chargers need to be plugged into a wall outlet.  This isn’t an issue if you are at a campground with electricity or don’t mind waiting for hours at a café/restaurant to juice up your batteries.   If you get a USB battery charger (like this one) instead of a wall charger, you’ll have more options for how to recharge your batteries.  For example, you’d be able to charge the batteries with a power bank.

 

Best For:

If you only are worried about headlamps or flashlights, or your camera still uses AA batteries.


 

Option 2: Power Bank

ravpower power bank

For shorter trips where you won’t be using your devices very much (think 2-3 day backpacking trips where you put your phone on airplane mode and just use the camera…), a power bank is probably the best option.

The amount of power that a power bank has is listed in mAh.  To figure out how much power you need, calculate how much power your devices use and how many times you’ll need to recharge them.

 

The Good:

Most devices you would take camping are powered via USB.  Even newer headlamps and flashlights are now charged with USB.  So, you’ll be able to charge virtually anything with a power bank.

You can also find power banks in all sorts of capacities.  If weight isn’t an issue, you can just bring a big ass power bank along with you and be set for the entire trip.

But what about when you are backpacking and every ounce matters?  There are options for ultralight power banks.  The RAV power bank for example, only weighs 4.1oz and has a capacity of 6700mAh (enough to charge an iPhone 2-3 times).

 

The Bad:

On longer trips where you will be using your devices a lot, a power bank won’t provide enough juice. You do have the option of recharging the power bank while in town.  However, a lot of people (especially thru-hikers) complain that this is a major pain in the ass.

One thru-hiker even complained that relying on a power bank ended up costing him a lot of money because he had to stay overnight in hotels so he could recharge the power bank.  If he didn’t need to recharge the power bank, he could have gotten straight back on the trail.

Another potential issue is that, if you leave your device connected to the power bank for too long, it could discharge back into the power bank! You either need a power bank that prevents this, or to carefully monitor your devices while they charge and unplug them when they are full.

Also note that power banks never get their full efficiency. Part of this has to do with the fact that USB devices charge at 5volts and power banks are at 3.7volts.  On top of that, there is conversion loss — energy lost simply through the charging process.  And then there is the issue that power banks lose their ability to store power over time.

Depending on the age and efficiency of your power bank, you might only get around 66% of the advertised capacity.

 

Best For:

Short trips where you won’t be using your devices often OR if you will be able to recharge your power bank completely every 2-3 days.

 

Top Picks:

*To put these capacities in perspective, a smartphone battery is usually around 1,500 to 3,000mAh.   Tablet battery capacity usually ranges from 4,000 to 12,000mAh.


 

Option 3: Solar Panels

Goal Zero 14 watt portable solar panel

Here’s how solar panels work for camping and backpacking:

  1. Use the solar panel to charge a power bank or internal battery
  2. Then use the power bank to charge your devices

It’s also possible to use the solar panel to directly charge your devices. This means you can skip the power bank or get a solar panel without an internal battery (most solar panels don’t have built-in batteries and thus no way of storing power).

Directly charging devices is the most efficient method because you won’t lose power through the power bank (conversion losses). However, without an integrated batter or power bank, you won’t have a way to store power for nighttime charging or cloudy days. Hence why it’s recommended to bring a power bank along.

For more, read my post about The Best Portable Solar Panels for Camping & Backpacking.

 

The Good:

Portable solar panels used to have a lot of glitches.  For example, a common glitch was that passing clouds would cause the solar charger to stop charging completely or slow down.  Now, camping solar panels (the good ones, at least) have features like auto-reset.  They are also more durable and often can be clipped onto your backpack to capture sun while you hike.

 

The Bad:

  • Slow to Charge: Yes, solar panels have gotten more efficient over the years, but they still aren’t perfect.  When conditions aren’t ideal, expect charging time to be slow.
  • Extra Gear: At the very least, you’ll need a solar panel and USB cable.  Realistically, you will probably need the solar panel, cables, power bank, and maybe a USB battery charger too. All this gear can be annoying to keep track of. The weight can add up quickly too.  The better solar panels are ultralight, but then you only get low capacity.
  • Confusing: It is confusing as hell to figure out power needs, expected sunlight hours, efficiency, and all the other things that factor into choosing a solar power setup.

 

Best For:

Longer trips where you have higher power needs, but only if it will be sunny most of the time.

 

Top Picks:

*Note that none of these solar panels have integrated batteries.  If you want a way to store power for later use, you’ll need to bring along a power bank too.


 

Option 4: Solar Power Banks

best portable solar chargers for camping hiking and backpacking

These are simply power banks that have solar panels on them.  You can use them like you would a normal power bank (charge them up at home).  However, you also have the option of charging them with the solar panel too.

 

The Good:

This is a great option for emergencies.  If you end draining your devices faster than expected (or there is a power outage at home), then you can use the solar panel to recharge the power bank.

 

The Bad:

The solar panel on these types of power banks are TINY.  It will take FOREVER to recharge the power bank with solar alone.  So, it is really only suitable for emergency situations.  They also have all the downsides that come with power banks — like conversion losses and losing capacity over time.

 

Best For:

If you want to have an emergency backup in case you drain the power bank.

 

Top Pick:


 

 

Option 5: 18650 Batteries

nitecore f2 18650 battery charger

Here’s a cool solution for charging devices while camping that many people don’t know about. 18650 batteries are a type of lithium-ion rechargeable battery.  Technically, they are called “18650 cells.”  They have capacities of up to 3500mAh, which is about 4x more than a typical NiMH AA rechargeable battery (but are only slightly larger than an AA battery).

Some camping devices now work on 18650 batteries (like the badass Zebralight headlamps). However, 18650 batteries won’t fit most camping devices. So, what are you supposed to do with them?

If you get this cool gadget by NiteCore, you can turn 18650 batteries into a power bank.

 

The Good:

This is by far the most flexible and lightweight solution.

The NiteCore F2 weighs just 1.64oz.  The NiteCore 18650 batteries have 3,500mAh capacity each and weigh just 1.76oz.  To put this in perspective, a single 18650 cell will charge an iPhone about 1.5 times.

Let’s say you bring along four of the 18650 batteries (pre-charged at home). That gives you 14,000mAh of energy at just 8.68oz.  That breaks down to 1,612mAh per ounce.  This beats pretty much all power banks.

The best part is you can customize the number of batteries you want to bring to meet your power needs. Need more power? Just bring more batteries.   You’ll be able to recharge them in the NiteCore F2 via USB when you get to town.

 

The Bad:

The only bad thing about this setup is that 18650 batteries are expensive. You’ll also need to bring a case for any extra 18650 batteries you bring along.  They shouldn’t be stored loose in your pack.

 

Best For:

Ultralight backpacking where every ounce matters.  You can buy the NiteCore F2 charger here and get 3,500mAh 18650 batteries here.


 

How do you charge devices while camping? Let us know in the comments. 

Image credit: “Solar panel and charger” (CC BY 2.0) by sridgway

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About the author /


Diane Vukovic is an avid traveler, outdoor enthusiast and couchsurfer. She loves finding ways to explain complex topics to her 9-year old daughter and hunting beetles with her 1-year old. Follow MomGoesCamping on Facebook and Twitter @MomGoesCamping to stay in touch!

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