04/03/2024
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Solar power for camping: all you need to know

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Solar power is nothing new – it's been drying clothes for millennia and does a good job of turning my house porch into a tomato factory (should that be 'plant'?)

Gathering and storing that solar power to be used for charging batteries and powering lights is a relatively recent phenomenon, though. While we mainly think about solar power in terms of farmers' fields being converted into giant solar farms, portable chargers harvesting the sun’s rays to recharge your phone have existed for a few years and the technology is improving.

Can you rely on a solar charger to keep your devices topped up on the campsite, though? Are they proficient enough to leave other chargers behind? This is our guide to solar power for camping.

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Words by Jack Hart and Iain Duff

 


What are portable solar chargers?

Portable solar charger in Canada

Back in 2018, I went hiking in Canada and ended up miles from any other person, let alone a building.

We took a portable solar charger with us, consisting of a folding solar panel that your devices could plug directly into. In that situation, it seemed like a slam dunk move: we would be away from any source of power for days, so a simple solar panel clipped onto a rucksack or tent, soaking up sunlight, would keep our phones topped up for emergencies.

A bright idea, perhaps, but it didn’t work.

The portable solar charger in question couldn’t handle the balmy Canadian heat in August, short-circuiting and leaving us out of battery. For a first experience with solar chargers, it didn’t exactly fill us with confidence.

In the past six years, though, it looks like technology has advanced to the point where portable solar chargers are more reliable and have worked their way into the rucksacks of most wild campers and lightweight trekkers. Even if you’re not planning on hiking into the great unknown, having an extra source of power while camping will save you needing to walk to the local café to charge your phone.

Most solar chargers will feature multiple output options, ranging from USB and USB-C ports for smaller chargers and mains outputs for larger generators.


How powerful are portable solar chargers?

A camping solar charger in use

Solar chargers for camping need to be portable, either stashing into a rucksack to be carried on hiking trips or folding neatly to be stored in a car or campervan. The size of charger you pick will determine how powerful it is and what kind of devices you can charge.

Editor of Camping, Iain Duff, has a Freeloader iSIS, which claims to charge a mobile phone three times over on a single battery, ample for a weekend’s trip to the great outdoors. It’s also a small, highly portable solar charger, weighing just 240g and packing easily into a rucksack.

If your devices need a bit more juice, you could opt for something like the SolarPowa 28 from BigBlue, which unfolds from a canvas case to reveal four solar panels – a pretty standard design for portable solar chargers and one that is proven to harvest enough sunlight for several devices, including laptops. This kind of charger can usually be fixed to a rucksack or the outside of a tent, too.

Need even more power?

You can always pick up something like the Crafuel Solar Generator 600W, which can charge 10 devices simultaneously, including 12V devices like kitchen appliances and DIY tools. The trade you make for that power is the size of the charger, which includes a large solar panel and separate generator, so it’s definitely one for car camping rather than lightweight trips to the great outdoors.


How reliable is solar power for camping?

Large solar panels for camping

As detailed above for our time hiking in Canada, it’s best not to rely on solar power as your only source of electricity – if you can stash an additional, pre-charged power bank in your rucksack, you’ll be prepared in case the charger fails or the clouds gather.

Which, of course, is the biggest obstacle to using a solar charger while camping.

Particularly in the UK, poor weather can mean that devices which on paper should hold enough juice to charge several laptops can struggle to power a single phone. Performance in cloudy conditions will vary from device to device.

If you need a reliable source of power while camping, a larger portable solar charger with the panels disconnected from the generator will usually collect more sunlight, particularly when clouds gather. A smaller charger, particularly one with a single solar panel, will struggle to harvest enough sunlight to keep even small devices charged.

This is why solar chargers feature a mains or USB input, so that you can top them up on rainy days. Of course, this does slightly defeat the point of having a solar charger…

In short, the bigger (and more expensive) your solar charger is, the more you can rely on it to perform no matter the weather.


The best solar chargers for camping

Listed below are some of our favourite portable solar chargers, including a range of options depending on what type of camping you’re keen on, from super lightweight wild camping to packing the car full of every bit of kit imaginable!

EcoFlow 160W Solar Panel

Unfolding to reveal four solar panels that together deliver 160W, this portable solar charger from EcoFlow (a brand with impressive off-grid energy credentials) is designed to perform well in poor weather. It features an IP68 waterproof rating and the panels are encased in protective ETFE film, which means the device is protected from wind, rain and dirt.

Even better, this solar panel folds into a neat pack that measures 42cm by 68cm by 2.4cm, stashing easily into your car or tent when not in use.

EcoFlow 160W Solar Panel

Description

This large portable solar panel will ensure that you never run out of power while pitched up at the campsite, delivering a massive 160W of power.

Protected by ETFE film and a high IP resistance level, this solar panel can handle rough conditions, from dry and dusty ground to wet weather.

Pros & cons

  • Good
  • Huge power output
  • Weatherproof
  • Fast charging
  • Bad
  • Large design
  • More than most campers need

Specifications

  • Weight: 7kg
  • Dimensions: 157cm by 68cm by 2.4cm
  • Operating temperature: -20°C to 85°C
  • Output: 160W

BioLite SolarPanel 5+

Featuring corner latches to attach to your rucksack or tent, the SolarPanel 5+ is ideal for campers heading off the beaten track and needing a reliable source of power for phones, headtorches and other gadgets.

Its ultra-slim panels are just 6.6mm deep and fold together to reduce space when not in use, delivering 10W per hour during peak sunlight hours. BioLite has engineered the SolarPanel 5+ to capture as much sunlight as possible, using an integrated sundial to align with the sun and a 360-degree kickstand for optimal positioning on uneven ground.

BioLite SolarPanel 5+

Description

Providing a functional 5W output, the SolarPanel 5+ from BioLite is ideal for solo campers needing to recharge their phone or similar devices.

The 3,200mAh battery stores energy for later and the integrated kickstand helps you to find the optimal position in sunlight on uneven ground.

Pros & cons

  • Good
  • Small, portable design
  • Integrated battery
  • Optimised charging
  • Bad
  • Not weatherproof
  • Limited power output

Specifications

  • Weight: 0.5kg
  • Dimensions: 26cm by 21cm by 2.5cm
  • Output: 5W

Goal Zero Nomad 5

This is one of the smallest portable solar chargers around, measuring just 34cm tall, so it’s ideal for solo camping trips. The built-in kickstand allows you to find the best position for the Nomad 5 to harvest as much sunlight as possible, delivering that power to your devices through a 5V USB output.

We wouldn’t recommend using the Nomad 5 in anything but bright sunny conditions as it’s not been designed for use in all weathers, but for a summer camping trip where you don’t need loads of power, it’s a good option.

Goal Zero Nomad 5

Description

This lightweight solar panel is ideal for solo adventurers, providing a serviceable 5W output (great for mobile phones and similar devices) and encased in a rugged outer layer.

The Nomad 5 from Goal Zero delivers power from a universal USB port and features a built-in kickstand for optimised sunlight collection.

Pros & cons

  • Good
  • Small, portable design
  • Integrated kickstand
  • Rugged outer later
  • Bad
  • Limited power output

Specifications

  • Weight: 360g
  • Dimensions: 24cm by 17.8cm by 2.8cm
  • Output: 5W

BigBlue 14W SolarPowa

Designed primarily for 5V devices like phones and power banks, the SolarPowa solar charger from BigBlue is good value for money, providing a steady 5V output from four solar panels that fold down into a pack smaller than a regular tablet.

The panels themselves are waterproofed by a polymer surface, with a rugged fabric casing around the whole charger to keep it protected from knocks and scrapes within your rucksack.

BigBlue 14W SolarPowa

Description

Unfolding to reveal four solar panels, the 14W SolarPowa from BigBlue is a highly portable solar charger, encased in a tough canvas case.

BigBlue's SolarPowa series boasts an energy conversion of 24%, 9% higher than the industry average, which means your devices will stay powered no matter the weather.

Pros & cons

  • Good
  • Highly portable design
  • Rugged canvas case
  • 24% energy conversion
  • Bad
  • USB port does not connect to all devices

Specifications

  • Weight: 360g
  • Dimensions: 14.5cm by 64cm by 0.5cm
  • Output: 14W

Jackery Solar Generator 1000 Pro

Looking for something more powerful? Look no further than the 1000 Pro version of Jackery’s Solar Generator, offering a massive 1,000W output from multiple output ports, including USB-C, 100W PD and 1,000W AC.

The external waterproof solar panel connects to the generator, which can power a huge range of appliances and functions in temperatures as low as -40 degrees C. Even better, the battery inside the generator has a lifespan of 10 years continuous use, so you can rely on this solar charger again and again.

Jackery Solar Generator 1000 Pro

Description

Delivering a massive 1,000W output, this solar generator from Jackery is a great option for large families heading on longer camping trips.

The large solar panels connect to an external generator, from which you can charge a wide range of appliances and devices from USB ports, a mains output and more.

Pros & cons

  • Good
  • Huge power output
  • Connects to many devices
  • Rapid set-up
  • Bad
  • Difficult to carry

Specifications

  • Weight: 11.5kg
  • Generator dimensions: 34cm by 26cm by 25cm
  • Solar panel dimensions: 122cm by 53cm by 2.5cm
  • Output: 1,000W


Expert Camping advice!

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Every issue is packed with inspirational travel, the top camping sites to stay on, reviews of the latest tents, camping gear reviews, practical help and much more to help you get the most out of your camping adventures.

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