Must-Have Solar Camping Gear

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Must-Have Solar Camping Gear

In the late 2000’s, the first portable solar phone chargers began to appear on the market. Fast forward to the present day and there are hundreds of portable solar products, ranging from collapsible panels for backpacking, battery banks, and more.

While there will always be a debate around the role of technology in camping, unless you live in a cave there’s a good chance that you have at least some kind of electronic device that needs power (even while you’re camping).

The first and most obvious use case for solar camping gear is emergencies (think solar powered radios, flashlights, etc.). However, rapid advances in the solar industry have made it possible to keep even your clunkiest gadgets running while we’re off the grid.

From backpacking to front-country camping, solar technology is available for a wide range of uses and conditions. 

In this article, I’ll provide a basic overview of solar camping technology and discuss factors to consider when choosing solar camping gear for a particular use case.

Basics of Solar Camping Gear

There are four main components to consider when talking about solar camping gear: the sun, solar panels, batteries, and devices.

The Sun

What more can be said? Solar camping gear is useless without the sun. Depending on your location, time of year, climate, and other factors, the availability of sunlight will dictate what kind of solar gear you need (or if you can even use solar at all).

For example, if you’re crazy enough to go camping near Barrow, Alaska between November 18th and January 23rd, you won’t see the sun the entire time you’re there. That’s 67 days of darkness! Not a great time to use solar power.

However, if you’re there in the summer months for the “midnight sun”, you’ll have over 80 consecutive days of uninterrupted sunlight to power all of your solar needs.

Solar Panels & Batteries

Solar panels convert the sun’s energy into electricity that can be used directly by a device, or stored in a battery for future use. Solar panels designed for camping can be separated into two main categories: panels with built-in batteries, and panels without built-in batteries.

  • Panels with built-in batteries store energy within a battery pack that’s permanently affixed to the solar panel, which can then be used to charge your devices. Generally speaking, panels with built-in batteries are usually slower to charge due to their small surface area and are usually reserved for emergency purposes.

    It is not uncommon for solar panels with built-in batteries to take an entire day of unobscured sunlight (or more) to fully charge the battery.
  • Panels without built-in batteries can provide power directly to a device, or charge an independent battery pack. These panels generally have a large surface area, which equates to higher wattage and faster charging. They also give you the freedom to select a battery that fits your specific needs, whether that be weight related, charge capacity, or others.

Within each category, there are additional variables to consider, such as panel material and panel size which we’ll revisit later.

Devices

The devices or equipment using solar power can be broken into two categories:

  • Fully Integrated devices have a solar panel and battery built into the device. Devices like solar powered radios and watches are good examples of fully integrated devices.
  • Standard devices do not have a built-in solar panel, and may not have a built-in battery. These are normal devices that we use on a daily basis like cell phones and portable speakers.

Choosing Solar Camping Gear

I’ll admit, when I began researching and writing this article I felt like I had a good grasp on the latest solar technology. After all, I’ve been the proud owner of a Goal Zero Nomad 14 since 2017. Surely the industry hadn’t changed that much?

While the basic underlying solar technology has largely remained the same, the advancements in panel efficiency, output, and battery options have evolved rapidly. There are literally hundreds of product options and configurations to choose from, offered by a growing list of companies. With so many options it can be overwhelming to know where to start.

One thing we do know is that different types of camping require different needs. For example, a backpacker probably doesn’t need to power a flat screen television deep in the woods (but PLEASE send pics if you have them).

With that in mind, I’ve grouped information about solar camping gear based on the unique needs of both backpacking and front-country camping.

Solar Gear for Backpacking

When choosing solar camping gear for backpacking, start by asking yourself the following questions to help guide your selection:

  • How much weight do I want to carry?
  • What devices do I need to charge?
  • What environmental conditions will I encounter?

How much weight do I want to carry?

As the old saying goes: “ounces make pounds, and pounds make pain”.

Unless you manipulate your unwitting friends to carry your heaviest gear, your top priority as a backpacker is normally to keep weight at a minimum and conserve space in your pack. With that in mind, you can eliminate a good portion of solar gear right off the bat by determining how much weight you are willing to carry, and how much space your pack holds.

A small solar panel with a built-in battery like the BEARTWO Portable Solar Charger is a good compromise if weight and pack space are a concern.

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What devices do I need to charge?

In my experience, the most common devices I see being charged in the backcountry are phones and headlamps (the exception being my flamingo string lights, which I will hike in just about anywhere).

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If you plan to charge your phone more than once, or if you have multiple devices to recharge over the course of your trip, it’ll be best to go with a higher wattage (10 watt +), independent solar panel with fast charging speeds like the Ryno Tuff Solar Charger. A high-wattage solar panel will allow you to quickly charge your phone so you can keep taking pictures or recharge your headlamp before it gets dark.

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What environmental conditions will I encounter?

Rain, snow, and clouds- they aren’t friendly to solar panels. However, certain models do perform better than others under adverse conditions.

Think about the climate where you’ll predominantly use your solar gear. Areas like the Pacific Northwest, coastal British Columbia, and Southeast Alaska receive a significant amount of rain and cloud cover. In this case, sacrificing a little more weight and space for a panel that works reasonably well under cloud cover (like the Goal Zero Nomad) might outweigh the cons.

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  • WARRANTY: 1 year manufacturer warranty. Our US based support team is available...

Also related to environmental conditions is something called “interruption recovery”. Interruption recovery refers to the ability of a solar panel to continue charging (or restart charging) during interruptions in sunlight from cloud cover and shade).

During episodes of cloud cover, some solar panels will completely disconnect from your device while charging and reconnect (or in some cases not). Due to their large surface area, panels like the BigBlue SunPower Solar Panel and other large panels do a better job at reducing interruptions, so take this into consideration.

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Solar Gear for Front-Country

Solar camping gear for the front-country is an entirely different beast, and the limiting factors inherent with backpacking (like the size and weight of gear) are largely irrelevant. With recent advances in technology, you can use solar to power many of the same luxuries you have at home.

While you’re free to take your solar gear wherever you choose, for the purpose of this section we’ll assume that front-country solar gear refers to more powerful equipment that would not be suitable for use in the backcountry due to size and weight.

When choosing solar camping gear for the front-country, start by asking yourself the following questions to help guide your selection:

  • How much money am I willing to spend?
  • Where else and how often will I use my solar equipment?

How much money am I willing to spend?

Unlike solar gear for backpacking, the main limiting factor that most people will encounter with front-country solar gear is price. The good news is that there’s a wide range of products and price points to choose from.

Entry level power stations and solar panel kits like the Goal Zero Yeti 200X + NOMAD 50 Solar Panel start at around $500, and can power multiple devices like computers, tablets, cameras, and phones.

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For those with bigger budgets (in the $5000 – $6000), options like the Goal Zero Yeti 6000x + Boulder 200 Briefcase can easily power large electronics like microwaves, flat-screen televisions, and even full-sized refrigerators!

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Where else and how often will I use my solar equipment?

The higher price point of powerful solar gear can be a deterrent or barrier for many. However, it’s important to remember that this equipment has a wide range of uses outside of your weekend camping trips.

Emergency power loss, tailgating, outdoor parties- you name it. There are hundreds of use case scenarios beyond camping where solar can provide value, so take these into consideration while searching for gear.

FAQ

Do bigger solar panels generate more energy?

In general, the more surface area that a solar panel has the more power (watts) it can generate. This is why most compact solar chargers with built-in batteries are so slow to recharge. Most have the surface area of a small phone or text book, which can only capture a small portion of the sun’s energy when compared to larger panels.

Can I chain or link multiple solar panels together to produce more watts?

Many portable solar brands don’t support chaining. However, there are outliers like GoalZero which supports chaining between most of their Nomad and Boulder solar panel lines. Make sure to contact the manufacturer and confirm before chaining any solar panels.

Can I charge my phone directly from a solar panel without using a battery?

If you’re using a portable, independent solar panel (i.e without a built-in battery), in most cases you can. However, it’s best to check with the manufacturer.

For example, Goal Zero Nomad 20 can directly charge small to medium sized devices. However, their Boulder solar panels are specifically designed to charge their power banks and power stations, and can’t be used to directly charge your phone.

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Conclusion

Rapid growth in the portable solar industry has led to an expanding list of products for budgets of all sizes. This is great for advancing portable solar technology, but can make it confusing and difficult to decide what solar camping products you need.

To determine what solar gear is best for you, start by thinking about your own use case. What do your adventures normally look like? What problem(s) are you trying to solve with solar? The answers to these questions will help guide your decision making process.

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