Those who have camped before know that if they bring along a high-quality solar panel that is designed specifically for use in camping and other outdoor settings, they can live off the grid without giving up their electronic devices. If you have the right setup, you can power anything from a laptop to an electric cooler with nothing more than a clear view of the sky on a sunny day (sometimes you don’t even need that). Modern panels have come a long way since the low rated power models of even a few years ago.
Here are somethings to consider before purchasing a solar panel for camping:
How solar panels work
Solar panels, broken down into their most elemental components, are made up of solar cells, which are responsible for converting sunlight into electricity. Each cell consists of two conductive layers, and in between those layers are two distinct types of silicone: one type of silicone has extra electrons, and the other type of silicone has space for electrons. When light from the sun strikes a solar panel, it causes a photon to crash into a solar cell, which then causes one of the solar cell’s extra electrons to become dislodged. A positive charge is produced on one side of the silicone when an electron successfully navigates its way to one of the layers where there is room for electrons, while a negative charge is produced on the other side. The solar cell acts as a conduit for the flow of electrons, allowing it to collect the energy that is generated by the electrons as they move. Even though the amount of energy that can be harvested by a single solar cell is extremely low, the total amount of energy that can be harvested by a solar panel can be quite impressive. In fact, some of the solar panels that I tested were able to generate as many as 100 watts of power.
When you are trying to store this energy on the other side, whether in a power bank or directly into a device like some of the best solar generators, it is important to have solar panels that are good at regulating the amount of energy that they produce. Some solar panels are better at doing this than others. For example, if you try to charge your smartphone on a port that can output 20 volts of power, there is a good chance that you will damage the battery of your phone, even if, at the moment, it appears that your phone is simply charging very quickly. This is because 20 volts of power can cause the battery to overheat and become permanently damaged. My test unit’s solar panels put a cap on the amount of power that could be drawn from the USB ports (no more than 5 volts), but the DC ports, which are designed to work in tandem with one of the most reliable portable power sources for camping, provided a greater amount of power (between 14.5V and 26.5V). Despite the fact that this offers some protection against accidentally overcharging your devices, it is still important to be aware of how the maximum voltage output of each solar panel port compares to the amount of power that the battery of your device or power bank can manage.
Although there are variations in the power ratings of different solar panels, it is safe to say that, in general, the size of a solar panel directly correlates to the amount of power that it will produce. In order to maximize the amount of surface area that can be covered when they are in use while also minimizing the amount of space that they occupy when they are being transported, solar panels that are intended for use while camping are typically folded twice or more.
Even though most people have plenty of space at their campsite to set up a solar panel system, this is not always the case with the vehicle that is being used to travel to the campsite. Consider installing a smaller solar panel if you have limited space, the weather in your area is consistent, and your demand for electricity is low.
A significant number of the most effective solar panels for camping are made to work in conjunction with camping-specific power banks. The reason for this is that the majority of solar panels do not have a way to store the electricity that they produce when the sun is shining for use during times when the sky is cloudy or partly cloudy. In addition, because the USB ports on the majority of solar panels designed for camping limit the voltage output—which is done to prevent accidental damage to the batteries of smaller electronics—it is essential to make sure that your solar panel has a port that is compatible with the high voltage output port of your power bank. This is because the USB ports on most camping solar panels are designed to prevent accidental damage to the batteries of smaller electronics.
Top solar panels for camping
1. Jackery SolarSaga 60 (The most stable)
Solar panels designed for use in camping have to walk a fine line between being portable and stable enough to withstand the elements. On the one hand, they need to be portable enough to be stored easily. During the testing process, the thing that struck me as most impressive about the Jackery SolarSaga 60 was how simple it was to set up. Furthermore, once I had it set up, it just stayed put, unfazed by the wind or by me accidentally knocking into it as I worked on the other units. (Just like the other solar panels in this experiment, it is imperative that this one be shielded from the rain.)
The SolarSaga 60 did an excellent job of powering my devices once it was set up; even when the weather was cloudy, it charged my smartphone to 5 percent of its capacity in just five minutes.
Folding up like a book, with a magnet securing the edges together at the handle, the SolarSaga 60 was the large panel that required the least amount of effort to store after I tested it. This is because the SolarSaga 60 is composed of two panels and two kickstands. It is difficult to make a mistake with this product if you are looking for a high-powered tool that is also straightforward to operate.
2. Biolite SolarPanel 5+ (Best for smartphone charging)
When going camping, not everyone is going to want to charge an electric cooler or a laptop. You might just want to give your phone a quick charge every once in a while so that you don’t have to keep an eye on how much battery life is left over the course of your journey.
The BioLite Solar Panel 5+ can be thought of as a more budget-friendly replacement for a more compact battery pack. It has a maximum output of only 5 watts, which is not enough to charge a larger battery pack but is perfect for charging a mobile device such as a smartphone. I also liked that it had an adjustable kickstand, which was the only one of the solar panels that I tested, as well as an integrated sundial, which I used to position the panel in the best possible way while it was being evaluated. In spite of the fact that it was sunnier (although it was still quite cloudy), it took the BioLite Solar 5+ 22 minutes to charge my phone to 5 percent, despite the fact that it was sunnier than during other parts of my test.
The best and highest use of the BioLite is to charge the onboard 3,200 mAh battery (which can also be charged before leaving home via a micro USB port), which speeds up your smartphone recharge so that you can get going again. This is in contrast to the other panels, which could be used to spot charge a device while on the go.
3. Anker 625 Solar Panel (best overall)
Even during the cloudiest part of my testing day, when dark gray clouds obscured the sun and the other solar panels gave up, the Anker 625 was still able to charge my phone 5 percent in only five minutes. This was despite the fact that the other solar panels had given up. Under the same conditions, it charged a 32,000 mAh battery pack to 5 percent capacity in half an hour. When I plugged in both the battery pack and the phone at the same time, it continued to charge in both devices simultaneously. If there is even a remote possibility that the weather on your camping trip will be less than ideal, then this is the solar panel solution that you have been looking for.
The Anker 625 was also one of only two solar panels I tested that included an integrated sundial, which made it possible for me to position the panel in the best possible way to maximize its efficiency. When it is difficult to distinguish between different angles of the sun, this comes in handy. The kickstands were not nearly as helpful. There were only two kickstands provided, one on each end, despite the fact that each of the four panels measured nearly five feet in width. This meant that the unit had a propensity to sag in the middle, and it moved more in the light breeze that blew while the tests were being conducted in comparison to other setups that had a higher ratio of kickstand to panel.