Should you Carry a Solar Panel on Your Backpacking Trip?
In this post we take a fresh look at solar panels as a backcountry solution for charging your devices. We are revisiting solar panel chargers because they are lighter and less expensive than they used to be. We still believe, however, that a solar charger is only needed in a few circumstances. This article will help you decide if you need a solar panel charger for your next off-grid adventure.
Related Post: Backcountry Strategy for Charging Your Phone and Other Devices
Backcountry Solar Panels 101
For purposes of backpacking, solar panels are best used to charge up an external battery pack. Some solar panel models allow you to directly plug into a phone, but it’s not the best idea to leave an external battery pack out of yoru pack if you are looking for a reliable system. Why is this unreliable? Because an external battery pack holds much more energy than a typical phone battery. Let’s say you directly charge up your phone from the solar panel, and then a week-long rain storm comes in. Once you are out of power, you’re out of luck. However, if you use a solar panel to top off a 10,000 mAh external battery pack, you have multiple phone charges available when that rain storm comes in.
You can set up a solar panel on the top of your backpack and passively recharge/top off your external battery pack as you hike on a sunny day. Then you use the external battery to actually charge your devices.
We purchased all items in this post and were not paid to mention any product.
Each Year Solar Chargers Get Lighter
We compared three lightweight solar chargers we purchased in 2015, 2018 and 2022 and were surprised by how they consistently got lighter. Due to this trend, it is becoming more attractive from a weight perspective to carry a solar panel plus an external battery pack rather than two small battery packs or an extra large battery pack.
2022: 10 Watt Lixada Solar Panel 96 grams (3.4 ounces) $27
2018: 5 Watt Solarpad Solar Panel 122 grams (4.3 ounces) $35
2015: 7 Watt AP Solar Panel 276 grams (9.7 ounces) $16
Pros and Cons of a Solar Charger instead of an External Battery
— If you are hiking in a sunny region, you never have to worry about running out of power
— If you are in the backcountry for longer than a week or if you are in and out of town quickly (it can take up to 5 hours to charge an external battery pack from a wall), a solar charger means that you don’t have to worry about finding a wall plug.
— A solar charger can serve as an emergency backup if you are out longer than you anticipated and unexpectedly run out of power
— Unpredictable cloudy or rainy weather may render the solar charger useless
— Solar chargers are fragile and easily broken
— Solar chargers are more likely to be accidentally left behind (for instance if you lay it out in the sun on a lunch break)
— Since a solar charger is (usually) used in combination with an external battery pack, it is unneeded extra weight if you don’t really need it
Weight Comparison of Solar Chargers vs. Various External Battery Packs
— 10 Watt Solar Panel 96 grams (3.4 ounces)
— 5,000 mAh External Battery 100 grams (3.5 ounces)
— 10,000 mAh External Battery 174 grams (6.1 ounces)
— 10,000 mAh External Battery & Solar Panel 270 grams (9.5 ounces)
— 20,000 mAh External Battery 335 grams (11.8 ounces)
In most cases you will not need a solar panel for your off-grid adventure. Follow these tips to get the most from your phone’s battery. However, there are times when you might need that extra charge, such as when you are in the backcountry for an extended period.
Solar panels are now lighter and more affordable than ever. You can purchase a 10-Watt solar panel for $27 (2022 price) that weighs 3.4 ounces (96 grams). Because of the lightweight nature and affordability of solar panels it is may make sense to carry a lighter external battery pack with a solar panel instead of carrying a heavy external battery pack. So, if you are considering a heavy 20,000 mAh external battery to power your electronic needs you might want to consider a smaller external battery + solar charger combo instead.