How To Choose Portable Power Devices and Solar Panels for Camping

Photo: Michael DeYoung Photography/Tandemstock

Even when we head into the wilderness to “unplug” or “get away from it all,” we often don’t want to leave our electronic devices completely behind.

Plenty of gadgets serve an important purpose in the backcountry, from navigation to photography to emergency communication. So if you’re one of the many people who go camping and backpacking with a smartphone, satellite messenger, GPS, tablet, or laptop in tow, you’ll need a way to recharge your devices when you’re far from a wall plug or car charger.

Portable power devices, aka battery packs, power packs, or power stations, are an excellent solution. In general, electric power packs and stations are rechargeable batteries that you power up before your trip, then use to charge up your devices in the field. They range from pocket-sized battery packs that can recharge a smartphone once to large, heavy power stations capable of running a mini-fridge, and they can be paired with solar chargers or other sources of renewable energy for practically unlimited power in the backcountry. Here’s how to choose the best portable power devices and solar panels for you.

In this article, you’ll learn:

  • The differences between a portable power pack and a power station
  • How to evaluate a power pack’s capacity, power output, power source, and extra features
  • How to choose among solar panel setups and power outputs

Power Pack or Power Station?

One of the first questions to ask yourself is: How much juice do I really need? Do I just need to top off my smartphone on a weekend backpacking trip, or do I want to run multiple devices at once for an extended basecamp? The answer will determine what kind of power device you’ll need. Here are the options.

Power Packs/Battery Packs

This category includes the smaller portable power devices. They’re compact and light, but provide much less energy than a larger power station. The smallest, most affordable ones can recharge a smartphone or MP3 player once; medium-sized ones are good for several recharges; and the largest, most expensive power packs can also handle multiple devices at once. Power packs are ideal for backpacking, and are probably enough on their own to handle a weekend trip’s worth of simple recharging. If you need more juice, pair one with portable solar panels.

Power Stations

These devices are significantly larger and heavier than power packs, so they’re best for car camping, base camping, and home emergencies. They have the capacity to recharge power-hungry devices like laptops, tablets, lights, and even mini-refrigerators or TVs, and usually have several different kinds of ports. Power stations cost several hundred to several thousand dollars, depending on their size and capacity, and also pair with solar panels for extended use.

A portable solar panel attached to a backpack Photo: trek6500

Battery Considerations

Think about the following variables as you shop.

Storage Capacity

One of the biggest considerations in portable power devices is how much energy they can store (battery storage capacity). This is measured in milliamp hours (mAh) or watt-hours (Wh). To figure out how many charges you’ll get out of a particular power bank, check the storage capacity of the device(s) you want to recharge. You can find this information on the manufacturer’s website.

So, if your smartphone has a storage capacity of 3,000 mAh, a 9,000 mAh-power bank will recharge it about three times. Keep in mind that charging isn’t completely efficient, so you’ll get a bit less power than the numbers suggest.

Power Output

This refers to how much charge the portable power bank can deliver, measured in volts, amps, or watts. (Banks or stations that have multiple ports will have different outputs for each port.) The key here is making sure the battery’s output matches your devices’ input requirements (find these requirements on the manufacturer’s website or printed on the charger that came with the device). If they don’t match, your device will charge slowly or not at all. Many smartphones that charge via a USB port, for example, need a 5-volt input.

Power Source

This is how the battery pack charges up in the first place. The fastest method is AC power (a wall outlet), followed by a 12V DC (like a car charger). USB charging is slower, and solar-panel charging speed varies depending on the solar setup you have.

Extra Features

Some power packs offer extra-convenient features, such as quick-charge technology or wireless charging. Look for these if you want your devices to recharge ASAP or you don’t want to keep track of another cord.

Solar Panel Considerations

Need more power than a single battery pack can provide? Solar panels are the most common solution. Just like solar panels on a house, portable panels harness the power of the sun to charge your devices. They vary widely in size, price, and power output. Here’s what to consider when you shop.

Setup Types

Solar panels work with and without a battery.

Solar panel + device: Some panels plug directly into your electronics, no battery required. This is appealingly simple, with one less component to keep track of. This works best when you’re not on the move and don’t need your device during the day—set up the panel in the sun and plug in your device. This setup doesn’t let you store power for later, though: If it’s cloudy or dark when you need to recharge, you’re out of luck.

Solar panel + integrated battery: A panel with its own battery pack is also simple and streamlined, and lets you generate power when it’s sunny, then recharge devices when it’s convenient. Some are light and compact, with a smaller solar panel; keep in mind that this makes recharging the battery from the sun a slow process.

Solar panel + external battery: This setup pairs a solar panel (which might be quite large) to a separate battery pack; the battery pack is what recharges your devices. This is a flexible system that lets you recharge the battery pack with the solar panel when it’s sunny and/or you’re on the move (panels can be lashed to your backpack). Then, you can recharge your devices later, even if it’s cloudy or dark. Depending on the size of the solar panel and battery you choose, this setup can be expensive.

Power & Size

The larger the solar panel, the higher the power output and the more electricity you’ll get from it. The flip side is that the higher the power output, the heavier and less portable (and more expensive) the solar panel will be. If you’re backpacking, you’ll need a panel that’s large enough to produce the power you need, but light and compact enough to carry. If you’re car camping, you won’t have to worry as much about the panel’s weight or bulk.

A solar panel’s power output is measured in watts. More watts mean more power. A 5- to 10-watt panel can recharge smaller electronics or battery packs in a reasonable amount of time. For laptops, tablets, or multiple devices at once, look for 15 to 20 watts. A portable power station will need 100 watts or more to charge quickly enough to be useful. Some solar panels can be linked together to generate even more power.

Also consider the panel’s shape. A rigid panel is more durable but less packable. A folding or flexible panel is easier to pack and lash to a backpack, but less durable. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.