Buying Guide to Best Portable Solar Chargers
Solar charging became so portable that you need a very good excuse why you are not helping the planet already.
Yes, you that travels everywhere and does not think twice before plugging your devices to a most likely oil powered socket.
The only excuse you may have is that the market is flooded with solar charging options, and that’s why I created this guide, to help you navigate around your best options.
One of the reasons for this sudden surplus of market offer is that in 45 years the price of solar panels decreased more than 200 times, and the same happened with the size. To have an idea in the 70’s it was around 100 dollars per watt, now is less than 50 cents.
When looking at so many optionsI realised that every type of travel has different requirements and limitations so I recommend a different solar solution for each type of traveling.
Nonetheless if you don’t agree with my traveling assumptions you can still choose the type of solution that better suits you and choose here from my recommendations.
Here are my top pics:
Blavo Solar Panel
Renogy Flexible 100
Why should you consider solar energy on your daily life even if you are traveling
I remember reading an article that had an estimation about how many days or weeks of sunlight that reaches our planet we needed to power all our technology for a full year: less than 1 hour. For an engineer mind that meant too much inefficiency to sleep with a clean conscience.
We can imagine a future where we have an orbital solar panel to collect efficiently all that energy and feed the planet easily, but until then we can and should increase the efficiency of our current solar caption by doing better as individuals.
When you live full time in a house there is no doubt what is the most impacting decision to make: solar panels on the roof, at least for water heating.
But when you are on the road, then the challenge is much harder. Even if you try to rent houses with solar panels they won’t be easy to find.
You can stay in eco-lodges and better footprint hostels, which is getting easier to find, and with that you undoubtedly will make an impact.
But, there is another thing you can do, which has a smaller but consistent and continuous effect is to charge your devices with solar energy.
And luckily for us, today we have dozens of options for that. From the small solar bank that will charge very slowly but hold a huge charge to the wide but portable solar panels that you can carry everywhere if on a RV or car and are able to charge almost everything you need.
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You may be surprised, but the first rechargeable battery was invented in 1859 by a French physician called Gaston Planté. Yes, we have the technology since the middle of 19th century, at the peak of the steam industrial revolution.
Unfortunately after some experimental materials, NiCd became the industry standard until the end of the XX century when environmental concerns forced the Industry to find alternatives. Sony in 1991 launched the Li-ion batteries which are still used today to power most of our electrical devices.
On the other hand, solar power has been used as power source for almost 3 thousand years, when glass became available and someone realised it could amplify the sun rays effect and start a fire. 25 centuries later, in 1767 the first solar oven was invented, and just like the batteries were in the 19 century the first comercial solar panel was created. You can see an infografic of it.
Since then the solar industry has come a long way, and you can now attach solar panels to virtually anything electric. You can dyi solar panels, you can buy in bulk and you can attach it to any power hungry device you want. Mass production has made the cost lower so much that it is almost becoming a commodity to carry solar chargers. Well, at least we hope it is going as fast.
If you go to the most energy demanding travel mode, the infamous RV then we are talking of heavy duty solar technology, which may not be enough to power all your RV but at least feed all support structures. Luckily electrical RVs are already on the priority list of manufactures and Nissan already launched their first model. Add it a proper solar kit and summer traveling can be close to nothing in terms of carbon footprint.
Happy days lay ahead, and we'll talk here about all of it.
In 1839 Alexandre Edmond Becquerel discovered the photovoltaic effect which helped to explain how electricity can be generated from sunlight. He found that “shining light on an electrode submerged in a conductive solution would create an electric current.” Unfortunately, after much research, photovoltaic power was still very inefficient and solar cells were mainly used for measuring light.
1 century later, in 1941, Russell Ohl invented the solar cell, which happened almost at the same time of the transistor. Light (in the form of photons) striking certain compounds, like metals, causes the surface of the material to emit electrons. Photons striking other compounds causes the material to accept electrons. It is the combination of these two compounds that can be made use of to cause electrons to flow through a conductor, and thereby create electricity. This phenomenon is called the photo-electric effect. Photovoltaic (or PV) means sunlight converted into a flow of electrons (electricity).
Today we have solar chargers and rechargeable batteries which are essential to store energy from solar charge when we don't need it. Specially with fixed solar panels it would be a waste if you only used them when you required to use some energy. When considering charging your devices you should have that in consideration and when possible use a power bank. When you connect you device directly to a solar panel, any cloud in the skies will reduce and sometimes stop the charge, which is not great to the device's health on the long run. It's better to store it on a power cell and then use it to charge your devices continuously. This is not always possible when talking about portable solutions, but still advisable.
Electrical charge terms:
Watts - is an instantaneuous consuption of power, it is the rate that energy is made or used. If a device or lamp for example is 100W means it is using 100W of energy when it is on.
Watts = Volts * Amps, so if you keep the voltage and increase the Amperage you will spend more energy (watts)
Amperage - it is the rate the current is flowing when the device is connected. When you see Ah or Ampers per hour means how many ampers it can deliver in an hour if there was no limit for Ampers. If a battery has 4Ah and it delivers 2A, this means it will work for 2 hours.
How is this solar guide structured
Here you will find options for all kinds of travellers, a professional traveler also known as nomad or a low budget camping master who crosses the continent hitchhiking.
Some options are shared between the activities, a good example are the the small foldable panels, where you can use them for camping or backpacking.
I will try to refere the most suitable ones, but you will have to decide for yourself based on your travel style.
Many websites make best of comparisons but then mix solar power banks with a huge foldable panel, while they can be used for the same purpose they are not the same thing and the way you travel with them is very different.
I will choose the best options for me, based on my experience, some friend’s feedback and the consensual internet audience reviews.
I will talk about alternative untested options here and there and I will provide links who are mostly affiliate links to help supporting all the research and knowledge sharing of this website.
The 4 travel lifestyles I will recommend solar options are:
It will be updated as I want it to always be a reference for travel options, and I thank in advance anyone that shows me great options that should be featured too.
Enjoy and share with the world so solar becomes a commodity and not a fancy or crazy widget.
There were many things I took in consideration when choosing the best options in my opinion. It's not quantitative evaluation, there is no formula I created to decide. It's more a mix of quantitative (ex. price) and qualitative ( ex. brand website) qualifications with a salt of my own experience, you are welcome to disagree:
- Website : Brands that don't have their own website are unlikely to be reliable for support or any claim. Website is a minimum requirement for any business today, so I penalised those brands who don't have one. Nonetheless when talking of very inexpensive devices that could be relatively less important when comparing with pricey systems
- Reviews : I tried to look for review websites, and only amazon covers all the products so we can reliably compare them. Less than 50 reviews means a non popular or new product. A new product is a higher risk to purchase so I had it in consideration too. We all know a big chunk of Amazon reviews are fake, so when analysing reviews we need to search deep into the negative reviews to have a feel of it. There is no science for this, as far as I know, so you have to trust my review nose.
- Price and Weight Ratios : I looked at this two critical characteristics when you are talking about traveling gear and compared them with the power capacities. The idea was to see how much you were paying for the same amount of power, or how much weight would you have to sacrifice to have a certain amount of power output. The flaw here is that the marketed power is very frequently different from the real output because of the efficiency of the solar panel. It's almost impossible to have it in consideration for this ratios because you still have to trust the manufacturer, and that's only for the ones who share the info. Hence the oficial ratios will have to suffice.
- Extras : it was never a decisive advantage but I'm that kind of person that loves all-in-ones so I tend to look to see what other tasks the products can fulfil, and some of them are packed with goodies
Camping or hiking: Best camping solar panels
What was the criteria
Camping or hiking is probably the activity where weight is more relevant and in which you have to be very conscious of what you place in your pack.
By the way carry on packing essentials is an art you should master if you are a traveler.
You may be someone like me who preferes to pack an extra gadget and remove clothing, but if you want a good balance between electronics and the rest then this chapter will definitively take it in consideration.
To afford enough power to charge devices like laptops and be portable at the same time the best technology is the foldable solar panel. (check out the next image)
These portable solar panels are easy to pack, very light compared with metallic versions and quite robust for our backpacks.
If you are looking for devices to just charge your mobile phone then you can go to the backpacking section, where we will discuss smaller capacity options.
Small solar panels can easily charge mobiles, even tablets but will struggle so something more like computers or lighting.
Based on the power requirement of a laptop we will only consider a minimum of 20 watts solar panels.
This is an average, as my Macbook 15′ for example requires almost 80 watts to start up. But to be able to charge it in normal operation or when it’s not operating 30 watts is the recommended power output.
We carry our 15W foldable panel on our backpack to charge our devices and we even use it while at home, and we couldn’t be happier.
Our recommendation for solar camping
Nekteck 20W Solar Panels
All the contenders for best camping solar options
– Most of the panels with lower reviews I don’t think they are less popular but rather new, still I had it in consideration
– In this analysis there were two levels of prices, above and below 100 dollars. Only the Voltaic model had a good reason for the higher price because it includes a powebank, the others don’t, which also penalizes them
– With the lower prices we had 4 with good reviews, so we used the reviews to ultimately choose the best option. I believe NekTeck offers the best value for money solution
– Voltaic has great ratings, and if you are looking for a powerback solar pack solution it could be the best choice if you are ok with the high price
Backpacking: Best solar charger for backpacking
What was the criteria
Back in the day, backpacking was a 80 Litres backpack and a long lasting back pain after months on the road.
The good thing is that we could carry anything we wanted, and this is before the computer era so it basically meant clothes and some gear.
Today the average backpack size is 45 litres and minimalism is the word of the day.
Efficient clothing, simpler gear and very light electronic devices allows anyone today to travel for long periods with a manageable weight, that will be nicer to your back.
Based on this new era of light packing, the best options for solar charging are solar charged powerbanks. Another reason why they are better for backing is that you are always on the move, so unless your foldable panels are really small you need to store the energy you get at all time so you can use when you have a chance.
We are not talking of heavy powerbanks either because it would defeat the purpose, of light solar charging. It has to be a perfect balance between charging capacity and mobility. Luckily there are already many reliable brands doing it so we checked them out for you and found a good recommendation .
Our recommendation for backpacking battery charger
Blavo Solar Panel Charger
All the contenders for best solar backpacking chargers
I reviewed two main groups of solar panel chargers with powerbank to see if the difference in price and weight would help for the best option. The first group was the +20K mah:
And then the second group was the +10K solar charger with power bank:
The first conclusion one can take is that it is not worth to get a solar charger with a bank on the lower level of +10K because the price and weight difference is not worth to have half the capacity.
The average price for the +20K is 38 dollars which is not far away from the 24 dollars of the lower bracket (excluding the Powertraveller outlier)
Second conclusion is that weight can indeed be almost the double, meaning it follows the storage capacity.
At least in most of the cases, and that makes sense if we think it as physical capacity.
Nonetheless the one I consider the best buy is below the 400 grams which makes it the best gram per mah capacity of them all.
Blavor is the lightest of the +20K, it costs almost as a +10K and it has amazing Amazon reviews (although with a low number).
For the price and weight it’s a clear winner with the only con to be low review base, but quite positive nonetheless.
Adding on top wireless charge and waterproof makes it a no brainer, it’s a clear winner with no chance for the competition.
RV / Vanlife : Best solar panels for RV
What was the criteria
The world of RV is an entire new beast, it may be confusing to review them together with all of the other styles of traveling but to a certain degree you may actually use the solutions presented in this section else where.
Imagine you are a nomad that drives a car and likes to work in remote surrounded by nature locations? The panels we will talk about are all mobile to a certain extent so flexibility is the key.
When talking about RVs we are talking about at least 100W of solar charge to be able to support it.
Many websites refer 200W as the reference but it all goes down to what type of RV do you have. Because that varies too much I present here the options for both 100W and 200W portable solar panels.
When I say portable I mean, that you do not fix them to your RV, you can but not in a permanent way.
You can easily (kind of) carry them somewhere else and use them.
Or you can move from RV to another (rented RVs) and carry your own solar panels that will charger any RV you use. (when I say charge RV I mean support systems, not the vehicle itself)
Our recommendation for best RV solar kit
Renogy 100W Flexible
Other contenders for best solar panels for RV
The 100W models:
The 200W models:
I chose the best option of the two capacities with the assumption 100W would be enough in most scenarios.
I did not find many light models for 200W so the decision would be harder anyway.
The flexible material of my recommendation from Renogy is amazing in the watts/grams ratio, just imagine a 100W solar panel that has less than 1 kilogram.
Its price is also very competitive, with the $/watt 30% below the average of this class.
The only cons of this choice is the low number of reviews it has (20) which could tilt the decision for the HQSolar power model where the market test has been longer, although with a lower review rating. (3.4)
If you really need a very portable 200W panel then the Dokio model is the way to go, great price, very light and reasonable reviews.
Another alternative of a very portable solar panel with 120W is the AcoPower model that has great reviews with the big con of its price, more than 300 dollars.
Nomad : Best solar solutions for nomadism
What was the criteria
Nomad life, specially if you are a digital nomad where your income is mainly from online work then you need the ability to work anywhere for many hours.
You may want to work in coffee shops that have no plugs, or simply outside in a yard with plenty of sunlight. Either way some proper energy storage is highly recommend, but still under a portable size and weight (below 2 kilos).
There is a limitation that you should have in consideration, many airlines may not allow you to travel with some of this powerbanks for security, so always double check before you travel.
If you really want to play safe then you better get the backpacking solution we give.
To charge this amazing device, and because this article is about solar energy I add a second table of coupling solar options for the powebanks.
Using a laptop we need at least 30W and even that may not be enough so 50 and 60 are the safest options.
Nevertheless and for the sake of portability, already carrying almost 2kg of technology besides your computer then we suggest a lower wattage solar panel to balance things out.
Our recommendation for best digital nomad solar charger
Jackery Explorer 160
iMuto 36W Solar Panel
Contenders for best portable solar charger
The table for the powerbanks
The table for the solar panels:
From all the scenarios this was the hardest to decide as the diferences between the competition are quite small.
We opted for Jackery because their products have amazing reviews and characteristics.
But choosing iMuto for example with an amazing $/capacity ration could also be a good option.
To compensate for the higher price of the Jackery powebank we skipped their solar panel companion which is almost the double of the average price, and went for their low cost competitor, iMuto.
Wrap up: Best solar charger for all kinds of travel
Blavo Solar Panel
Renogy Flexible 100
Like I said in the beginning, the type of solar solution I proposed to each activity is what makes sense for me but it does not have to make sense for you, that’s why I’m sharing this final table with all the options so you can choose the best of all worlds.
What is really important for me is that you consider your options for solar charging in your life.
Anyone interested on its planetary footprint should consider solar energy charge to mitigate that footprint.
We have been trying with different products and have recently partnered with Luzpac and their solar powered bag that we currently use. Soon we’ll give a detailed review of our experience.
In the meantime, remember that whenever you look at the sun you are seeing the single solution for all our energy needs.