Portable Solar Panels for Camping and Backpacking

Solar panels for camping and backpacking have really improved in recent years. Originally conceived in 1883, it was not until 1954 that Bell Laboratories created the first modern (PV) Photovoltaic cell. Although a major breakthrough at the time, the cost of electricity they produced was extremely high, especially when compared to coal and oil. Development of this technology was slow as a result. However, continually rising cost of petroleum based fuels combined with decreasing cost of PV cell production has brought a renewed growth in solar based technologies.

So what does this mean to us campers? More choices of better solar products at lower than ever prices. Portable, more powerful, solar panels make it now possible for us to bring our modern electronic gadgets along for the camping trip – no more worrying about batteries dying out. If you are backpacking, portable solar panels add little to the weight of the pack. Portable GPS units, Cell phones, Laptops, and other electronics are all easily powered by today’s portable solar panels.

Though still not nearly as efficient as portable gas generators in terms of power output, solar technology does have inherent benefits that make it a great choice when camping or backpacking.

Benefits of Solar Technology

  • Low Cost of use – After the initial purchase, which can be significant dependent on how much power you want, the cost is FREE. At least until someone figures out how to charge for sunlight. And because there is only one upfront cost, the cost per use decreases every time you use it. Solar electric panels are designed to last 10 to 30 years making them a great investment.
  • Zero Pollution – Although there are pollutants produced during the manufacture of photovoltaic cells, continuing advancements in technology are making this a cleaner than ever process. But the real benefit of using solar electric technology is during usage. The process of converting sunlight into electricity produces Zero pollution.
  • Light weight – Portable solar panels come in a variety of sizes and power ratings designed for outdoor recreation. The folding and flexible types, best for camping, are super light weight ranging from just 8 oz. to 3 lbs. However, many car campers and RVers like to carry a rechargeable storage battery using the panel only to charge it and then run their devices from the battery. Of course, this will add to the overall weight of the solar electric system.
  • No Noise – Using solar electric power creates no noise. Something most campers really appreciate.
  • Durable – Solar electric products are really tough. Designed to take a beating in the outdoors, they can be bent, dropped, kicked, run-over and exposed to water. Heck, PowerFilm Solar even has a video showing how well their solar panels continue to work after being shot with several bullets!
  • Chainable – Many manufacturers allow you to chain multiple panels together for even greater power output when needed.

Solar Cell Technologies

Photovoltaic solar cells are used in everything from calculators to Satellites. With such diversity, it’s no surprise that there are variety of cell technologies on the market. So what’s the best type of solar panel to use for camping? To answer that question I’ll need to get just a little bit techie. Sorry, I promise to keep it to a minimum.

The process of converting sunlight to electricity is known as the photovoltaic process. Silicon, an abundant component found in sand, is the most common material for making solar electric cells because it can be modified to increase its reaction to sunlight energy. When sunlight (photon) energy strikes a solar panel, it causes electrons to dislodge from their atoms and move around. This movement of electrons is known as electric current flow or just electricity.

When shopping for solar panels for camping or backpacking, you will find several competing types on the market. Here are four of the most common used in camping and outdoor recreation products:

  • Monocrystalline silicon – has the highest performance and can achieve around 18% efficiency – low compared to other forms of energy – but still impressive given all other benefits. Designed to last 10 to 30 years, monocrystalline panels perform well in adverse weather including high temperatures. Although costly to produce, they out perform all other PV cell technologies.
  • Polycrystalline silicon – is essentially a lower grade, less efficient, but also less costly form of silicon used to produce solar arrays. Poly-silicon panels are typically about 10% efficient and are great for larger panels used on home and RV rooftops.
  • Thin film (Amorphous) – An older technology, thin film is a non-crystalline form of silicon which is deposited directly onto a glass substrate during the manufacturing process. Similar to a being sprayed on, the silicon is deposited in thin layers of film and built up to form a photovoltaic cell. Thin-film solar panels produce less power than crystalline panels in full sunlight, but will continue to produce power in very low light conditions. They have been used in calculators for years because of the low cost of production.
  • Copper Indium Gallium diSelenide (“CIGS”) – Wow, that’s a mouth full! CIGS  is a non-silicon type of amorphous cell popular in the outdoor recreation industry because they are thin and flexible and can be made into roll-up style arrays that are both waterproof and durable – great for boating and kayaking. Slightly more expensive than older thin film technology, they are more efficient at around 10% in bright light.

How to use Solar Power when Camping

There are two methods of using solar power when trekking to the outdoor wilderness. The first method is directly connecting your gadget to the solar panel. This is a great way to go if you are backpacking and don’t want much additional weight. Panels are often made as small fold-up or roll-up units and typically have small grommet holes around the outer edge for hanging on the back of a pack or from a tree at camp. Small, lightweight panels can directly power cell phones, portable GPS units, tablets, and other small devices as long as there is good sunlight available. But, of course, night time use is out of the question.

The second method is to use the solar panel to charge a power pack. Then power your gadgets directly from the power pack. This gives the best flexibility, but at the cost of additional weight to carry. Not a problem if car camping or RVing , but a real consideration if backpacking. Power packs come in a variety of sizes, power ratings, and weight. Companies like GoalZero and Brunton manufacture solar power systems designed to meet the needs of both car camper and backpacker.

How much Power do I need?

The power output of a solar panel is usually given in Watts per hour (W/h) or sometimes as voltage and amperage ratings. Watts = volts * amps. All solar PV cells produce Direct Current (DC) voltage. So a smaller solar panel that produces 12vdc @ .5amp, in full sun, is rated as a 6 watt per hour panel. To determine if this will power your gadget(s), check the power needed for each. Many electronic devices have a sticker on the device itself. If not, check the “specifications” section of the owners manual or check the sticker on the charger that came with it. Look for the input wattage on the device itself or the output wattage of the charger. Sometimes, you may need to do the math (volts * amps) to determine the watts needed. Here is a list of small devices with power ratings in watts per hour. I determined most of them by looking at the DC wattage output listed on the wall charger unit.

  • Smart phone – 5 W/h
  • Portable GPS – 5 W/h
  • Tablet – 10 to 12 W/h
  • Laptop – 60 W/h
  • MP3 player – 5 W/h
  • Camera (Point & shoot) – 6 to 12 W/h
  • Steripen rechargeable UV water purifier – <5 W/h

Using a Power Pack with a Solar Panel

Many campers will use the solar panel primarily to charge a power pack or battery. When using a panel as a charger, the biggest consideration is how quickly you want to charge the power pack. Naturally, a higher wattage panel will charge the pack more quickly. However, smaller solar panels can often be daisy chained together to provide greater power (wattage) output to really speed up the process. Manufacturers sell appropriately sized solar panels with power packs, but you can often mix and match panels and packs to your liking as well.

So along with choosing the solar panel size, you also need to decide on how big of a storage pack is appropriate for your typical usage. Storage packs are just batteries that can be recharged hundreds of times without loss of charging capacity over time. In fact, not only can they be recharged many times, they typically will hold that charge when not in use for more than a year. Ranging in sizes from a few watts to several hundred, storage packs designed for camping boast a slew of handy features:

  • Multiple power-out options including 12v DC, 5v DC, USB and cigarette lighter.
  • Many have DC to AC inverter capability built into the pack or available as an add-on unit. This gives you the ability to directly power small AC devices like fans or laptop AC power adapters.
  • Can be charged via AC wall adapter, 12 volt car adapter or portable solar panel.
  • Can operate at wide temperature ranges from below freezing to well above 100°.
  • Lightweight compared to portable gasoline generators.

Larger Panel/pack systems can be used to power video equipment, digital cameras, laptops, smartphones and large lighting arrays. They can also be used to trickle charge car batteries or deep-cycle batteries for RV’s, trolling motors, and marine electronic devices.

Smaller Panel/pack systems are designed to power small devices like point-and-shoot cameras, LED flashlights, e-readers, cellphones, portable GPS devices, and portable UV water purifiers.

Gaining popularity are all-in-one solar packs offered by companies like SolarJOOS and Solio. These products combine a mini solar panel (typically monocrystalline) with a storage battery into one device. Power out is via a built-in USB port. They are designed to power most small gadgets that would normally be charged using a USB charger. Basically, if it’s got a USB port for charging, it can be powered or re-charged using one of these devices. These little guys work in less than ideal weather conditions including light rain and are sealed to resist water damage.

Choosing Solar for your Camping style

Camping with solar power is a lifestyle choice. It’s a choice to survive off the grid and a choice to go green. Let’s face it, we love our modern electronic gadgets. And although I have never personally brought my laptop on a camping trip, I wouldn’t leave home without my cellphone. To me, camping is so much about getting back to basics without all of the modern conveniences we enjoy at home. It’s about experiencing nature without altering or destroying it for future generations to enjoy.

Using solar power is somehow very organic, completely benign and possibly life-saving. Harnessing the sun to produce electricity gives campers choices that just weren’t possible a few years ago. Sure, we can use it to listen to music, work on a spreadsheet, or send an e-mail. But it can also power that Ultraviolet water purifier to keep you from getting sick, or power that portable GPS unit so you can get back on the trail, or recharge that dead cellphone battery to send out that emergency call, or even trickle charge that weak car battery needed to bring you back home.

With ever advancing improvements in solar technology, not to mention decreasing prices, there’s little reason not to harness natures greatest source of power – solar power. So go camping. Get back to nature and go green with solar while your at it.