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Published Jun 7, 2022 9:37 AM

The best solar panel and a wind turbine are talking about music. So the wind turbine turns to the solar panel and says, “So, what bands are you into, bro?” The solar panel says, “Whatever’s hot, but I prefer the light stuff. How about you?” The wind turbine replies, “Me, hell, I’m a big metal fan!” Get it? Metal…fan. Ok, ok. I know that was awful, but whether you are camping in the front country or the backcountry, solar panels are a great way to keep all your devices powered — especially the ones you use to rock out. You’ll also need power for your GPS, personal locator beacon, avalanche transceivers, smart watches, phones, cameras, and all the other electronic junk we haul around.

Keeping stuff powered while camping is always a challenge, especially on multi-day backpacking trips. It’s super inconvenient (and noisy) to bring a generator car camping, and it’s totally unfeasible while backpacking. Batteries are also heavy to pack around, and you’re not going to spool out a 35-mile extension cord. So, what do you do? Consider taking along a small, portable solar panel. It’s the best option for off-the-grid power for long trips where your power needs can’t be met by a portable rechargeable battery. I’ve been impressed lately at the improvements in weight-to-power-generated ratios from many products. Like all things technological, it’s exciting to see portable solar panels get smaller, lighter, and less expensive.

Methodology

I selected all of the solar panels in this review based on personal ownership, hands-on inspection, performance reputation, interviewing other experts, and thoroughly reviewing manufacturers’ specifications. I take my time to get to know the strengths and weaknesses of each item, and also check out the reviews of other experts just to make sure we’re not missing anything. For new items, I ask for samples from the makers and test them in the field. When that’s not possible, I visit the products in the store. In either case, I also review the manufacturers’ websites, user comments, YouTube reviews, and third-party evaluations, just to make sure I’m not missing anything.

When researching the best solar panels for camping, I based my criteria on my own experiences using outdoor gear in the field for more than 35 years. I’m very familiar with the major manufacturers of outdoor equipment, know their reputations, and have a sense of their customer service — which is also super important. I also speak with other people who spend considerable time outdoors for their thoughts as well. 

After gathering enough high-performing products for a best-of article, I racked and stacked each based on their attributes, design, and performance. My bias is towards the lightest, best-functioning, and lowest-cost solutions available. We don’t torture test gear here at Task & Purpose — we test within normal usage limits. When gear does fail or break, we contact the manufacturer to see if and how it stands by its products. I also take a look at how easy the gear is to maintain or repair in the field — the simpler, the better.

For final selection, I take all factors into consideration and think: What is the gear I’d most want in my pack? What would I trust my life to in the backcountry? Those are the recommendations I forward for your consideration. Furthermore, it’s of the utmost importance to the Task & Purpose team that our readers know our commitment to open, fair product recommendations and reviews, and that you can trust us to provide you with unbiased, balanced information.

The Anker 513 leads the pack when it comes to efficient, lightweight, and packable solar panels. This 21-watt unit delivers 1.43 watts per ounce carried, and its overall weight is less than a pound at 14.7 ounces. Built into the unit is Anker’s Power IQ fast charging technology that delivers up to 2.4 amps per port, or 3 amps overall, under direct sunlight. The solar array is 21.5 to 23.5 percent efficient and can recharge or power two devices simultaneously. I loved that it is made from industrial-strength PET polymer and sewn into a durable polyester canvas fabric that does not retain water. It’s also compact at 11.1 by 6.3 inches folded, and unfolds to a spacious 26.4 by 11.1 inches. Sewn into the fabric at the corners are stainless steel eyelets that allow users to easily attach them to the exterior of backpacks or tents. I also liked that it had a built-in surge protector to prevent damage to devices. With the panel comes a three-foot Micro USB cable and guidebook. Anker also backs its products with a 1.5-year warranty.

Product Specs
  • Dimensions: 26.4 x 11.1 inches deployed
  • Weight: 14.7 ounces
  • Power capacity: 21 watts
  • Number of outlets: 2
PROS

Fast-charging

Lightweight

Efficient

Durable

Auto reconnect

CONS

No integrated storage battery

Pocket could be better designed

When considering watts of energy produced per dollar of purchase cost, it’s damn hard to beat the Ryno Tuff portable solar charger. For less than $60, you’ll get a well-built solar panel that delivers 21 watts of power. Similarly capable panels go for $20 to $80 more. The Ryno Tuff charges devices quickly and can charge multiple devices at one time with its two USB ports. It is made from a rugged 600D waterproof PVC canvas with Sunpower X-series high-efficiency solar cells that achieve up to 25 percent conversion. It will charge a cell phone in about two hours. It will also automatically stop charging when devices are fully charged. Each charging port delivers 2.4 amps (with a max of 3 amps when both ports are used). I like the three-panel design which extends to 11.8 by 18.1 inches when deployed, and packs down to 5.9 by 11.8 inches when stowed. It’s also pretty light, weighing in at one pound one ounce. It’s also easy to set up and intuitive to use. Some users complained about charge interruption under cloud cover, and it lacks an internal battery.

Product Specs
  • Dimensions: 18.1 x 11.8 inches deployed
  • Weight: 17 ounces
  • Power capacity: 21 watts
  • Number of outlets: 2
PROS

Fast-charging

Lightweight

Efficient

Durable

Reasonable price

CONS

Charge interruption complaints

Honorable Mention

I like BioLite for many reasons — especially because of its mission to provide 20 million people in Africa and Asia with access to clean energy by 2025. Although the BioLite 5+ solar panel isn’t the most robust in terms of wattage, nor does it have the best watt-to-ounce ratio, it is a well-made, solid performer that was also the lightest panel we evaluated.

The design is super intuitive to use and has an integrated sundial to make sure you point it to optimally gather the sun’s rays. It also has a 360-degree kickstand to help position it on uneven terrain and is made from super thin high-efficiency PET-coated monocrystalline cells. Solar panels lose efficiency when they heat up, and the super-thin design helps dissipate heat quickly. The device has integrated microprocessors that monitor sun levels and adjust the converters to ensure the delivery of the most power available. I also liked that it has a 3,200mAh integrated battery that stores energy for when the sun goes down or the sky clouds up.

The BioLite 5+ will power phones, tablets, cameras, and other small electronic devices. Like most panels with integrated batteries, it also has a battery charge strength indicator and battery status button. Best of all, it’s super light at 13.7 ounces. It also comes in a 10-plus watt version for about thirty bucks more.

Product Specs
  • Dimensions: 10.12 x 8.19 inches
  • Weight: 13.76 ounces
  • Power capacity: 5 watts
  • Number of outlets: 1
PROS

Lightweight

Well-made

Easy to use

Integrated battery

CONS

Doesn’t fold smaller

I’m not an RV guy, so take this review with a grain of salt. I’m a foot mobile long-distance backpacker, so I’m pretty terrified by the thought of any gear that’s big and heavy. But in the world of solar panels, big is better in terms of watts produced, and the Renogy 550 Watt Solar Panel Kit seems pretty damn good for RVing. This baby is a high-powered module designed for RV rooftops and yachts engineered with high-efficiency PERC cells, which capture more light and achieve a 22.8 percent conversion efficiency. Renogy’s panels are made with half-cell technology which is more tolerant of shading on any part of the cell, and this boosts its performance in low-light conditions because more cells receive more sunlight. Each panel can produce 2,720 watts per day and requires fewer installations per panel on your RV’s rooftop. It’s also durable and corrosion-resistant and made to last for decades. The IP68-rated junction box and solar connectors withstand dirt, dust, water splashes, and your kid’s stray Cheerios.

Product Specs
  • Dimensions: 89.7 x 44 inches
  • Weight: 62.8 pounds
  • Power capacity: 550 watts
  • Number of outlets: 12
PROS

Generates massive juice

Maximizes power and minimizes installation space

Reduces carbon footprint

10-year warranty

CONS

Big

Heavy

Best for Backpacking

Keeping smartphones charged in the backcountry is always a challenge. I try to leave mine in airplane mode most of the time to save battery life and carry a power brick with me. I don’t dig the brick because it is heavy, so I looked around for an alternative and found the Knog PWR 10W Solar Panel.

What I dug about the Knog is that it’s compact, relatively light, well-made, and provides an endless supply of clean energy. The Knog is built around a concertina design and it folds up to about the size of two iPhones stacked on top of one another. At 450 grams, it’s light enough to backpack with. I also liked the integrated magnets in the design to keep it packed up when not in use or to affix the panel to metal objects.

Knog designed the PWR Solar Panel with Sunpower Maxeon Gen 5 panels, which use Monocrystalline cells for high efficiency — the same ones used by NASA. Four LED lights atop the unit let you know the quality of available sunlight and help dial in optimum placement for sunlight capture. They also indicate the rate at which your devices are charging.

Product Specs
  • Dimensions: 21 x 7 inches
  • Weight: 16 ounces
  • Power capacity: 10 watts
  • Number of outlets: 1
PROS

Light

Rugged

Compact

10 watts of power

Integrated magnets

CONS

Need sunshine to run

I was truly surprised to find a portable solar panel that delivers 10 watts of power in a sub-four ounce package, but there appeared the Lixada 10W. However, what this panel sacrifices in weight it also sacrifices in performance. Still, it’s the best device for those who have minimal charging needs and are using it in an area with reasonably strong sun.

While it is affordable at $21, some users reported sub-par power generation and reliability, with some reports coming back that the actual power capacity is about 4 watts. I even found one gram-conscious backpacker who trimmed off the excess material and got the panel down to 2.4 ounces, which is really light. Just know that the panel will also stop charging many cell phones when light is disrupted by shadows and you’ll have to re-plug your device in to re-initiate charging. Some recommend fixing this panel to the top of your backpack and using it to charge a 15,000 mAh or 10,000 mAh battery, then using the battery to charge your devices.

Product Specs
  • Dimensions: 11.4 x 6.29 inches
  • Weight: 3.56 ounces
  • Power capacity: 10 watts (questionable)
  • Number of outlets: 1
PROS

Very light

Compact

CONS

User reports of wattage less than advertised

Doesn’t work well in cloudy conditions

Not the most durable or weatherproof

Our verdict on best solar panels for camping

Batteries are heavy as shit to haul around the backcountry, and solar panels are a great option unless the weather doesn’t cooperate and clouds block the sun. I like these models because, with the exception of the RV variant, you can affix them to the top of a backpack and charge devices on the go. Some models work better at charging batteries than cell phones due to variable current when clouds or shadows pass over the panel and it loses contact with the sun’s direct rays. All of the models above have the capacity to recharge the devices we carry most in the backcountry: cell phones, GPS devices, and smartwatches.

What to consider when buying solar panels for camping

So, what’s important when considering solar panels for camping? There are three basic types: Monocrystalline, Polycrystalline, and flexible panels.

Types of solar panels for camping

Monocrystalline

Monocrystalline panels are old-school, traditional solar panels. They’re time-tested and proven technology and are among the most efficient (24.4 percent efficient) and dependable panels around. Each module in these panels is made from a single silicon crystal. While more efficient, they are also more expensive than polycrystalline and thin-film PV panels. They are usually black in color or iridescent blue. They tend to have greater longevity and more efficiency, but are more fragile. 

Polycrystalline

These panels are made from melted silicon crystals and are less efficient (19.9 percent) than monocrystalline panels. However, they tend to perform better in low-light conditions than monocrystalline panels. They’re also less expensive and have a moderate lifespan. Because the cells of polycrystalline panels are larger than monos, the panels tend to take up more array space to generate the same amount of power. They’re also less durable and don’t last as long. 

Flexible panels

Also known as CIGS, these thin-film panels are the most expensive, the least efficient, and have the shortest life span of the three types. Their advantage is that they tend to be the lightest to carry around, but also the least durable.

Key features of solar panels for camping

It’s important to pay attention to your total backcountry power usage needs. For most smartwatches, GPSs, and cell phones, you can get away with a 5-watt panel. However, if you have a power-guzzling smartphone, you might want to opt for the 10-watt or larger version. Remember, the smaller the device, the longer it will typically take to charge your stuff. The best practice is to go with the largest panel surface area and lightest unit that will generate the power you need. 

Power generation

Portable solar panels typically come in 5-, 10-, 15-, and 20-plus-watt options. Also, pay attention to the power output specs and whether the total amperage per USB port is for both combined or individual (for multiport devices). This will determine how much power is directed to each device and the time it will take to charge them. 

Integrated or external batteries

Many solar panels made today have integrated battery storage devices. This adds weight to the panel but also allows you to charge devices when it’s cloudy or after the sun goes down. Many allow you to plug the panel into a home electrical outlet prior to your trip to fully charge the unit. If the unit has external batteries, this option allows you to decide whether you want to carry the extra weight or leave the battery at home and just direct-charge your devices off of the panel. If you are direct-charging, you’ll have to more closely monitor the panel to make sure it’s constantly positioned to get the most out of the sun’s rays.

Output ports

Make sure you check to see if the output is USB or USB-C to make sure you bring the right connecting cables. 

Automatic restarting

Some solar panels are a pain in the ass and will stop charging your devices if they lose direct contact with the sun due to cloud cover or someone or something blocking the panel, and you’ll have to unplug and replug them to start charging again. Look for panels that automatically restart charging if power is disrupted.

Pricing for solar panels

Most camping solar panels range from $20 to $130. I consider $20 to $40 to be budget panels, $50 to $70 to be mid-range, and $70 and up to be premium panels.

Tips and tricks

As with something you do for decades upon decades, you pick up a few tips and tricks along the way in terms of selecting the right product, and/or using it. That’s the case with us and camping solar panels. To help you bridge the information gap, here’s a selection of what we’ve learned along the way.

  • Pay attention to actual watts produced per ounce carried and also watts produced per dollar cost when comparing panels.
  • Make sure you consider total weight to include the panel, cables, and any associated batteries.
  • If your panel has an integrated battery, charge it before you leave the house.
  • Check to make sure the panel you buy supports the devices you will charge, especially your smartphone.
  • Solar panels work best when perpendicular to the rays of the sun, so look for devices that assist in proper positioning like kickstands or grommets.

FAQs about solar panels for camping

You’ve got questions, Task & Purpose has answers.

Q: What size solar panel is good for camping?

A: It depends on what you need to charge, how much power you need, and how fast you need it to charge. In general, the greater the demand, the bigger the panel you’ll need in terms of watts produced.

Q: What will a 200-watt solar panel cost?

A: About $200 to $250 for most 200W panels. 

Q: Are solar panels for camping worth it?

A: Yes, especially if you are multi-day backpacking and want to cut weight.

Q: Can a solar panel run a camping fridge?

A: Sure, if you get a big enough panel. You’ll also probably need a power inverter, too.

Q: Is there a 500-watt solar panel?

A: You betcha. See the 550W panel we reviewed for RVs.

Q: How much solar power do I need for a camper?

A: It depends on what you need to charge. If you are backpacking and just need to charge a cell phone and smartwatch or GPS, you can probably get away with a 5- or 10-watt panel. If you are car camping at the KOA and want to power larger devices, you’ll probably want a 50- to  200-watt panel depending on how much electronic junk you bring.

Q: How long does a portable solar panel last?

A: This depends on the amount of abuse the panel takes. Generally speaking, panels are designed to last 20 to 30 years, but they degrade over time. The National Renewable Energy Lab found that, on average, solar panel output falls by 0.8 percent each year. 

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