Harnessing the sun’s energy is a great way to charge gadgets or your smartphone for free while camping, off the grid, or dealing with an emergency. However, portable solar panels are not free and not always effective. So, is it worth buying portable solar chargers?
A portable solar panel is exactly what it sounds like. You can take a small set of panels anywhere, point them at the sun, and then use that energy to charge your phone or a portable battery.
USB solar chargers are a great option when going on an extended camping trip or other activity. And while I’d recommend a portable battery first, these will inevitably run out of juice, not to mention they can be heavy if you’re going on a hike. Portable power plants are great too, but they’re even bigger and way too heavy for most adventures. Plus once you use it enough it will run out of battery.
That brings us to portable solar panel chargers that give you free power on demand wherever the sun shines. While they certainly have caveats and speed limits, here’s what you need to know about why I own several, and a few worth buying.
How solar panel chargers work
Before we dive into usage scenarios for portable solar panels, charging speeds, and where to buy, let’s briefly mention how they work.
A portable solar panel works essentially the same as a regular rooftop solar panel. However, they’re smaller, probably not as efficient, and when power goes directly into a device, it’s a bit slow.
When the sun shines on a solar panel, the panel cells absorb energy from the sunlight. This energy quickly creates electrical charges that move around the positive and negative electric fields within the panel cell, allowing the energy to flow into a storage device or battery.
Think of it like magnetic fields, only electric. In a panel, the sun is absorbed, electric charges move and then flow through the electric field and into your smartphone.
Can a portable solar panel charge my phone?
The short answer is yes, absolutely. Portable solar panels can easily charge a smartphone, tablet or drone, or charge a portable battery for later use. However, there are a number of different variables to consider before making your purchase.
For starters, these only work in sunshine, and some areas receive a lot more rays than others. So a portable solar panel isn’t effective if you’re in Alaska during the winter, when the sun doesn’t show up that often. Locations with more sunshine (and less cloud) benefit the most.
In my Anker 515 portable solar charger review, I had excellent results charging a Galaxy S21 Ultra and a Pixel smartphone in the blazing sun here in Las Vegas. However, it’s not powerful enough to charge a MacBook Pro or larger items. And while brands sell larger “portable” panels, it depends on your needs.
Unfortunately, not all panels are worth buying in my opinion. I own a couple of Jackery panels that work great, but smaller panels from unknown brands aren’t worth it. I have a small portable solar charger that is about the size of a smartphone. It’s mostly useless. That’s because there just isn’t enough solar panel material (or real estate) to actually pull enough power from the sun to make the effort worthwhile.
Depending on weather conditions, the Anker 515 can charge my phone from 0-50% in about 90 minutes, which is great for going off the grid or in an emergency. One of those tiny phone-sized panels can’t do that, so keep that in mind.
Do not get me wrong. A tiny portable solar panel charger can give you a few percent and allow for a text or phone call in an emergency, so they certainly have benefits. It just depends on your desires and the situation.
Solar Charger, Anker 24W 3-Port USB Portable Solar Charger with Foldable CIGS Panel for Camping, PowerPort Solar for iPhone 12/SE/11/XS Max/XR/X/8, iPad, Samsung Galaxy S20/S10/S9/S8, and more
Anker’s 24W flexible solar panels can charge three devices simultaneously with up to 9W per device.
Charging speeds of solar panels
As we said above, the size of the solar panel will make a big difference in charging ability and speed. For example, the greater the wattage, the better and faster a given product will charge. The Anker 515 is small enough to fit in a backpack, but it can only draw 24W of power and then shares that power with three different USB ports.
A portable solar panel device rated at 100W can draw far more current and likely charge your phone, tablet, or power station faster.
We can’t give you a final charging speed as it varies by device, USB power rating, and solar and cloud conditions. There are just too many variables. However, you want the largest unit available for your specific application and a panel with USB Type-C or faster USB output ports for the best experience.
Hilucky 25000mAh Solar Charger with Portable Power Bank
A durable portable solar charger and power bank that charges two devices at the same time.
Use cases for portable solar panels
By now you should probably already have a good idea of when or where to use a portable solar panel. Those small enough for a daypack or backpack are perfect for overnight hiking, camping, or other outdoor adventures. Even a relatively small 24W solar panel can be enough for a weekend trip as long as you’re not trying to power large devices.
Depending on what you want to power and how much space you have, portable solar panels are great for camping, hiking, RVing, van living, getting off the grid, adding emergency kits, and more. On the other hand, an RV has roof space for a more permanent setup, so keep that in mind.
[Upgraded]BigBlue 3 USB-A 28W Solar Charger (Max 5V/4.8A), SunPower Portable Solar Panel Charger for Camping, IPX4 Waterproof Compatible with iPhone 11/XS/XS Max/XR/X/8/7, iPad , Samsung Galaxy LG etc.
The BigBlue 3 delivers 28W of power and can charge three devices simultaneously, but is small enough to fit in a daypack.
Are portable solar chargers worth it?
So, are portable solar chargers worth it and which ones should you buy? This also depends entirely on your wishes, needs, situation and budget. That said, I think a portable solar charger is totally worth it for quick weekend camping trips or getting away from the grid, and is a wise investment in an emergency.
If you’re stuck without power for several days in a natural disaster, a solar charger can be crucial to charge phones to communicate with loved ones or charge a battery pack to power some LED lights at night.
Someone looking to power everyday needs from an RV or campsite might want a large panel, while a hiker might want something light and portable. In any case, for those interested, there are several excellent options linked throughout.
Jackery SolarSaga 100W Portable Solar Panel for Explorer 240/300/500/1000/1500 Power Station Foldable US Solar Cell Solar Charger with USB Outputs for Phones (Explorer 440/PowerPro Cannot Charge)
If you need even more power or want to charge larger devices like a power station, consider Jackery’s SolarSaga.
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