We seem to have reached a point where the idea of device batteries running out is enough to induce cold sweats. Disconnection anxiety is real and there isn’t always an outlet nearby to juice up your electronic toys.
This is especially true for people who like to brave the great outdoors for more than just a weekend. Long hikes and camping trips can really put a dent into even the biggest sacks of power banks. This means you are going to need a portable renewable source of energy. Thankfully, solar panel technology has developed to the point where you can now buy portable units that produce usable amounts of power. You can use them to juice up a smartphone or tablet with ease, or recharge that sack of power banks.
Here’s our list of the best portable solar panels.
HQST 100 Watt Foldable Panel
How much power do you really need? Most phones only need a few watts pumped from a USB plug to stay in business, but sometimes one’s needs are a little more gluttonous. The HQST portable panel offers a peak figure of 100W. That’s quite a bit of juice!
What you get in the box is the solar panel itself, which has an integrated stand as well as a solar charge controller. This acts as the intermediary between the panel and the battery you want to charge. In general, this panel is used to top up camper batteries, so that the occupants can use appliances and other electrical conveniences without fear of running out.
According to the people who have bought and used this portable power generator, it works pretty darn well. All you have to do is connect the little alligator clips to your battery after setting up the charge controller, and soon your power should be topped up.
There are a few caveats you should know about. One of the most attractive things about this 100W panel is its price, but corners had to be cut. The wires are a little thin and the frame is somewhat on the flimsy side, but, man, does it offer quite a bit of power for the money.
If you don’t mind the money and are looking for the very best panel, the next one might be a better choice though.
Renogy 100W Portable Monocrystalline Panel
While the name “Renogy” might not ring any bells to total solar newcomers, it’s become a rather respected name in solar circles. Starting as a small university-funded startup in Louisiana, the company now has several notable rewards under the belt and plenty of seemingly happy customers.
This 100W foldable panel and waterproof charge controller unit comes in at a price that’s a little more expensive than I’ve seen. However, it makes use of premium monocrystalline solar cells.
This panel is compatible with all three common lead acid choices: flooded, gel, and sealed. You can also charge lithium batteries with it. It’s been designed with a good amount of safety in mind and is unlikely to cause shock or fire. Most of the electrical safety is thanks to the 20 amp charge controller. A great, simple and powerful panel set for outdoors portable use.
RAVPower 24W Solar Panel
24W of power might not sound like much in the greater scheme of things, but if you want to juice up an iPad then it’s plenty. The RAVPower offers a maximum of 24W. This power is delivered through three USB ports, each good for 2.4A, although not at the same time. The total amperage you can get is 4.8A if you put the panels in direct sunlight.
That sounds good, right? Well, there’s something more amazing about this set of portable solar panels. RAVPower claims up to 23.5% conversion rate; that puts these panels at the cutting edge of solar efficiency and, frankly, is a little hard to believe.
Customer feedback seems to back it up. People report that this foldable panel works even in relatively weak sunlight. Thanks to the high efficiency of these panels, RAVPower could make it much smaller than other systems that put out a similar power. There’s a waterproof outer layer and a pouch for your devices. This is honestly one of the best travel solar chargers I’ve seen, and the price is just right too. It’s all in such a neat package, I’m almost tempted to say it’s perfect.
SUAOKI 60W Foldable Portable Solar Panel
When you want a lot of power, but also want it to be compact when you’re traveling, you end up with a ridiculous number of folding panels. I count nine panel folds in total, which gives you one very thick package when all folded up. That being said, it could have been much worse. This solar charger offers a very respectable 20% conversion rate, which is pretty high-end these days.
The charger comes with a single USB port, but also many other connector options, including connectors for most popular laptop brands. There are also some alligator clips so that you can charge a lead acid battery as well. If you are a Mac user, however, you are pretty much out of luck.
So, in short, the SUAOKI provides quite a lot of power in a small package when folded up. It can be a little cumbersome when unfurled, but once you have it secured somewhere you’ll appreciate the ability to charge your USB devices and a laptop computer with minimal fuss.
People who have bought this charger are also very positive about the build quality, although it seems the small individual panels don’t always do well when it’s cloudy. Overall, however, this is a great choice to stuff in your trunk for a trip or an emergency.
Goal Zero Nomad 20 Solar Panel
Like Renogy, Goal Zero has made quite a name for itself in the consumer renewables market. Most of the stuff they sell supports the outdoor lifestyle, and plenty of hikers and other active people swear by their products.
In this case we have a compact 20W panel system that generates as much as 20W. You can link multiple Nomads together to get better performance. This modular design is pretty neat, since it means you can buy one set now and then another later, if you want to expand your power envelope.
The Nomad 20 is a great product that does what it says on the tin in a compact form factor. The main drawback is that it’s pretty expensive! You can attribute this to the premium monocrystalline cells and various proprietary tricks Goal Zero has incorporated into its product. If you have the money, however, you should place that at the top of your shopping list.
Foxelli Dual Portable USB Charger 21W
The Foxelli foldable solar kit is one of the more visually attractive products that I have seen. It reminds me more of a bit of motocross kit than a hiking charger. Foxelli claim up to 24% conversion efficiency, which means these panels are performing at the current cutting edge for panels you can actually buy. It also provides two USB ports with a total shared current of 3.5A available. The device is waterproof; this includes the panels and the polyester canvas backing.
Foxelli has included a very useful feature that I’d like to see on more solar chargers. There’s a port marked “iOS”, which you can use to charge anything. However, if you plug an iPhone into it, it will automatically start charging again after the light gets interrupted. This is to compensate for an issue where iPhones stop charging if the power is interrupted.
On top of this, it’s tiny and light with a very decent price. If you’re looking for a truly portable and compact charger that can still charge a phone in a decent amount of time, this seems like just the ticket.
TuffGear 15W Dual USB Solar Charger
The TuffGear charger is a little light on wattage at only 15W total. In practice this means about 10W in real world situations. The good news is that the TuffGear is also light on price and small in size. In any case, although the charger comes with dual USB ports, it’s really only practical to charge one phone at a time. This product isn’t waterproof, so you will have to keep an eye on the sky to make sure your charger (and phone) don’t get soaked.
In real world use some people are reporting about half the theoretical wattage, which is in line with expectations and supports the idea that you should only charge one thing at a time. If you’re OK with that proposition then you can save a few bucks and get a TuffGear.
Renogy Phoenix Solar Kit
This product from Renogy carries a pretty hefty price tag, but then again it’s much more than a portable smartphone charger. This is a complete, all-in-one power solution that Renogy refers to as a generator, which is technically true.
This device looks a bit like a suitcase, but it’s actually a completely solar power system. There’s a 20W monocrystalline panel that can charge the internal battery, but you’re meant to fill it up from a car lighter socket or an AC source before storing it. You can add additional panels to boost the solar capacity to 120W, but that’s not included in the price tag.
The internal battery has a 190 Watt hour capacity according to Renogy, and the built-in inverter can deliver 150W peak output. So at full blast that should work out to almost ninety minutes. In practice inefficiencies are likely to make that number shrink.
Renogy designed the Phoenix for emergencies. It’s rugged and has a built-in light and separate charging ports for all the possible sources I mentioned above. There are four USB ports, an AC power port, and a car cigarette lighter output too. That’s great because plenty of off-grid equipment plugs into a car’s lighter socket. While this portable power station isn’t for everyone, it’s the perfect device to stash in your boat or other vehicle that might end up leaving you in the middle of nowhere.
Only the Best
Honestly, these portable solar chargers are some of the most futuristic devices I have ever seen. Sure, I’m impressed by modern smartphones and other hi-tech devices, but these solar panels make me feel like I really am living in the future. The idea that these small solar panels are good enough to produce juice to power those smartphones is incredible. When I was a child you could barely power a pocket calculator with solar energy. Now every person can have double-digit solar wattage in their bags. If that doesn’t scream “welcome to the world of tomorrow” to you, then you better get your pulse checked!