Solar Charger Reviews
Gone are the days when people would venture into the woods with only a compass and a map, and of course, some trail mix. Today, you still need these things, but you also probably have a smart phone, GPS, and other electronic devices that need to be charged. Until someone creates forest plug-in outlets, you’re going to need to charge those devices using the latest innovative solar charging kits. These chargers are pretty extraordinary in terms of how they work. They create electricity by converting hydrogen to power, and this is done with a consumable hydrogen cartridge. The voltage that you get from this is low, but the convenience is unbeatable. There are a number of different kinds out there to choose from with various features and differing levels of power. The charger that is going to be right for you is the one that provides enough power for whatever device you’re hoping to charge, and also falls within your price range.
Solar Charger Buying Guide
Many will say that you need a hiking solar charger if you plan to be away for four days, or more. As the friends from Gilligan’s Island could have told you, sometimes a three hour tour turns into 98 episodes. Planning for the unexpected makes the difference between an adventure and a disaster.
Portable Solar Panel Considerations
Panel style, surface area, and output capacity are the primary options for portable solar panels.
Rigid panels are a fixed size and don’t bend. Semi-flexible panels can fold or roll up for easy use and, typically, greater surface area.
A smaller solar panel takes longer to charge, but, is lighter and easier to pack. A larger surface area collects more sunlight providing more power in less time, improved collection area during cloudy days or low-intensity winter light, and when schedules or locations limit solar exposure. The same battery can charge in four to sixteen hours of sunlight, depending on panel size and light conditions.
The measurement of these factors is called output capacity, which is measured in Watts. More is better.
Solar Charger Battery Options
Because you need energy over a period of time, a battery saves power for later. A portable solar energy system either comes with an integrated battery or a separately purchased external battery.
A built-in battery makes for fewer parts to keep track of, ease of use, and guaranteed compatibility between the components.
An external battery adds versatility. Charge multiple sets of batteries to support more electronics or to keep you going through dark days. You can also leave your solar panels charging at base camp while you explore with just the battery. Cables are usually sold separately.
Charger Battery Technology
A solar charger with Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH) batteries often uses rechargeable AA or AAA batteries. Since many types of portable GPS, cameras, or lamps have the same batteries you can just rotate a few sets of rechargeable batteries between your devices and the hiking charger.
Other battery types have a charging port to distribute the power. Lithium-ion and lithium polymer batteries are common because they are lightweight and efficient. Lead acid batteries compensate for their weight and bulk by delivering the most capacity and output.
More charging power is better, not only for the versatility to charge more stuff, but also because you can charge more quickly. If someone is injured or bad weather is coming, you won’t have hours to wait.
There are Two Levels of Power Capacity to Explore
Input voltage is how much energy is used at once. Battery capacity is usually measured in Milliamp Hour (mAh) which is how much energy can be stored; an indicator of long the charge will last. If that’s hard to wrap your head around, think of the gas tank in a car where voltage is like a miles per gallon rating and mAh capacity is the size of the gas tank.
Since the solar charger and your equipment are both rechargeable, the power can flow both ways. This means the output volts of the solar charger must be equal to or greater than the input battery voltage of your chargeable device or you may drain the device battery instead of charging it. (In a crisis without sunlight, you could drain your laptop battery through the solar charger and power your GPS or phone.)
You can find the DC voltage rating for your devices on the power adapter that plugs into the wall or in the owner’s manual (many are available online). Most USB powered devices will be 5V. A handheld GPS with rechargeable lithium battery is usually 3.7V-7.4V. Equipment with a converter block in the power cord, like a laptop, typically ranges from 12V-24V.
Internal battery capacity for a smartphone ranges from 1000-2100 mAh, 22000-2400mAh for the GPS, and 3500-6600 mAh for a netbook or laptop. The capacity of your solar charger must be greater than the capacity of the devices you need to charge in a particular sunny day. Since a phone might last several days and photographers might wear out several cameras in a day, usage is a big factor.
Some portable solar chargers can link together, “daisy chain” style, for more power.
Does your device need AA batteries, a USB cord, or something else for power? 12-volt “car charger” adapter or USB are the most common solar system options. Since many models only have one power port, a small splitter or hub to multiply access is a nice accessory with a high-watt charger.
Size and Weight
Sizes vary greatly from cargo-pocket size, upwards. Clearly, weight increases with size, but also with how many cables and accessories are included. A pound will generally suffice for casual trips in decent weather.
Portable Solar Charger Tips
Depending on a number of factors like weather and device compatibility you may not get a full charge; prioritize your devices and optimize power consumption by turning most equipment completely off instead of just on standby. The exception is to allow a handheld GPS to remain on standby, with optional features off, because it can take 20 minutes or more to connect with new satellites.
All rechargeable batteries, solar charger and chargeable devices alike, have a maximum number of discharge/recharge cycles which is commonly 500-1,000. Don’t allow a battery go completely dead.
Look at attachment options on the portable solar system. It should be easy to stake down in camp, so it won’t fly away in the wind. When hiking or boating, it should be easy to wear and adjust toward the sun. A waterproof, shock-buffering case is an asset for storage.
Obviously, a hiking solar charger needs extensive sunshine. Orient your portable solar charger toward the sun as it, and you, move throughout the day. Direct light is best, but reflected light is better than nothing, so take advantage of light colored materials in the environment when necessary. Make sure all your equipment is fully charged before leaving an electricity source or sunny day so that a low-solar day is less of a setback.