Harnessing power from the sun is a great way to recharge gadgets or your smartphone for free while you’re out camping, going off-grid, or dealing with an emergency. However, portable solar panels aren’t free and are not always effective. So, are portable solar chargers worth buying?
A portable solar panel is exactly what it sounds like. You can take a small set of panels anywhere, aim it at the sun, and then use that power to recharge your phone or a portable battery pack.
USB solar chargers are a great option if you’re taking an extended camping trip or other activities. And while I’d recommend a portable battery first, those will inevitably run out of juice, not to mention can be heavy if you’re going on a hike. Portable power stations are great, too, but they’re even bigger and way too heavy for most adventures. Plus, once you use it enough, it’ll run out of battery.
That brings us to portable solar panel chargers, which give you free on-demand power anywhere the sun shines. While they certainly have limitations and speed constraints, here’s what you need to know, why I own several, and a few worth buying.
Before we dive into portable solar panel usage scenarios, charging speeds, and what to buy, we wanted to quickly mention how they work.
A portable solar panel works essentially the same way as a regular solar panel on a roof. That said, they’re smaller, likely not as efficient, and if the power goes directly into a device, it’ll be somewhat slow.
When the sun shines on a solar panel, the panel cells absorb energy from the sunlight. That energy quickly creates electric charges that move around the positive and negative electrical fields inside the panel cell, letting the energy flow into a storage device or battery.
Think of it like magnetic fields, only electric. In a panel, the sun gets absorbed, electric charges move, then flow through the electric field and into your smartphone.
The short answer is yes, absolutely. Portable solar panels can easily recharge a smartphone, tablet, or drone, or juice up a portable battery pack for use later. However, there is a slew of different variables you’ll want to consider before buying one.
For starters, these only work when there’s sunshine, and some areas get a lot more rays than others. So, a portable solar panel won’t be effective if you’re somewhere like Alaska in the winter, which doesn’t see the sun all that much. Locations with more sunshine (and fewer clouds) will benefit the most.
In my Anker 515 portable solar charger review, I had excellent results charging a Galaxy S21 Ultra and Pixel smartphone in the blistering sunshine here in Las Vegas. However, it’s not powerful enough to recharge a MacBook Pro or larger items. And while brands sell bigger “portable” panels, it’ll depend on your needs.
Unfortunately, not all panels are worth buying, in my opinion. I own a few Jackery panels, which work great, but smaller panels from unknown brands aren’t worth it. I have a small portable solar charger roughly the size of a smartphone. It’s mostly useless. That’s because it simply doesn’t have enough solar panel material (or real estate) to actually draw enough power from the sun to make it worth the effort.
Depending on the weather conditions, the Anker 515 can recharge my phone from 0-50% in around 90 minutes or so, which is terrific for going off-grid or in an emergency. One of those tiny phone-sized panels can’t, so keep that in mind.
Don’t get me wrong. A tiny portable solar panel charger can give you a few percent and enable a text or phone call in an emergency, so they certainly have benefits. It’ll just depend on your wants and the situation.
Portable and Flexible Power
As we said above, the size of the solar panel will make a big difference in the charging capabilities and speed. For example, the larger the watt output, the better and faster it’ll charge a given product. The Anker 515 is small enough to fit in a backpack, but it can only draw 24W of power, then shares that power with three different USB ports.
A portable solar panel device with a 100W rating will be able to draw far more power and likely deliver a faster charge to your phone, tablet, or power station.
We can’t give you a definitive charging speed because this varies by unit, its USB rating, and your sunshine and cloud coverage. There are simply too many variables. That said, you’ll want the biggest unit available for your specific application and a panel with USB Type-C or faster output USB ports for the best experience.
For the Outdoorsy Types
By now, you should probably already have a good idea of when or where to use a portable solar panel. The ones small enough for a daypack or backpack are perfect for overnight hikes, 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 big devices.
Depending on what you’re trying to power and how much space you have, portable solar panels are great for camping, hiking, RVs, living the van life, going off-grid, adding to emergency kits, and more. Then again, an RV has space on the roof for a more permanent setup, so keep that in mind.
More Power and Speed
So, are portable solar chargers worth it, and which ones should you buy? Again, that depends entirely on your wants, needs, situation, or budget. That said, I think a portable solar charger is absolutely worth it for quick weekend camping trips or going off-grid and is a wise investment to have in an emergency.
If you’re stuck in a natural disaster without power for several days, having a solar charger could be crucial in charging phones to communicate with loved ones or charging a battery to run some LED lights at night.
Someone that wants to power daily essentials from an RV or campsite may want a large panel, while a hiker will want something lightweight and portable. Either way, there are several excellent options linked throughout for those interested.