Harnessing the power of the sun is a great way to recharge devices or your smartphone for free while you’re camping, off the grid, or dealing with an emergency. However, portable solar panels are not free and are 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 array of panels anywhere, point it at the sun, and then use that energy to recharge your phone or a portable battery.
Solar USB chargers are a great option if you are going on a long camping trip or other activities. And while I’d recommend a portable battery first, they’ll inevitably run out of power, not to mention they can be heavy if you’re hiking. Portable power stations are great too, but they’re even bigger and too heavy for most adventures. Also, once you use it long enough, it will run out of battery.
That brings us to portable solar panel chargers, which give you free power on demand anywhere the sun shines. While they certainly have speed limitations and restrictions, here’s what you need to know, why I have several and some are worth buying.
How do solar panel chargers work?
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 are smaller, probably not as efficient, and if the power is going directly to a device, it will be a bit slow.
When the sun shines on a solar panel, the cells in the panel absorb energy from sunlight. That 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, just electric. In a panel, the sun is absorbed, electrical charges move, then flow through the electric field to your smartphone.
Can a portable solar panel charge my phone?
The short answer is yes, absolutely. Portable solar panels can easily recharge a smartphone, tablet or drone, or recharge a portable battery for later use. However, there are a host of different variables that you’ll want to consider before purchasing one.
For starters, these only work when it’s sunny, and some areas get a lot more rays than others. So a portable solar panel won’t be effective if you’re in a place like Alaska in the winter, which doesn’t see much sun. The places with the most sun (and less clouds) will benefit the most.
In my review of the Anker 515 portable solar charger, I had great results charging a Galaxy S21 Ultra and Pixel smartphone in the scorching sun here in Las Vegas. However, it’s not powerful enough to recharge a MacBook Pro or larger items. And while larger “portable” panels are sold by brands, it will depend on your needs.
Unfortunately, not every panel is worth buying, in my opinion. I have some Jackery panels, which work very well, but the smaller panels from unknown brands are not worth it. I have a small portable solar charger the size of a smartphone. It is mostly useless. This is because you simply don’t have enough solar panel material (or real estate) to extract enough energy from the sun to be worth the effort.
Depending on weather conditions, the Anker 515 can recharge my phone from 0 to 50% in around 90 minutes, which is great for going off the grid or in an emergency. One of those tiny phone-sized panels can’t, so keep that in mind.
Do not misunderstand. A small 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 will depend on your wishes and the situation.
Portable and flexible power
Solar panel charging speeds
As we said earlier, the size of the solar panel will make a big difference in the capabilities and charging speed. For example, the higher the watt output, 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 will be able to draw much more power and will likely provide a faster charge to your phone, tablet, or power station.
We can’t give you a definitive charging speed because this varies by drive, its USB rating, and its sun and cloud coverage. There are simply too many variables. That said, you’ll want the largest drive available for your specific application and a panel with USB Type-C or faster USB output ports for the best experience.
For the outdoor types
Portable Solar Panel Use Cases
By now, you should probably have a good idea of when or where to use a portable solar panel. Ones that are small enough for a backpack 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 large 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 pickup truck life, going 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.
More power and speed
Are portable solar chargers worth it?
So, are portable solar chargers worth it and which ones should you buy? Again, that entirely depends 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 the grid and is a good investment for an emergency.
If you’re stuck in a natural disaster without power for several days, having a solar charger could be crucial for charging phones to communicate with loved ones or charging a battery to power some LED lights at night.
Someone who wants to power daily essentials from an RV or campground may want a large panel, while a hiker will want something lightweight and portable. Either way, there are several great options linked along for those interested.