A reader asked me back in 2008 if there was a way to travel around the world without ever plugging into a wall socket. The answer was “sort of” and it has not gotten much better since then, unfortunately. If you only carry a smartphone it’s not hard to be a solar-powered traveler, but it gets really difficult when it comes to recharging laptops and camera batteries.
Back then I took on the challenge and traveled more than a week in Peru almost completely on solar power. But I only managed that by leaving my laptop stowed and cheating when I needed to recharge my camera battery. (I once had a super-zoom camera that used rechargeable AA batteries, which was terrific, but it was made by Kodak and isn’t sold anymore.)
Trying to do a long-term travel jaunt without plugging into the grid is pretty tough. Since that ends up being a challenge just to take on a challenge, let’s look at a more practical situation: adventure travel off the grid. This is a scenario that many travelers will face at some point and they’re usually not ready for it. “Where’s the outlet?” someone will ask, a tinge of panic in her voice. “What do you mean there’s nowhere to recharge?” When I was trekking in Nepal you could plug in at night and get a slow recharge, but for an extra charge on your bill!
Here are some items that can keep at least some of your electronics humming when you get into the backcountry and keep your tent or cabin lit up without an open flame.
Self-contained Solar Travel Items
The obvious place to start with solar travel gadgets is the class of items that don’t require much power to recharge. The most practical item for both the developing world and off-the-grid travel is a lantern. The companies Mpowered and LuminAid have dominated this inflatable solar lantern space for quite a while by selling their items at first-world prices to us and selling cheap or giving them to villagers with no power in developing countries. That’s the Luci lantern you see below and the LuminAid one folds up even smaller. This Pleasant Nature solar lantern uses a pop-out design instead of being inflatable, so it’s a little larger, but it’s only $13.
We used a few of these Luci lanterns on my trek in Kyrgyzstan last year and one can light up a big mess tent enough for everyone to see their food. A charge can last for days and it only takes a few hours to fully recharge again. Clip it onto your daypack with a carabiner and you’re set.
You can also get a wide range of lanterns, flashlights, and headlamps that recharge by USB. This headlamp is under $20 and I love this little Pika lantern/flashlight from UCO I’ve taken on several trips. (It’ll also be your phone charger in a pinch.) If you carry one of the larger solar panels listed below, you can recharge your night light from the day’s sunlight.
I’ve raved plenty on here about the SteriPen and it is a godsend when you are in a place where you can’t trust the water. There used to be one version that came with a solar charger for the (odd-sized) batteries, but the case was bulky and it has been discontinued. The best bet is to get their USB-rechargeable Ultra one or just get the cheaper Classic version if you buy the Goal Zero kit covered further down in this review. Its power bank is four AA batteries, which you can switch out with another four for the SteriPen.
Portable Solar Panel Chargers
I had great hopes for the Solio fan-design charger when it came out, but in my tests two different versions failed to live up to my expectations. I had much more success with the a simple fold-out model from Brunton. The one I used for years finally crapped out on me and I might buy a new one because they’re all on clearance now: Brunton has gotten sold a few times and their solar business melted away at some point. There are other decent portable solar phone chargers from a variety of brands, but some are just toys because they don’t have enough surface area.
Bushnell took a different tack with their SolarWrap retractable panels and companies such as LightSaver have followed suit. Thanks to advances in solar technology and panel cost reductions, it’s now easier and lighter to pack a panel to take along. Just keep in mind these are harder to set upright or clip onto your backpack like the sturdier panels.
Those sturdier panels are made by a variety of companies, but the best-known one is Goal Zero. This is their main business, not a sideline, so they tent to make rugged gear with a good reputation. I used their Guide 10 Plus Adventure Kit when trekking in Kyrgyzstan (now replaced by the Nomad 10 model), plus my buddy Matt was using the Goal Zero panel as he hiked like you see in this photo. We were able to keep our small gadgets charged continually this way.
There’s a Brunton solar phone charger pictured at the top which you can still find on clearance and there are plenty of Chinese knock-off brands on Amazon that will probably do the job. Most require an additional rechargeable battery pack of your own. Which brings us to…
Travel Battery Packs and What Is mAh?
The more juice your electronic gadget needs, the more power it has to receive to recharge. Plus if your phone or tablet is powered on when you are trying to recharge it, that will take longer and could even reduce your battery capacity over the long run.
Also, there’s not really any such thing as a solar phone charger unless you’re going to leave your phone off. It’s a bad idea to charge any item via a solar charger while it’s turned on since the current is not consistent from minute to minute. It’s best to charge a power bank, then use that power bank to recharge your gadget(s).
There’s kind of a hierarchy in power needs which goes roughly in this order (specific models will vary in power need), from lowest to highest:
Old-school cell phone
Kindle Fire/small tablet
Solid-state small laptop
So, if you just want to recharge your phone or GoPro, one of those little finger-sized portable chargers is going to be enough to get you there. A few hours of sun on a large panel or full day on a small portable one will probably be enough for a full charge. If you have an e-reader or Fire tablet, you will need more capacity, probably at least 4,000 mAh but preferably more. If you want to charge a tablet, that will not be enough, so you need to use a larger battery pack, probably one rated 5,000 mAh or above. As you keep going up the scale, you need more and more capacity to a) charge a larger item or b) charge more than one thing.
Ideally, get the largest battery pack you can carry, or bring more than one. I have one rated 10,000 mAh that I can usually get three phone charges or a phone and a Kindle Fire charge out of before it drains. I bought it for around $20 in early 2017. Now for $20 you can get one with a 20,000 capacity.
What does that mAh actually mean? It’s “milliampere hour,” which is a scientific means of measuring capacity. All you really need to know is, the higher the number, the more peak capacity it has. Your milliampere may vary depending on conditions and that’s only one measure of how well it will deliver consistently. Read the customer reviews if you see a deal that seems to good to be true from a company called something like Xielangong Enterprises. It might just be from a container load that a name brand rejected.
Charging a Laptop From Solar Power
In order to charge a laptop out in the mountains, you will need a lot of sunlight and a heavy-duty power bank for storing that energy. It’s tough being a solar-powered traveler who is also getting some work done.
You are probably going to need something that says “laptop charger” in the description to have enough wattage to charge a laptop and it’ll probably be at least 16,000 mAh capacity. It’ll also need a regular plug, not just USB. There’s a model from Innergie that’s only $60 and not very large, but it uses tips to connect to your laptop and some popular models (like MacBook and Surface) are excluded. The normal ones with a normal outlet generally come in at $90 and up and add an extra two pounds of weight to your load. Some are rated 50,000 mAh though, so carry one of these bricks with you and you can recharge all your items in a night—including those proprietary camera battery packs that you have to plug into an outlet. (If you have a camera that recharges through USB, that opens up your options considerably.)
What About Those Solar Laptop Backpacks?
For more than a decade we’ve seen backpacks with built-in solar panels that look ideal. Walk around all day like you normally do and your gadgets will be charged when nightfall comes. Perfect!
Unfortunately, a day of sightseeing is normally not going to generate and store enough power to charge even a tablet, much less a laptop. Unless you’re hiking in Norway in the summer, that is, and can keep charging until bedtime. It’s going to take you close to 12 hours of sunlight to store enough power for a laptop battery to fully recharge. (That will charge your camera battery several times over though.)
If you’re thinking of going this route, go all the way and buy the top choice from the leader in the field—Voltaic. They’ve been refining this idea longer than anyone and they clearly mark which of their packs will charge what. They’re also made in the USA. Go for the one with the biggest panel and the highest storage capacity so you will really have enough juice for a laptop. It’ll cost you $250 or so, but you’ll get something that really works, not a disappointment, with the right battery pack included.
Are you a solar-powered traveler? What have you used in your travels off the grid to stay charged and lit up?
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