Don’t rely on small portable solar panels this summer

With the sun rising and everyone enjoying the outdoors, you might be thinking that a portable solar panel can keep your various electronics charged on your next trip. Just prop it up against the cooler on the beach and everyone’s phones can take selfies all day, right? All while using sustainable energy? This is honestly as useful as heck.

The sad truth is that bringing portable solar panels is rarely solved in this way. It’s like spending a few hours in the corners of a babysitting board to get the most sunlight, constantly checking forecasts to make sure there aren’t any cloud cover in the way, all in order to get half a charge on a single piece of phone. Meanwhile, everyone is making the most of summer. Skip solar – there is a better way.

Portable media is refillable

Often enough in the marketing literature for “portable” solar panels, you’ll see happy families hanging out of their RV with five paper bags of solar panels scattered on the front step. Sure, it’s about as portable as you can carry and haul it, but not many people would dedicate this much space in their trunk for anything less than a multi-week trip away from civilization. For me, portable means you can put it in your backpack. Solar panels in this size class are usually $100 or less and generate less than 50 watts.

crush the numbers

Let’s say you have one of these 50W foldable plates strapped to your backpack for your next hiking trip. At 5V, this works out to being able to charge 10,000mAh, which is roughly enough to charge the phone to 100% twice. On paper, this sounds great, but it assumes perfect efficiency. Solar panels are rated under relatively constant lab conditions that don’t take into account many variables, such as the angle of the sun, cloud cover, dust on the panel, and temperature. There is no way to loosen it all while on the go. Larger solar arrays have the same problems, but they make up for them in the size of the panels. The only real saving grace in this area is that your battery won’t run out completely while it’s charging, and you won’t need to top it all off to take advantage of it.

Where does solar energy work well?

Having a board and battery that you can carry around is convenient and everything, but they should not be treated as an emergency measure when they are stranded in an unknown location. The fact that you can have a portable device that generates power is certainly new, but a little more than that. Solar energy works best on a large scale. This means large, angled panels for improved coverage, all day long. Add it to your home, trailer or cottage. Once it starts dropping below that size, the utility of the solar panels drops. A lot of accessory manufacturers will integrate solar panels directly into their products, which makes sense for low-risk, low-demand off-grid use cases such as garden lights. That 1W sub panel built into your battery will take eons to charge, not to mention the damage it does for letting your battery run out in the sun.

What should I bring on my camping trip instead?

Batteries! If you’re going to be out of the plug for two or three days, a portable power bank should keep your phone looking good. Our list of the best portable chargers includes a model that costs just $21 and delivers 20,000mAh — enough to fill an iPhone 13 from 0% to 100% more than six times. You don’t have to worry about good weather for a charge, and you’ll ultimately save weight and clutter in your suitcase. If you’re super tough and will be off grid for longer than that, one of these smaller portable solar panels is, at best, an emergency precaution to bring with you.

Why do you hate solar so much, Simon?

Me, no! Solar is the way forward for electric grids, and the fact that the panels are cheap enough that we can slap them almost everywhere is great. By all means, get those portable solar panels to charge your devices on your next camping trip, just don’t put yourself in a situation where need to them to work to get it. Instead, invest in a larger battery that you can charge at home beforehand, and maybe bring a plate or two just for fun. Better yet, leave the panels completely behind so you spend less time focusing on the best angles, and more time catching some rays yourself.

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