Portable Solar Panels, Power Up Anywhere Under the Sun

Solar panel set up at campsite in grass with man setting up tent

Do you dream of hiking the Appalachian Trail, cycling from coast to coast, or just spending the weekend in the wilderness? Now how about without a cell phone, camera, or GPS? That’s what I thought. Welcome to the world of portable solar panels. Solar is the way to bring your electronic toys and play with them too.

Now harnessing the power of the sun isn’t new. We’ve been doing it for decades. Solar panels have been used to power RVs, homes, businesses, even communities. But these solar panels have always been too big and too heavy to throw into a backpack before hitting the trail.

Things have changed. Recent technological advances have made solar panels more portable than ever. So portable that you can bring solar power with you anywhere you walk. By throwing a few ounces of technological wonder in your backpack, you can keep your portable electronics running anywhere under the sun.

BLAVOR 10W Portable Solar Charger hung from backpack
The BLAVOR 10W Portable Solar Charger weighs under 13 ounces and can be hung from a backpack

Go camping, backpacking, biking, kayaking, you name it – for as long as you like and still call home to mom. Free energy from the sun is turned into an electrical outlet, that can be taken anywhere.

This is your guide to choosing the best portable solar solution available. We’ll answer questions like…

  • What portable solar panels do you recommend?
  • How do I plug my device in?
  • How lightweight should the panel be?
  • Are they waterproof?
  • Do I need a battery?
  • Can I charge AA, AAA, C, or D batteries?
  • How much solar power do I need?
  • What is the best panel for my device?

Now let’s harness the power of the sun…

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Recommended Portable Solar panels

Here are our top picks for portable solar panels. Now you have no excuse to have a dead battery while camping in the wilderness!

Renogy 400W Portable Solar Panel

Renogy 400W Portable Solar Panel

Powerful, robust, and rugged foldable solar panel made for camping that weighs only 26.5 lbs and is rated at 400 watts! Charge heavy duty portable power stations and deep cycle marine/RV 12-volt batteries anywhere you are camped.

Newpowa 200W Portable Solar Panel Kit

A solid 200 watts of solar power in a foldable panel that weighs 17.9 lbs. Comes with a 15 amp charge controller, battery cables, and battery clamps to charge 12-volt marine/RV batteries right out of the box.

DOKIO 160W 18V Portable Solar Panel Kit

DOKIO 160W 18V Portable Solar Panel Kit

160 watt portable solar kit that weighs only 9 lbs. A 10 amp charge controller, battery cables, battery clamps, and conversion adapters make it easy to charge a variety of portable power banks, 12-volt marine/RV batteries, or electronic devices with the included USB ports.

DOKIO 110w 18v Portable Foldable Solar Panel Kit

DOKIO 110w 18v Portable Foldable Solar Panel Kit

This 110 watt portable solar kit weighs just 5.9 lbs. A 10 amp charge controller, battery cables, battery clamps, and conversion adapters enable you to charge a variety of portable power banks, 12-volt marine/RV batteries, or smartphones, tablets, and other devices.

Lumopal 60W Foldable Solar Panel Kit

Lumopal Foldable Solar Panel 60W

Take it on the trail with a 60 watt solar panel charging kit that weighs only 3.4 lbs. The Lumopal has 2 USB-A ports and 1 USB-C port, along with a DC port. Charge a variety of power stations, notebooks, tablets, smartphones, game consoles, and more.

BigBlue 3 USB Ports 28W Solar Charger

BigBlue 3 USB Ports 28W Solar Charger

Great for backpacking, this 28 watt foldable solar panel weighs a scant 1.28 lbs. The BigBlue can detect when clouds block the sun and automatically restart charging when there is enough sunshine. Will charge cell phones, tablets, portable speakers, and power banks.

BLAVOR 10W Portable Solar Charger

BLAVOR 10W Portable Solar Charger

Just 0.81 lbs and about the size of a tablet when folded, this 10 watt solar charger has a USB-A and USB-C output to charge smartphones, tablets, power banks, and other devices while camping and backpacking.

How Do I Plug In?

The most important question to ask yourself when considering a portable solar panel is “Can I plug my device in and charge it?”. 

Here are the most common types of connections:

  • USB port: Solar panels with a USB port make it easy to plug your phone or other USB device in and begin charging. Some panels have only a USB port and will only charge USB devices that can be charged by a USB cable. If you’ve got a digital camera that doesn’t charge with a USB cable, you’re out of luck.
  • 12-volt port: 12-volt ports are common, especially among the more powerful solar panels. Some solar panels have only a 12-volt port, so if you’ve got a USB device you’ll need a 12-volt car adapter to make it work.
  • Multiple ports: Panels with multiple ports usually include both a USB port and a 12-volt port making it easy to connect almost any electronic device.
  • Special port: Here the manufacturer uses their own port and supplies adapters for connecting your device. With models like these, make doubly sure there’s an adapter that will work with your device.

Weight & Size

“On a long journey, even a straw weighs heavy” – Spanish proverb

Just how lightweight should a portable solar panel be? Like the Spanish proverb, it depends on the length of the journey, but it also depends on how you’ll be transporting it.

BLAVOR 10,000mAh Portable Solar Charger Power Bank
The BLAVOR 10,000mAh Solar Charger weighs only 9.17 oz

For hiking, backpacking, climbing, and cycling I personally wouldn’t go over 1lb. There’s no reason to either, unless you’ll be hauling a laptop, which will require a bit more solar power…but then I’d have to seriously ask myself “why am I hauling a laptop!”. A lightweight solar panel that’s small, foldable, or rollable will be easy to stow in or outside your pack.

Unfortunately determining what a portable solar panel weighs isn’t always easy. Some manufacturers list the weight of just the panel, while others include the weight of all the accessories and adapters too. Contacting the manufacturer may be the only way to know for certain just how much weight you’ll be carrying on your journeys.

If you’re RV boondocking, car camping, or boating, and weight and size isn’t of much concern, you could even go with something like the foldable and still portable Renogy 100 Watt 12-Volt Portable Solar Panel with 20A Charger Controller matched with a 12-volt deep cycle battery and inverter. This setup would power just about anything you would want to bring along on a camping trip.

Durability & Weather Resistance

Like the full-size solar panels used for homes and RVs, portable solar panels are also quite durable and resistant to nasty weather. Many are designed to take abuse while camping and hiking and most are water resistant.

Many claim to be “waterproof”, but when reading the product description you will find that most are water resistant, and are not really “waterproof” since they don’t state they can be submerged in water.

Even though most portable solar panels are not completely waterproof, most are weather resistant and will survive a rain shower. But don’t expect the panel to keep charging during a rain, as most won’t.

Batteries for Portable Solar Power

The BigBlue 3 USB Ports 28W Solar Charger has no battery, to save some weight

Many portable solar panels come with an internal battery. The solar panel charges the battery and the battery charges your device. So why doesn’t the solar panel charge your gadgets directly? Without an internal battery a small solar panel may suddenly stop charging your device due to clouds or an object passing in front of the panel. You could lay out the panel, plug in your phone, and come back 5 hours later to discover your phone barely received a charge…all because you walked in front of the panel soon after laying it out.

The BigBlue 3 USB Ports 28W Solar Charger works around this problem. It incorporates an automatic restart function, which can keep the panel charging in the event the panel is temporarily blocked from the sun. No battery is needed, saving some weight.

Another reason batteries are used is that many small solar panels aren’t capable of charging cell phones or other devices directly. There are exceptions, like the BigBlue Solar Charger above. Thanks to its stable circuitry, it can charge most USB devices without an internal battery.

Battery Advantages

Omitting the battery does shave some weight off your pack, but a battery does have a few advantages which can make up for its weight. For one, you’ll be able to leave the solar panel out to charge the battery, then use the battery to charge your device later, even at night. A battery also provides reserve power in case you experience several cloudy days in a row.

Lithium-Ion Batteries

If the portable solar panel you choose comes without an internal battery, you can buy a lithium-ion battery for as little as $20 should you decide you need one. The Anker PowerCore 5,000mAh Portable Charger is a popular one that weighs only 4.8 ounces. Portable external batteries like these have a USB port for connecting and charging your phone or other USB device, and the battery itself can be charged with the USB port on your portable solar panel, your computer’s USB port when at home, or your car’s USB port while traveling.

Here are a few more highly rated lithium-ion battery packs that can be charged via portable solar panels, starting with small power banks and ending with larger power stations…

The Anker PowerCore 5,000mAh Portable Charger is about the size of a tube of lipstick

AA, AAA, C, D, & 9V Batteries

The Sunway Solar AA, AAA, 9V Rechargeable Batteries Charger has a built in solar panel

Need to charge AA, AAA, C, D, or 9V batteries for your flashlight, camera, or other camping gear? Solutions include the Sunway Solar AA, AAA, 9V Rechargeable Batteries Charger which features a built in 2 watt solar panel.

Another option is to use a battery charger that includes a USB charging port like the BONAI Smart Battery Charger for AA AAA C D 9V Ni-MH Ni-CD Rechargeable Batteries or the EBL LCD Rechargeable Battery Charger – 8 Bay AA AAA C D Battery Charger with 2A USB Port, Type C Input. These chargers can be connected to any portable solar panel with a USB port.

Here are a few more options for charging AA sized batteries with solar power…

12-Volt Batteries

If you need a more powerful battery and weight is of no concern, then a 12-volt deep cycle battery is the way to go. These are often called marine batteries and they’re found in boats as well as RVs.

The most common types of 12-volt batteries are wet cell, AGM, and lithium. Wet cell batteries are the cheapest, but they do require some maintenance and they must be kept in a well ventilated area. AGM batteries on the other hand are sealed, require no maintenance, and can be stored anywhere. Same for lithium. Lithium batteries have another big advantage: they can be deeply discharged without damage to the battery, so in effect you are getting nearly twice as much battery capacity for the same amp-hour rating (because wet cell and AGM batteries should not be discharged below 50% capacity). Lithium batteries also have a much longer lifespan.

Weighing 30-80 lbs and up, 12-volt deep cycle batteries aren’t so portable, but they work well for car camping, boating, and RVing.

When charging a 12-volt battery with solar, a charge controller is necessary to regulate the voltage going to the battery. Without one you risk overcharging the battery. The only exception is if you’re using a very low wattage panel for trickle charging. Portable solar panels with built-in charge controllers are available. For solar panels that don’t include a charge controller, one will have to be purchased separately.

To get the most life out of a deep cycle battery, it’s important that it not be discharged by more than 50%. This means you’ll need at least double the capacity you plan on consuming. Lithium batteries are the exception, as they can be discharged almost completely without damage.

For more information about setting up a solar panel system to charge 12-volt batteries, see my Guide to RV Solar Panels.

Watts It Going To Take

How much solar power are you going to need? The nitty gritty answer requires some simple math. But if all you’re going to charge is a cell phone, it’s hard to go wrong. Choose a portable solar panel that won’t weigh you down and that’s compatible with your device.

These guidelines will give you an idea of what it’s going to take to keep you powered up. Keep in mind these are only guidelines. For the nitty gritty answer calculate your daily power consumption below.

  • Most cell phones, iPhones, and smartphones will charge with the smallest and lightest of panels.
  • Charging multiple devices, or an iPad will require at least a 10 watt solar panel.
  • A laptop or portable DVD player will need 10 watts or more. And since these devices don’t charge so well directly from a solar panel, you’ll need a battery too. If you don’t have a 12-volt charging adapter for your laptop, an inverter will also be needed.
  • To run AC devices you’ll need to step up to 15+ watts of solar power, and to harness that power you’ll need a battery and inverter too. The inverter will convert DC power from the battery into AC power for your device. You can purchase the solar panel, battery, and inverter separately or choose an all-in-one solution like the BROWEY Portable Power Station with 30W Solar Panel that has a built in solar panel, battery, and inverter.
The BROWEY Portable Power Station with 30W Solar Panel has a built in battery and inverter to power USB, 12-volt DC, and 120-volt AC devices

It’s All About Output Power

The watt rating isn’t the only thing to consider when choosing a solar panel. You also need to look at the output power rating. A solar panel with a higher watt rating than another, but a lower output power rating will take longer to charge your phone or other device.

The USB port on portable solar panels provides 5 volts of power, just like the USB port on your computer, so this number will not change. But the amp and watt rating will. Some manufacturers provide the USB output rating in Amps only, so to get the Watt rating take Amps x 5 (for 5 volts). By comparing numbers you’ll see which panels give you the fastest charging times.

You’ll find that many panels have different output ratings for the USB port and the 12-volt port. Often the 12-volt output rating will be higher than the USB rating. For example the Goal Zero Nomad 7 has a USB output of 2.5 watts, but the 12-volt output is 3 watts. If you have the option, connecting your device to the 12-volt port would provide a faster charge with this particular solar panel.

Volts = Performance

As the temperature goes up, voltage drops. A portable solar panel with a higher peak voltage will perform better in hot weather than a panel with a lower voltage rating. It will also perform better in conditions that are less than ideal such as on cloudy days or in the shade.

Your Daily Power Consumption

If you have several devices to charge then choosing the right portable solar panel will require a little addition and multiplication. Not to worry though. It all boils down to how much power those gizmos use, and how long they’re used each day.

Let’s say we have a smartphone with a 8 Wh lithium-ion battery. “Wh” stands for watt-hour. If we drain this battery each day, we’ll need a little more than 8 watt-hours of power to charge it back up again. I say a “little more” because charging a battery is not 100% efficient. To account for this inefficiency we’ll take 8 x 1.2 to get 9.6 watt-hours. It will take 9.6 watt-hours to charge our 8 Wh battery.

Now we’ll have to decide how much sunlight we can count on having each day. I’m in sunny California where 10+ hours is common, but we’ll figure in some partly cloudy weather and go with 6 hours for this example.

Now we take 9.6 (watt-hours needed to charge our battery) divided by 6 (hours of sunlight) and get 1.6. Here’s the equation…

(Watt Hours Consumed x 1.2) ÷ (Hours of Sunlight) = Recommended Minimum Solar Panel Output Rating in Watts

So in this example a solar panel with an output power rating of 1.6 watts would work. A panel with 1.6 watts of output power produces 1.6 watts each hour under ideal conditions.

Of course conditions can be far from ideal, so choosing a panel with a few extra watts is best. Also keep in mind that things like backpacking through a forest, camping in the Pacific Northwest, or traveling to Alaska will all reduce the amount of sunlight you and your solar panel will receive. So be realistic about how much sunshine will be in your forecast.

AC/DC Devices

If you’ve got AC or 12-volt DC devices you’ll need to add up the power consumption for them too. 12-volt DC devices are usually rated in amps and AC appliances in watts. To make things easier we’ll convert everything to Watts, so for 12-volt devices take the amp rating and convert it to watts like this…

Amps x 12 (for 12 volts) = Watts

Next, use this equation to calculate the total watt-hours for both AC and DC devices…

Device Power Draw (Watts) x Hours Used Each Day = Watt Hours

For example, we have a laptop computer rated at 60 watts and we use it for 2 hours each day. This adds up to 120 watt-hours (60×2=120).

With AC devices, we’ll be using an inverter. Since an inverter is not 100% efficient, there will be some wasted energy. We’ll need to multiply our AC watt-hours by 1.2 to account for this loss. Since we’re running our laptop with the AC power supply, we’ll take 120 (AC watt-hours) x 1.2 and get 144 watt-hours.

Lastly, we’ll add up the watt-hours for all devices to get our grand total daily power consumption. Once we have this number we’ll use the same sunlight equation as above…

(Watt Hours Consumed x 1.2) ÷ (Hours of Sunlight) = Recommended Minimum Solar Panel Output Rating in Watts

So with our laptop example we would take 144 watt-hours divided by 6 (hours of sunlight we expect) and get 24 watts. We’d want a solar panel with at least 24 watts of output power.

By using these steps you can add up all the power your mobile office consumes, throw in a few watts for a rainy day, and choose a portable solar panel with enough output power to do the job.

Device Power Chart

This chart will give you an idea of what size solar panel and battery is best for the device you can’t leave home without.

Keep in mind that these are only guidelines. In order to fine tune your choices you’ll need to calculate your daily power consumption as shown above.


Solar Watts

Best Battery Size

  • Cell Phone
  • iPhone
  • Smartphone
  • Satellite Phone
  • Digital Camera
  • iPod, MP3 Player
  • Kindle, e-Reader
  • GPS
  • Flashlight
  • Headlamp
  • Personal Gaming Device
  • AA & AAA Batteries
  • 12V Battery Trickle Charging
(2200mAH 3.6V)
  • iPad, Tablet
  • DSLR Camera
  • Video Camera
  • Portable DVD Player
  • Laptop Computer
  • Lights
  • Small Fan
  • CPAP Machine
  • Low Watt AC Appliances
  • TV
  • Desktop Computer
  • Medium Watt AC Appliances
  • Most AC Appliances
  • 12V Cooler
  • 12V Batteries
(100Ah 12V)

Like Magic

Since 2010 I’ve relied on solar power for every electronic device I own. It really is amazing if you stop to think about it. Solar panels silently turn light into electrical energy and require no fuel or maintenance to do it. It’s like magic.

Portable solar panels have now brought that magic to the masses. Now anyone can reap the benefits of free energy from the sun, and at the same time reduce their dependence on filthy fossil fuels.

Now that you’ve seen the light, might as well use it. After all, it’s free!

Conversions & Formulas

Here’s a few helpful conversions and formulas we used in this article.

1 Amp = 1000 mAh

Watts = Amps x Volts

Calculate Daily Watt-Hours or Amp-hours Consumed

Device Power Draw (Watts) x Hours Used = Watt Hours (Wh)

Device Power Draw (Amps) x Hours Used = Amp Hours (Ah)

AC Appliances: Account for Wasted Energy With Inverter

AC Watt Hours x 1.2

Calculate Recommended Minimum Solar Panel Output Power in Watts

(Daily Watt Hours Consumed x 1.2) ÷ Hours of Sunlight

More on Solar Power

If you’d like to learn about setting up a larger solar power system for RVing, car camping, or boating click on an article here to continue.


Featured image by Newpowa

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