Working from your living room couch may be more enjoyable than a stuffy cubicle, but both setups can keep you feeling tethered to a power outlet. Luckily, there’s an easy way to cut that cord and move your workspace outdoors—without worrying about charging battery packs ahead of time.
Portable solar panels are gaining popularity as folks look for a simple, sustainable way to juice up their devices while off the grid. Whether you’re a hardcore backpacker heading deep into the wilderness or a sunbather hoping to get some work done in your local park, there’s a personal solar panel out there suited to your needs.
Why Buy a Portable Solar Panel?
When you think of solar panels, you probably imagine a vast field of shiny black slabs angled toward the sun. The portable versions of those stationary arrays employ the exact same energy-capturing technology, just bundled within lightweight, compact designs. This makes them ideal for a variety of uses, from powering a recreational vehicle to charging your electronics on the go.
Portable solar panels are also a great way to familiarize yourself with renewable energy. While you may not be ready to install a solar roof on your house, charging a phone or laptop with a small panel can help you gauge the light levels in your area and see how well solar power may be able to meet your needs.
Factors to Keep in Mind
Even though most portable solar panels are easy to set up and simple to use, there’s always a lot to consider when investing in a new piece of technology. We’ve gathered what we think are the most important factors to think about before you start powering up in the great outdoors.
Start by figuring out how much electricity you need. Some personal panels are available in a number of different wattages—a measure of pure electrical power. For example, the Goal Zero Boulder Briefcase, a panel that folds into a compact rectangle with handles for easy portability, is available in 50-watt, 100-watt, and 200-watt varieties. The designs with higher wattages are larger and more expensive, so the best panel for you will depend on what electronics you’re hoping to power. Make sure you read our guide on how to properly charge devices when you’re done here.
Lower-wattage panels won’t prove useless in your mission to stray away from traditional energy sources, but they may charge your devices more slowly than you’re used to. For best results, take a look at your device’s specifications and figure how much power their charging cables allow in. This can help prevent you from buying a panel with a wattage that exceeds your devices’ limits.
Power storage options
Many portable panels come with the necessary cables and batteries you’ll need to store electricity for later. A power bank is especially helpful if you hope to use solar energy when there’s no sun: illuminating a campsite at nighttime, charging your phone during a thunderstorm, or keeping your laptop running on a cloudy afternoon are all good examples. If you want to stock up on solar power, consider purchasing a kit that includes the necessary batteries, converters, and cables.
It’s also possible to skip the accessories and use your solar power instantly. Many portable panels have USB ports that allow you to charge your electronics directly. A small, lightweight option may be all you need to keep your phone or laptop running on a sunny day. Foregoing batteries and cables can also help keep the cost of your solar setup low.
The size, weight, and design of your personal solar panel will all determine its portability. If you’re planning to drive to a sunny field to get some work done, a heavier and more bulky panel might be fine: you can keep it in your car until you reach your destination, so its size and weight won’t be an issue. On the other hand, backpackers and hikers should choose small, lightweight panels that won’t become a burden on long outdoor treks. Before you buy, make sure you check a panel’s weight and dimensions, as well as those of all its accessories.
While most solar panels are at least somewhat weather-resistant, not all of them are truly waterproof. The last thing you want is to ruin your brand-new gadget and be stuck without electricity simply because it wasn’t designed to withstand the elements. Depending on the intensity of your outdoor excursions and the weather in your area, make a point to determine your panel’s hardiness before you buy.
The last factor to consider is how much money you’re willing to spend on your new portable solar panel. It’s unlikely that such a small panel will ever pay for itself through the electricity it produces, but the freedom and access to the outdoors it can provide you is inherently valuable.
Price will vary depending on your panel’s power output, energy storage components, and overall bulk. It’s possible to find small power packs with solar components in the $20 to $30 range, but a larger (and more powerful) panel can cost as much as a few hundred dollars. No matter your needs, there’s a panel out there that can help you venture off the beaten path.
Natalie Wallington is a contributing writer for PopSci's DIY section. Her reporting on social and environmental justice has appeared in the Washington Post, Audubon Magazine, VICE News, and elsewhere. In her spare time, she collects stationery and naps on the couch with her retired racing greyhound. Visit her website to see more of her work.