The Best Portable Solar Panels of 2017 for Camping and Travel
Which solar charger best powers phones and gadgets when off the grid? We considered 55 models and bought the top 9 to compare them side-by-side. Our team spent over 100 hours field testing and then brought them into our testing lab to measure power output. We know shopping for solar panels is daunting. There are over 500 on Amazon alone, and many panels have different brand names but look identical. Don't fear; sunny days are here. We separate the knock-offs from the high-quality offerings. Our review covers lightweight panels to charge a single phone as well as beefier models to charge tablets and multiple devices at once. Our findings transcend manufacturer claims to the real-world performance results.
Read the full review below >
Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
March 2017 Update
In 2017, portable solar has evolved quickly. We include new brands as well as new offerings from established companies like Goal Zero. We also updated our reviews with new charts and graphs to better distinguish between the performance metrics that are most important to you.
Best Overall Solar Panel
Anker 15W Foldable Dual Port Solar Panel
The Anker 15W has remained the top scorer for three years. The competition keeps getting better, and Anker evolves. It's durable, intuitive, and easy to use. It scored high for reliability and had no glitching or reduction in performance. This is a low-cost investment in connectivity. Now edging into our lightweight category, Anker's PowerIQ continues to make the USB connection and charging even smoother. No matter the insult, and never mind the length of interruption, the Anker 15W would always start back up and continue charging. The PowerIQ technology may have been partially responsible for the higher charging amperage when compared to other panels. If you need more charging power, consider it's sibling the Anker 21W PowerPort Solar.
Easy to use
Small accessory pouch won't hold average smartphone
Read full review: Anker 15W
Best Bang for the Buck
Instapark Mercury 10M18U with battery
The Instapark Mercury 10M18U with battery is a great deal in portable solar technology. With 10 watts of power, two USB ports, and minimal weight, it continues to blow the competition away. It is versatile, easy to use, and affordable. If your primary need is to charge a phone or small device, this is an excellent option. When combined with an external battery, you can set yourself up with a smartphone and tablet charging powerhouse, all for under $100 (but we don't recommend the proprietary Instapark batteries). This panel has one of the most generous external pockets for holding phone, cables, and extra batteries (a welcome luxury, keeping your devices safe in blowing sand or snow). The downside to this panel is that you can't plug in a barrel adapter for charging anything that needs a 12-volt (cigarette lighter) connector.
Can charge two devices at once
Included battery is clunky
Read full review: Instapark Mercury 10M18U with battery
Top Pick for Design
Goal Zero Venture 30 Solar Recharging Kit
Goal Zero is the most thoughtful solar panel company reviewed. The attention to detail is astonishing, especially the pairing of a 7W panel (lower powered but lighter weight) with a powerful (and well designed) external battery. The Goal Zero Venture 30 Solar Recharging Kit is a system that minimizes weight and maximizes the ability to charge demanding devices like newer smartphones and tablets that typically need 2A of current to charge at a reasonable rate. The Venture 30 also features a "smart charge" feature, which talks to your device and maximizes current by learning to speak the same language. The Nomad 7 panel resets automatically when it loses the sun, unlike many panels that stop charging when the sun disappears behind a cloud, and require that you unplug and re-plug them to "reboot" the system.
Good power-to-weight ratio
Lower wattage solar panel
Read full review: Goal Zero Venture 30 Solar Recharging Kit
Analysis and Test Results
Solar panel technology has come a long way in a short time. Not long ago, it was unrealistic to get a rigid monocrystalline panel into a foldable design. Thin-film photovoltaic technologies filled a niche as a portable option, but these are not the most durable. Today, we find a mix of both panel styles on the market, and you can choose between efficient charging (monocrystalline) or light weight (thin-film solar cells), and an assortment of features, accessories, and qualities on the spectrum between the two. Most panels reviewed are now monocrystalline, which is becoming the standard due to its high quality, which is worth the extra cost when it helps you save weight and charge faster.
In general, if you want a lightweight and affordable solar panel, you may consider a thin-film panel. For a more affordable option, polycrystalline is still decent quality, as the panel found in the Brunton Power Essentials Kit. If you want a more timeless piece, consider a rigid monocrystalline folding panel, such as the panel in the Goal Zero Venture 30 kit, or the Instapark Mercury 10M18U, to name a few from our review. These are bulkier and heavier, but more durable. Thin-film panels tend to degrade or delaminate over time. And polycrystalline panels are less pure, and therefore less efficient.
As technology improves, companies have been making monocrystalline panels more portable, which is great, as these panels are more efficient than thin-film and polycrystalline panels. The Instapark Mercury 10M18U is an example of a compact, efficient, and relatively light monocrystalline panel that we liked. To learn more about panel types, reference ourBuying Advice article.
This year we conducted a midseason update to catch up with Anker and their impressive 15W panel. They recently released the Anker 15W PowerPort Solar Lite. It's half the weight and half the size of the previous 14W panel and adds more wattage. It is made of a thin-film PET polymer, which accounts for the lighter weight, but does not explain the jump in efficiency. This panel outperformed all of the others in the category. It is fast, light, and friendly. That is to say; it makes friends. At base camp on the Kahiltna glacier, we were able to charge all of our batteries and all of our friends', watching all the other solar panels sit idle while everyone took turns plugging into the new Anker 15W.
Before we get started, a short anecdote about this review:
In our testing two years ago, there was one that we couldn't get to charge in all of its advertised capacities. It had a huge assortment of laptop plug adapters, but we never got them to work, and there was no adapter for Apple products (red flag!). Finally, we gave up and emailed the company. We got a polite but useless email and quickly identified that ours was a very good copycat. The packaging and everything looked identical, but it was not the reputable brand it seemed to be.
This is our way of saying: be discerning in your search! It is worthwhile to spend a few extra bucks to buy directly from a reputable brand. This review will help identify several brands that are good or not as good, and how to sift through the hype.
Wait, Let's Talk a Little About External Batteries
Before we get started, we want to highlight that many people may be better served by an external battery. External batteries often charge a smartphone 3-6 times, can be used when it's not sunny, are compact, and, usually, cost a fraction of the price of solar panels or solar panels with built-in batteries. If you only need 3-6 charges, we recommend external batteries.
This year, several of our products were kits that included proprietary batteries. We like this setup, as it provides the most versatility. It also means we can use smaller (and lighter) solar panels if we choose because we can store extra charges in a battery. Or, we can go lighter by leaving the battery behind if we expect to have a lot of sunlight, so we can charge devices directly.
Criteria for Evaluation
We ordered a very diverse array of solar chargers from different companies, and there are a few sub-genres. Some are kits that come with folding solar panels and separate external batteries, such as the Goal Zero Venture 30 Solar Recharging Kit, Brunton Power Essentials Kit, and the Instapark Mercury 10M18U with battery. Some are just plain folding panels, like the Anker 15W. While others are pocket-sized with integrated batteries: the SunFerno Flintstone, Poweradd Apollo 3, Creative Edge Solar-5+, and the Levin Dual USB Port 6000mAh Panel. The table below shows where each charger ranked in the overall score.
In our past reviews, there was a correlation between the watt rating and the highest output power of the panel. A 10-watt panel, for example, was about two times more powerful than a 5-watt panel. Some years later, the technology has changed enough that we started to notice some quality discrepancies. The simple watt rating is no longer the best metric to judge a panel's charging proficiency.
This is a little confusing, so here is an example: The Powertraveller SolarMonkey Adventurer is only rated to 3 watts, and yet can charge iPads and reliably charge iPhones. The Goal Zero Nomad 7 has a watt rating that is 2+ times higher (7 watts) and yet could not charge an iPad unless an external battery was used, and it ran into issues when charging an iPad mini or iPhones. This is due to amperage (current) being too low. Tablets and newer smartphones often charge best with 2A of current.
The Anker 15W was our winner for output power. In field tests, the Anker 15W charged fastest and registered higher amperages in comparison to other contenders. This is in part due to Anker's thoughtful, progressive design: they built in extra wattage to account for little light or energy loss in the transfer from sun to phone, keeping the amperage at 2.1 rather than maxing out the potential current at 3 A.
Ease of Use
This category is a catch-all for the quality of a panel--this is where we assess if a panel is glitchy or counterintuitive, or if it is so slick you don't even notice it in your life. In the field, this can mean many things, from tie-down or hanging options to stash pockets. More and more, panels are starting to exclusively charge USB devices--the Powertraveller Solarmonkey Adventurer is the only exception in this review. It's easily shared with multiple different devices and smartphones. All you need is your device's charging cable. This is a welcome change from chargers of the past that came with so many adapters it looked like a socket wrench set (and required skills to be organized).
We found panels that include a storage pouch to be convenient. They provide a place to store your charging cables and keep your device clean and out of the wind or direct sun. Our favorite pockets were on the panel included in the Goal Zero Venture 30 Kit and the Instapark Mercury 10M18U with battery. The Goal Zero's mesh pocket is big enough to hold the Venture 30 battery pack, plus your smartphone. The Mercury 10's pouch houses two USB ports and is generous enough to hold your phone, an extra battery, and the USB charging cable. The Anker 15W had the weakest pouch closure we used, which was annoying and could not handle a large smartphone. The SolarMonkey Adventurer also comes in a zipper pouch that can hold charging cords, but this mini-briefcase design was too bulky for most lightweight travel needs.
The Goal Zero, Anker, and Instapark Mercury 10 panels come with string loops attached at the corners, which allow you to hang them from bushes s or tents, etc. This made setup and orientation of the panels easier, and when we folded them up for storage, they folded flatter.
Weight factors heavily in our scores. After all, the whole point of a portable solar panel is to be, well, portable. A panel that weighs less than a pound and is compact is all we take for most outdoor situations: hiking, backpacking, biking, and climbing. If the panel weighs more than a pound and a half, it needs to do some heavy duty charging multiple devices and/or a laptop and is probably not ideal for carrying on a self-supported trip. If you are boating, weight doesn't matter. Take that into account when looking at the scores.
Also, consider that weight will increase if you need to bring multiple charging cables and/or a case. The weights in our spec sheet will indicate total weight of the setup we reviewed.
Many of the pocket-sized integrated solar panel/battery devices win for light weight. If you're looking for something minimal, the Creative Edge Solar-5+ or the SunFerno Flintstone might be just right. For most applications, however, they were too slow to charge via sunlight to depend on them as solar chargers.
The lightest was the SunFerno Flintstone which, despite its limits, might still fit your needs.
With the entire internet at your fingertips in a device small enough to fit in your pocket, who wants to carry around a bulky solar charger? Fortunately, the days of cumbersome solar are over. The market is flooded with lightweight, simple, and compact panels--and the deluge of design and innovation doesn't appear to be slowing.
Mostly, we were looking for devices that are light and not cumbersome. It's a brave new world--solar technology has emerged from the realm of electro-geek to sexy cyber chic.
Last year, the Apollo 2 was the new kid on the block, a sleek smartphone-sized battery with a solar panel. This year the market is flooded with similar chargers, but none as good as that Apollo 2, including the disappointing Poweradd Apollo 3. But for a little charge and a small solar recharging capacity, the Creative Edge Solar-5+ and the SunFerno Flintstone proved reliable and very portable.
Versatility is important to some and trivial to others. If all you need to do is charge a phone, you can gloss over this metric. For a simple phone charger, all you need is a lightweight device with a USB port.
However, if you want to charge multiple devices and bigger devices like a laptop, then versatility is more important. None of the solar systems reviewed can charge a laptop, but there is a strong distinction between those that can reliably charge a tablet and those more limited to smartphone charging.
The Goal Zero Venture 30 battery is by far the most powerful way to charge your high energy devices. Both USB charging ports will charge up to 2.4A at the same time. The Powertraveller Solarmonkey Adventurer is an interesting solution for versatility. The recent upgrade may be just what you're looking for. And then there's the Brunton Power Essentials Kit which is not powerful, not light, and limited in many ways, but reliable at a relatively low-performance level.
Many people choose to combine a solar charger that doesn't have an internal battery with an external battery. This allows the panel to charge the battery during the day while the device is being used. Then the device can be charged at night from the external battery.
External batteries are an important addition, too, because as our tablets and smartphones demand higher power (like 2A charging ports), this becomes more difficult to produce from the sun (which is variable at best), and requires higher wattages, and thus more panels, meaning more weight and bulk. The best option, in our opinion, is to have a less powerful (and lighter weight!) solar panel that charges a high-quality external battery, which can, in turn, produce the necessary 2A of current for our devices.
Home Solar Panels
The world headquarters of our sister site, SuperTopo.com, is now solar powered. Check out this detailed guide on how to choose home solar panels. The article contains photos, video, and many external links to help you evaluate if going solar is right for you.
Today, the use of solar energy continues to grow exponentially. Over the last decade, global production has increased 53 times, from 3.7 gigawatts in 2004 to a staggering 138 gigawatts today. Costs have decreased to less than $1/watt for large scale productions and an average of around $5 per watt for household arrays (however, portable costs are still in the $10-20/watt range). Though portable solar is a small slice of the overall energy production, it fulfills a critical need in many situations.
We hope that our tests and reviews of these products will be useful to you as you shop for your new solar charger. If you need further assistance in finding the model that best suits your needs, check out our Buying Advice article.
— Lyra Pierotti
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