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The Ultimate Guide to Solar Powered Camping Gear

As an avid camper and lover of all things tech, I‘ve been thrilled to watch the rapid evolution of solar powered camping gear in recent years. Gone are the days of relying on noisy, smelly gas generators or packing piles of extra batteries to keep your devices powered in the great outdoors. Today, thanks to falling costs and improving efficiency, there are dozens of great options for harnessing the sun‘s clean, silent energy to power your off-grid adventures.

In this ultimate guide, I‘ll break down everything you need to know to choose the best solar powered camping setup for your needs and share my top product picks in every category. I‘ve personally tested many of these items and scoured hundreds of expert reviews to find the most reliable, best performing models. Whether you want to charge your phone on a weekend trip or power your entire off-grid glamping setup, there‘s a solar solution that‘s right for you.

But first, let‘s take a look at some key stats that show just how quickly solar is changing the camping game:

  • In the last decade, the cost of solar PV panels has dropped by more than 60% while efficiency has steadily increased. (Source: International Renewable Energy Agency)

  • Shipments of portable solar generators have grown from under 100,000 units in 2016 to nearly 1 million units in 2020 with no signs of slowing down. (Source: Freedonia Group)

  • The portable solar generator market is predicted to grow from $255 million USD in 2021 to over $500 million by 2025 – a compound annual growth rate of nearly 10%. (Source: Global Market Insights)

The growth of solar is due to more than just great economics and performance improvements – it‘s also a matter of environmental responsibility. When compared to traditional fossil fuel burning generators and batteries, solar offers a clean, green way to generate energy. Consider that:

  • A typical 1000W gas generator consumes around 0.75 gallons gasoline per hour at 50% load. That means a single 10 hour day of use releases about 59 pounds of CO2.
  • In their full lifecycle, including mining, manufacture, and disposal, alkaline batteries can emit 40-70 times more greenhouse gases than rechargeable lithium batteries of the same capacity.
  • Even factoring in the carbon footprint of manufacture, a 100W solar panel offsets its embodied emissions and becomes carbon neutral in just 1-4 years of use depending on location – then provides decades of clean, free energy.

Simply put, powering your camping adventures with solar isn‘t just convenient – it‘s the right thing to do for the environment we all love to explore and protect. With that context in mind, let‘s dive into the product categories and top picks.

Portable Solar Panels

At the heart of any solar powered camping setup are the solar panels themselves – those magical slices of silicon that convert photons to electrons. While the first solar panels were bulky, heavy and fragile, the latest generation of portable models are a camper‘s dream. Folding solar panel "suitcases" designed for the outdoors offer excellent efficiency, durability and ease of use at a reasonable price point.

When choosing a portable solar panel for camping, the key specs to consider are:

  • Power output – Expressed in watts, this tells you how much power the panel can produce under ideal sun conditions to charge your batteries and devices. For most campers, 60-100W is a good sweet spot between output and portability.
  • Efficiency – This measures what percentage of sunlight hitting the panel gets converted to electricity. The higher the efficiency, the more power you‘ll get per square foot of panel. Top models now exceed 22-23% efficiency.
  • Durability – Since you‘ll be deploying and stowing your panels frequently outdoors, it‘s critical to choose a model built to withstand drops, impacts, wind and weather. Look for rugged materials, reinforced corners and sturdy latches and hinges.
  • Size & weight – Portability is paramount for camping, so consider how much room you have to store and transport your panels. The lightest 100W suitcase models pack down to under 20 x 20 inches and weigh around 12 lbs.

With those factors in mind, here are my top picks for portable camping solar panels:

Model Power Efficiency Weight Price
BigBlue 100W 100W 23% 12.3 lbs $250
Renogy 100W Briefcase 100W 21% 26.6 lbs $230
Jackery SolarSaga 100W 100W 23% 10.3 lbs $300
Goal Zero Boulder 100 100W 22% 25.9 lbs $300

The BigBlue gets my overall top pick for its combination of leading efficiency, thoughtful design features like a built-in kickstand and pouch for cables, and reasonable price. If you need a more budget-friendly option, the Renogy delivers reliable performance at a very competitive cost per watt.

A few expert tips for getting the most out of your panels:

"To maximize your daily solar harvest, make sure to tilt your panels perpendicular to the incoming sunlight. Aim for a tilt angle equal to your latitude for a good year-round average." – Sean Russel, solar technician and founder of Camping Solar Supplies

"Partial shading can disproportionately impact panel output, so choose your deployment spots carefully. If you can‘t avoid some obstructions, opt for a model with bypass diodes that isolate the shaded sections." – Joe Tych, solar engineer and author of The Watt Is It

Solar Generators

Now that you‘re harvesting free, green energy from the sun, you need a place to store it for use at any time – that‘s where solar generators come in. These portable power stations pair an array of rechargeable lithium batteries with a built-in inverter and various output ports to function as an all-in-one off-grid power solution. Depending on capacity, they can charge everything from phones and laptops to mini-fridges and electric kettles.

The key specs for choosing a solar generator are:

  • Battery capacity – Expressed in watt-hours (Wh), this tells you how much energy the unit can store. A larger battery means you can run more/bigger devices for longer between recharges. For perspective, charging a phone takes about 5-10Wh, while running a mini-fridge for an hour consumes 50-100Wh.
  • Output options – Most solar generators offer two types of outputs: standard 110V AC outlets (like in your home) for powering appliances and USB ports for charging devices. More output options, like 12V car ports, provide added versatility.
  • Input ports – Since most solar generators can be recharged from solar panels, a wall outlet, or your car‘s 12V outlet, more input port options means more flexibility to top up your battery. Prioritize models with at least a solar panel input and an AC wall charger.
  • Size & weight – Larger battery capacities mean bigger, heavier units, so consider how much power you really need vs. what‘s practical to transport. 500Wh models hit a nice balance for most campers, weighing 10-15 lbs.

Here are my picks for the best camping solar generators:

Model Battery AC Outputs USB Outputs Weight Price
Jackery Explorer 500 518 Wh 1 3 13.3 lbs $500
Goal Zero Yeti 1000X 983 Wh 2 4 31.7 lbs $1300
Bluetti EB55 537 Wh 2 4 16.5 lbs $500
EcoFlow River Mini 210 Wh 1 3 6.3 lbs $349

The Jackery and Bluetti are both excellent mid-size options with very similar specs, but I give the Jackery a slight edge for its sturdy design and reliability based on my hands-on testing. For weekend warriors, the ultra-portable EcoFlow River Mini packs an impressive punch for its compact size and sub-$400 price tag.

A few pro tips on using your solar generator:

"To maximize battery lifespan, try not to let your solar generator‘s charge level drop below 20%. Lithium batteries are happiest in the middle of their charge range, so don‘t run them down to zero if you can avoid it." – Sally Rowe, battery engineer at

"Solar generators are amazing but they‘re not magic – it‘s important to keep your energy consumption in check. Use LED lights, choose efficient appliances, and unplug/power down devices when not in use to make your battery last as long as possible between recharges." – Matt Brace, solar blogger at Solar Basecamp

Solar Camp Lighting

One of the easiest and most impactful ways to harness the sun‘s energy while camping is to ditch the disposable alkaline batteries and upgrade your lighting to solar. Today‘s solar lanterns and flashlights are brighter, lighter, and more feature-packed than ever before.

For hanging lanterns, inflatable solar models offer an unbeatable combination of lightweight packability and even, glare-free overhead illumination. Brands like Mpowerd and Luci make a range of models with features like multiple brightness settings, colors, and USB device charging capability. Expect to pay $20-50 per unit.

Solar flashlights pack a high-powered beam into a compact, rechargeable package. Look for models with adjustable beam width, multiple output levels, and bonus features like a built-in solar panel and USB charging port. My top pick is the Thorfire S70S, which pumps out an impressive 700 lumens for $40.

For a camp lighting setup that easily packs away in your pocket, consider a solar headlamp. My go-to model is the BioLite Headlamp 330 ($40), which recharges via micro USB and shines at a max of 330 lumens. The rear-mounted battery helps balance the weight and avoids the dreaded forehead pressure point common to cheaper headlamps.

Solar Cooking

For gourmet camp chefs and ultralight backpackers alike, solar ovens and stoves open up a world of fossil-fuel-free cooking possibilities. By concentrating the sun‘s rays onto your pot or pan, these devices can bake, boil, and sauté almost anything without a single match.

The gold standard in solar cooking is the GoSun lineup of vacuum tube cookers. These cylindrical ovens use a system of parabolic reflectors to collect light from all angles and direct it to a central cooking tray which can reach upwards of 550°F on a sunny day. The GoSun Sport ($250) is sized for 2-3 meals and breaks down into a slim 7lb package, while the larger Fusion ($450) can cook for up to 6 people and includes an electric heating element for cloudy days and a USB port for device charging.

For a more budget-friendly and lightweight option, it‘s hard to beat a parabolic solar cooker. These aluminized reflective discs focus the sun‘s rays onto the bottom of your existing cookware. Popular models like the Sunflair Mini ($40) set up in seconds, weigh under 2 lbs and can boil a liter of water in under 20 minutes in full sun.

Other Solar Camping Gadgets

Beyond the big-ticket items, there is an ever-expanding universe of clever solar powered gadgets to enhance your time outdoors. Here are a few of my current favorites:

  • Solar Shower: After a few days in the woods, a hot shower is a true luxury. With a solar camp shower like the Nemo Helio ($100), you can treat yourself to a 7-minute rinse warmed by nothing but sunshine. The 11-liter insulated tank warms water all day, then provides a pressurized spray via an integrated foot pump.
  • Solar Bluetooth Speaker: Add a soundtrack to your adventures with a rugged, waterproof solar speaker. My pick is the Renogy E.Lumen 5 ($50), which packs a powerful 5W speaker and can charge devices via USB. Eight hours of sunlight provide an impressive 12 hours of playtime.
  • Solar Chargers: For a pocket-sized way to top up devices on the go, look no further than a portable solar charger. The BigBlue 28W Charger ($50) is a perennial favorite, featuring three high-efficiency panels that fold down smaller than a paperback book. It‘s a perfect partner for your phone, GPS unit, satellite messenger and other small USB devices.

Is Solar Worth It?

By now, I hope you‘re as excited as I am about the potential of solar power to revolutionize the way we experience the outdoors. But I know making the leap to solar requires an upfront investment of both money and time to learn the ropes. So, is it really worth it?

For me, the benefits of solar camping are clear:

  1. Independence. With a well-designed solar setup, you can stay off-grid indefinitely without worrying about rationing your batteries or tracking down a outlet to plug in. That means more freedom and spontaneity in your adventures.
  2. Sustainability. Every bit of energy you harvest from the sun means fewer disposable batteries in landfills, less fuel burned in generators, and a smaller carbon footprint overall. For those of us who love the outdoors, it feels good to recreate responsibly.
  3. Convenience & Comfort. Solar lets you bring more of the electronic conveniences of home into the wild. Whether that‘s a laptop to stay connected or simply a string of lights to create ambiance at the campsite, solar power enables you to go further and stay longer in style.

If you‘re a casual car camper who takes a couple trips a year, a basic solar lantern and charger setup may be all you need. But if you love chasing the horizon and regularly find yourself in the backcountry for days at a time, investing in a fuller solar generator and panel kit can truly transform your experience and unlock new levels of adventure.

Of course, even the best solar gear has its limitations. If your itinerary takes you to mostly cloudy or forested environments, you may struggle to keep your panels producing at peak efficiency. Solar works best for trips in environments with ample sunlight, especially at middle latitudes and in the summer months. Even then, it‘s always wise to head out with backup power options like a fully charged power bank.

Ultimately, as technology continues to improve the possibilities of solar are only going to grow. Breakthroughs like flexible and transparent thin-film panels, wearable solar textiles, and more efficient power storage promise to make this clean, renewable energy source even more compelling for all types of outdoor adventurers.

So whether you‘re a thru-hiker, a vanlife nomad, or a weekend warrior, I encourage you to give solar a shot. Start small with a quality rechargeable lantern or folding panel charger and build out your kit as you get to know the technology. As you watch those photons power up your devices and open up new roads, I have a feeling you‘ll become a solar believer for life. See you under the sun!