Camping looks a little different these days than it used to. Sure, you can still head into the woods with nothing more than a backpacking tent and go completely analog, but the rise in overlanding and glamping in recent years suggests many people like to bring at least some of the comforts of home with them, be it a portable fridge, lights, camera equipment, or a laptop for working remotely.
The advancement of lithium battery technology in recent years means keeping all of those gadgets charged is a lot easier, safer, and quieter than it used to be. Campers no longer need noisy, smelly diesel generators to keep the lights on in their RV or their mobile office up and running (a good thing when you’re at a campsite that enforces quiet hours). Solar-powered generators, or portable power stations as they’re often called, have gone down in both price and weight since their introduction to the market several years ago, all while increasing their charging capacity.
If you’re unfamiliar with them, imagine a supersized version of the power bank you likely already carry to charge your phone while traveling, except these typically have built-in inverters and standard 120-volt outlets so you can easily charge a computer, run a CPAP, or plug in an electric cooler or portable washing machine even if the power goes out or you’re at a dispersed campsite with no amenities.
The Experts: Bryan Rogala and Maggie Slepian are longtime outdoorspeople with extensive experience reviewing camping, overlanding, and other outdoor equipment. An overlanding enthusiast, Bryan has spent countless nights dispersed camping off the grid in the bed of his truck, rooftop tents, travel trailers, and just about every type of tent imaginable. He has installed a solar charging system in his off-road teardrop trailer and has tested various portable power stations for Outside. Maggie has a propensity for extended car camping trips to remote areas, and she’s been using battery packs and solar-powered generators since she first put a topper on her truck and a piece of memory foam in the back. She often works from the road, so her main charging needs are usually small personal devices like a phone, laptop, and headlamps. Accordingly, her go-to portable power solutions are typically mid-range in size and capacity, as she doesn’t need a ton of charging on the road (no fridge for her!) yet doesn’t want to be constantly worried about recharging the power bank.
Before you begin comparing portable power stations, you’ll first need to figure out exactly what you want to power while you’re off the grid or during a power outage. Recharging your phone and camera a couple of times requires far less power than running appliances or powering a camper. If you like numbers, make a list of everything you’d like to use and try to get a rough idea of the power draw of each item. Or, simply look at a power station manufacturer’s website—companies typically estimate the number of times you’ll be able to charge various devices and list those figures in the specs section.
The most important thing to consider when looking for a solar-powered generator is its capacity. You’ll pay more for higher capacity, but in general you’ll want to consider generators with a minimum capacity of around 40 amp-hours, or 500 watt-hours, which is enough juice for most people for a weekend of camping. If you’re looking for a solar-powered generator to power a camper or act as a backup in your home during a blackout, we recommend looking for one with a capacity of at least 100 amp-hours and pair it with 200 watts of solar panels. With any solar-powered generator, it’s best to buy one with more capacity than you think you’ll need, and a larger solar panel so you can recharge it quickly. Solar panels are usually not included with generators, so be sure to budget for this additional expense.
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Lithium-ion batteries weigh less than traditional deep-cycle batteries and are smaller, so most solar-powered generators are lightweight and fairly portable. That said, most still weigh upward of 10 pounds, and if you need a lot of capacity, they get heavy quickly. If you have a small vehicle or camper and are tight on space or just don’t want to lug around a really heavy generator, it might be worth opting for less charging capacity.
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