Things to Keep in Mind When Choosing Portable Power and Solar Chargers

Utilization of personal technology – laptops, mobile phones, digital cameras, tablets, e-book readers, handheld gaming consoles, and similar items – is no longer relegated to indoor or confined spaces. These days, outdoor use of these electronic devices is seeing a continuous growth, thereby warranting the need for handy power sources to keep battery juices flowing. For this, the go-to solution of adventure junkies is portable solar panels.

Since not all power solutions are created equal, this article aims to help you find the best one to fit your power needs when you go on your adventure.

Understanding What Power Supply Chain Involves

Only by getting a firm grasp of how a power supply chain works will you be able to find the most suitable technology to suit your needs. In the simplest of explanations, an original power source puts power in a transportable battery, which you then will use to recharge an electronic device while on-the-go. Here’s a simple diagram:

Power Source Actual energy source used to charge a battery pack
Power Storage A handy battery pack that serves as energy receptacle
Power Use The electronic device that consumes energy

Different Power Sources

There are various power sources that may be used to power up a battery pack or an electronic device. Here are some of the most common power sources listed in order of speed, from the slowest to fastest:

  • Hydrogen Fuel Cell
  • Kinetic Motion
  • Solar Panel
  • Universal Serial Bus or USB (source examples may include a computer, wall, or car USB ports or the BioLite Wood Burning CampStove)
  • 12-volt Direct Current or DC (a classic example is a car charger)
  • Alternating Current or AC power (typically, a wall outlet)

Obviously, if you don’t have access to a wall outlet, car, or USB output, you’ll want a power source you can recharge using solar power or any other means.

Solar Energy and Solar Panel

Perhaps a general source of electricity that is not dependent on public utilities is solar energy. You’ll do well to consider using an additional power source such as a solar panel if there will not be enough power in a portable battery pack to fuel your gadget use. The optimum solution for recharging your devices especially during long trips is solar energy.

Things to Consider When Choosing Solar Chargers

When choosing solar chargers, you’ll be happy to know that there are several options to choose from:

  • Semi-flexible or rigid panels (panel only)
  • Solar panels that include storage batteries (incorporated)
  • Solar panels with separate storage batteries (independent)

Then, there are main factors to keep in mind, such as:

Surface Area – Remember, larger solar panels collect more sunlight, which means faster conversion into battery power. While a smaller panel may be handier, it uses up more time to fully charge a battery. A huge surface area is also conducive during certain weather conditions like when it’s overcast or in wintertime, when there’s low-intensity light from the sun or when various other factors make it impossible to expose the panel to sunlight. As far as charging time goes, it can be anywhere between four to 16 hours of exposure to sunlight but this will depend on the light conditions and the surface area.

Output Capacity – Keep in mind that watts are used to rate solar panels. Hence, is the wattage is higher, the solar panels can generate more electricity over a particular timeframe.

Panels That Are Rigid or Semi-Flexible  – Solar panels that are semi-flexible may be rolled up for portability and eventually opened up to offer a wider surface area than most rigid panels. It’s also a good idea to consider the attachment options of a solar panel to determine if you can easily secure it to your backpack, tent, kayak, or bike.

Hydrogen Fuel Cells

A latest innovative solution to portable power supplies is creating electricity from hydrogen. Most accurately, it’s through a chemical reaction that electricity is created. This innovation warrants using a hydrogen cartridge that is replaceable. The downside is it generates low voltage, but the upside is it’s readily available when you need it.

Battery Pack (for Storing Power)

Did you know that it is better to charge a battery pack with a solar energy supplier than use to solar energy to directly charge an electronic device? Why is that?

Apparently, solar power sources do not have circuitry that can regulate electricity flow into your device; thus, the risk of damage is higher. The best thing to do is consult with the manufacturer’s recommendations. Better yet, take advantage of the regulated USB output that usually comes with a solar panel and use it to charge small electronic gadgets directly.

  • A storage battery that is already incorporated in the solar panel offers the convenience of both a generator to create power and a battery pack for storing said power, which you can use later on to recharge your devices.
  • A storage battery that comes separately allows you the convenience of taking only the battery pack with you when you go hiking and leaving the solar panel or power generator at home or base camp.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember when purchasing a solar panel with a storage battery is to read battery specifications carefully.

Key Specifications for Transportable Battery Packs

Storage Capacity – This lets you know how much juice the battery pack is capable of storing, which you can use later on for your devices, before you’ll need to recharge the pack once more.

You’ll have a clearer idea of how many times you can recharge by comparing your device’s battery with the portable battery’s storage capacity. Usually, this is expressed in milliamp hours (mAh) or amp hours (Ah). As an example, a battery pack can have 2200 mAh, which is equal to 2.2 Ah. If either batteries show watt hours (Wh), which is another unit of measurement, simply convert the watt hours to mAh by using this equation: (Wh or Volts) x 1000 = mAh.

TIP: It is never 100% electrically efficient to transmit energy from one battery to another. That said, a 2000 mAh battery pack cannot be used to charge a device’s 1000 mAh battery twice.

If you want to charge your electronic gadget fully, you will need a battery pack with enough capacity and output voltage to release energy into your gadget.

How will you know if it is enough? You will have to discover the storage capability of your device’s battery. Now if your gadget has a built-in battery, you may have to go over the technical specifications in order to find the battery capacity. The same is not an issue if your device runs on replaceable AA batteries.

Power Output – Remember that the charger’s output, which is normally measured in volts, needs to be equal to the required input voltage of your device’s battery. You’re more inclined to drain rather than charge the battery juices of your device if the output is lower. A case in point, a handy battery pack can charge small personal technology like mp3 players or cell phones with nary a hitch but not all can recharge the battery of a laptop.

Small electronic gadgets that are chargeable with a USB cable typically needs an output rating of 5V. On the other hand, larger devices such as laptops that are best charged using a DC power input may need an output rating of 12-24V. Usually, very large transportable battery packs are capable of providing that.

Battery Technology – Aside from capacity and output, portable battery packs differ in technology, size, and weight.

  • Usually, NiMH (Nickel Metal Hydride) batteries are actually AA or AAA batteries that are rechargeable. Devices that use disposable batteries like a headlamp, camera, or GPS may be charged using a battery pack powered by NiMH batteries. That way, you need just swap the batteries rather than recharge your device.
  • A usual type of transportable battery packs are those running on lithium-ion and lithium polymers, which work the same way as built-in batteries in most personal devices.
  • Lead acid batteries offer maximum power capacity and output, but the downside is these are large and heavy.

Tips for adapter and output connectors:

The necessary connectors for solar panel and battery are always included if you buy a solar panel that comes with a battery, whether the battery is integrated or independent.

Make sure to take note of the output connector, as well as its suitability to charge your device directly or by connecting to a separate battery pack if you’re buying a solar panel and battery separately. Here are your options: DC output with voltage control, USB (micro, mini, or standard), or a connector that has a selection of adapter tips.

Power Usage

What if you have no idea how to locate your gadget’s voltage input rating? You can find it either by going over the owner’s manual, specifically under technical specifications, or by looking for the “DC output” on the wall charger that comes with your device. It’s important to ensure that your handy battery pack delivers practically the same voltage.

Below are examples of some electronic gadgets’ input voltage and battery capacity. Don’t forget that the capacity of internal battery is different depending on make and model.

Personal Electronics Internal Battery Capacity Voltage Input Rating
Cell phones 850 mAh 3.7 V
Smartphones (given power input uses brand-specific tip) 1000 – 1700 mAh 3.7 V
Smartphones (given it uses USB power input) 1700 – 2100 mAh 5 V
Netbooks, laptops (using DC power input) 3500 – 6600 mAh 8.5 -19.5 V
E readers / tablets (with USB power input) 1250 – 4400 mAh 5 V
MP3 player 600 – 1000 mAh 3.7 V
GPS with rechargeable

lithium battery

2000 – 2400 mAh 3.7 – 7.4V

Some Helpful Considerations

Are you still undecided? Here are some expert Hiking Stud tips to help you:

Duration of Your Trip – If you’re going away on a weekend trip, a battery pack should be sufficient. Nevertheless, it ends up as an added weight to your gear once you’ve used it up. You’ll probably do well with a solar charger or a different type of power generator for off-the-grid trips that last a week or more.

TIP: Before you leave for your trip, make sure you’ve charged your devices and power packs fully. Don’t assume that they still hold optimum charge just because you charged them fully a few days earlier.

Travel Mode – The key to getting the most out of your solar charger is to expose it to direct sunlight for prolonged periods. If you’re one to enjoy sea kayaking or cycle touring, you can complete solar charging while on the move. If you’re going on a backpacking trip in open country, you can still charge the solar panel provided its orientation is always facing the sun. On the other hand, there is no point attaching a solar charger to your backpack if you’re hiking under the thick canopy of a deep forest.

Battery Type – For devices that run on AA batteries, make sure to use a solar charger that can power up an extra set of batteries while you’re using another set in the device. This will allow you to rotate two sets of batteries rather than bringing spares everywhere you go.

TIP: Don’t make the mistake of draining a device’s battery before charging it again.

Size and Weight – Remember that chargers can be heavy and eat up much space. Consider if it’s worth carrying unlimited power supply with you or if you one round of emergency charge is enough. A bigger and heavier power pack is capable of providing multiple charges, but it is cumbersome. Moreover, consider whether the built-in attachment points of the solar chargers can be tied down or fastened down so they will not disappear when a strong gust of wind blows.

It’s worth noting that battery packs only offer supplemental charging, not a guarantee. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that a battery pack will give you a fully charged device.

The life of rechargeable batteries is usually measured using discharge and recharge cycles. This is information is not usually shared by manufacturers. Hence, it’s safest to imagine that a battery pack has a minimum lifespan of 500 cycles and a maximum of 1,000 cycles, which is the most common.

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