New Folding Solar Panels for Backpackers — At Last, Something That Works

orange solar tent

Seemed like a great idea, but the Orange Solar Tent never showed up. Neither did the Lightning Pack. What happened? Photo courtesy of Orange Newsroom at orange.co.uk

About five years ago, backpackers expected that great things were coming soon. The Lightning Pack promised to convert our up-and-down bouncing, energy normally completely wasted on the trail, to good old electricity for charging personal electronics. Never happened. The Orange Solar Concept Tent that debuted at the Glastonbury Festival in 2009 promised even more, with three solar panels, a wireless internet router, a magnetic induction charging station, and even a heated ground pad. If you went out to pee at night and got confused, just press a button on your remote and the tent canopy lit up with a rosy orange homing beacon. Sounded great, but it was just a concept and never showed on store shelves. In fact, solar fabric panels then in development either never materialized or evolved into something much less than we hoped. A few years ago, if we wanted a portable solar backup, we didn’t have a lot of good choices. Fabric panels sewn into urban backpacks promised to charge our cell phones and laptops but didn’t actually provide enough current for that. Solar chargers for wilderness use weighed too much for comfort and lacked essentials we needed to actually charge batteries.


At last, a solar panel charger
that doesn’t require a soldering
iron, pliers and two years of
tech school.

At last, times have changed, and backpackers and other wilderness travelers as well as green urban citizens can actually find solar gear that makes practical sense. It’s just not the gear we were told we would get. Solar panels are here to stay, with enough power and sensible accessories to actually work, but you won’t find any that you can mash haphazardly into a stuff sack. Like any other electronic gear, portable solar panels need some protection from the rigors of the real world.

juice and coffee

The essentials of life: coffee, laptop and the 45 Watt GoSolar! charging kit. Juice! the precious juice! Photo from StrongVolt Solar, formerly California Solar Accessories.

Problem number one with flexible fabric solar panels turned out to be flexibility. The solar elements in the fabric bend and conform to curved surfaces, but don’t survive folding. Fabric solar panels now used in military tents don’t roll up into compact packages. If you’re going camping with an Army truck, that’s just fine. If you need a tent you can roll up and mash with your knees so you can stash it in your pack and have room for other things, solar panels aren’t a good choice for tent walls. Accessories and panels aren’t weightless, either. Solar panel fabric, charging stations, adapters and storage batteries add pounds, whole pounds to your gear. A solar tent equivalent to the Orange Solar tent would probably exceed twenty pounds in weight today and fold up about a yard square. If you need solar power to take with you, you have to trim down other gear and take along a good folding solar panel as a separate item.


Find out what happened
to the Green promise;
on Kindle and Kindle for
PC

Number one on my list today for an emergency power supply on extended journeys, either by foot or by vehicle, would be the GoSolar 42 Watt Portable Folding Solar Charger Kit from StrongVolt Solar, formerly known as California Solar Accessories. This folding panel kit includes all the adapters you could possibly need, for charging or powering cell phone, GPS or even a laptop. Not only that, there’s a backup lithium battery for overnight use, a cigarette lighter adapter, and a set of jumper cables. Jumper cables? For starting a car?


Also available in the smaller
24 Watt size, if you choose to
leave the laptop at home.

I’m skeptical of a lot of things I read, and I was skeptical of this. Using the info on the StrongVolt Solar website I estimated how long it might take to actually charge a dead battery on a car, and then I wrote to StrongVolt”s customer service to ask the same question. Within an hour I received a logical answer, something I appreciate very much, since I often ask questions of the companies that manufacture products I review here and seldom get more than a sales pitch. Those products don’t get good reviews from me.


Everyone loves a good jump
starter like the Jump-N-Carry
JNC300XL. 900 peak amps, now.

The Maximum Power Point Tracking system used by the charger of the 24 Watt kit outputs 13.2 volts and charges its own 8 amp/hour battery in about eight hours, and according to Nika of StrongVolt Solar, provides enough juice to charge a 40 Amp/hour car battery in about 40 hours of direct sunlight exposure. The 45 Watt kit could halve that time. Yay! an honest answer that corresponds to my own figures! Since the battery isn’t likely to be fully drained you might be on the road considerably sooner than that, but check the trunk latch and the dome light or you could be stuck at the trailhead for weeks. I’ve had enough problems with ordinary battery chargers and cable clips that don’t make good connections that I think a portable jumpstarter might get you home sooner. It’s still good to have this extra option, and the idea of another five days away from work, with a good excuse not to come back, seems very tempting. Maybe I’d leave the jumpstarter at home.


Choose the lighter 18 Watt
Solar Panel Kit for essential
power needs and least weight.
Connects only to USB devices.

Amazon lists both the 24 Watt and 45 Watt charging kits at five pounds, too heavy for short backpacking trips but ok for long stays at that remote campsite or cabin where you’ll write that great novel you were getting around to someday, or for keeping in touch with work while you spend a week lazing back on a white-sand beach. StrongVolt Solar says the facts are a little different than the Amazon specs. The weight of the 24 Watt solar panel by itself is only about 2 pounds. If you add all the accessories, total weight reaches 5 pounds. Backpackers could leave the storage battery, jumper cables and other non-essentials at the car. The 45 Watt kit weighs 7 pounds in total but the panel, the essential piece of the system, weighs only 4 pounds. The kits fold into a package about the size of an iPad and only about an inch thick. With a little creative stowing you can stash any of them in a backpack where they will ride in safety and actually work when you make camp.

Links:

StrongVolt Solar

Formerly California Solar Accessories. Same company, same good products, new website.

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About JTHats

Avid backpacker and outdoorsman with old skills and interests in old ways of doing things; equally fascinated by electronics, from the days of Sputnik, to the Zilog Z80A, to the present day of black box circuitry. Sixty years of experience with growing my own food and living simply. Certified electronics technician, professional woodturner, woodcarver, and graduate of two military survival courses -- Arctic and Jungle.

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