How Solar Generators Can Keep Your Gadgets Powered While Camping – CNET

Most of us would have a hard time living without our devices, even when we’re enjoying the great outdoors. Whether we’re on a quick hike or camping deep in the woods, who among us wouldn’t want their phone charged up for snapping photos or, in an emergency, making an important call?

The good news is that this is entirely possible, even if you’re miles from the nearest electrical outlet. Solar generators — essentially a portable power station hooked up to a solar panel — can charge your devices and soak up extra energy from the sun. 

“Ultimately, what this is, is convenient, on-the-go power that allows us to live our on-the-go lives, whether you’re camping or off-grid or taking an extended vacation,” said Shawn Budiac, vice president, divisional merchandising manager at Batteries Plus.

Here’s what you need to know about how solar generators can become a part of your next camping trip.

Solar generators and camping

If you’ve never heard of a portable power station, it’s essentially a big battery that you can bring with you and use to power your electronics. These portable batteries are considered “solar generators” when they’re paired with portable solar panels, which can in turn top off the power station to keep your power supply running.

This has tons of uses when you’re camping. You can plug in your phone to keep it charged, or if you find yourself working remotely from the woods, power up your laptop. Or you could hook up some LED lights to brighten up camp or an oscillating fan to keep the bugs away.

“It’s not only comfort, but it’s also, depending on where you are camping, peace of mind,” Budiac said.

Choosing the best solar generator for your camping needs

The best solar generator for you depends entirely on what you specifically want to get out of it. Here are some of the tech specs that can help you decide.

Battery capacity

There’s a pretty big battery range out there. Solar generators can offer as little as 300 watt-hours and up to 1,500 watt-hours or more.  

Budiac said 300Wh, for example, can handle about 25 cellphone charges, run a fan for a few hours or run LED lights for a few days. As you get up into 600Wh and beyond, all of those capabilities increase accordingly, but the generators get bigger and heavier.

“It just becomes a portability issue,” Budiac said. He recommends thinking about what you really want to use it for, and getting just the right amount of power so you’re not lugging around extra weight.

Solar capacity

Here, too, there are many options. A 100-watt solar panel is pretty common, but they can go as high as 300 watts too. “The beauty is there’s so many options these days,” Budiac said.

But again there’s a trade-off between power and portability. A bigger panel will juice up the generator faster, but will be bulkier. In perfect conditions at peak sun, a 100-watt panel would take about three hours to fully charge a 300Wh generator, Budiac said.

Keep in mind that, unless you’re really vigilant about timing your solar charge, you’re likely not going to get 3 hours of perfect sun every day. So assume that your panels might take longer to charge up the power station in most scenarios.


Battery capacity isn’t the only thing you need to consider. There’s also the power output, and while bigger batteries tend to have more output, there are some limitations. And if you want to run energy-intensive appliances, you’ll need plenty of power — especially to start things up.

For example, if you want to plug in a coffee maker, that might draw an initial surge of 1,200 watts when it starts up, but then dip back down to 500 watts as it’s running. In that case, a 600-watt solar generator would likely be able to handle the device, because the running wattage is low enough, despite the brief startup surge.

Budiac recommends thinking about the kind of devices you want to plug into your generator. Make sure that the model you buy has a power output high enough to accommodate the power draw from those electronics. Also think about the type of output ports you want: Maybe a mix of USB and standard A/C outlets, for instance.

Charging speed

In peak conditions, a solar panel might be able to charge a generator in about the same amount of time as a wall outlet, Budiac said. But most of the time, you won’t be lucky enough to charge your panels during peak sunlight. In that case, “it’s always going to be faster to charge from an outlet,” Budiac said.

Also keep in mind that you probably won’t always drain your generator’s battery right down to zero. So if you need only to charge from 60% back up to 100%, it will take less time to charge.


How long will your battery last? “The longevity is going to be based upon how you use it and how often,” Budiac said.

A lot of solar generators come with a two-year warranty, but they usually last much longer than that. A solar generator that’s used intermittently for campouts and kept fully charged during storage can last more than five years, Budiac said.


You probably understand by now that these things can be heavy. Make sure you’re not overbuying in battery capacity, which will translate to an unnecessarily heavy solar generator.

Budiac said smaller models can weigh as little as 10 pounds, while larger ones can weigh 40 pounds or more. Think about whether you can (or want to) carry that weight around on your campouts.

How much does a solar generator cost?

Portable power stations usually cost about $1 per watt-hour, Budiac said. That means a 300Wh generator can cost around $300, for example. The price can come down slightly in higher-wattage models. Expect to pay another couple of hundred dollars for portable solar panels.

Frequently asked questions

How long does it take to charge a solar generator?

It depends on how big your power station and solar panels are. A lot of portable solar panels are about 100 watts. With those, in peak conditions, a 600Wh generator would take about six hours to charge.

How do I maintain a solar generator?

Keeping it fully charged between uses can help extend the battery’s life. Also try to store it in a dry place that’s not too cold or too hot.