The Harsh Reality of Using Solar Power on Long Hikes

Solar panels seem perfect for backpackers, but the realities of trail life make them ineffective. Weigh the pros and cons before deciding on solar for your next thru-hike.

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Josh Koop

I live with my wife and daughter in Katy, Texas and my local trail is the Lone Star Hiking Trail which is an amazing way to experience the Sam Houston National Park!

Man on rocks with a solar power panel on his backpack to charge devices
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Are you considering using solar power for a backpacking trip? New hikers frequently mention that it should be a great way to stay powered up on the trail, but a few things to consider before deciding.

This post will look at solar power for backpacking and weigh the pros and cons of using it on long trips.

Solar panels for backpacks though have some very serious flaws that can make them worthless pieces of gear to carry. I expect many to end up in hiker boxes along the way once they realize they don’t get the benefit from the weight.

Let’s discuss solar power in general, and why a backpacking solar charger would make sense as a perfect item for a long-distance hiker to carry.

Then we can speak to why it doesn’t, but it could just hit some of the key thru-hiker needs as currently, they fall vastly short.

Why Solar Feels Perfect For Thru-Hikes

On the surface, a solar option to recharge electronics feels that it would be an ideal solution for people who hike away from civilization for 3-7 days at a time, but the problems start to stack up based on how trail life happens.

Solar should be perfect as you can harvest the sun’s light and power devices day or night as long as there is access to sunlight.

The solar charger could simply sit on the backpack and absorb and convert all day long for you.

Constantly On the Trail Without Direct Access to Power

On a long hike, you are on the trail for days at a time, which means no power outputs like wall outlets and housing to recharge any power bank you bring.

So adding solar charging should help in adding more power back to the external battery you carry to recharge cell phones or other devices.

With limited recharge options while on the trail, a solar charger becomes a viable option for long-distance hikers.

However, as we look closer at solar panels and how they perform, some of these issues become apparent that make solar a questionable choice for backpacking.

The Flaws of Solar That Ruin Viability on Trails

This is when issues start to come up, as when you are on a trail for as long as us thru-hikers will be, you are never going the same way the entire time; the trails constantly angle this and that way, leaving the side facing the sun as ever alternating.

Poor and Inclement Weather

Every thru-hike has a weather impact on the successful completion, and with electronics keeping them dry is important, but with solar recharging, you cannot even use it when the weather turns.

If you need to charge and it is raining for days without end, you will never get to charge anything, let alone if you are hit with cloudy days without the impactful weather.

Just cloudy conditions will drop the performance to levels that make it excess junk without use except being extra pack weight.

Limited Overall Consistent Sun Exposure

Another key issue on most thru-hikes is the lack of consistent direct sunlight and exposure, now, you could be on a hike like the AZT, where there may be hours of sunlight and near-ideal conditions, but your hike doesn’t keep the sun in the same location on your body.

This means you would constantly be working to shift and maneuver the solar charger you bring, as, without the direct consistent sunlight, it will not create the solar energy at the levels you require to charge even a smartphone battery, let alone larger devices.

If you go a step further and think about trails like the Appalachian Trail , you have vast green tunnels, which have very little sun leaking through, and this would mean that your charger is not performing to even 5-10% of what you would need it to.

Attaching To a Backpack Is Suboptimal for Results

Your backpack is always shifting on your body, and there is no perfectly uniform flat space that will angle towards the sun for that optimum power generation or any way to charge multiple devices.

Since it needs to be affixed to you and your backpack is highly mobile, it will always suffer performance issues as the performance to produce watts of power can’t work as designed.

The trail isn’t just north to south or east to west. In truth, almost all trails will meander in multiple directions consistently, so solar is usually not an ideal solution for generating power.

Power To Weight Ratio

As solar panels have become smaller and more popular in recent years, their weight and size have come down, but they are not there yet.

Most solar chargers on the market that could conceivably work for long-distance hikers are still far too large and heavy to make sense to bring on a trail.

Even the solar chargers designed for backpacking are not at a point where they can compete with other charging options in terms of weight and size.

To be honest, the solar chargers need a solar power bank which will always be extra weight just to produce a trickle of energy for personal electronics.

Instead, you could just carry an extra 1 or 2 power banks for the same weight and have less charge worry for extended period trips where a portable solar charger and power are needed.

combination solar panel and power back on sand charging a cell phone.

How to Potentially Use Solar Successfully

I have tried many single-panel solar chargers where I could run a charging line to a stored Nitecore NB10000 battery which is the lightest power bank for backpacking.

To this day, I have yet to get the real benefit of this for my electronic devices, and I don’t want larger panels or multi-panel units as they just get heavier.

I can see with some tweaks on the backpacker side or specifics of trails where this could come in handy and helpful, and as usual, as design and optimization continue to improve, we may hit the day when they are truly viable.

Frequently Take Longer Exposed Breaks

If you like taking long breaks at lunch, vista views, or similar locations, you could set up a solar charger facing the sun to trickle charge devices.

This is more difficult if you like to move all day with short breaks, but the use makes sense when you want to take the time to take in the trail and all it shares.

The other option would be if you chew up your intended miles early and end your day early, you could charge your portable power bank after the end of the day using the sun until it becomes ineffective to charge longer.

Limited or No Towns and Very Remote Areas

This probably means actual long trips where cities aren’t going to come every 3-7 days, where generating some power over time will be incredibly valuable in general, and where the trickle charge benefits the carry.

Additionally, I can see large value in places like the desert in the CDT and PCT, where many will stop hiking in the noonday sun.

In this case, getting that panel set up in the sun could provide you with a decent load for the time you are already planning to stop.

Frequently Asked Questions on Backpacking Solar

Are solar panels worth it backpacking?

Most portable solar panels for backpacking will not provide them any real value. Instead, the focus should be on finding the right amount of power banks to bring that can take you from day one to the next town.

How fast does a portable solar panel charge?

Generally, solar panels made for portable solar power will charge devices very slowly. The general charging times will vary from 4 to 16+ hours of continual sunlight.

They should be used as a supplement to your main charging method and not relied on as the primary means to charge devices.

Do portable solar panels actually work?

Portable solar chargers are a great way to use the sun’s natural energy. It’s perfect for powering small devices when you’re on the go but you shouldn’t expect it to fully charge any device like a cell phone or GPS locator.

Are your devices trickle-charge compatible?

It’s always wise to ensure your battery is compatible with trickle charging. Some will just get no benefit from this lower-level supply.

A trickle charge is usually better for any battery’s life span.

Final Thoughts on Solar Power For Backpacking Treks

Hopefully, you have found that solar chargers can be a viable option for charging devices while backpacking, but there are some things to consider before taking them on your trip.

In this article, I’ve outlined the pros and cons of solar chargers and shared some tips on how to use them effectively.

I’d love to hear from you if you’ve had any experience using solar power while backpacking. Leave us a comment below!

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