Solar panels have become a popular way to charge devices on the go, whether hiking, mountain biking, or just spending time outdoors. But depending on the region you’re in, relying solely on the sun for power may not be the best option. What works in the real world? To find out, we spoke with two diehard hikers who have carried solar chargers in all conditions. Here, they share their stories about what works, what doesn’t — and how to choose the right setup for your own adventures.
Location and Climate
First, it’s important to evaluate where you’ll be using the charger. Not surprisingly, solar panels need direct sunlight. Without direct sunlight, the panel will turn on and off as it collects and doesn’t collect power.
Hiking on the East Coast typically means you’ll be in and out of direct sunlight throughout the day. Jennifer “Sprinkles” Kelley is a backpacking guide who has hiked the Appalachian Trail (AT), Long Trail, Benton MacKaye Trail, and half of the Finger Lakes Trail. She’s also completed the Great Smoky Mountains 900 miles, and documents her adventures online.
“For the section I hiked on the PCT, the solar charger was invaluable.”
Throughout her adventures, she has attempted to use a solar charger a number of times. On the AT, Kelley sent her charging system home after the first 30 miles when she realized the tree cover wouldn’t allow for enough direct sunlight.
In 2013, Kelley worked at the AT Lodge in Millinocket, Maine—the closest town to Mount Katahdin and where most AT thru-hikers start or finish their journeys.
“Solar chargers were the number one item I took out of packs during pack shakedowns. Hikers refused to believe that the AT is called the green tunnel for a reason,” Kelley tells Digital Trends. “Often, when we picked hikers back up at Jo-Mary Road (approximately 50 miles south on the trail), hikers would then mail home the chargers.”
Now she guides backpacking trips in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and she still has trouble convincing people to leave their solar chargers at home.
“I’ll tell people to leave behind the charger and they’ll sneak it back into their packs,” Kelley says. “On the last morning of a trip, I ask: ‘tell me two things you brought with you that you’ll never bring backpacking again.’ People always admit to bringing the chargers.”
Charlotte “Bear Claw” Miller is an Eastern Mountain Sports employee who has hiked 1,000 miles on both the AT and the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). She carried a Goal Zero Nomad ($100) solar charging system on both trails.
“On the AT, I started at Springer Mountain on April 5, which was before the leaves had come out in Georgia. It worked spectacularly for the first few weeks and I was happy with my purchase. I always had a full charge for my electronics,” Miller relays to Digital Trends. “Then the spring hit, and the sun was obstructed for much of the day by foliage.”
Once the leaves returned to the trees, Miller’s system would charge a bit when she was hiking in open locations or when she left it in the sun during breaks, which usually only resulted in a 20 percent charge. On the other hand, hikes on the West Coast often are more exposed, increasing the chances of direct sunlight.
“For the section I hiked on the PCT, the solar charger was invaluable. Considering 600 of the nearly 1,000 miles hiked was through the southern California desert, where you are praying for an escape from the constant beating of the sun, a solar charger was perfect,” Miller says. “Every day, I had a full charge for my phone, as well as enough charge to supplement power for my hiking partner.”