I loved: Charging on the go, no relying on outlets in town!
Dislikes: Not practical in prolonged cloudy or excessively smokey conditions.
On the PCT 2017, I carried two versions of Suntactics solar panels: the sCharger-5 and the sCharger-14.
I started my hike in southern California with the sCharger-5 and a small battery pack. Together, this system weighed about 9 ounces. What did I use it for? Primarily keeping my iPhone powered. I also charged my headlamp’s battery and the battery for the personal locator beacon/GPS unit I carried. I used my phone for pictures (lots of pictures!), apps like Guthooks and Halfmile, communication with family and friends, and writing and posting my daily blog entires. All of this resulted in heavy battery usage.
To keep everything powered, I strapped the solar panel to the top of my backpack and charged the battery pack while I hiked. iPhones are difficult to charge while hiking. If the incoming power drops below a certain threshold, the phone stops charging. When it begins recharging, it emits a “bong” sound and the screen comes on. If this happens repeatedly, the phone loses more battery power than it gains. To avoid this frustration, I used the solar panel to charge a small battery pack rather than charge the phone directly.
In southern California, the sCharger-5 easily kept up with my demands and powered my dad’s phone, too. In northern California, with near constant tree cover, the little panel struggled. If I took a lunch break and set the panel in full sun, it did ok, but I couldn’t always find ideal conditions.
What to do? I could purchase a larger battery pack, or upgrade to a more powerful (and heavier) solar panel. The problem with carrying a large battery pack was that I’d be forced to spend hours tied to an outlet in order to recharge the thing. I preferred to spend as little time in town as possible, so I wasn’t crazy about this option. I had a positive experience with my Suntactics panel in the desert, where I heard hikers complain about panels from other brands, so I decided to try the largest panel Suntactics makes: the sCharger-14.
This beast isn’t for everyone. It doesn’t exactly fit on top of a backpack. It weighs 21 ounces! Nevertheless, I carried this panel into Oregon. There, it faced unexpected challenges: a full week of thunderstorms and wildfire smoke as thick as clouds. Despite this, the panel kept my batteries going. I was impressed; a smaller panel could never have managed this.
However, I knew that Washington was likely to be even cloudier than Oregon, so I reluctantly swapped out the solar panel for an extra large battery pack. The battery pack was a good choice for Washington because the smoke was so relentless, and because I took a few well-spaced zeroes with family during which I was able to recharge the battery.
When I went back into the Sierra in late September, I took the humongous sCharger-14. I knew my photo-taking, and thus my battery usage, would be excessive. It was, and the solar panel excelled despite the sun’s low angle in the autumn sky. In the Sierra, the sCharger-14 reliably charged my phone at the rate of 1% per minute. Plugging in my phone on lunch breaks was adequate to keep everything running. Often I was able to charge my pesky iPhone while I hiked – a huge plus. The sCharger-14 has two inputs, so I could charge my phone and my GPS at the same time. The panel worked so well in the Sierra that I never needed the backup battery I carried.
I loved the freedom that came with carrying solar panels. I wasn’t dependent on town stops to recharge my things, and (except for long strings of cloudy days) I never worried about running out of power. On a long hike, I would definitely carry a solar panel again.