Gear Review: Solar Powered Backpacking Gear

Five of our favorite solar items to make your next trip brighter, safer, and less stinky

LightCap 200 Lantern - See page 4 for the full review

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In the United States alone billions of dry-cell batteries are purchased every year, many of which are thrown away according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Not only is that a lot of waste piling up, it’s also a lot of money taken out of your pocket. You probably pay around 6 cents per kilowatt-hour for electricity at your house, while a battery costs around $160 per kilowatt-hour! Sunlight, of course, is free.

Improvements in rechargeable battery design and improved solar panel efficiency have made it possible to run many devices entirely off the grid. That not only saves money and helps the environment; it also means you can travel abroad or in the backcountry without lugging around spare batteries. Here are some of my favorite solar-powered devices.

SteriPEN Adventurer Opti with Solar Charging Case

Pure water anywhere

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The SteriPEN Adventurer was just named a recipient of Backpacker’s Editors' Choice Award, so you know it’s awesome. And by upgrading to the solar charging case you get the same great chemical-free, pump-free water treatment that’s entirely solar-powered. The protective case holds your SteriPEN and charges the included 2 sets of rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. You use one set while the other one is being charged. The solar panel doubles as the case lid, and is moveable to best catch the sunlight (see inset photo above). While attached to the top lid of my backpack in Shenandoah and on the flanks of Pikes Peak I was able to capture enough light each day to purify my daily water and never ran out. Since there isn’t a meter to gauge how full the batteries are, I recommend setting the case in a sunny windowsill for a few days prior to going out to be sure you’re topped off. SteriPEN says it takes between 2-5 days for a full charge depending on solar conditions, which is fine because each charge lasts for around 30 liters.

The Specs:

$150

10.5 oz.

steri-pen.com

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2C SLC 410 Racer hat

A headlamp built into a hat with no batteries to change

Just like a waterproof towel or glow-in-the-dark sunglasses, a solar-powered light seems almost like a punchline, but this hat/headlamp mashup works great. The cap itself is made super lightweight wicking microfiber with mesh sides for ventilation, is easily adjustable, and does a good job keeping the sun off your face. If you sweat up a storm you can hand-wash the hat, just don’t submerge the panel on top of the brim. The two super-bright LEDs built into the underside of the brim are angled perfectly for camp chores or walking. The single on/off button under the brim also works as a dimmer, which is handy both for reading and for extending the burn time. A full day (8 hours) of sunlight will provide around 3 hours on full power and 36 hours on dim. The beam doesn’t reach quite far enough for off-trail scrambling or last long enough if you do a lot of all-night hiking, but I never had the lights go out on me through over a week of trail time and found it best for wearing around camp.

The Specs:

$40

3.8 oz.

2clight.com

LightCap 200 Lantern

Make your water bottle into a solar lantern

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You’re probably already carrying a 1L wide-mouth water bottle, so why not get some extra use out of it as a lantern? Simply replace the existing lid with the LightCap 200, keep it in the open as you hike (those bottle pockets on the side of your pack are great), and you’ve got a lantern for the tent or kitchen. There are four bright LEDs which provide useable light in a four-foot radius for around eight hours from a full charge, which was great for cooking dinner below Pikes Peak in the Crags. The larger Lightcap 300 comes with a BPA-free bottle and adds in a single red LED for preserving night vision or for easy bedtime reading.

The Specs:

Lightcap 200 is $25 and 2.8 oz.

Lightcap 300 is $30 and 9.7 oz. for bottle and cap

sollight.com

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Seattle Sports Solar Pocket Shower

Come back from the trail smelling fresh

There’s nothing better than coming back home from the woods and taking a long, hot shower. Get that feeling (well, almost) on the trail with a solar-heated shower. The Pocket Shower is essentially a black roll-top 3.5-gallon bag with a spigot at the bottom. If you leave it hanging in the sun for a few hours (the longer the better) you can come back to camp for a warm, refreshing shower. But don’t dawdle, you’ve only got about 5 minutes to wash away the grime. By hanging the shower from a branch or on a south-facing rock that catches afternoon rays, water temps consistently reached over 100°F (hot tubs are generally 102-104°F) in 4 hours of sunlight which made for a comfortable shower after nearly 10 miles along the AT in Shenandoah NP. Since it requires some time to warm up, it’s best for a camp you’ll be at for a few days while taking daytrips out, rather than trying to warm it up at the end of the day. It packs down to the size of a large potato, so there’s no longer any excuse for stinking up the tent.

The Specs:

$25

5.2 oz.

seattlesportsco.com

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Zeal Reliant Backpack

Keep your mobile devices juiced

If you bring electronic devices into the backcountry or on your travels, you need a way to keep them powered. Otherwise you’re just hauling a brick. The Reliant backpack from Zeal has a detachable high capacity lithium polymer battery that’s charged from a totally recyclable flexible solar panel. The battery has a USB output, so just plug whatever cable came with your device (iPhone, Blackberry, GPS, etc.) into the battery pack and start recharging. It is perfect, of course, for charging Zeal’s Transcend GPS goggles, but worked just as well for an iPhone running the free Backpacker GPS Trails app. The top-loading 21-liter pack is big enough for dayhikes or a full day of skiing at the resort or sidecountry. Features include a mesh trampoline back for ventilation, hipbelt pockets, and rubberized waterproof bottom that resists scuffing. The 6 compression straps ensured a tight, stable load, even when the pack was mostly empty as I wore all my layers and had eaten lunch while making hard turns at Colorado’s Copper Mountain. Unfortunately, it only comes in one size and as you can see from the photo, the pack is too short for me and the top of the pack came far short from reaching the top of my shoulders. It will be a better fit for people with torso under 18 inches.

The Specs:

$200

3 lbs. 7 oz.

zealoptics.com