Solar Power Soliloquoy

Solar power, as anyone who has tried it knows, does not work.

Perhaps there are niche cases, like desktop calculators or orbital satellites, where solar cells pay off their expense and bulk, but when it comes to backpacking the science is settled. Look at gear surveys on long-distance trails, at the items hikers love, hate, keep, throw away. If a hiker brings solar panels onto the Pacific Crest or the Appalachian, they are soon discarded. If he does not bring them, at no point is he tempted to buy a set. Not even their biggest fan pretends a solar panel relieves you from long hours sitting next to a power outlet recharging your battery pack. Garmin, acknowledged masters of the great-hardware-shitty-software industry, advertise their solar-powered Fēnix 6 smartwatch as having extended range, rather than being able to live off the sun. Reviews of backpacking-oriented panels try as diplomatically as possible to suggest that if you keep the best you can buy soaked in sunlight in Colorado in the summer, you might just possibly get something useful out of them.

My experience with my backpacking solar panels has been thoroughly bad, dragging them like boat anchors around British Columbia’s Lower Mainland and Southern Gulf Islands without the least satisfaction. But surely the apex of futility was when I used them sailing from Bellingham, Washington to Skagway, Alaska on the Alaska Marine Highway. Sleeping out on deck for four days in the Alaskan summer we had decent weather, eighteen hours of sun a day, and a shortage of power outlets. I tried my solar panels to bridge the gap, and by journey’s end was just this side of pitching them into the Lynn Canal.

There’s no sugarcoating it: solar panels are heavy (my set weighs almost two and a half pounds), expensive, and ineffectual. The backpacking solar panel is completely useless.

Or is it?

This summer I spent five nights in Yoho and Kootenay National Parks, doing the Ottertail and Rockwall Trails as slowly as you can do them while still moving every day. It was a good, long trip through mountainous beauty. It was a bucket-list hike which I spent thinking about another one of my bucket-list hikes: Jasper’s North Boundary Trail, 111 miles of steady, isolated, and completely resupply-free national park backcountry where, with travel time, I wouldn’t have access to a power outlet for nearly two weeks.

That’s a long time for the modern traveler, with his smart watch, his phone-cum-camera, his satellite messenger, his ebook reader, and his Bluetooth headphones to hike on just a battery pack or two. And while admittedly some of those are luxury items, power loads on the trail only increase every year. Dragging enough battery power along to be comfortable for twelve days in the mountains plus a bus or train trip on either side seems awkward.

I am not the only millennial so ridiculous as to bring this many electronics backpacking, of course1. People bring these gadgets on the Pacific Crest, or the Appalachian, or the Great Divide Trail, and hike for months, but they are very rarely two weeks from a plug. 90 miles between civilization stops is a very long time on the Pacific Crest, and the longest wild stretch on the Appalachian is the 100-Mile Wilderness, which is probably around that. Moreover, successful thru-hikers move through these areas quickly. Electricity consumption is not about mileage, but time.

The North Boundary, for me, seems like perfect solar panel territory. So I brought my solar panels along to the Rockwall, to see how they performed on a real multi-day hike, and they didn’t completely suck.

I own two hiking-standard battery packs, both by GoalZero, the little Venture 30 and the larger Venture 70, which I would hook up to my solar panels, also by GoalZero, the previous generation Nomad 20 which retailed for something like CDN$2002. They are both good, but have seen a few years of regular use now and were always fairly low-capacity for their weight, while my phone is great but can be a pain to charge3. These went along with my GPS smart watch (an aging Garmin Fēnix 3), my satellite messenger (a Garmin inReach Mini), an ebook reader whose battery wouldn’t need any help, and Bluetooth headphones.

On the Rockwall, in the mountains, on mostly clear days with some smoke, solar charging worked. Not as well as they say in the advertisements, but it made a clear difference. I was completely uninhibited with my power usage: lots of photos, lots of messages, lots of Bluetooth. But I woke up for my last morning with my devices near-fully charged, my smaller battery pack around the 40% level, and my larger battery pack completely unused. For the first two nights, I was close to getting as much power as I used from the sun; that precious breakeven point where you could live that way indefinitely. Then there was a full day of rain, which put me in the hole, but even with the arbitrary goal of not touching the larger battery pack, I felt secure enough in my electricity level to fall asleep listening to podcasts and take 307 photos, including some CPU-chewing high-megapixel and panoramic shots.

They were not perfect conditions for solar charging. I always camped below tree line. There was some smoke, particularly on the first day, and 23 hours of rain somewhat put a damper on things.

But they were pretty good; good enough that I think it explains why I liked my solar panels here and hated them elsewhere. The weather was sunny much more often than not when I needed it. The lodgepole pine of the Rockies does not throw nearly as much all-consuming shade as the cedar and arbutus of southwestern BC near sea level. Even more importantly, I had lots of time. My longest day on the trails was almost five hours, campsite to campsite, but usually I was closer to three and a half. I didn’t throw out my solar panels first thing when I arrived and I didn’t charge in the mornings, but this still leaves a lot of time under the sun, and makes it easy to fiddle with the panels and keep them in the light all evening.

Longer days hiking mean less time in camp, which means less electricity. More hiking also means more photos, more battery-chugging GPS use on my watch; less charging, more consumption. On the North Boundary, even my fairly conservative itinerary will include four 15+-mile days and only three shorter than 10 miles. Hiking. A lot. This will hurt efficiency.

Some solar panels (including mine!) include attachments to clip them onto your backpack while you hike. This sounds like the solution; power on the go! Then you think about how much time you really spend every day in the open with your back to the sun at the right angle. I promise, it is not much.

So will these two-and-a-half pounds of bulk really pay for themselves over two weeks out there, or would I be better off dragging that weight in batteries? The answer, of course, is I don’t know. But I feel like I want to take the panels and try, which is as optimistic as I was ever likely to be.

  1. Though the Bluetooth headphones are excessive.
  2. I am not a devotee of the brand, but they make stuff I could get in stores and that so far has proven rugged. Given how volatile modern rechargeable batteries can be, I find the rubberized cases of the GoalZero Venture batteries reassuring despite the weight and bulk penalty. I cannot speak for the newer Venture 35 and 75, which I have never held in my hand and look to have concerning hard edges in photos.
  3. Boring numbers:

    • LG Velvet 5G battery: 4300mAh
    • Venture 30 battery pack: 7800mAh
    • Venture 70: 19200mAh

    This is deceptive, since both battery packs are a bit old and worn-out while the Velvet charges inefficiently, getting hot easily and balking outright at many sources. I figure I can get about one full charge, and change, from the Venture 30, and about two, and change, from the Venture 70.

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