The Ultimate Guide to Portable Power at the Campsite

One of the things I love most about camping is getting away from my computer for a few days. It’s nice to have a digital detox and just enjoy being outdoors.

But this can be taken too far… Having lights, a Kindle or tablet for entertainment, and a charged phone to check the weather forecast (or post your camping pics on Instagram) can make your camping trip feel like a relaxing break rather than a survival experience.

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Love it or hate it, if you’re going away for more than a night, you’re likely to need some kind of portable power supply for camping. In this guide, I’ll be taking a look at the different options to keep your lights running and devices charged.

Let’s get started!

What to Consider Before Buying a Portable Power Unit

You wouldn’t use a hammer to crack an egg. Equally, you don’t need a gas guzzling generator to power a couple of smartphones. You want to pick the right kind of power supply for the type of camping you do.

Start with...

Required Capacity

First and foremost with any power generating need comes capacity and how long you'll need that capacity.

Look around at your camping kit – what must-have items require charging? There may be more than you think…

If you’re camping for a couple of nights, then you may be able to charge up all your battery-operated devices before you leave home and get away with a small power unit for emergency use. For longer trips, you’ll want a power pack that can charge your devices more than once and perhaps one that you can recharge in the wild using a solar panel.

Size and Weight

If you’re backpacking or camping any distance from your car, then size and weight will obviously be an issue. As a general rule, there’s usually a direct relationship between the size and weight of a power source and the amount of power you get from it.

The good news is, if you’re going lightweight then you’re not likely to be stuffing your backpack full of heavy electronic devices that need charging.

Budget

There are options for portable power at different price points. If you’re on a tight budget then you may have less choice, but you should be able to find something that meets your needs.

Durability

Whereas generators are typically designed for outdoor use, most portable power units don’t like to be left out in the rain. When it comes to smaller devices, some will survive being chucked around and dropped in the mud, whereas others require a bit more care.

A rugged power pack designed for the outdoors may be a bigger upfront investment, but it could pay off by lasting much longer than a cheaper, less durable unit.

Different Types of Power Supply for Camping

So you figured out your considerations. What kind of tech can you choose from? Let's see.

Generators

A generator may be the first thing that springs to mind when you think about portable power, particularly if you already own one, but there are a number of downsides to this type of power supply.

Firstly, many campgrounds don’t permit generators on site. Even if they are allowed, if you’re camping near other people, it’s pretty antisocial to have your noisy generator belching out fumes in their direction. And it could also spoil your enjoyment of the great outdoors.

Which brings me onto the next problem: generators require fuel. You need to make sure that spare fuel is stored safely a good distance from your tent.

Generators do have their uses but ninety-nine percent of the time it’s better to leave them at home.

PROS

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    Powerful enough to run lights, fridges and anything else that needs power

CONS

  • Heavy
  • Noisy
  • Requires fuel

Rechargeable USB Power Packs

At the opposite end of the scale, you have portable rechargeable power packs. You charge them up at home and then use the unit to charge electronic devices when you’re out and about.

Rechargeable power packs vary considerably in size, capacity, and cost so there’s something for every type of camper and every budget. The downside of this type of power supply is that once it’s discharged, you’ll need a mains supply or beefier power pack to charge it up again. As they’re designed for small electrical devices, you won’t be able to run your lights or fridge off them.

USB chargers are a great option for weekend camping trips and emergency use, but if you’re going off grid for a longer period or you want to charge larger items, a power station may suit you better.

PROS

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    Lots of choice at different price points
  • Easy-to-use and good for topping up charge on small electronic devices
  • Lightweight

CONS

  • Not great for longer camping trips
  • Limited capacity

Solar Power Chargers

Solar powered chargers have increased in popularity over the past decade and become smaller, lighter and cheaper as a result.

These units are a good option for backpackers and campers who are going to be off the grid for longer than a couple of days as, as long as the sun is out, you can keep things charged.

But what is a blessing can also be a curse…

The effectiveness of solar chargers can be seriously hampered by a couple of cloudy or rainy days. If you’re camping in a steep-sided valley or forest, then you may get very little direct sunlight which means you can wave goodbye to your GPS unit getting charged.

Solar power supplies can vary considerably in their effectiveness. Generally, the more you pay, the better and more reliable the power charger will be.

PROS

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    Can be charged on the move
  • Lightweight and packable

CONS

  • Only practical in sunny places
  • Can be unreliable
  • Good units are expensive

Portable Power Stations

if you want a silent fumeless alternative to a generator, then a portable battery unit is the next best thing. Typically, these use lead-acid or lithium-ion batteries which can be recharged at home or using a portable solar panel.

They kick out enough power to charge multiple devices, run lights, a television or fridge and some can even be used to jumpstart your car.

Portable power stations are heavy units – you’re not going to want to carry it any distance – but if you want to car camp in style, this is the portable power supply for you.

PROS

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    Enough juice to power lights, laptops, and other large items
  • Can be charged in the wild if you have a solar panel

CONS

  • Heavy and bulky
  • Expensive

Water / Wind Turbine

if you’re looking for a niche, environmentally friendly power supply then check out portable devices such as the WaterLily turbine that rely on water or wind to generate power.

As they don’t need to be recharged using electricity, these are a good option for campers who want to stay off grid for a while, particularly if you’re camping in a forest or other area where solar power may not be a reliable solution.

Of course, you ideally need some fast-flowing water nearby to power the device. Either that or a windy camping spot, which comes with its own set of problems.

As these aren’t mainstream power units, they tend to be expensive, but they’re worth checking out if the other suggestions don’t adequately meet your needs.

PROS

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    Environmentally friendly
  • Fills a niche that isn’t covered by other types of power supply

CONS

  • Expensive
  • Not particularly packable
  • Requires flowing water or a windy camping spot

Charging from Your Vehicle

A power inverter can be used to charge devices using your car or van battery. If you’re holidaying on a campsite and driving every day, this can be a good cheap way to keep your smartphone and laptop charged.

Obviously, the main danger with charging things off your vehicle is that you could drain the battery and end up on a rather longer camping trip than you’d anticipated. (Try explaining that one to your boss.)

To avoid this, only use the inverter when the engine is running and ideally while you’re driving rather than just idling the engine.

PROS

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    Inexpensive and takes up little space in your car
  • Good for charging small devices

CONS

  • Risk of draining your car battery leaving you stranded
  • Charging ability is limited by how much you’re driving

The Best Portable Power Supply for Camping

I don’t think there’s one portable power unit that beats all others hands down as it really comes down to how much power you need. But whether you’re a lightweight backpacker or a luxury car camper, the options below have got you covered.

Type

USB charger

Power station

Power station

Solar charger

Power inverter

Price

$49.99

$99.99

$239.99

$39.97

$29.99

Weight

0.8 lbs

21.1 lbs

5.5 lbs

1.1 lbs

1.1 lbs

Can Charge

Phones, tablets

Everything! (And the car)

Electronics, lights, TV and mini-fridge

Phones, cameras

Phones, tablets, laptops

Best Use

Weekend campers, backpackers

Car campers

Car campers, long trips

Backpackers, long trips

Car campers

Best for Charging Phones: Anker PowerCore 20100

Not everyone needs a bulky power pack and if you just want to keep your smartphone, e-reader, and other small devices topped up with power, the Anker PowerCore is a great option.

It can charge an iPhone 8 up to seven times and a Samsung Galaxy up to five times – perfect for keeping your mobile running on camping trips of up to a week.

USB power chargers can often be quite slow to charge up your phone which is a pain if you’re on the go. You don’t want to charge it at night as you’ll end up draining the device unnecessarily. Anker’s device will fully charge your phone in just a couple of hours and if you just need to top it up, this can be done in under an hour.

There have been some issues reported with quality control, but Anker’s customer service team are excellent, and the device comes with an 18-month warranty.

Best for Keeping the Lights Running: DieHard 71688 Platinum Portable

Although its primarily designed to jumpstart your car, this multifunctional power station is ideal for heavy power users. With 400 W of AC power and fifty-four hours of 12 V DC power, you will be able to keep your tent lit up at night, charge your family’s electronic devices and, if you accidentally leave your car lights on, you’re not going to get stranded.

The air compressor feature is one you don’t typically find on other portable power supplies and the unit comes with different nozzles for inflating your car tires, bike tires or sports balls. You can even use it to blow up your air mattress – how’s that for luxury camping?

There are a couple of downsides. It’s heavy and unlike a generator, isn’t designed to be left out in the rain. It also has to be charged from a wall unit, so once it’s run out of power, it’s just a dead weight to lug around.

But if you enjoy camping with your home comforts, the DieHard 71688 will keep you powered up at a very reasonable price.

Best for Multi-Use: Rockpals 250-Watt Portable Generator

This portable unit doesn’t have the power of the DieHard, but you can still use it to charge laptops, phones, and other devices, and to run lights, television or a mini fridge.

The Rockpals Portable Generator has the added advantage that you can recharge it when you’re away from home by connecting it to a solar panel. This makes it a great option for longer camping trips.

There are some power limitations, for example, you’ll only be able to run a mini fridge for around four hours, but if you’re conservative with its use then you should have enough power for everything you need for at least a few days.

At 5.5 lbs, it’s pretty lightweight for a power station. You won’t be taking it backpacking with you, but it’s portable enough to carry from your car to your campsite without breaking your back.

Best for Backpacking: Foxelli Dual USB Solar Charger

If you’re backpacking for a couple of days and you just need something to charge your phone once or twice, then a small USB power unit such as the Anker Powercore will be your lightest option. But for longer trips, a solar charger gives you more reliability and flexibility. More importantly, it won’t leave you stranded when you realize your phone battery’s dead and you’ve got no way of calling your lift home.

There are a couple of ways you can use the Foxelli charger. If you’re staying at your campsite all day, then the quickest way to charge your devices is to place the solar charger in the sun and connect them directly. If it’s a sunny day, you’ll be able to charge your smartphone in just a few hours.

If you’re hiking, you can also use it on the move, by strapping it to the top of your backpack (it comes supplied with a couple of carabiners for this purpose). Another option is to use the panel to charge portable batteries which you can then use to charge your phone or camera overnight.

This definitely isn’t a device for heavy power users.  But if you’re happy leaving your tablet and television at home, this will give you enough power to keep your smartphone running without having to remember to charge a battery up before you leave the house.

Best for Campers On a Budget: BESTEK 300W Power Inverter

With two 110 V AC outlets and two USB charging points, you can use the BESTEK Power Inverter to charge your laptop, camera battery, smartphone and other devices from your vehicle.

It’s small, lightweight and most importantly for those on a budget, low-cost. It plugs into your vehicle via a cigarette lighter plug making it suitable for use in almost any vehicle.

The fan can be pretty noisy, but the inverter copes well with charging multiple devices at once without overheating. It’s worth noting that although it’s rated as a 300 W device, some users have struggled to charge more power intensive devices.

Also, make sure that when you turn the device off, you unplug USB devices from the inverter, otherwise they’ll continue to charge and drain your battery.

Let’s Power Up

As you can see, there is a wide range of different portable power units you can use when camping. The key to finding the best power supply is to figure out what type of camping you do and what you need to power.

And let’s not forget, if you camp in summer when the evenings are light and you’ve got the beautiful outdoors on your doorstep to explore, it may not be the worst thing in the world if you accidentally leave your power supply at home.

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