Goal Zero solar charger review

Off the grid and your battery's in the red? No problem.

The summer’s not over yet! If you’re finally getting around to that camping trip you’ve been putting off the last couple of months, or have the last in a long string of outings to finish off the season, odds are you’re mindful of keeping your phone and tablet powered. Never mind  those guys that keep harassing you to put away the technology and enjoy the great outdoors; you’ve got an e-book to enjoy, music to listen to, pictures to take, and hikes to navigate.

To that end, I’ve been trying out the Goal Zero Nomad 13 solar charger and Sherpa 50 Power Pack. You can also get an optional inverter and cable pack to charge your laptop or other gadget - say, a mattress inflator. The solar panel is built extremely well, surrounded by a tough canvas material. A wide array of loops all over provide plenty of fastening options. I’m not a huge fan of the mesh backing used to contain the charging cables. If you’re outside, you want to keep that stuff good and dry. Also, the front is kept shut with a rather flimsy magnet. Velcro or some kind of mechanical latch would make me feel more confident.

Goal Zero solar charger review

The Sherpa 50 is built similarly tough, and has a plug for everything: USB, 12V, and laptop charger.  With the optional inverter attachment, you can plug in anything with a standard two or three-prong plug. Everything is color and shape coded, so it’s easy to find which plug goes into which hole. The built-in LED flashlight comes in handy when sneaking out of the tent for a midnight bathroom break. The backlit display gives you a clear view of how much power is left in the battery too. A single cable along the top provides a secure hanging point. The Sherpa 50 can also be charged directly through a standard wall plug, so you can have plenty of juice on the ride to your campsite (and probably the first day, too).

Goal Zero solar charger review

Using a solar charger is trickier than you'd think. Unless you’ve got multiple panels chained together and you have solid, direct sunlight consistently throughout the day, don’t count on this keeping your phone charged right up to the top if you’re going to be using it a lot. I set up the Nomad 13 panel on my balcony to see how long it would take to charge the Sherpa 50 battery from scratch. With around two hours of direct sunlight a day and four hours of indirect light, it took about two weeks, counting a few overcast days. Keep in mind that the Sherpa 50 can provide about seven charges to your phone, which works out to about two days of basking for a single charge - less if you can get better access to sunlight. At that rate, you’ll want to be judicious about your smartphone usage, and doubly so for any tablets.

I’m a huge fan of the whole Goal Zero lineup - they’ve got sharp-looking, rugged, and easy-to-use solar chargers and batteries of all shapes and sizes. It’s great to keep around as an emergency back-up for those times that you’re going to be away from power longer than expected. As with many sustainable power solutions, it’s hard to rely on this exclusively, but it complements standard charging practices perfectly well. The one thing that might give you pause is the price. The solar panel on its own can charge your phone directly, and costs $159.99. If you want the battery with inverter, and the solar panel, it’ll come in at $399.95. Serious campers will be more willing to drop that kind of cash, but casual outdoorsmen will probably want to build up their kit one piece at a time.


Reader comments

Goal Zero solar charger review


I have had mine for almost a year, I keep it on my motorcycle to keep my phone charged when I am on long charity bike rides. I just leave it on my bike in the sun when we get to our destination, just to top my charge up because I use Google Music when I ride.

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And you've been happy with it? I'm not very outdoorsy myself, but this would make a good gift for a friend who I think would use it very similarly to you.

I've had the Goalzero Nomad 7 panel with AA battery pack for a couple of years. (Google it, I can't post a link.) I originally got just the panel but it wasn't keeping my phone charged unless there was direct sunlight, which is hard to do if you're moving around at all. The panel in conjunction with the battery pack works much better, and it will charge the 4 AA batteries (which will give a not-quite-complete charge to my Nexus 4) in 5-6 hours. I would recommend it if you go outdoors at all. I also use the battery pack as a battery backup when I travel, as it is rechargeable through mini-USB (sadly not micro like everything else these days.)

I've had the same experience, it's very delicate, "one tiny shadow and stops charging your phone... this means there's not a lot of power going into the device. It's really deceiving that they have the loops on the corners for backpacking, this thing is aweful if you want backpack with it on your back while you're hiking because the slightest movement away from the sun it will stop charging. There are plenty of better solar chargers out there, this one was too heavy and weak for me, i have an oem volt meter, compared to Suntactics solar chargers they are about 200-300 miliamps weaker than Suntactics.

I found the whole solar charger thing is almost a cruel joke. You are going to have to have a large panel and perfect conditions, just to get a couple of watt hours of energy stored, to try to charge a smart phone that may need over 5 watt hours per day. You really need a rather large 10 watt panel minimum.
Good luck.
I ended up with an external battery pack (IntoCircuit 2600) that I charge from my motorcycle when riding. With over 40 watt hours, that will get me a few days on my phone and tablet between charges when camping.

i have one of these goalzero solar panels and it can charge my galaxy nexus battery in a few hours at 8000 feet altitude in colorado. big difference at altitude with rare cloudcover.

unless you're on a *really* long trip, I find that USB battery packs are a
better solution. I literally have 5 of them in my house with capacities that can charge my phone at least 2x each that I keep in case of power outages, etc. When I go on camping trips I usually bring at least 3 of them and unless I'm gone for more
than a week, those are more than enough juice. And they will fit into a pack the same size as that solar charger so they are not taking up a ton of space. A battery can usually charge my phone 4 times. 3 of those means 12 charges. And really, when I'm camping should be more than enough for a week. If it isn't I'm using my phone too

I think I speak for most tech geeks when I ask, "What is this 'outside' that you speak of?".

I never did find a commercial kit that fit my needs, so I built my own kit and panels. 45W of folding CIGS panels and a tiny box that contains the charge controller, inverter, 12V cigarette plug, USB plug, 110VAC outlet, and a 10AH 12V battery.

Certainly doesn't take no 2 weeks to charge up, that's for sure. Works great in indirect/low sunlight.

I would look into the BioLite camp stove. The basic stove is only $130, and they are supposed to be adding bigger models. If you're camping, you're gonna have fire, right? Might as well use on of these and save $30. But if you're just heading to the beach or hiking for the day, the solar panel may be the way to go.

This is actually next on my review list. :) Rain stopped me from trying it during my last outing, but I should be able to give it a go this weekend. Stay tuned!

The problem that I have heard about them is that you need to sit there for a couple of hours poking little twigs and such in the fire to keep it going.

Based on the situation, your device will charge twice as fast if you turn it off while re-charging. By the way the panels are rain proof and they will still power in cloudy weather, just not as fast. Once charged the 50 will stay charged for months.