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I’ll admit that in the past, I’ve never been very excited by portable solar chargers. The breathless claims on the packaging haven’t lived up to reality. Devices were either too big and heavy to be practical for travellers, or basically just didn’t work.
One particularly poor version I carried on a previous trip gave my phone a 20% boost after sitting in direct sunlight for an entire day. Not quite what I had mind, and I wasn’t upset when it stopped charging entirely a few weeks later.
That said, the fact that nobody had invented the right charger didn’t stop me wanting one. We all know just how little juice our gadgets seem to hold. Even if all you carry is a phone, GPS or torch, keeping everything powered up isn’t easy once you leave civilization behind.
Thankfully, solar technology has improved in recent years, as panels have become more efficient and less costly. I managed to get my hands on a solar kit from a company called Goal Zero that made similar promises to those I’ve used in the past – good pricing, portability, quick charging, reasonable capacity – and checked it out.
Could it, finally, live up to expectations?
What’s in the Box?
The full name of the pack I received was the Switch 8 & Nomad 7 Recharging Kit, a spectacularly-unmemorable name that stems from the way that Goal Zero sells its products. With devices that can power anything from a torch to a mini-fridge, there’s no shortage of purchasing choices.
Customers can mix and match to suit their requirements, but the company also provides kits to make life easier for those of us that don’t like to make decisions. The version I checked out is the most portable, combining two solar panels (the Nomad 7) with a small cylindrical battery pack (Switch 8).
The panels are well-designed, folding up to the size of a thin book when not in use and weighing one pound (around 0.5kg). Even when fully folded out, they don’t take up much space (17” x 9” at the longest point.) They’ll easily hang off the back of a daypack without getting knocked around or caught up on things.
As well as the solar panels themselves, there are three built-in charging cables for use with various devices, plus a socket that allows for faster charging by connecting extra panels.
The Switch 8 is a fairly standard USB battery pack, with a plug at one end for receiving power and socket at the other end for providing it. Rated at 2200mAh, it holds enough to charge most smartphones, e-readers and other USB-powered devices once or twice.
Tablets are a different story, though – you’d probably want a higher-capacity pack if you were intending to keep your iPad fully charged.
Due to that USB plug, the Switch 8 isn’t limited to charging just from the solar panels – any laptop or wall socket will do the same thing, meaning you can use it as an external battery even if you’re not travelling with the solar panels.
It also comes with a flashlight attachment that plugs directly into the socket, which is a nice bonus.
How Did it Perform?
Of course, having a nicely-designed, lightweight product is only any good if it actually works. As you’d hope, it took all of about 15 seconds to set the Goal Zero kit up for testing. I connected the battery, unfolded the panels and angled them towards the sun.
Four tiny lights on the battery flashed to show charging progress, showing half-full after just over two hours and fully charged after around five. The panel was in direct sunlight the entire time, and I moved it every hour or so to maintain the ideal angle.
That timeframe ties in with the manufacturer’s claims of 4-8 hours for a full charge. I’d have expected it to take longer if there was shade or cloud cover.
Once the battery pack signalled it was fully charged, I connected my usual charging cable to the battery and my Nexus 5, and left them to do their thing. The phone started with 30% charge, and was at 100% when I checked three hours later.
Impressive, given it takes a similar length of time to charge from a wall socket.
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Put simply, this Goal Zero kit is the first solar charging solution that I’d bother carrying when traveling off the grid. It’s small and light, and more importantly, actually works as advertised. A few hours in direct sunlight provides enough juice to fully charge a smartphone.
It’s also easy to hang the panels off your backpack via little hooks around the edges, so you can charge the battery while dehydrating and getting sunburned on your next summer hike.
Even though I gave the naming scheme a hard time, keeping the battery unit separate from the panels makes the Goal Zero kit much more versatile. If you need to charge multiple devices, for instance, just buy another Switch 8. If your gadgets take AA batteries instead of being rechargeable, there’s an accessory to deal with that too.
As mentioned, if your next trip isn’t going to keep you away from a power socket for more than a day or two, save some weight by leaving the panels at home and charge the battery pack from the wall instead.
That versatility, coupled with the lightweight design and reasonable pricing, make it easy to recommend this Goal Zero Solar Recharging Kit for travellers and hikers alike.