Top folding solar panels for portable off-grid use
If you’re into camping or you’re a DIY solar enthusiast, foldable solar panels are a great choice for portable but durable off-grid power.
If you’re reading this during coronavirus times, you might be giving the idea of getting out of town and going off the grid more thought than usual.
Whether that’s the case or you’re just normally into outdoor activities like camping, boating, or hunting, one thing that most people want is portable power. You might only need to keep some low-power devices charged like some phones or a tablet, or you might have more extensive electricity needs for things like a portable fridge to keep your drinks cold.
Folding solar panels vs. flexible panels
No matter what your needs are, there are plenty of options for portable solar panels. Previously, we’ve written about solar phone chargers for small device requirements and flexible solar panels if you have power requirements up to a few hundred watts.
Flexible solar panels, in particular, are a nifty product if you’re into camping, or want to install solar panels on an RV without drilling holes into the roof. They’re very lightweight, and the panels we recommend are made with crystalline silicon, which produces more electricity per square inch than thin-film solar cells.
While these flexible panels are great if weight reduction is very important, the tradeoff is durability. Flexible crystalline silicon cells are made with the same materials as conventional solar cells, except that they are sliced extremely thin. It’s this thinness that gives these cells their flexibility - up to 30° of bending - but this makes the cell weaker and less durable.
Because of this, flexible silicon solar panels often come only with a 1 year warranty. In contrast, high quality panels designed for residential or commercial use from companies like SunPower, LG, and Panasonic come with 25 year product warranties.
This is why portable folding solar panels can be a better alternative. You trade off a little bit in weight and size, but they’re made with thicker conventional silicon cells. Because of this you get a more durable product, but the package folds in half so that you can still pack it around easily. These panels are designed to take up little space when stored and can be deployed in seconds.
What are folding solar panels good for?
If you have a lot of smart devices (phones, tablets, laptops) that you need to charge, or a smaller appliance such as a 12v coffee pot or portable cooler, a single 100 watt solar panel will provide enough power to keep you going as long as you have a sunny day. (Often you will need some portable battery storage as well, either in the form of traditional 12v lead-acid batteries, or a newer technology lithium-ion power bank.)
One of these 100 watt panels will usually weigh somewhere between 20 and 30 pounds. That’s a lot heavier than a flexible solar panel that might weigh only 5 pounds for the same power output, but remember that if you want your flexible panel to be portable too (as opposed to being attached to the top of an RV) you will need something to mount it on, like a sheet of plywood and an aluminium tilting frame. Once you add those up, your lightweight flexible solar panel becomes a lot heavier.
The other thing that’s handy is that foldable solar panels often come with charge controllers built-in. This is useful if you want to charge a ”dumb” battery, such as a deep-cycle lead acid battery. But a charge controller isn’t needed if you go with a solar-ready power station that has a built-in charger controller. Your needs will differ, so this article lists foldable panels with and without built-in controllers.
A brief note about where solar panels are made
This article only lists products from companies that are headquartered in the US, have available customer support, and a clear policy on returns and a warranty.
To be clear, this isn’t because products made overseas are necessarily poor quality. For example, that fancy and well made iPhone or Macbook that you might be using right now was made in China. In fact, in the solar industry, there are only a few American made solar panels, and none of the small-scale solar products here are made in the US.
Instead, the reason to recommend US-based companies is that many of the cheap solar products you can find Amazon have no discernable support or even a published warranty. That means even if your US-based company sells a panel with the same quality as one from a Chinese company, having a phone number you can call if you have questions or want to make a warranty claim is a big deal.
Okay, enough talking! Here are the lists.
Solar panels without charge controllers
These panels are a good option if you don’t need a charge controller. Multiple panels can be added together to increase the output.
ACOPOWER 100 Watt Solar Panel Briefcase
This kit consists of two 50 Watt solar panels that fold together into a briefcase for storage and carrying. Includes a zippered storage bag.
Weight: 23.1 lbs
Amazon rating: 4.4 stars
Renogy 100 Watt Monocrystalline Solar Panel Briefcase
The Renogy solar panel briefcase is made of two 50 Watt monocrystalline solar panels that fold together for carrying. Includes a canvas case for storage.
Weight: 27 lbs
Amazon rating: 4.4 stars
Jackery 100 Watt Monocrystalline Folding Solar Panel
At less than half the weight of the other panels listed here, this folding Jackery panel is a great choice if you want something that is easy to carry around. It’s also the only panel here that has USB ports for directly charging your smart devices. However, be aware that this panel uses the less common Anderson Power Pole connector for output. It includes a Power Pole to 8 mm cable, which is compatible with Jackery’s power station and many other power stations such as those from Goal Zero and Renogy. If you require an MC4 connection, you’ll need an adapter such as these 8mm to MC4 connectors.
Weight: 9.1 lbs
Amazon rating: 4.7 stars
Solar panels with charge controllers
These solar panels come with integrated charge controllers, which means they’re suitable for connecting to a dumb storage battery, like a marine deep cycle, golf cart, or solar storage battery. Charge controllers are a topic on their own, so you might want to read our article on them if you want to learn the basics and make sure that these panels with integrated controllers are compatible with your battery.
Typically, you’ll save a few bucks with these kits versus buying the components separately.
ACOPOWER 100 Watt Solar Panel Briefcase with 20A Charge Controller
This kit consists of the ACOPOWER 100 Watt solar briefcase kit with a ProteusX 20 amp PWM charge controller mounted on the rear of the panel. Includes a zippered storage bag.
Weight: 25.5 lbs
Amazon rating: 4.7 stars
Renogy 100 Watt Monocrystalline Solar Panel Briefcase w/20A Charge Controller
This kit consists of the same 100 Watt Renogy folding solar briefcase above with a Voyager 20 amp PWM charge controller and a 7.5 foot cable bundled in. The Voyager controller costs $50 standalone, so you’re saving a few bucks with this package.
Weight: 26.6 lbs
Amazon rating: 4.5 stars
Renogy 200 Watt Monocrystalline Solar Panel Suitcase w/20A Charge Controller
If you have larger power requirements, this is kit similar to the 100 Watt package above, except with two 100 Watt monocrystalline panels that are hinged into a bigger "suitcase" design. Includes 7.5 feet of wiring and a 20 amp Voyager PWM charge controller. This kit is cheaper than buying the 200 watt suitcase or two 100 Watt briefcases and charge controller separately.
Weight: 35.9 lbs
Amazon rating: 4.4 stars
Tips for buying rigid solar panels
Tip 1: Check the warranty
The companies listed here have clear warranties, return policies, and customer service contacts. This isn’t always the case if you shop for the lowest priced products on Amazon, so if you do your own product research, make sure to look into these policies. A lot of cheap solar products on Amazon don’t have obvious warranties, which is a good indication that you’re dealing with a substandard company and product.
Tip 2: Don’t forget the wiring
If you’re looking at these products you’re probably the DIY type, but it’s worth mentioning that you should plan out how your whole system will work together, including the wiring and the connectors. You might be dealing with MC4 connectors, 8mm round connectors, Anderson pole connectors, or plain old alligator clips.
It’s beyond the scope of this article to cover how wiring works, but you should be able to find most of the products you will need on the ACOPOWER or Renogy websites. If you shop at ACOPOWER.com, use the coupon code SOLARNERD at checkout to get 10% off.
Tip 3: Know your power requirements
If you’ve got a bunch of 12 volt appliances and you’re trying to figure out how much solar power you need a what size battery will keep them powered through the evening, the Renogy website has a very handy calculator that will help you estimate how many watts of solar cells you need, and how many amp-hours of battery storage you need.
To learn more, read our complete guide to solar panels for RVs.