Get Looking Awesome And Earth Friendly With A Solar Backpack

My job frequently takes me to the West Coast, both San Francisco and Los Angeles. In fact, I am writing this very column while flying home from California.

Lately I’ve been noticing a unique phenomenon out west: no one carries a briefcase anymore. It’s all about backpacks.

Now, I fully expected to see this kind of trend from gear-head tech entrepreneurs in Palo Alto, or from would-be actors patrolling West Hollywood. But everywhere I visit, it seems that even the most buttoned-up executives are no longer toting those Louis Vuitton purses or Kate Spade shoulder bags. They’re carrying backpacks.

This puzzled me. It looks a little weird to see someone dressed in a nice business suit with a big backpack draped over their shoulders. Finally, I observed a woman in Starbucks. She took off her pack, pulled out her iPhone, and plugged it directly into a slot on the face of it.

That’s when it hit me: she was charging her phone. This was a solar backpack that could do a lot more than carry your junk. I struck up a conversation to get educated.

Turns out, solar backpacks have been around for years. While many dismissed them as a fad for the kids, the technology and quality of the bags has really improved. And when you think about it, the concept is brilliant: the backpack contains a series of small solar panels on the outside, which gather power while you climb that mountain, complete your day hike, or even just walk to work. When your phone, tablet, or other device needs a quick shot of energy, you simply plug it in via USB and you’ve got power.

Confession: I haven’t bought my solar backpack yet, but it’s definitely on my must-have list for this summer. Through my conversation with the woman at Starbucks, along with targeted browsing of product reviews and tech bloggers, I’ve come up with a few solid tips to guide you through this purchase.

Tip #1: Most solar backpacks are pretty much the same

If you don’t believe me, check out a blog by someone named “Solar Powered Guy” who has spent far too much time analyzing this topic. What he realized was this: most solar backpacks offer pretty much the same basic features and functionality. The trick is finding one with the right combination of durability, size and charging system.

Tip #2: Balance the bag versus the connections

When considering which backpack is right for you, think about what you’re going to use it for.

If your primary use is for heavy outdoor recreation such as camping or strenuous hiking, then look at a more expensive bag that is more durable and lighter. You’ll still get enough charging power out of it, and you won’t end up disappointed with a lower quality pack.

If you’re really just looking for a portable, green charging station, then search for a model that features more adapters and versatility for charging more accessories.

Tip #3: If you look closely, you can find some differences 

While I already noted that most solar backpacks are basically the same, there are a few interesting features that might be best for you. Some models feature removable solar cells that let you charge your phone separately while using the backpack for other purposes. Nice touch. Other models feature a built-in flashlight for nighttime assistance. So it’s worth digging around a bit for that perfect set of features.

Tip #4: Research online, but try to buy in the store

While it’s really cool to have a portable charging station on your back, don’t forget that you also have to carry this thing on your back. For this reason, it’s probably best to scope out a model you like online, but then visit a store to try it out and get a true feel.

Tip #5: Don’t go off the grid for too long

Finally, while solar backpacks are quite handy, they’re not generators! Most models can recharge an iPhone in an hour or so. But if you’re going camping for a weekend, don’t expect to power your laptop, satellite phone and hair dryer from your backpack.

Besides, the entire point of camping or getting outdoors is to turn off your electronics, right?

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