For better or worse, we are surrounded by electronics. Even when I’m tucked in the deepest corner of the woods on a backpacking trip, I like to make sure my phone, camera, and watch are charged. I have been a camper all my life, and for years I resisted portable power banks because I thought they were too expensive and too burdensome. In addition, most off-grid power used to be gas-powered (i.e. loud and polluting). But when I got my first portable power bank a few years ago—a Jackery Explorer 500—it totally changed the game for me.
Now a reliable, high-quality power bank or portable power station is one of my most recommended pieces of gear for anyone who likes to get outside. Even better, many units function well for home backup use in case of a power outage.
What You Need to Know About Power Banks and Portable Power Stations
With so many options and sizes on the market, there can be a steep learning curve when it comes to portable power. It’s best to cover some basics before diving into the best choices for every type of adventure.
The portable power banks and stations included in this article use lithium-ion batteries of varying sizes to supply juice. In essence, these units are all just batteries, but they utilize a battery management system (BMS)—much like the ones found in electric cars—and an inverter to send electricity to outlets, from which you can charge or run other electronics.
The inverter changes the direct current (DC) power of the battery to the alternating current (AC) power our devices utilize. The best, safest inverters deliver pure sine wave power (essentially, high-quality electricity that’s similar to what you’d get from an outlet at home).
Power Banks vs. Power Stations
While some brands may use the terms “power bank” and “power station” interchangeably, most differentiate the two based on size, output, and capacity. Basically, portable power banks are smaller and often measure their output in milliamp hours (mAh), whereas portable power stations are larger and measure their increased output in watt-hours (Wh) or even kilowatt-hours (kWh).
These stats will help you compare different models. A measurement of watt-hours tells you how much power output (in watts) the unit is rated to supply for one hour.
What About Solar?
One of the key advantages of many power stations and power banks is you can recharge their batteries via solar power. While solar panels don’t come cheap, most of the big brands in portable power sell coordinating panels you can use to charge up your power station.
Solar can be super useful for both off-grid and home backup applications, as it gives you a higher level of independence when keeping everything powered up (you don’t have to rely on the power grid to juice up your power bank). I have a panel for my Jackery Explorer 500, and it works surprisingly well—but keep in mind I live in Arizona, which has abundant sunshine.
How Much Capacity Do I Need?
The capacity and output you need out of your portable power station or bank depends entirely on what devices you need to power up. Luckily, most companies give a good rundown of what devices can be powered, and for how long, on their product pages.
It’s common practice to coordinate the capacity and peak output in a relatively linear fashion: as amp or watt output goes up, amp or watt capacity goes up. In other words, a high-usage device like a microwave will spike the power station’s watt output, so your unit will need to have a high watt output rating (north of the 1000-watt range). That output often coordinates with the battery’s capacity, so many units with a 1000-watt peak output will be rated for around 1000Wh (in theory, they should be able to steadily deliver 1000 watts for an hour). Many new power stations even offer surge peak output, so the max output can go over what they’re rated for (this helps when hooking up multiple devices or devices that draw a lot of power).
For home backup applications, I’d recommend 1000-watt (and 1000Wh) units as a low end: That will do for short outages and keeping a few things powered. That’s also right around where I think even the most electronic-laden car campers and RV campers will top out at. The exception would be if you plan to charge your camper’s batteries with your power station. For most weekend trips—and for greater portability—I recommend power banks of around 300 watts or less. No matter what your needs are, one of the power banks and portable power stations below should work for you.