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Reviews > Electronic Devices > Solar Chargers > Bushnell SolarWrap Mini > Test Report by Curt Peterson
Bushnell Outdoor Products
PowerSync SolarWrap Mini
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Background and Contact
I live in the Cascade foothills, just 20 mi (32 km) from the Pacific Crest Trail via trails leading right from my backyard. My outdoor time in Washington is spent day hiking, backpacking, climbing, fishing and skiing everywhere from the Olympic coast to rainforests to Cascade volcanoes to dry steppe. I played football in college and often evaluate products from a big guy perspective. My typical pack load ranges from 11 - 20 lbs (5-9 kg) and usually includes plenty of wet weather gear.
I have a little familiarity with solar panels - although to be honest most experiences have left me underwhelmed. I'm eager to try this product primarily because it seems to balance power and overall weight. I do a bigger "life list" trip every September. Last year one of my backpacking buddies brought a Goal Zero solar kit. It kept 4 of us charged up for 6 days. While it was definitely impressive and pretty neat to have off grid power, it struck me as a bit heavy and not the greatest design. The Bushnell looks much more backpacking focused and the weight rivals simple backup battery chargers.
The Bushnell PowerSync SolarWrap Mini is definitely interesting. There seems to be a new solar charger marketed at the backcountry crowd pretty regularly over the past couple years, but none seem to have taken the "top dog" spot quite yet. As far as I can tell, the combination of mediocre performance, high cost, and excess weight just haven't made the leap to solar power worth it for serious backpackers. Personally, I've been eager to jump into the solar charging market. I tend to rely on my phone for GPS, reading material, occasional music, and even the periodic "good night" to my family in the rare case I get reception. As someone willing to part with my money for the right charger, all I've been waiting for is one that meets my needs.
First, it needs to actually work. I've tried a couple of cheap solar chargers that are essentially small boxes that recharge AA batteries. Neither worked at all. Second, it needs to be reasonable in weight. I don't need it to match the weight of a simple rechargeable battery unit. My current one weighs just a few ounces (about a 100 grams), but it's only good for a couple recharges and that's it until I'm back to a power source. The advantage of a solar unit, obviously, is that I could recharge that battery pack multiple times and that's worth a small weight penalty. Finally, it needs to be economically reasonable. If just buying a bunch of AA batteries - alkaline or lithium - works fine and is significantly cheaper than a solar panel then that's what I'll choose. Function. Weight. Cost. Those are my priorities, and probably in that order.
The SolarWrap is one of the first chargers I've seen than shows promise in all three areas. The weight is excellent. Not only is it one of the lightest solar chargers available, it rivals a one-use battery charger or AA charger box. The cost is not ridiculous. The MSRP is $89.99, but I just had a friend find one online for about $60 USD. That's definitely reasonable for a long term charging solution. For me then, the big question is about function. I know for sure that the home-charge portion works. As soon as I received the SolarWrap I plugged it into my iPhone 5 and it charged it from 32% to full in a little over an hour. It wasn't fully charged when it arrived, so I anticipate getting a full charge (the amount Bushnell claims for a smartphone) won't be a problem. With judicious powering down and use of airplane mode, this may be enough for 3 or 4 days in the backcountry regardless of the solar panel. If the solar panel actually works well, then indefinite, unlimited power does indeed seem like a possibility.
Initially there looks to be some pretty neat - but refreshingly simple - features. I love that there's an indicator light that shows whether it's charging or not. My last solar charger worked entirely on "faith". That didn't work for me. I'd leave it in the sun for hours having no clue if it was actually working or not. It didn't. The SolarWrap offers a red light - charging - or a green light - fully charged.
Other than that, there's not much going on. No buttons. No switches. No toggles. Hardly anything on the unit that moves or could fail. One end has a charging plug (input) that presumably wouldn't be used on a trip at all. The other end has a power plug (output) that is a simple USB port to handle just about anything. To avoid a mess of cables, I found a very short iPhone lightning cable. Together, the SolarWrap and my cable make up everything I would need on an extended trip and come in at under 3.5 ounces (100 grams).
Charge end and port end of the PowerSync SolarWrap Mini
(photos courtesy of Bushnell)
My field use of the Bushnell SolarWrap has been a mixed bag. In some ways it has been ideal. In others, it has left me wanting a couple things I actually praised it for NOT having in the Initial Report! That's why we test, though, isn't it?
I've had it on a few trips, adding up to over 9 days in the backcountry. The testing conditions were admittedly challenging for a solar charger. In my 20+ years of backcountry travel, I went through some of the craziest weather and violent storms I've ever experienced. There was sun at times, but most of these days were spent either watching a storm roll in or gathering our wits as one subsided. The first few days were in the Goat Rocks Wilderness of Washington and almost a week was spent in Oregon's Eagle Cap Wilderness. Both locations have a reputation for lots of high alpine sun and I thought it would be perfect testing grounds for the SolarWrap. Late summer thunderstorms and insane winds dominated both trips, however, and lounging around in the sun while the SolarWrap charged just didn't happen nearly as much as I had anticipated.
For shorter trips, there's little to complain about. With a full charge of the internal battery from home, the SolarWrap will get me through a few days easily. Even with my phone on, I'll get a couple days on the phone's battery and a full charge from the SolarWrap. Three days covers the majority of my trips, so that's a pretty good deal already. It weighs less than my stand alone charger (which has a much higher capacity, to be fair), but for weekend trips it's nearly perfect. With judicious use of the phones battery, I got 5+ days with a full charge of the internal battery. This involved powering down the phone when not in use. I checked in with a GPS app once or twice a day for just a few minutes. I also read a book with the screen brightness turned way down during this time. I probably got 3-4 days on the original charge and about 2 more days added on with the SolarWrap. Again, for most trips this device will probably meet all my needs without ANY solar charging at all! Hard to complain about that.
Once the internal battery dies, though, it's a different story. This is when I entered the land of the "unknown" and found myself wishing for just a couple extra features. When it gets low enough that charging is no longer possible, connecting it gives me an on-off alternating cycle. It's not charging my phone at all during this time, and if left plugged in it will beep or vibrate on and off until it's unplugged. This is great for knowing that it's "dead" and needs to be recharged, but there's no way to know how long until this will happen. There's no way to tell if the charge has 1% or 99% going into this. My standalone charger has 4 lights that indicate the quality of the charge, and I found myself wishing the SolarWrap had some sort of indication of the quality of the charge as well. I do appreciate the simplicity and streamlined feature set of the SolarWrap, but having no idea of whether the charger is almost full or almost dead proved to be a little frustrating. If I have to log time on charge and number of charges it's too much hassle.
I really like this setup for now. It's light, simple, small, and I won't hesitate to give it a spot in my kit regardless of the forecast. It's great without any sun as a battery charger for most weekend trips and light enough to warrant being used just for that. Once I figure out the ins and outs of just how much sun will equal a charge, I'm sure I'll get a lot more out of it. My initial trips, however, have shown me that I need to be MUCH more conscious of sun angle, time in the sun, and careful use if I am to rely on the solar panel for any significant charge.
Long Term Report
Long Term Report
The long term use of the Bushnell SolarWrap Mini has not gone particularly well. If the worst possible conditions to test a solar charger condition could be created, they might look a lot like the Pacific Northwest in winter. Even though we've had a mild winter, the low angle of the sun just doesn't seem to have enough muscle to get much of a charge at all. I had it on two trips over the past couple months. Both were two-day weekend trips. Both were on the sunny side of Washington in wildlife refuges near the Columbia River. Both saw some sunlight, but with sunrise after 8:00 am and sunset about 4:00 pm, there's not much time for absorbing sun and certainly not enough for much direct light. Even the low angle light that I would consider usable for solar charging only lasts for a couple hours a day.
In both cases, I was unable to charge the SolarWrap Mini enough to charge my iPhone at all. In both cases, as soon as I pulled out the Mini and unwrapped it, the little red light came on indicating it was charging. I set it on a rock in the most direct light I could find, but it was pretty obvious from the outset that it was weak light at best. Still, the little red charge indicator stayed on until the sun fell behind the trees or ridge.
For this time of year especially, the "at home" charge is sufficient. I rarely go on trips lasting more than 3 days in the winter, so it works out well with a fully charged phone and Mini from the outset of the trip. My longer trips are in the warmer (and presumably sunnier) months where a solar charge of the Mini should be easier to achieve.
As far as non-charging features, the Mini remains beautifully simple. It looks new. It's not nearly as fragile as I had thought it would be. It wraps up tight and disappears in my top pocket of my pack quite easily. I also worried a little bit about losing the end caps. This proved to be needless. I never did misplace them - even for a short time - and in the end they don't really matter. They keep things tidy and probably keep some trail dirt from getting in the charger ports, but tossing it in with a bandana or beanie or gloves serves the same purpose and I don't worry about protecting it much at all.
Long Term Report Summary
In retrospect, we could not have picked a more difficult time to test a solar charger in North America. This test began just as the days started getting shorter. It finished just when we could start to see a few more minutes being added to each day. In many ways, I don't believe this charger got a very fair test. Because of this, I will add an addendum to this report in the summer of 2014 to report on how it does with long days and full sun.
For now, I can certainly say that as an overnighter-to-five-day trip backup charger it works great. It's light. It's dead simple. It's tough. It's solid insurance for backpackers that rely on phones for GPS mapping, books, or potentially even phone calls. I would not rely on it for year-round power, however. It simply takes too long or is unable to charge during the short, often cloudy days in the Northern United States.
I'd still like to see some sort of indicator of both charge quality and remaining charge. This could be valuable information - particularly late in a trip when batteries begin to run low and budgeting usage becomes important. I'm not sure how to do this while keeping the minimalist feature set that is such a refreshing characteristic of the Mini, however.
I do think the Bushnell SolarWrap Mini has a ton of potential. I plan on using it well past this test period as my curiosity is definitely not satisfied at this point. I will add to this report in the late summer and note how it performs in the conditions it was most likely intended to be used.
My thanks to BackpackGearTest.org and Bushnell for the opportunity to test this interesting little solar charger!
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