Portable Power Station Sizing: Your Solar Generator Selection Guide

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Article Categories: Travel
Article Tags: Camping | Travel Gear

For power on the go, there is no better solution than a portable power station. These devices are becoming increasingly popular as power storage for emergencies, and are a great tool to have with you when you’re camping. These devices vary widely in size and energy output, and you have many options out there. 

When you’re shopping for a portable power station, you should start by asking yourself “What size portable power station do I need?” and making your purchasing decisions from there.

 

What Is A Portable Power Station?

A portable power station is essentially a giant rechargeable battery that stores enough power to run various devices and small appliances. Some of these are large emergency solutions that hold enough power to run major appliances during a blackout; others are smaller, portable options that are ideal for outdoor activities. 

These portable power stations are often used when car camping, and are a major feature of van life and off-grid tiny houses. People who spend a lot of their life on the road like these portable power stations because they are easier to use than a car or van’s limited power sockets.

Power stations are also called solar generators. This is a misnomer, and we will talk about why in a bit– but know that you will frequently see these two terms used interchangeably. The term refers to one of the ways that power stations can recharge: through attached solar panels. They can also recharge through wall power or through car power sockets.

Power stations are not the same thing as electric generators; there are many differences between the two and they do not have the same uses. A generator is what you want to power the appliances in your cabin for a week (be generating power with a fuel); a power station will charge your laptop and let you run your toaster oven (and is a battery). 

 

Differences Between Power Stations and Generators

Here are some of the key differences between power stations and electric generators.

Power Stations Generators
Stores energy for later use Generates energy; can store energy in an attached battery unit
Solar powered, mains powered, or car battery powered Gas powered or solar powered
Small; easy to find in the 10-20 lbs range Large; small ones weigh around 100 lbs
Can use indoors Not safe for indoor use
Can power and charge small appliances and personal electronics Can power a home
Portable and designed for travel Designed to stay in one place

 

Power Station Sizes

Power stations are typically sized in watts (W). Watts are the measure of power used to calculate the rate of energy transfer. The greater watts a power station has, the more power it can provide you in a single charge.

There are two sub-measures of watts to pay attention to when asking yourself “what size solar generator do I need?”: Continuous power and peak power.

Continuous power is the amount of power that your power station can provide consistently.

Peak power is the maximum amount of power that a power station can provide in a short burst, like when you are turning something on. Most appliances require activation energy that is greater than the energy they take to run; for example, your refrigerator takes a burst of 3-7 times the amount of power it normally draws in order turn on.

 

What Size Portable Power Station Do I Need?

The size of the power station that you need depends entirely on what you plan to use it for. This will require a little bit of math to determine, and will also require you to look at your appliances and personal electronics to determine what you need.

First, find out how many watts your devices need to run. This number is often listed somewhere on the device. But if you only see a measurement for amps, you can multiply that number by the item’s voltage to convert into watts. (You can also use search engine’s to look up just about any device.)

Next, you need to figure out how many hours you plan to use each of your devices. Then, multiply the number of hours by the watts of each item. This will give you the total watt-hours you require to be able to power each device.

Once you figure that out, divide it by 0.85 to account for energy inefficiency and constant power draw while in use, and you will have the minimum size of power station you need to buy. 

Of course, most people interested in buying a portable power station aren’t planning for specific appliance use; instead, they want to have something that can be used in numerous scenarios whenever they need power. 

Portable power stations come in a number of different sizes. 

 

Portable Power Station Size Examples

 

Portable Power Station Size Uses Example
120 W Backup power for small devices, charger bank for group camping GENSROCK 120W Portable Power Station
256 W Weekend getaway, backup power for small devices Anker 521 Powerhouse
293 W Weekend getaway, outdoor office/remote working Jackery Portable Power Station Explorer 300
512 W Emergency backup for your home necessities, versatile power for travel Anker 535 Powerhouse
1000 W Extended camping trips, heavy-duty, sustainable power usage, reliable home backup power (for limited uses) Jackery Portable Power Station Explorer 1000
1000+ W Van life sizes, power tool usage, home backup power for limited applications, extended car camping for multiple people. Anker 757

 

Common Household Electronics and Their Wattage

 

Appliance Running Watts Peak Watts (activation) Amps Voltage
Box Fan 75 W 100 W 0.62 amps 120 volts
Ceiling Fan 60 W 70 W 0.5 amps 120 volts
Central AC (10,000 BTU) 1,500 W 4,500 W 6.82 amps 220 volts
Dehumidifier 240 W 0 W 2 amps 120 volts
Electric Heater 2,000 W 1,000 W Varies 120-240 volts
Electric Water Heater 4,000 W 0 W Varies 120-240 volts
Evaporative AC (Swamp Cooler) 2600 W 0 W Varies 120-220 volts
Gaming System 120 W (70 W when idling) 0 W 1 amp 120 volts
Hair Dryer 1250-1600 W 0 W Varies 120 volts
Laptop 50-150 W Varies Varies 120 volts
Lightbulb 75 W 0 W 0.63 amps 120 volts
Microwave* 600-1000 W Varies Varies 120 volts
Mini Fridge 65 W 0 W 0.54 amps 120 volts
PC 100 W 350 W .83 amps 120 volts
Personal Bluetooth Speaker 50 W 0 W .42 amps 120 volts
Phone charger  5-25 W per charging session  0 W Varies 120 volts
Refrigerator  300-800 W Varies 3-6 amps 120 volts
Space Heater (low watt) 500 W 0 W 4.17 amps 120 volts
Toaster  900 W 0 W 7.5 amps 120 volts
Toaster Oven 1100-1875 W 0W Varies 120 volts
TV (OLED) 98 W 0 W 0.82 amps 120 volts
Window AC (10,000 BTU) 1200 W 3600 W Varies 220+ volts

*Microwaves are not measured in watts per hour, but rather the amount of watts drawn while cooking. 

 

Additional appliances and their wattages can be found here.

 

Power Stations For Different Scenarios

The best way to choose a power station is to examine what you need it for. Here, we will walk you through a couple of different scenarios and give you some options.

 

Scenario 1: The Weekend Car Camp

You and your three best camping buddies are driving to Lake Michigan for some camping. You have a one mile hike to the campsite, so you can’t rely on car power. You’re planning on bringing your phones, a good camera, and a bluetooth speaker.

Device Use Watts per Hour/Session Watts Used
Phone chargers  4 charging sessions 5 20
Camera charger 1 charging session 10 10
Bluetooth Speaker 4 hours 50 200

 

  • Watts used: 230
  • Watts used/0.85: 270.6

 

For this type of scenario, a portable power station in the 300 watt range will be fine. You could also go smaller if you have time to charge it up during the day using solar panels, or charge it while driving the vehicle. 256 is a very common watt size for portable power stations that’s commonly used for weekend getaways, so if you’re planning this kind of car camping, that might be ideal.

 

Scenario 2: Nature Retreat

You have a lot of work to get done, and you want to get away from it all, just for a bit– so you rented a cabin in the woods for four days. You’re taking your laptop, your cell phone, your tablet, and a hair dryer. The cabin has some appliances that run on a generator, but you don’t want to overdraw and so are using your portable power station for your personal devices. 

Device Use Watts per Hour/Session Watts Used
Laptop 5 hours on the charger 100 500
Phone 4 charging sessions 5 20
Hair dryer 40 mins 1600  1067

 

  • Watts used: 1,587
  • Watts used/0.85: 1,867

All in all, you would be almost 2,000 watts– so you would want a 2,000+ watt portable power source if you have no way to recharge it. That’s very large, so we recommend a smaller unit with solar panels that allow you to recharge. You could easily get away with a 512 watt unit with solar panels for a trip like this! 

The other takeaway from this type of scenario is being aware of high watt devices that may not be 100% necessary. A hair dryer for example, is a huge draw of energy.

 

Scenario 3: Van Life

This is it: the road trip of a lifetime. You and your best friend are going to cruise around the country in a converted van: just you, your pal, a dog, and the open road. You’ll be able to recharge your power station as you drive during the day– but at night, you plan on using it for a TV and Xbox, cooking via a small gas stove or backpacking stove, a fan to keep the van cool, and your laptops.

Device Use Watts per Hour Watts Used
Laptops (2) 4 (2 hours each) 100 400
TV 3 hours 98 W 294
Gaming System 3 hours 120 W 360 
Mini Fridge 9 hours (more needed in hot weather) 50 W 540 
Small Fan 6 hours 10 60
  • Watts used: 1,654
  • Watts used/0.85: 1,945

Your van life evening will cost you 1,945 watts– that’s a lot of power, and you’d need a 2,000 watt power station for this kind of activity. If you plan on working or gaming or entertaining yourself for a longer period of time, you may want to consider a larger power station. When you’re asking “how do I choose a power station for van life,” size is definitely your primary concern. It is very easy to eat up power, and much more difficult to live lower powered. Removing things like microwaves, any type of electric stove, and AC usage, are some of the most effective ways to reduce the needs of your battery.

We wanted to highlight what happens if you wanted to bring something like a low watt microwave. We simply just don’t recommend this with battery powered setups as only a couple uses at an average 600 watts per use, means two people will easily use 1200 watts per night, drastically increasing your needs.

 

Scenario 4: Weekend Warrior & Mixed Use

This is us, we use our portable power station for weekend trips, working remote from cool locations to get a head start on the weekends, and occasional car camping. Because we work remote, we need to keep laptops and phones fully charged. This is the key, and we want to be able to run a fan on the hot weekend days.

Device Use Watts per Hour Watts Used
Laptops (2) 4 (2 hours each) 100 400
Small Fan 6 hours 10 60
Phone chargers  4 charging sessions 5 20
Camera charger 1 charging session 10 10
Watch Chargers 1 charging session 5 5
Bluetooth Speaker 4 hours 50 200
  • Watts used: 695
  • Watts used/0.85: 818

We elect for a slightly larger station so we don’t have to worry, we can spend an extra day if we want to, or can even go two weekends without charging. We personally use the Anker 757 (See On Anker | See On Amazon) and we love it due to the 5 year warranty, great handles, looks, and tons of outlets..

 

Additional Power Station Features

In addition to the power your station can store, there are other things you should consider when buying a power station.

 

  • Outlets: What kind of outlets does the station have? How many are there?
  • Weight: Is your station too heavy to carry comfortably? There may be lighter options.
  • Handle: Does your station have an integrated handle that makes carrying it easier?
  • Solar Panels: Does your station have hookups for solar panels, or is it reliant on wall power or your car battery?
  • Warranty: What kind of guarantees does the manufacturer of your power station offer?
  • Integrated Battery: Most power stations have an integrated battery, but some have swappable batteries that you can replace when they start to hold less power. This modularity can help increase the lifespan of your device.

 

Why Are Portable Power Stations Called Solar Generators?

Portable power stations require some kind of energy input to generate power; otherwise, they’re simply a large battery that relies on stored power. 

The power station and solar generators are actually two separate things, even though both terms are frequently used to refer to them as a whole.

The solar generator actually refers to solar panels that plug into the power station.

The power station stores and transforms the solar energy into usable electricity. Sometimes these are called solar generators.

Contrary to what the term “generator” indicates, power stations/solar generators do not create energy. They simply store energy for you to use whenever needed. They can connect to solar panels to recharge, and that generates energy. But the power station on its own is not a generator!

 

Conclusion

Portable power stations are very useful to have around the home and as part of your camping kit. They come in multiple sizes, and the most important thing to know about them is the relationship between what you want to power and how much power the device can hold. It’s important to remember that for home appliances, these are backup power sources; you can’t run your home for a week on a power station. These are the ideal solution for short-term power needs, especially when you’re out on the road or car camping. 

Max DesMarais
Max DesMarais

Max DesMarais is the founder of Hiking & Fishing. He has a passion for the outdoors and making outdoor education and adventure more accessible. Max is a published author for various outdoor and marketing websites. He is an experienced hiker, backpacker, fly fisherman, trail runner, and spends his free time in the outdoors. These adventures allow him to test gear, learn new skills, and experience new places so that he can educate others. You can read more about him here: hikingandfishing/about