A sunny or cloudy forecast for solar outdoors?

SNEWS looks at how outdoor brands are integrating solar panels into their products, and why sustained seamless solar integration isn’t quite here, yet
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Deep in the backcountry adventurers find peace, solitude and pristine natural beauty … which often inspires them to reach for their cell phone, snap a pic and quickly post it to Instagram.

In an age where phones are more appendage than accessory, consumers continue to demand options to keep their devices up and running outdoors. And it’s not just superfluous niceties that people are charging. Some power up their headlamp or lantern; others prefer pre-downloaded topo maps on their phone to the paper variety. Professional photographers and scientists may even need to tote a small laptop into the backwoods to dump photo files or datasets clogging up their devices.

While there are numerous options for portable power — batteries, hydrogen or energy from your stove — today, we’ll look at the state of solar power, and in particular if the technology can ever evolve to become a seamless feature on everyday outdoor products from consumers’ packs and kayaks to clothing.

Solar possibilities
Many brands recognize the potential of solar power to boost product sales. For Gregory packs, opportunity lies in offering a solution for the multi-day backpacker. Its new Stout and Amber lines were built with four specifically spaced loops where the user can attach a portable solar panel, for which it is partnering with portable power brand Goal Zero.

The decision to have a modular system, rather then sew the panel right into the pack, is a way to provide increased usability and versatility, explained Gregory’s vice president of design and development John Sears. “We want to provide the most value we can when it comes to solar solutions to our customers, and I think sewing product into backpacks could limit the value associated with a product.” Noting that the brand works to avoid “gimmicky products,” Sears demonstrated the problem with sewn-in panels: “Say want to use the solar panels somewhere. Are you always going to take the backpack with you?”

The ultra-light hiker may cringe at the extra 10-15 ounces a small solar panel adds, but at least loose triple-A batteries aren’t rolling around her pack. Sears described it as a give and take, but one with improvements on the horizon. “For the customer that wants to carry these electronic devices in the backcountry, they either decide that they’re going to get one charge out of it or they’re going to have to carry some extra weight to power those devices,” he said. “I also think solar is going to get lighter and lighter, so I think those disadvantages will get smaller and smaller over time.”

Jackson Kayaks is another brand hopping on the solar-power boat. Offering a detachable charging source on their Coosa fishing kayak allows their customers to power up either a phone or a GoPro. Jackson Product Manager Damon Bungard would like to see a gnarlier generation of solar panels able to withstand the moisture and beatings the brand’s whitewater kayaks endure. Another item on his wish list: charging capabilities for the various electronics on fishing kayaks like Power-Pole systems and fishing line winders.

Right now, Bungard said, it’s not cost-effective to build the solar panel right into the boat, but he’s open to the possibility later on. “In our world, kayaks live in a harsh environment for electronics, but as that tech improves and gets lighter and gets more waterproof in its nature, I think it would be great to see things go that way.”

Solar hurdles
Lighter and more flexible solar panels could also open the door for solar panels on clothing, which we covered the possibility a few years ago, and some fashion designers are beginning taking a crack at it.

Where solar panels have made their biggest leap in the past few years is efficiency and speed, said James Atkin, director of brand marketing and solar ready partnerships at Goal Zero.

Technology-adept first adopters may remember the first solar panel they tried a few years ago and how ineffective it was, not realizing that like cell phones, solar panels have made significant jumps in efficiency. Atkin points to Goal Zero’s Nomad 7, which can charge a phone nearly as fast as a wall outlet in good conditions.

At MSRP $80 for Nomad 7, effective solar power also remains slightly out of reach for the average consumer. Still, Atkin sees a change coming. “We see solar becoming more of a product available for the masses because as it gets more efficient and cheaper in cost, it’s going to be more available to people.”

Solar partnerships
Goal Zero recently launched what it’s calling its “Solar Ready Program,” a collaboration program designed to give brands the ability to integrate Goal Zero’s line of panels and power packs into future outdoor products. As noted above, Gregory and Jackson Kayaks have already signed on, as have Poler Outdoor Stuff and Treeline Tents.

Right now, the integration process is simple: a quartet of specific loops are built into the piece of equipment, and they’re spaced to exactly line up with one of Goal Zero’s solar panels, typically its Nomad 7, via four carabineers. The consumer then buys the pack with the option of also purchasing the solar panel.

At retail, Goal Zero and its partner brands plan to work with outdoor specialty retailers to coordinate point-of-sale opportunities by merchandising the two products together. Online shoppers will be able to buy both products with the click of a single button, even though the items themselves will ship from different warehouses. By not selling the two products together, consumers who already have the appropriate solar panel won’t have to buy another one just because it comes with their preferred tent, backpack or kayak, officials said.

But wait … what about the solitude of the backcountry? Isn’t the purpose to get outside, get offline and get away from the pressures of real life? Sure, Atkin said, but that doesn’t necessarily exclude technology. “They’re going out to get away for sure, but they also want to capture that, whether it’s on their phone or their DSLR,” Atkin said. “We think we amplify that experience more than take away from it because we’re letting you have less worry about bringing extra batteries.”

Treeline Tent founder Chad Kendrick aims to be conscientious of both consumers who want access to electronics, as well as those who prefer a device-free outdoor experience. “If they want it, there it is,” he said. “We’ve already made the connection, and you can take it from there.”

-- Courtney Holden

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