Portable Power Stations for Home, Camping or Overlanding
High-capacity lithium batteries can charge laptops or run CPAP machines when you’re off the grid
Portable lithium-based power banks, also called power stations or generators, can be a game-changer for camping or other off-grid fun in today’s connected world, where we say we want to get away but we really don’t want to let go of our smartphones and laptops. These large batteries can also provide, if only briefly, life-saving electricity when power goes out at home, whether due to a hurricane or other natural (or unnatural) events.
I recently did several hours of research to find the best portable power station for my wife and me. We’ve begun overlanding in our Jeeps, in which we seek out-there destinations others can’t or don’t want to reach, and spend a night or two with no one around. Our two biggest challenges, since we both have work to do every day of the week: keeping our laptops and smartphones charged, and getting a cell connection. She has largely solved the connectivity issue (there are ways!) and the power problem has been solved with a relatively inexpensive, small, lightweight power station.
I never intended to write about this, but when PG&E recently cut the power in my hometown in Northern California, due to fire risk, I heard from friends and family (I’ve since moved away) scrambling to buy generators and gas to run them so they could, in some cases, keep life-saving devices like oxygen pumps running, or for CPAP machines that help people with sleep apnea get through the night. In my research, I was initially surprised to find portable power stations are a big deal among people who rely on CPAPs and like to camp.
All that coupled with the devastating hurricanes we’ve been seeing the past few years made me realize that a lot of people might want to have one of these things.
So I’ve pulled together a relatively brief introduction to portable power stations, how they work, what they can and can’t be used for, along with a handful of recommendations for different situations.
Scroll down to see the recommendations. BUT, before you make a purchase, it’s vital to first understand the capabilities and limitations of these machines, and I’d strongly encourage you to read other articles on the topic (I include some good links at the bottom of this article) and spend time checking out user reviews on Amazon or elsewhere. The market has been flooded with new products, and there may well be great options I have not mentioned. Also, if you have a specific use/need in mind, reading the Q&As on Amazon or on manufacturer sites can be very informative.
- I don’t have any financial interest in the products mentioned here, and I don’t make money if you follow the links.
- I don’t include specific prices here because prices change. Follow the links to see the latest Amazon prices, and/or check other online or local outlets. (I’m a big fan of shopping local, but you won’t find most of these devices at your neighborhood hardware store. But do try!) Also, check manufacturer sites for coupons and specials — when I bought mine, it was discounted significantly for one day only, and a portion of proceeds were going to provide the same device to hurricane victims.
- I don’t pretend this introduction or the recommendations to be exhaustive. In fact, you won’t find such an article anywhere (if you do, point me to it). That’s why my headline does not include the word “best,” which is a great search term but, hey, I’m trying to be honest here.
- Importantly, I did not do hands-on testing* of these devices, other than the Jackery 240 that I purchased. Rather, I did general background research to understand the technical terms and how these things work. Then I read several reviews in other publications — each of which was helpful but woefully incomplete in terms of the number of devices considered. Then I spent hours scouring user Q&As and the good and bad comments in customer reviews. And I did price comparisons.
*A lot of web sites that purport to review these products also don’t do any hands-on testing, but they don’t disclose that important fact. They just grab the specs from the manufacturers, have an apparent robot create some search-friendly text. Be wary.
How Do Portable Power Stations Work?
These oversized batteries, all of them lithium-ion technology nowadays (I found no good reason to buy a lead-acid version), are just that: big batteries. They don’t create electricity. You simply charge them — from a regular wall outlet, or from a car’s cigarette lighter (they still have those?), or from a portable solar panel sold separately — and they store the electricity (for months, most claim) until you need it. They’re distinctly more capable than pocket-sized cell-phone chargers, most of which cannot charge anything but a smartphone (i.e., they can’t charge laptops).
Compared to gas generators, battery-driven power stations have two big advantages: You can store them and use them indoors or in your vehicle, and they are silent. But they are far more limited than gas generators: They won’t run a refrigerator, and they’re not really designed to run high-load devices like space heaters or even hair dryers. But a good one will easily charge a laptop several times or run a CPAP machine overnight, or power a small light or fan. Overlanders get creative, even running small blenders off their power stations. (They are not designed to jump a car battery, by the way.)
Prices range from under $200 to well over $1,000.
Any portable power station worth buying has at least one regular 3-prong AC outlet, which can be used to charge any of the devices mentioned above. It will also have one or more USB outlets for charging phones. Recharging the battery itself takes a few hours from a wall outlet and several hours with a solar panel, sold separately. If you live in a cloudy or foggy place, the solar option is unlikely to be useful in a situation where the power is out for several days.
To be clear: If you need a lot of electricity at home for several days, none of these battery-driven power stations will do the job. But if you need to run a CPAP machine overnight in an emergency, or charge up your laptops and smartphone and other small electronics, it’s well worth having one.
I’ve provided links to the manufacturer’s sites and to Amazon, so you can look at user reviews. Pay particular attention to the 2, 3 and 4-star reviews, which tend to be the most helpful. I only cite products that have good reviews, so you can mostly ignore the 1-star reviews, which tend to reveal aberrations, not patterns, and 5-star reviews only reinforce the good qualities.
You don’t have to be an electrical engineer to make your decision. But here are some terms and conditions you’ll want to understand:
CAPACITY: Storage capacity is measured in watt-hours (Wh), meaning watts per hour. Most of the devices include the Wh in the product name, such as the modest Jackery 240 or the robust Goal Zero Yeti 1250. This capacity is also important in terms of total demand at a given time, meaning you can’t run a fan, and a light, and charge a laptop, and so on, and expect it to perform. It will shut itself off (user reviews that give a product 1 star for doing so are naive), and the power stations with lower capacity will tend to handle less at one time.
ACTUAL CAPACITY: Some manufacturers round up the watt-hours in the name, so a “200” might really be a “180.” Read the fine print. And, importantly, not every device actually discharges the advertised watt-hours, though there is very little actual test-based data on this point. This is where user reviews are critical. Don’t make a decision based just on a professional product-review site. Also, don’t trust manufacturer claims for how many times you can charge a particular device. Customer reviews, and my own limited testing, suggest those figures are routinely inflated.
CHARGING PORTS: Be sure the power bank you buy has a 110-volt, 3-prong AC charging port (they all seem to). Depending on your needs, check the number of USB ports, so you and your significant other don’t fight over the charger. Also, some (perhaps most) have USB-A ports, or what’s called “fast-charging” ports. That’s good for quicker charging of a smartphone. But it can be difficult to discern whether some products have this new technology. (Some also have car-charger ports, so you could use a car-charging cord to charge your phone or other device. This seems very ’70s, so I’m not sure it matters.
CHARGE CYCLES: All manufacturers claim their power stations can be charged hundreds of times before capacity starts to falter. I wouldn’t factor this spec into a decision: Likely you’ll be replacing one of these things with improved technology, in a couple years perhaps, before it fails you because of charging cycles. And anyway, I don’t think anyone has reliably tested this spec and published the results.
PURE SINE WAVE TECHNOLOGY: This is better than modified sine-wave (MSW) if you are running power-hungry devices. Some brands tout it, others seem to maybe have it but don’t tout it, and with others it’s unclear. I kinda gave up trying to figure out who has what, instead trusting user reviews on speed and functionality.
CHARGE WHILE CHARGING: Most power stations can charge another device while you are also charging the station. A few don’t, so if this matters to you, make sure.
LIGHTS: Some power stations have built-in LED flashlights. Could be handy, but I’ve got a headlamp and multiple hand-held flashlights, so I didn’t factor this in. I prefer devices that do what they do best, rather than trying to do many things. I don’t want a Swiss Army charger.
DISPLAYS: Some people love big, colorful displays on their power stations. I don’t think that’s important. As long as it tells you when it’s charging, what rate it is charging at, and how much capacity remains, you’re set. Black and white is fine for that.
TEMPERATURE RANGE: Most of these devices are said to operate only when temps are between 32 and 104 degrees Fahrenheit. A few claim higher or lower operating temps, so if that matters, check.
DESIGN: Some of these products are more ruggedly designed than others. I keep mine in a box when traveling, so that isn’t a concern. But user reviews can be helpful for this. Do make sure you buy a device with a handle (most have one).
SOLAR: Solar panels, sold separately, don’t have to be purchased from the same manufacturer as the power bank. I haven’t bought one yet, nor done extensive research on them (yet), so I don’t offer any advice on them.
The Best Power Stations for Camping or Overlanding
Straight to it: I bought the Jackery 240 for overlanding and camping. It would be handy at home in a power outage, too, but it’s smallish, and not for someone who needs to power a life-saving device all night long. But in the capacity range, it checks every box as well or better than the competition. It is among the smallest in stature (9.0 x 7.8 x 5.2 in) and among the lightest (6.6 pounds). It puts out 90% of its capacity, according to a review at PC World, whereas a competing product, the Anker Powerhouse 200, produced only 78% of its capacity.
Because many of these products get similar percentages of good and bad user reviews, one other factor played into my decision: Jackery also makes smaller portable batteries, used for charging cell phones, and one of these is rated very highly. The company didn’t just jump into this battery business yesterday.
Out in the woods, the Jackery 240 charged my 13-inch Mac laptop from 20% to 80% while the Jackery’s capacity dropped from 100% to 80%. That suggests I can easily get two or three charges out of it during a weekend camping trip — all I need. Oh, and the Jackery dropped only 2 percent in capacity when charging my iPhone similarly from about 20% to 80%. Among several devices I studied, it was one of only two that has full 5-star average reviews at Amazon (the other is the Aimtom 230, which has what for me is an important flaw: You can’t charge devices while the Aimtom is charging).
My wife has a Jackery 240, too. Recently, she had to attend an hours-long meeting in which constant laptop use was required, and there were no wall plugs available. She ran out to the parking lot, grabbed her lightweight, shoebox-sized Jackery, and became the smartest person in the room.
I don’t think you should buy a Jackery product just because I did. The decision was made on slim margins, for reasons that mattered to me. If you’re needs or preferences are even slightly different, you might reach a different conclusion.
If you plan to be off-grid for several days and need to, say, charge your laptop every day, a power station in the 200 to 400 watt-hour range likely won’t be sufficient, unless you recharge it daily with a portable solar panel under wide-open, sunny skies. Jackery and most of the other manufacturers make larger-capacity power stations which, by and large, get similar customer reviews in terms of quality. For example, the Jackery 500 would be a smart option, though it is notably heavier (13.3 pounds) and bigger (11.84 x 7.59 x 9.2 in.).
If my wife and I ever get to the point of overlanding for several days, instead of mere weekends, I’d likely upgrade to something in the 500-Wh range.
Far from exhaustive, here’s a short list of other products I considered. Each had something going for it but had at least one notable drawback (which may or may not matter to you). Each has at least a 4-star rating on Amazon.
Anker Powerhouse 400: Is actually 434 Wh. It is well-priced and for its capacity, small (7.9 x 6.5 x 5.7 in) and light (9.2 pounds). It would be my №2 choice — the Jackery is considerably cheaper. Amazon / Anker site
These next four are in no particular order:
Goal Zero Yeti 400: Goal Zero is one of the pioneers in lithium-battery power stations, with several models of different capacity ranges from 150Wh to 1,400. You’ll find this brand often mentioned in professional reviews, too, but my sense is it’s a front-runner largely because it’s been around a while, it’s sold in REI stores, Goal Zero markets it heavily and attends trade shows, and people simply have heard of it. Solid product, for sure. But the 400 is pricey, and heavy (17 pounds) and large (7.5 x 11.25 x 7.0 in.). Amazon / REI / Goal Zero site
EcoFlow River: A 370Wh power station that’s among the lightest (11 pounds) in its capacity range. For whatever reason (probably a strong PR effort) it got some media attention, so while I didn’t find it to be the best option, definitely worth checking out. Amazon / The Verge review / EcoFlow
Rockpals 300: This one is among the frontrunners on several specs, including weight (7.3 pounds). Note, however, that it’s stated capacity is actually 280 watt-hours, not 300, as the name implies. It also got some media attention. Amazon / Adventure Blog review / Rockchucksummit blog review / Rockpals site
Aimtom SPS 230: Has a full 5-star rating on Amazon, and is lightweight (7 pounds). Solid pricing. It’s big flaw: You can’t charge a device while simultaneously charging the power station. This may not matter to you, but it does to me. Amazon / Aimtom site
The Best Power Stations for Home Use
I spent less time researching this category, but many of the same considerations and principles apply, and as noted above, a manufacturer tends to get similar user reviews across its suite of power stations.
If you wish to plan for more than 24 hours without power at home, consider at least a 500Wh power station and expect to pay around $500 or more, and if you have the budget and a high level of concern, look at the 1,000Wh devices. Interesting, right now many power stations cost about $1 per Wh.
Wirecutter, a website that does very thorough reviews of many products, recommends the Goal Zero Yeti 1000, which is in a totally different league from the little Jackery 240 I bought. The Yeti 1000 weighs 40 pounds and is 10.1x15.3x9.3 in.
But if your goal is just to charge laptops and smartphones, consider any of the power stations I recommended above.
How long any power station will run a CPAP machine depends on how many watts the particular machine pulls, and I’m no expert on that. User reviews indicate anywhere from a few hours to a few days, so I suspect there’s wide variety also in how people use these machines. Since we’re talking about a critical medical use, I suggest anyone buying a battery for this use study up — and especially read user reviews — before making a purchase. But in any power outage, the Yeti 1000 is by all accounts a helpful thing to have, though not as helpful as a gas-powered generator (assuming you have plenty of gas available).
Don’t just trust me. These reviews, while both falling short in terms of the number of products they considered and/or tested, and the range of capacity categories they considered, each offers valuable information and advice:
- Wirecutter: Best Portable Power Stations
- Digital Trends: Best Portable Power Stations
- Family Living: Best Portable Power Stations (best I can tell, this site did not touch the products, but the information looks solid, and several products I don’t mention are included)
- Consumer Reports: 5 Things to Know about Portable Power Stations
Then spend a lot of time with the user reviews. And a tip: On Amazon, when you click on a product’s “answered questions” link, you can search the term you’re most interested in, such as “CPAP” or “laptop” or “sine wave technology.” This will turn up some of the most helpful answers and information you can find on these products.