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June 17, 2017

Voltaic OffGrid Solar Backpack review

by John_A

Research Center:
Voltaic Systems OffGrid Solar Backpack

Companies have been trying to push solar panel backpacks and accessories for years. For the most part, this effort resulted in wave after wave of underperforming, overpriced products. However, now that the technology cost has dropped substantially, there are finally affordable and functional solar panel backpacks to choose from. That said, when we came across the Voltaic OffGrid we couldn’t wait to get our hands on this bulky beaut.

To test Voltaic’s latest entry in the solar backpack market, we decided to give the thing a whirl in our hometown of Portland, Oregon for a few weeks. Despite the fact Portland saw a particularly cloudy and rainy winter, we still managed to come across a few sunny days which allowed us to fully evaluate the OffGrid’s capabilities. While we walked away marginally impressed, the pack is a step in the right direction for an industry ripe for innovation.

The backpack itself

A clean overall flat black build with subtle splashes of red along the straps, buckles, and guts sets the $200 OffGrid apart in a field of exceedingly utilitarian competitors. While the aesthetic touches are appreciated, at 19 inches in height and a not-so-sleek 7 inches deep, the bag is rather bulky and looks slightly conspicuous. Add a glinting solar panel front-and-center and it certainly looks like your backpack is up to something. It didn’t take us long to figure this out. Take the OffGrid on a casual jaunt around town and you’ll certainly be reminded that there is, in fact, a solar panel on your bag.

Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Nonetheless, as a pure backpack, the OffGrid is outstanding. The bag unzips along the front all the way to the bottom, going full-on convertible. You can then easily stow, pack, and reorganize rather than blindly sifting through a bag top-to-bottom. On the inside, there are a pair of mesh sleeves against the backside, perfect for an iPad mini or similarly sized tablet. Above that, a small mesh zipper pocket keeps all smaller items within reach.

A structured bulbous compartment on top of the bag is perfect for delicate items like sunglasses, however, when riding a bike this protruding compartment (when fully extended) has a tendency to get in the way of your helmet. A modest yet noteworthy design flaw.

All bulk and clunk aside, overall the OffGrid has a rather thoughtful and convenient build. A small compartment in the back of the OffGrid is designed to easily stow a laptop (up to 15 inches). The shoulder straps are well reinforced and an adjustable buckle connecting the two allows you to maintain an ergonomic fit. There are even a pair of straps along the bottom to pack a sleeping bag for overnight endeavors.

The battery

The OffGrid comes standard with a Li-Polymer V15, 4,000mAh USB battery pack. The pack is stored inside of a small secondary side pocket and the strap holding the battery in place is adjustable in case you choose to upgrade to the Voltaic V44 battery — or a larger battery from a separate manufacturer. You can charge the battery via the micro USB cable connecting the unit to the solar panel or simply juice up the unit via a USB cable and cube, or compatible device.

It is important to note that the Full indicator light actually illuminates when the battery is charged at just 85 percent.

Four LEDs along the top allow for a quick check of the pack’s capacity. One light simply means the unit is charging. A second, third, and fourth light illuminate when the battery reaches low, half, and full charge, respectively. However, it is important to note that the Full indicator light actually illuminates when the battery is charged at just 85 percent.

When connected to a wall outlet via USB, the V15 took roughly four hours to completely charge. We then tested this full battery against the manufacturer’s charging tables on a series of products. A full battery resurrected an iPhone not once but twice. A single charge also replenished an iPad mini a little more than 50 percent.

Both of these tests were on par with Voltaic’s stated capacities. Additionally, an individual charge sufficiently maxed out a GoPro with enough energy left to top off our other devices. There’s even a series of rubberized ports throughout the bag and battery compartment enable you to connect all of your devices to the battery — via USB — while stowed.

The panel

The prospect of testing a solar panel backpack in the seasonally drab Pacific Northwest was certainly a daunting task to undertake. Thankfully, we had a few sunny days to properly run this bad boy through the gauntlet. The solar panel itself is a urethane coated 6-volt model. The main overall structured, boxy build keeps the solar panel situated at the proper angle at any given time. If the bag were slack, the panel compartment would sag rendering its solar capacity useless.

Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

To get a feel for the actual charging ability of the solar panel, we waited for optimal conditions. On a perfectly sunny afternoon, we placed the OffGrid in direct sunlight for three and a half hours. Afterward, the readout on the battery stated it was half charged. We then connected an iPad to the battery and were able to get a 36 percent charge meaning the battery was actually juiced closer to 75 percent.

Again, this test was performed in choice conditions. If you’re trekking under a dense canopy or hiking toward the sun, this charging capacity only diminishes. In this instance, situating the pack in direct sunlight while either setting up camp or taking a quick breather is paramount to achieving an ample charge. This certainly isn’t a deal breaker — the market is still relatively in its infancy — meaning subsequent releases from Voltaic (and its competition) should only see improvements on this front.

Warranty information

The OffGrid does come with a 1-year warranty for the battery and a 2-year warranty for the backpack, panel, and parts.

Our Take

If you don’t mind looking like you’re from the future or having your backpack continuously become an unsolicited talking point with strangers, the Voltaic OffGrid is a spacious and capable solar panel backpack. However, with a base weight of nearly four pounds, the simple addition of the most basic hiking or camping supplies could easily push the total closer to 20 pounds.

As for the solar aspect, with a near four-hour direct sunlight recharge time, the solar panel does work albeit rather inefficiently even in ideal conditions. Upgrading to a larger battery for $29 dollars adds more utility to the backpack, thus giving you greater leeway during trips under denser canopies or less than optimal conditions. But at this point, are you truly utilizing a solar panel backpack, or simply using a backup battery that just so happens to be situated inside of a solar panel backpack?

Is there a better alternative?

Voltaic isn’t the only manufacturer of solar panel backpacks, and there are certainly cheaper models to choose from. Most importantly, the OffGrid performs as advertised and when it comes to overall design and aesthetic, this model is definitely one of the best options under $200 dollars. Similarly, with camera compartment insert sleeves, larger batteries, and USB flashlight accessories to choose from, the OffGrid has plenty of aftermarket customization to work with.

Voltaic also offers the Array, a more powerful 10-watt solar panel variant. The build is virtually identical with a larger section of solar panels along the front. So, yes, there is a better alternative, however, making the leap to a more expensive model is certainly a matter of taste and necessity. If you’re going to go all-in on a solar panel backpack, we recommend just making the upgrade to the Array.

How long will it last?

The OffGrid is waterproof and UV resistant, and the textured fabric exterior make the backpack more prone to scuffing rather than all out tears or snags. The panel itself sits in a slight indentation, with a subtle lip along the perimeter, protecting it from direct hits when you inevitably drop the bag. That said, the OffGrid should be able to handle normal wear and tear from the trail (and then some) for years to come. How well the panel and battery withstand the test of time is anyone’s guess.

Should you buy it?

Photographers will certainly appreciate the spacious interior and the slide-in compartment accessories, however, outside of this specific market, the Voltaic is a tough sell. Overall, it’s a bit too bulky to function as a daily duffel. In general, we’d recommend simply stowing a higher capacity backup battery with a traditional backpack rather than utilizing the solar component of the OffGrid.

Do buy the OffGrid if you could use a little extra juice to cushion your electronic devices on day trips or short, sunny weekend getaways. Don’t buy this product if you’re expecting to be wholly reliant on this unit for charging purposes. You’ll be sorely disappointed.

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