If you've ever hesitated to pack an MP3 player or handheld device on an outdoor excursion, fearing the devices will run out of power too soon to be useful, the $250 Voltaic solar backpack's charging features can be worth the premium you'll pay over backpacks that lack power.
You might expect a big company specializing in outdoor apparel and gear, like REI or North Face, to produce such a product. Instead, as with other early and novel "green" electronics, like USBCell AA batteries, this innovation comes from Voltaic Systems, a small business that touts ecological sustainability through renewable energy and recycled materials.
We reviewed Voltaic's $249 Backpack. The $199 Converter is a smaller version of the Backpack that includes a water bladder for hiking and camping and the same 4-watt capabilities. Voltaic's $229 Messenger bag also provides 4 watts and 11 adapters. The future lineup includes the 17-watt Generator for $699, which could become the first laptop-charging shoulder bag on the market.
Voltaic Systems is aiming to create a "green" product from the inside out. The Taiwan factory that spins the bags' PET fabric from discarded plastic soda bottles now also supplies fabric to Nike. And you won't be frustrated by wasteful, hard-to-crack packaging; recycled paper makes up both the backpack's shipping container and adapter box.
The Voltaic Backpack is roomy, tucking away its wires within pockets. You can run headphone cords through a shoulder strap, for access to an MP3 player or phone that can fit inside its own Velcro-shut shoulder pouch. There are plenty of zippered pockets, including mesh ones, as well as room for a water bladder, which is handy for hiking. The recycled nylon fabric should resist rain, as long as it's zipped shut to protect the electrical innards, but it's not waterproof. The Voltaic offers more space within than the competing solar Juice Bag from Reware: 1,850 cubic inches versus 1,255 cubic inches.
Even without the solar panels, this is a well-made backpack with plenty of pockets for gear for a short camping or bicycling trip. However, sometimes we wanted to remove the solar modules when we weren't using them, so people on the street would stop ogling our backpack.
A light atop the bag glows red to show electrical activity. It glowed even indoors, but take it outside for charging. The bag's three stiff, monocrystalline solar cells are supposed to pack more power into a smaller area as the amorphous, thin-film cells in the competing Reware Juice Bags. Yet Voltaic's cells feel flexible enough for natural movement when wearing the backpack, not nearly as rigid as they might appear. Voltaic also says its solar components withstand bending and heavy loads, while resisting tears from sharp objects. The cells are supposed to last 25 years and should also "self-heal" in the sun. If badly damaged, you can replace each 4-ounce cell for $30.