If you’re going on a backpacking trip and carrying a cell phone, you’d better have a power bank.
My phone acts as my camera, journal, GPS navigation, book to read, Walkman, and more.
(Go ahead and Google “Walkman” if you don’t know what it is – I’ll wait.)
Don’t let your phone go dead – it’s a bummer to lose all those tools.
Carry a power bank.
How to Choose the Best Power Bank for You
Power banks are simple. They’re just rechargeable batteries.
You connect your power bank to a wall outlet to charge it up.
Then you take it hiking, and recharge your phone (and often your headlamp) with it.
Some trouble occurs, though when you start shopping for them. Suddenly you’re bombarded with all kinds of technical jargon like mAh (milliamp hours!), USB-A, USB-C, QC 2.0, and more. Huh?
When you break things down to their simplest terms, there’s 3 main factors that determine which power brick is best for hiking.
As with all things in backpacking, weight is paramount. If you get carried away with your need for more power, you could easily find yourself with a 12 ounce lithium brick as part of your base weight.
Not exactly ultralight anymore, are we?
On the flip side of the the coin, getting lulled into the smallest and lightest battery can leave you wishing for more capacity and quicker charging. Thru-hikers especially don’t want to be wasting their time at random power outlets during (what was supposed to be) a quick town stop.
2) mAh Capacity
When it comes to choosing your power bank, mAh is the coin of the realm. It stands for Milliamp Hours. All you need to know is that this is the standard used to measure a battery’s capacity.
So every power bank has a listed mAh capacity. Any electronic device with a lithium battery (like a cell phone or rechargeable headlamp) has a listed mAh capacity too. It’s just not as evident, and may require a bit of the ol’ Google.
For example if you google “iPhone 13 Pro Max mAh,” you’ll get an immediate answer:
Other devices won’t come up as easily, but can be found with just a little more digging. Here’s a couple examples in finding the mAh capacity for rechargeable headlamps (below).
Knowing how much mAh it takes for a full charge of your devices helps determine which power bank is best for you.
So how much mAh does a hiker’s power bank need?
Generally speaking, a backpacker should carry a power bank with about 10,000 mAh. This is the capacity of my Anker Powercore that I’ve owned and used since 2019. I’ve never found myself wanting extra power. Here’s the parameters of my cell phone use on a hike:
- airplane mode for at least 90% of the time
- medium / heavy camera use (but little video)
- GPS tracking and navigation (Gaia or Guthook app)
- note-taking throughout the day, sometime via the microphone
- journal notes at night
- limited reading at night before bed
Other backpackers may have more needs – like staying connecting to a signal, streaming music, taking lots of video, or even just more time between charging stations. These hikers might want a power bank with up to 20,000 mAh.
On the other side of the spectrum, a smaller power bank is just fine for shorter trips. If I’m going out for just 2 nights, then my 10,000 mAh power bank is definitely overkill. Something in the realm of 5,000 mAh will certainly be lighter and more efficient.
Before diving further into efficiency, it’s worth noting that the battery’s mAh capacity can play a role in your trip’s overall efficiency:
Thru-hikers, listen up!
It’s important to take in to account when and where you’re going to be recharging your power bank. It takes many hours for a 10,000 mAh bank to get from zero capacity to a full charge. When you’re in town you’re often busy with chores like laundry, showering, eating, and so on, and simply won’t have the time to stay put and fully charge your device.
In other words, it’s best not to walk into every resupply stop with a dead phone and a dead battery. It takes a significant time to get up to 100% – time that you might rather spend on the trail. This is why I recommend that the best power bank for thru-hiking is at least 10,000 mAh. Ideally you then have some extra juice as you enter each resupply stop.
Letting your power needs sway you into spending the night in town is a failure in overall efficiency.
3) Technical Efficiency (The Rabbit Hole)
Some power banks are more efficient than others… to say the least.
Additional research reveals that the simple mAh equation is a house of cards, not to be wholly trusted. The circuitry in these power banks will lose some energy along the way, especially as outside factors come in to play. These include the age of the product, ambient air temperature, and so on.
Charging Speeds and Pass Through Charging
As we dive deeper, you’ll encounter more terms and abilities like QC Quick Charge 2.0, 3.0, PD, pass through charging, and more. Many power banks pride themselves in how quickly they can charge a device, but in my experience, what matters most for hikers is how quickly the device charges from a wall outlet.
Naturally we then start shopping for wall plugs (and maybe even cables) with the most impressive numbers, but forget that we’re limited by the input capacity of the power bank itself. A 100W wall charger sure sounds impressive, but does no good if your power bank’s input is limited to 18W.
Pass Through Charging allows a power bank to charge a device (aka your phone) while the power bank itself is simultaneously being charged from a wall outlet. So when you’re competing with other thru-hikers in town for access to limited power outlets (say, in a restaurant) you can plug your phone to the power bank and then the power bank to the wall, occupying only a single outlet. Most newer power banks have this feature.
Some may argue then, why not instead use the dual USB slots on a preferred wall charger. The answer is that engaging the pass through charging is actually more efficient, as using both USB slots prevents the wall charger from engaging its Quick Charge feature to its maximum ability.
Lost in Confusion
If you enjoy geeking out on electronics (or at least to get an overview on how deep the rabbit hole goes) I recommend checking out this comparison of power banks from the Ultralight Dandy website. Be careful though, you’ll soon be whipping out the calculator and comparing the never-ending variety of Anker PowerCore products on Amazon (seriously, it’s ridiculous), only to throw up your hands in exhaustion after spending several hours of your finite life that will never return.
One of the lessons learned from time spent on a thru-hike is that stressing over such minutiae is worthless (unless you truly enjoy the research of course). In the end, whichever power bank you choose is most likely going to work just fine. Just make sure it’s not too heavy (the greatest source of a backpacker’s regrets).
The 5 Best Power Banks for Thru-Hikers
1) Nitecore NB 10000 (5.3 ounces)
As established above, a power bank that falls in the realm of 10,000 mAh is best for most purposes of most thru-hikers and backpackers. By all measures it seems that the Nitecore NB 10,000 is the best power bank with 10,000 mAh.
It’s the lightest, it’s the most efficient, and it’s weather-resistant (rated IPX5). If you doubt its efficiency, check out the detailed power bank guide by Ultralight Dandy, where it was rated best out of 80+ power banks, based on statistics and consequent math.
The only drawback of the NB 10000 is its cost. At approximately $60, it costs more than double the price of the Anker Powercore 10000, immediately below.
If I did not already own a functioning power bank, the Nitecore NB 10,000 would be my choice to bring on a thru-hike in 2023.
2) Anker Powercore 10000 (6.3 ounces)
The Anker Powercore 10000 may be the most widely used power bank among thru hikers. It’s been around for a number of years now (since 2015), but it’s still an old, reliable warhorse. Anker has released a plethora of upgrades since then, but the majority of these (even the “slim” models) weigh in heavier at 7.5 ounces.
For the budget-minded hiker, it’s a steal today at $26 – versus $60 for a nominal upgrade in efficiency for the Nitecore (above).
It’s what I picked when I bought my first (and only) power bank in 2019, and it’s what I still use today. It’s been with me on most backpacking trips since then.
I haven’t noticed any reduction in its capacity or function since it was brand new, but I’m sure some must have occurred. The manufacturer claims that it reaches a full charge in 4.7 hours.
3) Nitecore NB 20000 (11.5 ounces)
For those looking for a lot more juice on their thru-hikes (like playing music and podcasts all day, or catching ALL the Pokemon from Georgia to Maine), I suppose a 20,000 mAh power bank is necessary.
Assuming that the high efficiency found in the Nitecore 10000 carries over to their 20000 model, this one should be the best bank for more power. The ergonomics may leave something to be desired with sharp edges and corners, but a power bank doesn’t exactly need to be aerodynamic, does it?
Another option is to just buy TWO of the aforementioned 10,000 mAh Nitecores. The differences in total weight and cost are negligible. If you’re a thru-hiker you then have the option of simply ditching the extra power bank if you over-estimated your needs. Or by the same token, you could start with a single 10,000 mAh power bank, and order a second one online in the midst of your trip if you want more power.
4) Anker Powercore 20000 (12.3 ounces)
If you’d like a more basic and classic power bank with 20000 mAh, then this is your best selection from Anker. If you want super mega power capacity (by hiking standards) and the Nitecore looks a little too fancy (or sharp) for your simple taste, check it out.
You’ll save a bit of dough with the Anker 20000 ($67) versus the Nitecore ($100).
The manufacturer claims that it reaches a full charge in 6.8 hours.
5) Anker Powercore 5000 (4.8 ounces)
If you’re a weekend warrior without any thru-hiking on the horizon, and you like to go light, then look no further than the 5,000 mAh Anker Powercore. With some diligence I’m certain you could squeeze a 5 or 6 day trip out of this little guy.
Remember, the reason I recommend a 10000 mAh bank for most thru hikers is because you may not always have the luxury of leaving town with a full charge. On most other trips you DO have that luxury, so 5000 mAh should be plenty of juice to see you through to your vehicle charger at the end of the hike.
Extra: Anker Fusion 10000 (10.1 ounces)
These listings wouldn’t be complete without a mention of Anker’s ”Fusion” series. On paper, it looks like the perfect idea – an all in one component!
No need to stress about pairing your bank with a proper DC USB adapter (wall plug) and cord. Additionally, it stands to reason that an all-in-one setup would be quicker-charging and more efficient.
Upon closer inspection, however, I feel that the Fusion lineup is less ideal for backpackers than the models listed above. I have 2 reasons. First, the Fusion is heavy. Even when considering the extra weight of a wall plug and USB cord, the Fusion is still heavier than a traditional setup.
Second, it’s inconvenient and clumsy to have your power brick sitting flush against the wall when charging. Long distance hikers often have to be creative about where and when to recharge, and have to share limited wall outlets with other hikers. I wouldn’t want to be the guy with the brick hogging all the space.
Some hikers may still find the Fusion lineup to be a viable option. I’m excited to see if Anker can lighten it up in the future, or to see if another brand introduces their own version. The Anker Fusion comes in two models: 10000 mAh (10.1 ounces) or 5000 mAh (6.6 ounces).
Don’t Waste Your Life
As mentioned above (as well in my analysis of headlamps) don’t spend too much time stressing about Volts and Watts and mAh. You could spend hours upon hours comparing the details like Ultralight Dandy, or you could just pull the trigger on something that looks good and move on with your life.