Batteries are really a nuisance to deal with when you head out for the weekend and find yourself changing back and forth between sets that you think are still good and one's that are questionable or dead. New LED lighting technology can make a set of batteries last a long time - easily cover a weekend with no problems, but eventually the batteries do die out and your left without light. Or whatever else you use your batteries in.
Solar technology has come a long way but we are still not seeing the price drops - at least yet, until it really catches. - in household consumer level stores (I.e. Walmart, Canadian Tire, Home Depot, etc), you are still going to pay several hundred dollars for a panel that might give your 40, 60, perhaps 80 watts. Ah hell, might as well just grab a few packs of batteries right? Yeah, I would do the same, but now I am starting to rethink this after a few experiments that have been quite positive.
As you know, providing there is sun, solar can operate quite a few things directly, but the majority of setups involve charging a battery bank while the sun is out and having your load run off the batteries. Seems easy enough, but what is realistic?
First - Don't have a closed mind. If you need area lighting while it is dark, think about your other options. I have seen packages of those garden / walkway solar lights on sale for really low prices - For example, I got a set of Westinghouse solar garden lights with two solar spotlights for $24.99, regular $69.99. A great deal, but moreover, a great way to light up your camp, with the spotlights being used for task oriented areas (eating / cooking / reading). They do last a pretty long time. Off during the day charging, on at dusk. Place a couple of the LED heads inside your tent or trailer and you have some nice subdued yet capable lighting that costs you nothing but sunshine.
Panels work well too and while people cringe at the cost, look at the alternatives. Quite often Walmart and Canadian Tire put their solar stuff on clearance or sale. You can get a 1.8 watt mini panel with alligator clips and screw terminals for $9.99 when on special. I've seen 15 watt panels at Walmart for $20, on clearance. Hooked up to a rechargeable lead acid battery or gel-cell, this will provide ample power to drive a strip of LED lights and charge a cellphone. (12 volt cig. lighter adapter cord for the charger)
In a pinch, you could also charge your high power spotlights, computer, iPad, etc. It's supply and demand. It's easy to setup and will last for a very long time.
So what about devices that use regular AA or AAA or any other type of battery? Your still stuck buying them, right? Yeah - perhaps - but look at what is available. There are a few electronic stores in Mississauga, Dixie and Matheson to be exact, that sell all sorts of stuff. A lot of it is cheap "crap" while some is considered very useful. One such item is a battery charger for AA & AAA battereies. A rapid charger, comes with a 110v adapter but also works off 12v power (with included 12v cig lighter adapter). Perfect. Run that off your panel and you are set. Just need a set of rechargeable batteries, something that I am sure we all have.
Markers are a good idea. What are markers? Well if you look at a airport at night time, there are lights all over the place, the landing strip is a prime example. They use red and white lights to indicate specific areas and boundaries. Placing one or two LED marker lights by your camp, perhaps in a tree - just a soft glow light, may assist in locating when it is dark and you need a visual queue or reference. Why you ask? Well, sometimes you just need to get your bearings and you would normally flick on your flashlight and scan the area, something you may not want to do if you are actively trying to be quiet - stealth like.
A few cheap panels bought on sale, hooked into a 12v gel cell or deep cycle battery, will provide a weekend of care-free power without breaking the bank.
An interesting side note to this is the rejuvenation effect on some batteries with a slow trickle. I tore apart a UPS once after the battery indicated a failed situation. The battery appeared dead and would not take a regular charge via plug-in battery charger, but after 2 days on a small solar panel it was up to 12.4 volts. I followed up with a conditioning charge via my "smart charger" for the next 48 hours and the battery has been great ever since (still using it!!) Funny, you would figure that the UPS would have a small trickle charger and monitors in place to keep the battery in prime condition but obviously not - perhaps because they want the sale of a new battery? C'mon.....(Actually...it did last 4 years. Yeah ok I got my money's worth).
Keep an eye on solar products and grab them when they are on sale - you will find panels indispensable after you begin to use them and become familiar with how you can benefit from them. You won't be sorry!