Charging Gadgets in the Great Outdoors

For a lot of people technology and spending time in the great outdoors are uneasy bedfellows. For a lot of us one of the main reasons to head into the mountains or the woods or onto the water is to get away from the demands of everyday life, including the nagging notifications and pinging tones of incoming emails, texts and other things to ‘deal with’. There are however many things that the outdoorsperson can appreciate about the huge range of electronic devices available to us.

Charging setup o a kayaking trip on Anglesey

Charging setup o a kayaking trip on Anglesey

Gadgets are getting smaller, lighter, more rugged and with more useful features. Whilst my map, compass and ‘analogue’ kit cannot be beaten by a battery-powered gizmo, my life as an outdoors professional is improved by technology. My smartphone (Samsung Galaxy) means I can answer and send emails to and from clients and our team, post photos on our social media feeds whilst on the move and just reduce the time spent in the office. My tablet (another Samsung product, but I also use the Tesco Hudl which is surprisingly rugged and useful for such a relatively inexpensive item) allows me to do all of that AND act as an external monitor for my DSLR, as a graphics tablet and even a second monitor with the appropriate software. My headtorch is responsive and adjusts its lighting level according to what I am looking at, my GPS has OS mapping and can also take geo-tagged photos, my watch is an altimeter and barometer, my Kindle keeps me from going mad if stuck in an airport or in a tent for much longer than expected…
Whilst none of the above is an absolute necessity, understanding how each can be useful means I can make an informed decision on what I will take with me on a trip, and what I will leave behind.

The two main drawbacks of technology and gadgets in the outdoors, other than the cost, are that they can be relatively fragile when exposed to damp conditions or when dropped and that they require batteries to power them. These drawbacks can both be overcome with a few careful choices in equipment, and by learning from my many failures and poor equipment choices! I’ve put together some examples of outdoor power and charging kit below, and links to buy them online. I have put in Amazon links as this is the most region-neutral online retailer for our international audience, but as always I urge you to support your local outdoor stores!

Keeping It Charged

Over the last few years we have seen a trend for outdoor gadgets to be rechargeable (rather than taking AA or AAA batteries), and for them to be rechargeable from USB power sources. This makes life easy when at home as you usually find the correct combination of adaptor and cable when you need it (most gadgets, apart from Apple and their perverse habit of continuing to need a unique connector type, use MiniUSB or MicroUSB these days). But on the trail or on expeditions you need something a bit more portable. I use a combination of USB power packs and solar chargers as I can charge a couple of gadgets at a time (usually phone and camera) from the power pack, and then keep the power pack topped up when the sun is shining.

EasyAcc PowerPack

I’ve used the 10,000mAh version of this power pack for a couple of years now and it has proven to be surprisingly rugged. It is fairly heavy, but is lighter than a big handful of AA batteries or separate LiPo batteries for all of the different gadgets I might carry on an expedition or trip. I can get 2-3 full charges of my phone or 1-2 for my tablet from this pack, and it has two USB outputs – 1.5A and 2.1A for those devices that need at least 2A to start charging. The pack itself is charged by a microUSB. The only real negative is that it isn’t waterproof, but careful packing can normally take care of that.

PowerMonkey Explorer 2

I don’t own one of these, but I have used them a couple of times. They are much more expensive then the EasyAcc version, but they are a little more rugged and are waterproof – perfect if the survivability of your kit is of highest importance.

EasyAcc Solar Panel

Solar panels aren’t the best option for the UK with our cloudy weather, but they do work well when the sun does shine and are a good way to keep things topped up.
The output is via a standard USB socket, with around 1.4A. You should be careful in very bright sunlight as there is no voltage regulator on this unit, and it can put put 6V, more than the usual 5V output of a USB port. It can charge devices directly, but I find it much more reliable to charge external power packs etc, then charge the device from there. It can hang from a rucksack or even across the deck or seat of a kayak or canoe.

USB Test Meter

I added this to my solar charging kit a while ago as I wanted to see if it was worth laying the charger out, and what current/voltage the panels were kicking out in those conditions. It is lightweight, small and just sits between the panel and the USB lead. The only real problem is that when the sun is bright it can be difficult to read the LCD display!

PowerMonkey 5V and 12V Portable Charger

This is an interesting combination of solar charger and external battery. At 9000mAh it has a reasonable capacity (enough to charge an average smartphone a few times over) and the solar cells are good for keeping it topped up with minimal faffing with cables and other accessories. It is however more expensive, but the brand has a good reputation for reliability.

Biolite Charger Stove

This wood-burning stove is far from the lightest on the market (at around 1kg), but does have the unique feature of kicking out 5V from a USB socket on the side, which uses electricity generated when the stove is fired up. It is a biomass stove, so burns twigs etc and requires a source of dry fuel either collected en-route or to be located at your campsite, but is an innovative solution to the problem of charging on the fly.

Bestek 300W Inverter

Not all of our adventures are foot, paddle or pedal powered. We occasionally have to live and work from the back of a vehicle, normally a Land Rover or 4WD. When we have the luxury of a constant 12V power source we make use of this Bestek Inverter to charge laptops and other devices which need a mains output.

Look after it…

As well as having a solid strategy for keeping it all charged up, it is worth looking at how you are using those gadgets and what you can do to reduce the power they use:

  • Turn down the screen brightness or backlight where possible
  • Keep them warm – Lithium batteries particularly suffer in cold weather
  • Turn off noises and vibrations – what you lose in notifications you gain in battery life
  • Turn off WiFi or put it on Airplane Mode when not using the wireless connections
Finally, make sure that you do not rely too strongly on electronic items. You ability to stay warm, dry, well fed, watered and be able to move from one location to another safely should all be independent of your gadgets, batteries and vulnerable electronic kit. Electronic items should be a complement to our outdoor lives, not a replacement.

Which is more accurate - mils or degrees?
Training for Tromso Skyrace 2015
1 Comment
  1. nice article – i was lucky enough to get a power monkey solar charger and battery as gift from work. I have to say it is pretty damn awesome, light weight, compact and charges very well – would recommend

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