Keeping electronics charged in the backcountry

A sign of the times, a but a frequent question is How do I keep my electronic devices charged in the backcountry?

from the Frankenstein movie

 

I am not going to debate if interactive electronics belong in the backcountry or not.

Tha argument was settled, or lost,  a long time ago I am afraid.

I think Chris Townsend still has the most practical takes on their use overall.

He wrote two very good articles in my opinion:

Take takeaway? You still need practical skills. The tool is useless without the knowledge of how to use it properly. A good knife set won’t make you Julia Child.   A suite of apps will not magically make you a good navigator, either. Esp if you wander off alphabet soup routes.

I will just say don’t let the electronics become the experience itself.

And if you do use interactive electronics in the backcountry, try to follow the bathroom principle: Be discreet and out of sight.

Now, let me get off my soapbox…

I see lots of these questions on what to get for electronics but no straightforward, to the point and relevant answers. The answers rattle off specific brands, items and (in my opinion) there is no context.

How do people use their device of choice? Are they hashtagging the hell out of their experience? Or are they taking the very occasional GPS and map reading while going cross-country? Or somewhere in between? 

So here’s my straight forward take on it.

I rarely mention specific models as that can change from year to year and the features can vary of course.

Unlike phones, however, battery packs technology is reasonably stable at this time.

The generalities should apply for a while.

First, power usage can vary depending on various factors:

  • Model of the device? Newer phones tend to use more power than older phones.
  • How old is the device? Older batteries may not last as long.
  • How cold is it? Electronics suffer in cold weather.
  • How much are you using the device?
  • And so on.

With a few exceptions noted, I will be using these generalities in terms of smartphones. Tablets, GoPro and similar obviously use more juice.   A smartphone is the most popular device for most outdoor users versus other devices as well.

All these batteries are talked about in terms of milliampere-hours (mAh). Don’t get too bogged down in the specifics unless you really want to dive down that wormhole.

For the baselines, I am using the Samsung S6 and iPhone 6.  Reasonably popular models and other models do not really vary too much from these specs. Most companies use those models as their baselines for charges as well. Convenient!

Having said that, here are some rules of thumb for electronics use in the backcountry:

  • Occasional GPS use, light reading, very little app use and a few snapshots?
from Gizmodo

No extra battery needed.

Put the phone in airplane mode, dim the screen to the lowest tolerable setting, turn it off at night,  and do not use the phone heavily. You can probably get ~5-7 days between charges depending on the phone and how old it is.

  • Similar to the above but perhaps more tracking for mapping, a little bit more reading, perhaps a little music or some online use (social media, texting, calls) and maybe the very occasional short video?
from Backcountry Navigator

You are a bit more of a frequent user. A 5000mAh battery pack will give about one or two charges. The battery packs in this class weigh about 4 oz +/-. Most modern backpackers who decide to take electronics tend to use this type of battery.

  • You are a frequent GPS user, taking lots of photos, more videos, listen to music frequently, enjoy a good amount of social media and connectivity? Maybe even some light blogging? Or going a long time between resupplies? 
Or perhaps you are Hipster Hiker apparently? – from Getty stock images

Thru-hikers on the well-known trails tend to fall into this category.  The social experience is as much part of the hiking as the backcountry experience. As such, connectivity is important. And the battery use of the phone is increased correspondingly.

You will probably be charging more than once or even twice between resupplies. The one time charge of the above category may not be enough.

A 10,0000 mAh battery pack is suggested.  This device is about  8oz +/-  and good for three charges.

The other user of this type of battery is the person going a long time between resupplies but has similar needs to the first two groups of people. In other words, light use overall. But not charging their device too often.

  • An electronic power user. Lots of GPS use for mapping purposes. Social media maven and heavy blogging. If there is even a weak 3G signal, you will damn well make use of it to post your latest Instagram selfie.  You may even be doing GoPro videos.  You are all over the fact that NetFlix lets you download videos now ahead of time.
from SMO Hawaii

Woah.

OK. You like your connectivity, can’t wait to binge watch The Crown in your tent and you are no doubt on an #EPIC adventure.  🙂

Being serious, the power user doing documentaries, having an active online presence on a frequent basis or going a long time between charges with moderate use will want a 20,000 mAh battery pack.   This type of battery is good for about 5 or 6  charges and weighs ~13 oz.

  • What about solar panels?
from Goal Zero.

I have heard very mixed reviews of using solar panels while backpacking.  Some people praised them esp if they were on a desert trail, but  most people were “Meh.”   The Appalachians are too wooded. The Pacific Northwest is obviously more cloudy. And even in the “dry” climate of Colorado, I see lots of clouds over the mountains as I type this article.

Solar panels work for basecamp setups rather well, however. Be it backpacking or camping.   Bruce Nelson used something similar that kept his phone charged in a remote part of Alaska.

And, as a bonus, solar panels work well for disaster preparedness.

There are hybrid battery and solar solutions also available.  I actually have such a device that worked well for me when I flew out to Rhode Island and visited some beaches during a family visit. The Audro Powerup is rated at 6000 mAh, weather resistant, and functions as both a solar charger and an Anker-type battery pack. However, it is 9 oz..or twice the weight of a similar battery pack in terms of charges.

Still, the dual use and the ability to charge two devices at once makes it a great device for travelers, base campers and possibly some backpackers. Currently on sale at Amazon for $15, too.  Worked well when I read at the beach all day for both my tablet and my phone.

Why do I take a battery pack when traveling? Because trying to find an outlet in an airport, that is not in use, is a PITA.  Dad raised us to be self-sufficient. I’d rather take care of myself than depend on a random outlet in an airport. And when I had to make an emergency call to my brother at 1 AM, I’m sure glad I had a charged phone.

  •  Another possible solution – Extra battery  (Update)

 

14 Replies to “Keeping electronics charged in the backcountry”

  1. Lots of good advice, Mags. I tend like to err on the side of having extra backup power for several reasons. A big one of course is that 5 oz of extra charging power is not nearly as bad as a 5 oz dead phone. I use my phone for lots of stuff including as a guidebook, bird book, star chart, GPS, camera, monitoring severe weather, etc.

    Some issues that I’ve run into which required more battery:

    My iPhone 6s Plus will sometimes suddenly quit working at around 30% power if it gets cold.

    Like you, I travel in many areas where coverage is non-existent or spotty. If I leave my phone in airplane mode when not needed I might not notice the only coverage in a stretch of one or more days.

    It is easy to forget a phone (or power-eating app) on and then find a phone charge has evaporated.

    I like to leave my phone on so it’s available for unexpected photos.

    I get significantly less of a charge from a USB battery than the specs would seem to indicate.

    • I recently read an article that explained some battery packs will use up to 30% of their own power to charge an electronic. That explained why I wasn’t getting the 2 charges I thought I should. If I can find the link, I will provide it here.

  2. I also turn mine to AP mode and use it just for the camera. For me it is maps and compass or nothing and for communication, nothing beats the good old HAM radio

  3. There are some interesting things coming out that use 18650 Lithium Ion batteries. The Fenix HL55 headlamp uses one 18650 battery and can put out 900 Lumens for a short time. There are USB power banks that use 18650 batteries. The capacity varies depending on the capacity of the batteries that you use in the power bank. The capacity of the 18650 batteries appears to run from around 2000 mAh to 5000 mAh. The interesting thing, for me, is that the batteries are replaceable. On the other hand, the power banks may nut be as rugged as the sealed ones. I like the idea of replaceable cells and can put up with a bit of fiddlyness.

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  5. I got a a solar panel on a Woot deal and it’s only been sunny enough with open skies once for me to use it successfully. Even then I wasn’t impressed, but I’m going to guess a good chunk of that was user error. For now, battery packs are definitely the way to go until I have more practice with the solar panel.

  6. There’s another option: a phone with a removable battery. I bought a Samsung S5 for that reason – a bit older, but still a very good smartphone.

    One really long hauls (say, 9 day resupplies in southern Utah), I bring my phone and an extra removable (OEM) battery. Cost me fifteen bucks on Amazon and weighs 1.6oz. I’m somewhere in between a “light” user and a “moderate” user (I take a lot of pictures, but don’t use it for much else) and could probably go for two weeks on two batteries – at a total weight of less than two ounces.

      • Not really hard to find, but like you said: tradeoffs. I’m like Larryboy in that I won’t upgrade past the S5 because of the non-replaceable battery. I use a dedicated camera and I haven’t found the S5 to lacking in anything else so I won’t be in a hurry to do so. I set my phone beside me while giving blood last Friday and when I rolled out of the chair, I cracked the screen. (Thanks reverse karma!) Ordered up another S5 (only $225 new on Ebay) and I’ll be good for quite a while.

        My wife and daughter have the S6. The camera is significantly better. But I still like a “real” camera when backpacking. Just personal preference.

        • Mmm…but they are not making them as much anymore, however. The S5 will be three years old in Feb 2017…two months from now. Get it on eBay while you can I guess. 🙂 Being serious, the phones will become less and less common esp as the stocks dry up. And to reiterate, as the linked article mentioned, fewer new phones are being made with this feature.

          Having said that, some newer phones do have a replaceable battery. But is that the main selling point of buying a new phone? Hence the trade-offs.

          I do confess to liking the very good camera on me at all times. As the adage goes “The best camera is the one you have on you at the time.” So, I like to have the best camera for that “best camera” if you know what I mean! Note, I also use a “real” camera. But it is not always on me.

  7. An Asus Zenfone II Laser has a removable 3000 mAh battery weighing 1.2 oz. Replacments cost $13 on Amazon. B&H has an Asus $30 battery that can be recharged by itself through a micro USB port. The knockoffs on Amazon don’t make this claim.

    I used a SolarMonkey Adventurer Solar Panel for nine days on the Oregon Desert Trail in April. It rode on the top of my pack, angled towards the sun – usually. It charged itself on most days, and not at all when sky was overcast. I used Gaiagps.com for maps and trail on the phone, and consulted the program often. I turned off all apps, wireless and cell, put it in airplane mode. I never got below 60% on the phone.
    The GPS function worked great.

    I would consider myself a frequent user according to Paul’s scale of use.

  8. Check out the WakaWaka. They have a small self contained charger/solar cell. This incorporates a bright! light with 3 intensities and a SOS flash in addition to the charger. It is easy to strap on a pack and stand up to find the sun while on breaks. As a social statement, for every WakaWaka sold, they provide the equivalent unit or system to villages in undeveloped countries allowing those people to have lighting for the first time. Their larger charger is a bit heavy for backpacking but, on a recent trip down the Grand Canyon, the solar collector charged a unit in 2 hours. That larger unit can charge 3 items at once and still have power left. Sorry if this sounds like an endorsement but, it outshines my husbands Goal Zero unit of the same size.

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