A sign of the times, a but a frequent question is How do I keep my electronic devices charged in the backcountry?
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?
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?
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?
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.
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?
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)
As mentioned in the comments below, some older phones and a smattering of new ones still allow removable batteries. An extra battery is less than two ounces and typically inexpensive.
However, these newer phones are more difficult to find. “Removable batteries have become a dying breed.” But for the right phone, a viable option for sure.
- Making an extensive basecamp, living off the grid for a bit, and you really enjoy your Amazon Prime movies you downloaded! 🙂
Being little serious, for the person out making a long-term basecamp or particularly interested in disaster preparedness, the various forms of Goal Zero with solar panels is an intriguing possibility for keeping electronic charged. With the popularity of the #vanlife movement, these type of devices are gaining in popularity. All those Instagram yoga poses need lots of battery power afterall… Obviously, this option would not work well for backpacking.
- Casual user? Airplane mode
- Light-use? 5,000 mAh battery
- Moderate use? 10,000 mAh battery
- Heavy user? 20,000 mAh battery
- In a consistent sunny area for backpacking or basecamp? Solar panels
- Phone with removable batteries? Take batteries as needed. They are light and cheap.
- Basecamp for an extended period or disaster preparedness? Goal Zero with solar panels